To say that WoW is in a decline right now would be an understatement to some, an overstatement to others, and yet, it feels generally well agreed-upon. A lot of different players have a lot of different opinions on the current state of World of Warcraft, and those are grounded in a lot of different expectations of what the game is, can be, and should be.
For me, there are a few different possible things to examine here, and I want to start by narrowing my own scope for this post.
Obviously right now, a big part of the public sentiment about WoW is wrapped-up in the information that has become public from the state of California’s investigation into sexual harassment and discrimination at the company, and rightfully so. A lot of WoW team members were named in that, both current and historical, and it was, for many, the straw that broke the camel’s back for people’s perception of Blizzard, the WoW team, and the game. I think that it is important as ever that we continue to focus in on this point and understand it well, as a lot of the negativity directed at Blizzard originates in this issue and it is a deserved negativity, in my opinion. For those who complain about “the facts” or are stupid enough to claim there could be a countervailing “sorority culture” (I have read that somewhere and it is as awful and ignorant as it sounds!), the facts of the case have not been disputed by Activision-Blizzard, but instead they have weaseled around it by saying it doesn’t represent the company today. Having said that, I’m actually not touching that issue any further today other than to mention it here – because it is important, but to be quite clear, WoW has a myriad of issues that face it that have nothing to do with the lawsuits the company faces or the content moves the company has made in the face of those legal actions.
So let’s look at the issues WoW faces as a game, a work of art, and a product, and then I’ll end by discussing my personal take on the state of the game and how it reflects in my gameplay (or lack thereof, as the case may be).
Do You Like Your Community Or Not?
I’m starting right at what I see is the key issue, which is a question that I think needs to be asked seriously – does the WoW team have any measure of support for or respect for the game’s community?
Overall, I believe that the WoW team probably sort of likes the community the game has, because even as it has declined out of the top slot in the genre, the game remains popular to a point and there are a lot of vocal defenders of the game who will dismiss even nuanced critique as toxic negativity. I start with that because I think there’s a duality we’ll discuss, but I believe that the WoW team is grateful to have a fanbase even still, and that does factor in to the calculus on this issue even with what comes next.
Having said that, I think the WoW team doesn’t particularly care for the opinions of players that much. They’ll make some moves that are rightfully grounded in player feedback – the adjustment of numerous upcoming tier set bonuses from patch 9.2 in response to player feedback comes to mind – and those moves are good. However, a lot of the biggest issues of the last few years of WoW boil down simply to a formula – Blizzard presents us with a gameplay system or feature, it is panned by the community, the community is told they don’t understand it well enough for that opinion to be acted upon, the game launches with the feature as Blizzard wants it to, and the feature is panned still, because more time with bad gameplay doesn’t suddenly make it good, and then Blizzard says “oops, our bad” and charts a path away. This would be understandable as a goof that most creative types make if it had happened once, but it has happened so many times just since Legion that it cannot be so simply handwaved away anymore.
This was compounded last year when a lot of high-end players shared their experiences of having worked with Blizzard in private channels at the company’s behest to try and improve the game, only for the feedback that Blizzard solicited to be dismissed by the very same company! The dismissals were fairly telling too – in different moments, Blizzard has said that feedback from most players can safely be dismissed due to a lack of understanding, while high-end player feedback is also discarded because those players are trying to “sell the solution” to whatever issues they perceive. So then, uh, what feedback is accepted, Blizzard?
A big problem compounding this is the way in which Blizzard attempts to cloister themselves from feedback, to aggregate it through other avatars who take the hit instead. The announcement of the Community Council sounded good to me at the time, but I realize that it is in-effect making a set of players the tanks for the community, putting them in front to pull aggro instead. You don’t understand, you’re trying to sell a solution, and now we’re too busy, tell these unpaid players your feedback and we’ll maybe look at it, we swear!
As I always say when this topic comes up, on some level, I get it. Players suck to deal with sometimes, especially the tactless morons that love to complain about the game in snippy tweets that are @’ed at your personal account or shotgun-blasted to every Blizzard account in the world, and I can absolutely wrap my head around the very-real mental health degradation that can come from dealing with that. However, at a certain point, the game needs the WoW team to be more upfront and engaged with players as a trend. Tier set changes this week are a good start, but they are only a starting point and must be more consistently the way they deal with feedback before I give them unreserved kudos for it.
This is compounded by another issue that must be discussed, however.
The Unmitigated Hubris of How The Game Is Presented
It wasn’t that long ago that Blizzard was on top of the world, especially the MMO world, and they had earned with that a certain amount of leeway. When Blizzard announced new features or systems in the golden age of the game, their arguments for them could be taken at face-value and if they stuck to their guns on something, there was a certain logic to letting it play out and seeing how the team stuck the landing, because they usually did.
The problem is that the team has not stuck the landing very often on these features for quite some time, and yet they still bullheadedly charge at every critique to insist they know what they are doing before it becomes very clear that they do not. A big part of the game’s history with feedback was the Ghostcrawler era, where GC would often defend things in the game – and his hit rate wasn’t too bad, as often he had a good read on things. He also knew when to backtrack and look at the game critically, and it feels like a lot of the best times I had in WoW were when the team was more invested in the give and take of player feedback. Yet it could be taken at face value that when the team stuck to their guns, there was some reason for it – and the success rate of the game in those older days warranted that acceptance, as it felt like there was real compromise on things. Cataclysm’s Heroic dungeon tuning at launch comes to mind – the team was pretty fixed on the idea that the game would find its way as players geared up and tackled the challenge more regularly, it didn’t, and they made pretty quick adjustments over the course of days rather than weeks or months, and it certainly didn’t wait for a patch.
These days, the problem is twofold – the team will not admit defeat when overwhelming player sentiment pushes them in a direction contrary to their path, and they are slow to make changes and often stutter-step meaningful improvements over long periods of time when they do admit defeat. They were defending the Maw design for weeks in the Shadowlands beta, only to make a very small adjustment to how dailies were presented, and to then “fix” their own bad design in 9.1! The Covenant system was upheld as the bastion of player choice and character development through alpha and into beta, only for an 11th hour change to make it only slightly less punishing to change Covenants, and then finally in 9.1.5, they cheekily admitted defeat but claimed it as victory – that their narrow view of the system had somehow enriched player experience instead of just being a meaningless obstacle to either power or flavor, depending on what choice you made. I’ve yet to meet a single player, even the most lore-obsessed, who think that the Covenant system of launch was a net good to the game, at least in terms of the choice component and particularly switching.
The 9.2 trailer has been harped on a lot, but it represents the very heights of this hubris. It represented a categorical misreading of the community wants and needs for a new patch, and it did little or nothing to actually address the real, systemic issues plaguing World of Warcraft. When people are telling you that the content you make is lacking in fun factor, you need to be clear on how the new stuff will remedy that, but the 9.2 announcement video was not that. The interviews also made some bizarre additional limits on things, like the still-weird-to-me legendary limitations and the ominous, not yet clear explanation that the Cypher of the First Ones will “replace” Renown, which makes it sound good until you realize that it likely is also just a shitty timegate grind. Don’t worry, that topic will come up more later. In fact, why not now?
The Game Is Built In A Fundamentally Unpleasing Manner
Tying into the hubris I mentioned above, one of the things I most loathe about the current state of WoW is how clearly designed it is to siphon my time, while the team has the absolute gall to pretend that it has not been designed that way.
Take Battle for Azeroth. Yes, I know, it was pretty well panned too, but hear me out – I enjoyed the gameplay of BfA more than Shadowlands, because there were opt-outs on the systems that made the expansion feel bad. I loathed the Heart of Azeroth as a system, but it gave me a choice – the power increase from leveling it was relatively small, save for trait breakpoints, so I could choose to engage with the game how I wanted to earn a baseline of Azerite, which was rewarded from everything in the game, and it only tied to itself. If I chose not to grind my HoA up excessively, I could still keep to a power band with my fellow guildmates, and while I would be less effective in raid than I otherwise would had I ground out those levels, the catchup mechanics ensured there was a lower bound that I couldn’t fall through, while it otherwise did not prevent me from engaging with other content in the game. I could still do story quests, because those were on their own weekly gates, which was annoying but at least it was just a basic timegate and it was only tied to itself.
Renown is worse in every way, period. Renown is what the HoA was for power growth – a steady, slow rate increase that is locked to an upper-bound and made to keep players from falling below a floor of power, and yet it also then gates access to other content. In BfA, if I came back mid-expansion with my HoA at a low level, I could still go to Nazjatar for story content and eventually even on to the Black Empire invasions of patch 8.3 and catch up easily, and the road before me to catch up on the HoA was clear – I needed x Azerite, and the questing I could do would reward me a certain amount which made the path predictable and plannable. Renown catchup is decent, but also unpredictable – it comes from activities, but what activities? How often? The game doesn’t explain it, and for a system that controls access to story quests, you need to explain that way more in-game so everyone gets it. The game makes you wade through an uncertain and unknowable rate of progression in order to then unlock access to other content. If you play the game as new Renown caps enter, you have to do your weekly chores to gain access to the story quests, for no real good reason!
In Legion with the Artifact and BfA with the HoA, I had a choice to engage minimally that was still clearly presented and did not lock me out of anything but player power, and I could choose to passively engage and let the two forms of AP from those expansions flow in as they would anyways, leaving me slightly weaker than my peers but not immeasurably behind. Renown as a system does not allow for that until you’re on the “catchup” track, and then it muddies the waters by only sometimes spitting out a Renown for activities.
This is the design element on which Shadowlands has been made awful to engage with at times. If I want to do story quests, I have to gain Renown, which means literally doing chores in the game. If I want to keep up in raid, I need to gain my Soulbind traits and Conduits, which means doing all manner of confusing and ill-documented activities to get them, while also keeping my Renown up. If you love PvP and don’t really like PvE, god help you because you’ve gotta get on that grind too! You might then say “but Kay, the game is built on a foundation of repeatable content that grants player power!” and you’re not wrong in theory, but in practice, the HoA and Artifact systems give the lie to that talking point. In the past, non-engagement with the borrowed power mechanics of a given expansion did not hamper your access to content, just your effectiveness in it, and even then, you were still able to keep up through whatever you enjoyed doing. Leveling an artifact could be done in world quests, dungeons, raids, PvP, and even mission boards. The same was true of the HoA. Renown only offers you that when you’re already behind, and it does so while preventing access to other parts of the game.
So much of the game in Shadowlands is built like this, though. Rare spawns with great rewards require long waits and extracurricular study to be able to tackle them effectively. Changing Covenants, while easier now, requires a focused effort to ramp up your Renown with the new Covenant that stretches over a couple of weeks at a time. So few of the game’s myriad systems explain themselves clearly in-game, so you have to go outside it to even make sense of some things, and Blizzard’s response to players getting better at figuring things out has been to make more things forcefully obscured. Puzzles are fun sometimes – the Overmind mount, the Riddler’s Mind-wyrm, those kind of things are great! What is less great is when I need an external guide to understand how to progress my character to a point where they can do the story quests when I come back to the game after a few months away. But at least I can then do all the content, which brings me to my next point…
The Game Condescendingly Tells Me When I’ve Had Enough
Back in the day, I used to agree with Blizzard on the idea that gated content was helpful because it would prevent players from going too hard and then blaming the game. I’m not too proud to admit it, I was wrong on that agreement. A big part of Blizzard’s fixation on gating content – using sharp progression climbs to limit grinding like the Artifact Weapon’s built-in XP curve, parceling out the story quests in a weekly manner, and the once-a-week roll at gear per raid boss – are all designed around this idea that players, if left unchecked, would stupidly throw themselves at the game until they got what they wanted. It’s not completely unfounded, either – the Maw of Souls Mythic Plus fixation in early Legion came about because it offered a more-efficient way to grind out higher amounts of Artifact Power.
Despite that, though, I still find the approach to how content is gated to be condescending to a point. Blizzard is telling me that I cannot determine for myself when I have had enough, and so they piecemeal chunks of content out to save me from myself instead of just, you know, letting players have the agency to make that decision for themselves. It also just-so-happens that this manner of content gating serves Blizzard’s business interests, how convenient! Over time, this has extended to so much of the game that there’s precious little in the game that is just open without reservations. If you don’t do LFR, you can run a whole raid as far as you can go immediately upon launch (oh, except for 9.2 where the raid will have a weeklong delay for the final 3 bosses, which is a small nitpick that affects a minority of players but hey). If you run Mythic Plus, you can smash through keystones day and night as soon as a season goes live, and the same is true of PvP.
The extension of this gating into casual modes of play has made it more odious, though. The story being held behind two gates – a time gate and a Renown gate – is bullshit that clearly serves no one except for Blizzard. The reduction in the number of available world quests also directly challenges casual players, who could, in BfA and Legion, do as many of those quests as were up, and there were more up!
I’m okay enough with reward thresholds – I don’t dislike the intent or design of the Calling/Emissary system for World Quests, as an example, because it means that most players can carve out a small chunk of their day to get a decent reward for that time and don’t need to spend hours knocking over every possible world quest. In fact, I actually like threshold rewards as a design and think that it should be done more instead – it’s a part of the reason I think the Great Vault is actually good and should be expanded upon. If I know that a 3-boss raid run is going to give me something then it becomes more compelling to do, just like knowing that finishing a Mythic Plus dungeon, even well past the timer, will give me a reward in the vault means that I am vastly more likely to stick with an underperforming group to see the end.
It Feels Bad Because The Core of What I Love About WoW Is Still There
All of this criticism, and it is a lot I know, touches on the things that feel bad in WoW because they stick out and are sore spots. What compounds this is that the core of the game is still something I really enjoy. WoW is the smoothest, most responsive tab-target MMO on the market, and for as much as I love FFXIV, its combat doesn’t quite close that gap. WoW has this incredible sense of worldbuilding such that even when the lore is godawful, there’s still something to love about the world itself, and even in Shadowlands when that world is a fragmented set of disconnected islands, there’s still something about it I like. I like the painterly art style of WoW, the use of color to breathe life into every corner of the game – it still hits on those marks.
So much of what has been written about World of Warcraft the last 5 or so years, by me and others, feels grounded in this very-real sense that the game can be good, can be better than what it has become.
Right now, I have seriously grappled with the idea of quitting WoW, this time in a more real and meaningful way. A friend of mine recently quit the game, and it had this feeling of finality to it, even though he quits every expansion at some point. I haven’t played the game in nearly two weeks, and it will likely be weeks or months before I even log in again. I have some measure of interest in patch 9.2, both in the raid and in getting the swirly red death elemental from Season 3 Keystone Master, and I feel like there’s something interesting in seeing Zereth Mortis and how the game works its way forward out of the Shadowlands era. But I also feel like the game isn’t really worth my time, because I have this fear that the content I want is going to be behind three layers of artificial constraints and that the content I do enjoy will be a brief jaunt that will feel rewarding and then empty. The process of learning the new routes of Mythic Plus and performing to expectations and beyond is always rewarding but then ultimately starts to feel repetitive, and the raid is likely to be interesting to a point but then also encumbered in layers of mechanical repetition and overlap that wear thin over a far-too-small amount of time.
And of course, right now, this posture is easy to have because Endwalker launches in less than 24 hours, and it is exciting and fresh in all the ways that WoW isn’t right now. Will I still feel that way when I finish the MSQ of Endwalker? Will I still feel like I don’t want to play WoW when my jobs in FFXIV are all level 90 and there’s little left to conquer? The truth is…I don’t know. A part of writing all of this down, besides people reading it, is for me to try and figure it out.
The truth of WoW, of most MMOs and indeed even most modern games, is that a turnaround is only a patch away, an expansion away, and the gloom and doom of Shadowlands in 2021 may not be the defining event that I’m becoming more convinced it might be. For all the bluster about how bad and unrewarding WoW is, it only takes that one solid content drop to bring people around. The real question going forward, then, is simple – do you trust that Blizzard can deliver that next amazing drop to turn the game’s fortunes around?
The answer for me right now is…maybe, maybe not. And that feels bad, because I won’t lie – much of my identity in my twenties was “WoW Fan.” My brand on this very site is the same! Much of my office is plastered in WoW paraphernalia and so much of my disappointment in Blizzard is wrapped up in having the artifice they presented and that I bought into ripped away, for them to be a company that I once liked and envisioned wanting to work for to now be…this. For them to have always been this when talking about the harassment and discrimination, and for them to have become this in terms of game quality – where “Blizzard polish” is a joke, where the old jokes about releasing content “when it’s ready” take on a new form where content takes too long to come out and isn’t ready when it does, and where the going concerns seem to be ignoring the actual plight they face while trudging on with more timegated, poorly designed and poorly explained content. It makes the moments where WoW does shine more frustrating in a way, because you can see them still being capable of greatness but just not reaching it that often.
Essentially, at present, being a WoW fan is an exercise in frustration, and at some point, there’s a limit to how much of that feeling you can stomach before moving on.