All right. I’ve now been on this expansion tour for… well, seven weeks, but it feels like years. Partly because it meant covering a whole lot of World of Warcraft history, which means that there’s a lot to think about and unpack. Part of it is also because… well, at this point I feel like Tuesday lasted for the better part of a month. But let’s not dwell upon that; this is a place for talking about a video game.
Looking at all of these expansions has provided us some interesting chances to look back at the history of WoW as a whole in both player reception, overall feelings, and the course that the game seems to be on as a whole. And I do feel like there are a couple of things to be taken away and to stir around in your head if you care at all about this game, which I assume is true if you’re reading this. So what have we learned from this expansion tour?
Aside from “WoW really is sucking right now.” I mean, that’s true, but I didn’t need eight weeks of columns for that one. (I needed four and I already did that.)
To some extent, a lot of the things that have gone wrong with WoW over the years are things that I’ve covered before. For example, I’ve talked before about how the changes to the talent system, however well-intentioned they may have been, ultimately broke the foundation of the game in such a fundamental way that it removed much anchoring in the game’s overall progression. I’ve talked about boneheaded changes in gearing, playstyle, and so forth.
But there are a few things that really struck me over the course of the project, and one of them is something that was easy to overlook until Cataclysm but definitely existed before then: Blizzard, when given a choice between fixing a problem or making something new to distract you, has always preferred to do the latter.
Look at The Burning Crusade, even. A lot of the new talents and abilities that made various underperforming specs work now were just in the new band of talents, and the old questing areas didn’t get new gear to make DPS plate a thing. Instead, you got better gear in new areas. The focus is entirely on the new things.
This is, in part, why Cataclysm has such problems. Instead of treating it as a chance to expand and refine, the original zones become a palimpsest, a sequel to themselves with traces that fail to coalesce in any meaningful way. Suddenly everything has to be part of a zone-wide story rather than an overarching tale with small elements building together, and the parts that don’t exist sputter and die. Out with the old, in with the new, however much the old served as foundational space.
It also speaks to some of the major problems that have existed with design because as the actual past gets obliterated, more and more of the game’s design is built on recreating a feel. You can look at some of the game’s design as an effort toward recreating that feel of the Time When WoW Was So Good without understanding… you know, what was actually happening in Wrath or even the base game.
People liked that feeling of getting a big reward from raids! Let’s make that happen! Let’s make that happen all the time, everywhere! Anything you do can get that feeling, and now suddenly you have piles of random chance on every piece of gear and people hate it, because what people loved about that feeling was that it was rare and the only real path toward rewards back in the day. The systems that were put in over time were meant to fix that issue, and now it’s back again and even worse.
Again, it always has to be something new. The new will wash away the old and supplant it and then no one will care about the old stuff. And you kind of can’t blame the designers for leaning into that idea, because every time the game goes back to the well to touch the old and the foundation (Cataclysm and Warlords of Draenor, most prominently), everyone hates it.
So what if you’re building your game up like the world’s most unbalanced Jenga tower, then? Focus on the new!
And here we are at Battle for Azeroth.
Herein lies the other big surprise, at least to me: I don’t think most of the game’s “bad” expansions were inevitable. I think it’s a result of the studio’s disinterest in looking back and addressing the past. The problem has more to do with always designing for the new instead of seeing the game as a cohesive whole, and so often that means throwing out big elements that did work because they aren’t new any more.
Cataclysm, like we covered, tried to hack away at the foundation and replace it with something new in a way that didn’t work. Then that same hacking resumed with Mists of Pandaria, but that foundation was only meant to support Mists itself at the time… and rather than adjusting it forward, you had an awkwardly balanced Warlords of Draenor stacked on top of a foundation that it no longer supported. Hack at it again and you get Legion… stack the new on top of that, here we are at Battle for Azeroth.
It all circles back to that same problem. You cannot simply treat expansions as something to layer on top of an MMO, a game which is meant as a living and dynamic world that exists as a whole and not a disconnected sequence of feelings. Forever chasing the novel while ignoring the stalwart leads to a hollowness, and it turns out that the game can only sustain itself on one hollow pursuit at a time.
Or, more simply, your new expansion this year has to actually be designed to account for all of the old content as well. It’s a lesson so simple that almost every other studio seems to know it.
It’s serendipity that this series is ending just as the Shadowlands test is beginning. At the time I write this column, I don’t know whether I’ll be invited to that or not. (I was in the first wave of WoW Classic testers, for example, but there’s been no announcement yet.) At the same time… Shadowlands definitely is messing around with the foundation again, building a structure that will definitely support Shadowlands. Will it support the next expansion, or is the studio going to repeat the same pattern of mistakes?
I hope not. Not just because it makes me sad as a player, but because I don’t know how much longer this MMO can afford to ignore the lessons of other games. Battle for Azeroth was a wake-up call, but only in the sense that waking up in a truly dire situation can serve as a wake-up call for an addict. It’s still a really bad situation.
And that is, perhaps, the takeaway from this whole project. Looking at the wild swings over the course of the game’s history is exhausting, but it does at least teach a lesson about structural issues. Whether or not the people making decisions have an interest in addressing those issues remains to be seen; we won’t really know for a couple years. But I certainly hope so.