I’ve been through a few drafts of this post, largely because trying to format and think through the very question of what 10.0 should look like is a tough one.
There’s no denying that WoW is in a place where it needs some kind of improvement and shift in design philosophy. The casual audience that makes up a bulk of the game is being left behind, in that their content is often eroded to clear the way for the hardcore players to do less of it, while the casual raid groups that make up a bulk of the game’s raid audience are being pushed harder by encounter design and difficulty curves that are much harsher and more poorly tuned than ever. This tier’s race to world first on Mythic was marked by the first time that a team ever walked away mid-race, with Liquid taking the weekend to refocus as their play degraded the longer the tier went on.
Yet there’s a strong foundation in the gameplay at the heart of WoW, and the game can keep players and can even reverse its current misfortune with thoughtful change and relatively small shifts.
In this post, I want to analyze a few angles on specific topics – borrowed power, added systems, loot and gear, PvE content design, and instanced dungeons and raids. I’m not going to go wild for speculation or propose design ideas myself, short of noting where existing designs could be extended or older WoW design philosophy could be meaningfully applied. My plan, as I write this intro first, is to discuss what I think will happen and what I would like to see happen and the rationale behind each case.
Borrowed Power has become something of a boogeyman among the WoW community, for good and bad reasons. Borrowed Power, for my purpose here today, is going to be very specific to external systems that add to your character power or toolkit, not including gear or your character’s self-contained customization choices (talents), and that are intended to live for a short while before going away completely.
So I think there’s something worth saying here first – borrowed power can be done well, but that is a rarity, because the core of the idea is something that feels bad – having a cool ability or putting work into a grindy progression system for that work and cool ability to be completely removed and invalidated in the next expansion feels awful. Artifacts in Legion were controversial, but I think nothing quite stung as much as the fact that you spent the whole expansion building out the weapon for it to be taken away at the end. The content is still there, but no new player can ever experience Legion the same way as those who played it live.
Shadowlands had both a good and bad borrowed power system, in my opinion. Covenant abilities were quite good – it took far too long to get the balance right, but outside of min-max concerns, the idea was pretty cool and the flavor felt right for both Covenant and class in most cases. I’m going to miss The Hunt on my DH, because it looked cool, felt both Demon Hunter-y and Night Fae appropriate, and it’s a powerful, hard-hitting spell with mobility baked in, not that DH needs more of that! Conduits and Soulbinds, on the other hand, feel like a miss to me – they were substantially more grindy old talents, giving you a long-tail chase for incremental power increases, and done in a way where the prior work tends to be invalidated (grinding hard to get a 226 conduit in 9.0 only to be able to rapidly get the same via drop or easy upgrade items in 9.1).
What I want to see is a future where borrowed power is basically done away with in-favor of more permanent, character based choices, things designed to make WoW actually feel and play like an RPG with character builds and progression. If we get new, active-use abilities in 10.0, I want them to be class skills that we learn and keep going forward. If we must have old talents in new forms, I want them to be things that I can choose and keep, with a clear, non-obfuscated progression mechanic.
What I expect to see is that we’ll get a tame form of borrowed power. If the expansion is indeed Dragonflights (that’s where my money is) then I suspect the name of the game is to align with a Dragonflight, get some specific Azerite Essence-like active ability from them, which you’ll use for the duration of the expansion and then lose in 11.0, and your dragon alignment will offer some small trait tree with old-talent like bonuses. I suspect that we’ll still see some form of system like Renown, but with less (if any) player power gated behind it (okay, that is an optimistic wish) as means to offer long-term goals but with less resistance from the raid/M+/PvP communities.
Either way, I think we’re not done with borrowed power yet. On the gear front, I feel like we will see some form of Legendaries continuing – being able to make a choice to fit your playstyle is closer to that RPG style of gameplay, and while legendary balancing is often a weak spot, there are still some choices (and arguably a few more viable ones with the way double-legendaries work by using the Covenant legendary as one of them) and thus still some value to be had.
If this system ends up being poorly received, I don’t think we’ll break from tradition – expect a change around 10.2 (I hope this expansion goes to 4 patches at least so we can say 10.4).
In WoWs recent history, expansions bring a pile of new systems with them, often single-use systems per patch that are discarded later. In fact, on average, each of the last 3 expansions has brought with it 5 systems added on average in post-launch patches which are used for a single patch and then tossed. As a player, these things make returning to the game after more than a patch away a very alienating and often difficult experience, all of which propagates a very real guide-dependency that WoW is afflicted with.
Of all the things I want Blizzard to deal with the most, it is this concept. Systems themselves are not good or bad, but what we can measure is how they serve the gameplay, and honestly, most added systems don’t do anything particularly amazing that beats out just using an existing UI element. Nothing about upgrades in Zereth Mortis required a full custom UI for upgrades when the game already has a large handful of upgrade systems used for non-character elements, but it became the Cypher of the First Ones. I’d like to see Blizzard use the game’s already-large collection of systems and UI elements in new ways to deliver new-feeling experiences instead of creating a whole new thing that requires a tutorial quest, 2 guides on Wowhead, and these added layers that never get used again directly.
What I expect is that we will see new systems, but I do think Blizzard will have some measure of restraint. The systems feedback has seemed to be mostly negative in terms of player retention, especially when reeling people back in after time away, and I feel like going back to roots is a good idea. WoW has so much as a base part of the game that it feels like all the added bits tend to do is take focus away from that. I fully expect that some new system or systems will come with launch, but I’d like to see them stop there and iterate on those rather than adding new systems alongside them with subsequent patches.
Systems themselves aren’t bad, but system bloat is a very real thing that WoW suffers from, such that coming back from a hiatus that started in 9.0 this expansions opens the door on a completely different game. That is the core issue I would say less systems serves – fewer and more impactful systems would do the trick over a glut of low-quality, single use systems.
Loot and Gear
WoW has offered power through gear as the only real long-lived, consistent progression mechanic. Talents, borrowed power, all of these have taken different forms, but the fundamental concept of the gear grind in WoW is the same today as it ever has been, with what changes being the value and types of gear available and the means by which it is made available to players.
One thing I think that the recent kerfluffle of the race to world first in Sepulcher of the First Ones highlights is that Blizzard plans gear progression to a severe degree. There were a lot of obvious tuning points where a guild was expected to have a lot of 2 and even 4 piece tier bonuses to progress, and not having that or having it at too low of an overall item level made the fights very difficult to push over. I’ll talk more about this from the content side later, but gear progression feels like it should be more loosely planned – a part of why gear can often feel less like a reward is because most modern content in the game is tightly tuned around the expectation of certain gear rewards from the content you are doing, and that means casual groups hit walls more frequently while even your most hardcore groups hit similar walls in very public ways (like taking nearly 400 pulls for a mid-tier non-wall boss design).
I think that my commenter’s perspective and my experience playing FFXIV endgame for real this time around have pushed me in the direction that gear should be more of a reward given freely, even up to higher item levels. We accept the notion that a player can currently get item level 278 gear for doing Mythic raids, top-tier M+ via the Great Vault, and PvP, but we do not assign something similar to world gear even as it has caught up. I think the days of “hard stuff should offer better gear” needs to adapt around the fact that open world content can be time-consuming and worthy of reward as well. Currently, you can remove the need for the normal raid almost completely via the Cyphers of the First Ones, on a different and often slower timetable. Why can you not do the same with Heroic or even Mythic raid loot?
My perspective on gearing in MMOs in general is this – the player makes the gear level, not the other way around. If I wear a full item level 278 set and a Havoc DH from a top-tier Mythic guild wears the same set, who will perform better? It will be the top-tier player every time short of a 1/1,000 odds chance that the player performs poorly or just loses focus. So why is the gear treated as the prestige?
I suppose the middle-ground answer might be to offer different world gear with substantial power boosts in world content only, and that’s fine enough to a point, but I guess the more I’ve reflected on gear, the more I wonder if it is the best, most viable reward.
For my take, I’m a proponent of long-tail rewards for world content. Why not let a world content player have a Mythic-raid level piece once in a blue moon if they play their asses off doing the content available to them? It doesn’t have to be on the same cadence or anywhere close to it – but give players who dedicate the time access to at least a taste of that power so they’re not always permanently in the underclass, and do it deterministically so it isn’t the same random jackpot that Titanforging could often be. It’s there for those dedicated raiders to do if they want it, and lord knows many would do it for the chance of a benefit, but the value is less significant for a progression raider, boosting from a higher floor and by a shorter distance, compared to a world-content casual player, who is likely jumping some 30+ item levels for that boost and getting a ton of value out of it.
Like, giving a piece of gear here and there to a casual player is not a problem or crime, and it doesn’t suddenly mean that every player who doesn’t know their rotation is a god. What it does mean is that there is an incentive to keep on the grind for many players and under the scaling content model of WoW, those players get to feel powerful sometimes where they often would not, and it means that convincing a player to get into harder content like M+ or raiding is not a fight against catchup mechanics, at least not as much. I’ve realized that the design around gear levels and expected power creates more of an environment where you are expected to have the rewards to progress, which makes loot feel less like a reward. In the past, raid tiers were pretty well doable with whatever gear you walked in with, provided it was current, and raid gear from that same raid only made things easier. The model as of late de-emphasizes this by making gear from the current raid mandatory to be mathematically capable of tackling a boss in the same raid, which creates friction. This is especially true for a casual group that only ever does Normal, because you always go in at a 26% disadvantage to the raid, where a group like my guild, doing Normal > Heroic each tier goes in with a much smaller disadvantage and if that group has enough people who ran Mythic Plus to the max the prior season, they may not even have upgrades in the new Normal raid!
So what do I want to see? Well, I want to see more loot to more people, through means of getting higher item level and higher power gear both in and out of raid. I’d like to see this done through deterministic, player-controlled means. I think loot needs a greater element of control restored – so I’d like to see reroll tokens come back and be useable on the Great Vault as well. Speaking of the vault, it’s a big win in Shadowlands compared to the awful Mythic Plus chest system it replaced, and I will continue to pitch that the vault should expand to encompass more activities and even allow a progress bar mechanism where filling the bar from a mix of stuff opens slots and where the difficulty influences the item level – so do a ton of open world content or kill 3 Mythic bosses and get 1 slot at the same level or similar power for the content in question.
Ultimately, to close this part out, I think that loot has become an expectation rather than a reward, and I think rather than trying to push it back to a reward, just let players have more of it and better versions of it, and then use other modes of rarity to reward high-end players, like unique armor looks, cooler tints, maybe dyeable armor? (Okay, stopping here because I said I wasn’t going to design things and then designed a lot of things.)
PvE Content Design (Non-Instanced)
I think open world design is generally in a better place in terms of content than it has been in a while. A big part of this is that Blizzard has maintained focus on delivering steady story content to all players since, really, Legion, and so there’s truly something for everyone on day 1 of a patch.
However, where I think things sort of fall apart is in the usage of that world content. It’s often designed around and for players who also do the raid or dungeon aspects of the game, made to give them something to do to meet a condition for more power and then for them to quickly run away from when they are done, which often means that a player not actively raiding, PvPing, or running keys, is in the position where their main content offering is abridged and truncated for the benefit of other players over their own. This is a problem – one that Zereth Mortis aimed to fix by shuffling reward around such that players who only wanted to get their power and leave could do a bare minimum of stuff, while the core zone repeatable gameplay was shuffled over elsewhere.
I want and expect that to continue. I think that non-instanced PvE players should absolutely have a content mode and thing that is designed just for them, where other players can choose affirmatively to do it rather than being expected to do it for their other activities. The exploration and rare-spawn activities add something to the game and I’d like to see them go deeper – more activities, more events with story and little bits of worldbuilding all to themselves, and the aforementioned reward increases to incentivize this play with excellent loot in the long-term. I want this because I think it would be good for the game. I think this will be the trend because it’s one place where Blizzard has been quite receptive to feedback – the PTR process for Zereth Mortis tuned and retuned rewards frequently and hotfixes to elements that haven’t worked well have been quick to be applied, overall.
Instanced PvE Content
I think that the easiest note to hit is first – Mythic Plus is a favorite system of mine, and I would love to see it continue in a similar form as present. Tuning needs to be a bit more dialed in and I still think there is a gap to close on difficulty of Tyrannical versus Fortified affix weeks, but the system overall works, and provided the difficulty of each tier of affixes is better tuned to be as near to equal as possible, the mode is doing pretty well in my opinion. Dungeon design remains a strong point for the WoW team and I don’t have much to say there.
On raids, I think that tuning is a big problem at the moment. I’ve seen a Normal only guild whose leader tweets about their experience, and it seems pretty awful at present, with their best gear not being good enough. It wasn’t that long ago that the expressed design intent of raid difficulties was that lateral moves between tiers would be quite doable with difficulty progression within the raid, but it seems the baseline tuning of even early bosses is higher than would be appropriate to keep that lateral movement.
I think if you tune to a more gentle start, even if difficulty spikes back up to current baseline after the first boss or two, you would have a better outcome. I think that gear needs to feel more like a reward, and a big part of how to get there is to tune fights to not assume a baseline amount of current-tier gear rewards. Entering the current normal tier at around a 235 item level average should not be a death sentence for progress and the game needs work to make that not the case. I’ve said it before, but I will also say it again here – I think the game needs to stop designing to stymie boss mods and let players roll with their addons. Create the difficulty in other ways, because it is possible.
In general, I think the game already has a lot of focus and shine here outside of these specific issues, and I think short of asking for a little less focus on this content and fixes or looks at the issues I raised above, WoW is always likely to be a game that does instanced PvE just right.
My wishlist here for 10.0 is largely a list of small-ish tweaks and design changes, not anything severe or major (arguably progression systems can take work), because I don’t think the core of the game is that broken. I think it needs to re-evaluate elements of its reward systems, and big work would be beneficial to the RPG elements that are sorely lacking, but I think outside of those, the game is in decent shape and improvements would keep the gameplay sharp by focusing in more on the elements that are working.