The “Third Era” Of World of Warcraft and What It Means

TL;DR: who knows, but it’s an interesting concept.

During streamer Preach’s recent trip to Blizzard, an event which he recorded hours of footage for and then discussed during a 5 hour livestream upon his return, there was an interesting idea raised by Blizzard – that Dragonflight marks the “third era” of WoW, and is a distinction point where the game pivots to a new model.

Firstly, let’s address the elephants in the room. Preach himself paid for his trip and approached Blizzard with the idea of these interviews, wanting to spend a lot of time talking to WoW developers in the vein of a documentary – Preach’s vision for it was akin to the exceptional NoClip documentary about the failure of FFXIV v1.0 and that game’s relaunch as A Realm Reborn.

Preach, in this role, is actually something of an ideal spokesperson for the idea, given that he was one of the biggest creator pivots from WoW to FFXIV during the Shadowlands years, but remained an active WoW player during most of that time (just off-stream). Preach plays at a level that is perhaps higher and more hardcore than most players (active Mythic raiding in a non-world-first, but near-enough, capacity), so some of the things he might ask about WoW are going to be targeted very specifically at that audience, but his time in FFXIV has also seemingly widened his play to more casual activities – some of the more popular stream events Preach has done in FFXIV have centered on housing, RP parties, glamour showcases, and the like.

To an extent, I think that Preach arranging the trip and getting exclusive access to the team is also good, and that cuts through some of the more sharp PR moves you might expect to see the Blizzard staff get up to. A lot of the content from the trip that has come out in the livestream so far shows Blizzard staff unaccompanied by PR types, so there is some measure of trust in the content for me at least – less workshopped, a little more off-the-cuff and unfiltered. All of that is good. I will say that Blizzard also obviously knows that nailing this interview and documentary will go a long way to bringing back disaffected WoW players – Preach has been an avatar of the unexpected in how quickly and thoroughly he took to FFXIV, and if he goes from seldom talking about WoW at all to singing the praises of the game, there is a benefit to them. That is perhaps a little bit cynical on my part, but I felt it necessary before continuing – Blizzard knows that eyes will be on this, and so there is an incentive for them in answering some things “correctly.”

So, let’s get into the biggest takeaway from this interview.

A Third(?) Era of World of Warcraft

The major talking point coming out of the early preview of footage from Preach was that Dragonflight marks the beginning of a Third Era of World of Warcraft. What are the first two? Well, it’s kind of vague so far, but it seems like a good guess would be that vanilla through Mists of Pandaria represent one model, Warlords through Shadowlands a second, and Dragonflight through Question Mark representing the third. What is the big change?

Well, the primary thing Blizzard wanted to hit on with all of this was that the Third Era of WoW is about a couple of big line items. The biggest one (and the largest, most substantive change from the prior era) is the paring-back of expansion-specific systems. The team rightly noted that one of the big flaws in the recent game is that there are a ton of things that get thousands of hours of developer work, ask players to put in time and effort to learning, and are then summarily discarded at the end of the expansion, rendering much of that effort meaningless. Players ask “why bother?” and the developers are left to retool elements of the code under the hood for use in other, newer systems. We’ve seen this a lot in WoW, with the Scenarios of Mists of Pandaria becoming the primary tech driving instanced, high-story questing, with Artifact Weapons giving way to new modes of borrowed power that use similar technological underpinnings, with the Garrison systems of WoD being streamlined into the Class Hall and War Campaign upgrades of the following expansions, and other similar issues.

The team is right to point this out, as it becomes a part of the frustration of playing WoW in the moment – I can learn this now, and it will be useful now, but for how long? Over the last decade of WoW, the answer has been pretty consistently – two years or less. Do these systems have some upside sometimes? Sure, absolutely. But overall, a lot of WoW feels very flighty and changes so consistently as to feel meaningless. Attempts at tuning borrowed power in response to player feedback miss the mark because the core concept that has been problematic is borrowed power itself. For what excitement such systems can and do bring to the game, there’s a very real concern that them going away makes investment feel kinda bad.

This issue creates a second problem, too – there’s a large catalog now of legacy content that just kinda….doesn’t have players to fill it out. Old dungeons still get leveling players, use of event weeks pushes players into different modes of content, and current content will always have a place – but it is categorically harder to get, say, an Island Expedition group going, or run a Warfront. Even if tech from these modes gets re-used later, that doesn’t change the lack of players available for these older activities. In a way, this issue is compounded by the nature of MMOs as-is – you keep building forward, but depending on the game structure, it can be hard to backfill for gaps in this process. WoW’s model post-BfA has also kind of pushed this harder, as the new player experience explicitly pushes new players towards BfA, which makes all prior content de facto obsolete, short of Chromie Time alt leveling for experienced players, timewalking events, or solo-stomping old raids and dungeons for transmog.

So a cornerstone idea of this Third Era concept is more stuff that will carry forward – not always all of it, but a larger percentage than we are used to in the current era. What form this will take for, say, Dragonflight, remains to be seen, as we still have uncertainty on if Dragon Riding will even persist past 10.0 or outside of the Dragon Isles at all, but the commitment is there.

This all dovetails nicely with the idea of reducing the burden of catching up, which was a core issue with borrowed power systems. In WoW’s recent history, coming back to the game after time away has been a chore, short of windows like starting a new expansion or the end of the most recent expansion, where systems have the rough edges largely sanded-off or aren’t yet implemented. Dragonflight, as I’ve already discussed, does away with all of this, which is quite nice – the only catching up to do for most modes of play is gear, and while gear catchup remains a question for future patches in the new content, if they keep a model similar to the Legion through Shadowlands content, they’ll probably be pretty okay.

Storytelling and Lessons Learned from Final Fantasy XIV

One reason I, personally, am quite glad Preach did this, is that he can speak in an informed manner to how things are done differently in FFXIV compared to WoW, and lean on the WoW team more about how to improve on some of the things where FFXIV is ahead of WoW. The biggest point, fairly obviously, is story – FFXIV’s story is a beloved aspect of that game for its audience, but it also takes unique compromises in gameplay. A first playthrough of FFXIV can feel a bit long, because you’re so often watching cutscenes over engaging with gameplay directly. The questing structure of FFXIV is complete a quest with around 3-5 minutes of actual gameplay, watch cutscene. It tells a great story, but that first playthrough can feel a little odd for players coming from, well, WoW, where the inverse is true. And, to be honest, as someone who likes both games, I appreciate that they have differing approaches and I think that you couldn’t just transplant FFXIV storytelling into WoW, nor could you transplant WoW’s questing model into FFXIV. They fit their own games like a glove.

Where I do think WoW can learn from FFXIV on story is in telling compelling multi-expansion story arcs. The old model of WoW was that each expansion was a standalone story that had almost zero direct linkage to prior events, short of a vague handwave (oh, the Cataclysm removed the mists from Pandaria, making it a place we could see and head to). The model from MoP onwards has been more direct links to prior storytelling – Garrosh’s story in Mists creates the conditions for WoD, defeating Archimonde in Tanaan sends AU Gul’dan to MU Azeroth where he frees Illidan and thus Legion begins, and so on. Basically, we’ve ended each expansion with some event that creates the conditions for the expansion to follow. Within that structure, however, each expansion has still had a lot of standalone beats and only has a vague main, serialized story to follow. Legion forward told the story of Sylvanas, acting on the plots of the Jailor, and while some of that was, undoubtedly, created after-the-fact for the sake of creating a more connected narrative, it marks a distinction from the prior handling of these things.

Blizzard’s approach to the new era of WoW is to create more specific, multi-expansion story arcs. The stated goal with this is to reduce things like the way Khadgar was handled most recently, where he was a big focus character for two expansions in a row, only to basically shake his head and disappear for BfA and Shadowlands. While this direction is vague, it would mark an improvement – it often feels less like things in WoW have logical buildup and stakes and more like things just kind of happen when they’re cool, which has an initial value of “whoa, that’s cool” before fading to a lot of questions and general confusion, which leads to irritation with the story. It still gets to me that Baine, noted friend and pen pal with Anduin, is present in Zereth Mortis but yet does not have an interaction with Anduin during his raid fight or the post-fight cutscene. It also gets to me how many characters simply fade in and out of the story with seemingly little rhyme or reason – we get to see Thrall throw away the Doomhammer in Legion, but that point is really not raised much until BfA when we find him hanging out raising his kid, and there are a lot of moments like this.

On the one hand, I struggle to accept the idea that the WoW story will get much better. It’s still written by the same core team that has fumbled consistently for the last two or so expansions and the hinted story beats of the main story of Dragonflight are…not looking too great. There’s a lot of great small-scale storytelling in zone and side-quest stories, which is awesome, but that has consistently been strong for the WoW team. On the other hand, I think that acknowledging there is more and better to be done here is a good first step, considering that the WoW team has so often taken the approach of putting their fingers into their ears and humming when story critique comes around. Of course, if they don’t follow this promise with real change, that will probably be a signal, but we will see!

Gameplay Design

Ultimately, Dragonflight already makes a strong pitch to players who became disenchanted with WoW over the last few years. No more borrowed-power, a new class, talent trees in a new form, and the like – all of these are a strong foundation to build upon. So far in Dragonflight, the actual expansion content from beta looks quite promising. I was very critical of Renown when it was mentioned in the announcement press materials, but I’ve gotten to see a little bit of it on beta now, and honestly…I kinda like it? It replaces old reputation, which is great because the old reputation model in WoW is one thing that has never really directly changed (rewards of it, acquisition of it, and the like has, but the core levels and concept have not), and it basically rewards a Renown for every 2,500 reputation. You get a weekly quest in the main hub that gives you 500 Reputation with each faction, and the beta has implemented an early catchup mechanism where every 10 Renown on your main increases the rate of acquisition on alts. Renown unlocks are no longer tied to player power, but instead open up a ton of fun options like cosmetics or new world content you can do.

A lot of focus is placed back on gear as the main vector of player power progression, with increased emphasis on gear in nearly every way. Professions can craft BoP gear for other players via the Work Order system, profession gear offers increased item levels compared to prior expansions, item levels increase more through the raid than the Shadowlands two-tier system where only the determined “end-wing” dropped increased item levels, Mythic Plus reaches higher item levels by comparison (with an increase to difficulty), and tier bonuses return and remain the main incentive for gathering a set of raid gear (and likely still Mythic Plus or PvP gear through some means). In general, while gameplay in Dragonflight has a more modern sheen on it, the overall progression systems are far more like older expansions, which is, for me, a good thing.

It’s difficult to say for sure that this will remain good throughout the expansion, or that the final system will be good once available as the actual game. So far, in beta, it is quite promising and I think that will remain the case. Patches and future content may shift things around as they usually do – but without a baseline system in need of immediate, obvious repairs, as was the case for Azerite, Covenants, and Artifacts (albeit to a lesser extent), there’s a good chance that we see clean continuation of the launch model going forward, and that would be good news – great news, even. But as the first step of many on this “Third Era” journey, it’s a good start!

Class Design

One of the more brief parts in recap was the way in which class and spec design is informed. Blizzard’s class design team is pretty staunchly anti-homogenization, which is a good value to keep. A common complaint that finds some ground in FFXIV is that within roles, jobs can feel very similar, if not identical, and while I think some of that is overblown, it’s valid. WoW, to its credit, has pretty distinguished specs within each role, such that while specs doing the same job have some similarities (especially when dealing with, say, healers), the kits of each are pretty different. Evokers are the new hotness, and from some brief hands-on time in beta, I like what I see a lot there. There’s a mix of familiar stuff coupled with a lot of new tech and toys – charged casting (which is optional but has some niche applications!), skillshot AoEs (a player-centered aiming row that you can pivot around for ideal positioning), and their own style of heal/hurt spell in the vein of Holy Shock or Penance, which changes what it does based on the target. Evoker’s resource systems are similarly different, leaning on established ideas like Mana but also using Essence as a totally new thing to shape gameplay.

One thing I would like to see is more emphasis on how balance will work against this goal. It could be argued that homogenization, while iffy from a gameplay standpoint, does make it relatively easier to balance specs against one-another. In the current design, where talent trees have a very unique shape and routing per spec, I have some concerns about how balance will be maintained to a satisfying level. So far in the pre-patch, balancing changes have been shifting numbers back and forth by double-digit percentage values, which is not usually a great sign, especially because such changes may not be necessary come level 70 and a new season of endgame content. Luckily, we’ve got a couple of weeks of post-launch Dragonflight content to do before anything where balance truly matters comes out!

Content Philosophy

One of the things that I value most from writing about my game experiences is that I see a lot of people with different experiences to mine who share them, and there’s an ability to get a different perspective in that via longer-form writing. Preach’s interviews had a few interesting nuggets about how the overall design philosophy of WoW is crafted and how content comes together, with the biggest emphasis being on the fact that there’s not one single thing that is the main mode of play for WoW fans. People dabble in a little bit of everything, which seems quite true in any group – even within a raid team, you’ll have people who do M+ and those who don’t, people who PvP and those who don’t, pet battlers, collectors, transmog enthusiasts and clown-suit wearers, and more. It can be easy within cloistered environments to think that most people play like you or your friends do, but that is often a mistaken assumption. Blizzard’s big moves with the Third Era concept are designed at targeting a little bit of everything. For every hardcore metagamer, there is at least one person who has one class and one spec they play and they just want to do stuff on that, so balance tweaks of even 5% (their number, not mine) can make that person’s experience less fun.

One of the things that caught my eye on Twitter in recent weeks were the responses around someone’s thread about leaving the game behind, noting that WoW isn’t really an RPG and hasn’t been in a while, and I think I kind of agree with that. It’s not how I play, so I’m not like, begging for it to be one, but at the same time, there is a certain sense of place and directionless fun that is still not accommodated in the new model of Dragonflight. The game is fun, but the game is also always directing you towards a goal of some sort and there are generally less ways to just…be in Azeroth. Dragonflight’s open world areas have a much better sense of place compared to Shadowlands, which was often inhospitable by just not feeling like a real place – no seating in most zones, a lack of places where you could just go and hang out off the beaten path, and a general lack of belonging. Sure, it’s the afterlife, but you mean to tell me no one ever sits down in Bastion? Dragon Isles fixes this a lot by having a fairly good number of spots that are just there for flavor, ambience, to tell a story. Where WoW is still lacking the RPG is in those moments of choice to do something without a reward or progress bar to chase – there’s still value in pretty much everything you can do in terms of gameplay, but that also dilutes the choice aspect of gameplay a lot.

Trying to design for the number of audiences WoW has is a daunting task, I am sure, and I respect the effort the team puts into having diverse modes of content over just a single or couple of parallel progression tracks. Having said that, there is still more that can be done to bring a wider array of players in, including players that once had a place in WoW but have slowly lost that.

In Closing

Ultimately, while this news came out after I decided to return to WoW, it was helpful in contextualizing that choice further, and the topics that Blizzard spoke about were good to see some conversation on. I think that in a lot of press interviews, the WoW team tends to be guarded, and they’ll usually only talk about successes or gloss over failures in simple ways. What I appreciate the most about content like this is that they’re more willing to acknowledge specific flaws and problems, which go a long way towards restoring my trust in the team to improve on those things in the future. Speech without action is certainly a problem the team has had before, but the good thing about this coming out alongside a relatively problem-free Dragonflight beta test cycle is that there is already action taken and context within which to nest this interview.

The only standing concerns I have are around the nature of the story and the centering of player feedback. The story is a concern only because I don’t buy their talk on it just yet, since that is the element of the expansion we cannot fully see yet. In WoW, honestly, I’m okay with the story being kind of bad if the gameplay is there, because it’s a side dish in WoW for me. I like it when it’s good, I love it when it’s great, but the rest of the time – eh, as long as it doesn’t stink too bad such that the stuff I enjoy starts to smell bad, then we’re still in business.

My bigger practical concern is around player feedback. The last couple of expansions have marked a combative Blizzard, a trend that almost started years prior with the “you think you do, but you don’t” comment that every Classic fan needs to hear in order to have an erection. For a lot of the most recent era of WoW, Blizzard has basically served what they want to and challenged players when we respond negatively to it, such that it became a cycle where every alpha and beta test was full of negative comments about certain systems and aspects of the expansion, Blizzard would reassure us it would be better in full form, and then it wasn’t, so we’d go a few more rounds before an x.1 or x.2 patch would come to bail the system out.

Shadowlands, to its credit, was better about this to a point. 9.1.5 and 9.2 both brought substantive quality of life improvements to the game, and the introduction of cross-faction has gone a long way as well. Arguably, there was a PR component to these changes too – 9.1.5 came as the first patch after the harassment suit news broke, and 9.2 was the last full content patch of the expansion, aiming to recapture player interest after the longest non-final tiers in WoW history, back to back.

So on the one hand, right now, I have a cynical outlook on “listening to player feedback” – it’s a tired refrain we’ve heard whether it was true or not, and without more specific action taken, it’s hard to take at face value. On the other hand, Blizzard did make improvements in the tail end of Shadowlands that went against their own stated philosophy for the content to come, and a lot of what Dragonflight offers is in-line with player feedback from the last 6 years or so.

Either way, I’m somewhat hopeful that this represents an improved direction for WoW and that we’ll see things improve even more with time.

6 thoughts on “The “Third Era” Of World of Warcraft and What It Means

  1. “a trend that almost started years prior with the “you think you do, but you don’t” comment that every Classic fan needs to hear in order to have an erection”

    Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The one thing they coud definitely borrow from FFXIV questing – without changing the approach, both endgame and story, is the number of grind within quest. Sending a player for 10-15 kills or gathering items instead of 1-3 could have been a drastic change, especially with multiple alts to play whenever you want a new class. I’d say 5 is the optimal number, and not more. But… it’s a blow against playing time meters, so players must suffer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely agree – the number of “kill X” quests with more than 5 targets is too much. It’s fine to a point, but it doesn’t add much gameplay past that and 5, I would agree, is a sweet spot where a geared player could do an AoE roundup and kill them all quickly while a newer or less-geared player could peel off one or two at a time.

      Like

  3. Interesting, I thought this would be the fourth age, as I previously saw people split the expansions into three eras: Classic (Vanilla to Wrath), whatever you wanna call MoP to WoD… shattered world era? Things felt different after the Cataclysm for sure, but they had not yet moved away from concepts like dailies and gear progression completely. And then the borrowed power era from Legion onwards.

    The whole borrowed power thing is kind of funny to me in hindsight because I remember people were raising concerns about that from the very first previews of Legion. What, every paladin is going to get the Ashbringer? Won’t that be weird? And what happens in the expansion after that? If you just replace the Ashbringer with a questing green, that’s gonna feel terrible! But players hadn’t yet experienced what it actually feels like, so like Blizzard the majority were happy to go with whatever seemed cool in the moment and worry about the consequences later.

    Can those Preach interviews be viewed anywhere? I got excited when I saw his first teases on Twitter, but I haven’t seen anything go up on YouTube…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that I think there are more eras than just two, with a third about to begin. There was definitely enough philosophical shift around Cata to merit an era for sure – even though Cata still has the rough shape of Wrath before it.

      The borrowed power thing, from my perspective, was interesting until the borrowed part came crashing in. Sure, everyone having Ashbringers and Doomhammers was a bit of a lore nightmare, but the skins and transmog did a lot to help that be better, at least for me. It also helps that my favored main classes had a bunch of nothing artifacts – so there was no deep lore or pre-established anything to get excited over. Once the reality of “this goes away after Legion” became clear, I was not a fan.

      I haven’t seen the final product yet either – he’s got the 5 hour Twitch VOD discussing the trip, but the footage is supposed to be getting edited together to create the NoClip style he was going for, and I haven’t seen an actual release date or anything more than the teases yet. Smart money would probably be to launch it next week during the major prepatch push for Dragonflight, or to launch it during Dragonflight launch week, but I don’t know for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

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