Video games are art. Rest in peace Roger Ebert, but you were wrong on this one.
I want to talk about the changes coming for WoW in 9.1.5 and what I think they could mean in the future, but first, indulge me for a moment of discussion about what video games are. I promise this will go somewhere!
If broken down to their simplest, most mundane, games are about the interaction of myriad sets of rules. In WoW, I have a set of abilities which are each their own rule, about when I can do damage, what it will cost me, and how much damage I can do at that point in time. Gameplay emerges from the conflict of these rules with one-another and with modifiers offered by the game design. In WoW, gear modifies the rules – increasing damage done, increasing the frequency with which you can do damage, and giving chances to do drastically more damage. The conflict of rules in gameplay is friction – a moment where the player meets resistance and must push back against it. You can have low-friction events (trash fights, open world non-elites) and you can have higher-friction events (boss fights, a lot of WoW’s modern-era systems). Each of these friction events normally gates a reward – and generally, the higher the friction, the higher the reward.
The art of game design is in managing that balance and justifying moments where players might wrongly think a reduction in friction makes something better. My favorite examples of a lot of this type of thing is the Hotline Miami series. You can only carry one weapon, and the ammo it comes with is all you can use with that weapon, even if you find another one, you must drop the one you have to pick up the other one with more ammo, losing the ammo you just had in the process. Part of the game’s masterful design (I really like Hotline Miami, folks) is that it introduces this early, makes you feel the friction of that design decision, and then introduces you to why it is that way – the weapon throwing system makes certain fights much better, it allows a lot more dynamic and exciting gameplay, and the satisfaction of meeting what are effectively shooty puzzles with the limited resources at hand creates a deep intrinsic reward of self-satisfaction, and the game also offers point scoring and combos to put forth an extrinsic reward. The game could just be every old school shooter where you have a bottomless bag of gun hauling and no one would bat an eye, but that also removes some of that fun – where the friction resolves and rewards you.
WoW’s biggest flaw in recent years, in my estimation, is that the game puts forth too many high-friction systems without commensurate reward, and ironically in Shadowlands, by paring down the borrowed power mechanics, there is a feeling of even less reward. There are less friction moments throughout gameplay, but the choice of Covenant is a frontloaded, extremely-high friction moment where the reward is…a spell. And sure, picking a Covenant is a menu screen, but for each player, that choice has layers of different conflicts to resolve – aesthetic, mount rewards, ability value, Soulbind choices, modes of gameplay, and the like. Thusly, to me, that reads like high friction. There is a lot of weight on that choice. Covenant choice is rewarded with a fairly barebones set of prizes, and not much else down the road besides power you need to play to your best ability. You rarely have friction with the system again, unless you want to switch, in which case the friction is even higher.
WoW’s patch 9.1.5 is full of smooth, frictionless coatings for things like this. Covenant choice is no longer this albatross on your neck, this labor of endless effort for slim margins. Torghast is now grindable for rewards on loop with no further weekly lockout and more rewards on-offer (save for the Adamant Vaults, which appear as of this writing to still be 1 maximum-reward run per week). Korthian Armaments would be great catch-up armor for alts or new level 60s if they weren’t random slots with high variability, so now you can just buy per-slot, with the exception being a generic “Accessory” cache that should be rings and necklaces (maybe trinkets too?). AoE cap? It’s gone, reverted back to the old soft-caps. Anima for alts? You can send some over now with no conversion loss. Renown catchup? There’s an item you can buy to take a character straight to 40. Conduit energy? Dead. Flying while dead in the Shadowlands? Coming in the patch. All of these remove moments where the friction the game puts on you results in sub-par rewards – you spend less time and can do more.
Now then, let’s connect the little design bit above to this patch fully.
Friction in games is inescapable, and it is a powerful tool, in fact. A game with no friction is dull. A game where you can just do whatever you’d like without any restrictions eventually means that nothing feels worthwhile, because nothing matters. Social games put the friction in the player’s hands (I swear this isn’t an ERP joke), via how they choose to engage with the people they share the space with. A more designed game like WoW relies on designed friction to create fun engagements. The core of WoW is built on strong friction and reward cycles – killing bosses rewards loot and currencies, loot allows you to bend the rules a bit more and become more powerful which reduces friction in a lot of content, dungeon lockouts put extra friction on a weekly raid boss kill but make the moment when you finally get it more interesting, and most activities in the game layer on strong core gameplay friction with social friction – teamwork, team cohesion, and each individual player and their ability to respond to mechanics.
WoW’s problem is in the added systems, things that create extra friction with a less-satisfactory reward ratio and add very little to the rest of the game that does work. The Legion Artifacts worked pretty well because the friction of constantly investing in the weapon and reaching certain trait breakpoints created a reward that was worth the effort, especially when factoring in Artifact Knowledge and how the scale was constantly adjusted via that system.
However, the challenge with any art is that sometimes, the artist has faith in a vision no one else can see, and sometimes that pays off. I used the example of Hotline Miami because its design is full of things where, if I explain them to you without you playing it, sound bad or overly limiting. The limit of one weapon, the mask system, the way levels are dense with enemies and play with things off-screen being able to have LOS on you, making you responsible for knowing the whole map and scouting ahead – all of these are things that someone who hasn’t played the game would probably target with changes, but once you play the game, all these things lock in to a single, coherent vision of what the game is – the artistry on display made apparent.
Blizzard did, for a long time, have a track record of putting out great art, of making things that might sound cheap, derivative, or otherwise questionable and sticking the landing. They miss the mark a lot these days, but there are still little moments where the end result is great. The WoW team had a long and storied history of hits, with relatively few misses. It was reasonable in the announcement of BfA to be excited, to believe the team when they said they had taken the lessons of Legion and made a better game for it. It was less so in Shadowlands, but at the same time, the ideas they had discussed in the pre-alpha window sounded kind of nice. Ultimately, the problem we see now is that this Blizzard is too confident in their artistic vision and they don’t know how to reign it in when they miss completely.
Shadowlands is, to me, perfectly emblematic of these problems. The core gameplay is still there, mostly on-point and satisfying, but there’s so much unnecessary friction around Covenants that it taints the whole, the metal shards of the game design’s rough spots flying into the good parts. Patch 9.1.5 is a good slice of humble pie so far, and if it continues on this track, it will be a great rest of the expansion.
Now, the cynical argument is that Blizzard does all of this maliciously each expansion, that things are launched deliberately busted so they can later fix them and get the credit, advertising that fact loudly. The fact that they are doing this for Shadowlands much earlier in the patch cycle of the expansion is interesting and a lot of people have latched onto the cynical narrative. And, to be frank, I get it and I don’t blame them – we’ve had multiple expansions now where major deficiencies are there at launch in spite of player feedback from testing, later fixed and ultimately made better in a way very similar to what players suggested. Legiondaries were announced as targetable and then weren’t, so what do they do – make them buyable with a currency. Legiondaries were too random and difficult to be enthused about chasing? Bam, the prior fix hits that too! Artifact weapons were clumsy with the 20-point Paragon trait? Fair, so let’s decrease that emphasis, round out some extra bonuses, and then put a limitless trait in with better adjustments so it feels less necessary to grind endlessly. Azerite sucks? Let’s add a new ring, still kinda bad, now let’s add Essences, still isn’t the best but at least its better, and final tier let’s go for broke and make the statistically preferred traits for each class present on all armor drops in that final tier.
But, I think that the old mantra of never assigning malice where stupidity would suffice is accurate here. Blizzard is a lot of things and the number of negatives that most would slide in there have gone up in recent years, but I think at their core, they have some measure of artistic desire. I think that the designers on the WoW team do think genuinely that the systems are good, and they want their work to be well-received, but the problem is that it is just a very weird way to have fun, the systems added to WoW. Very little about how they publicly discuss these systems reads cynically to me. I do genuinely think the team thought Azerite would be fun. I think they put a lot of stock in Covenants and Torghast as they were designed and built. Does this say good things about the WoW team? Probably not! But I think that the vision of them tenting their fingers and laughing diabolically over how the bad systems will push players to Blizzard’s later-patch “solutions” is laughable and requires some fairly impressive mental gymnastics to justify. I think it is genuinely good that they are making the changes in 9.1.5, sooner than they might have typically (although based on the elongated timetable for this whole expansion, it will be in a relatively similar amount of time), while at the same time thinking that the experience of the last several expansions should have made this an avoidable problem.
What I think I want to see from this going forward is more changes. If you’re adding friction, it damn well better pay off. If players in test cycles tell you it doesn’t pay off, then why the hell is it still in the game unaltered? Blizzard are the stewards of WoW, yes, but they need an audience, and they continue to push people out of the game through this type of ignorance.
That leaves those of us who discuss the game in a weird spot, though. My desire is to see this as part of a new leaf being turned over, but there are signs that this is less than satisfactory in the long-term. The changes for now are quite good and comprehensive, targeting nearly every Shadowlands-era annoyance in a single shot, but the way Blizzard discusses these changes is less awe-inspiring, because it circles back to the art discussion above.
To me, this sentence extinguishes some long-term hope I had with just the 9.1.5 changes.
Blizzard wants to be an arthouse in many ways, a studio dedicated to the craft and artistry of video games. However, they arguably aren’t that anymore, and not just because of recent events. The designers at Blizzard still think Covenants are good, and still believe that a restrictive, overly-friction-loaded choice gating player power was the right way to go. Sure, on the one hand, I can read this as something of a PR statement, not admitting the design was bad but instead pivoting to how the lore of the game makes it make sense now. On the other hand, though, this is very much what I see in Blizzard – a designer convinced the team that Covenants were great, the consensus on the team agreed, and they shipped it. It was a failed attempt at art, and instead of admitting failure, it’s been framed and put on the wall, sold to us as something that enhanced the experience of the game. It didn’t, and I feel very confident in saying that – but I wish that Blizzard would say that.
The nature of Team 2’s relationship with us as players has been adversarial for a long time, in WoW eras prosperous and less-than. It is hardly surprising, given that, that the team is hesitating to admit the game had a bad design and instead try and frame it as misunderstood, that players were given such a unique perspective on the game through Covenants, as though taking the campaign and parceling it out before reconverging and showing characters you might not have met was a good idea. It just means people who aren’t absolute freaks reading every detail about the game get to Korthia and are met with a bunch of reveals out of nowhere. But the players cannot be unreservedly correct about how the systems of Shadowlands dragged down the expansion, because who knows what we might want if we score some points?
I bring this up because in the next year or so (probably), we’ll be introduced to WoW 10.0, and my mind turns to that and wonders aloud what we’ll possibly see. I want to believe that it will be a good new expansion with a return to basics and a focus on the core gameplay and storytelling that is more grounded and leans more on WoW’s strengths. I would like there to be evidence to support believing it will be great outside of just the core gameplay mechanics that have been WoW’s selling point for almost 2 decades. However, there’s still that rivalry that Team 2 insists on having with players embedded into statements like that one, that we just aren’t seeing the full breadth of their creative vision and the game is better because of the art of Covenants and how they’re presented. It makes it a little hard for me to be too enthused yet for what comes next, and part of the reason I haven’t crawled through every bit of flavor text for speculation yet.
The changes of 9.1.5 are fantastic, and I want to say that again before wrapping up. They have a chance to be an excellent stepping-stone towards a better future, towards a more comprehensively good game, if the lessons learned that led to this early de-frictioning is used to avoid unnecessary friction from being introduced at all in the future. There’s every chance it could be exactly that, but the Blizzard that defends things they are retreating from anyways isn’t one that I believe capable of holding that mindset for the long-haul.