It wasn’t that long ago, but just 5 short years ago, the idea of what a content cycle in WoW looked like was fundamentally quite different from what we have now.
The game had previously established a progression model for content – which I am using here because there was a point where content that was in the current expansion became dated. Launch dungeons gave way to new dungeon releases, new zones came in to offer new world gameplay, and of course, raid tiers increment up patch after patch, with the old raids largely either meaningless or used solely to bring a player up to par for current content.
Burning Crusade had Blizzard’s first stab at this, with the Isle of Quel’Danas and Magister’s Terrace serving to help guilds bypass the gearing nightmare of dragging a new recruit through the first couple of tiers of TBC content. Instead, you could farm up Magister’s Terrace once a day on Heroic for a shot at some gear that would push you close enough to the content most guilds were working on, especially when coupled with Badge gear. Wrath of the Lich King codified the old way, however – new dungeons introduced in 3.2 and 3.3, coupled with more robust badge systems keeping players who even just casually interacted with dungeon gameplay up to par, while the Argent Tournament added world content for players seeking a more casual approach.
Until Mists of Pandaria, this was the general approach the game offered – tiers of dungeons and raids, where each new release became the de facto center of farming for new gear, and at least one drop of world content along the way per expansion – the Argent Tournament and the Molten Front both providing that boost of daily world content for players of all stripes. With Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard took a new approach that was still ideologically compatible with the prior method of new content replacing old. No new dungeons, but instead you push the tier of player doing dungeons casually for rewards to world content and LFR, and to make up the gap of content, more world zones were added and more content added to those zones. Mists brought the Isle of Thunder, the Isle of Giants, the Vol’jin revolution questing content that used the Barrens, and finally the Timeless Isle. Warlords of Draenor continued with this model, albeit on a…compressed content schedule. Tanaan Jungle’s addition in 6.2 rounded out the launch content of WoD with a zone that offered an approach similar to the Timeless Isle, which was well-received by players.
All of these zones have a sort of common structure built upon them – catchup gear mechanics to bring a player up to snuff for current raiding content (usually enough to queue for LFR, at least), a set of new challenges and achievements loaded into the new zones, and continuing story quests that push the narrative forward. Keep in mind that at one point, WoW lore in-game was almost entirely defined by raid content, and there was very barebones plot advancement outside of raiding, with most of the world content explaining why there was a new raid and the raid itself then being the actual story. Isle of Thunder, the first in the line of these experiments, was the template – a long story chain that unfolded over weeks and interlaced with gameplay mechanics. Each zone has taken some liberties with this template – the story of Timeless Isle was not very big at all, but it was also a pivotal moment for the setup of WoD, while Tanaan was also pretty light on story and really focused more on providing a big open play space with a lot of nooks and crannies to explore and minimal content to bring you around the map to encourage exploration.
Either way, the old model was in effect – new content in patches nearly fully pushes away the old stuff, to the point where a lot of Wrath players might remember the final three 5-player dungeons far more than something like Gundrak, because they spent the year-long content drought plumbing those new dungeons for gear and rewards, and much of the prior 8 months before that patch launch playing the Trial of the Champion dungeon.
Tis The Season for Legion
Legion changed the game in a lot of ways, and looking back, it is really the progenitor of the modern WoW experience, for better or worse. Legion used a lot of refreshes to make it so that the breadth of the expansion content was viable for much of the time it was current – world quests in all zones cycling up their reward value for gear dynamically, emissary caches providing chances at legendary items encouraging play of all the zones, a new dungeon with each new raid tier – but what it did differently is the real topic for today, seasonal content.
In the new, Legion model, those launch dungeons wouldn’t just fade away, nor would they be fully replaced by the new dungeons added in later tiers. Instead, dungeons were pulled in as a part of the concept of Seasons – with each new raid tier, dungeons also got an item level reward bump and a difficulty bump, keeping them effectively current with each new release. A part of this is simple enough to understand – having learned the lessons of MoP and WoD, no new dungeons wasn’t cutting it, but they also didn’t push to have new tiers of dungeons like in WotLK and Cataclysm, where the final dungeon release of both expansions was a three-set of related dungeons. Instead, we got 1 new dungeon per major patch, and then they became part of the pool with subsequent seasons (except for Return to Karazhan, whose base mega-dungeon mode remained timelocked with the loot and rewards it originally offered while the split-wings for Heroic and Mythic Plus were along for the seasonal ride). Part of this was obvious – Mythic Plus demands a bigger pool of dungeons than patch content was going to offer, so keeping things current made sense – but it was also a sharp deviation from a pattern and design the team had been using for almost a full decade at that point.
The influence was also quite clear – Legion was, in many ways, the “learn from Diablo III 2.0” expansion, and a lot of the concepts in play in Legion were clearly inspired by Diablo III’s revamped gameplay, which was even said by the developers in interviews and panels. Part of that game’s revitalization was down to finding ways to leverage the repeatable content in new ways through scaling and different approaches to the classic Diablo gameplay, like the implementation of Adventure Mode, which functions a lot like what world quests ended up being.
Ever since then, the seasonal content model has defined WoW for a generation, and I think it has had an interesting impact on the game. In some ways, it is quite positive, but in others, it may take away some value from the content and experience, and I want to discuss those points.
Seasonal content has done a lot for WoW in keeping things relevant and providing a steady flow of new content. Design work can be focused on fully new things, while dungeons pad out the content being added by remaining relevant. It also allows dungeons to get small tweaks over time to change them – the seasonal affixes of Mythic Plus are exactly that. Instead of designing a bigger roster of new dungeons, as we had in WotLK and Cata, the team can make a smaller number of new dungeons and put the environmental design efforts into new zones and play spaces.
On the catchup front, seasons make for a viable catchup mechanism in their own right. A player who has full Heroic dungeon gear is generally raid ready with high skill, but can also then move to Korthia catchup gear and SoD LFR to bring things up even higher. There’s less need to design robust catchup systems because the natural flow of play brings players into those higher gear brackets as-is, which has been helped with strong catchup systems from Legion forward (Legion was the first expansion with gear tokens for catchup for each tier past the first, which BfA continued and Shadowlands has for now as well).
I think it’s generally good that players less devoted to world content but also not wanting to raid now have a wider array of activities with dungeons remaining viable, and for players who do like world content, I appreciate that world content remains valuable across the board for most of the expansion – adding more things that players can do over time. I think it is good for those of us with heavy alt rosters too – each season represents a new opportunity to leapfrog up in power!
Keeping dungeons fresh is nice because it also means that players get more familiar with them over time and are able to do new and fun things in them when given the opportunity – crazy weapon combos in Necrotic Wake and interplay with Plagueborers in Plaguefall being prime examples this expansion. More time spent with the dungeons getting familiar means that routing and the way most groups clear changes over time naturally and evolves, and since the launch dungeons are now viable for the entire expansion, you get a lot more of that.
Lastly, with level scaling, there’s value to leveling alts too – since normal dungeons have value to fresh level 60s for climbing the gear ladder much quicker (base world quest gear is around 150 item level while Normal dungeons now drop item level 184 gear), players queueing for those at level cap can get placed in a group with lower-level characters working on leveling, which means dungeon queues can pop a lot faster and that there is also nearly always a group forming, avoiding any dungeon-shaped bottlenecks in leveling or gearing.
The seasonal model of WoW is not without flaws, however. One that I would identify quickly is that the game loses a sense of completion with so much content remaining relevant – it’s good for variety, but it also removes that sense of accomplishment that came with finishing a zone, completing a dungeon on the highest-available difficulty, or getting all factions in launch zones up to Exalted. In the past, these were inflection points where you no longer had to play that content – you could if you wanted to, but the game did not reward it beyond quest rewards and drops. Under the seasonal model, you’ll be doing launch reputations for the whole expansion, and while you can eventually reach a point where you feel done and move on yourself, the game will constantly needle you with rewards to go back – more Valor for callings, paragon rep rewards for post-Exalted rep grinding, and increased item level on world quest rewards which, for some players, remain viable rewards throughout the expansion.
While the seasonal model does a lot of good for the dungeons and world content, raiding remains an island unto itself, where each raid tier is locked in time where it was at its launch. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (can you imagine if it was still valuable to go do Castle Nathria for current gear with current scaling? Big oof) but at the same time, raiding remains this one sort of odd exception to the seasonal rules. Given that chunks of story still happen in raids, if you come in late to an expansion, you’re missing elements of that story, even if the story itself is trash-tier.
The seasonal model can also introduce burnout as well. A lot of content which would have been aged out by new patches in the past instead lingers, so if the base design is not super strong, then the whole thing falls apart as the flaws become obvious to players. There is a lot of daily questing in WoW’s past which is only barely good, but because you finished it and moved on, there was never that long to linger on it. How many times can you expose Spriggan at the Night Fae theater before it wears thin, especially given how that quest works (or doesn’t)? This goes beyond to all seasonal content – eventually you get tired of the same dungeons, the same enemies and the same basic routes. At the Mythic Plus level, where endless replayability is the goal, there are other levers that make this work well enough (scaling difficulty, seasonal affixes, affix rotations) but for your first 3 difficulties, this means that by the end of the expansion, your more casual players will have burned out on seeing the same basic dungeons ad nauseum. The tradeoff here is that it means less constant running of later dungeons, so the burnout is perhaps better distributed across the full slate of dungeons for a given expansion, but still present all the same.
Lastly, for me, a big part of the seasonal gameplay that can make current play unappealing is knowing that I can do the exact same content in a few months and get better rewards. On my main, it’s not that big of a deal because I’m staying current to stay competitive as a raider and dungeon-runner, but for my alts? Eh, I could level my last 3 classes to 60 now, but I could also just wait and then benefit from higher item level gear in normal dungeons right off the bat, especially if a patch is on the horizon. For the flaws the old system did have, one thing it did very well is making your progress meaningful and complimentary. Doing Heroic dungeons in Wrath meant having a slate of item level 200 gear, which would help you upgrade via badges into some 213 stuff, and then each patch gave you new options to upgrade higher with new gear. Imagine being an LFR player who ground really hard to get to a 195ish item level in 9.0, only for Heroic dungeons to outstrip the hours spent in Nathria on LFR in less time? Granted, that’s always the question for a game – is the gameplay fun even if the reward isn’t – and if you think it is, that means it’s fine, but not everyone will feel the same. On most of my alts, I go the path of least resistance, which right now means dinging 60, getting up to around a 210 item level average, and then backing off or moving on to another alt. Every now and then a new alt will catch my fancy for a while longer, but I prefer having a reasonably good stable that I can work through one at a time over scattershot alt gameplay, or a heavily analyzed list of tasks to chase on each one methodically.
Are Seasons Beneficial To World of Warcraft?
So all of that said, do I think seasons add to WoW, or take away some charm? Well…it’s a little bit of both. I think overall, they are a net positive – more stuff to do, more value from launch content, and a structure for endgame that is mindful of what came before. I do sometimes find myself making decisions based on the seasonal structure that push me away from the game, though – if a patch date with a season drop is announced, I’m likely not playing alts (or exclusively playing one, like my Druid late last season). At a certain point, I just get fed up with certain content and stop doing it instead of the game meaningfully tapering off the content with a goal to reach – modern reps are endless grinds and at a certain point, I’m not interested. I do Korthia on my Demon Hunter raiding main once a week, because any more and I get irritated (although I am doing it on alts now, so…). I do Torghast on my DH once a week, because I have a Rank 6 legendary, my best legendary is a good fit for all the content I do, and so I do Torghast only the one time so I can push the Adamant Vaults for a Conduit upgrade. These are because the game doesn’t have a defined endpoint for these and doing them more brings less value for each repeat.
However, in the end, it’s hard to imagine WoW now without seasonal content structures, and were they to decide to change that someday, it would likely take a lot of work to build a system that would be able to replace it well, warts and all. I’d be curious to see what such an attempt would even look like, but for now, I think the seasonal content structure of the game has enough positives that it works out.