First and foremost, I’d like to note that I am writing these columns consecutively and immediately, so all I can do is hope that when I write this it is in the wake of comments from last week’s column about how World of Warcraft has long since stopped making us farm up Nature Resistance gear. It’s not even a thing any more. And in the strictest sense, that’s true, but for all intents and purposes it’s wrong. We’ve been farming Nature Resistance gear for the past three expansions.
For those of you coming into the game a little bit later, here’s some history. In The Burning Crusade, one of the bosses (fairly early on) was known for dealing lots and lots of poison damage. The “strategy” for this boss was to stack on lots of Nature Resistance gear, which meant that your stats would be lower for the most part, but you would be able to weather his damage and thus tank and spank the boss until he died. Nature Resistance gear somehow became the flashpoint for this, but there were a lot of old raids designed like this, where you just tried to stack up resistances to deal with a specific damage type that would otherwise kill you.
This is pretty bad design. Success in this fight was not determined by developing a strategy or dealing with mechanics, but instead by whether or not you had gotten enough gear to compensate for the poison damage. It was, in many ways, a poster child for a specific sort of gameplay. You slapped on your resist gear for that fight, and then you went back to the gear you would actually use to play as soon as it was over. It was just pointless busy work that only mattered because you were told it does for this raid tier.
You know, like Azerite armor. Or Artifact weapons. Or Garrisons.
Azerite armor is, of course, the problematic system du jour because it’s the system introduced in this expansion. It’s a bad system that has lots of bad aspects, some of which can be improved and some of which cannot without tearing down the system to the ground and starting over. It’s a system I was excited for at one point, but its implementation is terrible. But we also all know that it is a system with a limited lifespan. When the next expansion rolls around, we won’t have to deal with it any longer.
It seems to me that this is part of where the discontent stems from. It’s not just that it’s a bad system; it’s that it’s a bad system we all know is being pushed for a while without any permanence. That means the designers have less incentive to fix it and actually do the work that should be done to make it work because it’s just getting discarded in a couple of years, after all.
For this, I’m going to go ahead and blame Ion Hazzikostas because he’s been at least assistant director on the game during its “throw away every big mechanic” phase from Warlords of Draenor on. To some extent, I understand why. I can understand sitting down, asking “how can we rescue Garrisons to not be awful” and deciding “it’s too much work, scrap the whole thing.”
And that’s a note he’s hit multiple times, talking about how every new system added to a game increases its complexity. This is a true statement and he is entirely right about that, in the same way that a doctor would be right to explain to you that if he stitches up this wound, any further wounds will still cause you to bleed.
If said doctor used that as an excuse to not bother stitching up your wound, however, you… well, you might pass out from blood loss, but hopefully you could at least smear “MALPRACTICE” on the wall in bloody letters. Or possibly “THIS DOCTOR IS AN INCOMPETENT NIMROD.”
Yes, every new system increases the overall complexity of the game, but that’s why you add them sparingly and think about their impact. It doesn’t mean you remove them from the game entirely, which is what functionally was done with Artifacts as soon as Battle for Azeroth hit. If you don’t want Artifacts around in the next three expansions, you don’t introduce Artifacts in this one, and you don’t introduce them saying from the start “yeah, we’re going to gut the hell out of this later.”
For that matter, you really shouldn’t spend your time saying things like “don’t worry, you won’t just replace these with a random green” (spoiler: that’s exactly what happens) or “there’s a good reason why this is what we went with” (spoiler: also not true). Instead of keeping a useful system in the game to expand, the developers opted to just treat it as a throwaway thing with no long-term investment.
Saying that this design philosophy is short-sighted is an insult to vision. It’s just plain stupid, something that we have a great example of when Magic: the Gathering rewrote its own stance on mechanics after nine years of operation and only seven years after it started making expansion-wide mechanics a thing.
See, starting with the Mirage block, every MtG set had a couple of new explicit keyword mechanics, like “Flanking” or “Cycling” or “Buyback.” The original plan was for these mechanics to be used in the expansions for that block, but never again; the result was that designers could explore these mechanics in these sets and it would lend distinct flavor to those sets.
Mark Rosewater realized that this was a dumb plan while developing the Onslaught set, and it was thrown out happily when that set brought back the Cycling keyword. He explained his reasons in a column which I can no longer find (the official site periodically updates its code and everything gets borked), but the short version is that it was a bad plan for two reasons. The first reason was that it took something away players liked, meaning that keywords which had good resonance (like Cycling) would go away forever even though players wanted more Cycling cards.
The second, and in this case more relevant, reason? There’s still more design space to be explored with these concepts. Sure, a lot of what you can do with the mechanic probably got done the first time, but there’s still more stuff you can try out, variations on a theme and so forth. Throwing out an avenue of exploration when the game necessarily has limited design space to explore is kind of a bad idea.
“But what about complexity?” As he put it, the complexity in and of itself is addressed by having an environment where players won’t run into it and one where they will. The base set doesn’t include returning keywords, and new expansions have a limit on how complex they get. So the overall complexity of the game remains more or less fixed.
Obviously WoW is not a card game. But there’s no reason why, say, level 100 isn’t the level when you unlock artifacts, or why you couldn’t have multiple artifacts for any given spec. Aside from the fact that Hazzikostas thinks it’s much better to throw out the baby, the bathwater, and possibly the entire tub in the process.
In light of that, well… we wind up farming up Nature Resistance gear. We spend an expansion doing stuff in a very narrow field knowing full well that it’s all going to be thrown out. And the net result is that if we’re not having fun with the expansion, we don’t even have the sense of long-term progress to consider. It’s all getting thrown out once the next one rolls around, after all.
Feedback is still welcome down below or by mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, but there is a part three, and it covers that long-term progress I’m talking about. It also covers cosmetics, customization, and intellectual laziness. It should be a fun ride.