I’ve tried to dull the edges of it a little bit, but I think it has been relatively clear throughout my writing on Shadowlands from Blizzcon to today – I have a large amount of doubt about whether or not Blizzard actually listened to player feedback and learned the lessons of Battle for Azeroth.
For what it is worth, a lot of that is warranted – BfA’s early days were marked with a lot of doubling-down and stubborn insistence at best, and a seemingly apathetic silence at worst. Players were being repelled from the BfA experience, and until very recently, Blizzard didn’t really take a lot of action other than bandaid fixes and apologies. On a lot of fronts, WoW in BfA felt bad. Granted, the bandaid fixes I am thinking above in that reference above were pretty good in some cases – 8.1 Azerite changes were positive, Essences were better but had their own flaws, and the currency solution to Essences solves much of that. Blizzard gave us a bonus XP buff for a limited time, but extended it based on player request (I’m sure, cynically, that user engagement spikes helped make the case clear on the business side as well, but nonetheless, credit where it is due).
The Shadowlands announcement at Blizzcon 2019 was full of broad declarations of player choice and agency, with examples like the new intended functionality of the Mythic Plus weekly cache being the clearest call where Blizzard intends to make such improvements. However, in that context, it was also not particularly loaded on details, and the systems through which Blizzard has made the most noise about increased player choice are also the ones they were least willing to actually detail. I liked the words, but had doubt in my mind – how will these choices work? Will systems like -forging and Corruption still exist to ruin things with unnecessary layers of random bonuses?
Shadowlands alpha and the blitz of Blizzard discussion around it has allayed some, but not all of my fears, and I feel that while I do hesitate to praise an unfinished product, the specifics we are beginning to see emerging from alpha are a promising trend.
First, communication. Blizzard has pushed out blogs detailing features in each alpha build, things that dataminers might find and release in an unpolished state, and instead has gotten in front of them. Alpha was announced nearly 4 days before datamining began, with a flurry of blue posts detailing exactly what to expect and hyping the features. Then, when alpha launched, members of the WoW team were out giving interviews – not to standard press outlets in a more sheltered and protected way, but on livestreams on Twitch with community creators like Sloot, Taliesin & Evitel, and Toweliee. They were sometimes pressed, and the interactions felt better – less polished, but more informative for it. I don’t think that an outlet like PC Gamer is bad, mind you, but I do think that for long-lived MMOs, most game press outlets don’t have tenured players of these games who know what questions to ask. Compare how Polygon, Kotaku, or PC Gamer discuss the game to how the above-named creators do – they have the press releases and detail sheets they probably get from Blizzard, but the outlets I named often barely scratch the surface of what is there to ask and tend to discuss things already previously announced as new, since their readership may not be engaged with the game as thoroughly. I think that is more a matter of tailoring to an audience, so I don’t think it is bad or nefarious – it just doesn’t give me much of anything to learn from or report back on.
With this communication and the style and delivery, I started to feel like maybe Blizzard did really learn something from the BfA debacle. Players are being given a framework prior to alpha builds in which they can build upon the official information. Sure, Wowhead and MMO-Champion both have discovered a myriad of things Blizzard hasn’t discussed, but at the same time, they were beat to the punch on a lot of core gameplay features, and so instead of having to watch a stream to see a covenant ability or reading datamining and getting into comment wars about the efficiency of certain abilities, I can see the design intent and then watch the tuning from datamining and alpha. Either way, the win here is obvious – so far, Blizzard has controlled the message, but not in a way that to me suggests a hidden motive. They’ve stayed above board, discussing things openly and keeping excitement alive.
That alone would have been enough, but then…
Gameplay changes. The level squish as a solution is a Blizzard idea through and through, and something that players have felt all kinds of different ways about. However, it does speak to a core understanding of something that new players often run into, and also speaks to those of us who try to recruit friends who’ve never played before. Leveling can be a huge mental block, and functionally, Blizzard landed in a place where the number tied to a level only has as much value as you give it – so shrink 120 to 50, allow 10 levels, and the new level cap is half of the current one. Sure, there is something to be said for the psychology of the shrink and how that affects current players, but at the same time, it just rebands everyone into a new number with the same sorting. My 100 and 110 alts that have yet to be leveled are just the same in relation to my 120 roster as they are today, the numbers will just be lower. Blizzard has already been doing this to us over the last few years via item squishes, and so the preparation has been underway. I think this is a case where Blizzard heard feedback from changes they made in 7.3.5 and how they’ve played out throughout BfA, and they implemented their solution. Some may disagree vehemently with the idea, and I think that is fair – it is counter to decades of RPG gameplay. But it does solve an underlying problem with the game and helps to ease the apprehension of how big a new player’s to-do list really is.
Speaking of leveling, Allied Races. A feature loved for what it allows in terms of customization and loathed for the cumbersome and long-tailed unlocks in BfA that require completing a quest chain (the easy part) but also then require grinding reputation under the current model to Exalted, a long and tedious grind that often stops for a lot of players well short of that goal. The cry went out about removing rep requirements for Allied Races, and in 9.0, Blizzard appears to have done just that. In the meantime, the rep bonus event currently happening in-game extends to reach all Allied Race reputations – easing the burden before it is removed.
But, one roadblock in a player’s enjoyment of old or repeated content yet remains – the accursed Pathfinder achievements. For years now, Draenor and the Broken Isles have been zones in which those of us who played the expansions contemporaneously have been able to fly, while those who took breaks from the game or are starting new hit an unintuitive roadblock to enjoying the splendor of those zones from the sky. Enter Shadowlands’ newest alpha build and blog posts, confirming that Blizzard has removed the need for the achievement for Pathfinder in these zones, leaving the achievement available for the other rewards they offer while ensuring that players training flying at level 30 will automatically receive both of these flight unlocks. It is a compromise or truce of sorts, as no confirmation of the same for BfA has been made or seen, and we have been told as of Blizzcon 2019 to a chorus of boos that the Pathfinder system continues on in Shadowlands. However, I do think this is still a laudable improvement – while I’ve had these achievements, they tend to elude those starting fresh or coming back – being both mostly unnecessary for enjoyment of current content, but also a roadblock to being able to enjoy old content in these zones when current content wears thin. My hope is that Blizzard simply removes Pathfinder altogether – if you must wait until an x.2 patch to allow us to buy flying training, fine. Still, I commend Blizzard for listening here and making a decision that offers players a measure of hope that our voices are being heard and listened to.
Why recount these things now? Well, in my posts on Shadowlands, the single biggest recurring theme is that my hope is Blizzard responds to player feedback and creates a stronger expansion for it. Now, I can’t say yet if Shadowlands is sure to be stronger than BfA, but from what I have seen so far, they are taking a lot of steps that push more in that direction, and I am quite pleased with that. Blizzard has been open, communicative, and taking on a lot of feedback and acting upon it to create something that feels more cooperative, more player-focused and driven, and more fun than they have the past few years. If this continues into future content for Shadowlands and drives much of the endgame experience, then we might have a real winner on our hands.
Also, to be honest? It’s kind of nice to be excited about WoW again for a change.