World of Warcraft, Content “Noise,” and the Endgame of Shadowlands

Recently, I rewatched FoldingIdea’s excellent video on the allure of WoW Classic through the eyes of someone who played the original release, plays the live retail game, and plays Classic, and I found something particularly interesting in light of Shadowlands beta and what we know now about the endgame content waiting for us in the realms of death. Here’s the video I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it – it is only a jumping off point for discussion so it isn’t necessary to watch prior to reading, but it is a good video!

One of the key takeaways at the end of the video is that modern WoW is, by nature and design, a very noisy game. In this context, the comparison is apt – one of, if not the, key differentiators of Classic vs. Modern in WoW is the nature of content. Vanilla WoW was, for most of its lifespan, a sort of formless mass of activities onto which you could imprint. The game had fewer systems in place to shepherd you between modes of content, so while you could eventually find yourself on a track to the stuff you wanted (raiding for progress and gear upgrades, the Honor system grind, daily quests, etc), the game did little or nothing to put that content in front of you or to define that journey in any great length. Today, if you log in to Battle for Azeroth, the game beats you over the head with stuff to do. Your map opens up to show a smattering of world quests, emissary quests to guide you through world quests, a blinking eye to show you what N’zoth is up to, a dungeon finder interface with 3-4 different drop down options depending on the week, a listing of groups looking for players in the group finder, LFR and the current expansion wings, of which there are many, and an Honor interface loaded with progress bars, leveling mechanics, battlegrounds, arenas, rated and unrated PvP content, brawls, and more. Anytime something new is added to the game, you get a series of breadcrumb quests that drag you to the new place, to the new thing, as though you were a mouse being led to a trap by the alluring scent of cheese (the cheese being catch-up gear, usually).

The inherent overload of this is tempered by the fact that the game makes its content consumable in what amounts to 20-30 minute chunks of time for the most part. A quick heroic dungeon might be 10-30 minutes. Knocking out an emissary is like 15-20 minutes. A single battleground rarely lasts more than 10ish minutes, with arena matches typically taking less time than that. A series of daily quests in Mechagon or the invasion zones of 8.3 takes around 20-25 minutes once you’ve done them a few times. A Horrific Vision is, likewise, maybe about 20 minutes tops if you’re going for a full clear, once you’ve progressed to that point. However, the noise kicks back in with rewards. You have Seafarer’s Dubloons, 7th Legion/Honorbound Service Medals, Titan Residuum, Echoes of Ny’alotha, Coalescing Visions, Corrupted Mementos, Azerite, gold, experience, honor, and items of all varying sorts. There are random Corruptions, tertiary stats, and sockets which can sometimes appear. There are loot lockouts, weekly chests, and repeatable content with rewards. All of this is, to the point made in the video, noise. For someone who has been playing as these systems have rolled out, they make sense, but to try and explain them to a new players creates a bizarre situation where the game appears to be held together by virtual duct tape as it is loaded to bursting with modes of gameplay and rewards.

Shadowlands is in some ways less noisy, which I think is to its benefit. There are fewer world quests, emissaries are now Callings and are actual quests you pick up in your covenant sanctum prior to going out into the world (which was actually how emissaries were first shown at Blizzcon 2015 for Legion), and there is generally less UI noise happening around the world map and content navigation in general. Couple that with a removal of most random gear upgrade mechanics (as far as I can tell, sockets and tertiary stats remain), and the game gets a lot cleaner already. However, the game has shifted to something that is rapidly becoming the new bane of endgame…

The Currency Problem

At the start of Battle for Azeroth, one of the huge problems that we ran into was that the endgame was heavily invested in loot to the exclusion of almost anything else except Azerite. When discussing adding currencies for Azerite armor to Mythic Plus, Blizzard seemed to be extremely hesitant early on, only finally relenting when it became obvious that without some intervention, the system would fall apart. That spawned Titan Residuum, and the rest of BfA went into overdrive with new currency systems that have been designed for individual content patches rather than the whole game or expansion. To be fair, this isn’t even that new of a problem – Legion had a large number of currencies, Warlords tempered that slightly, but Mists of Pandaria also had a fairly large number of currency options as rewards.

Now, to a certain extent, I like currencies as rewards. My favorite times in the game were when we had point systems to purchase gear, so you could run content, work towards a goal, and if all else failed, buy a piece. The idea of being able to work towards something in a predictable and deterministic manner is a good thing, and is something I think the game needs more of. However, the problem with Blizzard’s currency obsession is that they often serve a single purpose for a single patch and then fade out, forever cluttering your UI with a list of items you have and no longer use or need.

In Shadowlands, to start with, you have freed souls, reservoir anima, and usually a third currency specific to a feature of your covenant sanctum. In earlier builds, freed souls could then be trained into one of three different types of helper souls for use in sanctum upgrades, but on the current build, this no longer seems to be the case, so thankfully, they’ve already cut 3 currencies out of the game (maybe)! Then there is Stygia for the maw and Soul Ash for legendaries, so 5 currencies to start with! My chief concern is that this is all just noise – the covenant options will be good for what, a patch, so by the time 9.1 comes out, that will be 2-3 redundant currencies. Maw upgrades might be viable for some time, but I fully expect that by the end of the expansion, Stygia will be unnecessary for long-term players and fresh alts or newbies will probably be able to join a roaming death squad party that will farm tons of it for them in minutes.

The biggest hurdle is this, however – the game is needlessly obfuscating the actual effort that goes into anything requiring currencies by hiding them behind currencies. Sanctum upgrades require two different currencies (at least) which are earned in two different ways. As currently executed on beta, one of these currencies is limited to a point (to get reservoir anima, you need to be able to do an anima world quest/daily random normal and heroic dungeon/certain quests, and the spawn rate of the WQs and other acquisition rates are controlled by Blizzard) while the other is theoretically limited only by your play in the Maw, which itself is also limited by a masked timer mechanic via the Eye of the Jailer. What I loved about older currencies like the Badge/Emblem systems and Justice/Valor points is that they create a loop I can sustain with planning – when I see the vendor table and costs and know the maximum point acquisition per unit of time, I can plan for how I’m going to play towards my rewards. If there is chest armor on the Valor vendor for 3250 points, and I can earn a weekly maximum of 1,000, then I have a clear progression path to follow – in 3 weeks and change, I’ll be able to buy my chest armor. If I get lucky before that and get a chest drop from the current raid, then I can move down my vendor list to the next item and with a small amount of planning know exactly what I’m in for in time and even effort cost.

These systems are enraging for me explicitly because they attempt to remove meaningful planning from the equation. How much reservoir anima can I get in a week? Beats me – depends on the world quests available. How many freed souls can I pluck from the Maw and Torghast? Well, depends on the number of runs you can make in Torghast and the spawn rate both there and in the Maw, and how efficiently you can get to souls in the Maw before someone else does or before the Eye of the Jailer boots you from the zone via death. Any attempt at planning becomes variable and squishy, inaccurate in an unaccountable way. Oh, also, all the quartermaster vendor items for your covenant have a reservoir anima cost – so have fun doing that fucking calculus!

All of this is a shame because there is something I keep coming back to as I play the beta and get deeper into the game…

Shadowlands Endgame Is Good, Less Noisy Fun

Blizzard has, so far at least, done a fairly good job of making the endgame more freeform for player style while also putting in place an excellent, unobtrusive goal structure via the Covenant systems. Yes, it is, as I mention above, purposefully vague and hard to time out things like Sanctum upgrades or the myriad currencies one can acquire, but it also ties these annoyances to systems with a lower level of immediate gameplay impact. Last week, I spent a few hours playing endgame content and I really found myself enjoying what was there. Having goals like Renown, Covenant story quests, and Callings to work towards creates a series of parallel goals you can work on all at once, and the reduction in noise from the slot machine stylings of Legion and BfA is welcome. Fewer world quests means less decision gridlock, more immediacy of gameplay, and, to my taste at least, a better overall experience. Callings push the theme of covenant goals in a subtle gameplay means, and having to talk to an NPC and having flavor text explain the reasoning behind a given goal makes a lot of difference to immersion. Emissary quests were always missing that, in that they just felt like things you did in a game, but by having to accept the calling and then go out and do it, there’s this sort of weight to it that hasn’t existed in the world quest system before.

With the addition of a mix of mounts usable in the Maw (although why this isn’t a Mount Equipment option is, frankly, baffling), I even like the Maw. THE MAW! THE THING I AM NOTORIOUS FOR HATING! THE THING THAT MAKES ME TYPE IN CAPS AND USE PROFANITY A LOT! Torghast has always been up my alley, so I’ll move on quickly from that while reiterating – it’s still really, really good, and a vast improvement on Horrific Visions in meaningful ways for gameplay.

However, I know that as I type this, Blizzard is furiously moving on endgame changes, as they announced this week via a development blog. They’re tweaking the Maw with more focused gameplay (if you’re from Blizzard and read this blog, blink three times), changing the Soulbind conduit system from the forced once-a-week change allowance to a point system that both sounds needlessly complicated but still better, and they’re continuing iteration on Covenant abilities and Soulbinds with balance in mind, which is, frankly, an empty statement until action backs it up, but, to their credit, last week’s build and delay announcement both mention tuning, and the build last week had a large number of Covenant balance-related tweaks and changes, with a few redesigns outright. Writing about endgame today is indicative only of the current direction, and while the dev blog doesn’t indicate a lot of massive changes, there will be some shifts as a result of the changes they have confirmed.

But, while there is improvement still to be made, I feel like I must say that for my increased level of cynicism about Blizzard and WoW in a post-BfA world, the endgame of Shadowlands restores a bit of confidence that maybe, just maybe, there is still something there worth exploring and continuing to invest into. If nothing else, there are thankfully fewer world quests beating me over the head when I open my map, and for that I am grateful.

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