The Maw – A Pre-9.1 Design Analysis and My Review

When the beta for Shadowlands started, with me in the first wave of invites, one of the first things I had a strongly negative opinion of was The Maw.

Like…

that was my header for it in my first beta post.

At the time, the Maw’s design was not final, and it had almost nothing to do in it.

With the Shadowlands launch delay, we got the version of the Maw that has been tormenting us on live.

Here’s where it gets tricky – I like the Maw, sorta, but I also still have a deep-rooted, visceral hatred for it.

Let’s discuss.

The Maw In Theory

Blizzard’s stated goal with the Maw was to make an inhospitable play space, where we would feel compelled to explore but threatened by exploration with longer presence in the zone making us bigger targets. The goal was that we’d feel compelled to play, have a desire to see all of it and do all of the things that it had to offer, but would be on a soft timer which would limit our access to the zone through forceful use of play – debuffs, interruptions in flow, and eventually just a ticking time bomb debuff with no escape.

On every level, the Maw was built to be intimidating to players. Visually, the landscape is gnarled and twisted, full of spiky stygia crystals piercing the skies, with an ominous red glow bathing the muted gray and black tones of the charred realm. Aurally, the zone is full of brooding music with sharp orchestral ramps, reverberating sound cues for escalating Eye of the Jailer levels (which led to the funniest/most ear-destroying bug in the game where entering the Maw with Eye of the Jailer from prior in the day would emit the sound at the highest possible volume), and the enemies making inhuman sounds of primal fury – growls, roars, and hisses. Gameplay-wise, the zone was made with patrols on main paths, denser pack-in of enemies (by WoW standards), and a larger mix of elites, rares, and rare elites.

The area has only one friendly NPC, who gives a couple of weekly quests, with everything else designed to push you out into the zone and discover the threats, then solve them. Your daily quest gameplay here is short and designed around making surgical strikes at the Jailer’s forces, then withdrawing before anything bad can happen. Enemies sometimes drop Maw Lore, which gives you little insights to the twisted souls that populate the space, especially the innocent driven mad by their forced sentence to the Maw at the hands of the combined efforts of the Jailer and Sylvanas Windrunner.

The Maw In Practice

In practice, these ideas are sort-of executed on, but inconsistently.

Making a zone inhospitable is a challenging balancing act. Obviously, Blizzard doesn’t want the zone to be actually inhospitable, because designing content no one wants to play is a particularly awful “achievement” for what is now a veteran studio, but the zone still needs to convey that atmosphere without repelling players. The visual and audio cues go a long way to pushing that theme in a positive way – I do believe that the Maw is technically well-made from an artistic point-of-view – but the gameplay borders on and sometimes crosses over into “I don’t want to do this” levels of inhospitability.

To start with, let’s discuss the Eye of the Jailer. In theory, this mechanic works to limit time spent in the Maw, and it does that too well. It is unfocused and creates the feeling of an artificial time gate, because that’s what it is. If you spend most of your day killing standard mobs in the Maw, you won’t gain an appreciable amount of Eye, and you could spend all day doing that with little consequence. However, the second you step towards doing the actual “content” on-offer, the Jailer has a keen eye for that. 10 slain Runesmiths? Eh, who cares? 10 stolen Blazing Ingots? Now you’re in trouble. The inconsistency of it is far too clear – and it makes it obvious that the whole zone is basically just pushing you into a timegated mode of play to rope off rewards from Ve’nari.

Which segues nicely to actually talking about Ve’nari! As an NPC gatekeeper for the zone, she’s…fine. There’s something interesting with her going on that the game hasn’t fully explored yet, obviously (9.1 starts down this path a little bit more, but it remains to be seen what the endgame is), but the intrigue is momentary during the reputation-up questing she gives you. The rest of the time, she’s simply your timegated vendor of upgrades and powerups that are supposed to make Maw gameplay feel rewarding.

In that regard she’s maybe less fine.

Rewards in the Maw are predicated on a few points – that Torghast is valuable and upgrades to your gameplay there are worth grinding out, that after Torghast stops being useful to you there’s still value in Conduit and socket upgrades, and that you’re willing to endure the Maw for as long as it takes to get the Stygia for the full slate of rewards. The problem the Maw has right now for many is that Torghast is not a smash hit mode of play, but instead a thing a lot of people talk about in dismissive tones, which then compounds the problems with the other later upgrades – right now there’s some play value in the otherwise unobtainable item level 226 upgrades for Conduits and sockets for select slots on your Season 1 gear loadout, but next patch, most players will be getting Conduit upgrades to 226 through simpler, less grindy means, and replacing their current gear with new gear. In fact, the socket upgrades face an even worse problem – they are so expensive in Stygia terms that no one should buy one until you are done upgrading a given slot. If you have your BiS in a socketable slot, it can be worth getting, but otherwise, the socket can’t move, so don’t even bother.

So we’ve got compounding problems – the zone is basically where most timegating that isn’t Renown lives this expansion, and to make matters worse, the rewards are sort of iffy unless you like Torghast (hello!) and are willing to dump hours into the Maw now for something that you can get easily over the summer once 9.1 is live.

But how does it feel to play?

Well…

I have a complicated relationship with the Maw, so what I’ll say here is my subjective opinion of the zone. Let’s start with the obvious – it isn’t a terribly fun place by default. No mounting means running everywhere on foot, using any mobility your spec has to just try and traverse the land as conveniently as possible, and that sucks ass. There’s no easy way around it – not being able to mount in the Maw is 100% just a dick move, one that doesn’t make any more sense in-lore given that I can be in the zone and clearly have mastered it to the point that everyone refers to me with a title that displays my in-universe mastery of the Jailer’s domain. Once you can mount in the Maw (whether now through acquiring one of the various Shadehound mounts or in 9.1 by…doing 3 quests) the zone does get noticeably easier (almost fun!) but then that leaves the gameplay.

Like a lot of places in WoW, the core design is a set of mediocre checklist quests. The weekly quests from Ve’nari involve killing set numbers of certain targets or acquiring materials from the Maw for whatever Broker-y bullshit she’s working on, and the daily quests involve…well, mostly the same thing, but also add mediocre checklist humanitarian quests to the table. Kill 10 bad guys, loot 12 Magical Maw Matter, save 6 Tormented Souls, etc. What stops these types of things from feeling mediocre in the rest of the game is density and reward. When leveling, you are faced with a pile of quests all at once, so it creates a gameplay tension that can feel kind of nice – need to kill this mob to loot this item, and he’s near an interactable loot object in the world I need for a third quest – you can pile up things and the game rewards efficiency.

The Maw has no efficiency, or at least very seldom offers it.

Sometimes, you might be able to do two things at once – looting Blazing Ingots while knocking out Soul Prisons for the weekly, or doing whatever task Ve’nari has for the week in Perdition Hold while doing a group-recommended daily in the area, but such moments are relatively scarce. Most of the time, the design of the Maw forces you to do 3-6 tasks in isolation, with no designed gameplay flow – just running all over the map playing exclamation point whack-a-mole.

From a flavor standpoint, none of this is contradictory. It all adds up to make the Maw inhospitable and undesirable for gameplay…which is a problem! Blizzard failed to stick the landing on this in a major way – the zone is so unappealing that it crosses over from ambiance to actually just not being fun, and that’s a huge problem. The flavor is there for the most part, such that better gameplay could prop it up…but better gameplay isn’t here, so it just sucks. Making matters worse is the Maw Lore concept, though.

If you’ve been playing in the Maw on live servers, you’ve probably looted items that trigger a quest to return to Ve’nari. There is a small amount of flavor text in the quest text, but a lot is missing. How do we know?

In beta, some of the Maw Lore items had actual lore on them. The implications added to the inhospitable atmosphere of the zone in a great way, creating an actual menace in the Jailer and his servants and showing a degree of cruelty that made the story being told stronger. Instead, now, the best of these items were removed and the flavor text is just a small bit of quest text. Some of it is really good, but most of it is pretty average, and the best items are gone so none of that horror is present. Without that extra flavor, the game still gets most of the way to the feeling that Blizzard was going for, but also crosses the line quite frequently onto the bad side of the tracks, where there just isn’t a lot of value to playing!

Ultimately, the Maw ends up in an undesirable position if you’re Blizzard – you did too good at making it inhospitable, the rewards all have expiration dates on them and those that don’t are tied to a divisive mode of gameplay, and the flavor isn’t enough to sustain interest for long. A definite weak spot on the expansion, to be sure.

What About 9.1?

The next patch has some targeted fixes for the problems that have plagued the Maw, however. Korthia, the new zone, is being tacked on to the Maw, and with it, mounting for all will be enabled, on any mount of your choice, although you will be stuck to the ground. Along with that, the Eye of the Jailer debuff is going away – and the questing around that choice in 9.1 is actually kind of neat and fun.

There is still a problem with the Maw’s design that persists, though. By removing the worst timegate aspects of the core gameplay, it does make the Maw better, sort of. The issue remains the rewards, however, and that gets worse once 9.1 is out. So sure, next patch you can run loose in the Maw and kill all kinds of things without fear of timer reprisal, but there won’t be enough meaningful content and the rewards for doing so will be diminished in value drastically, such that spending time with the core 9.0 Maw experience next patch will be a waste of time overall, short of mount collecting or picking up enough Ve’nari rep to make Torghast easier, provided you care enough about that. So that keeps the Maw as a weird artifact of design – Blizzard is pushing the Maw as pivotal to the patch and where most of the content is, but the truth is murkier – most of the new world content is in Korthia, with a couple of new things added to the Maw and the annoyances surgically removed. For most, the Maw will remain an oddity not worth traversing.

My Personal Gameplay In The Maw

I hated the Maw. I don’t really hate it anymore, but I have sort of accepted that getting a mount for the zone allows me to focus on bringing up Ve’nari rep as a goal and getting the upgrades that brings. For right now, that has meant buying two Conduit upgrades a week, with some weeks giving 3, and slowly bringing up my whole assortment of conduits to 226 (all of them now are 213 with one 226, since the upgrade item is always one rank up so it takes multiple purchases to move a Conduit from 200 to 226). Once that is done, I’ll probably settle in on getting one or two sockets, but I’m not confident that it will hold me as a goal, especially since I’m on the cusp of getting Keystone Master without them and my performance is where it needs to be for my main current goal of timing all the +15s. Gear has also made the Maw much more trivial, and at 219 item level average, I can melt most non-rare+elite mobs.

In short – I hated the Maw, but slowly softened on it through Beta, then disliked it on live, but getting a mount made it bearable, but only because the short-term gain outweighed the lack of enjoyable gameplay and raw gear power made it easy enough to plow through.

Overall, the Maw is not quite what it should be, in my opinion. It stuck too well to being an unfriendly place such that the gameplay suffers for it, while the rewards are insufficient and will lose all of their value in the future once 9.1 is out, save for the Torghast upgrades, the value of which depend fully on how much you enjoy Torghast and run it. While 9.1 then fixes some of the issues with the Maw, the core problem currently is that fixing something which has minimal future value almost doesn’t count – if there’s little purpose to repeating content in the Maw in 9.1, being able to mount there doesn’t satisfy any actual need.

In short, the Maw does too well at being unfriendly such that it harms gameplay, and becomes too friendly at a time when there is nothing to be gained. Oops!

2 thoughts on “The Maw – A Pre-9.1 Design Analysis and My Review

  1. I tried to venture further out. We got the item to port to the far side do we could do a quest and a rare over there, we unlocked the area across the bridge. It is by far on both mine and my wife’s opinion the most tedious and unenjoyable content we’ve ever done. All we will do in it, if we actually log in, is to hit the 3 spots to collect souls, get the one objective guy, and then we leave. We have it one last try a few months ago when we thought we were decently geared, we were stuck across the River when we filled the eye. 5 deaths and run backs to collect stygia, and we were done. We just hearthed out, and logged out.

    Honestly? Being able to use a mount won’t even get me to go back except to complete a required quest

    Like

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