I decided to go with a bold title on this one because I feel like I have a strong conclusion here!
Consistently over the last few years of World of Warcraft, each expansion presents us with a new set of systems that will guide our gameplay. These systems, unlike past content in the game, are effectively digital debris – when we leave the expansion they were made for, they are trashed and replaced with something new. Sure, technically, behind the scenes, we get something foundational out of it on a technological basis, but the gameplay and mechanics around it are rebuilt each time.
My hypothesis for this post is thus: since Legion, these systems have cluttered the game and made it damn near impossible to get fully invested in the game and its mechanics, by creating a cycle per expansion that causes players to go hard at the start, burn out, revive halfway through, and finally crash at the end, with no remaining interest in pursuing in-game activities and no perceived value in-game for doing anything. Further, I would put forward that the player retention problems the modern game has stems from an inability to invest in the game over the long-term due to these systems.
If I do my job right in this post, by the end, you’ll agree with the broad strokes of that assessment. So let’s see how I do!
The Garrison Got It…Right, Sort Of?
If I had to pick an origin point for this sort of gameplay, it is absolutely down to the Garrison in Warlords of Draenor. Blizzard, for years, said that housing was not something they just wanted to add to WoW – it required gameplay hooks, rewards and incentive structures tied to it, a whole and comprehensive mechanical system built on that concept. The Garrison was that. Instead of a house, you grow a fort. For gameplay mechanics to exist, it starts off as a small, dinky fort, and you level it up through gameplay, expanding the number of plots, the options available in each plot, and the aesthetic coolness of the whole structure. Every building offers some sort of gameplay hook – bank or AH access in the Garrison, access to tradeskills including ones you don’t have, rewards structured around Garrison progression, player power rewards through free reroll tokens, bodyguard NPCs in Draenor that can come along with you and help on quests in the open world, and a variety of gameplay fun bonuses, like PvP incentives, mount rewards, and the like.
While each building type can level up as the Garrison also does, moving through a 3-rank progression system with varied requirements for each building, the system is fairly respectful of your time. It doesn’t require excessive grinding, it has reasonable gold and resource costs for upgrades, the core currency of the Garrison is a self-replenishing resource that you can gather easily without doing anything but logging in, and each building choice offers a unique gameplay hook like mount quests requiring you to build a relationship with your mounts (is that bad phrasing? I’m not sure I like that…) or to complete PvP milestones in the open world of Draenor. I went through two phases with my Garrison at WoD launch – a race to cap off early objectives like getting all of the Stables mounts and unlocking the Lumber Mill mission NPC, and then promptly switched to ensure I had a Barracks and Dwarven Bunker, leveled those up, got my transmog sets and the ability to get my extra seal a week for free, and I was good. It didn’t take more than 2 months of play to reach a point where I had completed the Garrison objectives I wanted and felt pretty satisfied with the system.
Player perception of WoD is pretty bad, but I notice that the Garrison only gets incidental blame. It took Blizzard a lot of time to program it, they made some bold promises about how we could place it, have different architectural styles, and how it would compliment meaningful faction capitols, none of which happened. The design time and development hurdles encountered with the Garrison led to some of the content reductions we got in WoD, which are the real focus of most player ire, at least in the non-scientific gauging of reactions I’ve done over the last 6 years in the playerbase.
In my head, though – I like the Garrison a lot, actually. As an endgame system, it offered a good amount of gameplay, content, and customization (although not nearly as much as we all hoped for), and if it was the core component of a far more fleshed out endgame, I think it would be remembered a lot more fondly by more people. It also has the weight of being emblematic of Blizzard’s absolute resistance to doing real player housing to the standard of other MMOs (a thing I didn’t used to want, but now that I’ve played FFXIV, yeah, I want it). I think the idea Blizzard walked away with, however, is where the game gets into trouble. Garrison systems were engaging to a lot of players, but that engagement lasts for a limited time and tapers off shortly thereafter. You can see this going forward, where…
Legion to Present: Constant, Grinding Progression
The Artifact system, added in Legion, forces a different mode of gameplay. It has smaller, player level decision making on par with the Garrison system – cosmetic choices, unlocking new appearances, discoverable additional content via hidden appearances, and such – but it replaces the gentle Garrison Resource system with the far harsher Artifact Power. Gone is the reassurance of steady, stable progress – instead, you must be engaging with the game more frequently for it to work, and the game applies social pressure (you aren’t powerful enough to raid/dungeon/PvP!) to force you to reckon with it, but then does not step off the gas in an intuitive way. Instead, the next level looks daunting and like it will take forever, which pushes you to empower offspec weapons or play an alt in theory, but instead led to an early expansion grindfest where most high-end players were running every Maw of Souls key they could get their grubby mitts on since it was the fastest way to acquire artifact power.
This system had one point of mercy, though – progression through the artifact tree was finite at launch, and you could eventually (although I would reckon that most players did not) cap out with the 7.0 Paragon trait at 20 ranks. The problem was that with the mid-expansion revamp, Blizzard made the progress theoretically infinite! You got a new sub-tree to progress, 4th ranks for 3 rank traits from the original tree, and the limitless Concordance of the Legionfall trait, which was a random proc with high stat values which increased with each rank of the trait. You could no longer hit a wall, but the theory was that you would again reach an inflection point where it would feel like too much of an uphill push, and for a small 1% power increase to a random proc, surely it wouldn’t be worth it? Well, players pushed on anyways, and the new systems caused similar burnout to the first. Sure, Blizzard created catchup mechanics in Artifact Knowledge that would let you catch up quickly on alts or fresh level-capped characters, and made offspec weapons far easier to equip.
The Heart of Azeroth in BfA has followed a similar pathway. In order to empower your Azerite gear slots (head, shoulders, and chest), you must level your Heart of Azeroth to a certain level through Azerite Power. Just like with Artifact Power, you can gain it doing damn near anything in the game, but just like the Artifacts, it again uses exponential scaling, requiring more and more effort per rank. Sure, unlike most of Legion, the catch-up mechanic is automatic, but unlike Legion, since the scaling is inverse from catch-up (decreasing the cost per rank instead of increasing the value of AP received), Blizzard set a floor on most ranks past the early stages of 1,000 AP. They sort of fixed this in later patches in two ways – the Essence system gives more tangible rewards, while scaling down the level requirement for most Azerite Traits, and the quests that introduce you to essences push you straight to level 50 HoA, no questions asked.
These systems both have a common flaw, and it is simple but also sort of hidden. When the expansion launches, such a large degree of your player power is withheld from you behind the gates of these systems, creating a strong value incentive to go and engage with them. You push and push to get your Heart of Azeroth into the 40s, to get your Artifact near 54 traits, and you finally start to feel powerful. When that happens, the x.2 patches come out, and new systems exist. Your progress is trivialized, and you have more progress to push to regain that feeling of power. It’s not as simple as gear progression, where you can reasonably predict how a gear upgrade will serve your character. Instead, it is mathematically complicated, with balancing of world content expecting you to bring a certain amount of power based on what is available to you. So you grind and grind, pushing for level 70 HoA or 52 traits (the artifact revamp was a bit weird in that it dropped the Paragon trait from 20 points to 1), and you feel that power again, and it is great! Then x.3 comes out, and now you need to progress the full Netherlight Crucible on your relics for your artifact, or gain another 15-20 levels in your HoA to equip more essences and unlock the stamina the new world content fully expects you to have. If you play at the start of the x.3 patch, this is now the third time per expansion you’ve been forced to progress this mechanic in order to perform up to snuff, and if you come in late, it’s trivial and also, by the way, it all disappears in the pre-patch of the following expansion, so who fucking cares anyways, go do an emissary and get 50 points in your first artifact or 4 levels of HoA progression from just the emissary reward.
Blizzard creates these humps, these bullshit mountains in the progression where the game really wants you to climb, and you want to play all the content you desire, so you do it, until the air gets thin at the top of the mountain and it feels really bad so you give up, but then the next revamp comes in, bulldozing most of the mountain you just climbed, putting you back down to earth, and then revealing a new mountain. Repeat one more time, and there you go. If you play throughout the expansion, it kind of sucks to see how easy it ends up being if you start even a couple of weeks later. If you come in late, you get a fun and breezy ride forward, but unless it is the last patch, you’re gonna get knocked down to earth with the rest of us. If you just play the end of expansion, I bet you love these systems – you gain infinite power in a short period of time and everything probably feels pretty good!
Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating the removal of catch-up mechanics or anything of that sort. I like them being there, and I think they have a role to serve. However, my argument is that these systems suck the life out of the game. Let’s go more into why.
It Used to be World of Warcraft, But Now…
When I used to describe WoW to an uninformed friend or colleague, it was pretty easy to describe. The game had a strong foundation of gameplay, class designs and ideas that had been iterated upon, improved, and tested over years of gameplay. Redesigns, while they certainly happened, were less common, and if you played a fury warrior from vanilla launch through even as far as Mists of Pandaria, you could see the ways in which your toolkit worked and how new abilities, talents, and changes had been slotted into the base design that existed with the game’s launch.
In Warlords, this was still largely the case. The game had gone through its first squish, and there was some tension from that, but design remained pretty on point. I didn’t need hours to relearn alts I played once an expansion, and the game still felt like just plain old WoW – an iterative chapter in an ongoing saga.
With Legion, the game’s design, balance, and setup were all thrashed and restarted. Classes were built into distinct specs, further ability pruning and tuning made nearly everyone play differently, and things changed quite rapidly. Instead of having a strong base class, you now had a base spec from level 1-10 and then players of the same class and different specs would go on wildly divergent routes. Compounding this was the cornerstone of the artifact and other player power systems in Legion. Artifact abilities were core rotational spells that each spec was designed around, meaning a sub-100 character never had a full rotation. Then, legendaries come into play, offering multiple enhancements that content was tuned around, leaving legendary-less players feeling weak, and even players with legendaries, but those offering sub-par power, were in the cold. All of that ceases to matter in 8.0 pre-patch, because legendary powers only last until 115 and the artifact ability simply goes away.
BfA now is going to do the same to us with Azerite, with only a single change. While on Azeroth, you’ll be fine – Azerite traits and Essences will still work, and the stamina traits offered via the Essence tree will be added to your health pool, but the second you go to Shadowlands, all of that is gone. The HoA is a high item level neckpiece, and your Azerite armor is high base stat trash with nothing else to offer. All the work, all the gameplay put in over BfA, gone.
These systems work to create unique gameplay experiences, per Blizzard – it’s supposed to be more fun and “engaging” for us to have these expansion-wide systems that dictate our play. However, two expansions into this experiment, and I have to say this – even for Legion, which I loved, the borrowed power systems absolutely suck. It means there is no point to learning a steady rotation – no base art to the class or spec that is enhanced by these traits. Instead, you are bound to them for two years at a time, forced to progress them to gain power enough to tackle the content challenges Blizzard has put in front of you, only for it all to be shoved off into the dumpster when the next expansion ramps up.
Legion is a different game from World of Warcraft. Battle for Azeroth is a different game from either of those. Shadowlands is…well, let’s talk about that to close this beast of a post out.
So What Of Shadowlands?
Shadowlands learns from these lessons in some ways, and in others, is obviously made to be another disposable system we’ll throw in the trash sometime in 2022 while writing things vaguely similar to this post.
What’s the improvement? Honestly, the Covenant abilities actually feel slightly better in a way. Yes, they have a ton of balancing and gameplay problems that seem frighteningly unaddressed! However, in terms of grindiness, acquisition, and maintenance, they’re downright quaint compared to either Azerite or Artifacts. You hit level cap, and within around 30 minutes, you’ll have the abilities. No grind, no endless progression mechanic, nothing. Simple and easy. If the system stopped there and then simply offered the covenant rewards that are cosmetic, that’d be great! These pose, outside of the crushing balance problems that are all the rage, only one other threat to us that makes them sort of tedious – our rotations are again built upon these abilities. To Blizzard’s credit, they’ve done a better job of building the core rotation without them in a way that is less empty than say, Legion was. However, it creates an almost inverted version of the problem – on beta, I often struggle to remember to mix in my Covenant abilities, because they are sort of bolted on whole to the rotation that exists without them.
My real concern and problem long-term is in Renown and Soulbinds.
Soulbinds take everything limiting and awful about Azerite and also make it more restrictive. In BfA, you can have as many Azerite pieces as the game will drop for you, and can carry as many as your bags have room for. You can have single target, AoE, PvE, PvP, and open world Azerite loadouts for every spec you have – you might not have room for much more in your bags if you carry it all at all times, but you can make that choice if you so desire. There is a time cost to getting that much gear and a luck component depending on the source of said gear, but you can indeed do that. Essences require respecs, but you can do that in any rest area at no gold cost, and while acquiring essences can be sort of a pain, it only has to be done once and then leveled up past that for the higher power versions. Enough gameplay will get you a full loadout of Essences which can then be similarly customized for each spec and gameplay situation.
Soulbinds, regardless of the class or Covenant, limit you to 3 trees, and with the requirement for changing Conduits requiring points in an arcane system conceived by an awful design made to incentivize not changing it, means that you are effectively locked in to a limited selection of options. The base traits of each Soulbind offer non-trivial boosts to the non-class Covenant ability, along with generic boosts like proc bonuses to secondary stats. These are okay enough – balance concerns exist, but relatively fewer.
What really bothers me, however, are Conduits. Conduits are dropped items with multiple ranks, a progression system that will span the whole expansion, and offer more drastic, class and spec bonuses, including spec-specific options for potency improvements. If you switch specs for main gameplay mid-expansion, odds are pretty good you might not have leveled or even bothered to acquire conduits for the new spec, so it creates a new cycle of acquiring, ranking up, and then using conduits. Now, I can’t see the future, but I have huge problems with this idea:
It’s locked to spec, sort of: Potency conduits will force players into situations where if they want to play multiple specs, they will have to be far more mindful of loot spec in normal gameplay, but also to focus efforts and resources on leveling conduits of both specs. If you play at a high level of raiding or Mythic Plus, you’ll be better off because your conduits start higher if they come from that gameplay (and I think this is okay) but it will create a situation where the casual players will actually have to work harder at their conduit maintenance. Oof.
You can only have 3 soulbinds and are capped in the changes of conduits: As you play, you can unlock 3 soulbinds, the first one less than an hour into the endgame Covenant questing, and the other 2 much further on via Renown. This is fine, except for the fact that you will be stuck at launch picking a single spec to play effectively. If, like me, your plan is to solo content in the world as a tank spec but then raid as DPS, you will have to pick which mode of content you want to be worse at. Oh sure, you can change your conduits once a week entirely, but it will be more likely that you’ll simply forego the power of Conduits until you unlock a second soulbind. That sucks and feels bad! What makes it worse is that regardless of the class or Covenant, you get 3 soulbinds tops. Play all four druid specs? Get fucked buddy! Want to have single-target and AoE builds for your tank and DPS roles? Better save the conduit energy currency to swap conduits around on the regular! This choice to limit feels so baffling and bizarre to me expressly because it means making choices that can restrict your ability to complete certain modes of content. A Mythic Plus is not going to be the same as a raiding build, and it means either respeccing constantly between them at a cost each time, or simply picking one that is suboptimal – whether that means taking one that favors a single mode of play, or taking a mix of choices that presents strengths and weaknesses in both modes. And here’s the challenge – this is an RPG choice, and it offers something that you can really think about and try to make the most out of, and that is good! However, the costs and restrictions make it feel unlike WoW – too closed off and forced to be a fit for the game it is in, and too restricted in terms of making bad choices to be a meaningful RPG choice. It’s in a no-man’s land, stuck between being a viable RPG system and a viable WoW system but not really getting close enough to either to please anyone.
Ultimately, it’s meaningless: A Wowhead commenter on one of their guides for the system put it better than I could in more words:
You’ll spend all of Shadowlands acquiring conduits, leveling Soulbinds, and progressing your Covenant, and for what? In 2022, all of that work is made meaningless. Unlike gear progression, you don’t get to take it with you into the next thing – it all disappears into nothingness. Could Blizzard change that? Sure. Will they? They already confirmed no – in the last 24 hours, Blizzard implemented a change that removed Shadowlands abilities when you were out of the Shadowlands, and then pledged to revert the change while noting they would go away anyways once Shadowlands was over. Sure, maybe it ends up being like Azerite, where you can still use it in Azeroth if you really want, but at the new level cap and with raid gear from Shadowlands, who cares?
I know this post is long and has been a winding journey, but this is my plea to Blizzard.
I loved the early days of WoW because progress felt like a constant. I could learn the game, learn a class, and have those skills and that knowledge be nearly fully applicable the next expansion. I could gear a character and progress their power in meaningful ways that would help next expansion (remember trying to level in Cataclysm at first with a fresh level 80? Yikes!). The game built upon strong base systems and balancing – it wasn’t perfect and never was, but because abilities were treated consistently expansion to expansion, work done to balance the game had a multiplier effect into the future.
I like some of the current systems and progression mechanics, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate the Artifact and in fact, I kind of enjoyed it. The problem I have is that the game used to tell me that the time I put in was worth something, for longer than the current expansion. I don’t need gear upgrades to be perpetually good – I just want to feel their power into a good chunk of leveling in the next expansion. I don’t need you to make a new system every expansion such that I have a rank 200 Artifact weapon, a rank 150 Heart of Azeroth, and Soulbinds with maxed out Conduits all at the same time.
What I loved about old WoW is that it was a work of learning that respected the time spent. The hours and days I spent on alts meant something later, gave me some tidbit of knowledge and understanding I could bring with me in the future. Knowing how Fire Mages interacted with Crit in Cataclysm made my gameplay in Mists of Pandaria better, because I could still see that interaction in play. Sure, some of that still exists, but you’ve papered over it with temporary power systems. Look at my current main in Demon Hunter. They have a butchered, basic rotation for toddlers because they’ve never been designed outside the confines of a borrowed power expansion. There is no Mists of Pandaria Demon Hunter that I can go to, it’s all a broken set of spec-locked abilities with minimal crossover because they haven’t evolved much since Legion, and they are missing a lot without their artifact skills, much less an Azerite Essence or Covenant skill.
The time I spend in modern WoW is only good for the time of that expansion, and then the value it held is flushed down the toilet in the next one. Yeah, the game is still fun in some ways, and I still enjoy solving encounters and meeting challenges, but whatever quirks exist in my rotation from 9.02 on will melt away in 10.0 and I’ll just be left to relearn the class again based on whatever harebrained engagement scheme you cook up there. All the while, the legendaries I spent time to farm materials for and craft, fading away, the covenant relationship built over two years gone, and the game will demand a new cycle – new balancing, a new stripped-down baseline for each spec, and some new bolted-on system to take the place of those that went before.
The artifact worked because it was the first of its kind and it was tied to a large selection of weapons, many of which had lore implications. However, systems like it have largely failed because the illusion is gone. The artifact made us keenly aware of the time ending up ultimately wasted on it, and that illusion has never come back in subsequent systems. I could never muster the heart to grind out Azerite like I did Artifacts because I know it doesn’t respect my time investment. Whatever midpoint systems you cook up in Shadowlands are likely to have the same effect – why should I invest in ranked Conduits, why should I invest in Soulbinds, and why should I put so much time into building these things up in Shadowlands knowing they’ll go away later? Sure, you can make my content harder to do, if not impossible, until I invest in the game on your terms, but you are playing a dangerous game there, Team 2. When presented with that choice, players have a limited number of responses – they can invest fully as you want, they can half-ass it and play on their own terms like me, or they can simply walk away. Your gamble for 3 expansions now is that the first two choices are the winners, but there is a growing number of players who have taken the third choice, when presented with a constant trashing of their effort and investment, have instead decided to fold and left the table. You’re making that same bet again in Shadowlands, and if I were you, I’d worry that more people are going to choose not to play, knowing that the game is rigged from the start.