The Maw In Focus – How To Design Unwelcoming, But Fun, Spaces and Why It Seemingly Falls Short

In my Shadowlands media blitz recap post, the most text for me was devoted to The Maw. There is a fairly simple reason why – the design sounded perilous for Blizzard at Blizzcon, and the snippets we’ve heard in the media tour show why – the design has densely-stacked layers of discouraging mechanics, and at the same time, it is intended to be one of the most accessible pillars of the endgame design.

Something I think Blizzard does too much of is over-emphasis of flavor when building a cool concept, which ends up diluting it. The Maw being inhospitable is a good thing for the game to have – far too often, we feel entirely too welcome in the zones of the endgame, and it feels less like an Azeroth-threatening invasion and more like a theme park horror ride. I really want to like The Maw, I do! I am absolutely in love with the concept of a dangerous, bleak zone to allow sandboxy gameplay in.

Before I jump into critiquing The Maw (should I always capitalize the “the” in this case? I don’t know for sure!), I want to backtrack slightly and talk about a time that Blizzard made an inhospitable zone that really nailed it, in my opinion.

Cast your minds back to 2016 (yeah, shit year, I know, but hear me out).

In Legion, the zone of Suramar was the primary endgame world hub that players would spend the majority of their time as fresh 110s in. Suramar, as it was the original Elf capital of the world, was a long-established place in the lore, and was hyped and built accordingly. The zone had a sweeping cliff face on the northside thanks to Highmountain, the foggy gray of Stormheim to the east, and the contrasting arcanic blues and natural greens of Azsuna and Val’Sharah to the west. The main landmass of the zone was a sort of eternal autumn, marked with pockets of Fel and points where the neighboring zones infringed on the land boundary and pushed their color palettes further into Suramar.

However, Suramar’s defining feature is the city of the same name. Occupying an ungodly amount of the world map of the zone, Suramar City was the first of its kind in World of Warcraft. It was large, sprawling even, with an infinitely large number of nooks and crannies ripe for exploration. It was also built like a city – most of the landmass of Suramar consists of small buildings, walkways and passages between them, with small courts and open landscaping features that feel, well, like someone actually lives there.

Cities in WoW to that point have always been gameplay-focused and utilitarian to that cause. Stormwind and Orgrimmar are large-ish, true, but enough of the zones are occupied by shops, banks, auctioneers, and trainers, which leaves the mind to wander and think about where people who live in Stormwind actually, well, live. Suramar doesn’t leave that bit of immersion breaking in – the city feels like a city, and you could imagine thousands of Nightborne nobility huddled into the space of the city. This design was such a hit that it was applied forward to the faction capitals of Battle for Azeroth – which has mixed results from a gameplay perspective (doubly so if you play Horde!) but from an immersion standpoint, it feels great. Both cities host allied races we later recruit, and it feels correct – I don’t have to question that there are Kul Tirans or Zandalari in the world, because the places they live feel large enough to host them.

But that isn’t why I hearken back to Suramar. Suramar from a gameplay perspective is one of the best bits of unwelcoming content Blizzard has ever done. The whole zone story hinges on a simple fact – no matter how much you love Suramar as a player, your character is unwelcome in the city, at first because you are an outsider who threatens the Legion, but later because you are a revolutionary, sparking the fire of rebellion against the bourgeois and reclaiming the city for the proletariat of the Nightfallen. The whole zone is actually a really fantastic (and probably unintentional) allegory for why action at the ballot box is ineffective against large systemic issues, given that you spend much of the 7.0 quests trying within the governing body of Suramar to elicit change, only for that to fail and for violent uprising to become essential.

What makes Suramar convey this unwelcome nature is simple – every quest is about staking a small claim. At first, a fresh 110 trying to complete the zone, going into the city is a death sentence. The early quests prior to your disguise acquisition are all about how dangerous the zone is, and you scout and move through incredibly small portions of the zone – all close to the border, easy enough to escape if you find yourself in over your head. However, something is really interesting about those first forays into the metropolis – most of the citizens aren’t really hostile directly to you, but frightened by you and flee because you are not like them (which, man, in modern times, is that dripping with metaphor). The zone has a ton of guards, but most of the NPCs you first encounter are Nightborne civilians who don’t attack on sight but instead comment on your presence in their pristine city. The first thing you learn to allow yourself to be present in the city for longer is the disguise, which masks you to look like a Nightborne.

The game then starts to layer on challenges – combat wipes the disguise and makes you unable to apply it until you put down the foes challenging you. The city is sprawling and somewhat difficult to navigate by the in-game map options – both the minimap and the world map struggle with depth and the narrow, compact nature of the architecture makes movement limited. Enemies with detector capabilities start showing up, and while in most normal WoW gameplay settings, this would be perfectly fine, the compact layout of the city means sometimes, you’ll round a corner right into a combat scenario. But, just like a real city, you learn to navigate it, with the twist of class skills. Demon Hunters can glide overhead, using the downward slope to the harbor as the means to travel larger distances without fear of engagement. Druids can go into seal form, and swim through the myriad waterways that pass through the city and under walking path overpasses. Rogues can stealth and distract, and all of that plays into how you approach the city.

As you learn the layout and get more comfortable, the game begins to show you the east side of the city. Though you rarely come here during standard gameplay, the world quests in the area show up with elite frames on the world map, taunting you to take a stand. However, going here alone as a fresh 110 is folly – the area is teeming with elite mobs (it is, after all, the area of the city replicated near-perfectly in the Court of Stars dungeon) and nearly every pack has a detector. Roaming mobs pack into every corner, and the avenues of safe escape are limited and even have guards too. Early in Legion, I got in over my head, and went to escape the zone using some stairs to a waterway, with the intention of swimming/gliding/Fel Rushing my way to safety. However, there was an elite at the bottom of the stair, who was a caster. The guards had softened me up, and while I made it to the water, it turned into a soggy grave.

Now, I will tell you what is unique about that experience.

I almost never remember world interactions in modern WoW in any real detail. I can sometimes say that a thing happened in X zone, but not much more than that. This Suramar play session stuck in my mind as an exemplar of what the zone meant. I did well at first when I snuck over to the elite side, but I couldn’t maintain as the mobs patrolled around, and my escape plans were thwarted in a realistic way by the guard NPCs the designers put there. And, to top it off, that experience happened and was as memorable as it was because I could not fly – I knew that once things went pear-shaped, I had to find an escape route that would eventually allow me to mount and leave, or take the travel time penalty of hearthing away to Dalaran, flying back to Suramar, and starting over.

As much as I love WoW, it needs to be said that the game rarely captures the full design potential of an area. Broken Shore was supposed to be a fel-infested hellhole crawling with the Legion, but it rarely felt dangerous, especially given that we had 3 bases in a relatively small space and one of the class halls was parked off the shore with Dalaran also nearby in the sky. Going near Uldir, or around the invasion zones of 8.3, you rarely feel a sense of what the in-game lore and flavor is trying to tell you. Uldir doesn’t feel dangerous, it just has a few mobs you can outrun easily. Invasions don’t feel like swarms of enemies empowered by N’Zoth, they just feel like the zone got its trash swapped for higher level and newer trash.

Suramar felt, well, real. Everything about the city design, to me, struck the right balance. Citizens were disgusted to see me and would say fantasy-setting bigoted things about my character. Guards would rush to kill me if I was undisguised, and being a city of magical elves, they have safeguards against disguise too! The zone changes and rolls forward with the times in lockstep with the story – it starts out peaceful but tense as the Legion presence keeps a reminder to the populace, but it feels like the Nightborne live a sheltered life in their little city, with markets, bars, and residences dotting the landscape. Everytime you step into the city, there’s a whole process to follow – disguising yourself, avoiding detection and blowing your cover, moving through the city as you gather clues about the success or failures of Lyleth Lunastre’s mission to elicit change through the ruling class, and then you foment rebellion on the streets and civil war breaks out, the Nightfallen pushing their brethren in the city to fight the Legion presence and push back against the cowardly withdrawal from world affairs instated by the Grand Magistrix, all leading up to a raid in which you fight the military leadership, obstacle-creating arcane constructs, and ultimately depose Elisande, showing her the error of her ways before finally tackling the Legion’s puppetmaster (and puppet all at once) in Gul’dan. Top to bottom, start to finish, from a in-game flavor perspective, Suramar nailed it for me. The story builds and builds from a simple beginning to a solid crescendo, and pays off nearly all of its plot – every NPC plays their role and reprises it for the finales (both 7.0 and the 7.1 Insurrection quests), the interactions between NPCs here matter (the Insurrection quests feature berating from Tyrande towards the Nightfallen, which directly leads to the Horde being able to pick up the Nightborne as allies), and the gameplay matches the story being told.

You are an invader in Suramar, an insurrectionist, and an agent for change. The current leadership fears you and puts forward every possible measure to stop you, and the gameplay, alongside the lore, weave this together into a wonderful tapestry.

So with nearly 2,000 words of fawning over Suramar down, let’s turn back to the actual topic, The Maw!

The Maw from a design perspective feels…different, in my opinion. Every design direction the team has elaborated on communicates a standard message – The Maw is not for us to be in, and the characters of this world and place absolutely do not want us there. It is a place full of despair and darkness, and one that we would be best served not trifling in, as we already tested our luck once and were the first beings in recorded history to ever break out.

From a gameplay perspective, however, there is a finer line to walk. I invoked the Suramar example because to me, it encapsulates a design of unwelcome zone that was actually really fun to engage with. It doesn’t accomplish this by beating you over the head with debuffs that tell you to leave, or by shutting off your mounts and making you walk everywhere. It does so through normal gameplay and uses clear, concise gameplay-delivered messaging to make this point. There are guard patrols EVERYWHERE in Suramar, and they all pose a threat. You don’t need a debuff called Eye of the Grand Magistrix to tell you that, you can see it, because look – there’s a ton of fucking guards over there! It really isn’t hard to convey that sense to a player through gameplay. Suramar offered weekly quest progression and world quests outside of that, and through the natural design of the zone, accomplished what Blizzard has stated they want for The Maw – a place you go 2-3 times a week, that feels rewarding and like you’ve accomplished something, and it has story implications and a huge hook to draw you in.

Let’s break down the Maw “feature” by “feature,” and to keep it neutral to the stated, Blizzard-approved public intent of the zone, I’ll only reference their published blog about the zone to start.

Stygia: An endgame currency system, used in the Maw to buy Cyphers primarily, this is something you earn for every activity in the zone. Cyphers enable buffs, including interactions with your Covenant anima powers, and some can also be used in Torghast – setting up the potential for multiple interactions here. Stygia can also be used for cosmetics, which includes pets according to Blizzard. If you die, you lose some Stygia, but you can return to the place of your death and reclaim it. This is…probably okay. Suramar had Ancient Mana, after all, and the mechanics of that also involved doing quests and discovery to increase the cap of it, which was a smallish grind of its own. As long as we don’t have 18 different currency systems this expansion, I’ll be fine with this.

Saving Souls: The main gameplay objective of many Maw sessions is intended to be soul salvation – finding and releasing strong, but tormented souls (some of which may be lore characters). Your covenant’s aim in sending you to the zone is to do exactly this – recruiting the once-lost souls into your covenant and in lore righting a “cosmic wrong.”

The Eye of the Jailer: This is the mechanic that has me most irritated of those that are announced officially by Blizzard. I used the Suramar example because the gameplay of the zone was in effect a limiter of its own – you could only get value out of the zone a few times a week, and past that, it wasn’t really that important or valuable. But, crucially, you could still go to the zone and play. The Maw intends to limit this by using a hard cap. The Eye of the Jailer starts off as a nuisance – you kill some enemies, loot some treasures, and complete some quests, and the Jailer notices you. This starts a 5-tier progression of debuff, with varying punishments from assassins hunting you up to threat level 5, which is a steady life siphon draining your health. Once you reach level 5 threat, your life will be drained until you die, and once you die to this mechanic, you’re done in the Maw for the day. You can’t, it seems, evade this or reset it easily while playing – basically, once you complete a set number of activities for the day, the game will work to kick you out of the zone for the rest of it. Sure, in theory, this means you could perhaps stack a party in such a way that you can use skill and/or brute force to remain for longer – healers keeping people topped off from the maxed out debuff, etc – but if I know Blizzard, my expectation is that the debuff actually draining your life will be separate and stack per tick, so the first handful of stacks will probably tickle, but the end result will be a tick that eventually one-shots you. That is speculation on my part, but I would feel pretty safe in betting a small sum on that.

However, that’s all the official detail in the blog post, but we have seen more in various press interviews, all of which adds to my frustration with this design. Let’s continue discussing the Eye first!

The Eye Can Be Blinded, for a Cost, Maybe: It was suggested casually as a possibility that the Eye of the Jailer could, in theory, be removed at your covenant sanctum for an anima cost. If anima remains largely contained to building your sanctum and not so much for player power, this is probably okay – still highly annoying and also illogical (how does the anima in another zone blind the eye of the Jailer?), but at least if you play on a different schedule from your friends, you could in theory do a solo run or a PUG run into the zone, and then join your friends later just for fun or those juicy loots on the mobs in the Maw (supposedly). At that point, though, why not just let me do it while I’m still there? What purpose does forcing a player to leave the zone for that serve?

Mounts and Travel are a Clusterfuck in Design Right Now: Hoo boy. So, the interviews suggested a few things regarding mounts and travel in general across the Maw. One interview I saw, which most irritated me, suggested that the idea has been batted around that you might not ever be able to mount in the Maw…period. No ground mount, no flying, nothing. Walk on your feet alone. Given that they said they don’t want to put flight paths in the zone, this is highly confusing – what is the point of doing this, especially since that same interview also suggested that if they did that, they’d likely put flight paths in! Pardon my rage for a moment, but what in the absolute fuck is all of that supposed to be for? Flavor? I can’t mount, but somehow I can whip through the sky on a taxi? Why? What does that serve? This was the key moment where I was like, “oh god, they’re going to absolutely fuck up the Maw as a concept, and I am going to hate it.” Again, back to Suramar – it follows normal mount rules, but is inhospitable because of the design on the ground. Granted, flying kinda ruins that immersion, and so here’s my line – I’d be okay with the Maw not having flying, if you can still mount on the ground and the zone is made to be okay with it. I liked Suramar and its overall design, so if they made mounts get on the ground when you flew over because of the protective shield or whatever lore excuse, you know what? That’s fine – I think it was better non-flying in that particular instance.

But even outside of the normal will-they/won’t-they on mounting, we have other conundrums. The zone is large and meant to be kinda scary, with quest turn-ins and a hard cap on the number of activities we can perform in a given day. If I have to run back to the Ven’ari outpost to turn in quests, then mob density being heavy will suck. I’ll want to avoid combat (because killing something counts towards increasing my Eye threat level) but if mobs are meant to be scary, they might close in on me and kill me anyways, causing me to drop Stygia. Well, it’s early in the expansion, and I sure need that for the 18 different cyphers I want and the cute death elemental pet I just made up in my head. So now I have to go back to where I died and find that Stygia. What are the odds a graveyard will be nearby? Who even knows? This hypothetical, to Blizzard, is answered simply enough – you might be able to get a teleport item, rapidly moving across the zone back to the outpost. Great! However, what if that item is a cypher? What if I have a hard choice between increasing my combat effectiveness in the Maw and in Torghast, which is crucially important to my endgame play, or getting a teleporter? That could be a good design friction choice, but it depends on mob density. If the Maw is full of angry Mawsworn on every path, and I can’t afford a teleporter because my next Torghast run needs to go deep enough for the rewards I want, well, I’m going to be frustrated, salty, and angry when I give up the teleporter for that moment so that I can buy my buffs, and if/when a mob kills me on my way back to Ven’ari, that is going to really set me off. That amount of gameplay interaction trending to frustration feels like it is going to need to be carefully managed.

But I’m sure the mobs can’t outrun a mount! Oh, wait…if I can’t mount, then all of this stops being a crushing negative hypothetical and becomes a very real scenario that will make players tune out of the Maw. Yikes.

World Quests Hidden: Blizzard has been pushing really hard on exploration of the world lately, and with that, they mentioned in one of the interviews this week that world quests in the Maw aren’t going to have the normal world map fanfare allowing you to rapidly confirm what quests are available while hanging out in Oribos before heading out. Instead, it will use the modified vignette system that is currently used for the bonus events in Invasion zones from patch 8.3. Meaning, that as you adventure in the Maw, sometimes your minimap is going to point you at the quest in question, you’ll go, complete whatever it tells you, and get your reward. This is annoying – I loathe it in the invasion zones, and being told that something that annoys you will continue to live on is always frustrating, but it isn’t the biggest thing. My expectation is that there will be a shared set of these per region and that Wowhead’s “Today In….” posts will probably have the scoops for preplanning. That’s great and all, but the in-game explanation of these events in Invasions, frankly, sucked. And it exacerbates a problem WoW has in the eyes of some – yet another thing in-game that requires you to go to an outside resource to use it effectively. The response from Blizzard will likely be same as it typically is – the tools in game tell you what you need and make it a reward for fruitful exploration. That’s fine and all, but if I’m on an invisibly limited number of quests before the game scoops my ass out of the zone, and 9 out of 10 world quests reward some gold or useless baubles, and 1 out of 10 gives me a solid gear reward, and I can’t tell that in game and do the bad reward ones until the Jailer nukes me from orbit, then I will eventually get really annoyed with that. If you’re in a guild, and you do the Maw first and get no good rewards, and then the shitty rogue you hate logs on and gets a gear drop for his first world quest, that is going to absolutely chap your hide! Now, Blizzard could remedy this with clear indications of how many objectives are in the zone that day, or through making the rewards sequential for clearing these WQs (your first WQ always rewards X things, then the second rewards Y, etc.), or by having transparency on the Eye of the Jailer debuff so you know where the cap is and at what point the bouncer is going to come to collect. However, my fear is that Blizzard, as is typical of their modern designs, will believe that making system opaque to the player makes it more exciting and rewarding, when in many cases, all it does is frustrate and annoy.

With all of this in mind, I turn again to Suramar. I contrast these two heavily, because I want to be clear – I really like the idea that motivates the Maw. It is similar to what I really loved about Suramar, with an updated Shadowlands flavor, and that is great. I don’t need the zone to be kneecapped, or to give in to me easily, and I don’t dislike the idea of world content being challenging in specific and interesting ways, especially when it is contained to a zone like the Maw and built to be a differentiated endgame activity. That all is fantastic, and I really want to be in love with the Maw, and to want to go there, and be excited to play it.

However, from the previews given so far, I just can’t be excited for this. There is a fine line between justifiable flavor difficulty and unfun brutality in design, and the things the WoW team is saying today about the Maw absolutely sounds like they want to punish me for playing the game by subjecting me to this zone. The thing is, short of the Eye of the Jailer, the individual mechanics being discussed aren’t that bad in isolation. No mounts – severe, sure, but there is a way they could design the zone simply to do this well enough. No flight paths? Well, Suramar City didn’t get any, but it did have teleport options, and it sounds like Ven’ari will offer us those too. Buff items? Cool, a good way to reward hanging out in the zone and sticking with the content by easing it through gameplay mechanics – literally, as with loot, this is the entire gameplay cycle of World of Warcraft encapsulated – play to get items to be stronger to fight harder challenges. The Eye of the Jailer is the only mechanic I can’t really abide. It seems too forceful of a push out of the zone, and not something you can skill check through with high-enough player capability. It also seems rife with possibilities for unrewarding runs – if you accrue credit towards the eye with every kill, every treasure, and every quest, than what are the odds that you do a kill quest, hit threat level 5 due to killing, and end up being unable to complete the quest? It sounds, frankly, awful, and my fear is that it’s going to be tied to one of those stupid fill-the-bar gauges that doesn’t make clear how much percentage you get per thing, and you’ll have an easy time filling it by mistake, not getting any meaningful progress, and then being evicted from the zone forcefully.

Stack the Eye of the Jailer on top of all the other crap I mentioned, and those isolated, mostly-okay mechanics become a mishmash of absolutely punishing design that veers over the unfun line for me. I am, sometimes, a pain-piggy for this game, and I absolutely let it do some terrible things by design to me and excuse it because we have been doing this for years and Blizzard understands my pain tolerance. The Maw, however, doesn’t sound like a thing I can do that for. It seems unintuitive, awful, and painful. Now, of course, I need to say that all of this is based on reading posts and watching videos and interviews, and it may turn out that it isn’t quite that bad – the Eye of the Jailer could be crystal-clear about how to increment progress towards your Maw eviction, there could be mounting allowed, teleport cyphers from Ven’ari might be a one-purchase only requirement, and the world quest thing might have long range so that you can plan ahead, and a clear indicator of reward. Hell, it is worth saying that my read of it and the gameplay vision in my head could be wrong, and Blizzard could have hit on something amazing with a delicate balancing act between all of these various torments.

However, right now, all I can do is read, watch, and extrapolate based on that. And I do not like what I see, even though I really want to.

3 thoughts on “The Maw In Focus – How To Design Unwelcoming, But Fun, Spaces and Why It Seemingly Falls Short

  1. Welcome to Hell, I guess.

    The funny thing is, a game that is designed around invading Hell – Diablo1/2 – seems a lot less inhospitable than what you just described.

    Not liking the concept of this expansion, still.

    It’s funny to me that you mention Suramar – I remember being SO GLAD to be done with Suramar (and then I met Argus, which we should not discuss). But you’re right about the inadequacies of the mapping system. Totally not up to handling all the little gnarly details.

    Of course, I was also thinking that if you’re masquerading as a Nightborne that has lived there all your 10,000 years, and you’re looking at a MAP (which is very obvious in-game), you’re ripe for a good old “Something isn’t right. WHAT ARE YOU HIDING?!” scenario. Heh. They should have done that. Reading maps in open == bad.

    Speaking of those guards – was Legion the firs time we saw that “detector” mechanic? Seems like it to me. It’s a lovely mechanic. Wonder who they lifted it from? (This is Blizz, after all)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like the general idea and theme of Shadowlands, but some of the design directions they’re announcing are baffling. In some places, things seem better, but there’s a lot of places where they seem to be taking steps backwards with no good reason.

      At the time, I was happy to be done with Suramar, but it is the first endgame world content in a long time to really stick with me afterwards and somewhat fondly. Maybe that is because Argus showed it up on the inconvenience front by a LOT, but yeah – I did, in retrospect, enjoy Suramar and I think it would be a better template, even with map usage in the open.

      I don’t believe Suramar had the first detector mobs – they’re just the first ones that were visible in the world to non-rogue and non-feral druid players.

      Like

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