The Shadowlands Delay and a Hopeful Trend for Blizzard

Two years ago, we were all sort of coming to terms with what Battle for Azeroth was. It was a rough expansion launch, starting with a divisive pre-patch event, leading into systems like Azerite which were largely panned, and it took nearly a month after launch for Blizzard to announce changes, another 3 months for the changes of 8.1 to Azerite trait balancing and new traits that fleshed the system out, and it was nearly 7 months past that point where we got essences and the overall system began to feel like a net positive.

In a recent post about Covenant ability balancing being worked on so close to (what was then) the launch date, I mentioned a story I was told when I visited Blizzard HQ after the launch in 2018.

It was a small detail in that post, but I want to hammer on it a bit here, and not solely because it allows me multiple uses of the sentence “when I went to Blizzard HQ.” The story I was told by a member of the team was that a period of game testing the team traditionally did at the close of the beta window was skipped due to time constraints, and this now-former team member used this as a part of his response to my feedback about the launch and the game’s state at that time. It sort of stuck with me as the most interesting anecdote about the whole trip, and sort of an object lesson in game design.

When I’ve worked on projects and tried to see my own creative ideas through to fruition, I often get fixated on the details of it as it exists in my head. There isn’t a way to know fully if the concept works until you can actually see it, touch it, or otherwise interact with it. When doing hobbyist stage designs in 3D, I have strong concepts, but certain ideas don’t work, the size is off for an arena, the visual continuity I see in my head is lacking in reality, etc – and so you change and adapt.

Game design as a process seems like a delicate balance of artistic freedom, collaboration, and critique. One of the best reads I’ve had on the topic comes from none other than former Lead Quest Designer on WoW, Craig Amai, whose post about leaving Blizzard is both highly personal for him, but also contains excellent insights into the process of how key components of the last handful of years of World of Warcraft came together. One of the things I think we often miss from the outside is the very real, human process of building even the most mundane parts of our gaming experiences – that so many things we play that are good are often born from someone in an office writing “Categories of Fun” on a whiteboard and trying to contextualize and understand the ways in which we interact with and enjoy a game.

Having done creative work as a hobby for years and as I start to attempt to turn it into an actual career outside the constraints of any one company, I’ve suffered through the process of dreaming and building the perfect concept, only to find it doesn’t work. Azerite, as a system, is one of those things that feels like it needed that feedback to be properly handled earlier. Players gave it, yes, and I do consider it a failure of the team that the expansion launched with it as-implemented in spite of the incredible piles of feedback about the system that I saw everywhere I looked, even when I wasn’t trying to find it. Sometimes, something needs to be changed. Sometimes, the unsold paperback copies of your debut novel sit on your desk propping your computer up on one side in an effort to bleed air out of your all-in-one liquid cooler pumps to reduce system noise. (it’s only 20% of the original order, don’t cry for me)

The thing that makes me keep coming back to that anecdote as told to me in Irvine on that October day in 2018 is simple – when you look at the BfA design and implementation, there is a clear bit of hubris in the way in which Blizzard approached the design of the game, which became all too clear as they responded to launch feedback. We didn’t get the system, we needed to see more of it, as the expansion wound on it would be clearer and reveal itself to be good, etc – but, you can also see that right at the 30 day window of live play (the same duration the internal playtest usually went, as I was told), Blizzard immediately used their Reddit AMA to discuss changes to the core design. We went from randomly getting Azerite in M+ caches to Titan Residuum, trait balancing was acted upon with a first pass, and level requirements for higher end armor were brought better into line. 8.1 completed much of the balancing of traits and added new ones with higher amounts of interactivity.

Through it all, the thing that most stuck with me is the idea of killing your darlings. In creative work, one of the best skills you can learn is to be able to kill your darlings – to invest completely in an idea, attempt to make it work, but being able to reach a point where you realize that you cannot fix it and must instead end it and move on to something new. Azerite as a concept was interesting, and after the tangled mess of traits of the artifact weapon, a set of smaller, more meaningful options with choice involved felt like a strong pitch when initially discussed. However, it, like many things in WoW, became the victim of the game’s own success and community hunger for data and analysis – there was never going to be a meaningful choice when traits are balanced to different ideals, because that creates clear winners and losers. Today, you have top choices for Azerite traits and Essences – with the only deviations typically being if you want to specialize for AoE or single target, or perhaps a change for PvE versus PvP combat scenarios.

I’m sure when the realization hit that Azerite had bombed on live servers, it sucked for the team and whomever created the core concept. Even worse, the whole damn expansion was themed around Azerite – so you couldn’t just rip out the whole thing and move on. The darling refused to die, but it gained death resistance due to Blizzard not acting on beta feedback months earlier.

That stage dressing brings us to the Shadowlands beta.

Since July, the beta has been available to a broader range of players, and while structured testing has been limited outside of the raid encounter testing traditional to WoW test servers, the feedback on Covenant systems and endgame has been constant. In many ways, you can see the same cycle from BfA starting to play out – Blizzard was confident that they’d stick the landing on Covenants, confident we’d see their vision for them, and they’d reach their goal of having a smaller set of far more meaningful choices that would define our characters in new ways.

However, unlike BfA, Blizzard did something unexpected – they pulled the plug and announced a delay in the expansion’s launch.

I still think this was the right move, and I want to explain why in more detail through the lens of that BfA experience.

In BfA, their hubris was their undoing. Blizzard obstinately stuck to the design, assured us that we just hadn’t seen enough of it for our feedback to land, and that as we played on live servers and through normal play and progression, we’d come around to their side. Instead, the team played on live, and it turns out, we were right all along – Azerite was an awful system with counter-intuitive mechanics that made upgrades feel bad, and the game’s reception tanked for it. On top of the myriad of Activision-inspired slights that so many of us deride the company for, the state of one of their core franchises was in jeopardy.

Blizzard was at risk of doing the same thing again – Covenant feedback was not acted upon, I’ve seen Twitter threads with CMs and Team 2 employees surprised that conduits weren’t active for some classes in earlier beta builds, and we were inching perilously close to launch with no real clear message from Blizzard other than an earlier refrain of the BfA/Azerite messaging – “trust us, it’ll make sense and be balanced when you see it on live servers, no we aren’t changing it.” To my eye, the immediate reversal of this screams of the team having played the game and going “uh oh, it’s happening again.”

My feedback on the Covenant systems has been sort of filtered through the lens of Demon Hunters, who have had relatively good options with only 1 possible stinker, and even with that – there was still a clear winner and a clear runner up, no scenario under which the other two would ever make sense to select from a min-max perspective and one of those actually actively contradicts the entirety of the class design philosophy (DHs love to move, right, so let’s make a covenant ability that forces them to stand in one spot for the duration!). Soulbinds are a little harder to nail down, and I think the conduit options for the class are interesting, but again – there are clear winners and losers and the fact that the original design called for different numbers of conduit types per soulbind was absurdly blind to the problems that would create.

So in looking at the delay, I can only express positivity for the idea. Blizzard needs to ensure this expansion is a hit, and launching in the state the game was in that late in beta was going to ensure pain. MMOs are never perfectly balanced and some balancing must always be done live because that is the nature of the beast, but if Blizzard was making the covenant choice a difficult one to remake later, then the scope of the redesigns would have been absolutely atrocious and I’m glad they realized that, because the Azerite launch saga convinced me that they might have the ego and ignorance to run with it anyways.

But my quick and easy summary post touched on a lot of that already. What is important now is this: what does the future hold?

Well, a developer blog posted this week codifies the changes we can expect at a high level. Three areas of opportunity have been underlined by the team as the focus of the additional time:

The Maw: The design is intended to be a dangerous sandbox, but the design (even currently, while I like it a bit) teeters too close to danger via annoyance, making it unfun, and leans too heavily on players happening upon activities to do, instead of setting goals out for players. A sandbox isn’t inherently bad, but one with a strict timer that ticks as you wander the wastes trying to find stuff to do is bad. Blizzard intends to offer more structured activities to help push players through the zone in a fun way, and to make what sounds like changes to the environment itself to make it more visually interesting. While I like the sort of desolate landscape it has, a lot of players have called it “red and grey Argus” and I can’t actually disagree with that in any substantial way, so this is a good idea.

Conduits: As a system, conduits are a confusing mess that takes a simple idea (item in slot make ability go better) and just drags it through layers of tacked-on gameplay – rank-ups, limits to changes, etc. While a lot of my particular issues with soulbind conduits aren’t addressed in the changes discussed, making them more open to experimentation and change for multi-spec players is good. However, the system using a confusing, obfuscating mess of charge point acquisition to allow individual slot changes is, frankly, garbage, and I sincerely hope that Blizzard just sets a weekly cap on changes if they want it that badly, or just removes the limit, because soulbinds are already limiting enough as is. Great to see them acknowledge some feedback, but this one falls far short of the goal in my mind.

Covenants and Balancing: This one is hard to latch onto one way or another, because it represents the sort of empty rhetorical statement we get a lot when Blizzard knows we don’t like a thing but they don’t want to move too far towards meeting us in the middle. But, I will say this – I do think the early changes they’ve made to covenants that we’ve seen in last week’s beta build are a fantastic start. The redesigns and identification publicly of the abilities falling short in the team’s perception helps this a lot, because it allows a calibration of sorts between players and the devs, which is a good thing. However, I find myself wishing more that the system was flexible to a point where you could tie the abilities you wanted to the aesthetic that you wanted, and I think a lot of players have a rightful gripe about these elements being bound at the hip to one another. The previous posts discussing how Blizzard won’t pull the ripcord, however, sort of punctuates this in an odd way. Players maybe can’t always get what they want, and that is fine, but the thing about a ripcord is that they are very peculiar objects – you pull it too early, and progress is slow and unpleasant, but if you pull a ripcord too late, you crash into the earth in a painful and possibly fatal way. Yet again, Blizzard has designed themselves into a corner – covenants only matter because the entirety of the launch lore is built on the foundation they provide, and as a system, they form the basis of our earliest endgame content, a means of player power progression, and a borrowed power system that helps to define the Shadowlands era for our classes and specs. If you kill the Covenant gameplay systems, the story is less meaningful and impactful, and if you kill that too, then there just isn’t a whole lot left to build on. I think you could solve this problem in ways that would honor the work done already, but I am happy to see where Blizzard started prior to announcing the delay, and I’d like to think that in the coming weeks, I will only be happier to see more changes. Borrowed power and such systems will wait for another day, as there is a hell of a lot more I could say here but this paragraph is already absurdly long and I don’t want to split it further.

Overall, for me, the delay is a sign of a positive shift within Blizzard. They’ve clearly identified that our feedback played a role, and done so through more than just lip service – with announced changes and development notes being published to make clear the work that this delay allows for. That doesn’t, at the same time, mean that Blizzard will stick the landing perfectly or even at all – they could still give in to their defensive instincts, push their design over player interests, and wind up in a similar spot to where we found ourselves after the launch of BfA.

For now, though, I find it important to give them credit for being willing this time to do the right thing, and to offer optimism that at least this reflects a degree of introspection that the team very clearly did not have two years ago.

(Unfortunately, at the company level, the news of the Versailles office closure and how that was handled yesterday means the goodwill resets for the whole company, but Team 2 still gets my kudos for the delay decision.)

3 thoughts on “The Shadowlands Delay and a Hopeful Trend for Blizzard

  1. To me, at least for my least favorite expansions, it seems that there is one question that remains unasked for a lot of the systems they put in place.

    “Would I enjoy doing this for two years?”

    The answer, from Vanilla to BfA usually comes down to “no, not really” but it seems they have tried a different spin on the least-disliked to try to tweak them into “well maybe” territory. BC dailies have evolved into world quests with Emissary sweetener, as an example. And with a little more work they might have made it, but looks like that’s getting torn down now.

    It’s hard to come up with two years’ content that will engage players over the course of the expansion. I do feel that building on the less disagreeable bits is better than starting from scratch. I also think that they could maybe space the actual content out a bit better.

    Lead time’s a bitch, though, ain’t it?

    Honestly, is there any such thing as a happy place for the players and developers both? I see nothing that would make me want to work there in the game development lifecycle. Ops or devops, maybe. But the creative / design side of things looks like it would devour anybody’s soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m curious where the line is between “this could work” and “this won’t work”. I remember the BFA beta. It had issues, a forum FULL of items that the players found and Blizzard pulled the old ostrich instead. They, for a long time, held the belief that players were wrong and designers knew better. Here we are.

    For Shadowlands, I can’t seem to find any dev that actually thinking the game is ready. It could be that the dev team simply has a different outlook now, or as I’m betting, the game has some serious flaws that can’t be painted over.

    In other words, I think Shadowlands is in a worse spot today than BfA was at the same time prior to its launch. Its a pessimistic view, granted, but there’s little indication this team can actually build the complexity they have in concept.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I surely can’t disagree with anything I see there – especially that last bit. Blizz are operating at what seems to be a diminished capacity, manpower-wise.

      Feedback MIGHT be a bit harsher this time because I think they’ve also failed to regain lost goodwill from BfA.

      One thing for sure: they’ve blown my A-team / B-team theory out of the water. gg blizz.

      Liked by 1 person

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