Dragonflight entered a more public alpha phase last Thursday, with the first rounds of datamined expansion content, a raid name, dungeon journal details, and a large variety of things coming out. There’s a decent amount of content to chew on and mull over, and I’ve found the changes quite interesting.
To start with, it is worth saying this – anything I have as an opinion is based on this early content, and there is a lot we do not yet know about the expansion and the gameplay experience as a whole journey, so I’ll probably be pretty positive overall. Early alpha for a lot of WoW expansions looks great, and then the end journey is a little less exciting overall, even in “good” expansions, so I am going to say that here up-top instead of having to qualify any praise, however faint, I will have.
Dragonriding Looks Fantastic
An early gameplay video of Dragonriding makes it clear that a lot of thought and effort has been put into making the experience of it fun, engaging, and full of gameplay. The maximum speed you can approach even early into the system is near 1,000% of normal ground speed, so substantially faster than even the current fastest flying mounts, which helps ground the larger landmass zones of Dragonflight and keep them from feeling too sprawling. Dragonriding as asystem is built on momentum – you can double-tap Jump to engage it or can engage it automatically when running off a cliff on your dragon, and a resource called Vigor is the cornerstone of gameplay. Your movement abilities cost Vigor and gaining momentum gives a buff to restore it, so there is a give and take in the gameplay of it. Ascending generally carries a cost in both Vigor and momentum, as you fight against gravity at your dragon’s effort, which means that your best and most successful dragonrides will be those where you run off a high cliff and coast off the momentum to build speed. Descending builds speed, at the cost of, well, descent – get too close to the ground and you’ll either have to land or ascend at cost. It builds an interesting gameplay system where movement is more carefully considered and that is highly valuable in modern WoW – the design paradigm of multi-level zones with lots of verticality suddenly is a reward with Dragonriding, as starting higher presents an advantage to movement.
The long-game interest will be in upgrades – how much Vigor can you reach, what is the theoretical maximum movement speed, and the like – but for now, this is a promising start and offering such high possible speeds immediately at launch is a good way to introduce players to the system, because it ends up feeling even less like a compromise on Pathfinder and more like just a flat-out better system.
Raid Consumables Are Interesting
The alchemy recipes for this time out seem quite fascinating, in that Blizzard is at last taking a risk on moving away from the static Flask model we’ve had since Vanilla. Instead of main stat flasks with basic power upgrades to all our abilities, we get Phials, which act like Flasks in some ways (long duration, counts as both a Battle and Guardian Elixir in locking you out of those effects), but then offer very different and situational bonuses and a shorter base duration of 30 minutes that can be extended to an hour with multiple consumptions.
The design intent here seems to be making Phials more flexible than Flasks and more in-demand throughout the expansion. Right now in Shadowlands, you just buy a big pile of your main stat Flask of choice and you’re set, regardless of the mode of content you play. In Dragonflight, the goal seems to be to differentiate more, by having Phials that are built to encourage different consumables in Mythic Plus versus Raiding. The Phial of the Eye of the Storm increases your main stat by a fixed amount per enemy attacking you (to a max of 5 stacks) and that will be less useful in raids than it will be in Mythic Plus (also, needs clarification to say if you need to be actively targeted i.e. a tank or just on the aggro list for an enemy to count on this buff), and there are also tradeoff Phials which have kiss/curse effects like increasing your damage taken while under 50% health but reducing damage taken while above that breakpoint. There are some interesting playstyle tweaks in these, like a healing phial that increases your next heal provided you spend 5 seconds not healing – perhaps an indication of some damage meta play for healers?
With this, there is a clear effort to make consumables more interesting and slightly less static and simmable, but at the same time, we all know that the metagame implications are going to be pretty obviously mathed out to a base level of accuracy, with recommendations made for each mode of content accordingly. Still, I like that Blizzard is trying to add flavor and intrigue to the process and not just make consumables a game of stacking your base stat as high as possible.
The Reagent Bag Slot and Stack Increases Are Nice, If Confusing
It wasn’t all that long ago that WoW added the Reagent tab to the bank, along with an increase in stack size of most crafting reagents to 200. Since you can dump items there and use them from anywhere, it works pretty well. Functionally, sure, you can fill it up pretty easily if you are holding stuff from multiple expansions, but it’s not a terribly hard task to filter through and keep it useful.
With Dragonflight, a fifth equippable bag slot is being added to the character sheet, allowing just for a reagent bag which appears to go up to 36 slots. This bag can hold crafting reagents, just like it says on the tin, with an improvement being made that reagents can now stack to 1,000. These changes will go a long way towards making crafting in WoW less inventory sucking, although both together are somewhat confusing. Given that the reagent bank is still useable anywhere (the stuff in it, at least), it raises a question as to why both of these changes are being implemented simultaneously. Increasing stack size of most crafting reagents to 1,000 goes a long way towards consolidating slots in reagent storage (something that is taking 5 stacks at present will go to a single stack instead), while adding a bag a bit over 1/3rd the size of the Reagent Bank is nice and would be useful in the context of no additional stack size but is less clear here. Certainly, there are pack rats with a ton of reagents (my raid mains all had full Reagent Banks even with how little I often cared for crafting in WoW) and so I am underestimating the impact of that, but it also feels like it could be setting up a larger array of optional reagents, which does seem to be the case with the new quality system coming in Dragonflight.
The Pledged Crafting Changes Are Nice if Stuck To
Blizzard had a blue post up detailing the philosophy behind the coming profession changes in Dragonflight, and one of the big points was that crafted gear will now be equippable in larger amounts than present (up to 5 “high-quality” recipes with a 2H weapon counting as 2 pieces) and while the gear will be BoP, it can be crafted and given to another player if that player places a Work Order for it. The gear can be crafted as high as Mythic raid item levels, which also goes a long way to creating some value for crafters that could be beneficial.
Coming at this from the FFXIV side, the limits are slightly vexing to me, as you can wear a full crafted loadout at any time in FFXIV, albeit with the max item level either matching the current Normal raid or the current high-end tomestone based on what patch it is. I get why Blizzard is hesitant to let it rip with full crafted loadouts, but I think you could design a space where that might be possible – through some mix of material requirements, crafting skill and stats (since those will be a thing now), and through forced use of high-end materials that would assign a high price to them and slow the rate of crafting to be tightly controlled. Even if most players would balk at the idea of a full Mythic Raid-level loadout from crafting, you could at least loosen the restrictions to full Normal raid with maybe 1-4 pieces of Heroic item level, or something in that vein. Even a total value system that would allocate points so you could equip a bunch of lower-value slots like wrists, belt, etc with high-level crafted gear or could choose 1-2 big value items like 2H weapons, chest, helm, legs, and the like, but that would probably be very complicated and perhaps not worth the design effort.
It still represents a big improvement and a way of allowing crafters another avenue to profit while making heavy use of a new expansion feature as a proof of concept, so it seems pretty cool in that light, and it relaxes the current draconian limits on crafted gear (the wordplay of a draconian limit lifted in Dragonflight is totally coincidental, I swear).
The Team Interviews Are Pretty Decent For Now
Ion Hazzikostas admitted that the Sepulcher raid tuning was an arms race and a miss from the team. Morgan Day and Ion both discussed that the expansion is going to hit that 2022 release window. There’s a fair bit of contrition and open dialogue in the air. Do things seem decent? Yeah, kind of – and provided these things stay on track, I think we’ll be in decent shape come Dragonflight. One thing that worries me is that the team is staying pretty light on big details and there are things where they are indicating that they’ve missed some basic ideas that should be a part of the expansion – like being able to customize your dragon mount on appearance but not having an option to name it. I worry about how much they can truly pivot – the response Day gave to the dragon-naming question was “tell us now so we can implement it” and I wonder how able they are to pivot given that in the past, something being in Alpha or Beta was pretty close to done and often un-pivotable, but I would love to be wrong and the team seems to think they can do it if the feedback is there, so hey.
Right now, I give them the benefit of the doubt – if it’s November with no pre-patch and there is an angry thread on the official forums about renaming dragons not being implemented, well, we’ll know they haven’t learned much, but right now, there is some evidence of lesson-learning in Irvine, and I hope that trend continues.
Master Loot Is Back, Sort Of
To the excitement of every high end guild and exclusionary self-aggrandizing douchebag who thinks that loot should be meritocratic, Master Loot is coming back in Dragonflight – for raids, at least. The admission is pretty clear-cut and clean – in a dungeon, having anything drop at a group level, including unusable loot, kinda sucks and feels bad, so not there, but in a raid, you can take that chance and risk in exchange for the group having more control. There are some clear helpful indicators added (a warning about a group being set to Master Loot) so if you join a pug with it, you’ll get tipped off prior to any loot dropping, but otherwise, it’s there as it was before for raids. My opinion on Master Looter is that it only really makes sense for a high-end guild that has a specific, agreed-upon strategy for funneling gear to the group’s whole benefit, and that most casual guilds that use it are only inviting struggle and trouble, where your loudest assholes are going to demand it be used under the thought that they are the most deserving and most players are going to be irritated with it otherwise, but I also generally believe that having more options in a social game to push choices to players is a net good, even if those choices come with downsides.
The Testing Is More Methodologically Focused
Alpha and beta phases of a WoW expansion tend to be disasterpieces in terms of professional software testing. Internally, sure, you can have a run-loose phase or give people broad assignments, but with public testing, you cannot guarantee a high volume of players and feedback if you simply open the gates wide and let people run through. The Dragonflight alpha is taking a more tempered approach, with single zones open at a time, testing out-of-order, limiting available content to a severe degree with a stated plan of multi-phase testing, opening pieces of content one at a time and closing other content to maintain focused public testing.
That is, for now at least, reassuring. Even when the Shadowlands alpha and beta had limits, it was still fairly wide open – when I first got in the beta for SL, you couldn’t do start-to-finish leveling but you could roll a character per zone experience and run them all with no real focus or designed mechanism to shift you in a given direction. Right now, it seems to be very well-focused with only a small and specific roster of open content for testing, and while datamining is turning up more than that, there’s no wavering as of yet. Of course, the test is only 4 days deep or so, and thus a lot can change with the approach, but if this is the ideal that persists for the whole test? Things could turn out pretty decent, at least if iterative changes and pivots are made as needed.
In Closing: The Alpha Just Launched, Of Course The Hype Is High
Shadowlands marks a peculiar point in WoW history, where two expansions back-to-back have been poorly received, albeit for differing reasons. Dragonflight needs to be a slam dunk for Blizzard to win back trust in the community. Will they pull it off?
Well, who the fuck knows?
Right now, it is way too early to make any assumptions. Testing seems good and promising at this very-early juncture, and there is some interesting evidence of changes to philosophy that acknowledge player feedback. How well these changes stick when we can see the whole picture will change, and whether that is for the better or the worst remains to be seen. I think just having new content on the horizon and a view into what it is alone is exciting enough for WoW fans, who have been positively starving for some new content with the current patch cycle largely leaning on the additions of 9.2, which was released back in February and had a mix of strong and not-strong content.
Right now? New is good and there’s plenty of new to gawk at. If it ends up staying good when it is current…well, we’ll have to wait and see. My optimism is shored up slightly by the state of the early alpha here, though.