I’ve been working on this draft, no joke, for two months now. Just two months of poking at it, prodding it, trying to shape a narrative of the environmental factors and Blizzard practices outside of the raw game content I hope to see in Shadowlands when it releases, still presumably, this year.
However, the thing about a lot of this is that the environment we were in changed rapidly. When I started this draft, COVID-19 was a thing that was happening largely elsewhere. Blizzard was still in their offices, as was I, and so spending a lot of time writing about Blizzard doing this or that made sense.
Now, two months later, with shelter-in-place orders in large swathes of the United States (still not all of it because this country is absolutely a basketcase), Blizzard (and myself) working from home, and many of us struggling to grab onto things that remind us of normal as a lot of bad things loom on the horizon, the tone and tenor of that post that sat here in my drafts for two months is perhaps not as welcome! That is my judgement call, at least, and why the end result here, two months later, is to conclude by rewriting from scratch and publishing something that I think strikes a better balance.
Because, and here is the thing, in a normal time, I’ve written plenty about how I have lost a lot of faith and excitement in Blizzard, that they’ve become “just another AAA studio” for me, and that WoW is a place where I’ve felt this sort of focus on pushing repetitive, meat-grinder content out. Content which, to be totally fair, I still enjoy sometimes, but WoW has, over the course of BfA, become a game that is not quite what I remember it being. For many, it has been that way for a long time – TBC for some, Wrath for others, Cataclysm for many, and beyond for the few holdouts like myself.
But I do think it is important to also acknowledge that art and entertainment are a key contributor to improved mental states in a moment like the one we now occupy, and while it hasn’t made me love WoW more than I did two months ago, I still appreciate that Blizzard has made a thing which I have enjoyed for so long, and which has continued to give the innumerable weeks stuck at home and in my immediate surroundings the contours of normalcy. I still have my raids and reset days to tell me what day it is and to create a sort of cadence to my time. For that, I cannot be angry at Blizzard – we have fundamental disagreements about how to best deliver a great end product here, but I appreciate them for delivering me something that still manages to hold my interest enough to keep those contours in my life.
Also, appropriately enough, when I started to delay this post indefinitely, my goal was to get it out before Shadowlands alpha data was public, so I could let my predictions and wishes, granted or not, be recorded. Well, there are a lot of rumblings that this week is the heralded week, and it seems likely that by Tuesday this week, we’ll have a ton of new things to overanalyze and write about!
So let’s talk about my wishes for Shadowlands from Blizzard, outside of game content, and against the market it will likely enter!
More communication: Blizzard needs to talk more, tell us more, and to listen clearly more. BfA’s early window pushed a lot of players out quickly because the game was defined by the deafening silence from Blizzard as players hit endgame and quickly found irritation. During Blaugust 2019, I made a post lamenting that Greg Street was their last great communicator, the guy whose public-facing discussion defined an era of the game positively, in my opinion. He was willing to speak up early, often, and in unrefined ways – discussing in-development content and concepts directly with zeal. Since losing him to Riot Games in 2013, Blizzard hasn’t made up for that loss. They used CMs for a while, but they had to run everything through layers of approval and couldn’t speak with the same candor that had defined Ghostcrawler. Ion sort of stepped into that role upon his public promotion to Game Director, but his style lacks the same direct and unguarded nature of GC’s. Short of hiring GC again, a thing which I doubt the possibility of, I think getting a lead developer of some sort in front of the public who is willing to take that role would be ideal. I want to hear from the frontline teams in the studio about why a thing was made a certain way, to discuss and iterate semi-publicly, and to ultimately land us on a shared understanding.
More dev blogs: Tied to the first point, something Blizzard has done well in the back-half of BfA is focused blogs about features, content, and PTR rationales. Simple 4-paragraph posts explaining why they are doing things a certain way, the mechanics and boundaries of a given system – all of these are great, and they start to guide the public conversation around the game towards understanding. Do that more, and couple it with more rapid-response as mentioned above.
Be willing to kill your darlings: Modern Blizzard isn’t really an “arthouse” developer any more, if they even ever were, but one thing I find absolutely astounding in the current game is how often the team puts a feature in, sees the writing on the wall, but insists we’ll love it with more time, and then we don’t. They don’t have to awkwardly tapdance around Azerite, but they chose to. They don’t have to fumble on account-wide essences, but their vision of how alt-play should work made them – by their choice. I want to see Blizzard willing to stand aside and respond to player feedback rapidly in Shadowlands. If Covenants feel awful and just like reputation with more story? Redesign them, rebuild them, or scrap the focus on the system and just make them reps with a stronger core story that is shared. Soulbinds feeling too min-max? Change them, redo them, or scrap them. The alpha for the expansion should progress testing and opinion on these things in a way that allows the team to go back to the drawing board before launch. Azerite felt bad and uninspired in beta for BfA, and many of us testing said so. Blizzard wasn’t willing to listen, at least, it seemed, because the response was that at 120 in the live game, we’d see it more and enjoy it. Well, here we are two years later, and that definitely did not happen – it took 2 revamps to the system to the point where the original system is an ambient process that no longer consumes anywhere near the amount of thought it was designed to, and in 8.3, that is boldly apparent as every piece that drops in the new season is peppered with the “best” traits for the most part, save for Mythic Plus gear whose traits were already previously designed in.
Fun over metrics: Look, Ion said they don’t track MAUs or time spent as a measure of success, but I can see the way the game plays, and you’re not fooling me. I logged in a lot to do N’Zoth assaults over the last two and a half months. I found them dull and boring, and used the vignette quests to complete them as quickly as possible, but I did them. To Blizzard, my completion rate for them must look like a success story – I did dozens of the things! However, they were merely an obstacle I had to hurdle over to get to the actual fun I was having in Horrific Visions, and now that I’ve hit the plateau, and my guild is 3% health on N’Zoth away from Ahead of the Curve and a likely raid hiatus, I don’t even particularly care about those either. Surely, the metrics will point at this decline right around the point of Rank 15 cape and 5-mask complete achievements as a sign that the core content wasn’t really holding, but here’s the thing – that is a mixed blessing. Yes, the assault content, frankly, sucked for me. I didn’t find it engaging on any scale, and it is (as was the case in Mechagon) frustrating to have the excellent emissary and world quest systems stripped away to a dumber and worse system mechanically, which requires me to go pickup quests prior to adventuring. Sure, there’s more – oh the commanders in Uldum need to tell me the strategic focus for the day! – but from a gameplay perspective, I don’t need to feel like part of a strong enemy force. I just want to play and have fun. Likewise, with HVs – I don’t hate them, and still enjoy them even now! But I hit my plateau of achievement, and as much as I did (and do!) enjoy them, I don’t want to keep doing them over and over forever. I’ll probably do one a week until we kill N’Zoth, and then all bets are off, and it isn’t because I think they’re bad – it’s just general burnout on the game.
Build things to be fun. Make the game with the sole thought being lighting a twinkle in my eye when I get my hands on it. If you make the overall process of engaging with the game enjoyable, I won’t care if my best soulbind for mathematically superior Havoc DPS is the dumb undead covenant. I care and am annoyed now because the process of getting to the mathematically best gameplay I can means taking a neutered action bar setup with almost half of my damage being passive effects, waiting for the game to generate enough resource for me so I can hit one of 3 buttons. It can still be enjoyable, but it has rough edges where I really feel the disconnect and it is often disengaging and un-fun.
Take your time with Shadowlands: This one is rough for me to say, because on the one hand, I am very much beginning the process of checking out of WoW for BfA. The vast majority of my MMO time has been FFXIV lately, raids have been irritating more than enjoyable (a chunk of that is not Blizzard’s fault, though those thoughts are for a later post!), and the side content I enjoyed is maxed-out and losing appeal. Blizzard tossed a lifeline with Legion content enabling legacy loot rules this week, a decision that tells me they expect Shadowlands to be later in the year than the optimistic August I was pinning my hopes on, but yet, here we are.
If it means Shadowlands is a focused, fun expansion full of great content, take until December. Hell, take until 2021. I want the work of the team at full capacity, un-crunched, able to test everything, to iterate based on player feedback from alpha and beta phases, and with a lot for me to sink my teeth into straight away at launch. Sure, the time between now and then might mean you lose players, but that is where you can push Classic, or utilize events more – maybe even micro-patches like we got in late Warlords of Draenor with minor fixes and small bits of new-ish content.
Originally, I was also going to talk about intangibles in this post, with the idea being that a myriad of things outside of Blizzard could impact the game, from a new FFXIV expansion announcement that seemed likely for November until human malware roamed the land, through to other changes in the game’s playerbase and the general market. However, right now, everything is intangible. The world we’re in right now is changing on a daily basis, sometimes more than that, and any attempt at even wild speculation seems out of reach right now. Will there be a Blizzcon this year? Don’t know. Will the aforementioned FFXIV fan fest take place? Can’t say.
So my simplest wish and summation of this whole series of posts, including this entry two months delayed, is this: I want Blizzard to deliver Shadowlands when it is ready, with lots of feedback, discussion, and iteration hand-in-hand with players. I want them to be willing to meet us in the middle between their vision and our desires. I want the game to be fun and not a thing I sometimes dread and endure for the parts I do enjoy. I want it to be deep but easy to get into and relax with. I want those painterly landscapes and swelling musical scores. I want the employees who make it to feel valued, by their employer and the community. It can be new, different, and fresh – but I want the team to give me their fullest realization of what they discussed at Blizzcon – less bound by systems and more enhanced by them.
But selfishness aside, for this moment in time, it also feels apropos to again say this – I want them to know that in such a weird chapter in world history, I appreciate their attempts to continue to deliver a game that has for many, myself included, remained a piece of their lives.