Shadowlands, the 8th expansion for World of Warcraft, launched 1 year and 1 day ago.
It has been a contentious expansion, full of moments where players of all stripes have been at a loss to describe what they like and don’t like – myself included. Battle for Azeroth was polarizing, but less so in a way, as there was a broad sense of consensus about what people liked and didn’t like about the game at that point in time. Shadowlands has been much more a grab-bag of issues – anyone you ask is likely to echo some shared dislikes about it but then have their own various little issues with the expansion. I like the core combat of WoW but dislike the structure of borrowed power in this expansion that is built on top of it, and I find the storytelling objectionably bad with content too spaced out and sparse. The PvP community feels underserved in various ways, the world first race has never been so small while exacerbating the faction imbalance that has been long-present in the game, and those who don’t raid, PvP, or push keystones are left with chores that increase their power far beyond what is needed to explore the open world and push the content there.
All of this comes on top of the massive scale of revelations of late – that Blizzard specifically has a sexual harassment and minority mistreatment problem of a large scale, and that is nested into a larger corporate culture from Activision-Blizzard that makes those problems worse.
I start with all of that because it feels incorrect to commemorate the game’s anniversary without doing so – that talking about the game in isolation is a disservice to the community at large. However, there’s something interesting (at least I think and hope so!) that I wanted to discuss. It started with this video (yes it’s a meme video about FFXIV vs WoW but stick with me here!):
This video actually raised an interesting point about the WoW team that I had never really considered – when looking at the WoW team and how they address the community, they never really talk about the ways in which players can simply “be” in Azeroth. When asked about community, it becomes a pivot point to discuss whatever the hot topic of the day is, when asked about the ways in which players want to hang out together, there’s an almost dismissive move back to a grounding in content completion.
The thing that fascinates me when I think about this point is that Shadowlands is nearly completely devoid of ways for players to simply exist idly in the space we all share.
BfA, for all its many faults, made a clear effort to have places for players to hang out. Both faction capitols were sprawling, massive cities in the vein of Suramar, full of buildings and places you could just…be. Granted, the game’s core gameplay loop always made an effort to direct you away, but if you wanted to RP sit in a bar, you had that choice. If you wanted to stand around and look at everyone, it was easy to do (easier for Alliance with their very-centralized Boralus hub versus the sprawling Dazar’Alor and its dual points of interest), and the game had inns with presence – seats, tables, and various other things you could RP in, if you wanted.
Shadowlands, on the other hand, has none of that. Nearly every inn in Shadowlands is utilitarian to an extreme degree – no seating, no bar, no sense of place or identity. There’s one inn space I know has seating and tables off the top of my head – the one in Oribos, and even the tables and seating there are usually occupied by Broker NPCs. There are no side buildings you can hang out in, no place in Oribos or in any other town in Shadowlands that is divorced from gameplay purpose. Everything in Shadowlands exists to funnel you out to do content. Korthia’s inn is a canopy with a mailbox and vendor. The Covenant sanctums are almost entirely devoid of places to hang out or just idle – instead being small spaces that direct you to a gameplay feature or push you out.
Now before I go much further, I think I need to speak to where you might think this is going. I’m not a roleplayer, and so the absence of this stuff is not gameplay-impacting to me. Short of guild meetings in spare buildings in Stormwind in vanilla, I’ve never really used such spaces in-game to just exist in the world.
However, I do think that the lack of these things in Shadowlands makes the game feel, well, like a game.
While I think the case for it is overblown by Classic zealots, there is a certain charm to the construction of the Warcraft play space in the past. Capitol cities had these nooks and crannies to explore – not for gameplay purposes, but for fun. There are a handful of inn-styled buildings in all the vanilla capitol cities that you can just hang out in – many of them don’t have vendors and most of them don’t have innkeepers you can bind your hearthstone at, but they are just there for you to see and be in. Azeroth was, at one point, built with this sensibility towards at least nodding at how people might live in these spaces and exist in them. There’s not enough housing, beds, or infrastructure to support even the NPCs we see, much less players, but the game used to make an effort at set dressing the space – showing us where people might live and how they might make their home.
Shadowlands is missing that sense of life, which, I mean, to some extent thematically makes sense as a realm of death, but at the same time, it feels empty for it. The game introduces us to these new factions and tries to portray the lives they lead as being just as full and well-rounded as any living person, but then pulls the rug out by putting them into a space that feels devoid of life. Shadowlands is the first time in WoW, in all of the game, that I feel explicitly like the world I’m in isn’t a world – it’s a set of disconnected levels in a game. There are no beds – does no one sleep? There are almost no seats or tables – how do people eat, drink, and relax? The feeling of the world is cold, clinical – I’ve been told this is where these people live, but I see no signs of actual life and no way to reconcile that within the construct of the game. The only thing I’m left to feel is that I’m playing a game – a game that wants me doing anything but just being in the world.
FFXIV’s cities, by contrast, have these flourishes that make them fun to run around in and be in without hampering gameplay. If I go to the Crystarium, there are apartment buildings full of rooms, there’s a huge bar area with tables and chairs and people talking and drinking, and there’s other signs of life – a field of produce, a library, and an infirmary. Eulmore hides a lot of that off-camera, but it still has an entire district of slums that serves a story purpose and a nightclub that exists solely for two quests, a custom delivery client, and players to hang out. The video I linked above makes it clear that the FFXIV team thinks about things like that, and wants players to have a shared space where they can just exist with other people, and there’s a certain sense of wonder and magic in that.
When I started WoW in 2005, one of the things that most appealed to me early on was inspecting other players and seeing what gear they had, looking up where it came from and how they would have gotten it. I don’t miss trade chat barking for groups, but at the same time, that mode of group construction put me into cities, let me have idle time waiting for groups to form where I could do exactly that. I knew the inns and fun little parts of Stormwind from hours spent forming groups and using that time to run around and explore. You might argue that the effects I’m mentioning are not from a lack of worldbuilding but instead from convenience features like dungeon queues and the like, and you are partially right, but it is also clear that in this expansion especially, Blizzard kind of gave up on making the world feel lived in and like, well, a world.
In FFXIV, I queue for things a lot and as a healer/tank, I get swept into groups quickly, and yet I have still spent a ton of time just hanging out in the cities of Eorzea. The spaces of the game are fun and fully realized, and there’s something appealing about running around even just the cities to see what you can find and where players hang out. There are memes about spending all your time at the Limsa Lominsa Aetheryte Plaza in FFXIV, and that exists based on reality – that you can just hang out there and watch players, and FFXIV gives those players things they can do to show off – fancy gear, special emotes, and things like Bard Perform actions. Limsa is a small city-state but it has a real sense of place and belonging and it’s something you can see easily from a single trip there.
Players in WoW will sometimes find their own ways to have that same fun – mount conga lines, etc – but the core gameplay of the game pushes players away from cities, to simply queue, jump in, and run content. The directive of WoW is to consume – run content, queue for things, be out in different places, and when you are in a hub, it better be quick – there’s stuff to do elsewhere. And that’s fine, and sometimes, that is what I want in an MMO – give me dungeons, give me raids, give me places to be and things to kill. But the spaces in-between that exist in any MMO need to be full of life and vibrancy too, and Blizzard has run those things out of the game. There’s nothing to be done with other players except content, and the only support for groups to join together is guilds and communities, which are just chat channels, one that grants you some flair via a guild tag and tabard and one which does not offer that.
The big social revamp of BfA was…letting you make in-game communities. Guilds feel like such an empty and lifeless means of fostering community in-game – sure, with the right people, you can have a popping Discord server and build real, meaningful connections – but the game doesn’t offer that to you. It offers you the things that helped community building in 2004, and it hasn’t updated much. Thinking on it, in fact, something I find rather interesting through this lens is how Blizzard rolled out the Dungeon Finder in Wrath and then followed in Cataclysm with the revamped Guild systems, like leveling, perks, and the like. Blizzard’s approach to trying to foster community and shared togetherness was gameplay oriented, and it was actually a decent idea – but they gave up on it, and guilds in WoW now are much as they always were – barebones chat channels. In FFXIV, my free company has a house, and you can have a room in it, and that opens a workshop and expeditions, and people stand around outside the house or inside it while forming shared activities and shoot the shit. WoW doesn’t have that, because the current team has no stated philosophy on community and seemingly even has disdain for theirs.
In many ways, Shadowlands has taken the things that WoW always used to have and removed them – for flavor, perhaps, but it has come at a cost all the same and it does make the game feel empty in a way that I wouldn’t have necessarily consciously noticed had it not been pointed out. WoW has removed a lot of the life and liveliness of the world of the game to become a disjointed set of designed levels that push you into content, and the game is worse for it.