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

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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John Mynard

I’ve said it before, I really have to question people who make an extra effort to be or at least appear to be incompetent.

Roger Melly

The lesson that any company and Blizzard especially should take from this is not to take too much notice of a vocal forum playerbase because they will always be a minority that you will never be able to please .

DargorV .

7.3.5 is when this started.

Took way too long for people to wake up and smell the ****pile

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Tony McSherry

You would assume from all these complaints that WoW must be a ghost town now. However, I see lots of people in the game and I have no trouble getting people for ad-hoc groups, world bosses, island expeditions, warfronts, dungeons and raids and I play on an American realm in the small hours of the morning from Australia. This may be due to Blizzard’s linked realms filling out my server population, but it really doesn’t matter from a player perspective.

I’ve levelled a druid healer and a beastmaster hunter so far and I’ve enjoyed the storyline and side quests. At max level, the multitude of world quests, island expeditions and warfronts I still find fun and I haven’t even touched PvP this expansion. I also like the mini-games, so I’ve been pet battling and making sure those young turtles get to the water in the Tortollan world quests. I’ve raided and LFRed, but raids and dungeons are not really that interesting to me anymore and it’s not WoW, it’s me ;-)

The obsession with long term progression and climbing up a gear ladder obviously motivates some people to declare “everything is a mess”, but I’m happy with my gear progression, RNG or not and the game design itself, as I started in WoW Classic, has constantly progressed. Of course there will be things that irritate in each expansion, usually different things for different play styles and my current irritation is why I need to get crap from Mythic dungeons to make higher leather armour, but it’s only a minor irritation and I think I’m over it ;-)

I still go back to the much despised garrison occasionally to build Goblin Gliders and I know it’s my home, as the Halloween and Xmas decorations are still up from years ago. All my followers and pets are still there and I’m sure my farm in Pandaria is still producing crops. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the size of WoW’s worlds and I hope that further expansions may make better use of the content.

So while the vanishing small part of the playerbase – those who frequent the Blizzard forums or reddit – rage on, I’ll just keep having fun until the fun stops and then I’ll wait for the next expansion ;-)

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

I think you are making a bad assumption that people who are complaining are saying the game isn’t fun. I don’t think that’s the case for most of the people complaining otherwise, why complain? People are invested in WoW more than probably any other game in history – they want it to succeed. There’s still a lot of great game to be found.


Pointing out the nearly cult-like devotion that Blizzard shows to the ‘leet Raiders and everyone else in the game can have the scrapes if the devs can be bothered. That’s all fine and good, except on top of that Blizzard is also taking player agency out of progression for those who want to raid do mythic+ for progression. So those of us who don’t raid and frankly are somewhat stockholmed into getting shafted when it comes to things to do in MMOs are getting bored because there’s a derth of things to do once you hit 120. The raiding / Mythic+ crowd are annoyed because they have no real agency in how they progress.

The net is that there’s a lot of people (intentionally vague number) vaguely unsatisfied. While the forums / reddit will always represent a subset of vocal players, it also functions as somewhat of a canary in the coal mine. I’ve always followed what I call the cockroach rule – if one person is bothered and takes the time to complain, there are a hundred more out there who are just as bothered just aren’t saying anything.

The obsession with long term progression and climbing up a gear ladder obviously motivates some people to declare “everything is a mess”

You are thinking about progression too literally in terms of gear. There are 2 really good examples for progression that I have experience with — both in wrath. The first was the Argent Tournament and as a belf rogue, the only actual horse mount I could get was the Argent horse. Knowing I needed a stupid amount of champion seals, I worked day after day doing my dailies to build up to get it. Took me a month. It was fun some days, grindy others, but satisfying and I felt accomplished in the end.

The other is the violet protodrake (alright I might have a thing for mounts …). It took a year to get. You had to complete the achievement for every. single. holiday event and a guildie and I did it. A full year! I’m still proud of the dedication and consistency it took and earn that protodrake.

THAT is an example of long-term progression. It’s a long-term goal, either raiding related or not, that provides me a reason to log in every day, or close to every day more likely. It’s a goal that takes time and effort to achieve. Right now, WoW has almost none of that.

It’s not that the game isn’t fun, or that there aren’t really fun aspects to it. But it’s also silly to pretend it doesn’t have problems.

DargorV .

“This is fine”

-dog in burning house


I dunno. I’m reserving judgement as I just started BFA. So far I’m enjoying it, but I play it more like an Arcade RPG. I get to level, there are cool stories to play through, places to explore and options to test my digital mettle. I never played Vanilla (got my virtual ticket for WoW Classic tomorrow), but can totally see that it is a different game from where it started.

I don’t see any MMORPG developer placing wide emphasis on RPG mechanics and long term growth, so I’m not convinced this is a WoW problem as much so as its an MMO problem. I also believe the audience has changed. What seemed to work back in the late 90s early 2000s of having a (small) group of people committed to working together to build a virtual world doesn’t exist anymore. It has shifted to the single player trying to get loot at fast as humanly possible (but then complain that there is nothing to do after they get it). There are many non-gaming factors that I feel led to this (gamers getting older, having less time, the proliferation of the Internet, etc).

The changes they are making are in line with what Im seeing in other MMOs. Elder Scrolls Online eventually moved to level scaling and it pratically saved their game. if I had to pick one area where WoW failed it would be this. Blizzard never got out of the process of creating content, making it irrelevant, to make brand new content. Over time this has cannibalized their own game. Why in BFA am I regulated to these 3 (relatively) small islands (when compared to rest of Azeroth?). Why not spread content across ALL zones making the entire world relevant? Second failure was lack of housing. The excuses they gave didn’t cut it for me. Every other MMO I played had some sense of housing and Blizzard’s inept attempt with Garrisons was a folly at best.

So while I can see those who remember the “old” WoW being mad at the current WoW, I’m not fully convinced what they are doing is a horrible thing that will ruin the game, though I can see it as a shift that drives away a significant portion of the playerbase and there is a valid question of where they go from there. If they don’t tackle the concerns I mentioned in a meaningful way, there won’t be a need for a WoW killer… because WoW will kill itself.

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Cosmic Cleric

I’m not sure precisely when you sacrifice a goat to Zeus for good fortune, but it factors in there somewhere.

Well played, sir. Well, played.

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.

And well stated, sir.

There’s something rotten at the core, and that’s not going to be easily fixed.

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?

And a ‘mic drop’ moment, to boot.

Well written article.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I wish I could post with more knowledge about BfA, but after a few weeks in beta, I decided it was empty calories and didn’t purchase it.

I just want to sling some spaghetti at the wall. So here goes.

Having spent most of my adult life in a corporate environment, there is something that as we hash out details may get lost in the mix. That’s the business plan. Blizzard has a business plan. A golden palace of success it is driving towards. There may be only a score of people who know the business plan in toto, but every single manager knows what his/her piece of the business plan is. And all of their decisions need to further that plan.

My working theory is that about 5 or 6 years ago, Blizzard went all-in for Esports. This meant a competitive platform for every single one of their games that could be translated into Burbank Arena competition.

I think this is why they turned away from Diablo 3 at arguably the best time to enhance it. It couldn’t support arena competition. It didn’t fit into the business plan. It was transitioned to “classic” maintenance mode. (This is, of course, a dangerous assertion to make just before the BlizzCon supposed-announcement of a Druid class and a big patch. It won’t change much, just as Necro didn’t.)

Then Legion came out, for which we all really hyped. There were a few, according to my theory, telltale signs in Legion’s design. First was the insertion of a necessary quest destination and tool in the middle of the Sewers, a PvP FFA zone. That caused an uproar. And the reasons given were completely lame and unbelievable (so lame, in fact, that they eventually moved it to where it should have been to begin with, in the crafting area of Dalaran).

However, if you look at it from the perspective of trying to accustom your reluctant players to PvP, it worked very well. People really got in to it. Then there was the matter of WoW being a soloable game. Solo friendly. They needed to get rid of that perception, because arena sports is team-based. People needed to group more so they would be more interested in group sports. So they threw dungeon requirements into everything in the game. Pets, professions, order halls, everything required dungeons to progress. And that cost them a lot of solo players, who could have a lot more fun with ESO and progress without having to do dungeons or raids.

I look at the dumpster fire that is BfA and try to fit it in to my working theory of Blizzard’s supposed business plan. War Mode, PvP enhancement, check. War Fronts, group enhancement, check. Islands, group/PvP enhancement, check. Those were the things they were concentrating on. How to further their business plan by converting their player base into group-oriented PvPers and Arena ticket buyers.

Anything not directly related to that, including Allied Races and cosmetics, get pretty short shrift.

Kip Braunstader

that is a spooky but very plausible explanation…i dont know anything about business but that sounds reasonable

Matthew Denniston

A pain I know very well is being the guy on a dev team that sees the problem and has a solution, but the rest of the team/management doesn’t see it and doesn’t care.

I’m sure there are a number of these persons on the WoW team right now.

One of them may even be lead dev Ion himself… or he could be the problem… a lot of these issues predate him, but have reached their breaking point on his watch.

It seems like if we all keep beating the drum the signal will be heard, but the 3 to 4 weeks to rng, 6 to 8 weeks to get what you want on m+ azerite makes me feel like they put in a “solution” they know doesn’t solve it so they can point at the community and say “well we tried it your way, and it didn’t work.”

…Whoever designed that should run for congress.

A similar “almost” fix was the auction house change that was intended to prevent people from posting up small stacks, but actually encouraged it by making posting anything so risky that you can only afford to post what you know will for sure 100% sell.

I understand the AH is 14 years out of date and wasn’t built with TSM in mind, but honestly there is no good reason TSM (or similar) isn’t a stock part of the game, and no good reason we haven’t had a revamped AH, with all the wisdom learned from Ebay (and other online auctions) built in.

The staff is there, or at least the money for the staff (assuming they have no one with a passing interest in economics on hand)… so I’d blame most of these issues on a lack of vision and a lack of project management.

The encounter design has been top notch in legion and bfa (even if the rewards have had issues), so the team can put out something good if they care about it… they just need to care about more things, and fast.

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Cosmic Cleric

A pain I know very well is being the guy on a dev team that sees the problem and has a solution, but the rest of the team/management doesn’t see it and doesn’t care.

And then you speak up, and get roasted for your efforts. Been there.

And I’m betting (don’t know) that the design philosophy changes are coming from Activision management, not Blizzard.

A similar “almost” fix was the auction house change that was intended to prevent people from posting up small stacks, but actually encouraged it by making posting anything so risky that you can only afford to post what you know will for sure 100% sell.

Sure minimizes the number of database transactions though. Wonder what kind of corporate licensing deal Blizzard has for their database, if it’s per connection, per transaction, both, neither/flat-rate?

Teh Beardling

As someone pointed out below. There has been a ton of innovation in the mmo market over the years and wow has stubbornly not incorporated a lot of it. I think they can turn it around but they have to break out of some of their old habits that just aren’t working. It can be done,(look at ffxiv). They just have to crawl out of their cloud of arrogance and see that their design decisions no longer line up with the vast majority of their player base, and haven’t for quite some time now. If WoW released as a new mmo in its current state it would without a doubt, fail. It is largely help up by the nostalgia of its player base. But that won’t hold out forever. With the introduction of classic I get the feeling a lot of the people who go back for nostalgic reasons will just ditch the retail version and go back to vanilla for their true nostalgic fix.

Matthew Denniston

Nostalgia and community… Who do they think they are, the Vatican?

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You’ve nailed it. Not a thing I disagree with you here.

Blizzard’s aware it could do better with WoW but instead chooses not to in favor of metrics and greed. There’s good reason why there’s so much silence from the team in regards to much of the well-written player feedback. They disagree with what the players want and figure it’s better to stretch out the players’ playtime as much as possible before dwindling numbers force their hand. And even then, they’ll only stubbornly relent by letting up as little as possible.