WoW Factor: When long-term progress in World of Warcraft isn’t

    
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Whew. All right.

The catalyst for this three-part series wasn’t actually the video that I used to kick off this whole brief revival of WoW Factor. Sure, I said that it was, but that in and of itself was enough for one column. Maybe one and a half. No, what really kicked it off was a post on Reddit about the state of transmog, vanity items, and the fact that there is no reason in the world we can’t select some hairstyles on allied races in World of Warcraft.

Because let’s face it, that could be the one saving grace of the expansion. If everything else is a complete mess (and it is), we could at least walk out of the expansion feeling like we got some new appearances and races. That at least, at the end of the day, we’ve made some long-term progress. But no, we appear to treat “long-term progress” as a dirty word these days.

And this is a major problem. It’s one of the many, many reasons that the whole Mythic+ currency “fix” is intensely stupid, and it’s a sign that the developers are trying very hard to design the game with constant “excitement” and no actual long-term progress. And that’s when we go from an expansion that’s just not good into one that can actively cause lasting damage.

There are lots of places we could start, but let’s start there: with the fix for a game-wide issue that’s targeted at a small percentage of players and also fails to even somewhat fix the issue.

Without going into a far-too-lengthy history of random drops and gearing, we all know that MMOs have long had a problem with striking a balance between getting the stuff you want and actively needing players to be doing things. This is an actual and real problem with the genre, and one that every game needs to address and consider over time.

What if, instead of random chance, we just... let you work on things?

WoW did not fix this problem in Wrath of the Lich King, but it did lay a pretty solid foundation. The currency you earned from what was intended as the “easy” raid difficulty and Heroic dungeons bought you the same level of loot and tier pieces as you could get straight from the raids. Doing the raids meant you had more shots at more pieces of equipment, including items that might suit your spec better, but even if you just did a daily Heroic you would be able to earn up a set of gear.

Other games have played with and refined this system; Final Fantasy XIV in particular uses it as a backbone for its gearing. At times it can feel a bit grindy, but the sheer number of ways to get currency, the quantity needed, and the overall flow of content means that it works. The downsides are balanced by the positives.

Starting with Cataclysm, however, World of Warcraft has slowly made it harder and harder to do this. It was a problem because the whole element of “currency and possibly some drops” contributed to a feeling of long-term progression. This was actual bad luck protection; even if your luck was never good enough to get drops, your persistence would get you somewhere. Your luck literally couldn’t shut you out from forward movement.

Meanwhile… well, we talked about this in the first bit of this particular series. Your gearing system is to hope that the piece drops, then hope it gets the right secondary stats, then hope it Titanforges, then hope you win the roll. I’m not sure precisely when you sacrifice a goat to Zeus for good fortune, but it factors in there somewhere.

Bad luck in any of that is greeted with the world’s smallest violin. And this is literally a problem for every single player in the game. It’s not a problem for people who just do M+ dungeons or those who run raids or those who prefer world quests and chilling and maybe jumping into LFR. It’s a problem for the game with how it’s currently structured, and solving it with another random roll for one specific playerbase is not solving it.

You can’t even say that “bringing Valor back would mean just grinding Valor” because the current alternative is just grinding luck. It’s not actually different or better.

Please ignore some terrible writing and be confident things will eventually get better.

But as I mentioned… with some sense of long-term progression, you could move past this. It would be all right, in the long run, if you felt like you were still getting more outfits and more appearances and such. And… that’s not happening. We are not, in fact, getting these additional things.

There are loads of cosmetics in Island Expeditions, but they are all locked behind random drops, with no way to increase your odds of getting them. When the developers finally deigned to add a shop with the currency dropped in those expeditions, that shop doesn’t actually provide most of those cosmetic options. Want to get a full Warfront set? Hope your luck is good!

We still don’t know how or when players will be able to unlock Kul Tiran Humans or Zandalari Trolls, which people with a memory of more than five seconds will recall is one of the big features for Allied Races in this expansion. At this point, the tail end of Legion has introduced more allied races than the expansion supposedly focused on them.

I don’t like talking about laziness when it comes to video game development, because the fact of the matter is that developing a game is a lot of work, and what we think of as “lazy” is hard to really justify when dealing with the process of making a huge, sprawling game. But the fact of the matter is that there is no good reason why we don’t have more cosmetic options. There’s no reason why we don’t have more cosmetic sets and more reliable ways to get them… except for the reason that the developers would prefer to keep everyone forever chasing a vanishingly rare carrot.

It’s a form of intellectual laziness, though. It’s a matter of throwing just enough reasonable arguments at something to seem like you’ve got a reason why something is undoable when the real explanation is just that the developers don’t want to bother. The reason we don’t have more Allied Races is because the developers don’t feel like adding them in, full stop. The staff is there, the potential there, the demand is there, but you can’t make that a constant pull of random chance.

You see the same thing with the nonsense like gear scaling. The supposed reason it exists is so that the outside world isn’t trivial for people in Mythic Raid gear, which is a stupid explanation in the first place because you put that gear in the game. You decided that the highest raid gear should be this much of a gap compared to the enormous majority of players, which means that this system is also screwing over 99% of the playerbase for a non-problem that almost no one would ever experience and even less of that group would think of as a problem.

But beyond that, there’s the associated problem wherein introducing special case rules for situations is the laziest possible way to handle balance problems. The constant stat squishes have already caused problems, but gear scaling makes this even worse, because the value of having 10 more Strength on a piece of armor actually changes as you have better gear.

So you wind up with ten levels in which you’re staring at the exact same ability layout the whole time without any actual new tricks or anything, wherein people are actively getting weaker the whole time, where level scaling and gear scaling mean you aren’t actually gaining anything.

And yes, I hear those of you in the comments trying to torture this argument into me saying that WoW is dying, which is something that very precisely was not said because it's absurd. Doing damage is not the same is clinging tenuously to life support, and not being able to have a realistic discussion about that does no one any favors. No, the game is not dying any more than someone in the hospital after a heart attack is dying. It's something you can recover from. It just makes today worse.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that the expansion has the potential to do long-term damage. There are two things that keep WoW in its place, and one of those is the sense that even during the worst times of the game, you’re able to work toward some long-term goal. The other is that it’s where everyone hangs out, partly because it feels like even when things are sub-par, you’re still accomplishing something. Forward movement is happening.

But if you remove even that? If you demolish even that sense of long-term progression, you make everything a matter of rolling dice and hoping for nothing that’s actually more developed than it’s ever been? When people start realizing that there are dozens of other games out there and most of them, say, introduce new hairstyles a damn sight more often than once every decade?

There’s something rotten at the core, and that’s not going to be easily fixed. I’ve seen it argued that the reality is it takes Blizzard four years to make a decent WoW expansion, but I don’t think that’s the problem; I think the people who get the lead designer spot are putting in extra effort to avoid learning the lessons of player response. And now even the Mythic raiders and Mythic+ diehards are starting to get fed up.

When even the vanishingly tiny playerbase of your game that you’ve been catering to for years is getting tired… what’s going to happen to your game?

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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