No way to kick off a week like a huge analytical post!
In WoW discourse for the last 5+ years, there’s something of a theme, and I’ve fallen into it too: the game kind of sucks in some ways, but yet, here I am, still playing it. Why is that?
I think a lot of people go for the easy argument on this one, throwing the baby out with the bathwater to declare that WoW is just a bad game now and all of us are in varying degrees of capture to our time and emotional investments into it. But I think we stand to gain little from this basic amount of analysis, even if a kernel of truth is there, perhaps. So what is it?
The thing that occurs to me with Shadowlands, now the third expansion of what I have started calling, with title capitalization, the Borrowed Power Era, is this – the game has successfully shrunk the touchpoints we have with borrowed power now more than ever, and yet still, the game kind of feels bad. But yet, the game has these moments where it feels great and is fun to play (I’ll circle back to this one, so please hold your twitching comment fingers!), so it creates this weird dissonance – I loathe WoW, but I also enjoy it?
When I really look at the game, though, I think I can see why the game has this weirdness about it currently, especially in Shadowlands, and that thesis is what I want to present and argue here today. So, here goes…
The borrowed power systems of WoW are at their weakest in Shadowlands, which creates a sharp contrast with the well-defined and well-crafted core gameplay mechanics.
I’m going to start with the part I’m sure most people agree with (after some explanation) and then circle to the perhaps more contentious point about WoW’s core gameplay.
Borrowed Power in WoW has always meant time-sink drudgery. Artifacts in Legion? Gotta farm up AP, which are these tokens that sit in your bags, spend it, invest it, add relics to your weapons, plot your course through the tree the first time (or just read the guides), and make sure you’re keeping Artifact Knowledge running (when it was a thing you had to actively research, pick up, and use, at least). Much of this was per-spec, and so the Artifact weapon system was high touch, because you were interacting with it on almost every play session.
Then came BfA, and the feedback was loud and clear – less frequent borrowed power interactions. So we got Azerite, which is a series of smaller choice sets attached to pieces of armor and the level of your Heart of Azeroth. You still had AP, but it auto-learned since it was not tied to a spec itself. You still had decisions to make, but far fewer at any one time, although frequent gear upgrading could force you to make more decisions. Then, in 8.2, we got Essences, and while those added an element of active use that many had asked for and missed with the departure of Artifacts, it also meant more touchpoints. You had to farm AP, farm essences, get gear with your idealized traits, and invest in those traits, and then do that for each spec you played.
Now, in Shadowlands, you almost never really have to interact with your Covenant choice. On a weekly basis, you’ll grab Renown quests, deposit Anima and Souls (if you’re even still doing Souls weekly), and set Soulbinds. Soulbinds can be high-touch if you play multiple specs to a high degree of min-maxing, or if you use one Soulbind in multiple specs and have to constantly swap conduits in and out, but for the average player, you probably have a single Soulbind loadout per spec that works really easily. You just have your Covenant ability, no need to do anything there, and so the contours of your average gameplay on a recurring basis involves barely 3 activities that take seconds a piece (the actual quests are about an hour or so at this point). Yet, this system still feels bad. Why?
Shadowlands borrowed power, I think, proves something the playerbase on aggregate has been shouting at Blizzard with increased volume every expansion – that borrowed power systems are an unnecessary blight on the game and if the core content is compelling in its own right, we’ll be there to play. They listened to player feedback right up to the edge, making Covenants a stripped-down, threadbare system that smoothes out nearly every rough edge for gameplay compared to Azerite and Artifacts, and yet, it still exists. It does little for players except chain them to a shoddy weekly progression gate and to a limiter in choice powerups via Soulbinds, and those things feel bad because the system as a whole can almost feel superfluous. Now, obviously, Covenant abilities matter and are powerful, and Soulbinds/Conduits do empower our abilities in noticeable ways, but yet, they feel so tacked-on and, in the case of Soulbinds and the Conduit Energy system, haphazard. It is the most Blizzard thing to do, to make a system that is largely frictionless and interesting and come in and add layers of irritating friction to it, both in Conduit Energy for high-end players and in general Conduit acquisition and ranking up for most players. Couple that with the obnoxious and obvious timegate of Renown, and now you’ve got a stew going!
That’s really the kicker, in my opinion. Shadowlands borrowed power has little that couldn’t be done in better ways without timegates or friction – Covenant spells could have been new abilities learned as you level or progress the story, or even still could have been choices you made, and the Covenant trimmings for core gameplay could have been done in less-gated ways or with less friction – making Soulbinds simpler and more balanced, making Conduits consistent in acquisition and upgrade path, and removing Conduit Energy or single-path routes per Soulbind so that you can have, say for me, a Havoc and Vengeance version of Korayn.
But the second part of the above thesis statement now needs some elaboration.
WoW’s core gameplay has its detractors, I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I will also say that when I think about “core” gameplay in WoW, I’m applying that rather narrowly – to combat, exploration, market economy and the like, and not like, world quests or core quest design or whatever. When I think about WoW’s core gameplay, it’s the moments that you actually are playing the game and interacting with the RPG elements of it – using your chosen talents, interacting with your class and spec abilities, and testing yourself against the boundaries of the gameplay. Here’s my opinion – WoW’s core gameplay is still among the best in the MMORPG space even today. There are a great many games that have better balance, that are cooler-looking, flashier, and a lot that go deeper on the RPG customization and choice elements, but WoW’s core gameplay is fluid, fast-feeling, and has a certain smoothness to it that often borders on feeling like an offline game (that also makes lag spikes in WoW far, far more noticeable, but I digress). WoW sacrifices things like animation continuity and visual tightness of combat in favor of gameplay feel, and with 16 years in the game, I think that is a strength of it.
The thing that has carried WoW for all these years is that the core gameplay is always fairly strong. When those of us who write excessively about the game note that each expansion feels new, it’s largely down to balance and fluff. New abilities and tweaks to classes can make them feel different, and of course borrowed power changes things a lot, but that core gameplay, the strong combat feel and fluidity, that is the core of the WoW experience and the thing that I think is still its greatest competitive strength after all these years. WoW has stronger competition now than ever before, and the appearance publicly at this point is that FFXIV is now the number 1 MMO, full stop, but at the same time, people rarely rave about the core combat gameplay of FFXIV. I like it a lot, but it’s different and it also isn’t the focus of that game. FFXIV has some things it does better (job balance is damn near impeccable in FFXIV right now) but it also means accepting a compromise of responsiveness in combat. The recipe is good enough that a lot of WoW players are starting to find the game’s siren song irresistible, but not everyone will stay there or even end up trying it for long.
I think about the balance of core gameplay and borrowed power a lot, and one of the places that distinction shines is in WoW’s PvE content. Mythic Plus dungeons and raids are systems pretty much fully established without borrowed power – sure, you get buffs in handling the content for having that borrowed power, but the design of dungeons and raids is done without borrowed power explicitly in mind outside of raw numbers tuning. Dungeons and raids in WoW are fun content, and they often shine brightest when the game’s borrowed power elements or other designs are lacking. In Warlords of Draenor, the only thing that set that expansion apart from the trash heap was excellent and engaging raid design. Legion had a moment of weakness during Tomb of Sargeras because the raid design was not very popular and the core gameplay around it at that time were expansions to the Artifact system. BfA’s popularity as an expansion lived and died on raid content, on having fights that were fun and interesting enough to keep people around, and the start of the expansion wasn’t strong on that front, certainly not strong enough to stave off the exodus of people annoyed by Azerite.
In Shadowlands, what I find funny is that borrowed power is weak as hell right now and there’s a case to be made that yanking it out of the expansion altogether would leave the game stronger while still being easy to do. In a funny way, that makes Shadowlands more annoying – because before I can engage with anything, I need to farm up my Renown, do my weeklies, and keep up on my chores – yet I get far less overall power from Soulbinds than I did from Azerite or Artifacts, where the right Azerite trait loadout or a fully-empowered Artifact could make a world of difference. Sure, Soulbinds aren’t weak either, but that makes them more annoying too – I have to care because they do make a difference, but they also make far less of a difference than prior systems and the way in which Soulbinds unlock and unwind is incredibly irritating and slow. And yet, the core PvE content of Shadowlands is delightful to me – dungeons have creative routing and pulling, the raids are really good so far if not capped off in both cases with excessively irritating and overscaled bosses (on Heroic and above, as Normal Sire and Sylvanas are both pretty simple), and so the actual act of playing content and engaging in combat is fun in my opinion. It’s just that everything bolted on to that makes it feel weaker, less interesting, and less worth engaging with.
In a way, it is like watching Blizzard shoot themselves in the foot. You have a decent content structure that allows players to engage in combat with their choices in lots of different ways, but you just had to layer on the cruft, didn’t you? You couldn’t just make talents more meaningful choices with better balance, you had to instead keep them neutered so you could add a dumb version of talents to the game via Soulbinds and give everyone what you think is a flavor choice that isn’t balanced well-enough to always be that. And sure, yeah, you can do all the game’s core content with whatever Covenant you please, but we’re firmly in the metagaming era, and everyone either builds and attempts to play like Mythic raiders or doesn’t read guides and just shows up and plays whatever they want – but that first audience is the majority of players I interact with and they’re all varying degrees of unhappy with the game. Some just at Covenants as a system and how often balance makes them change and bounce around, some at Conduit energy, others at the fact that the choice they’d pick for flavor is behind enough that taking it is a detriment to them playing their best, and some because their unhappiness with Covenants and other elements of the game (usually the story, which is…hoo boy, not the topic today!) multiplies off each other and becomes an all-consuming sentiment – that WoW is bad.
WoW is troubled right now, sure. Shadowlands has been hit with delays at every step, met with player backlash and apathy, and is left now with an uncertain future that doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence – and all of that is without touching on how the California DFEH lawsuit against Activision-Blizzard that specifically names the WoW team as a nexus of inappropriate behavior and harassment has made players feel about engaging with the game, or has led to some choosing not to engage. But I do often see a bit of hyperbole that WoW is the “worst it’s ever been” or some such, and I think that is a smidge over-dramatic. Would I be having more fun if the game stripped Covenants out tomorrow and the trimmings like Renown and Soulbinds? Almost certainly, yes. Am I having fun with the game now? After coming back and setting myself on a path that ignores most of the timewasters (I haven’t done Korthia dailies or Maw Assaults except for on reset day to fill the bar for the Death’s Advance weekly quest), yes.
But I think all of us, myself included, would be having more fun and more able to authentically engage with World of Warcraft if the bullshit timegates and chores that prevent us from getting to the meaty stuff at the core of the game would just step aside and get out of the way. In a way, I need Blizzard to get out of their own way, because they are the impediment, in this case.