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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Adam Penny

I haven’t run torghast in two weeks and I have a maxed legendary. Even if I wanted to max out one or two more it would only be 6 weeks of doing it once a week.

Then the optional twisting corridors is all that’s left. I’ve barely even touched the maw… I think I unlocked one upgrade?

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Nimouay and I are having such a blast in Shadowlands. I’d even say that so far its my favorite expansion launch I have played though. I loved M.O.P. but we had some technical issues and missed out on most of early expansion (Overcrowding of the opening areas drove us away, we came back midway thought the expansion.)

So far we have stayed in the Night Fae gang and are completely in love with Aredenweald. (This is Wow questing and character at its best imo.) we geared up with honor and heroics and are just starting raid finder and some rated stuff.

The optional issues haven’t been a real problem for me so far, I enjoy the busy body work to do between queues for group content. I hope that holds once we venture into the new covenants.

Still… I sure do miss my MOP farm. qq.


Simply put Shadowlands is boring. I was bored questing in a single narrow storyline. The zones were beautiful but so disjointed they dont feel like they are part of the same expansion save the story. I dont get the design logic for that. Why not make an integrated land mass as it would have been way more immersive. Then once I hit 60 and picked a covenant I just didnt get the urge to do the content. Nothing really pushed me to explore. Its not fun.

Legion was fun all the way around with all of its so called issues.

The biggest issue I have is they were making WoW more open world do what you want and SL kinda reversed that into you must do this in this order so you have the story.

Fix is easy. Let more systems drop more gear/currency so people can log on and decide what they want to do to continue.

I feel the design team has lost that x-factor that made WoW so fun to play over the years. Today it feels bland and exposed like looking at the machine behind the wizard and calling that the game.


My sons and I were discussing this the other day.

Blizzard art team has pretty much been outstanding …forever.
With some few exceptions, the art, design, and texture/models from each expansion top the ones before which is really saying something.

Which makes it even more painful to observe (as I did in Draenor, less in Legion until Argus, very much in BFA and quickly in SL) “This world is fascinating and gorgeous with a tremendous level of detail and thought put into the environs…why don’t I give the faintest shit about any of it?”


Which is frustrating to me because this timeless art style just screams high fantasy RPG.

….if they could just put Classic in the retail engine with the bells and whistles and perhaps a few modern systems it would be spectacular. We’d have one community.

…sheddup! I can dream :)


The argument on each side is real. However, for me, at the end of the day nothing truly has changed. I had told some folks in my FF 14 FC officers’ meeting a week ago as we reminisced about the “old days”in WoW, the problem is that much of what makes an mmo an mmo is fading from World of Warcraft. I didn’t spend money on this expansion. This wasn’t a difficult decision on my part really. I just knew it was going to feel about the same as it has since Panda. What is the value of gold in WoW? Not all that much.

We have mounts and minions and they are fun, but I really got so tired of it all in the last expansion. I’m happy to hear that some of you feel it has changed for the better. However, I’m not truly sold on what has been reported about the “changes”. If at the end of this year after the raids have been cleared and the top few raid guilds are offering clears for several million gold a pop, I review the reviews of this game. Most of the time the attitude of the game seems to be hurry up and +get gud”. , I’m rather more happy now in Final Fantasy 14 where yeah the raiding is serious BUT it’s NOT the total endgame really. Crafting/harvesting matters. How much does it matter in WoW? Welp, I shall look forward for those replies. Housing? Naw, not going to happen in this lifetime.

I’m just not feeling this one any longer. I will nod positively to the pvp in WoW though seems that function kept some people playing in the later days of the past expansion-In my opinion one of the best pvp models in mmo gaming.

Matthew Denniston

They desperately need to go back to a capped single weekly currency you can farm from mythic plus pvp torghast world quests raiding. Maybe have some secondary currencies or drops for content specific transmog but being forced to torghast pisses me off about as much as forcing pet battles would.

It just isn’t fun for me and after pushing to get the maw mount last week from the sufferfest that is twisting corridors I’d really like to never see that tower again.

It feels like a long boring unchallenging time while I am doing it and it still feels like a long boring time when I think about it later, blizzard discovered the ‘long long’ and that might be scientifically relevant but it makes for a terrible leisure activity.


Sorry but I’m going to have to disagree with this one. Compared to the last expansion, so much more of the content in SL is truly optional. The big difference is that in BFA, Azerite was directly tied to player power. Everything had an Azerite reward and so if you really wanted to get the most power for your character without falling behind you had to do EVERY type of content that rewarded Azerite up to its cap every week. This time the “grind resource” is Anima, which is useful for sanctum upgrades and upgrading covenant gear as a catch-up, but is for most purposes not at all tied to player power.

I will agree that Torghast is one of the activities that remains non-optional, because it lacks a catch-up mechanic and Soul Ash is a finite weekly resource. But it is one of the few truly non-optional activities in Shadowlands as of right now. Other than that, you have the Maw, which will become optional once Ve’nari rep is finished, and the 1000 anima weekly, which is trivial to accomplish by playing any kind of content in the game at all. Vault rewards are weekly too, but reward you for your preferred flavor of end game content and allow the other types to be ignored.

Shadowlands has generally been a step forward in the “do what you want” direction for WoW, and it will probably only get better as the patch cycle continues. It’s very strange to me that you have come away with the impression that something like grinding world quests is the easiest source of anima, or that getting anima past your 1000 weekly quest is even important. I think you may have taken the short checklist of true weekly objectives, and extrapolated out to build your own cage.


Well first the options don’t even appear until you finish leveling. Having to slog through each zone in a specific order is narrow and limited. In BFA I could at least go where I wanted. I like infinite grinds actually because it always gives you something to word towards and everything I did progressed that. I don’t play top end so some random player having more resource than me didn’t affect my game or my fun.

I wont touch the fact that the only real options in general in WoW has been Dungeons, Raids, and PVP. Running repeatable content over and over and over is not an endgame for me. They need to put more stuff for people who dont want to run that tread mill in the game so we feel we have tangible options.

Vault rewards are the step in the right direction, but they need more systems to drop more of the needed resources. Again I dont care if I have to farm, but i want to farm in the system *I* like. Thats choice.

I will give you that, SL is setting up to be more open ended, but most people form their opinion on first impressions – meaning Blizzard could have done a better job expressing that setup with the launch.

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Richard de Leon III

All Shadowlands convinced me of doing is not buying the next expansion. That’s it for me. BFA was the closest WoW has gotten with solo progression to ilevel cap and taking that a step backward by removing titanforging and decent world quest rewards is just not fun. Horrific Visions was great and torghast shouldve been as rewarding, but they dropped the ball on that as well.

I was planning on staying subbed to farm old content but the fact they refuse to rebalance old content to the same level as it was before the level squish just made that decision shaky as well.


How was titanforging a good thing?


It allowed Solo progression to ilevel cap. But if you are on the side of “onlly raiders should have that gear for reasons” then I can see it not being a good thing. Though I have a hard time understanding how that argument has anything to do with their raiding. If a casual is in raid gear its not like you are going to compete with them or even talk with them. It feels elitist that since THEY did a raid for some game reward that no one else should have it. Sounds childish actually.. but I digress


Torghast… becomes a mandatory chore to get the amount of soul ash you need for a given week.

Not really. Legendaries are unique-equipped, so once you have the memory you need you can be at rank 3 after five weeks or less. That’s a pretty clear “end point” if you don’t enjoy it.

You don’t have to do Mythic+ to get gear, either. You can get iLvl200+ gear from PvP and world bosses, which is perfectly sufficient for normal raids and heroic dungeons. The anima/renown grind is a little more “mandatory,” but even then you can progress without the anima weekly. You’ll just get your renown slower.

If you can only put in 30-40 minutes a day, you shouldn’t expect to complete all your weekly quests and cap all your currencies. Let go of that sense of obligation and I think you’ll have more fun.

Danny Smith

When it launched and it looked like logging in to do your weekly broker, bolvar and renown stuff was the big draw in terms “not just doing the same instanced shit you have been doing in some form for years of your life” not only did it seem like blizzard making a game charge rent for 4 days of significance out of every 30 but i said to myself “boy, when people finish the covenant campaign that new shiny feeling is going to fall off quick”.

Now go look at the official forums or mmo champion and the like and all the “what do we do now?” or “just saw a massive drop off from my guild” threads popping off.

I think Shadowlands was once again an experiment to see how much they can use and abuse gating and timed content to stretch out MAU retention numbers without the player feeling like its not worth their subscription and Shadowlands feels like they passed the sweet spot and hit the “thats it? well thats not worth paying a sub for” barrier for far more people than they expected to this soon.

I would not be surprised if theres quite a variety of new things ready to go that they thought they could hold back to x.1 or whatever with the existing gates to tide people over. But here we are two months in and it seems to be raid, mythic plus or the hyper stagnant pvp are about it in terms of selling points and even the “w-whatever i just grind out transmog and pets!” crowd seem to be finding things a bit thin.

So naturally queue blizzard pulling back on this a little and bringing back the usual “they changed, its going to be like the good times again, 57th times the charm!” crowd.

Bruno Brito

When your game focuses around a specific activity that requires optimization, it’s hard to make things optional. As long as WoW is constrained to be a huge instance-dance of performance sheets and recount logs, you’ll have this problem. The other option is to not raid at all, which then leaves you to question why even playing when resources only benefit you laterally and there are better games out there with more open-world focus.