WoW Factor: Ego, philosophy, and learning the right lessons in MMOs

Through the fire and the flames

Picture the scene, if you will. The year is 2006, and I am working in a library with a number of people whom I get along with and one girl who I have an overwhelming crush on. She is dating someone, of course, and I like her as a friend and thus don’t let that creep into our friendship. One day, she comes up to me looking for advice about something her boyfriend is doing that really bothers her. Single, depressed, lovelorn me responds by giving her the best advice I can about communicating with her boyfriend and working through her issues.

The next time I see her, she thanks me profusely and says that I may very well have salvaged her relationship. At that moment, there were a lot of lessons I could have learned through a bruised ego. The one I chose to learn was a pretty good one, though: I’d rather be someone who valued a friend and did my best to help her even if it meant my not getting what I wanted than be someone who tried to get what I wanted regardless of the harm it did.

This may not seem to have a whole lot to do with World of Warcraft at the moment. Bear with me for just a little while longer.

See, at the time of this story I was 23, and like basically every 23-year-old I was kind of a stupid selfish toolbag. And it did occur to me pretty much immediately that I could do my best to subtly sabotage my advice, to try convincing her to leave her boyfriend… you get the idea. For that matter, part of me was intensely annoyed at myself after she thanked me because damn it, why should someone else be in a happy relationship when I’m not?

That part of me was an idiot. It was a stupid knee-jerk reaction to a bruised ego, as mentioned. I know without any doubt that I did the right thing. And I tell the story not to make myself sound like a decent person (I’m doing my best to make myself sound like an arrogant jerk, as it happens), but to point out how easy it is to take these things as personal affronts. To let your ego get in the way of learning lessons.

You know, like a sadly persistent issue in the WoW community. (See? I told you to bear with me.)


This whole column occurred to me back when Ion Hazzikostas was discussing the temporary move to restrict Covenant abilities to just the Shadowlands, with his response immediately noting that once again this was being designed from the start as another case of borrowed power the designers fully intend to remove in a couple years’ time. And yes, the change that limited these abilities to being unusable was reverted, but the philosophy is still there.

If you don’t understand why that would prompt a bit of irritation, well, here’s a hypothetical. Would you trade every part of Covenants in Shadowlands – all the Soulbind mechanics, the new abilities, all of that – for just two new abilities for your class that let you do something different and that would absolutely persist into the next expansion? Just two abilities. Maybe one of them is even just passive.

My guess is that a lot of people would. I certainly would. All of the people I informally surveyed would. And yet I can absolutely see where we’ve gotten to where we are with a consistent arc of borrowed power in the game’s expansion because from a design standpoint it makes a lot of sense to ask if maybe a better structure for the game involves tying abilities intimately to the expansion.

If you look back across the game’s history, doesn’t that feel like something older expansions could have benefitted from as well? What if every spec had had specific demonic energies to be harnessed in The Burning Crusade? Wouldn’t it add a neat flavor if, say, Mists of Pandaria gave all of the classes some touch of monastic flavor for that expansion, maybe even giving every player a choice of multiple martial schools to follow? That’s a neat idea.

Of course, the fact that it then fails to matter at all is what turns people off. Put it another way, the problem with the Heart of Azeroth wasn’t just how bad Azerite was but the fact that everyone knew it would stop mattering in a couple of years. I even wrote a whole article about how this “pursue a very time-limited goal” thing was detrimental to the game in the long run.

And it seems that Blizzard has repeatedly heard this feedback and responded by stating “no, we’re right and you’re wrong” in ever-increasing volume.

Not riding a dinosaur.

My point here is not to say something to the effect of “look at how dumb this is” because I don’t think that’s accurate. I genuinely believe that people like Hazzikostas came up with “rotating expansion obsolescence” as a way to avoid the game getting too top-heavy while still delivering big new marquee abilities. The problem comes in when players give lots of feedback pointing out how and why that doesn’t work, and… ego rears its ugly head, gets defensive, and insists that no, this is the right design. You’ll see!

And it tracks with the team getting more and more defensive about systems in place. That ego. Not arrogance, exactly, but a firm certainty that you know better than the players saying this doesn’t work, even when retention and surveys and feedback consistently tell a different story. A certainty that if people are saying this system is bad, they must just be using it wrong, or if you think about it all these things you say are bad are actually good.

It’s not hard to see how we get here, either. The people who get really fixated on the elements of the game that are easiest to quantify like raiding content and high-end PvP are easiest to see as invested in the game. So you wind up with the loop of people designing the game for an ever more elite audience, the top end becoming bulkier, the push for continually harder raids and to make dungeons like raids and miss that what once gave dungeons their popularity was being not that. There are columns to be written about that, and I’m glossing over a lot of this here simply because we’ve already written several of those columns.

But I think it is, ultimately, telling that this is the state of WoW. It’s being developed by people who have a very specific vision for what the game is supposed to be and the assumption that the game is still such a huge behemoth that everyone has to get in line or else. That might have been true at one point, but it sure isn’t the case now.

And ultimately, all that can help this sort of situation is the dissolution of ego. The point of recognizing that however good your idea might be, you can’t talk people into liking something they don’t. Recognizing that all of the calls for persistence aren’t people failing to understand the concept of overly complex design, but players who want to feel like their time is rewarded over a longer experience.

That maybe, just maybe, it’s better to take the bruised ego and learn a good lesson. Sure, it hurts in the moment… but in the long run, improvement over time is worth more than getting everything right straight out of the gate.

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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Bruno Brito

As long as Blizzard keeps people focused on it’s endgame being their only answer, this game will suffer for it. The borrowed power design is their way of rehashing the same thing over and over: Raiding.

It’s been 16 years since our characters were set as murderhobos, and we’re still 16 years in without homes. Azeroth is a really boring world in the way that it forces you to do some tasks and all the design is around those tasks.

I don’t think Blizzard will ever learn their lesson, so i learned mine: It’s not worth the trouble. There are better games.

Eric Perbos-Brinck



Lucky Jinx

The whole borrowed power thing is silly and needs to go away. Instead make something more interesting and lasting, please…. I freaking hate every expansion being built around something that will only last as long as the said expansion. It’s damn stupid and tiresome.


Personally I would prefer if my class had zero new abilities AND they quit with the “borrowed power” mechanics. I liked the game a lot back in Wrath or MoP because you could do things like play as a healer for group content, but change specs to dps to knock out your dailies. Now if you want to do that you have to go respec your gear or otherwise operate with all of your azurite traits disabled. I also don’t like how legendary items basically invalidate that entire slot from the loot pools. You get a cloak drop? You don’t even have to look at it because it’s guaranteed vendor trash. At most it’s a good transmog, but you’re not going to equip it.

I’m looking forward to Shadowlands, but I can do without the conduits and legendary gear.

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Paragon Lost

Plus one Eliot. Nothing more to add, other than my strong agreement.


as much as i agree on the JAllenbrack-syndrome (u-think-u-do-but-u-dont), aka the ignorance on community feedback on borrowed power, the responsible (design) issue is more complex than simple psychology (aka egos).

RPGs prime (system) design directive (aka parameter) is progression: to install the sense of development.
but neither would infinite progression be fun (cuz players cant reach any final state, aka Skinner-Box-Sisyphos) nor to be balanced, cuz talent bloat. (disclaimer: there r many factors more to consider on this design issue, but were withdrawn for readability, this is the most reduced version)

but as not exclusive, but integral to, RPgameplay needs progression?
but a not infinite character development will reach a point of finality. a peak, from where any further investment is no longer transformed in external rewards (but maybe the player skill, though), aka power grow (see RPGs r all about power fantasies, to overcome over and over again, y not an RPG that overcomes this from 0-to-hero plague?). since Classic Blizzney is trying to push this peak far beyond any reasonablity, also for the sake of new, but more the overall progression (as we all dont fun to end?). +10 talent points TBC, +10 talent points WOTLK.

but classic talent trees complexity grew boring in those many years, bland and nearly unbalance-able. so with the introduction of a much more reduced version in MoP a new era emerged (although started 4.01), that featured a lot of fresh input, new abilities, new synergies, much more diversity and options (replayability).
while also feeling more accessible – latter was the prime argument for 4.01 redesign 4, as players couldnt anylonger choose critically underperforming builds.
personally MoP talent trees redesign was an upgrade to spec identity, as many new abilities, talents and synergies offered a more condensed spec focus.

but an additional talent row per xpac would now mean to balance 3 talents x 36 specs x 7 basic rows x number of xpac rows(>Legion).
a formulae, that doesnt even consider basic abilities ( Shadowmend, Crusader Strike, how to “weight” Cyclone vs. Hammer of Rightousness vs. Sap etc.) – a probably sisyphean task (but then iam not a numerical nerd). also in different content scenarios, PvE is not PvP etc.
(we dont need to debate the necessitiy of overall (truput) balance, right?)

so borrowed power was invented in Legion as another parallel progression system (artefact, expanded via Legionfall), while legendary gear (also a parallel progression system) talents offered a massive power creep to the basic talent balancing formulae.
also Legion introduced pruning with the (personally strawman) argument of gameplay bloat, class fantasy and spec identity, but was primarily driven by the intent to reduce balancing bloat. and was overall not received well by the community.

borrowed power in theory is similiar to gear, replaceable by something more powerful, but in practice the switch from Legions Artefact to BFAs Heart of Aerzoth (and Azerite “talents”) felt like a downgrade, like losing an invested part of the players character/spec.

but the balancing finally reached a new era, where almost any spec was viable in endcontent (mythic raiding, m+15, ranked PvP) for almost every (somewhat invested casul) player.

(i ll skip the concepted paragraphs about fresh input here, as at least i wouldnt wanted to play a classic talent tree ret in BFA. but specs have to evolve or will grow stale)

balancing is the key issue in MMORPG design, as wrong balancing has the tendency to exclude players and disrupt the whole system via OP Metas (weve been here on many early Arena Seasons, right?), imagine a World (of Warcraft) of RestoDruids, Outlaw Rogues and Prot Warriors.

but is the community wrong to expect Blizzney to deliver both balancing and progression without the feeling of a sacrifice/loss (for this greater good of balancing)?
not at all, cuz thats what Ion and team get payed for? to deliver a satisfying gameplay experience without any (major) setbacks.
and obv. the loss of borrowed power is perceived as a major setback and not fun by many.

personally, i dont care much about borrowed power, its just another gear i ll replace asap, but balancing. i dont want to (one-shot or) be one-shotted by OP traitstacking Rextroy roflcopters, i want my slot not because of my spec, but because of me (skill, also social, its a teamgame).

if u dont mind me to ask, @EliotLefebvre, did u find an adequate partner, if not to say love as a consequence of ur morally right choice (to not take advantage of ur crushs dilemma)?
the metaphorical contrast could be quite poetic, but i still question the adequacy, cuz Ion and team r not taking advantage of WoWs community in any comparative sense. is till think they want to deliver, but have many restraints, some even more limiting than balance.


“from a design standpoint it makes a lot of sense to ask if maybe a better structure for the game involves tying abilities intimately to the expansion.”
(I understand that was a hypothetical, but I’m answering that)
No, it doesn’t.

For the exact same reasons that Bree talked about (in the early-access-killing-the-buzz thread) an MMO being a HOME and and enduring place you spend your time, a better course for MMO designers – particularly ones with Blizzard where they can plan out the next 2, 3, hell even 5 expansions with reasonable confidence they’ll happen – to actually PLAN OUT THEIR BLOODY GAME.

The story.
The factions.
The characters.
The gear curve.
The leveling curve.
Character abilities.

…and then parcel them out to us in bits with each expansion, each subsequent expansion filling in details that EXPAND the story, not retcon it. That give you abilities that BUILD on your class concept and enhance it over time, not tear it down to the studs every expansion.

Is it impatience or some form of ADD that (it seems) every idea they have, good or bad, ALL of them MUST be packed into every expansion, and then the slate wiped completely clear for the next?

If every chapter introduces entirely new characters, new story, new themes, and new everything THAT’S NOT A NOVEL, THAT’S AN ANTHOLOGY. I for one want more novel in my mmo. If I want 14 different little stories (and powers and etc) I’ll buy 14 different games that attract me…I certainly won’t be building the brand-loyalty that long-standing MMOs live on.


Every time I am even slightly tempted to resubscribe and maybe buy the expansion, I manage to read information on the current state of the game and I say to myself “Oh yeah. I remember. That’s why I don’t want to play this game anymore.

It is tough to give up on a game one has been playing since 2004 and just walk away. But that is what the developers seem to want me to do since the content they are making just does not fit what I want in an MMORPG anymore.

So, I will take my participation, and money elsewhere. Like many millions of former subscribers have already done.

Thomas Koren

The dungeon thing hit hard, it reminds me that we used to do a lot of dungeons with friends in wrath, but it sort of petered out more and more, where dungeons were not interesting enough for getting gear unless you were “hardcore mythic”

Andy McAdams
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It’s a testament to Ion & friends game design that gear is both the primary measure of progression and also completely devoid of any value outside an ilvl. I remember in Wrath I ran one of the Icecrown heroics at least a hundred times trying to get one item – “The Prelate’s Shoes.” It was like a decade ago and I still remember the name of the item I was trying to get.

Contrast that with – I couldn’t tell you the name of a single piece of gear I’ve gotten in the last week on any of my characters. Not one. It just doesn’t matter. There’s no history, no story, no ‘soul’ to any of the gear anymore. It’s a way to increase ilvl and nothing more.

Nathan Aldana

its especially telling in my mind that all the gear from the Motherlode dungeon has goblin themed names and comes from a very goblin dungeon (irts Kezan, after all), but literally all of it is just recolors of zandalar gear

Jeremy Barnes

“Developer Hubris” is the term I’ve always used for it. In my current role as a Product Owner (Don’t get me started on AGILE) I spend most of my time trying to stop people from trying to hammer users in line with a bad system. The common refrain being, “Well, if we had better documentation on *how to use it*” then they’d like it and explaining that if the only way they can use it is by us hand holding them them through it then it’s a bad design.

There’s no onus on the user to ‘figure it out’ and ‘use it right’. Unfortunately, for WoW, the current team in charge doesn’t seem to subscribe to that and I get the continued feeling that they feel that “No, it’s the children(users) who are wrong”.

On top of this, there’s the false notion that because they see a big uptick in numbers when they release an expansion that the ‘numbers’ back them up. I’m pretty sure that Ion and his crew feel BFA was a huge success. Ignoring that you could release a literal pile of poop and call it a WoW xpac and you’ll see an increase in subs around launch and solid sales on the xpac.


and explaining that if the only way they can use it is by us hand holding them them through it then it’s a bad design.

Yep. If a player among the less skilled and laziest among your target audience can’t “get” the system then you are doing something wrong. You need to either simplify the system, make the “tutorial” better and more enticing, or redefine your target audience (and accept that this will lower your expected sales and revenue).

Ignoring that you could release a literal pile of poop and call it a WoW xpac and you’ll see an increase in subs around launch and solid sales on the xpac.

Yep. The negative consequences for strong franchises putting out a subpar game aren’t really felt on the subpar game, but on the next ones.