After more than a decade of operation, a curious thing has happened to World of Warcraft: It’s circled back around on an awful lot of its design principles, not in the sense that Warlords of Draenor is only a hop and a skip away from the game’s original incarnation, which is demonstrably untrue, but in the sense that a lot of what has changed over that original incarnation has slowly wound up coming back to the same place.
This is something that I think has been cycling around for a while, due in no small part to the simple fact that designers are people too, and the people designing WoW are big fans of the game’s original design without understanding the iterative improvements that happened over the years. Whether or not these changes are good or bad depends on individual taste, but it’s educational insofar as understanding why the game is what it is now.
The undoing of badges
I am not a fan of random loot. I’m not a big fan of randomness in general because it takes agency out of the hands of the player and aligns it with the whims of a computer. Random loot is a particular offender, though, because it turns victories from a matter of accomplishing X for reward Y and into a game of accomplishing X in the hopes that you might get reward Y. And since it’s random, there’s no real way to accelerate or slow it down.
At launch, WoW was all about the random loot, and this posed a problem that the designers understood. Thus began the saga of the badge system, starting in The Burning Crusade with Badges of Justice, which worked well for much of the expansion before becoming vastly overpowered as extremely good equipment could be had for the minimal effort of farming up badges. The system was refined further in Wrath of the Lich King, such that by the end of the expansion a player could literally pick up a full tier set at least by just farming Heroic dungeons.
Cataclysm started to roll this back, Mists of Pandaria went a step further, and now in WoD the idea of currency drops from heroic dungeons or raids is completely gone. Instead, there’s the bonus roll mechanic, which is… sort of the exact opposite of a solution to the problem, since if you couldn’t trust your luck the first time, you sure as hell can’t trust it a second time. The core idea is the same in that it offers a way to adjust your luck, but the implementation is right back to where we started and is just as luck-based as ever.
The daily and the reputation
The Burning Crusade introduced the idea of daily quests to WoW. Wrath of the Lich King was the expansion where Blizzard fell in love with the idea of daily quests as reputation gates, using them for only a handful of factions beforehand. Both Cataclysm and MoP made extensive use of dailies and new factions, and here we are in an expansion with virtually no factions or dailies to worry about.
MoP was a particularly dark time for dailies, not because of the quests themselves but because they were implemented in a fashion best described as “baffling and insane.” You had random daily hubs each day. You had to raise your reputation with a faction in order to unlock the justice/valor gear that had normally been purchased straight with no need for reputation, removing what had been an optional element of gameplay (in previous expansions, there was high-end faction gear and there was badge gear, two separate routes). And you could no longer earn reputations through dungeons, so you were forced to gorge yourself on reputations.
Back in the vanilla game, I was hardly the only person who got used to killing undead in the Plaguelands over and over to raise that Argent Dawn reputation. How are you getting your reputation up for a lot of the factions in WoD? Same thing. (In principle, that is; please do not attempt to grind Laughing Skull rep by killing undead in the Plaguelands. It will not work.)
The death of the heroic
It’s a matter of public record that I’m a big fan of small-group content. Having fewer people on deck means that every decision is more impactful, every mistake is more meaningful, and every encounter winds up being that much more challenging. So the idea of heroics always interested me, and as World of Warcraft‘s team got better at designing instances, those instances swiftly became one of my favorite parts of the game. A version of the older dungeon tuned up for higher levels and meant to be repeatable endgame stuff? Yes, please. Take my money. Here, I’ll just sign a blank check for you.
Tuning rewards and difficulty has always been a problem, though. TBC arguably had instances tuned a bit too hard, while by the end of WotLK they were far too easy — fun, but mindlessly so. Cataclysm was again too hard for too little; MoP largely hit the sweet spot in difficulty but still struggled with rewards. WoD‘s heroics are about right in challenge, but they’re far less rewarding than easier content.
The net result is that not-raiding is more pointless than ever; the only reason for anyone to do a heroic at this point is for giggles, since you get much more out of LFR runs. We’re back to the original game’s routine of running normal dungeons for a bit and then raiding as much as you can in hopes of getting an upgrade.
All of this has created a very different game from its predecessors, and I think some of the discontent with WoD comes purely from the fact that there’s an increasing push with each new expansion to completely unwrite the game as it stands rather than make it foundational. It’s hard to feel as if a game is moving forward when it keeps kneecapping its own history, after all.
Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow @TruceSMV on Twitter if you’d like to read my in-character Draenei Shaman tweets. Next time around, since this wound up a little unintentionally pessimistic, I’d like to circle around myself and gush about what I find really cool in Warlords of Draenor.