I’m writing the draft of this post one day into my announced hiatus, but holding off on publishing, which feels weird!
Something that has rattled my braincage a lot as of late is the issue of player perception of a game. For example, most FFXIV content creators I follow are generally quite happy with the game and nearly all of them play at varying levels and types of content. None of them tend to post the same thing as one another, and when they collaborate on things like podcasts, they are very interesting in that viewpoints tend to show lines of division.
For me in (mostly) WoW land, something I find interesting is reading divergent viewpoints. There is one blogger I follow whose writing actually kind of annoys me (if you are about to queue up a comment, it isn’t you!), whose core theme distilled is “everything I don’t like in the game is made explicitly for mythic and pro players and it is Blizzard catering to them that makes me not enjoy the game as much.” I find this annoying because the analysis is short-sighted and often materially incorrect (it doesn’t take much reading of any “pro” player or watching of their streams and YouTube videos to find that they often also dislike many of the same things!), but I also find it interesting because it is ultimately a different take on the opinions about why the game isn’t finding its mark these days.
My blogroll is full of divergence, which I appreciate – I follow Gnomecore because he is both more casual than I (maxing out at LFR) but also more hardcore (spreadsheets full of alt tracking and objectives!), I followed Alunaria while she was active because there was an appreciation of the artistry of the game that I really liked with her posts, and most of my follows for WoW content run a gamut, with only a few who fit a player mold similar to mine.
However, I think there is something that I have realized lately with the more mainstream content about the game which deserves discussion.
Nogamara’s recent comment on my post about how Blizzard is responding to criticism received during BfA hit at this in a way that sort of deserved a post rather than a paragraphs-long reply – my contention during most of BfA is that it has been worse than Legion and not really hitting the mark for me, and, looking around the community, that seems to be at least a consensus opinion. But as I thought about it, the response of “community feedback for BfA runs more negative than Legion…” didn’t really address the core nugget I pulled from the comment, which is this:
For a subset of players, of which I am one, Legion was better than BfA in specifically-appealing ways – and that viewpoint is over-represented in the game’s discourse.
Why is this my takeaway? Well, when I think about it, the content creators I try to model after (and the ones I don’t!) tend towards a pattern. Taliesin & Evitel, Bellular, Asmongold, Towellie, etc – most of them play Heroic raids, dabble in other stuff, maybe push Mythic raids here and there, and do keystones at fairly high-ish levels. My core gameplay mode in WoW overall is raiding – normal to heroic levels of difficulty, with other content sort of being a backseat if at all engaged with.
This is where I get subjective in my analysis – for me, Battle for Azeroth raiding has been worse than Legion raiding, with the end result of that being that I have a fondness for Legion that I do not for BfA. Legion did annoy me at points in similar ways to BfA outside of raids – Legendaries and their randomness made engaging fully with the system a frustration, Artifact power scaling and the tedious early nature of Artifact Knowledge meant that there was a wall of effort that gradually eroded, world quests were great but also reached a point of maximizing returns over providing meaningful gameplay, and at a certain point, I reached a fatigue where all I really wanted to do with the game was raid, and it took until my sprint at the Mage Tower for me to engage with the game outside of raids in a meaningful and significant way.
Legion wasn’t even a 100% great expansion for raiding either – Tomb of Sargeras was a shitshow of repeating mechanics, bleak environments with some gems mixed in, and overall felt like a downgrade after Nighthold. Antorus was visually not as great as Nighthold or Emerald Nightmare, but had some fun fight designs. However, it had the contours I enjoy in WoW raiding content – a gearing curve that would make fights easier over time, natural soft nerfs via that gearing curve but compounded by the artifact systems, the reward of tier sets and the ability to mix and match to get your ideal set bonus and secondary stat balance, and a sense of difference – each raid brought something new to the table.
I’ve liked some raids in BfA too, to be fair. Uldir was fun for a while – I liked MOTHER a lot, Taloc was cool conceptually, G’Huun’s core mechanics were fascinating while also being frustrating at times, and the execution on corrupted Titan complex was well done with a great aesthetic. Dazar’Alor was an excellent capital to make into a raid – in fact, something I’ve always thought when running around capitals is how it would represent war and strife better if more cities in the game had raids using their maps. The fights in the 8.1 tier of raids weren’t all bad – Mekkatorque was an annoying execution on a good idea, one which carried better into Xanesh in Nya’lotha, Jaina was a cool idea with some rough edges, Rastakhan’s soft enrage was fun to tank around, Grong’s mechanics presented unique overlaps, and add management on the paladin boss always felt a smidge different. Crucible of Storms had some great ideas – on Heroic, they were also frustrating! – but I enjoyed it enough and was glad to get the AotC in there. Eternal Palace was a good raid overall for me, although it felt a little less mechanically sound, and Nya’lotha capped off the expansion well enough with more bosses and a variety of different mechanics – although now that I think about it, Carapace of N’Zoth is really the synthesis of MOTHER and G’Huun, huh?
Anyways, I think that what I find is that there are fewer fights and moments in BfA that made me really hyped to be playing – but that is from a raiding perspective. If I look at BfA from a non-raider viewpoint, I can see a lot of things done better in BfA. The frequency of story quests and engagement through them was much better done in BfA – Legion had Suramar Insurrection, but those were often easier to keep up with once 7.1 launched. BfA had more overall story content paced out a bit better, so there was always something to chew on. It had lore that was less predictable overall (in Legion, we…uh…killed the Legion, effectively, while BfA went a half-dozen different directions, which is exciting but can also lead to a perception of lacking focus). Generally, world content was more rewarding with a less restrictive cap. Normal raiding was actually fairly well done all expansion – maybe too easy to my viewpoint, but I think that is a good thing for a mode that is intended to be a semi-organized pick-up group activity.
From a lot of different vantage points, the idea that BfA was a bad expansion doesn’t really reconcile, and I think that is something that is worth accounting for. Something I try to avoid in my writing is invoking group wisdom, or trying to represent a broad stroke of opinion as objective fact. To me, BfA stunk – it didn’t sink the hook in early for me, and because of that, I bounced off of it for most of the expansion, never really finding my groove. For many of the writers I read, that was not the case.
There tends to be a collective opinion for those who follow the game’s content creators that mirrors much of my opinion of BfA (and this is not the first expansion that has happened for either), where the assumed starting point is that the game was bad for BfA, and thus all conversation flows outward from that point. With the context established (that isn’t a universally agreed-upon point!), I think it is worth analyzing how WoW content creation got to be this way.
Part 1: Vanilla’s Varying Ventures
In the beginning, there was vanilla, built by Blizzard to act as the storyline continuation of the Warcraft universe after the WCIII saga. Gameplay in early vanilla was…fractured, to say the least. While it is ancient history now, at launch, Blizzard didn’t have a laser-focused content plan like they tend to now. Molten Core was cobbled together in an astonishingly short amount of time – a week according to the recollection of Jeff Kaplan. The game didn’t have a lot of the things we see now, even in Classic. Patches most commonly featured talent tree revamps on a class by class basis, with slow drips of other content. Honor was added later, then battlegrounds after, first Warsong Gulch and Alterac Valley, later Arathi Basin. The endgame epicenter for level capped players changed on a frequent basis, and it wasn’t uncommon to engage with multiple things – Argent Dawn scourgestone hunting, the massive number of things tucked away inside Blackrock Mountain, doing quests in Silithus, working on Onyxia attunement questing, or just simply grinding for raid materials or reputation. The game didn’t really have the strict raiding-first focus on the endgame – dungeons were tweaked throughout the patch cycle and remained viable for most players throughout the life of vanilla.
However, by the end of the expansion, something clear had emerged. The endgame content that drove the most discussion, the most engagement – was raiding. With that came design choices engineered to push more people towards raiding, making it more accessible. And thus…
Part 2: Heroic Dungeons, 10/25 Player Raids, and Catch-Up
In The Burning Crusade, Blizzard added Heroic dungeons, with the focus being an activity that you could undertake at max level with smaller groups and more regularly. There were quests added to supplement this, and the rep grind initially required to even get into one meant players had a lot of meaty content to sink their teeth into. It was theoretically possible to raid in TBC without doing Heroics, but they quickly became a sort of stepping stone to the raid scene – rewarding good pre-raid gear and carrying the new badges currency to allow purchase of upgrade gear. In patch 2.4, Blizzard expanded Badges to allow the purchase of gear equal to raid gear from the first tier of TBC, enraging some, but creating a far less frustrating catch-up path. Coupled with similar level drops from the new level 70 only Magister’s Terrace, and it was now possible to gear up a raider without having to spend weeks grinding through old raids.
Speaking of raids, TBC set the stage for a split that divided the community but also made raiding far more accessible. In vanilla, the endgame raids were mostly 40-player affairs, with two 20-player raids added that rewarded lower-quality gear on average (in the case of AQ20, it also gave rank-up books for certain spells, giving you access to better toolkits!). With 10 and 25 player raid sizes in TBC, raiding became much easier to do at the top end. It wasn’t without frustration – the 10 and 25 model continued as 20/40 was in vanilla, with different content in each – which meant that a raid needed to be able to field either two 10 player teams rotating a remaining 5 members, or a 10-player guild was locked out of 25. It wasn’t great, but raiding became more accessible in group management terms (now, attunement-wise…that’s another matter…) but the game had one more shift to make to define its future.
Part 3: Wrath, Multiple Raid Sizes, Through Today
Wrath of the Lich King brought the biggest change to the game’s endgame content ever, with all raids being both 10 and 25 player. Guilds no longer had to choose a model for progression that required raid splits or unusual run structures, and casual raiding with pickup groups had an easy route to run – just grab 10 players and go. While later changes to raid size (flex raiding in Siege of Orgrimmar 4 years later and the reordering of difficulty tiers with WoD that came right after) were similarly impactful, Wrath set the stage for what the game became. At it’s most popular, the game was about raiding. New dungeons added served as catch-up mechanics, bringing gear up to par with the raid tier prior to the current one, allowing players to easily move on to raiding. Emblems extended into offering the current tier raid gear and giving people at all levels of play in PvE chances to get current-tier gear. The game pushed raiding as the core endgame activity, and at a time when the game was most popular and social content like YouTube and blogs about the game were really growing, it naturally followed that tons of content creators got on the train here, talking about…well, raiding.
And that leads us to today’s topic once again. The root of much of the game’s discussion culture and content creation has roots in this era, and while channels and blogs have a wide spread, the mode of content that found the largest audiences was this type of content – talking about raiding, discussing the game, its features, and the future of it through the lens of a raiding player.
Through that lens, it’s actually sort of a short walk to see why the community “consensus” is built on the idea that BfA isn’t particularly good. In raiding terms, BfA just didn’t quite hit the high notes for many that Legion did, even with Legion’s missteps in Tomb of Sargeras. Legion’s systems appealed to raiders because it offered a tighter integration with raiding – there was no equivalent of Essences that required farming outside of raids, Artifact Power as it worked in Legion was perfectly fine to be farmed via solely raiding, and legendaries could drop in raids just as easily as other content.
For me personally, something I noticed early on about BfA is that as my play slowed, my progression slowed a lot more. In Legion, I largely gained AP via raids, and it worked out fairly well – my weapon was never far behind anyone in my raid, even those who played more than I did. In BfA, my necklace was sometimes embarrassingly far behind, and it wasn’t like I was playing much less time than most of my raidmates. In theory, systems like Artifact Knowledge should have kept a tighter band on the potential spread of levels within the system, but in practice, it didn’t quite bring the low end up as much as the similar AK system of Legion did. Honestly, for me, that is probably my biggest criticism – if the game used AK earlier on to push the low-end of active players up higher such that my raid-focused gameplay could keep me closer to my guildies, I might not even feel like BfA was a disappointment.
The truth of Battle for Azeroth is that it did do a lot of things differently – many of which were good. The amount of story content added was larger and of higher quality than Legion – sure, there were some real iffy story moments, but at the same time, at least the 8.2.5 stuff had meat to it, whereas the Legion 7.2 story quests were barely story at all. For dungeon players, stuff like seasonal Mythic Keystone affixes, defined seasonal play, and more multi-route dungeons offered some choices that Legion didn’t have, even if some of those things also come with drawbacks (if you hate trash, BfA dungeons are going to grate). World quests in BfA had more variety and were expanded and added to throughout the expansion, and while not every one was amazing, there were some fun additions (downhill penguin racing was a favorite of mine). World content was experimented with throughout the expansion, with 8.2 using more quest and daily quest driven models which came with pros and cons of their own, and the invasion system of 8.3 being clearly different from the world quest or hybrid models used in BfA before, hearkening more to the WoD fill-a-bar daily quest from your garrison at launch.
However, for many people who talk about the game for some audience, raiding is the focus, and the end result of that is BfA’s sort of average raid design kind of pushes down other discussion and opinions. The other thing about this is that ultimately, this too is an opinion. For me and players I talk with and who tend to fit the same niche I self-identify as belonging to, the raids this expansion were largely just kind of…okay? Ironically, BfA didn’t have a tier that was as bad as Tomb of Sargeras for me, but at the same time, it didn’t have that excellent raid tier like Nighthold was in Legion for me. It was just kind of in the middle. I wouldn’t even say it was the worst raiding expansion, and to be honest, I’m not sure which one would take that crown. But, for the first time since Wrath began the modern model of discussing the game content, the raiding wasn’t exceptional in one direction or the other. It was decent – enough so that I stayed raiding through the expansion until last week! Yet, on the other hand, I’m not sure I can even name all the bosses in Eternal Palace, because I memory-holed the tier pretty hard prior to leaving the country last fall! – but also because it was just kind of there.
Is this type of discourse framing harmful for the game and its community? Maybe – it certainly does drive a lot of discussion of how the game is perceived and can drive fan ratings of the game up or down depending on how that narrow audience perceives the game. It’s also true that Blizzard does dis-proportionally promote raid content over other modes of engagement with the game – major patches are named for raid content and the other content like dungeons and world content flows out from the raid theme rather than the other way around. Look at 8.2 – it distinctly seems like Azshara was identified as the villain of the tier early (look at Blizzcon 2017 and you can see her already being discussed!) and that led to Eternal Palace, Nazjatar, and some of the plot elements of the patch.
However, I do think that something worth keeping in mind (I try to myself when writing about the game!) is that a majority of the audience, by most public metrics, does not raid at all. For those players, a lot of the value judgments made by people like me don’t hold true – hell, for a lot of players like me, they may have different opinions! Something I really enjoy about my blogroll is that I feel like I get a diversity of opinion, well-stated and present in comments discussing where our perceptions diverge and where they meet up again.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what community is about?