The Increasing System-Centric Focus of Gaming, and What It Gets Wrong

Something that I think is very critical to discuss in-line with the increased gameplay criticism directed at World of Warcraft over the last several years is the overall trend in the industry which Blizzard is following.

To start with, there was a tweet that kind of set me on a path to the post I am going to write today, which is this:

So this is a screenshot of the upcoming Avengers game from Square Enix. What it highlighted so well for me is something I have felt for a while with WoW.

AAA games have long been using abused and malformed RPG elements and systems as means of adding player complexity and greasing the palms of the playerbase for those sweet microtransactions. It has led to some good surprises – looter-shooters being fun for one! – but often leads to simple games like superhero brawlers being saddled with complex addon mechanics engineered to get you to spend more money on the game, or to pour hours into gameplay for rare unlocks. Does it make sense that the Hulk might need layers of gear with stats and bonuses? No, of course not – but the market research is pretty comprehensively on the side of these systems as engagement-boosters, making them often-mandatory to please money-hungry publishers, even if they add little to the actual gameplay on offer.

However, WoW is an RPG. As a role-playing game, one of the genre conventions that it has always had is a layer of stats and ways for an individual to tweak their characters. For most of the game’s lifetime, that has consisted of two major components – stat loadout and talents. Talents themselves, while not innately a new idea, entailed an execution that was unlike what other MMOs and other RPGs were doing. Rather than a few tweaks, WoW’s original talent system offered constant progression and a real chance to build something unique. Sure, there was metagaming which happened and cookie-cutter builds happened, but there were several places depending on the spec where even cookie-cutter builds had degrees of choice and freedom baked in. Today, there are a few freebie tiers on the “pick 1 of 3” model talent design, but in the end, that amounts to maybe 3 choices each player makes slightly differently, where at the peak of Talents v1.0 in Wrath of the Lich King, you could have 10-20 points of variation, and there were several builds that came and went as time went on. One of the most skillful players in my Wrath guild was a DK named Alcibiades, whose story I’ve probably told before, but when Death Knights had their talent changes in patch 3.2, he took the dual-wielding talents from Frost but married them to a mostly-Unholy build, making him an Unholy dual-wield Death Knight. He was able to do so without gimping his DPS in a bad way, and this meant that his build was viable.

Old WoW had a lot of things like that, which were allowed to exist because of something very crucial – perfect balance between talents wasn’t attainable, but when talents had simpler modifiers, they were easier to get closer on. At the time, it was considered undesirable that Blizzard had made hybrid specs and DPS-only classes so close together, but with hindsight, it was actually ideal. It created a scenario in which the game was playable and fun to many more people with whatever they enjoyed, and there were few wrong choices. There were still suboptimal choices (as a healer main at the time, I cringed whenever I saw a dual-wielding Blood DK tank, because the talent routes to get there meant missing survivability, and since the original DK design needed talents to pick a role, it meant taking a lot of DPS abilities to get dual-wield and then fleshing out the best you could otherwise), but it was open to interpretation since you had 71 points to spread out.

Modern WoW, since Warlords of Draenor, has been doing something sort of troubling for the game. Sure, yes, Mists of Pandaria brought the 15-level bracket choose 1 of 3 model to talents, but the game at its core was still about configuring your character your way through choices of gear stats, as seen by the explosion in popularity of gem and reforge min-maxing. Warlords still kept the core gameplay, but began what I call a glut of systems for WoW.

To Blizzard, WoW as a game is old, and in truth, that is a fair point. If you are trying to get prior players to give it another shot, or to draw in a new player, one of the things you can do most simply is to bolt on a system. Warlords had Garrisons, which had limited gameplay interactions moment-to-moment, but influenced available content, shaped gameplay goals, and offered minigames and short to mid-term rewards to chase. One of the most common refrains about Warlords of Draenor is that the core gameplay was excellent but there just wasn’t enough of it – and this is feedback I agree with. It had fewer customization choices via gear, but it still offered meaningful tradeoffs and players could build and play in a few different ways while remaining viable.

Now, we get to Legion, and Legion began two absolutely awful trends for the game – borrowed power systems and incomplete class design.

What do I mean? Well, put simply, in Legion, Blizzard dedicated some amount of advancement for your character to external factors, which offered power that was temporary in nature and that was known in advance. The artifact system gave a sort of choice, in that you could pick the route through the advancement of the artifact, although everyone ultimately ended up at the same point at the tail end, but it also offered borrowed power – as classes were designed, balanced, and intended to be played with the artifact abilities and the attendant boosts that accompanied them. Alongside this was the Legendary system, offering powerful boosts to characters that, while not inherently forced into gameplay, were accounted for in design. Past the first tier of Legion content, the assumption of legendaries was baked in, which was problematic as the powers on-offer varied wildly in usefulness.

In order to make these systems the focus, Blizzard kind of stopped making large shifts or important changes via ability and talent shifts. Sure, there were some, but mid-expansion spec revamps or major changes no longer really happened. Instead, Blizzard made minor tweaks or used flat percentage modifiers on abilities to simply shift up and down the performance of specs as balance problems became pronounced. Instead, all the effort that would have gone into that kind of design and development was put into these temporary systems. Legion saw almost no major changes to any spec, save for the removal of Mark of Ursol for Guardian Druids, while legendary powers and artifact traits were constantly being tweaked right up until the end of the expansion. As a result, gear and talent choices mattered less and less – sure, a strong player could differentiate with proper secondary stat balance and it still made a difference, but the experimental nature of the past game was gone. No longer did people tweak stat loadout on gear past simply changing out pieces, or adjust talents beyond having a few cookie-cutter builds they used for raids vs. Mythic Plus or even single target vs. AoE. Instead, it was about artifact path at launch, ideal legendary targets, and optimized farming for titanforged pieces (the main reason Legiondaries were so frustrating, as their power could push you far higher far earlier based on dumb luck).

In Battle for Azeroth, this has continued with Azerite and Essences, and later Corruption. All of these systems are taking the role of customization that once was saved for gearing and talents, and they fill in crucial gaps in the gameplay of your spec. Having a high-AoE essence and Corruption loadout can improve the gameplay of a spec like Retribution Paladin with weak AoE, as an example.

Why are these things a problem? Well, for Blizzard’s part, they’ve kind of stopped ensuring classes and specs are balanced at a baseline, instead allowing for slop to happen and be corrected later via borrowed power systems. I’ll provide a very personal example for myself.

In early Legion, about 6 months before I started this blog, I took up Vengeance Demon Hunter and I really enjoyed it, but the class and specs it brought are the only ones in the game that have been designed from the beginning with borrowed power in mind. This means that the core DH rotation kinda sucks. It’s empty, has little complexity, and offers low engagement which it tries to make up via more off-GCD abilities to create a faster pace. In Legion, as I leveled, Vengeance had moments where it felt absolutely awful to play, because the spec was designed around the self-healing that came into the spec via the Artifact. Pre-Charred Warblades trait, the spec had a very bad ping-pong with its health, where early in the expansion, we had to watch our health very carefully, and the normal rotation would let health plummet to the ground and then rapidly cover ground via Soul Carver fragment healing or outside intervention from our healer. Once you get Charred Warblades, suddenly, it feels like a whole different class.

In BfA, while this is somewhat lessened, the effect continues – most of Blizzard’s design effort has gone into Azerite traits, essences, and Corruptions, and making these more fun and engaging, often at the cost of design work that is needed to ensure core gameplay for some classes and specs is good. A lot of revamps and reworks were promised for 8.1, only to fall through the cracks and be left unspoken of by the development team until Shadowlands.

Shadowlands, as has been discussed lately, has the newest version of this problem, as it has Covenant abilities and Legendaries coming to fill the borrowed power hole. The problem here is yet again simply stated – while the core class and spec designs remain in varying states of disrepair, Blizzard’s core design focus remains on borrowed power. Compounding this in Shadowlands is a new twist on the problem – not only is borrowed power remaining, but it has been lessened in scope considerably. No longer do you have layers of Azerite traits on multiple slots or a tree full of Artifact traits – instead, a single ability via covenant and a single powerful bonus via legendary. That means that specs and classes that feel empty without borrowed power, like Demon Hunters, remain mostly devoid of gameplay complexity, and the attempt at balancing covenant powers to be useful in different scenarios and in different ways means that there are fewer ways than ever to set apart your character. Basically, you get only these options – free choice talent rows, covenant power, and legendary, and even within the last two, there are currently winners and losers, so you probably just don’t have that many choices to build with.

Herein lies what I think is the malaise that has plagued WoW for the last 4 years – systems designed to be temporary overtake development time from core gameplay, leading to Blizzard building and balancing classes and specs around the game in a modified state which is intentionally temporary, and the time spent on balancing and rebalancing the borrowed power systems is ultimately wasted in the long-term as within two years, the system is spent and retired. They’ve mitigated this through intelligent reuse (Azerite systems being built largely on the back of Artifacts, Legendary powers from Legion being plucked forward into Shadowlands), but the problem is that when they reuse the powers themselves, they are often designed around a different, also-temporary game state.

This is so pivotal because it means that the core spec and class performance is often neglected because it can’t be properly judged in a world with temporary power layered on top. If I try to balance to specs at 120, their Azerite traits, Essence selection, and Corruption all play a role in how they feel and play at that moment and changes made to core abilities risk being compromised by that.

When I last talked about the concept of balance, I noted that FFXIV has a top-to-bottom, high-tier raider shift of around 10% in total DPS performance, and to me, this is pretty acceptable. The bottom DPS isn’t irredeemably far beneath the top, and the bottom jobs in FFXIV bring utility and raid buffs which allow them to punch above their pure DPS rating. However, player choice is limited to how you gear – and since builds matter, there are often multiple BiS lists per job. WoW’s problem is that it has a 30%+ variance under those same metrics, and a large part of that, in my opinion and analysis, is due to Blizzard building the game in parallel with these systems that directly influence the balance, and trying to balance around player and internal feedback that often fails to properly account for how these systems skew results.

What’s even more annoying is how often these systems are used and touted as fun and engaging, only for them to become digital detritus for the game in a small amount of time. Legion wasn’t that long ago, but already has a trail of Relics that are near-worthless, AP items that are vendor trash, and soon Azerite armor and AP for it is going to effectively be the same, even though they will remain usable outside of Shadowlands content.

For me, a show of faith from Blizzard would be to focus on the balancing of core abilities to a state of great balance prior to focus on covenants and borrowed power. If a class is only fun with some legendaries or covenant choices, then you haven’t made a good class or spec – you’ve made a bad decision.

2 thoughts on “The Increasing System-Centric Focus of Gaming, and What It Gets Wrong

  1. Well, at least I know what to call it now.

    And, of course, that it is, put politely, less than optimal.

    It’s interesting that you brought up monetization early on but didn’t really hit on it later (for obvious reasons, because WoW doesn’t do that).

    What’s more interesting is at what point will they start doing that? Really, nothing but a gentleperson’s agreement at this point. They could turn around in the next expansion (the shadow of shadowlands?) and introduce pay to win mechanics because some bean counter determined that they could take a 20% loss in subscriptions and come out on top anyway with the new model.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The monetization thing scares me, because I want to believe that Blizzard wouldn’t do it, but…in my head, right now, being able to buy Azerite traits for $5 and customize gear to your liking is going to sell a non-zero number of microtransactions, and that is…frightening!

      Like

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