Shadowlands and Cynicism – Is Blizzard Actually…Listening?

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.

5 thoughts on “Shadowlands and Cynicism – Is Blizzard Actually…Listening?

  1. “and until very recently, Blizzard didn’t really take a lot of action other than bandaid fixes and apologies.”

    I hate to come across as an apologist for Blizz, because I totally am not, but I do feel that some objectivity about the software development process is in order. The fact is that by the time they even announce an expansion, it’s far beyond planning and design. By the time they tell you about an expansion, they are already into *execution* of the plan and *implementation* of the design. These things have something like an 18-24 month lead time.

    So by the time you see the pre-expansion patch, they’re already committed. *There is nothing left to do but bandaid fixes and apologies*.

    Well, not entirely. But that’s the difference between Old Blizzard and Activision Blizzard. Old Blizzard would delay an expansion until they were satisfied with it – “it will ship when it is done.”. This is expensive on many fronts, but it produces a far better game. Witness: Burning Crusade.

    BUT. What Activision Blizzard found out was that we don’t really care. If they release a substandard expansion, we’ll still buy it, and complain a lot. But we’ll buy the next one, they noticed. So rather than engage in the expensive process of delay and “quality”, they engage in the far more cynical “we’ll fix it in post” approach.

    My point (which got lost momentarily) is that in the “fix it in post” era, the only tools available are inferior – bandaids and blather. They see no profit in the other approach, and we have encouraged it.

    “unnecessary layers of random bonuses?”

    I have a confession – I kinda like this. It befuddles the planners and schemers, and that tickles me. A certain subset of player will continue to run content if they think there’s a non-zero chance that an upgrade will drop. In a world of absolutes, with no randomness, once you get a specific drop, best in class, you have little reason to run that content.

    Which is exactly where i am at in the game. I have pretty much stopped running all content in the game other than the HVs and their ilk. There just isn’t enough reward to justify my gaming. Multiply that over a few hundred thousand informed players (i.e. they know how to use sites like AMR) and you have a massive drop-off in players. I think Blizz knows that and that’s why they don’t consider the RNG element to be unnecessary at all.

    Now I realize that maybe paints me as a bit of a gaming design troll but for once I do agree with them.

    “But, one roadblock in a player’s enjoyment of old or repeated content yet remains – the accursed Pathfinder achievements.”

    Okay, we know how that story ends, but I want to discuss one part of that – the achievements aren’t going away, just the requirement that you have them to fly in a specific zone. In the past, a common practice was to take this kind of achievement and make it a “feat of strength”. Now, they’re just changing it so that people get “some value” from it.

    To me this smacks of “attendance award” kind of prizes. They’ve become so sensitive to negative feedback that they’ll do anything to avoid it if they can.

    Really, this is probably me being too sensitive to this sort of thing after so many years of watching the clown show, but I do miss the days when they would just say, “we’re done with this, it’s gone.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! A lot to get into, so I’ll try to tackle it in order:

      -I’m sympathetic to the development POV, because these kinds of things definitely aren’t just simple design challenges, especially once implemented. My chief concern is for things like Azerite and especially that, Blizzard should be pushing to test far earlier. In BfA alpha, azerite wasn’t available until the expansion testing was near completion, giving players limited chances to interact with it, and the first interactions in alpha used a different model (inverted the selections such that the +5 item level trait was the first choice). By that point, it was already too late for them to work on changes in development, which limited their ability to act on the feedback, and then also communicated about the problem in terms that conveyed a lack of understanding of the base feedback. That is primarily my concern. If soulbinds aren’t a good feeling system and are tested so close to launch as to remove any possibility of retuning prior to launch, that will be a concern for me.

      To your next point, though, if Soulbinds are similarly busted at launch, would it stop my purchase? Not really, no – in fact, I have a preorder already in and a boost already used – it’s too late for me. As much as elements of the game can fray my nerves, I’m not sure where my breaking point would be. I believe there is one, logically, at which point I would give up, but I can’t say where that is. The two times I’ve taken extended breaks from the game have been extenuating non-game circumstances, so…

      For the point about -forging and corruption, I do kind of agree. I don’t necessarily hate either system, although I think corruption has some negatives that weren’t present in -forging. I do, however, think that the loot systems used to enable them mean that a lot of people do still hit a breaking point. I know no one who plays indefinitely or lower content than they are capable of for those rewards, and people do eventually hit a point where they feel “satiated” on gear and quit playing certain modes of content. I think them going back to the prior model of loot in Shadowlands, with fewer overall drops and no random modifiers at endgame is an interesting concession that maybe random modifiers on top of random loot hasn’t worked as well as they’d like. I don’t mind RNG loot and I don’t mind the bonuses, but the intersection of the two creates some negative friction – getting a high Titanforge on a ring with bad stats for your raiding spec, or getting a corruption that is good but creates challenges in layering your gear. I think the corruption puzzle is generally better (it has a lot more touchpoints for player choice with cleansing and set building) but it also has a higher chance of popping up in unusable ways, where -forging could in most cases be a straight upgrade. I’m curious to see how players who’ve only engaged with endgame in the last few years react to a more classic loot model – I think it is going to be interesting and may not be the slam-dunk win a lot of people expect that it might be.

      Lastly, I kind of agree on Pathfinder achievements. If they wanted it gone, they could just do so , and those of us with the achievements and mounts could enjoy them while everyone benefits from flying. I think getting rid of the requirement is the right move, but there’s definitely a desire to not push anyone’s buttons wrapped up in the approach they are taking. It is still fairly early in Alpha, so it could very well change, but even still, I think the good of the change overall outweighs any negatives.

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      1. I agree that earlier testing would be a good thing, but even that doesn’t matter if they don’t have the flexibility to go “back to formula” on bad features. I mean, at least they had the courage to drop Path of the Titans in Wrath when it turned out to be problematic (or too hard to implement, your guess is as good as mine). But, point being, testing doesn’t matter if you’re not equipped to react to it.

        Honestly, my biggest annoyance in this whole thing is that a lot of things are iterations on things we’ve had in the past, but with too many trap doors and flaws in them. The game peaked in Wrath in many ways, including Systems.

        I should have been more forthright on Corruption. I think that’s a bad idea from Day One. Whoever thought that gear should come with penalties, and which you would have to weigh the Lesser of Two Evils, should be shipped off to remedial design school as penance. Where does that even get fun? When you’re trying to keep a geriatric game alive, is it really a good idea to introduce negatives as part of the new normal? Signs say “no”.

        I’m less opposed to a bad upgrade with good stats. In some cases it forms a bridge to the next level. It should never be so simple as “look at the iLevel and go with the higher”. I am all for the careful consideration of stats, and, if they come out a net positive, you go with them. Now, I realize that is the same logic that got us Druids wearing Cloth gear and so forth, but I’m also going to point out that if “leather” means nothing other than a slightly higher armor level, and if “armor level” means nothing because you are a healer or DPS, then there IS a problem, and it is not itemization.

        What I will say is that the diverse and various ways that BfA gear runs right now is difficult to parse, mostly due to Corruption. I don’t understand why -Forging needs drastic changes. In Wrath we had these variations on gear:
        1) Itemization
        2) Gems
        3) Enchants

        And I can’t be clear but at some point -Forging was added, possibly in Cata, but whenever that was, I consider the best we’ve had it. Everything since then has been far less well executed.

        Don’t get me wrong on the Pathfinder thing – overall, a net positive. But it’s a slight annoyance to see this level of wimpiness in what I will call, for lack of a better word, “policy” or “politics”.

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  2. Also I’m still not buying the entire “debacle” thing.

    I really liked Legion but it didn’t keep me subbed for as long as BfA did. I think this is the first expansion since I stopped raiding in MoP in 2014 where I was subbed for the whole expansion, so surely some people like it.

    Yes, there are some things many people didn’t like (Islands?), but maybe I’m the exception to the rule, I didn’t see bigger problems in BfA than in most expansions before. It’s especially ten times better than Warlords.

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