WoW Factor: Covenants have become a Shadowlands prison of Blizzard’s own making

    
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WoW Factor: Covenants have become a Shadowlands prison of Blizzard’s own making

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.

Shoulder touch.

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.

Not that kind of prison, silly!

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.

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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Alyn
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Alyn

comment image

-oh Blizz-

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Bannex

Covenants should’ve been purely cosmetic and story driven. I really don’t like these transient abilities.

John Artemus
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John Artemus

Stuff like this is why I’m glad I made the switch to FFXIV a couple years ago and haven’t looked back. The idea that you get this really cool stuff in an expansion, then promptly remove it in the next is just stupid to me.

Plus, pathfinder is ridiculous. A feature that was introduced over a decade ago has become a grind to unlock. Makes no sense.

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Alt+F4

personal nightmare for 9.0 is the update of my UI setup.

i dont have much of opinion left for parallel progression systems, but the pragmatic approach: engage, adapt, dominate em.
its a numbers/spreadsheet game, rpgs always were (the art is to authentically represent the character numbers in role play).

if meaningful choices means limits, then the design limits itself. cuz limit is the opposite (end) of potential.

my empirical prognosis is a few weeks of turbulences, but blizz tends to solve gaps and major imbalances (with some bad exceptions though), or attach at least some convenience.

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

Stunned by the tone deaf arrogance of the current dev team.

ihatevnecks
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ihatevnecks

That’s a long time to be stunned.

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Ald

Again, i’d rather get new class abilities and talents that won’t be stripped away after the expansion.

I’m not understanding all this “expansion only” design philosophy Blizzard keeps implementing. I’m not sure they do either.

ihatevnecks
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ihatevnecks

Someone slipped them the Borrowed Power Buttplug and they never stopped clenching after that.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I’m not getting my panties in a twist over this. My reasons:

1. I generally only play one spec per alt and don’t generally switch between specs once I’ve settled on one for an expansion;

2. I avoid WoW dungeons like the plague;

3. I’m a slow leveler; by the time Covenants really matter to me, six months from now, Blizz will have made some changes to make it less painful; and

4. WoW systems just aren’t worth the time and attention of any player; they are literally here today and gone tomorrow.

The real villain is the throwaway expansions. Blizzard has managed to trivialize every single thing they have done in the last ten years, turning WoW into a graveyard of forgotten systems.

It’s just not worth bothering about.

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Utakata

Pigtails getting twisted is more painful though. :(

…that said, I’m not sure I utilize the game as such that this may not matter to me either. As I rarely swap talents or specs.

Furthermore, I will pick these fangled covenants strictly for RP reasons. I just hope there’s one that allows me to cast a pink Pyroblast. >.<

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Nathan Aldana

im just so confused that if they didnt want us swapping..then why on earth are there obvious best choices for raiding or mythic plus or pvp and it was seemingly designed that way

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Utakata

Meaning, those of us that don’t count in Blizz’s sphere of things, will accept what we can get. And try to utilize and enjoy it from there.

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Bruno Brito

Making something artificially cumbersome to work in some semblance of your favor is a actually a good definition of what WoW players are.

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traja

Unfortunately meaningful choice is not synonymous with fun choice. For me this one is a miserable choice because I am not choosing a Covenant, I am choosing the content I wish to prioritize, and the Covenant that fits that content is determined for me by Blizzard. For example if I wish to focus on mythic raiding then my Covenant will be whatever is best for that. If I want to also focus on M+ or PvP I will need an alt for that.

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Lucky Jinx

Covenants, Azerite gear, Artifacts, Garrisons… The list is growing. Once worn, cheap clothing to toss away at the end of the expansion. Blizzard is really tangled in their own design, which keeps biting them over and over again. I like the game. Damn, I just got the pureblooded fire hawk to drop from Ragnaros tonight, and I’m thrilled, but the big picture of the game has long been meh to me. When the mounts and pets are pretty much the only thing that follows you expansion after expansion, then for those I’m concentrating my biggest efforts for. At this point I’m excited to explore the new lands, experience the storylines, but I will never get into dungeon grind hamster wheel again. I will do the bare minimum to avoid being plain cannon fodder, but that’s about it. I’ve had the same philosophy since the end of Lich King and it actually works. :) Everything else comes and goes away, except mounts and pets!

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Bruno Brito

Once worn, cheap clothing to toss away at the end of the expansion.

It’s hilarious because it’s not just “cheap clothing”. All of that crap, except Garrisons, defined class design, and when they were removed, classes felt incomplete.

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Lucky Jinx

Very true, but all those systems that probably took a good while to put together are always treated as such by Blizzard themselves. There’s no building upon and improving existing systems anywhere. “Just toss it out the window and make a new one” seems to be their way of developing the game, and that’s often so frustrating it makes me grind my teeth away.

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Bruno Brito

Yeah. Hence why i don’t care much about this game anymore.

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Nathan Aldana

same. I mostly play it for my rp guild. when I want to actuaslly enjoy a themepark MMo I have the far more consistently good ff14

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Bruno Brito

The only thing that impedes me of enjoying FF14 is the lack of character building.

Other than that it’s a solid game. Just not for me.

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Dug From The Earth

Players losing their mind over ONE ability that could differ when they have a bunch of other abilities.

I remember legion, and the artifact ability you got from your weapon. There were some classes/specs that I didnt even USE it, and it was fine.

Many mythic raiders are hypocrits (if thats the right term). They want the world to believe they are skilled gamers who can take on these great epic challenges of mythic raiding…. but they seemingly can only do so if they have the best gear, best build, best rotation, etc.

Thats like bragging about being the best race car driver but insisting that you can only win if you have the fastest and best built car.

Good gamers can be successful without needing to min/max everything.

All min/maxing does is remove some of the challenge and make things easier. So what exactly is so elite about this?

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traja

Mythic is designed around min/maxing such that it is extremely difficult even with a fully optimized team. The challenge is trying to complete the raid by any means necessary. If you go in without a min/max attitude it is hopeless.

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Dug From The Earth

Its not hopeless, its just more challenging.

Which is what I thought these players wanted. Challenge.

If beating a mythic raid comes down to that extra 2% that a min maxed build brings, then you arent beating it because you are skilled, you are beating it because of gear. Skilled players can work past a 2% min max boost from gear by just being skilled players.

Again, the reason these guilds/player insist on min/maxing, is to make the most challenging content, less challenging. Not because its not doable if you dont. Many wont admit this though, because it not something to brag about.

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Nathan Aldana

You’re ignoring the fact that even the most skill in the world cant beat pure mathematics and if that 2% gets you over the edge that your gear and skill cant quite make, you’re an idiot for not taking that 2%.

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Dug From The Earth

Spoken like a true elitest.

All those guilds that manage to beat Mythic raids, over and over.. only do it by 1-2%, right?

Which is why so many manage to sell runs and carry multiple people for gold… because they are just barely managing to beat the challenge by 1-2%.

ihatevnecks
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ihatevnecks

No, they start selling the runs after they’ve fully geared up from those raids and manage to have them on farm. Nobody’s beating a new raid and then turning around the next night to sell out a quarter of their group’s spots.

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Bruno Brito

Nothing. Still doesn’t change the fact that class design is directed to them, which is my main problem with WoW nowadays.