Something clicked for me fairly recently when considering the concept of grinding in MMOs.
Tale as old as time – there are fiercely entrenched camps of opinion as it concerns the concept of grinding in MMOs. A genre convention, the enemy of new player acquisition, fun passive time waste, soul-crushing active time waste – whatever your opinion, you can find a reflection of it somewhere in the MMOsphere.
WoW will be a particular focus in this post, because the nature of its newer systems dictate a new response and a term I’ll coin – ephemeral grinding.
WoW’s response to natural cycles of player engagement and disengagement is to introduce ephemeral grinds – something that is a high priority in the current state of the game, but isn’t intended to exist over the long-term. Spend two years playing an expansion, grind one or more systems unique to that expansion, watch it depreciate in value nearly immediately when the next expansion’s retail box touches shelves.
A series of excellent comments from Grimmtooth yesterday on my post discussing the current state of gear mechanics in Battle for Azeroth brought this to light. I think something that is currently fatiguing the playerbase is knowing that the grind in the game for Azerite is made to be functionally endless, although the point at which it maintains value to grind is earlier in the process than one could theoretically go. The legendary cape in 8.3 is another grind to upgrade, and with the newly-implemented weekly progress cap on top of the limits of entrance currency acquisition for the Horrific Visions, yet another grind that will carry on to a point likely past the launch of Shadowlands, at which point the increased Corruption Resistance is ultimately useless anyways.
Legion had the Artifact weapons, which benefited in a major way from a stronger system. Yes, the values of AP needed for a single point deep in the Artifact system were silly and massive, but at the same time, it behaved in a very predictable fashion. You needed x thousand/million/billion/trillion AP for a point, and when a new rank of Artifact Knowledge kicked in, each item earned and used thereafter was worth exponentially more AP. It was a simple system that scaled fairly and ensured the value of grinding that next level prior to a new AK rank wasn’t wasted. The Heart of Azeroth aimed to simplify AP by using the AK system to scale down the cost requirement of the higher ranks instead, but messed up in a few key ways:
-There is an AP floor of 1,000 per level, meaning that catching up still requires a concerted effort of play
-When scaling applies, it takes your current percentage value into the level (not raw points) and scales to the new percentage
Why are these bad things? Well, the first point is simple – playing an alt or switching raid mains is needlessly complicated and delayed. In Legion, when 7.3 hit, a fresh 110 alt could do a couple of AP-granting world quests and finish most of the 7.0 version of the artifact tree – immediately. In BfA, you still gain Azerite at an anemic pace – random dungeons give under 200(!) and so even the early levels past 35 remain a slog – a faster slog, one that completing emissary quests will whittle away at, but a slog all the same.
The second point creates a crucial distinction point that is even worse, in my opinion. In the Artifact system of Legion, no point of AP was ever wasted. If I completed a bunch of AP-granting activities 4 hours before my next rank of AK, or the day before weekly reset, and earned 12 billion AP, I gained the benefit of 12 billion AP. When AK kicked it, it would mean that my 12 billion AP could have been 96 billion, but I still had that 12 billion and it progressed my current level the same amount. In the HoA version of the system, if I did an emissary for the Champions of Azeroth last night and earned the 3,000 Azerite reward, but didn’t finish a level, it’s worth approximately 2,400 today. Sure, yes, the percentage into the next level is the same – but crucially, this means that my incentive in gameplay for Azerite is to stockpile and wait for AK, rather than play today. If I put my tinfoil hat on, it is little wonder why the AK system in BfA seems non-existent, scarcely mentioned in game – if I could see an indicator that my Azerite value earned today would decrease the next day, the only rational choice to pursue the reward is to not play today, or to hold off on quest turn-ins until that AK hits.
This is my real beef with Azerite – the system devalues your work through a constant deflationary spiral, where the value of AP in your current level decreases week over week, in a way that the game doesn’t even tell you, and Blizzard’s hope is that such a system is engaging and would keep me engaged, when the truth is rather the opposite. In Legion, I felt compelled to farm AP and the catchup mechanisms felt like legitimate boosts to the value of my play on alts. In BfA, I can take each alt through a slow crawl (faster than my main, but still) to get to a level where I can use all my Azerite traits and play in a more fun way, but then the essences become the grind. In 8.3, I can get through these things faster still, but it is completely unexplained as to how AK works once again, and further, now I’m grinding alts to gear trait levels, then to essence levels, all the while grinding up a legendary cape.
What makes all of this feel like shit is that knowledge that at the end of the expansion, the work is pretty much invalidated – by the time I am level 60 in Shadowlands, I’m not gonna be wearing the Heart of Azeroth, the legendary cape, or using essences. I’m going to be on the next ephemeral grind, working on Covenants and Soulbinds whose abilities will be great in Shadowlands and then in 2022 I’ll be leaving them behind to grind out Dance Points to build my ideal Dance Studio, which will then go away in 2024!
When the system is fun, fast, and creates a lot of new gameplay interactions, like the Artifacts did, the grind doesn’t feel so bad. It is still an ephemeral grind, yes, but there is a value in it and it felt like reaching that first point of Concordance of the Legionfall was a breakpoint, the signal to work on alt-spec weapons or slow down altogether on that character – time to move to another alt or another goal.
BfA took those core ideas and made them measurably worse, by making them less gameplay-affecting, more confusing and obtuse, introducing a less-transparent catchup mechanism that includes a deflationary spiral of current-level value invested, and is overall less engaging as a result. Much like other things with the acronym HOA, it takes my time and value from me to make my experience less interesting or exciting and constrains the possibility space in a negative way (okay, that is harsh to the Heart of Azeroth, but I couldn’t help the joke about homeowner’s associations).
So you have a system that demands constant attention to grow, is intrinsically linked to gameplay in a way that if you don’t maintain it, you lose efficacy in every mode of gameplay, is an onion with layers of grinding, and in the end, all of that grinding is made meaningless and invalid when Shadowlands comes out – might as well not have done it anyways. Now, the hardened cynic in me (and some of you) may then scream out – “isn’t everything at level cap that way, then?” and the answer is – maybe, kind of? What ultimately makes a dungeon, raid, battleground, arena, or world quest fun?
To me, those activities are fun in and of themselves. I get to play the game, be my character, use my toolkit to solve problems (combat problems, maybe navigational ones where my Demon Hunter double-jump and glide come in handy!), and I get a reward that for that moment is an excellent boost to my power. Yes, if I wait 6 months, I could do some content and get an even better reward, and that reward is just a momentary blip in the grand history of the game, a single event of thousands of different gear rewards I’ll receive over time. However, they are rewards, compensation in-game for my time, a fun thing that makes my next journey through the dungeon or raid easier and allows me to then layer in challenge via achievements or higher-difficulty modes. The Artifact sort of did this – the power it offered was valuable at all levels of play, and the Concordance trait, while a proc, was powerful enough to swing fights. Couple that with unique transmog appearances that could be farmed, and the system felt like a cohesive whole that, while it has since mostly left the game, left a big shadow over Azerite.
The biggest problem I see with the modern game is that Blizzard tries to create these grand, overarching progression mechanics that are powerful to be worthwhile, but too powerful to keep and balance across expansions, and they lean into the temporary nature of them, tying them to longer grinds that never truly end. Raiding is no longer the way in which you acquire your true best gear, because you need to do other activities to get the Azerite to unlock traits, then do the essence farming needed to really maximize your performance, and then as there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it is covered in Ashjra’kamas, the cape grind. In order to be at maximum effectiveness, I cannot just play the things I enjoy – sometimes, I have to do the things I don’t want, making them feel like a chore. Sure, Blizzard’s answer is “you can just play with a lower level neck as Artifact Knowledge slowly bumps you towards the finish line” and that is true – but at the same time, my AP has remained a stark contrast to many of my guildies. While the performance offered by Azerite is small, it adds up, and as a tank especially, not having all of the stamina boosts on the Heart of Azeroth means that I am less effective as a player in a way that can harm performance of the whole raid. So I either have to suck it up and do my chores, or allow myself to be slightly behind the curve – marginally harder to heal, marginally less survivable. The margins are small, sure – but they do make a difference.
I don’t hate MMO grinding, hell, I am in the genre because I like that constant goal-setting. The problem is that too many of WoW’s most recent grinds have been mechanics in which I am explicitly told that there will come a day where my grinding is worth nothing, where all the value of it drains out. At best, my effort today will last 12 more months – although if that’s the case, I highly doubt I make it the 12 months – and at worst, anything I grind out today is good for 8 months. In fact, there are signs that the 8 month mark is most likely now, and if that is the case, then the question on my mind is – why bother?
I can jam in island expeditions, warfronts, raids, dungeons, world quests, and PvP in an effort to really push my Heart of Azeroth to the max, but all that effort, some of which I don’t want to do, means I have marginally easier gameplay today and in 8 months, all of that is gone.
My hope for the game’s future is that ephemeral grinds become more measured and careful in implementation – having a lasting impact like the transmog of Artifacts – or that they simply disappear to make way for something more substantive and interesting in the long-term. Hell, if I knew that I could bring my Soulbinds into 10.0 and they wouldn’t end up peacing out until 11.0, that would be a better model – at least with 4 years of use, the gameplay is more substantial and important.
I think the most important lesson I want Blizzard to learn is this, though – if the core content is engaging, repeatable, and enjoyable, there is no reason to bait us with senseless grinds.