If there was any remaining question about what stage of the expansion development we were at with World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, this week marked the “we hear the things some of you are asking for and here’s why we’re not doing any of that” stage of developer communication. This means that yes, we are now at the point when I feel comfortable saying that Covenants are entirely a prison of Blizzard’s own making… but probably not in the way that you think that means.
Because making the swapping very limited? I’m in favor of it.
This is not to say that I think Blizzard is necessarily correct in deciding how this system is going to work; rather, it’s a statement that I like the idea that the choice of Covenant should be something you can’t just swap before a random run, just like a lot of other things shouldn’t be designed for you to swap just before a random run. The prison is that when you already can swap a dozen things like that, the 13th one you can’t swap becomes a sticking point… and now the designers have backed themselves into an unpleasant cell based on other decisions that should have been more carefully considered.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to note that there is a genuine issue to be addressed here. The fact is that all of the four Shadowlands covenants have distinct abilities for each class, and the value of each ability is going to be wildly different for each spec. Tying your choice of some pretty valuable utility to this can have a pretty big impact, especially when some covenant abilities allow you to do things that your class/spec otherwise cannot do at all. Couple that with the fact that there’s no real way to 100% balance this by available conduits, and even if you’re not part of the progression-minded batch, there is some stuff that is genuinely not going to be balanced here.
“Haven’t you also said that balance is overrated, though?” Yes, I have, and that hasn’t changed! That’s where this whole thing starts getting messy because stuff being unbalanced is not inherently a problem… unless you have to evaluate everything by the metrics of throughput. The Covenants don’t have to be perfectly balanced except insofar as they all need to provide you with the same net power at the end of the day.
This is, of course, a huge conceptual mess. Each spec (which has different needs in terms of rotation and efficiency) gets the same abilities, and with one ability shared regardless of class, there’s a huge imbalance baked into the foundation. It’s tricky to balance right out of the gate, even with the cooldowns built in. And so the request to make the abilities you earn not be tied to the aesthetics of a Covenant is logical.
Especially because this is a trigger Blizzard has pulled many, many, many times by now.
So much of WoW, at this point, is built around not making choices. Do you need a different talent setup for a random dungeon group? That’s fine, just hop into an inn and you can change it. Need a different spec altogether? Same deal. And don’t worry about your gear; the main stat should shift. The answer to much of the game is that there should be no pain associated with swapping.
This is also fine, but it carries with it a problem because you can’t have “this is an impactful choice that you need to live with” coexisting with “just swap this stuff and it’ll be fine” as a philosophy. The two are mutually exclusive. Why is it easier to change from Restoration Druid to Feral Druid than it is to change from Night Fae to Kyrian? What makes that one ability more impactful and serious than all of the other ones you gain or lose based on specialization?
It’s not just a matter of the handful of people who really need to squeeze every drop of performance out of their characters; history has shown that the game will still be balanced around those players anyway. And depending on your spec, even if you don’t care if you’re less powerful, you may very well find that the aesthetics you like are basically a dead slot for you in terms of ability. Your Demon Hunter might long to be a Necrolord, but the ability is bad enough that you just can’t bear to play it. (I’m using a hypothetical example here, so if you feel the need to hop into the comments and explain how good Necrolords are for Demon Hunters, please save your effort. It is not necessary.)
At the same time, Blizzard’s team is stuck with the fact that Covenant abilities aren’t meant to be swapped. The idea – from concept on down – has been that you pick a Covenant and stick with it, changing only under occasional circumstances. Changing is meant to be fixing a mistake, not something done for convenience or because one covenant is great for M+ but the other is great for raiding.
Leaving aside that these abilities are actually designed so that one is good for M+ and the other is great for raiding for some reason, I think the point is that conduits and socketing and everything else is built around this assumption that you aren’t going to be swapping constantly. I do genuinely believe that yes, pulling on this thread would unravel a bunch of other stuff along the way.
The problem is… well, here we are in that prison of Blizzard’s own making. The entire game is built around swapping things with no real consequence to doing so. You don’t actually have a spec so much as you have picks that are of optimal impact for what you intend to do right this moment, and you’ll change it as soon as you have the need to do something different.
Can this be shifted? Yes. But it requires Blizzard shifting the whole foundation of design in one direction or the other. There’s not enough time to redesign Covenants to actually be easily swapped because this was designed months ago, and there’s no time to swap the rest of the game to make other things in the game harder to swap (not to mention that a lot of players would be really annoyed by it). There is no solution here that doesn’t itself expose the problem.
The (relatively) funny part is that all of this could have probably just been avoided by making our Covenant ability a choice between three options to begin with, either with three totally bespoke abilities or (as seems far more likely) with three of the four actual abilities having a Covenant-flavored variant, and one being left out of each batch. (For example, Venthyr Paladins aren’t stuck with the actual turbo-Consecration but can pick the equivalent of the Night Fae or Necrolord ability with appropriate red swirly bits.) It wouldn’t have fixed everything, but at the cost of a couple extra art assets it would have muted a lot of criticisms.
Still, what we have now is what we have now. And while I don’t dislike the idea of having our Covenant as a meaningful choice… sorry to say it, but that ship has left the port. At this point, that design choice is a prison of the developer’s own making, and it seems from the most recent statements that the team is happy to just hang out in its cell, so to speak.