Yesterday, Blizzard announced something that felt inevitable and yet also was a surprise – that access to double-legendaries in patch 9.2 of World of Warcraft will require getting to Revered reputation with The Enlightened, a new faction in Zereth Mortis coming with the patch.
This was…controversial, and ignited a bit of a firestorm on multiple sides. A lot of players pointed to the interview from patch announcement season with Morgan Day, where the Cypher of the First Ones was said to not be gating player power, which is accurate to a point – but unlocking additional world quest options requires the system, as do additional daily quests to speed things up, so it doesn’t quite feel that way – although players did also run with that to mean that the zone itself would be optional for player power, which is not what was said, albeit in the most roundabout and weaselly way possible.
There’s an argument to be had about grinding for things in MMOs, as Wowhead’s math puts it at around 28 days of effort to get the unlock of the new legendary option, which seems about right – conveniently, around a month, a curious measurement that is which I am sure doesn’t have any relation to real-life business metrics of monthly average somethings! Joking aside, this does mean the raid likely launches without players having access to two legendaries, so the balance implications on earlier boss fights are interesting.
So, I want to address all three of these points in reverse order, because I think they capture a lot of what is polarizing about WoW right now!
Double-legendaries is obviously a player power thing, and having it gated means that the early bosses in the raid are (hopefully) not tuned to require them. This is fine enough – if balanced for correctly, it means that there is a soft-nerf for the raid that will hit relatively early into progression, giving you a boost over any wall bosses for your group to clear your base difficulty for the raid. Short of overall gear progression, legendaries have the most substantial DPS contributions of anything, so it’s not exactly a small buff to have two either.
On this front, I don’t find it that bad – it creates a contour to the gameplay design that, in abstraction and on its own merits, isn’t an awful thing. What is likely to happen for a lot of more casual or time-limited groups is that when your raiders start unlocking that second legendary, you’ll see the raid able to push harder against the fights that give you trouble – and if your group happens to be clearing the full raid already at that point, farm runs or higher-difficulty pushes get easier on their own just for the benefit of that power.
So, abstracted to this one point, it’s…fine, maybe. But we can step outside of that to analyze the remaining points, on which this decision fares much, much worse.
A lot of the advocates for the game I see these days have pushed back on negative opinions about this gating, stating that rep grinding has always been a thing for player power and this is no different.
To a point, that is true, but we need to evaluate what the past rep grinds have done differently.
In the golden age of WoW, most reputation gear was a stop-gap measure of power, not a goal. Getting the Hyjal reputation up to max in Cataclysm at launch gave me a sweet cloth belt on my priest that was item level equivalent to the normal raid that first tier, but that belt wasn’t meant to be a major goal to chase – it was a minor one, a sort of bad luck protection from not getting the belt I wanted out of the raid (Omnotron’s version of the cloth belt was better itemized, if I recall correctly). It wasn’t a 10% power boost to have the rep belt, but it was a valuable gearing measure I could take to cover for bad drops. I could also, you know, actually grind the reputation, by putting on a dungeon tabard for the faction and heading into any Cataclysm dungeon over and over until I was right where I wanted to be. I had agency and a choice – do I let a slow trickle of quests give me the reputation I need, or do I supplement/replace them?
This new grind here is artificially slow, because there is no measure you can take as a player to meaningfully expedite the grind. The measures you can take to speed things up require interaction with the Cypher of the First Ones, a topic which we will dive into more in the next point!
So you set out at the start of the patch to grind out the reputation, and the game puts you on a treadmill with a carrot in front of you. This power is too big to pass up – a single legendary can often add as much as 10% throughput to your player performance, so you gotta have two if you intend on playing your character to full efficiency. It doesn’t take much time per day to get done with everything you can do for reputation – about 30 minutes moving slowly – but you have no means outside of the path offered to speed things up or alternate the route. There’s no self-made, bespoke route you take with a mix of reputation gains, there is only the one path, dictated and enforced by Blizzard, and the only choice you get is to add additional daily and world quests to that path through the Cypher of the First Ones.
Unlike the single pieces of loot of past reputations, that legendary isn’t going anywhere for the duration of Shadowlands, however long that curse lasts – it’s not a belt you get to fill a gap and then replace eventually, instead being something that you need to get power that you’ll be keeping until some point of 10.0 progression where an arbitrary off-switch gets flipped to disable the item. On all fronts, the grind is not comparable to the past, because it has a lot of restrictions and rules set by Blizzard, no alternate path to progression, and you have no real agency on what path you take, because there’s only one, and the choice you get is what the speed limit is on that road.
And how you are able to dictate that ties into point number 3…
Weasel Words And Community Perception
In an interview with TheStartingZone podcast back in November, lead game designer on WoW Morgan Day discussed 9.2 content to come. One of the biggest bullet points that came out of that discussion is that the Cypher of the First Ones system will “drive a majority of outdoor content” but that no raid player power will be bound to it.
This point, playing telephone, became that the zone would basically be optional for raiders or those seeking player power boosts, as those would not be tied to the Cypher of the First Ones system, which drives a “majority” of the outdoor content of the patch, and thus those points were conflated to be “no player power from the zone.”
On this front, I do have a smidge of empathy for the team, however small and slight. The wording was precise – you do not have to engage with the Cypher of the First Ones for power, and that is still true. The challenge there, however, is simple – the Cypher of the First Ones does expedite your journey down the path of two legendaries, by having research perks that add world quests and daily quests to the zone outside of the small number you get baseline. It also gates flying, which can be used to speed up your daily tasks in the zone, and which is likely to be earned before meeting the reputation requirement.
So it becomes a bit challenging, because on the one hand, what was said in the interview is true – you do not have to interact with the Cypher system to get the double-legendaries unlock done. However, it then becomes an open question – how much are you slowing yourself down by choosing not to play content from that system? The answer is…at least a little bit. Firstly, daily questing in the zone at all requires a base unlock via the Cypher, and while daily quests do not guarantee reputation, they have a chance to offer a 100 rep token, in a similar vein to the Korthia Death’s Advance token rewards you would sometimes get. The third world quest slot you can unlock for the zone comes from a research perk as well, which is available on day 1, but again does require some small amount of interaction with the system. Of course, flying makes the process smoother, and that requires around two weeks of plugging away at the system.
And this is where we get to Blizzard, weasel words, and the community perception. Firstly, I will again point out that what was said is technically true – you do not have to play through the Cypher research tree if you really don’t want to, and on that front, Day is correct here. However, it is an unnecessarily obtuse and weirdly-framed way to look at that issue – if you have to do world content for the legendary unlock anyways, you’re not going to cut your potential rep easements off by refusing to interact with the Cypher, because it will make things easier and the flow of the zone is built around it, not the reputation.
For a set of players, what chafes about the systems of Shadowlands is the amount of play you have to do outside of your chosen enjoyable game modes to get things that are more or less necessary for higher progression. If what you want to do is log in, knock out some raid fights or Mythic Pluses, and the game instead pulls you by the arm over to a reputation grind that makes you noticeably more powerful, that’s not going to feel good, and that is the core complaint I would address with this. Telling us that “it’s not tied to the Cypher!” is a real bad case of missing the point. If it was a rep grind for a standard 1%-ish gear upgrade in power, that wouldn’t be so bad – rep gear is fine! When the system in question is substantially more than that, however – for a set of players interested in their performance, it becomes a requirement to have. Sure, the game isn’t forcing players to get it or to have it – but if you’re pugging the raid, you’ll need it, if you’re trying to push hard on Mythic Plus or the raid, you’ll need it, and so the idea is not “great, I don’t have to interact with this system” but instead “I need to do these chores to get a boost of power I only need for things outside of this content.” It’s that crossover that is potentially lethal to player interest – where my goals require doing content I enjoy less.
Is it truly mandatory, the second legendary? No. Is it true that I can avoid the Cypher and still get to that goal? Yes. Does that really address the core feeling of mandatory deviations from my chosen gameplay route for power I want and need to do my best in my chosen gameplay? No. World content isn’t inherently bad or unenjoyable, don’t get it twisted – but if you log in with limited playtime and have to do 30 minutes of chores every day for a month to stay on the path, it feels pretty bad. That 30 minutes could be a dungeon key run per day, a couple bosses in the raid – some measure of other thing I would prefer to be doing. If I’m already going to have to do world content to get a double-legendary, I’m not going to also do a weird dance to avoid touching the Cypher systems, I might as well just engage. That’s where I think Blizzard misses the mark.
To be fair, players absolutely telephoned the shit out of this interview, relaying increasingly grandiose-sounding versions of how little we’d have to actually be in Zereth Mortis to play the patch content a progression-focused player would enjoy to where it sounded completely optional. In the broadest possible interpretation, it is still optional. However, this is also where I feel Blizzard has an opportunity, because they hit us with a very specific, carved out exception case early on when nobody knew shit about what the patch gameplay even looked like, and so it was easy for imaginations and misreadings to fly. Sure, technically, there was a different interview with John Hight in Chinese where he even said the rep was required – and that was missed by a lot, myself included, until I researched this piece. This is where clear, consistent, centralized communication would benefit the team a lot. Telling me I don’t have to touch a system I don’t know anything about doesn’t mean much to me, especially when that point is buried in a podcast interview that went for an hour. Telling me I need the reputation in an interview in a language I don’t speak with unreliable fan translations as the only way I can interpret that news is a poor comms strategy. The actual news breaking via PTR push without any sort of additional statement (until the requirement was disabled for testing) is…also a pretty idiotic method of communication!
So ultimately, the statements in interviews were true, but because they weren’t centrally communicated to players and were subject to unofficial translations and hearsay, players got very different contexts for the news until the PTR confirmed what we know now. Some of that rests on the community, but it is hard to be too irritated with them – if you present a system as the core gameplay of a zone and then say that system is optional, it isn’t a far leap to make that the zone is optional world content, especially when there is no other official information out about the system or the interactions with zone gameplay. Players did some of the misinforming of themselves, but ultimately, the responsibility to be clear rests with Blizzard, and it didn’t take huge leaps in logic to land where most people did, utterly surprised by yesterday’s PTR drop.
The debate raging on this topic is interesting to me because it captures a part of why I think WoW is suffering so much right now. People saying “oh no, you have to play the game to get power!” are sort of being obtuse and missing the point – WoW has a ton of different modes of gameplay that players can choose from. At its very best, the model allows players to go down a path of their own definition, doing the things they want. If I want to do world content, it’s there – and a lot of players, probably a majority, do that content and even enjoy it. There are pure raiders, dungeon-runners, and PvPers – and they might not hate world content or even enjoy it – but the idea of player power gated behind that content is offputting because it is time away from the things you would rather do. When 9.1 launched, something I appreciated about Korthia is that outside of the weekly, it was optional – I could choose to do the zone once a week and never look at it outside of that, or I could go in daily and play a little.
As it stands right now, the thing about Zereth Mortis that feels bad is that it is another case of Shadowlands pushing players into world content, whether they want it or not. If you just want to raid, that normally is good for player power, but your biggest single increase to power rests outside the raid. Same goes for dungeons – your biggest boost comes from outside of that gameplay. For the first month of the patch, this content must be done if you want to get that second legendary on-schedule to be able to participate fully in raiding, dungeon runs, or PvP.
While it is true that the forced nature of it is more due to social standards in the game and how people are often excluded for not being at the cutting edge and not necessarily down to a limit enforced by the game itself, social pressures in a social game become real requirements all the same. What further exacerbates this is that reputation is not inherently catch-up-able – if you fall behind, you are just behind, since the game doesn’t, at present, have a mechanism to allow you to sprint ahead in reputation. If it was tied to the story, that wouldn’t feel as bad, because that is a once-a-week check in and one that has catchup built in, where if you come back later in the patch, you can sprint ahead. It would still be a timegate, but less of one. As it stands now, if you get the itch to play WoW 6-weeks into the patch, you’re going to be behind the curve for a full month, and at a certain point, you’ll just be flat excluded from a lot of PUGs who will likely start requiring two legendaries to ease through DPS checks and the like.
That’s without getting at the nature of how stupidly artificial these gates are. In terms of lore, it doesn’t make that much sense that the power we need to accomplish a shared goal is hoarded by this new faction in spite of them accepting us early. In gameplay terms, the fact that it is limited to a 30 minute or so hustle every day with limited means of shaving days of chores off feels bad – you can’t no-life it and you can’t fall off a day or two, because you just end up tacking those days on the back of the journey. And whether they intentionally did this or not, the fact that it takes a month of continuous daily play to unlock is easily something that can be dunked on – you have a business driven by monthly subscribers and you just happened to math out this grind to take about a month, which really means two months of sub time since you’d grind to that second legendary and then finally be free to play with it, hmm, how very peculiar! I used to give Blizzard a ton of benefit of the doubt on things like that, but I literally almost died laughing reading the math on reputation, and how it so neatly fits to being a full month – 28-31 days at current PTR levels, it is so on the nose that you cannot convince me it was done accidentally.
Ultimately, all of these are quibbles and first-world problems, and I want to close on that. None of this is life-affecting or challenging in any real substantive way. What all of this gets at is a question of the nature of what WoW offers and how coherent and cohesive that package of content is, and things like Renown and now gating the second legendary behind reputation are, in my opinion, things that upend the previous order of the game. As I’ve been saying a lot lately, WoW at its best to me is a game environment where I am free to self-direct, to pick from a lovely buffet table of content only the things that I enjoy and to be able to savor them. Shadowlands is a parent telling me I need to eat a plate of salad first – the salad isn’t bad on its own merits, and I might even enjoy it, but telling me I have to have it first before I can hit the prime rib station makes it feel worse than it is. It only breeds contempt for the content – Zereth Mortis might end up being the best zone the game has ever seen, but if you shove it in my face, I’m going to hold at least a little bit of distaste for it even if it is good.
And all of this depends on perspective, of course. As someone who was a dungeon runner and raider, even though I did world content willingly, having to do it for a player power goal makes it feel worse, but if you play more casually or really enjoy world content, this might not be an issue and you might even be inclined to think it’s overexaggerated to a point from those who don’t like this change. My simple takeaway is this – for most of WoW’s history, you’ve been able to play only the things you want to get where you want to go – raiding offered the best power for raiding, dungeon gear was great for dungeons, and world content offered catchup gear to keep you feeling powerful and give a sense of progression against the open world as well as being a bridge to get you into higher-end gameplay if you so desired. WoW’s gameplay has a similar feel in combat regardless of where you are, but there’s a difference in terms of engagement with world combat compared to PvP or instanced PvE gameplay.
In the end, 30 minutes a day for a month isn’t an unreachable or even unreasonable bar to hit. But in the context of the game environment, its history, and the communication around these systems and the patch, it’s another cut of the thousands of tiny wounds Blizzard has put on themselves in the last couple of years. However minor, it is an element of choice that is largely removed, and while a chunk of that rests on community standards as much as it does on design from the team itself, functionally that doesn’t mean much to most players who will view it as required grind regardless.