The guiding principle of Shadowlands rewards has been a desire to return to the more traditional state of WoW – one where each drop matters and feels good, for the most part, and where the RNG is not layers of rolls to decide a better fate, but simply getting an item.
I am, and have been writing about, how I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, academically, I get it and agree with the idea. Blizzard is right to observe that the loot piñata slot machine model of Legion and Battle for Azeroth is a deterrent in the long term – that using -forging systems as a gamble to push players to play more content can also push players away from doing anything, as there is no real plateau to reach and thus no feel-good moment of accomplishment, especially in the seasonal model the game has now where that chase is also only really valid for around 6 months before new gear shows up to take over.
Looking back on WoW’s history with rewards, the current state is also how it was for the halcyon days…mostly. Wrath and Cataclysm (oh it may be 2021, but I remain the internet’s foremost Cataclysm defender) had RNG systems for loot that mirror the traditional play model. Your only pull at the slot machine was whether or not you got loot at all.
So Shadowlands, then, surely must be good in this regard, as it has reverted to that model. Right?
Look around the playerbase and a common point of frustration is the molasses-slow pacing of gear acquisition. Running dungeons with no reward feels bad, running a week of raiding with no rewards feels bad, and while the expansion of the Mythic Plus chest into the Great Vault makes that system feel better, it also is not all-inclusive, leaving out casual players who don’t run keystones or raids, and offers only a single option for PvPers to unlock slots. Right now, the best way to gear for your main mode of content is often to do something completely different – raiders should ideally be running Mythic Plus and PvP to get loot, PvPers can benefit from running raids and dungeons although they have a slightly better means of gearing through the PvP rewards systems, and key pushers likewise are incentivized to run raids and PvP for their upgrades. It is an issue of sorts that the game pushes you to content you may not want to do in order to be better at the stuff you do want to do.
But, I think this is actually a solvable problem, sort of. Ultimately, this perception is driven by the playerbase wanting to gear at a pace that matches what they’ve grown used to for four years, and to be fair, that isn’t unreasonable. Sure, it does, as many debates in this game do, veer towards a debate over what is “mandatory” versus what feels mandatory versus what players would prefer and force themselves to do for their own benefit, but in this case, the shoe definitely fits.
But why would we find doing content for extra loot outside of our normal content consumption mandatory? Tuning plays a big role for many – Shadowlands raid tuning isn’t awful, but it does skew higher than the past couple of expansions, at least in terms of where one can expect to be on the gear curve at the time the raid launches. Shadowlands raiding feels balanced around starting in the mid-180 item level range, which feels fine if you’re running Mythic dungeons and have filled out all of your slots, but that wasn’t attainable for all because of the distribution of loot. Further, it actually strays away from the model the past few expansions, where tuning for the raid comes in around Heroic dungeon item level (for Normal) and Mythic dungeons get lumped in with LFR as a progression step you can take that is largely optional. Now, though – progressing even normal does want for some amount of mythic gear, more than you might have expected.
In my raid group for example, we spent nearly an hour two weeks ago wiping to the Council of Blood. They’re a fun fight, with a kill order that is flexible based on the mechanics your raid struggles with and a mix of throughput checks, mechanical awareness, and fun little extras like a dance break and target switches of varying requirements. It is a pretty fun fight, but it is one that definitely checks your gear. Even when we got to it, two weeks of raiding past us and all the loot that raiding plus a Dungeon bonus week chest with Heroic raid loot in it entailed, and it was wrecking us. Well, technically, people not paying attention were wrecking themselves, but small details, right? Last week, we went in, with everyone having around 15-20 item levels higher on average, and even with most of the same attentiveness problems, we hit phase 3 for the first time and nearly killed it in 4 pulls.
This example, for me, paints the problem I think a lot of us are hitting with gearing in this expansion. Gearing for raids matters a lot still, but the much slower trickle of loot means that you aren’t going to gear anywhere near as effectively as the past few expansions, despite the raid tuning largely expecting you to. And when you do start to reach those points where gear is coming in and your raid is much stronger, it makes same-quality gameplay much more viable. Those wipes at a raid average of 170 are faster and more violent than the same issues at a 185-190 average. This isn’t news for most of us (loot increases your player power? Well I never!) but the scale feels so much more askew in Shadowlands and in Castle Nathria than it has before. Really, this does tend towards being a first-tier only problem for raiding too, because catchup loot and other such mechanics generally bring people closer to where they need to be for subsequent raids. In BfA, the Season 2 item level jump cleared so much of the early struggle of gearing that getting into raid-ready shape was much easier. Presumably, Shadowlands will have some amount of similar mechanics – time will tell, but I think that is a safe-ish assumption.
But I think there’s a few other challenges worth discussing.
The main reason I brought up the examples of Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, besides the Cataclysm Defender joke I enjoy, is simple – those expansions had other means to help keep gearing feeling on-pace and fair to most.
So first, let’s break this down – when I say “fair” in regards to loot, what do I mean?
Well, this will be a hot take (sound the alarms!) but both of these expansions featured robust mechanics for deterministic loot gathering at a slower pace for players who were struggling with drops. Reputation rewards, especially entry-level raid armor rewards at Exalted, came readily enough to be dependable for gearing. Sure, it was one piece each from 4 factions – and yes, those same rewards exist today in Shadowlands at Exalted for the 4 base factions! – but the rate of reputation gain is anemic compared to the tabard method in Wrath/Cata. It has been said a lot in the past, but I think Blizzard missed a huge chance to bring back reputation tabards this expansion. If, indeed, flight is not tied to base reputation but instead to Renown, then there is no reason to not have a system like the reputation tabards back. In fact, you can modernize it some if you like – make it so that world quests switch to your tabard faction, including callings (instead of dungeons or even in addition to), or you can make reputation with these factions account-wide or at least account-wide per player faction, so that work on alts can also help progress the main. Sure, whichever covenant you belong to will grant you tons of extra reputation via their story quests and so you’ll have a fast-track to Exalted with at least one faction, but it would be nice to have the means to accelerate it further and have some of those rewards available on alts. I never find value in farming reps on alts, not in the modern game, but I used to do it for sure with tabards making it easier and with meaningful rewards waiting at the end.
Secondly, and more importantly, both of these expansions had well-built currency systems that allowed you access to some amount of gear as an incentive to do content. The Wrath model and emblem conversion was messy but functional, allowing you to run dungeons once per day and work slowly towards raid-level loot even without entering said raid, and raiders got more of it and access to the 25-player tier in Wrath. Cataclysm, though, had the best system of them all, in my opinion. The system was switched to a two-tiered point incentive with gear simply sliding down to the lower-value of the points as the expansion progressed. Dungeon gameplay gave you Justice Points, raids gave you Valor Points, and you could still do a daily random dungeon for Valor in the same way that raid-tier Emblems were an incentive in Wrath, but instead of once-per-day max, you could do seven per week in any sequence. If you had an empty weekend afternoon, you could run 7 dungeons back-to-back and get your whole week done. It was time-respecting, offered substantive rewards that still gave some incentive to most players to run the raids (through itemization and not having all slots available), and it allowed players at all levels to enjoy the content they preferred (since there was a parallel path for PvP with Honor/Conquest).
It is clear that Blizzard wants the Great Vault and Covenant Armor to be these systems for most players in Shadowlands, but there is a problem – not all players can access the Vault while doing their preferred content, it is a dice roll if a piece will be an upgrade (and with a REALLY shitty “none of the above” option, which I had to take on my paladin this week and it felt so bad), and the Covenant Armor upgrades are too slow for main characters and require a ton of resource grinding on alts, making it feel restrictive on both sides and that’s even if you know it exists, which many players don’t!
At the start of the expansion’s second week, a guildie pranked someone else by telling them that Mythic base dungeons counted for the Great Vault and linked a random piece of armor in chat as though he had gotten it. It was funny and I laughed, but the more I thought about it, a thought invaded my mind: why doesn’t the Vault incentivize regular dungeon runs?
I don’t have a good answer for that, and so here is my armchair game designer hot take – the Great Vault should have a category for dungeon runs to offer gear weekly as an additional, 4th set of ways to open choices. If you run all 8 Mythic dungeons without a keystone in a week, it is possible to be deemed unworthy of receiving loot at all, and while that is an edge case in its own right, it also is possible and it sucks ass that this is even a thing that can happen. If you have a regular dungeon tier in the Great Vault, then you can solve that problem at least a little bit and bring up dungeon participation rates – make it do, I dunno, 2/5/8 dungeons for the week, with the item level being based on your top 3 difficulty runs for the week.
And then it just opened up my mind to more. Why not have a tier for world quest completion that offers world quest gear with upgrades based on your current Renown progression? Even outside of gear, why not link in pet battles or old content farming or Mentoring? Pet battles could open the Vault for a leveling stone or a random lootable pet. Maybe old content farming could have a chance to give you a cosmetic version of a piece of loot based on the content you ran? Mentoring feels like it should definitely offer more to veteran players or be fleshed out further – if you agree to be a mentor, it could offer dungeon queue options like FFXIV’s take on the idea and offer a Mentor reward tier in the Vault that gives additional choices of loot based on the content ran, or hell, even offers you a second choice of loot from the Vault!
Because to me, here’s the rub – as I said up-top, I understand the idea behind limiting loot drops and pulling in the loot train a little bit. However, that doesn’t stop me from having these follow-up thoughts after playing it for over a month – it still feels bad to not get anything when you’re used to getting something, and Blizzard pulled the bandaid far too quickly. One more expansion down the road, you could maybe adjust players away from the lootpiles of Battle for Azeroth down to a more constrained and careful acquisition like we have now, but for a lot of WoW players (myself included), we’re loot junkies. The game has, for the last 4 years and change, gotten us to play by shooting our inventories full of purple pixels if we so much as bat an eye at content. You cannot reasonably expect the cold turkey approach to work for everyone, and what I think would do so much better is if we had that middle ground – expand the Great Vault with at least dungeon or world quest gear options/incentives, and maybe have a system like reputation tabards to push us to those rewards faster, or Justice/Valor points again.
The problem right now is that Blizzard pulled us all off cold turkey, and while some of us are fine, others are scrambling over all available options to find their fix in anger, and others are simply withdrawing, and neither of those is a good, sustainable path for the long term.