(This post marks the end of a WoW-themed week of posts analyzing the current state of Shadowlands and the future prospects for the game as a whole. There is a post on the creator community, a post about the ideological perspective of WoW’s storytelling, a post about the gameplay of the game, a post analyzing the silent average WoW player, and now this one.)
To cap off what turned into a weeklong journey into the current state of WoW and discuss hopes for the future, I think the last thing to visit is the idea of discussing the game at all.
Over the week of posts, there’s been a lot of dialogue and interesting comments, and while I can’t pretend I masterfully planned the progression of things, it kind of worked out to land here – we talked about the community as represented by social media and content creation, discussed the dismal storytelling in both structural and ideological terms, talked about how WoW’s gameplay is still often quite good but focused very much on the high-end of players, and then revisited the community to talk about the normal player who is very disconnected from pretty much all of this discussion.
On top of the posts themselves, a couple of comments on post number 1 kind of formed the theory I want to explore here today – Shintar and Lostalife pointed at different perspectives of the same basic question: why discuss WoW when you can either not play or play it? Their questions and analysis of where I was going with all of this actually kind of got me, in that it pointed at an emergent narrative within my own experience with the game. So, I’ll just discuss this one personally, with little pretext of analysis, and try to answer the question in the title.
But fair warning – we’re about to take a (very related and brief) detour into another media favorite of mine, and longtime readers will start their groans in apprehension (I promise I’ll try to keep it short).
World of Warcraft Is Like WWE
Okay, so stick with me here.
In the world of wrestling, WWE is the name brand. If you ask someone on the street what they think about wrestling, they’ll ask if you mean WWE (or WWF if they’re old enough), and they’ll use it interchangeably.
WWE is also a company and organization that is going through some turmoil, although WWE’s form of it is more specifically on the shoulders of a single person. For much of WWE’s life in the modern, Vince McMahon-run form, the company has peaks and valleys of success. From Hulkamania in the 80s to running international TV from high school gyms in the mid-90s because that’s all they could afford and sell out, to near bankruptcy as this era coincided with the hottest competition they ever had in WCW, before they won, bought out half the wrestling business for tape libraries, and coasted until 2019, when new competition has undermined their position, the business has met with multiple challenges.
Currently, the thing about WWE is that it can be quite good – they still (even after firing more talent in 2021 than any prior year) have a compelling roster of performers and the show has things about it that you might like in comparison to its competition – world-class touring production, flashier production, generally more interesting storylines and matches with women, and generally better Black representation. However, the show itself is a tedious slog, with an episode of Raw being 3 hours formatted like shit – recapping things you saw an hour ago, conveyor-belts of forgettable matches with no storyline consequences or payoff, and at some point, you ask why you even bother when you’re sifting through so much shit to get a few tiny nuggets of gold. For me, at this point, I’m not a WWE fan and I haven’t watched their show on TV in full since 2019. WWE has two annual events that are often worth watching – the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania, and I have not watched the last two Royal Rumbles and this year’s Wrestlemania will be the first one I don’t watch in 20 years after having watched last year’s event on a free trial to Peacock.
WWE was foundational to my love of wrestling as a child, especially as a teenager, and my adult experiences with wrestling largely have centered on that company – I went to 3 Wrestlemania shows live in-person and their template for a wrestling show has defined much of the lens I view wrestling through, for better or worse. Falling off of WWE as a company was not a fast process or one that happened immediately, but it became a slow progression – not watching any of the weekly shows, watching small bits of the weekly shows, not watching every monthly pay-per-view event (even when they went to the streaming WWE Network model!), and then it was missing the other two big events of the year, Summerslam and Survivor Series, before eventually I was just tuning in for the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania, before I was just eventually not tuning in and watching the highlights clipped on the squaredcircle subreddit (an episode of Raw at 3 hours distills down to around 6 minutes of fun clips, just for reference).
I’ve felt a sort-of slide of the same sort happening with WoW in my life. Certainly, as I’ve stated many times here over the years, WoW is foundational to my experience with the MMO genre and with a lot of growth moments in my adult life. I still tend to view every other MMO I come into contact with through the lens of my WoW experience, my office room is still a display of thousands of dollars of WoW merch, from collector’s edition boxes to Blizzcon tchotchkes to a retired server blade, and the one thing that still bonds the majority of my friend group is our shared experiences in World of Warcraft. Yet I’m not really sure if I should or shouldn’t actually play the game anymore.
WWE fell off fully for me once they had a viable competitor I wanted to watch in AEW (I was a New Japan Pro Wrestling guy before that, and NJPW is still the one promotion I’ve seen on two different continents after going to a live Korakuen Hall show in Tokyo in 2019 and their San Francisco special the prior year). WoW has a lot of similarly-styled competitors nipping at its heels – games that learned lessons from what worked with WoW, what still works with WoW, and have added their own formulas to it.
In truth, the current moment is more of a WWE vs AEW metaphor than it is WWE vs WCW. I don’t think that WoW is going to fold, even as I see the fact that the game is arguably closer to that possibility than at any prior point. I think WoW having viable competition is a good thing, and the hope is that it pushes the genre as a whole to new heights.
So on a smaller timescale, I have felt slowly more alienated from WoW much as I did with WWE shows. There’s been less of what I like, a feeling of meaningless repetition and tasks that go nowhere, all the things I’ve noted in prior posts. And yet, because there’s no equivalent to Reddit clips of WoW, I find myself still maybe, kind of, wanting to play the game. Humorously enough, it wasn’t until writing the posts for this week where that actually came into focus, which Shintar and Lostalife both kind of picked up on. Am I bargaining to come back? Maybe.
In my head, I’m not even sure what going back to WoW would look like right now. Would I raid? There’s a likely spot for me, and I could flex to any role and class, although my DH was so well left that she’s only barely behind the gear curve of a lot of my guildies. Would I do Mythic Plus? You bet your ass I would. But…would it be worth it? Eh, I don’t know.
I’m at what I would call the “Royal Rumble to Wrestlemania” phase of my WoW fandom, I guess. There’s clearly something there, and I’m interested in it to a point, but the question I have to ask is if I am missing out. And the thing is, I don’t know if I am, genuinely. A big part of my WoW gameplay became habit, not good or bad, just routine. If I came back to raid, I’d be committing to some unknown number of weeks of progression to get to an AOTC achievement. If I came back to do M+, I’d be committing to X weeks of rating grind plus a gear treadmill I can run on easily enough. Would I feel like there’s enough value in that to reinstall and resubscribe? In many ways, that is something that these posts have served to help me work through, despite not answering the question for me.
The Lens of a Return
So as the thought simmered subconsciously before breaking through to conscious thought this week, a big part of me reading and getting into the trenches of discourse about World of Warcraft was gauging if I wanted to come back. I couldn’t just ask my friends or guildies because they’d say I should, and if I put it to them first, then it creates a social obligation and now I’m stuck. So I tried to look through the lens of what Warcraft twitter was even on about, and…well, the first post of mine this week emerged because it was a trashfire. Positive creators responding to people with passive-aggressive condescending garbage, alternating between “the patch is really good!” and “here’s my list of 108 fixes for 9.2!” and the tenor of it just felt pretty bad. Ironically, I never watched Soul’s videos before this PTR cycle, and his 9.2 gearing video cemented me not coming back for patch launch – he did a good job, but he explained the systems for just gearing outside of dungeons and raids and it took twenty minutes. Good lord, that is a lot of complexity.
So I found myself torn. On the one hand, I’m pretty happy with FFXIV as my main MMO and going back to WoW would not change that, instead seeing WoW take that runner-up spot FFXIV used to have for me. I haven’t really missed the game that much, short of vague bits of FOMO around watching the world first race and the push into Heroic raiding from my guild, and I can’t be sure yet that the feeling of missing out is rooted in authentic desire to play, or simply because I’ve played WoW for so long that not playing it still feels weird and foreign. On the other hand, I do feel like my friendships are hamstrung slightly by not playing WoW with my friends (we’re an awkward group, it’s whatever), and the last time I took a big WoW break was for Throne of Thunder, and I still feel FOMO from having missed the bulk of that raid tier when it was current!
The other big thing is that for all the flaws that WoW does have, I think the core game is still interesting to a point. The experience around it – storytelling and narrative structure, systems and presentation – are where I find specific flaws I strongly dislike, but the core gameplay of WoW is still several degrees smoother than any other MMO I’ve ever played or tried. While I have a lot of respect and appreciation for and enjoyment of FFXIV’s combat and the more strategic nature of it, the frenetic feeling of WoW melee is just its own category of fun unto itself for me. On top of that, so much of the gameplay I do enjoy in WoW centers on that gameplay, which has always been the game’s core strength in my eyes.
So through a certain lens, I could see coming back as an enjoyable activity where I could rejoin my friends to raid, run some dungeons, get my kool-aid man mount and keep my AOTC streak alive, and then unsub again until either Season 4 (if the contours of it look promising once more specifics are out) or until 10.0 (which I will talk more about next week). In fact, I’ve mostly viewed my current distaste for the game as a hiatus more than a forever goodbye – I’ll be tempted to pick up 10.0 at launch unless the presentation on the 19th is just the lore team talking about Sylvanas for 30 minutes, in which case I might just uninstall the Blizzard launcher from my PC and burn my WoW merchandise in the dumpster near my building. (I can say this now because the possibility of that happening is 0.0001% based on…things.)
The Blizzard “But”
On the other hand, subscribing once again means giving Blizzard money, and that comes with a complex set of feelings to unpack.
To start with, I still remain staunchly against the idea that playing any Blizzard game right now is a moral or amoral move. WoW is a game made by a large and diverse staff, which has at times in its past included known and outed sexual harassers whose view has infiltrated some of the game’s story content, but it is more than just those elements and is not solely defined by them. If you choose not to play based on the lawsuit (oh, there was another one launched by a former employee this week), that is a fine choice to make, but it is not the only one. That being said, I think it is tough to muster much actual support for Blizzard right now in any form or fashion, because while individual development teams might be making decent choices for their games, the company as a whole remains mired by all of this and still startlingly likely to get away with what amounts to a slap on the wrist. The American justice system, baby!
On the actual development side for WoW specifically, I have a pretty split perspective here. On the one hand, every indication is that the focus on quality of life changes that players wanted in 9.1.5 and 9.2 was a deliberate move to improve the game with the directive from on-high being “make it better for players” and like, that is pretty cool and decent. On the other hand, with a sharply cut-down expansion, the changes we have seen feel pretty in-line with the memed WoW expansion lifecycle people joke about, where the final patches of an expansion see them fix the game to make it worthwhile only to shit the bed when the next expansion comes out and they stick to their guns on the new stuff. The stories about how 9.1.5 came to be sound much more like the team was not going in the direction they did and it was basically junior developers and designers being given the floor that led to actual change.
And a big part of the community venom right now can absolutely be connected to the way in which Blizzard does not interact with the community. A lot of the discussions had on social media, in videos, in Twitch chats, and in blogs, is really intended for Blizzard. We’re expressing opinions publicly in hopes that they reach listening ears and spur positive change. And we know that Blizzard is watching, at least a bit – I have Blizzard followers, individual employees and the verified game accounts will sometimes interact on social media, but they only ever really seem to watch and then issue edicts – there’s no sense of conversation.
I think it is fair to say that a large number of players were critical of the Q&A livestreams back in BfA, but for as flawed and sometimes-soapboxy as those could be, they were Blizzard engaging, and we don’t get that at all anymore. We’ve had literally one semi-open Q&A in all of Shadowlands, and it was the filtered and pre-screened Blizzconline 2021 Q&A. Blizzard has retreated fully into friendly media – the only influencers that get interviews are those who are overwhelmingly positive towards the game (Preach, even when he was still actively discussing the game and still decently positive, was blacklisted by Blizzard PR) and Blizzard has been retreating more into legacy games publication interviews over even influencers most of the time in Shadowlands, so their answers and presentations meet with zero critical feedback.
As a logical result of this, we’re all basically providing feedback into the void and then the growing tension leads to more tense disagreements over feedback, because if no one can get a Blizzard answer, well, dammit, we’re going to prove out which ideas win in battle with one another. Of course, Blizzard is not solely responsible for this, and much lays at the feet of the people who get into said arguments, but it is an understandable side-effect of having a team not engaging with public feedback as often as they once did, which was still more engagement than today even at the worst of times. This also actually meshes far too well with the Community Council concept, where the only way to get things in front of a council member who can then post it in the forums is to either DM them on social media or make a raucous argument happen in plain view that draws their attention in and intrigues them.
My biggest disappointment in Shadowlands has mostly been that the team has basically gone MIA from public appearances at all. No Q&As, minimal open dialogues with exclusively friendly creators or legacy games media, and a pervading sense that the game team is purposefully not engaging with the audience’s feedback. I’ve seen it said that the current team seems to have the “rockstar” mindset of past generations but without the successful mega-hits under their belts, and while I’m not sure I 100% agree with that sentiment, I can kind of feel it a bit – the level of confidence they’ve publicly expressed in systems and designs that end up grating on the fanbase is, perhaps, too high.
So I come back to Shintar’s comment on the first post of the week, which posed an interesting question for me – at the end of the day, if I’m not playing, not planning to play, and the feedback is largely ignored anyways, then why am I still writing about WoW? Through all of this, I think the answer is simple enough – I’m not playing WoW at the moment, but I might want to, at least a bit.
Shadowlands is not, in and of itself, the straw that broke the camel’s back, not for me and I would wager not for most. The expansion represents a general continuation of a trend downwards – away from open communication with fans, away from player feedback, towards a hyper-focus on raiding and dungeons not just in those elements but also in how other content serves players doing the raids and dungeons, and away from the simpler narratives that served WoW well in its younger days. What’s more, the cinematic ending for the Jailer is not just in and of itself a poor ending to a vastly underdeveloped character, but because it sets the stage for further cosmic, incomprehensible threats – the very kind of story that current Blizzard just does not tell very well and which players have had very specific clamor against.
For me, as a total package, WoW is lacking severely in a couple of categories that tend to shadow its shine for me – the story just removes so much of the actual value of playing in a fictional world: the idea that actions mean something. The game’s gear treadmill is fine enough, but it layers on extra stuff that lasts so briefly as to be meaningless, and I would not blame you for looking at the game’s gearing system and gameplay loop and thinking “wow, this means nothing!” and nope-ing out of it. The game’s raid design still puts a fairly substantial amount of emphasis on each individual’s performance against mechanics, which means that raiding can sometimes be frustrating at your best, and I neither want to feel irritated towards people I generally like nor for them to feel irritated towards me because of a mechanic in a game, and yet the last tier of raiding in Sanctum left me feeling that way enough that it was a big point in me uninstalling the game.
Yet ultimately, writing this week exclusively about WoW has given me cause to reflect on the experience as a whole, and there is still something there that I really enjoy. For right now, I’m not sure if that is a feeling of habit or even perhaps addiction, or if that is a genuine sentiment held because I do enjoy WoW just enough to get me there. For today, I don’t think it’s enough to get me over the hurdle of reinstalling and resubscribing, but the thought is there. When I uninstalled the game, my thought was to wait until 10.0, to see if I felt like the itch was still there then and to see if I was hyped enough for the game to cough up the cash for another expansion. Also, looking at Shadowlands, it really was a pile-up of small things over any one large thing for me. Sure, the story is dreadful, but it only colors that first playthrough and those immediate moments of reaction. Sure, the gear treadmill gets new seasonal convoluted bolt-ons each patch, but gearing and getting more powerful is something I enjoy (I love it when numbers go up, what can I say?). I really like my forays into Savage in FFXIV, especially now that I finally got the stupid fucking bird down and on reclear status, but my time with high-end raid content in FFXIV is pretty brief each week with reclears on 3 fights and needing to find prog groups for the last fight of the tier, and I could easily squeeze about a dozen M+ and two nights of prog Heroic raiding into that margin.
Really, my leaving the game came from the intersection of multiple events, some of which had little to do with the game itself – Shadowlands’ delay after I spent much of the end of BfA not playing, the temporary departure from my guild last summer, the generally slow cadence of Shadowlands patches, Sanctum of Domination in general as a raid, the main story as a whole thing, the Blizzard sexual harassment lawsuit from the state of California and the months of sordid stories that followed, and a pile of general nuisances in the game, from 9.0 Maw to the frustrating on/off of flight, and then the Legion Mage Tower starting up on Endwalker launch day kind of sealed the deal for me. There were also competitive factors on that note – New World got me for a bit, as did Lost Ark, but Endwalker just absolutely hit right with the story and polish of the overall experience such that it pushed FFXIV over WoW for me and likely would have done so under better circumstances for WoW.
So to close this out, I guess I have to answer a few questions. Why am I still writing about WoW? Because I want to come back to it at some point and writing about it allows me to contextualize that for myself (and maybe, hopefully others in the same boat). Why the topics I chose this week? In my head, I wanted to illustrate the various factors that would go into the decision to return, which meant facing the criticisms I have of the game and the broader discussion around them. Will I come back? I mean, probably. The question more relevant there is “when?” and the answer to that is still “I don’t know.”
On the one hand, my resistance to the game is breaking a bit now and I’ve contemplated a return in the coming weeks, because 9.2 does look like a better and more interesting patch than the early previews and PTR process would lead you to believe. For the aspects of the game I really vibe with, there’s a lot on offer there. But at the same time, I feel like there’s a bit of parlor trickery here, like of course the last major patch of an expansion is going to be the apex of the expansion, where the early feedback is acted upon and the game finally feels whole and integrated for the most part. There’s no innate proof that this is a trend for Blizzard and that I can expect 10.0 to be more player-centered, more responsive to feedback – it’s just a two-patch string of largely the same type of system fixes we’ve been getting late into each of the last 3 expansions. The story, based on the datamined voice lines of next week’s finale and the Sylvanas novel, looks like it is going to get worse before it gets better (without going into detail on the datamining, it looks decent in a way and I’m actually kind of okay with it, but the Sylvanas novel is…uh, not looking good, folks!)
With all of that said, I can outline two things I want to do going forward here.
Firstly, I have 3 more planned WoW posts – this Monday, I want to analyze some actual datamining with relevance to the 10.0 prospects, and to actually sit down and craft what I would really want from it personally. This Tuesday, I plan to write up a full analysis of the actual, launched Sylvanas Judgement cinematic we know is coming. Based on the datamining, I have some small hope that an encrypted cutscene could perhaps give us something to push it over to solidly good (and it isn’t actually bad as-is, all told, although some people will be unhappy regardless). With it will probably come some Shadowlands lore retrospective and analysis of what failures plagued the main plot of this expansion, while I will have some room to celebrate the leveling and base Covenant stories given how those turned out. The last post will be analysis and opinion on April 19th of the 10.0 expansion unveiling, which I plan to watch and comment on.
Outside of that? Short of brief news topics that might pop up, I plan to largely keep my nose out of WoW for a minute past those plans. Shintar’s comment hit the deepest with regards to who the criticism I was providing is for, and while I still have a part of my brain that thinks there is value to share in that, the longer I remain uninstalled and unengaged with the actual game, the further my analysis will get from cogent or relevant. I think expansion content announcements are marketing events first and foremost, and so I’ll give myself room to be critical there on the basis of considering how effective the marketing push these materials will provide ends up being, but I’m not going to say much more about live WoW unless I resubscribe.
Personally, a big part of it for me is that writing about it in the depth I have this week (nearly a full novel worth of words across 6 posts!) has heightened my FOMO in a way that makes it hard to tell if I actually want to play WoW or if I just feel like I need to because it was my main hobby for almost two decades. On top of that, I’ll admit this series, while fulfilling and rewarding in that it contains at least two drafts I’ve worked on for literally months, was draining and taxing to write and I haven’t had as much time to respond to comments or engage outside of just writing and revising this week, so I’ll probably have days-late responses to comments over the weekend or even just next week altogether.
Either way, it’s been a pretty great week to see a lot of people come through with open commentary and thoughtful contributions for the most part, and I appreciate everyone that read all of the nearly 30,000 words I had to say about World of Warcraft this week. I know it’s a lot, but after nearly 4 months away from the game, I had a lot of opportunities to gather up my thoughts and get them on the page, and while my hope is that Blizzard reads and contemplates some of them, at the end of the day, it’s cathartic for me and hopefully gave you something to chew on regardless of your viewpoint on the game.
And who knows, maybe I’ll write a joke post about savage raiding in FFXIV this weekend that involves at least one “choke the chicken” joke for doing reclears on P3S!
Probably not. Actually, hmm…we’ll see if that one makes it out of the drafts.