This piece is one I want to start with a big disclaimer right off the bat – more than usual, I’m spitting pure opinion here. I won’t claim to speak for anyone else or handwave at any broader community sentiment, and my goal is an almost pure stream of consciousness about where I’m at with WoW, with Dragonflight, and why I’ve made the decision to return to the game with the expansion. This post was sitting in drafts for a minute, and I’ve had most of this written since before the post was even started where I teased this, haha.
So what happened?
The last time I played WoW (prior to this week) was November 21st, 2021. After a tumultuous raid tier in Sanctum of Domination, disagreements with my guild that led to a temporary exodus in the summer of that year, and a myriad of issues I had with Shadowlands, I logged out of the game. On December 7th, 2021, I uninstalled the game after having finished the MSQ of Final Fantasy XIV’s Endwalker expansion – a moving and beautiful tale that had given me the story I so desperately wanted from WoW and coupled it with similarly-engaging core MMO and raiding gameplay, making it an easy choice. I was fed up with WoW, with not being able to truly engage with alts due to layers of systems, with the awful main plotline, and with the social environment the game engenders largely due to apathy on Blizzard’s part as well the players. I had been worn down with justifying the idea of playing that version of the game in the era where Blizzard’s shittiness was on full public display, with the revelations that came through last summer’s lawsuits. It just wasn’t fun anymore, because the moments where fun came through were so few in comparison to the number of times I was annoyed by checklists of things I had to do to stay competitive, and any chill time I could spend on alts was encumbered by those same checklists. Blizzard managed to make a borrowed power system that was so unappealing to me that I left the game behind.
I wavered slightly in the early spring of this year, because some aspects of the Sepulcher raid and Season 3 content of Shadowlands were looking interesting to me, but then the story caught up and at a moment where my desire to play in spite of that was growing stronger, a new wave of guild drama happened as I watched from outside – not directly affected, but it made the feeling of FOMO go away.
The problem I’ve had, which I’ve stated directly and indirectly as this year of exile has gone on, is largely this – for a player like me, current, modern WoW is still a good, even sometimes great, game. It’s been easy to sit on the sidelines because for whatever glimmers there were in the late Shadowlands content, there were still layers of detritus from borrowed power systems and the need to “catch-up” that existed. Coming back late would mean needing to do that on my main, grinding out those Renown levels for all Covenants (even as catchup on that has been made easier over the past months), and then doing that on alts, all while trying to progress gear, buy up new legendary base items for crafting, and gathering up fresh legendary currencies. It’s just too much. I liked both KSM mount colors for Season 3 and 4, but were they worth all of that? Not to me. The raid looked interesting (tuning issues aside), but was it worth all of that and enduring a worsening social climate? Hell no.
All this happened as I planted deeper roots in FFXIV. I was getting good reps in through Party Finder raiding of Savage content in the Asphodelos tier, I joined a blind day-1 Aglaia alliance raid prog that introduced me to new players that eventually became two of the three raid groups I am now a part of (even if it was the worst and most annoying introduction I could have possibly had, with open mic people screaming into Discord when they fucked up mechanics, but those people are not in the raid statics I joined, thankfully!), and I was starting to get FFXIV on a fundamental level unlike before. I’ve had a lot of chill and fun raid nights in FFXIV (some frustrating ones too!), but the social climate is just undeniably better for me in FFXIV. I like where I’ve landed, and my intention is not to leave FFXIV behind, a goal which will be easy to obtain – I very much still enjoy the game and I have a great routine that allows me to keep 3 sets of raid commitments while tomestone capping two characters a week.
But WoW has always sort of loomed for me.
I’ve been watching the Dragonflight news with a mix of trepidation, cynicism, and curiosity. Keeping up with WoW is a thing I’ve always done, a sort of default setting for me, and so I’ve been in the loop while also not watching that closely. As I entrenched deeper into FFXIV, it got easier to miss the fine details, but I always kept an eye on the news coming out of Irvine.
As I looked in, things started to develop in a way I, admittedly, didn’t expect – I was seeing appealing overall philosophy on design and the game in general.
Look, before you think I’m crazy, understand the lens I am using here. For me, what WoW offers me that I like is great dungeon gameplay and great raiding. Do I follow the story? Yes. Do I engage in some of the less-hardcore stuff like pet battles, world content, and just hanging out leveling alts? You betcha. But at the end of the day, what I want out of WoW is dungeons and raids, good, challenging gameplay that I can sink my teeth into and smash my face against. I have quickly become a fan of FFXIV’s raid content, but it also fits a different niche compared to WoW’s – and both are good and bad in their own unique ways. I understand that a lot of people don’t gravitate to those things, and that is fine – but for me, that’s my bread and butter in MMOs and I have a lot of appreciation for a game that can give me both dungeons and raids with a massive degree of replayability. WoW does that.
What hindered WoW for me in Shadowlands was the layers of interlocking systems that prevented you from just doing what you wanted. Between base Renown, Conduits, legendary materials, legendary base items, legendary powers, and the various temporary systems from patch to patch, there was just too much tedium in the way. Better than Legion? Probably, but Legion’s systems were at least out of your hands to a point – you could influence the rate of acquisition of AP to a point, but legendary drops were between you and RNGeezus, and you could make the call to simply let it be what it will be. In Shadowlands, you have less uncertainty, and that’s grand, but you also always have a thing you can be doing to advance those goals, and so it led me personally to a lot of gameplay where I didn’t even want to do the thing I was doing, but I just kinda had to because the reward structure put it in front of me to be done. Multiply by 12 (I have every class at max and that streak does not stop) and you can see the magnitude of the problem.
And to be fair, not all of the content on offer was tedious in that way. Sometimes your best legendary power was a raid drop or dungeon drop so you either had X number of tries at it per week in a raid or you could farm keys, Heroics, or Normals at the dungeon level for the power you wanted. Sometimes Conduits were easy to get or you’d luck out with gambling at Venari or in Korthia. When these systems were annoying, though, good lord, were they annoying (Torghast specific-instance power drops only available once every four weeks, anyone? Gambling Conduit upgrades?). Eventually catchup systems came for this too, but too little, too late.
Dragonflight’s announcement blitz did not impress me. It was standard Blizzard hyperbole and the interviews were chipping me for psychic damage – Renown coming back in particular. They featured story segments with Steve Danuser talking about grand narratives and I could feel my sanity slipping faster than a raid wiping on Yogg-Saron 0 lights. It was pretty bad for me, folks!
But over the months of alpha and beta, something interesting happened. The team has been listening and iterating on things that matter to me, for the most part. Talents being a moving target is not altogether a surprise, but the frequently-fast intervention for most underperforming specs has been interesting to see, and while there are favorites and less-favorites shaping up in the metagame (sorry, Boomkins), there’s a sense of a more-responsive Blizzard here. Changes being made to dungeons, raids, and the reward systems for each read like interesting experiments that, at worst, target some bad symptoms of underlying problems, and at best, are interesting ways of adding some reasonable social friction back to the game in group settings. Even when I disagree or think they’re doing something that I don’t like, I can see them trying to take a fresh approach to stuff, and I have a lot of respect for that.
But more than any of that, Dragonflight is doing something I never envisioned would actually happen – they’re just getting rid of borrowed power systems entirely. The Renown mention in early press sent the hairs on my neck into full alert because it was tied, in Shadowlands, to a bullshit make-work system designed to force you to log in to the game on a weekly basis to do stuff you might or might not have wanted to for the sake of keeping up with your fellow players. In DF, it’s purely a story trigger and reputation replacement, and while I disagree with gating story quests, honestly, it’s probably better for my blood pressure, heart health, and carpal tunnel that I get a drip-feed of Danuser instead of having the whole barrage of shit flung at me in one shot (am I confident that Dragonflight will have a good story? You decide!).
WoW has appealed most to me when the grind was about gear – when player power was locked very specifically into things that kept value as you went instead of fluctuating wildly about. Gear has remained present but as one layer of many, with less importance than ever before. Getting a character to be their best has been this multi-level goal with too much shit to do on it, made to be almost literally impossible to all but the most busy of players, who make World of Warcraft their lives. Sure, a case can be made that for non-Mythic raiding or most M+ keys, you don’t really need to be the best that you can be, but if it’s obtainable in even the slightest, you’re going to chase it, even if you don’t need it.
Dragonflight being an expansion where player power gains at endgame are expressed solely through gear goes a long way to mending my bridge into the game alone. Like, absent anything else, that change alone is massive for me personally in building interest. I find it rather telling that a lot of the content creators who have made defense of WoW their hill to die on during Shadowlands are postulating that there just might not be enough to do in Dragonflight, oh no! The game not pushing you into specific grinds or modes of content is, in fact, a good thing, because it opens the door to a lot of options that are currently difficult for the sake of time. Want to actively maintain an alt roster at a high level? Dragonflight allows it, because you can rotate through focusing solely on gear rewards and upgrades and how best to get them without needing any other layers of stuff done. Wanna work on legacy content rewards? It’s doable, and you have more time in-game you can put forward since the consumption of time for chores has been reduced drastically.
It might sound weird to be asking for a game to specifically require less time, but I think anyone who has played WoW from Legion onwards knows the specific nature of this request. A lot of WoW’s core gameplay systems have remained as strong as ever in the modern era, but they are so buried under stuff that must be done to be viable that it feels daunting and unrewarding. Dragonflight changes that, and it is a huge positive.
That leaves me with two issues left worth exploring. The first and heaviest is the nature of modern Blizzard.
I’ve been quite hard on Blizzard over the last year and change, since the news of the lawsuit from the California DFEH agency came out. The company was accused of some heinous actions and a culture of sheltering and protecting key creatives even when the line they crossed was much too far became all too obvious. While some have attempted to extrapolate this as a broader Activision-related issue, the rot was quite well expressed within long-term Blizzard employees, including sheltering from formerly-beloved CEO Mike Morhaime and WoW executive producer turned president J Allen Brack, with both men sheltering a number of employees’ harassers, most notably Alex Afrasiabi. Blizzard as an entity unto themselves have taken some small and largely performative actions over the time since the lawsuit, from making a clean sweep of generally inappropriate and immature references, jokes, and assets from WoW, changing the name of an Overwatch character named after one of the harassers, and the act of appointing new leadership in co-leaders Mike Ybarra and Jen O’Neal. This last act in particular was a backfire, as while both leaders were excellently qualified to lead Blizzard with years of games industry experience, O’Neal was paid less than Ybarra and quickly exited the role and the company, leaving only Ybarra in charge.
I recently covered an interview with Ybarra from the LA Times, an article that felt self-serving but authentic, and I noted some criticisms I had of Ybarra’s approach to change within Blizzard. In particular, his constant push forward and desire to not look back feels very convenient when we all know far too well what lies in that reverse direction. Ybarra seems to be sincere in a desire to make positive changes within Blizzard, but he’s still cuffed to the Activision leadership and his own biases and perspective. We’re all waiting with bated breath to see what changes may come with the Microsoft acquisition, once that deal closes, but the minimum timeline for that remains a long one and I still believe that gamers placing their hopes on Microsoft as the gentle giant to bring about a cultural revolution are mistaken if they expect that Microsoft will make sweeping positive changes, especially since Redmond has a non-zero amount of the same cultural rot.
Has the company changed? Well, it is impossible to know for sure. As I look around the WoW-sphere, the words that resonate most solidly there are those of the remaining employees, who seem rather satisfied as of late and who seem to be positive about the direction of the company (awful executives pushing lies about unionization notwithstanding). While a lot of the gameplay content changes made over the last year in terms of crass references and the like are performative, I respect that the company was willing to look at these and make some tweaks, given that even minor changes can help people feel more welcome, even if they may have fumbled slightly (fruitbowlgate was fucking stupid, but even the cretins who see SJWs under their beds had a point about a reduction in woman representation, disingenuous though most of them were being).
I come back, after that analysis, to consider my own stance throughout the last year and change. My stance has remained that I believe people can feel how they want and represent that how they want – if you’re disgusted to a level to not buy or play Blizzard stuff, I feel that (and have been doing that for much of the last year!), and if you feel that the early calls from employees to keep supporting the games you enjoy gives you the sign to keep on keeping on, then that is also fine. I respect that in the crushing modern system of capitalism we all are a part of, sometimes your free time is just your free time and you can’t take away comforts to make a statement, especially given the last few years of pandemic and isolation. I totally respect that and it’s a point I’ll revisit later on through another lens.
So here is where I fall. Do I like supporting Blizzard? Hell no. I think their response both to the harassment and inequality issues and to gameplay issues has been visibly anemic and has not met the moment, both at the corporate parent level and the local, Blizzard level. I’ve lost all my respect for the company as an entity and they have not helped that through some of their recent releases, with the absolutely abusive scumbag tactics of loot in Diablo Immortal and the filtering of new heroes in Overwatch 2 through a battle-pass system designed to ratchet up the FOMO until you can’t take it no more. I’ve made zero effort to play either of these games once the extents of their awful monetization became obvious.
Through that view, however, it actually makes me have some smaller measure of respect for the WoW team. Dragonflight continues some existing bad practices – shop bundles, multiple pricing tiers for the expansion that parcel out upgrades (while offering more in-game goodies than pre-Shadowlands CEs, to be fair), and another price increase on the physical CE box. At the same time, though, Blizzard has reduced a lot of the busywork the game gave you to keep you subscribed and playing and seems more confident than they have in a while to stand on the quality of the experience they’ve made. It’s too early to judge if that confidence is earned (and they’ve had similar posture with much worse products before!), but it seems to be on the right track.
To me, that says a lot about what the team has done, overcoming some of the bad elements of the ABK content pipeline to deliver an experience that is what it is, and short of story-gating and content release schedules (that have existed for a while anyways), doesn’t make huge attempts at elongating content for the sake of it. I have a strong hunch that such a stance was not a default nor something that the overlords that be would have allowed without a fight, and I respect the WoW team for having that fight, for listening to voices that advocated for players and making these changes. I respect that the team puts up a unified and diverse front, and that I see an expansion that reflects more varied and interesting lived experiences and explores that through themes and small bits of storytelling.
So I thread the needle thusly – Blizzard is still being shit. ABK is still being shit. The games industry in general – still shit. But the WoW team seems to have started the act of getting their shit together. Dragonflight represents a number of changes to the core, post-2016 experience of World of Warcraft that strengthen the things that the remaining playerbase enjoys engaging with while removing the treadmills and layers of garbage that used to stand in the way. WoW still has a long way to go in other factors, like appealing to role-players, main story in general, or imbuing the game with a sense of interesting non-power choices and rewards, and the team and the company structure at all levels have a long, long way to go with regards to sexual harassment and safe workplaces. But I see a WoW team that is trying, and in some cases succeeding, at making changes that are necessary. On the gameplay level, those changes are obvious, and on the workplace front, I trust the workers who seem relatively more happy with the environment they work in, because I ultimately can’t see inside more than what we get in the news and from these accounts, some of which is admittedly not great.
And ultimately, all of this is probably a little bit of rationalization, surely. I won’t pretend that I’m immune to hype or somehow a good arbiter of what actions being taken are appropriate or not. I see a game that I kind of want to play, to a level that exceeds simple FOMO or habit, and so I’ve looked at the things I wanted to, seen the ideas that made me most likely to be able to justify, for myself, why I want to play. I won’t claim that any of the above is bulletproof, factual analysis – because it certainly isn’t. It is a needle-threading through a specific set of justifications, most of which land on “play WoW, don’t play other, newer Blizzard things.” And to me, that’s enough to meet the mark. It may not be for you or anyone else, and that’s fine. Blizzard kinda sucks, and there are still layers to that in terms of how I used to look up to the company and their creative output, but I am willing to give them a tentative try with Dragonflight, at least for now.
That leaves one thing left to discuss – the social environment in WoW and my decision to leave when I did, stay out when I did, and return with the new expansion.
I stand by my analysis of the WoW community at large as having heavy toxic undercurrents and elements I find less than desirable. It has, unfortunately, nearly always had these things present – but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself less tolerant of them and less willing to put myself through them on my way to a fun time. Luckily, for most of my time in-game, I’ve had some measure of control over the social environment I spend my time in. That control lessened in some ways over time, and a part of what I felt over the last few years is that the environment I had helped build was deteriorating. I made a choice last winter to leave the game behind, mostly at that point because of the Shadowlands cruft on the game – there was simply not enough fun for the hours spent and I could feel myself running through the motions.
COVID, general isolation, and a variety of other changes have made the last two years hard on a lot of people. For me, leaving behind WoW did carry a social cost – it made my friends less available and less seen. Sure, we’d have an occasional D&D session, and some of those folks play FFXIV and I see them on a semi-regular basis that way, and there’s always updates via various forms of social media alongside rare in-person hangouts, but it’s not quite the same. I’ve felt that separation pretty distinctly over the last year, in the way that I can still observe and perceive things happening within the raid group and the social fabric my friends live within when it comes to WoW, but I’m on the outside of it, looking in. That’s a big part of why I can sympathize with people for whom WoW is a social outlet more than just a game – if your friend-group ritual is raid night, it’s not that easy to just discard the game because it so often means discarding that layer of interaction with people you care about. My situation was compounded because the raid team split early into Shadowlands put me on a raid team without any of my real-life friends, and the wear of that made raid night feel more rote and less necessary.
Ultimately, not being able to play games with my friends in the way we always had wore on me. A big part of why I felt a desire to come back to WoW was to play with my friends, and a big part of why that desire was cut out was because the environment around that idea was not particularly great. Another component of grappling with the changing social dynamic in the game has been pondering the nature of investment into a guild or social group. I, admittedly, get caught up in the sunk-cost fallacy on this question quite often, because I was a founding member of the guild and we built that from scratch in a way that worked harmoniously for a really long time. Over time, I came to a couple of realizations. The first is that this was sunk-cost fallacy – the work I had put in and the positive environment I had helped to build, for as long as it lasted, didn’t go away just because the current state didn’t match that – it had existed and was still a worthwhile investment of my time at the points in which I had invested it. Because of that, I came to a second conclusion – that I did not need to force myself to stay and try to correct the issues I saw within the existing structure as the only way forward – that there were multiple ways to handle it.
Ultimately, there was a third issue that led me to the path I’m about to discuss too – the issue of guilt. The incident that pushed me away from a return this spring, while it wasn’t something I had been involved in or subscribed to the game for, is an outcome I had seen coming with the split in raid philosophies. People had already been more abrasive to each other over silly quibbles in the heat of the moment, and the social environment was already not the best. With a two-raid team split, there was a bit more of a tentative peace, but once the groups merged, such conflicts were inevitable, as I saw it.
The incident had forced out a couple of people I enjoyed playing with, and I could see the toll it was taking on my friends. Anytime the topic of WoW came up in an in-person conversation, there was a thousand-yard stare, a sort of irritation. It had become clear to me that things were unsustainable, and that so long as the lesson learned from that incident was that no meaningful consequences would ever come from being absolutely atrocious to a fellow raider, things would only continue to get worse without change (and I do not believe change would have been on the menu, based on how it was handled in the first place). But, at the same time, I wasn’t in a position to push for meaningful change either – at least not from within. I had fumbled my chance at it last year, but it was increasingly becoming not enough for me to simply feel guilty or to sigh at what had happened from outside – because I could do something now, if not within the structure, then outside of it. If I was going to come back, I needed a different raid team – but how?
And thus was born the idea of the “chill vibes” raid team. Not a B team, not a simple “casual” team – still progression focused, but tying that up in a specific ideal of fun environment, teaching, and willingness to learn. The conclusion I came to was that I could find enough folks to fill such a team, do so without causing the other team to be unable to raid, and create more matched environments for both, where things could be more tailored to fit each team specifically. I wanted it to create a space where I could help bring back in the disaffected raiders, and where I could get an environment that I wanted to play in as well. I thought over the idea for seconds at a time over literal months to land on that pitch, from June until late October, and then I started making offers. I expected it to take a long time and a lot of convincing, but it was ultimately the easiest recruiting I’ve ever done in my life – less that 500 total words of text to snag a minimum viable group with a few possible additions to bring it as high as 15 people in total. In just 5 days and 9 messages, I had pulled it off.
My original intention, based on my time in FFXIV, was to build a second raid team that could coexist within the guild structure, with its own autonomy and ability to set terms and self-determine. In the end, I got enough asks to create a new guild, because some of the behaviors that were pushing people out do not stop at the boundary of a raid group, and so I repurposed my bank guild for the task.
I wanted things to be drama-free, as much as was possible, so I made sure to build carefully in a way that did not pull apart friend groups within the guild, made my pitch more about how I wanted things to run with less emphasis on the contrast of environments (which was fairly obvious anyways), and before moving to the full split, I told all the officers what I had done as a point of courtesy. Not to be convinced, not to convince, and not to debate – just out of a sense of respect. I’ve also been pretty restrained here in describing what happened – I will say that I have strong negative opinions about some aspects of how things like the incident were handled, but realistically, it’s not worth litigating at this point.
In 2011, I helped form that guild when we splintered off from the guild that we had been in through Wrath of the Lich King, due to an absent leader playing Rift. It was the right move then, and it renewed our group energy and sense of focus in the game – it led to some of the most enjoyable years in WoW I’ve ever had. Even in the downturn of Cataclysm, things felt pretty great, and I think that is the power of community in an MMO. My journey through Shadowlands, in and out of the game, has largely been a contemplation on community in the game. I’ve been insulated from the worst elements of the WoW community in many ways by building my own, but once that control was lost, I could see a deterioration in the social environment I had helped built, and I felt that keenly. As it became apparent that the social environment was beyond meaningful repair, what was there left to do? I stayed out, until I decided that there was something I could do – build anew. I could attempt to recapture that energy, put everyone that I trusted to be chill together with a common purpose, both to correct my own inaction when I had some level of ability to try and fix things but also to simply create a point from which we could move forward.
My hope is that things go really well in Dragonflight. The game itself has seemingly made some strides to be better, and with a fresh raid group ready to tackle it on agreeable terms, I’m excited to see what comes of it. Maybe it will be great, maybe it won’t, but either way, I’ve put together a path forward that I think serves up better outcomes than just simply returning to the game as-is, or just simply staying away.
So, uh, I’ll see you on the Dragon Isles (or in Zereth Mortis because I’m doing catchup stuff!).