WoW Factor: The Shadowlands gameplay loop problem

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A friend and I were discussing World of Warcraft the other night, which is something we do fairly often. This is especially relevant for me because one of the things that has consistently baffled me is simply how quickly I found myself disinterested in doing stuff for this particular expansion for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. And then she said something that immediately made me realize what the problem was almost by accident, a brilliant piece of reasoning that left me (as usual) impressed by just how smart she is:

“I’d like Torghast a lot more if it were optional.”

Her larger point was that Torghast would feel better if it dropped some gear and if dungeons offered some Soul Ash along the way, but the real heart of it lies in that idea right there. Torghast is not optional. And it’s that problem that I think is shot through the entire expansion at this point. We have plenty of things to do, and no individual piece is bad, but somehow the gameplay loop of the expansion results in something that’s less than the sum of its parts.

I realize that it’s a world away and was a terrible expansion all around, but consider for a moment what qualified as optional content in most of Battle for Azeroth. Depending on your particular mix of gameplay preferences, the actual list of optional content could be remarkably long. If you didn’t enjoy the dungeons or raids, world quests would keep you geared well enough. Island Expeditions were so optional that they actually suffered as a result of having few real rewards. World Quests could be safely ignored once you had your desired rewards for Pathfinder. The list goes on.

That’s not to say you never had to engage with these things ever; rather, it’s that most of these things had a fairly fixed exit point if they weren’t your preferred playstyle. You could get away with a fairly small number of world quests if you didn’t care about doing them, especially if you focused on the increased reputation periods to get what you needed for Pathfinder. There was reason and opportunity to say that these things were optional content after a pretty early point.

But let’s look at Shadowlands for a moment. What is actual optional content here? What can you opt out of doing? It’s a pretty tiny list.

I'm the villain, too?

World Quests? Nope, that’s your primary source of anima, and you need to collect that weekly. Torghast? Nope, that’s your only source of Soul Ash. Dungeons, especially Mythic? That’s how you get gear! Raids? Again, gear, you need to do some raids even if it’s just on LFR. And so on.

In other words, the big problem isn’t the content itself. It’s that the Venn diagram of available content and weekly mandatory content is essentially a circle, and it’s a circle that involves a lot more time and a lot less for rewards.

This has a number of effects, none of which is exactly good. The first is that all of this content has to be designed with the expectation that everyone is doing everything. This certainly does push up player engagement time on the people still playing, but it also means that if your previous play sessions were averaging around half an hour for world quests, you’re now stuck with play sessions pushing much longer to get far less in the process. That’s something less than ideal, and it has the secondary effect of helping to push people away from the game.

Why? Well, if that “usually play for 30-40 minutes” structure was what made the game fun for you, odds are good that you’re not going to take “usually play for two hours” as a lateral move. It’s far more likely you’ll decide to just stop logging on altogether if that doesn’t work with your schedule or personal gameplay enjoyment.

Second, however, it means that players are no longer able to choose their lanes and stick with them. Torghast, for example, has the potential for being a fun challenge for players who really like playing solo, but the lack of anima or gear mean that it instead becomes a mandatory chore to get the amount of soul ash you need for a given week. The loop encompasses everything; therefore, you have no options for play, only a long list of different chores to fulfill.

And if you don’t like some of that content? Well, your options are basically down to accepting that you’ll be stuck being really sub-par or just not playing any longer because the only option is playing parts of the game you don’t enjoy. Making all of these components mandatory has also meant removing the part of the gameplay loop that allows people to pick and choose between elements that particularly appeal to them.

Skull go BLORF

The result is something I’ve noticed from fellow players often enough that it pings on my radar: Unless you were already part of a group that tended to do everything, a lot of people seem to be left enjoying Shadowlands in the abstract but not in the actual execution. And it’s weird to say that because if you’re enjoying the dungeons, the quests, the minigames, and even Torghast, then why does this combination feel like not a substantial improvement over its immediate predecessor, even while basically every element is objectively better?

The answer being, of course, that everything is mandatory and gated on a weekly basis. You have to be doing all of these things on a regular basis, even if they don’t appeal much to you. (The Maw is the one almost exception, as you can really just opt out after you have your mandatory souls retrieved; it’s the one place where the optional content really feels optional rather than mandatory content masquerading as options.)

I’m not sure how much will be actually done to address this, of course. It’s kind of insidious in ways that aren’t immediately obvious to basically anyone; despite spending a lot of time thinking about this and knowing it was a problem, I myself wasn’t able to really place what the issue was until the aforementioned conversation. And it is, in an odd way, an inverse of the problem present in Warlords of Draenor and BFA. Instead of feeling like you have nothing to do, now you have everything to do but nothing is optional.

Having said that, I also think this is a place where fixes would actually be pretty easy. For example, bringing back more gear for world quests and more anima rewards as secondary things or even as reliable rewards for completing callings would immediately do a lot to make stuff feel more optional. More sources of Soul Ash would make Torghast more optional as content. The problem isn’t that fixes aren’t available; it’s that it seems like the design team wants to have the loop comprise every piece of content available in the game, regardless of individual preference.

In retrospect, one of the thing that I and a lot of other people seemed to be hoping for was the idea that this expansion would bring forward more choice of engagement as inspired by WoW Classic. Instead, you actually wind up with far less choice about how to play the game or engage with content, and that is frustratingly backwards.

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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