WoW Factor: How World of Warcraft’s elite progression obsession hurts progression players too

Nobody wins this particular game


Here’s a statement that I think few people will disagree with: World of Warcraft has increasingly focused on raiding and high-end progression as the only important part of the game. This is not altogether new, but while raiding slowly got more accessible through the game’s first three expansions, subsequent expansions pushed back against that fact. While Cataclysm introduced the Raid Finder, it also pushed hard at the idea of more high-end challenges, and the relevance of queued content has been continually eroded to the point where Heroic dungeons are functionally pointless.

Given this, you might assume that my contention is that it’s a great place to be if you like high-end raiding. And you would be wrong.

As the game’s design more firmly pushes the idea of “raid or die” as a mentality, the game gets progressively worse. And there are lots of pieces examining why this philosophy is bad for people who don’t enjoy that playstyle, from M+ making dungeons into mini-raids and thus destroying the access and speed of dungeons people actually like to the erosion of actual bad luck protection… but not much discussing how this makes the game worse for people who actually do enjoy this particular playstyle.

First and foremost, let’s start by ignoring things like Titanforging, random secondary stats, and so forth. These things all make high-end progression way worse for people who do enjoy it, but we’re going to pretend that they don’t exist for the purposes of outlining the structural problems inherent in the state of the game, starting with the fact that Mythic raiding makes the rest of the game superfluous.

This isn’t the case as much at the start of the expansion, but once your raid group can consistently clear Mythic, you really don’t need to bother with Heroic or less. You definitely don’t need dungeons any longer. You basically need to just farm the occasional crafting item and then log in for running Mythic because even the Heroic of the new raid won’t offer you much in the way of upgrades if you’ve got Mythic gear from the prior raid.

Of course, a huge gap in power is kind of the point, right? But it becomes more of a problem because you have basically no reason to log in outside of designated raid nights. It’s a short hop from there to seeing raid nights themselves as a chore because everything is focused on the drama of who gets loot, whether or not it’s going to drop, if people can manage to get this fight down or not…

Was there a guy? I thought there was a guy.

But fine, that’s just raiding. These are all part and parcel with the process, and it wears down on some people. So eventually some of your friends will get tired of going into Mythic, and you start recruiting replacements, and… there aren’t any. There’s no one you can call for joining in. There are just other guilds in the same place as you are, sometimes in part composed of the people your guild already broke ties with.

And then we get into the problems of Titanforging, forcing you to keep chasing down the same drops or hope that you get not just the drop but a useful version of the drop, to help you do… what? Do the raid again? You’re not getting the gear to be ahead of the curve. You’re meant to farm it, over and over, to keep farming it. It’s an ouroboros that leads to burnout and boredom, and when you look to replace someone who gets burnt out, there’s nobody there.

That’s because the people who got burnt out had nothing to do once they were tired of raiding. The people who aren’t interested in raiding have nothing to do. And the people who might be potentially interested but aren’t dedicated to it from the start have such a huge climb between hitting 120 and being ready for Mythic that most of them are going to lose interest… and will also probably burn out because there’s no one there interested in the intermediary steps.

Here’s the thing: WoW has always placed raiding at the pinnacle of its content and the end goal. That’s also not debatable; it’s a value-neutral statement of fact. But easily through Wrath of the Lich King, and even by degrees in Cataclysm, it also tried to ensure that there was a space for people to still do things and accomplish something even if you weren’t all that interested in raiding.

Rewards for daily Heroics in Wrath, for example, served a lot of purposes. It gave even raiders something to do during non-raid nights, letting you queue up and earn some needed currency to get another piece of gear. It let people who only filled in occasionally for raids jump in. It let non-raiders feel like they had goals to work toward. It kept the community strong and going, so that if one of your tanks dropped, there were new people coming up who could take over the tanking role with a little bit of help.

The reality is that this is not a pyramid; it’s a bar.

A dispatch from the days when I bothered.

You may not enjoy bars, but you probably recognize that most bars stock a lot of different sorts of liquor. Wine, beer, vodka, rum, scotch, etc. And you probably also know that there are more expensive and less expensive options, and the customer who asks the bartender to just leave a bottle of expensive scotch is making the bar a lot more money than the guy who orders one cheap beer and nurses it for the entire night.

But that guy who orders the one cheap beer might be coming in with three other friends who order more. Those friends might well go on to invite other friends. And even if that guy always comes in and nurses one drink, he keeps people aware that the bar is open and might be a reason for patrons to keep coming back.

That same bar is going to start doing a lot worse if it starts only selling expensive scotch and mixed drinks. Sure, it’s going to be making more money… but fewer people are going to come in. And if a patron who usually orders expensive scotch doesn’t feel like it tonight, she’s just not going to come in at all… and maybe not come in ever again.

After all, that bar down the street has scotch, too. But it also has beer, and maybe it has a trivia night too. It has reasons for her to be there other than just the most pricey version.

That’s the part of this all that really baffles me. I play a lot of games that have a progression endgame and a progression scene, but WoW is the one that seems to be pitting non-progression players against progression players, as if there’s a need to make the high end even higher and make the people without an interest suffer. And that sucks for the people who don’t like that playstyle… but it also sucks for the people who do. They lose out just as surely.

And then they have to start dealing with random loot enhancements put into place just so they have to keep re-clearing the same content, just to keep people logging in. It doesn’t actually make anyone’s experience better.

In the end, it’s a lot like the perpetual problem of predatory open PvP games. Those games require a population of players to hunt others and a population of would-be victims; wolves and sheep, so to speak. Except that the sheep don’t actually want to be hunted, and thus they simply… leave. Which leaves a worse experience for the wolves, too; they got the structure that they wanted, but their targets simply left.

Spend too much time catering to a specific playstyle, and you can end up finding that it required other people to function… and then nobody has a good time.

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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