WoW Factor: The big questions we still have about World of Warcraft Shadowlands

Whew. All right.

Remember just yesterday when I was all like, “Let’s get hyped for Shadowlands, yo!” Well, here’s the thing. As much as I’m genuinely excited for the next World of Warcraft expansion, I am sorry to say that the game as a whole does not have a great track record. I don’t mean “since a certain point”; I mean that out of the game’s expansions, only 57% of them are generally agreed to have been good… and if you only count from Cataclysm onward (the point when each expansion basically remade the entire game), that number drops to 40%.

Yeah, I know, that math sure doesn’t feel right, but between CataclysmWarlords of Draenor, and Battle for Azeroth we’re not looking at a good record.

Pretty dire, huh? So maybe it’s as good a time as any to turn a slightly more… questioning eye toward the various announcements we’ve gotten so far. Because as much as I’m excited about what we’ve learned so far, there are also some things that show up to me as potential warning signs, like your girlfriend screaming at you for being home seven minutes late, or your new landlord stopping by to see how you’re settling in on a Friday evening, or your new computer crashing five minutes after you boot it up for the first time. Let’s dig in.

It's coming around again.

That leveling thing could get messy

So far I’ve seen exactly one interview (which I can’t find again) in which anyone asked about what leveling would look like after the expansion. As I recall, the answer was basically a shrug and a hope that the team will have an answer in a couple of years. And let me say that I’m hoping my memory on this is just plain wrong because if not… hoo boy.

Guys, it hasn’t been that long since I wrote a whole column about how if Blizzard has a plan, it sure looks like the company doesn’t. That right there is a receipt saying “we don’t have a plan.” That’s not a plan. That’s not a vague plan with details to be added later. That’s fixing the problem today and hoping you can fix the problem again in two years when you know you’ll have it again.

Conceptually, yeah, I think it makes perfect sense to have levels 1-10 be a starter experience, 10-50 as a tour of old expansions, and 50-60 be Your Feature Presentation. Solid concept. But you do actually run into problems once the next expansion comes out. Do you knock people back down to 50 and further compress the levels? Are there actual rewards for leveling 50-60? Do you just raise the cap and cause the same problems all over again in a few years?

Way back when, I wrote about how the level squish wasn’t the whole solution, and this is… well, a chunk of the solution but still not the whole one yet. I think there’s a lot of good stuff in this chunk of the solution, right down to opening up leveling more once you’re on an alt, but the planning for “what do we do in the next expansion” should already be in place. Otherwise we’re either going to have ten more empty levels from 50-60 and we’ll just lose them when the next expansion arrives, or we’re going to be hearing the developers gush about how the new level cap is 70 and isn’t that cool.

And speaking of empty levels…

Return from nothing.

Unpruning isn’t enough

Do you all know how into the idea of getting Auras back I am? The answer is very. I am very excited about this. But before we go full steam ahead, let’s remember that “Paladins have auras again” is exactly one full interesting spec away from making Retribution an interesting spec.

See, unpruning is good. Adding back in the weird, offbeat, useful but not vital abilities again? Great. But just stapling those back on to the existing specs doesn’t really alter their rotations in any substantive way. Applying poison to your weapons as a Rogue regardless of spec will be nice, but it will make at most minor changes to your moment-to-moment gameplay because that’s something you’ll do before fights with batches of enemies, not during.

A lot of specs are suffering not just because they’ve lost one or two abilities or some of their weird utility, but because the actual gameplay flow is… well, bland. Some of this, yes, is fixed by baking the core abilities of artifacts into the overall ability layout (remember, most of the class redesigns for Legion were specifically built around the first ability you unlocked in your artifact). But just saying that you’re unpruning does not in and of itself restore some of these gameplay elements.

Not to mention that unpruning also requires a certain target point to go back to. You can say that you’re restoring abilities to Survival Hunters, for example, but which iteration? Survival has changed from being a melee-ranged hybrid to a ranged support to trap-focused to melee and traps. Just restoring abilities isn’t going to change that identity disconnect or historical issues.

You may notice that there’s something of a refrain here: While the concept might be good, a lot is going to rely upon the execution, and there’s plenty of space for the execution to be pretty bad. Which also comes up when we get to…

It's just how we've always done things.

It is our custom

Unlike that first point above, when it comes to increased character customization Blizzard’s interviews have been all over the map. Allied Races will get more customization (which is good, several good dearly use it)! Wait, no they won’t, the new customization is just for core races. But some stuff from base races will go to Allied Races! And it’ll be hundreds of parts! Or a few parts across lots of races! Or more for some and not others! Or…

You get the idea. I think a lot of this is due to the fact that all of this extra customization is still in the stages of getting concept art together, putting together models, and testing how it looks. It’s not really the team’s fault that it doesn’t yet have consistent messaging because there’s not yet a firm set of standards to show off, but players are insufferable and we want to know all of this right away. That’s all well and good, but it does raise questions about how much more customization we’ll actually be getting.

Case in point, one of the things that’s been mentioned in interviews at this point is a tail length slider for Draenei. That sounds great! But we haven’t actually seen it yet, and we don’t know how it’s gong to work. Does that mean we might also get a height slider? Or other sliders for other functionality? Nothing has been confirmed yet, nothing is locked in.

In other words, a lot is going to depend on the execution for this particular feature. I am entirely on board for getting more customization, and frankly the anemic selections added to the character creator over the years are insulting when you have a company with the scope of Blizzard. But for all we know at this point, “more” just means “two or three options more and eye color selection.” I tend to doubt that, but it isn’t yet ruled out.

Again – execution. The execution is going to make a lot of the difference. And that makes me at least a little leery at this early point. Just because I’m hype doesn’t mean I can’t also have some nagging questions.

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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