(This is the final part of my originally-planned 3 part discussion on the current state of WoW and some things I would like to see going into the next expansion. Based on response to the first parts, I’ll be adding two more to close the week out – a different angle on the community topic and then discussing my hiatus from the game and what I want in 10.0 summarized. Part 1 on the creator community is here, and Part 2 on the story perspective of Warcraft is here.)
Of all the topics I’m going in-depth on this week, I think the most exciting to me is gameplay, because it is the one thing I still genuinely find enjoyable in WoW for the most part and the one thing I really miss about not playing the game. That’s not to say that it is perfect or free of issues, but that I think that gameplay overall is still the place where WoW remains a winner on the merits.
For the last post of my planned 3 part series, I wanted to close here because I think that the gameplay has a lot of things to discuss in positive light, but also that I think need clarity in the discussions to come. A lot of WoW discussion has been dominated by the idea of what is or is not related to systems, borrowed power, and where those things may help or hinder the overall gameplay experience, so I wanted to sort of set out my ideal for 10.0 in gameplay terms.
Firstly, I think the biggest boogeyman of the WoW fandom is oft-misunderstood, and that is borrowed power. It has become a catch-all term people use to refer to anything in WoW that isn’t their character but does empower their gameplay, and we’ve become all too familiar with the borrowed aspect as we have given back this power each expansion to go into the next one.
But I think there’s a rub here, which is this – the innate idea of borrowed power is not bad, and execution of it can be more or less good. The Legion Artifact weapon system, as one example, was fairly well-received by most players I saw, and I think that while aspects of it needed some tweaks, it felt, at the time, like a really transformative and interesting part of the game, to the point where so many people were speculating and wishing that we kept them or at least the idea and system – maybe make our own weapons or take a slightly different direction, but keep the concept. The announcement that they were finite and would end was, I think, a moment in time at which players began to really rally against the idea of borrowed power.
With some time away from WoW under my belt now, I think there’s a point to be made about borrowed power – what I think grates against player interests is not the mere existence of such systems, but when they do things that invalidate or devalue prior work done and when their temporary nature is revealed. I think what worked for the Artifact system is that it largely maintained value throughout the expansion – if you put in a ton of effort in 7.0, that was rewarded on a continual basis as patches rolled out, and while a new player could more easily gain ground, they had to tread the same path you did on a much-faster timeline. On top of that, the changes made to the Artifact system were always additive – they added new things to the trait tree, new things to do, and added value to the investments you had already made. With the exception of the 7.0 Paragon trait being trimmed to a single point in 7.2 (a thing that affected an absolute minority of players at the top end of the game’s competitive scene), no changes to the weapon came out that made the work less valuable or took away the effort. It did this in a way that also made the late-starters no less able to invest, by the rather smart move of making the 7.2 capstone trait for point dumps one that was a proc where each point was a minimal increase in value, giving a natural reason to move to alt-spec weapons or on to an alt character altogether. The weapon felt heavy on investment at launch, which was bad, but by the end of the expansion, they had it very well figured out in my opinion.
Even the Heart of Azeroth itself had this to a point, with a system that rewarded early effort while still having catchup, such that active players often fit into a very narrow band of HOA levels.
So what is it about borrowed power that chafes, then?
Well, I think the easiest place to start is the temporary nature. Borrowed power going away, no matter how well-reasoned the logic is, still feels bad and like work gone to waste. Starting BfA with a weakened artifact and no traits felt pretty bad, because the weapon was the cornerstone of gameplay for just under two years. It mattered, and it mattered a lot, and then it didn’t. In a persistent RPG, investment over long periods of time being paid off this way is never going to feel great. With the nature of these systems, I’m not necessarily sure that is an easily solvable problem, either – how do you pay off the investment players make in these things without just carrying it forward in perpetuity and having to balance future content around an assumption of players with these traits while also ensuring that new players can get caught up in two expansions when players have had those items for nearly a half-decade? I’m not foolish enough to think I could solve it.
Next, however, is something that I think is a design problem that can be solved. Borrowed power systems in each expansion have had elements where prior work is invalidated and that feels incredibly awful. In BfA, Azerite Essences added a much-needed punch up to the Azerite system as a whole, but with the rank system, a problem emerged over time. In 8.3, the approach was such that players starting fresh would need to be able to catch-up on them rapidly, so a lot of players were able to power through and skip the early ranks altogether, pooling resources enough to jump right in. This was a sound catch-up mechanism, but it also left players who did the grind for them in 8.2 feeling a little cheated, in a way. Sure, it was just one aspect of your player power, but it was also something that took a fairly long time in the early era of the system and made that work feel cheapened. Is this a logical feeling? Perhaps not, but it was felt all the same. This also came after the 8.2 content gave players the item level boosts to their Heart of Azeroth that players at launch had to earn through Champions of Azeroth reputation gains, creating a layered feeling of this sunk cost.
Shadowlands has done this via Conduits. At 9.0 launch, ranking up conduits was a long process that took time, effort, and a lot of Stygia (assuming you even did enough of the Maw to get the ability to upgrade Conduits via gambling). You had to target specific bosses, farm for your chosen conduits, hope for a lucky drop, and this process repeated quite often through launch, as you started with a baseline of Conduits at 145 item level and could have them as high as 226 by the end of 9.0, but only through a mix of raiding, Mythic Plus, and high amounts of Stygia farming in the Maw, which, given the timed and limited nature of time in the zone at launch, was infeasible for many. At the point I was able to start gambling Conduit upgrades (because it randomly selected a low-tier conduit for a single-tier bump!), I could get a single upgrade this way per week, and I had to hope for it to pull the “right” Conduit for my raiding performance.
Then 9.1 came out, and you could push Conduits to as high as 252, but you needed to grind in the same way – in Korthia now and for a new currency, but still. 9.2 has finally gotten it somewhat right by taking a concept that was hotfixed in for 9.1.5 – buying all Conduits at 200 item level – and extending it to upgraded item levels, such that the easiest way to max-out your Conduits now is a book that you can buy with an appropriate, high-difficulty achievement. Basically, it was a lot of work early in the expansion, with each patch making that earlier work less and less valuable and the coming expansion likely to make that work meaningless past 10.0. The sentiment conveyed with each system like this is that the work put in early in an expansion is rendered meaningless and does not hold value past the patch in which the power is earned.
Conduits tie into a second concern from Legion, which was the Legendary system for most of that expansion. Randomness in rewards is a design element of most RPGs, and while it does not have to be the case, it is quite often. I think most of us accept randomness in elements of our games – chances for critical strikes, chances at a given loot drop, but the probabilities of those are often controllable to a point – farm the right boss, increase your critical strike stat, etc. Conduits and especially Legion Legendaries were both godawful experiments in randomness. Until late in 7.3 in Legion, a wrong Legendary drop could cost you a raid spot at the high end, and while that is an absolute minority of the playerbase there, it felt bad to a large swath of the playerbase to be hoping for that ideal legendary drop and often waiting long past the point of when you wanted it for the drop to finally occur, closer to when those drops would lose all value and simply be high item level pieces of armor. Conduit drops have had a smaller-scale problem – you can get the effect at lower levels and empowerment from 9.1 helps a bit, but your ideal state is to have the highest item level you can get and that may take a while of waiting for random drops (unless you are a Keystone Master or Arena magician!).
So, borrowed power in 10.0? I’m fine with it if it is suitably rewarding at all content phases of the expansion and earlier phases remain rewarding, if it removes a certain element of frustrating randomness to clear the way for it as a plannable goal, and ideally if it can be something that continues past the margins of the current content, although I am not sure how you can do that well or if it can be done (and I’ll fully admit to a lack of imagination on that one).
The other big word of modern WoW is “timegating.” From story content to raid and dungeon access, much of modern WoW is pushed out in phases – a single piece at a time, or with predicted curves around when players will access things. A story campaign rolls out 1-5 chapters per week, amounting to a similar amount of gameplay for each week of the patch cycle in the early period, raids and dungeons don’t open the doors for a new season until a week or two into the patch so players can get used to balance changes in current content and tuning, core pieces of the experience like flying are gated off until later, usually a patch or two deep into the expansion, and often then stagger-stepped, with some content allowing flight, some not, and some requiring separate gating for that.
Timegating is one of those things that you can point at easily and say it is bad, but there are levels on which it can be good. The preseason week at the start of a new patch can feel dull for content-pushers, but having some time to get used to things and test the waters is generally good. Gating the story content can go either way – it gives you something to do for about a month post launch, but there’s a valid case to be made that players should be able to self-regulate on content consumption of this nature. Flying is always controversial, and I’ve turned around on it completely from the Argus days, when I wrote defending the idea of grounded gameplay and gated flight.
So what makes timegating bad? Well, generally, it is when it feels artificial in nature. What stops flying in the launch window of an expansion? We’re given no lore reason or idea as to why, it is just an accepted gameplay limitation. The story quests can feel that way, but they often do a passable job these days of building narrative breaks into the story, which then break themselves if you do the whole thing 4 weeks into a patch, but that break is relatively minor and a nit-pick. To some extent, I think we can all look at timegated content and ask the question “what purpose does gating this fulfill?” If you can’t think of an answer, it is probably unnecessary!
My cynical reading defaults to a business decision – a patch story taking a month to unfold to completion means that someone subscribing for patch day is on the hook for two months of sub time – that return month and the following one as the story finishes just past the finish line of the first month. In this case, to be perfectly frank, I think the cynical read is correct – the total content of a story questline in a WoW patch amounts to less than 10 hours of gameplay, often less than 5, so there’s not a reasonable “saving players from themselves” angle to be had here. On the FFXIV side, the story content of a patch is often 10 hours or thereabouts, and it is all available on day 1 to go through however you see fit!
So I think that some things are fine – preseason windows, raid opening delays at launch, all of that is fine because it serves a justifiable purpose to players and developers – time to adjust class and spec tuning, final tweaks from public and internal testing of raid and Mythic Plus content, and at expansion launch, of course, time to level to the new cap and run through the story on offer. Other timegated things, like the story rollout, flight, etc – those can and should be reconsidered and eliminated going into 10.0, in my opinion. Flight can be an earned thing – Aether Currents in FFXIV accomplish this far simpler and with much less player vs. developer friction and have justification within the game’s lore.
But all of this has been warm-up to the big point I want to make here today, which is…
World of Warcraft Can and Should Be More Accessible And Understood In-Game
WoW is a complicated game, with layers upon layers of mechanics and interactions that must be understood to really be able to do well at it. It focuses a lot of energy on content that a minority of players see and puts a lot of story significant events behind the walls of said content, while the rest of the playerbase is often left underserved on story events and gameplay because the game is seemingly designed with the idea that players will consume a fair amount of the content on offer, which does not seem to be how many people engage with it. WoW, as of late, is also a confusing mess of a game to come back to or join in modern times, as the game will pile on a large number of systems and things that need to be known now to play the game, but will often be discarded even just a patch later.
Let’s start with the big and surprising one for me to tackle – content choice. I love raiding in WoW, and I love Mythic Plus in WoW, but it needs to be said that a minority of players, based on what we can suss out publicly, actually engage with this content at all. I will never say it should not exist, because M+ is a value-add for work already done on dungeons and raid content is still one of WoW’s high points, but I do think that it needs to be reconsidered in terms of how central it is to the game.
Raids have the story beats and big moments of each expansion tucked away inside, which is fine in theory but means that maybe 1/3 of your playerbase actually ever sees these things in their proper context in the game. The rest either watch on YouTube or have to have other ways to see these moments like the Korthia quest that just shows the Sanctum raid cinematic, or otherwise they just don’t see it. To a lot of raiders, having the big story moments inside the raid is a distraction between pulls, one that presents a non-optimal viewing experience for those that care and annoys those that do not.
To be fair, this is not a new problem either. WoW has almost always been developed as a raiding game with the raid having the story and big, overarching plots. As the game has gotten older, it has consolidated this more and more, despite making larger pieces of the story accessible outside of the raid scene. If you did not raid Black Temple in TBC, you never even saw Illidan all expansion, save for a smallish cameo in a quest. Part of Arthas and Deathwing making more appearances outside of raid content in their respective expansions was a correction to this.
I think that 10.0 represents an outstanding opportunity to correct this. Most story should live outside of the raid, both for non-raiders but also raiders, as I think that story content not being in a group environment with pressure to continue a run is ideal for all parties involved.
But outside of that, I think WoW has a larger issue with player accessibility that needs to be looked at.
Coming into Shadowlands right now is a mess of systems, currencies, and entangled ideas that the game does not do a great job of sorting out for those players. If you’re there from the beginning, it’s fine – but if you start today and get a character to 60, there are over 10 currencies for just Shadowlands content and at least 5 systems to learn (Covenants, Conduits/Soulbinds, Legendaries, Maw content, Cypher of the First Ones) and that’s assuming no dungeons, raids, or the like, because then you add more on top of that, and even this is a trimmed-down version. And, here’s the rub – systems and currencies are not inherently bad especially when they serve a purpose, and many of the systems in Shadowlands do act in service of gameplay. Putting aside any judgment on how they do at that role, it is just a lot to have to familiarize with, and the game doesn’t offer much to a player trying to learn all of these at once, which is the situation you’re pushed into at level 60.
A big chunk of WoW has been hurt, in my opinion, by the push to external guides, whether it is the official patch survival guide video or a written guide on Wowhead. The systems should explain themselves well within the game, so that guides are then for nuance, theorycraft, and optimization for those players that want them. I think some of the metagame “bleed” into WoW is absolutely down to the fact that big chunks of the game can often feel inaccessible without external help. I’ve tried a lot to get my wife into the game over the years we’ve been together, and she was an active player in Cataclysm, but there is just too much going on in the game to break her resistance.
When I think about what I would find beneficial in this way, I think of a few things. A better tutorial system, quests to introduce systems with voice acting that veers closer to a tutorial (our character needs to know in-universe how things work too, it wouldn’t be that contrived), the ability to more easily redo choices or undo things, and the like. I’ll admit it is a tough problem and some of what I just wrote here could easily disturb the sensibilities of a higher-end player, or would even be things I would be annoyed with, but make them skippable and I think you can take the edge off enough.
On both fronts, I think that WoW could be healthier, and both ideas would create a better game that would have broader appeal and more audience-targeted content in the different modes of play that it supports.
PvE Content Design Could Use Some Love
On the one hand, my contacts still playing all mostly love the current raid in Sepulcher of the First Ones. I’ve seen a fair number of comments about tuning, that the raid is vastly overtuned on lower difficulties for a group that will keep progressing to the next tier raid on the same basic difficulty, and that is a problem, but most commentary about the design of the raid outside of tuning are remarkably positive. As someone who has been casually observing the race to world first from outside, it has been a fun watch, with a lot of clutch boss kills and high pull counts even early into the raid tier.
Having said that, there are some trends that I have seen still apply that I feel like could use some course correction.
Firstly, I think Blizzard should look at admitting defeat in the arms race against addons like DBM. The mechanics the team is making to attempt to stymie these addons create overly complicated fights with a lot of layers of stuff happening at once or with a lot of randomness, and while that works well enough against a target of high-end raiders, it also creates a further barrier to entry for smaller casual groups. I think there are a lot of mechanics that can be done in the space still without needing to try to fake-out an addon, and trying to fake-out the addons escalates the arms race further.
On the notes about tuning, I think that raid tuning in general has a lot of room to improve. One general trend I’ve noted in the past that was a catalyst for my break from the game is that raid balancing is so often done now in a way that subverts improvements via gear, where there are very specific breakpoints at which gear is helpful and then falls to be hurtful past that, or fights designed in ways that make improving gear just simply does not benefit the group as much as it does elsewhere in the same raid. This also seems to be improved in Sepulcher, where a lot of the fights feature DPS checks where higher DPS is generally a benefit, but it is telling that in the case of fights like Halondrus, you can see points where DPS has to stop for a phase transition or mechanic to occur gracefully, and improved gear power coupled with DoTs and passive damage sources mean that you may not be able to pump the brakes on DPS as much as you would like.
Lastly, however, I think that raid reward design is generally quite good this expansion overall and had some high points early in Shadowlands (weapon tokens in Castle Nathria) and has some current high points (tier sets and the bad luck protection of the Creation Catalyst), along with expansion of existing systems in ways that benefit the game (changing the Mythic Plus chest to the Great Vault has expanded the reward system in a really potent way).
On that note, I think that the general design of rewards in Shadowlands has been fairly good, and I would like to see that continue into 10.0. In the past, I’ve written that the only thing I see as opportunity for the Great Vault (especially after the recent changes made in hotfixes) is to expand the scope of what is rewarded. In line with the casual gameplay emphasis I’ve noted here, I think a World Quest reward slot would be great, as would expanding the dungeon tier to include Normals, Heroics, and Mythic base dungeons. The reward could even end up not being gear – but something akin to the currency they just updated and expanded the use of, allowing you to get gold, various endgame currencies, maybe even legacy currencies that are still in-use like Pet Charms. Hell, add battle pet fights to the Vault too!
In terms of actual gameplay flow, I think that Blizzard ought to look into a few things. Firstly, while the World Quest experiment of Shadowlands was interesting, I think having more world quests up per zone at a time gives players more to do. At the same time, I think the varied goals and mix-and-match nature of the Calling system for World Quests was great, and is something that should continue. I generally prefer the Calling or Emissary systems over a mix of daily quests, and I think that systems that allow players to choose to do things over several days are generally more friendly than a daily need to finish the offered quests to maximize reward.
Lastly, to points I made about timegates above, I would like to see the idea of easily-accessible but worked-for flying to be a thing as a reward unto itself, with players in charge of their destiny (at expansion launch). I’d also like to see less timegating on the story quests, if any. If players want to rush the base story of the expansion, that should be their option, and if that means the average player is done week 1 compared to week 5, I think that offering that choice offsets any potential downside.
For Mythic Plus, I largely think the system as-is in Shadowlands is pretty great. I think that it is not for everyone, and that is fine. I’d like to see more ways to take the time pressure off the back of a single player – finding a tank for PUG M+ tends to be a challenge because so much of the burden of a run is on them, even more than a raid setting – they set the pace, the route, and their survivability and play determines how much the group can pull, and that creates a ton of pressure that is totally not worth it for a lot of people. I think you can tweak some affixes further, like Necrotic, and I think that you can tune incoming damage in the base Mythic dungeon to better scale at high keys, or even can adjust the curve of scaling to create larger steps between keystone levels or to implement tiers at which difficulty can be allowed to spike upward before settling back to a static pattern. It would be cool to see more player interaction with affixes to make some choices – maybe an M+ currency to allow players to reroll one affix on the stone for that run to create a different combo or even some form of Mythic Plus consumables that could provide direct function in only M+, like a potion that restores a certain amount of time on the timer, or some form of buff item for M+ that gives you a unique item buff to power through, like a huge attack/spell power burst for 30 seconds or something that slows the attack and casting speed of all enemies in the dungeon by a certain percentage with either a fixed total duration or a total “value” that diminishes based on reductions applied (so if 5 mobs attack you with the effect and have their attacks made slower by 1 second, it would reduce the effect by 5 seconds against a total reduction value of like 60 or 90 seconds). Having consumables for M+ outside the standard food/flask/potion combo would be valuable, especially if you formulate them into the mode as a planned resource (1 item per run or a fixed value of items per minute normalized to the dungeon timer), because it would add strategy that would exist outside of class composition or run route. (Can you tell I like Mythic Plus?)
Lastly, I think the game needs more rewards for fun that are accessible to more players. Protoform Synthesis in Zereth Mortis is great for this in a way, but it would be awesome to see even more mounts, pets, and crucially for me, cosmetic armor and weapons available outside of raids or dungeons. I’d love some way of getting new and unique crazy set appearances or flashy, significant weapon models that really pop, and I think the best way to put fun and unique art where players will get it and gravitate towards it is to find ways to do it outside the raid environment.
I struggled with even writing this up, but in general, I think that WoW needs to focus in on tuning under more conditions in general. Shadowlands has had some good moments (nearing the tail end, 9.1.5 had classes and specs showing very close to each other with a small margin between top and bottom, which is great) and some bad (a lot of Castle Nathria felt bad because some specs were pretty sharply undertuned, and then there were things like the Windwalker Monk bug fixes after that caused that spec to fall off sharply in raids), but I think Blizzard should always be chasing the ideal of perfect balance, even though such a thing doesn’t really exist in-game.
At the same time, I think that there needs to be some new abilities in our level progression in 10.0 to spice things up, and I think that our active use abilities that are new in 10.0 should be permanent parts of the class and spec instead of being tied to temporary features like Artifacts or Covenants.
On the gameplay front, my quibbles with WoW in a post-9.2 world are relatively minor and places where I think they could do better with changes for other players and not as much for me personally, and even those changes feel like they would be minor in scope. Most of my gameplay apprehension for the idea of 10.0 comes from seeing what lessons they learn from Shadowlands – how they approach borrowed power and timegating of content, and if those things are buttoned down really well, I think 10.0 could be spectacular, overall.
Now, while this started as a 3-part series, over the next two days, I want to visit two more topics to close the week on – I want to revisit the topic of the community from a different angle and then I will close the week of WoW with some discussion about what my stance on 10.0 is at present.