WoW Factor: Why people are mad at Battle for Azeroth, part two: The Heart of Azeroth

    
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Whoops.

We’re continuing on in our tour of why people are upset about the current World of Warcraft expansion, and I think it’s important to note that most of these systems are in many ways separate from one another. If you look at the whole spread of issues (and by my count there are at least two more parts after this one), if only one of them was in place, the expansion would still have a frosty reception. But it would change the nature of things just the same, with the problems being present but not overwhelming.

This is also relevant because the issues are not inherently co-morbid. We did not, in fact, need to remove artifacts at all, but the issues with combat are not tied explicitly to the Heart of Azeroth except insofar as the Heart of Azeroth and Azerite armor are meant to affect your performance in combat. And they do, technically, but not in a way that you’re going to find particularly entertaining.

I'll take things I don't want for 800, Alex.Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: Azerite armor is boring. It has powers, but it doesn’t have the spec-defining elements that made Legion Legendaries so interesting. Instead, it has a handful of passive buffs, and while we were told that they would be hand-picked none of them have the interesting sort of splits that have made set bonuses compelling in the past. You are, as a rule, choosing between one slightly more defensive option and one slightly more aggressive option… or one slightly more defensive option and one option that would never be useful, or whatever.

It’s also the sort of leveling that makes little to no impact. One of the great sleight-of-hand tricks in Legion was making sure that you felt like leveling still mattered as your artifact leveled up. Sure, they were technically unconnected, but the nature of how you tended to acquire artifact power meant that as you gained a level, you’d pick up one to three artifact levels along the way. That meant new tricks, and so you could feel yourself growing in power.

The design of Azerite armor is that you’re supposed to unlock all of its powers when you get it because your Heart should already be high enough level. This means that leveling up your Heart of Azeroth feels like nothing. It doesn’t feel like you’re getting new advantages, it feels like you’re just marking time.

We’ve heard before that the lackluster choices are somehow the split between making things interesting and making them impactful, which is an idea that I already punctured a while back. A far more believable concept is that by having much simpler traits, it’s easier to throw things together on a wider number of different armors; I’d have also believed that all of the actually interesting powers were gated on armor only a small number of people would ever see, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either.

The result is a game-wide leveling system that not only fails at feeling like you’re leveling up in any meaningful way, it fails to provide much in the way of tangible benefits. After you’ve leveled up your Heart of Azeroth a bunch, you know that you’ve achieved something… but it doesn’t feel like you’ve done so in a way that matters. A bar is now full, but you don’t care about it because you’ve been given no impact on the game that you’re playing.

To a certain extent, yes, any system following up on Artifacts was going to have issues like this. It’s hard to replace Ashbringer and feel like the replacement system is as relevant. But this system actually feels worse than just having Azerite armor. Think about that for a second.

Oh. Thanks.

If the core conceit of the expansion was just that this armor was infused with Azerite and you could pick out three or four powers on each piece, you’d remove the leveling system for the Heart and you’d just care about getting the armor. Without changing anything else, it makes the additional armor enhancements feel like a boost. It still wouldn’t be a great system, but why would it feel better with less power?

The reason, of course, is because the game does have a leveling system in place, which means that it treats Azerite as a reward. And since the leveling of the Heart feels so secondary at best, it feels like you’re getting less in the way of rewards than before. I noted even in my first impressions that I actively didn’t want more artifact power, and it’s weird to think that it’s a reward I don’t want in the game at all.

The core of the problem seems to be that every element of it was designed to address issues from legion. Players didn’t like how random Legendaries were because they couldn’t be acquired in any sort of structured way. Players enjoyed leveling Artifacts but the numbers with a few weeks of artifact power got kind of absurd. Balancing totally different trees of powers for all the different specs was kind of onerous. And we got a system instead that addresses those problems, but in the same reductive way that setting yourself on fire.

We miss this.We have actually seen this kind of game design before, ironically. The launch version of Final Fantasy XIV was basically designed to solve all of the problems Final Fantasy XI suffered from, but in the process it didn’t find the time to actually be a fun game on its own. It ensured it would never have the same problems as its predecessor by solving things ahead of time instead of creating something worth enjoying.

All of this is compounded by the fact that designed response basically starts and stops with a shrug and a “well, what can we do about this now?” There’s the sense that the designers don’t see this as a real problem, that while players are upset you can’t revise the system now. In fact, the closest thing we’ve seen to revisions are the announcement that you should have all of the traits on Azerite armor unlocked when you get new pieces, a move that seems to make leveling the dang necklace up even more pointless.

Oh, and then there’s the whole Mythic+ armor thing. That’s a wholly different can of ill-considered worms. We’ll get to that.

Ultimately, the Heart of Azeroth is a system much like Garrisons; it’s derived from an earlier system and then hammered into a state that makes it almost completely uninteresting, and player complaints are met with a shrug and a statement that nothing is really going to be done for the expansion. By making this a central mechanic of the expansion, a high-powered light is shining on all of its problems, and in lieu of any other interesting choices to make it just shows off how banal the system is from top to bottom.

The thing is, though, that while the more open form of housing promised from Garrisons was discussed, we never actually got to play it. We have played with the good form of this system, and the best that the Heart gets is trying to remind us of the Artifacts we actually liked.

Feedback, of course, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. And since it did come up in this column, it seems like this is the right time to start talking about leveling, power, and the content curve… or more accurately, it will be next week.

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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Relen

Played around ~20 hours on Cataclysm and I don’t like it, but what I like is this charming atmosphere that WOW have. Should I give this game another shot?

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Fenrir Wolf

Between the article and the discussion it feels like another treatise on why both vertical progression and forced grouping alike are not only broken, but incredibly harmful mechanics whose only purpose is to eat away at one’s enjoyment over a period of time until their perseverance bottoms out, leaving an empty, stinky fuel canister swirling with stanky fumes of cynicism.

Which works on multiple levels if you’re familiar with fuming in the British-English sense, but I’m explaining my jokes now and that’s such a social faux pas. At least, that’s my understanding.

It seems like what’s desired is an activity with a set time which yields a specific result, which is the very concept of sideways progression. You’re able to do all you need to out the gate, but you can diversify the tools you have available to you by engaging in tasks.

The Secret World and level 80 of Guild Wars 2 both use this concept, it’s not the ultimate realisation of the ideal, but it’s a damn sight better than vertical progression, since all that is is just a long, long grind up hoping for a big reward at the end, and if that doesn’t pay dividends, you feel ripped off.

The thing is? This vertical progression keeps amplifying the expectation of the payout the further you go. Eventually there’s no way the game could satisfy whatever you’d desire out of your next vertical tier. The reward quotient peters out, and the dopamine party realises it’s well past bed time, so everyone is sent home.

Then it’s just perseverance, you keep telling yourself it’s fun when it isn’t (I see so many people doing this), until you realise you’ve just wasted 500 hours of your life doing something you now despise. At this point you’ve two choices available to you: Man up, accept it, and swear to not be caught out again, which also means accepting a solid dose of self-loathing for having been scammed in the first place; or embrace cognitive dissonance, continue to tell people you loved it and get them hooked into the same cycle, even though you don’t believe it any more.

Operant conditioning chambers at work!

I know it’s something that MMO players like to mock, but deep down you know it’s true. You all do. And I’m seeing (even here in the comments) that more and more people are becoming willing to own up and admit it. To own their mistakes, even if it means also taking that dose of very sour, bitter medicine we call contempt.

We’re ready to weaponise contempt against others, but all too often shy away from it ourselves and being responsible for our own actions and behaviours.

And this is why I think WoW is dying off, it’s the quintessential operant conditioning chamber, with all the forced grouping and vertical progression that implies. It’s not fun. It never was. And the nostalgia for vanilla isn’t going to change that, either.

We need a new way for themepark MMOs, a new path. One with a laser focus on fun, diverse content, and healthy socialising without any of the forced elements. Something where we can just pop in and have a bit of fun at our own pace and enjoy the company of others. You know, like a real themepark.

I’ve always liked the concept of MMOs, but the anxiety of my autism coupled with my flat affect has meant that I’ve been afraid to interact with many of them because of how they are. I’m allergic to sociopaths.

And, let’s face it, where are you going to find the worst kinds of people other than in situations where you’re forced to interact with others?

If it wasn’t forced, you could enjoy the content yourself (or with your partner and maybe another close friend at most), and then play it in a group later. That way, it puts the onus of good behaviour on other players. They need us more than we need to put up with their toxic attitudes.

WoW is just an example of an old kind of very successful con that I’m thinking people are just too savvy to, now. And no amount of crazed retro-fitting or nostalgia will bring those who’ve come out the other side back.

Wasting 400~+ hours of your life in one go, then trying to tell yourself it was fun? Despite how soul-sucking it was? Despite how every new expansion meant you had nothing to show for the effort? Despite the horrible people you were forced to interact with? That’s not a good way to live, regardless of whether it’s a good way to be entertained or not. It just seems like a recipe for mental illness, to me.

The underlying theme of all of these topics just feels like people are just so sick of operant conditioning chambers. They want a themepark MMO, but they want something fun that respects them, their social boundaries, and their time.

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Jiminy Smegit

I enjoyed playing through the story, I thought the zone design and the art was probably the best work they have done in WoW. Overall, it felt like a beta for Legion though, too much half finished stuff and sorely lacking in polish.

For me personally I think there were enough distractions in previous expansions to divert me from the fact that the core of the game has moved away from what I regard as fun. Too much emphasis on raids and mythics and not enough on…you know…the majority of the people playing, who dont really care about those things. I enjoyed it when all the dungeons required crowd control and some thought, it did lead to some pug disasters but even that was entertaining. Now by the time you load in, your group is halfway to the first boss (gogogogogo). The new modes, the islands and the afk battle simulator are just as mindless.

Now admittedly I could get that challenge in mythic if I could persuade my friends to play, or found a good guild but I do not enjoy the gear grind and theorycrafting (be this build, use that gear etc etc). The fun has gone and the word Azerite has become a trigger word for making me sleepy Zzzzzzzzz

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Andy McAdams

Man, I really miss dungeons that moved at a slower pace. I don’t want it to take hours to do a dungeon (shudder OG Mara) but I miss my rogue having more utility than “highest single target DPS” because I would have to stun mobs for pulls, leveling my lock picking to get bonus chests. I felt like I mattered because my skill was more than if I read elitist jerks.

I mean, I don’t mind the dungeon sprint but a dungeon crawl that required more than AOE and nuke all the things as a strategy would be nice too. Even the more difficult rankings of dungeons don’t really do anything different, “Have better gear. Do the exact same thing to get slightly better gear. Repeat ad nasuem.”

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Robert Mann

Sadly, when the game tried that… people griped. The pure fact of the matter is that the majority of the playerbase is looking to be overpowered.

Of course, that’s no fun for those who like more difficult content. I got the same deal from ESO (I was having a blast figuring out ways to solo the veteran rank content, which was difficult enough that most people trying to solo it were dying repeatedly, all on my own… and succeeding). The feedback from the masses poured in, it became eye-bleedingly easy, I didn’t stick around all that long in the release version. Same deal with Mordor in LOTRO. I tried it, and had fun in that it wasn’t faceroll easy (but still not really difficult, tbh).

Sadly, the lowest common denominator is where MMOs tend to be forced to aim. I’m hoping that eventually we will get something where players can not only set their own difficulty level as to what is fun (and not just in groups running against more HP sponge bosses and mobs with a little harder damage output), and that the extra danger involved is balanced with regard to rewards and progress.

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Schmidt.Capela

Regarding rogues, IMHO the issue is that rogue abilities like stealth and lockpicking are basically geared towards solo play. Having such abilities matter in a group run means having the rest of the group stop and wait, twiddling their thumbs, while the rogue is having all the fun.

For group content, IMHO you either give those kinds of skill to every single character or you give them to no one. Otherwise you are making the experience worse for everyone apart from the player with the rogue skillset.

This reminds me of the beginning of the Icecrown Citadel raid; the easiest — and fastest, if you weren’t yet overgeared — way across the first room was to send a rogue ahead to disable the traps and sap the patrolling mobs. My guild’s raid group did it that way exactly once, which the rogue loved but bored everyone else to tears; in every single future attempt we instead killed the mobs the usual way, as even though it took longer (until we got better gear) it was more enjoyable for everyone apart from the rogue.

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Robert Mann

That is… a failure of design. There a several dozen things I could think of that people can and should be doing in a dungeon during any waiting. They aren’t part of MMOs, but they ARE part of many P&P campaigns.

Of course, as always that doesn’t mean every game needs to go there. There’s plenty of room for variety, just… as I keep saying, we all have to let go of the “But every game should be designed for me!” mentality (not that I expect this to happen).

Personally, with a status quo MMO, I would agree with you. It’s downtime for no reason for everyone else. Break the status quo, and that may no longer be the case.

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Fenrir Wolf

@Robert Mann

I can see where you’re coming from, but I can’t help but raise contentions in regards to the way you’re framing your argument and whom you’re using to do so.

First of all: When was ESO ever not easy? It was always ridiculously easy, no matter what the content. The only thing that made ESO hard was how they would destroy builds so very frequently, which would herd players back into the grind mill to work to achieve what they’d already had.

I think that there’s a degree of miscommunication here between what players are saying and what the developers are hearing. It isn’t that players don’t want challenge, but rather that they’re just sick of this unending cycle of having to redo their builds. Which, if you aren’t part of a large guild, is a very time intensive task.

This, of course, falls once again under the purview of forced grouping. You absolutely must be part of a large trading guild. If you’re not? Well, good luck trying to regain what was just taken from you in this patch!

My attitude is just to give it up and drop out, though I know some do try to stick it out. This is one of the causes of people rushing through content — bad balancing as a result of vertical progression systems.

If you had no vertical progression? You’d have no grind. And if you had no grind? You’d have no one forced to join trading guilds and/or to rush through content to reacquire resources. And if you didn’t have to deal with that? You’d have a larger group of people who might be all too happy to do this content at a slower pace.

The fault of it really does lie with the operant conditioning chamber. No one really likes grind, some just lie to themselves because they like other elements of the game. Such as, say, socialising with their friends. It’s the company of their friends they enjoy, not the game itself. The game is, sadly, just an excuse to spend quality time together when they can’t come up with a better reason to do so.

As someone who, despite being registered blind (I have very poor sight), having the shakes, and being autistic has been able to speedrun plenty of games (including VVVVVV and Ori and the Blind Forest)? I’m hardly averse to a challenge.

I’ve never met an MMO that’s given me one, though. Because vertical progression is designed to play the game for you once you’ve reached a certain point, the apogee of the grind cycle. Once you’re kitted out with all the best gear, before the next patch hits and ruins all of that.

So, depending on where you are in the grind cycle, the game either plays itself or it doesn’t.

Upcoming MMO Fractured actually caught my attention for this reason, their progression system is sideways and focuses on acts of skill or discovery through feats of reflexes, perception, and wits. And as I believe is the contemporary vernacular with kids these days, I am down to clown.

That’s what’s said, yes? Did I use that right? I think I did. Anyway…

The way to really have a skill-based game is to just remove all of those numbers, the grind, and everything that makes the game play itself. Instead, have the game be about — just to reiterate — reflexes, perception, and wits.

There are lots of old and new (albeit indie) console and PC games you could look to to see how this task might be achieved. Guild Wars 2 already has an inkling with its races, jumping puzzles, and so on. I’ll certainly grant you that the implementation isn’t even near perfect (but what is?), and it could certainly use some iteration, yet I feel it’s the closest thing to a skill based experience an MMO has ever had.

I mean… I love playing Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed with my partner often as a multiplayer excursion, and that has more innate difficulty to it than any MMO (some might balk at this, though if you believe it to be another Mario Kart, you’re sorely mistaken).

I like skill! Sadly, MMOs don’t really have any truck with skill for the most part. It’s all an illusion created by numbers, a clever trick to have you think you’re better at games than you are. Illusions like that are crushed on the shores of Veni, Vidi, Vici.

I speedran VVVVVV on touch controls, because I’m a bloody speedrunning masochist! I can’t help myself.

I do wish we could see some of that in MMOs, though. I’d love to see real tests of skill as multiplayer excursions.

And now I want VVVVVV II, with multiplayer. That’d be hilarious.

I’m not even bragging, either. I’m exasperated is what I am. I really wish we had skill-based play in MMOs rather than RNG combat. That’s why as janky and junked as the jumping puzzles are in GW2, I still love them, because they’re still a measure of skill.

Especially if you play a charr. Which my partner and I do, because why would you not?

Asura is easymode for jumping puzzles. Bloody Mary Sues.

Here’s an idea I’ll leave you with. What if an online multiplayer game actually focused around thievery rather than combat? Where combat was a lose state? Something like The Dark Mod, except you have to work with other people. You could boost other players up, for example, or distract guards whilst the other player sneaks past them. And the AI in The Dark Mod can be pretty decent.

If we removed all of this vertical progression and grind, I’m sure we could have more intelligent, skilful gameplay at a slower pace. But that really is what’s to blame for all of this. I feel like the MMO genre would be vastly improved without either.

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Robert Mann

Back in early-mid beta. That is when it was not easy. There were people who simply gave up on the quests, and grouped to grind in the hope that at VR16 they might manage the VR2 quests… because they were legitimately tough in terms of tuning. *Of course, you could outlevel to some extent, but the balance was not on the “This is so easy that you could do it from the toilet reading a book while your computer idles” as it turned out… and instead was on the “You need to think, plan, and use various abilities wisely rather than just hitting hard” level.*

It was actually fairly fun to have that challenge, and to have to pay attention in combat for a change. And then it got nerfed, and nerfed, and nerfed some more, and… well, you get the idea. They turned it into a thoughtless attack mode setup, almost all around.

Where the difficulty was too tough for a fair few, it was what made the game fun to others. Sadly, the status quo is that all games must bow to the lowest common denominator to try to get sales… so for those who like the challenge there is, uh, cookie cutter nigh-thoughtless raids and dungeons. Yay, that’s so exciting it’s voiced by Ben Stein!

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Utakata

If Blizz ever decided to make dungeons slower and more thoughtful, they they would have to break modded performance meters so there is no real pressure to rush through and complete the instance for the pointless bragging rights. Because it’s that, that’s driving dungeon design to cater towards shorter attentions spans, IMO.

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smuggler-in-a-yt

It will be super interesting to see if Classic reinvigorates the dungeon crawl. My guess is that people more fondly remember those runs than they will have time for in the current context.

For whatever reason, WoW seems to have a real problem with the idea of encounter diversity. Everything has come down to “smash it with a hammer,” which is a shame. I blame the original game design decisions to make out of combat actions have different effects.

For example: sap is a skill which should have the same effect regardless of combat or not. By creating different categories and conditions for abilities, they set themselves up for the current scenario. All processes tend toward efficiency, so the only way in a system to counter act that is with diversity.

The modern speed run is directly attributable to the lack of encounter diversity. That also makes for a harder game to design and play, though, so if the point of your game is to dump endorphins so people will keep clicking (and buying) this isn’t the way to go.

Diversity would also encourage parallelism, which again would create a scenario where “hit it with a hammer” isn’t the only option.

Basically, the industry needs to hire more people who understand process (and I don’t mean lean) and systems thinking.

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Fenrir Wolf

@Serrenity

The answer to this conundrum isn’t perhaps as complex as it appears. The solution lies in episodic content, in the vein of the Phantasy Star Universe titles, Guild wars (though in the case of the latter, some missions did get a little long in the tooth and overstayed their welcome), Champions Online’s adventure packs, and so on.

Then it’s just a matter of focus testing to try to find a sweet spot in regards to length and pacing. The problem with many dungeons and raids is that they’re extremely long, and without any clear indication of when to take a break. Some MMOs have checkpoints, but that doesn’t inform a group that it’d be a good time to stop playing.

By wrapping up the dungeon’s story for the episode, it gives the players a chance to unwind before regrouping for the next episode. It also allows players to drop in and out as they desire, as they needn’t stay with the same group to play the next episode.

I think it’d be helpful as well if each episode removed the players from the dungeon at the end of it, so there’d be no hard feelings if anyone wanted to call it quits, there. You aren’t still in the dungeon, after all. It’d be starting a new content run at that point, it’d create a different framing for when players could leave and the attitudes surrounding that choice.

As such, I think an episodic approach is very much the way to go.

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Sana Tan

Interesting article, granted I’ve never played WoW so I don’t understand everything, but after reading tons of threads on ESO reddit of players saying “Hi, new player here, I quit WoW” I started to wonder wth did WoW do so wrong.

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Ironwu

“Legion did it better” . . . True That!

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IronSalamander8 .

It is indeed boring. The artifact system wasn’t perfect but it felt good to spend points, at least up until you got them all and just got that one proc buff over and over. It was nice to be able to slot the relics to customize certain abilities a bit too. Azerite is just so bland by comparison. I really didn’t care about getting marginally better Azerite gear as I leveled up and considering that was the, or at least a, main focus of the expansion, it felt so damn dull I just stopped playing.

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Nathan Aldana

Plus when you did reach that point with an artifact, you had the satisfaction of being done.

Azerite feels like they never want you to feel done

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Matthew Yetter

I’m not mad at Battle for Azeroth. It actually allowed me to kick my WoW habit for good. Even if the next expansion proves to be the best thing since sliced bread, I am not going to be back simply because I have no desire to bother with BfA content.

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TheDonDude

“Legion did it better” sums up BFA pretty well.

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Eliandal

This I’d have to agree with. For the first time, I’m questioning the value of my purchase. However, since I didn’t pay my cash for it, it’s not so bad.

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Danny Smith

I can understand why devs “that prefer mobile games nowadays” would see a ‘rankup system’ like the heart no different from similar mechanics in YuGiOh! Duel Links on the iOS store might seem like a good idea, but to the none mobile game leaning audience it just feels like progress held hostage by a grind that, in a game that scales like a bad mobage tapper rpg, doesnt feel like your character grows more powerful. Daddy blizzard just wants you to eat all your vegetables before desert.

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Nathan Aldana

Id say its simpler than that.

mobile game style systems either drive you away completely, or create people who will play daily for years on end, which looks real good to investors.