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

    
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Oh, right, this is not that long a flashback.

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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Dobablo

Why are we expecting every expansion to add lots of new features? Haven’t we seen by now that WoW expansions get one tent-pole feature (which is an iteration on a previous feature) and everything else gets small tweaks with minor features added in whatever patch they are finished.

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Gryphon

Blizzard has already done two stat squishes & is on their way to doing a third in a few years. I expect leveling squishes will be handled the same way – they’ll continue to increase the level cap every expansion & squish as needed.

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Rottenrotny

Character customization sliders would be a very welcome addition.
Also, I like the more healthy, less falling apart looking undead.

HalLundy
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HalLundy

It’s funny how the Kung Fu Panda expansion is considered a “good one”.

No, i will never let that go.

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Whaar Garbl

Can we pay extra to skip to whatever expansion is after this one?

The one where the Void Lords are our quest-givers, and Warlock blueberries speak in Final Fantasy XIV English localization Urianger’s Hamspeare.

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Carebear

I agree about the classes… I really cannot find any class I like to play except maybe windwalker monk. Just add in some utility abilities will not make them better. They need to change a lot in classes. Just revert classes back in WotLK era or MoP era. Both had great classes and very fun gameplay.

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Utakata

…and those 3 features seems to be main selling point outside of existing features, of raids, dungeons, battlegrounds, faction and power creep grind. And weirdly it seems the same amount of features going into 8.3. It’s just the latter’s box cover is for free. o.O

That said, I think Blizz needs to give us way more to sink our teeth into in SL, as this is looking like BfA 2.0 with less faction conflict. That is, an uninspiring hot mess with a lot of elements that didn’t go over so well with the crowd. And this time, they won’t have the shiny new WoW Classic to fall back on. Just saying.

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Louie

I am continually floored by just how small the development team’s window always seems to be with WoW. They make sweeping changes to the way the game is played, add a host of new features, and then immediately ditch it all once the next expansion comes out.

Considering its most comparable competition is FFXIV, it’s interesting how they’re polar opposites in this regard. Plenty of people criticizing XIV as being too predictable, and WoW as being too unpredictable.

For my own part I definitely prefer FFXIV, but I am a really big fan of the level squish. Never seen that before in an MMO and I hope it works out for the best for them.

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Daniel Reasor

I’ve had the feeling for several expansions now that at least some portion of WoW’s development team would rather be making new games, but their bosses want them to keep renewing the monthly subscription money-making machine that the company already has.

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elenie

What I’d like to know:
1. Will they keep making big headline features (e.g. artifacts) and after the expansion ends, neuter them so completely that the entire past expansion consists of quests giving grey vendor trash rewards (see Legion nowadays) and the core system being nonfunctional?
2. Will they keep trying to funnel you into Mythic+ and raiding as the be-all end-all? Will they keep forcing such content on players who don’t enjoy it (e.g. mythic only dungeons, having to raid to get heritage armor sets, having to grind out Island Expeditions to progress in the BfA mission system)?
3. Will they keep making carbon copies of the expansion hamster wheel (level to max, grind world quests, grind various reps, do the same dailies over and over) and lock flying behind it to ensure players do it? I basically burned out doing Nazjatar after all the other requirements this time and have 0 desire to do that ever again.

This doesn’t even mention better story (without forced war crimes please) and no “faction unity” baiting – but even for the above questions, I doubt very much Blizz will do better. Their entire expansion design philosophy is so deeply messed up and (by now) entrenched that I really don’t think it’ll be different this time.
I would love to be proven wrong though.

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cursedseishi

I’ve been largely ‘meh’ on a lot of this expansion’s proposals. The change in leveling is them practically admitting a heavy chunk of expansions just aren’t good so people can simply skip the crappy ones now. Them ‘unpruning’ jobs will likely last all of 1 expansion before they veer course again…

But honestly? What I’ve seen for the story seems the most borked, and worse than “Sylvanas becomes new Lich King”. If what I’ve seen is all correct? The story is a rip off of “The Good Place“, and ever since a point between Wrath and Cataclysm everyone who dies is going straight to ultra-mega-super duper-HFIL. Which… frankly means we’ll likely have to deal with hundreds of baddie sloppy seconds because Blizzard has zero villains left so what better way to fix that then but to create an excuse where we might have to deal with Kael’Thas for a third time while also having Garrosh slobber and scream about his Horde (again) alongside every other jobber we’ve axed while we’re elbow deep in The Maw saving those good boys and girls like Vol’jin or Anduins better father figure alongside his actual father! Because… yaaay… ugh…

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athiev

One of the huge problems for Blizzard is a self-concept issue. Blizz thinks their strengths are polish and story. But they’re actually usually really bad at story. WoW has, over the long arc, had a few narrative moments that landed, alongside dozens and dozens of narrative flubs. People often play these games because the world and the systems are sufficient to overcome the story, not the other way around.

Mistaking your weaknesses for strengths is never a good move. In that light, I don’t know if it’s worse for Blizzard to recycle its sorta generic and used-up characters or to make new ones that will be thrown away in a hot minute (like the pandas or the WoD people). Neither choice is good, but I don’t think any third alternative exists for a company as narratively challenged as Blizzard.