WoW Factor: Why aren’t we getting more customization options in Shadowlands?

We have a few theories

    
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Through the fire and the flames

You might be surprised that I haven’t written a piece in WoW Factor yet about the BlizzConline announcement that we would get no new customization options in World of Warcraft throughout this expansion. But the reason is that there’s not actually much to write about there. This was a bad choice that ultimately hurts the game, rinse and repeat. This is something that can be said about so many design decisions made leading up to Shadowlands that I’m frankly tired of writing it. I have less than zero interest in just restating any of this stuff.

What I find more interesting, though, is examining what we do know and placing it in context. We know that at this time there are no plans for more customization options, which is contrary to what many statements prior to the expansion launch seemed to indicate, particularly for the various allied races (all of which have a decided paucity of customization options, especially if you’re a Nightborne).

So why are we here? Here are four possibilities.

Ominous!

Option 1: COVID-19 is disrupting Blizzard a lot

I’ve heard some people say that they’re tired of hearing about COVID-19 impacting game development, and I certainly understand that in the same way that I’m sick of having anxiety issues. Unfortunately, being tired of something does not actually make it not a thing, and the reality is that we are all still in the middle of a gigantic global pandemic that’s having ripple effects on literally everything.

We know from the launch of the expansion and various statements from the development team that Blizzard is capable of working and developing from home. What we don’t know at this point is whether or not the studio is very good at it. The simple reality is that the corporate structure, collaborative processes, and general atmosphere of the studio may very well not translate well to working from home despite the best intentions of everyone involved in the game.

In other words, it’s entirely possible that the main thing standing in the way of more options is the simple reality that creating more options right now takes a lot more work than it would otherwise, this placing an outsized amount of workload on anyone trying to do this. Stick a pin in that idea; we’ll come back to it.

Option 2: Shadowlands is more of a mess behind the scenes than we know

We are currently in the middle of the longest immediately-post-launch content drought in the game’s history. Since the Shadowlands launch, we haven’t yet had the first content patch for the expansion, and as has been mentioned prior it’d be a minor miracle if the patch arrived before May. (June is more likely.) That’s a really long gap, and it might be explained by a simple and yet kind of ominous idea: Shadowlands is actually turning into a tumultuous development nightmare behind the scenes.

This does square with some of the observations we already have, too. After all, the expansion was delayed from its original launch date, we’ve already had a patch that was full of nothing but balance changes, and people seem to have lost their luster for the expansion rather quickly. So it’s entirely plausible that between the reception and the general corporate climate at Blizzard, this expansion is turning into an absolute mess and a half.

This doesn’t entirely absolve the developers of responsibility here, of course. It didn’t take launch for people to be annoyed with yet another borrowed power system, for example, and that was already seemingly baked into the very fundamental nature of this expansion from the concept level. But the point here is that there might be a lot of problems developing what are seen as expansion-critical features that don’t leave a lot of time for what is seen as more optional, like even more expansions to customization after the pre-patch already delivered a lot.

Sad arbiter, not in snow

Option 3: The people making choices don’t understand the impact

One of the weird things about WoW development since about midway through Mists of Pandaria is the persistent sense that the people in charge are aware of what players want but don’t seem entirely to understand the why. I get this sense a little bit even in the statement that there won’t be new customization options. “Hey, you just got a lot of new options! Why in the world do you want more?”

The answer, of course, is that only some races got those options, that the character creator in this game is still woefully inadequate, that personal connection is important, that these things matter to players and should be encouraged rather than looked at as hitting some arbitrary point of “enough,” and so on. But if you don’t understand exactly why people were excited about the additional options in the first place, it’s possible you don’t understand why people would want more when they already got the thing.

To a certain extent, this is even a defensible viewpoint. It is entirely the case that I would happily delete the entirety of M+ dungeon mechanics for another two dozen hairstyles, but that’s probably not the smartest use of development resources. But I also think that despite the joke, these things are not analogous. It’s not just a matter of how many resources are required to add these options but a failure to understand why people want the options in the first place.

Option 4: This is a lot harder than it should be

A whole lot of developing WoW at this point is inevitably going to be looking at something that was coded more than a decade ago and figuring out how to change it. However badly the game may have needed new customization options, I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to suggest that “adding new hairstyles” was basically never on the radar of the original development team, which means that adding more of these things might be the coding equivalent of trying to do dental work with a hammer and a wooden toothpick.

That doesn’t make it less important, but it does mean that if you’re already stretched thin, if the expansion is already a mess behind the scenes, and if you barely understand why people want more hairstyles when you already gave them some hairstyles, then you might be tempted to just say “no, no more hairstyles, we’re not doing that much work for something so small, so just tell them no more for right now.”

Heck, even if all of those facts aren’t true – if you’re looking at the workload and it takes as much time to add new hairs as it takes to get a new dungeon boss rigged – you’re more likely to prefer the dungeon boss. I think it’s almost certainly not that difficult, but it may be more difficult than we see from this end.

So which one do I think is correct? I have a feeling that varying degrees of all of the above lead into this particular decision. I don’t think it’s a good decision, of course, since we’re still stuck with the same problem: Some races get the shortest possible end of the stick, especially the allied races that were at one point meant to be a marquee feature.

But hey, at least there’s more going on here than “they just didn’t care.”

Probably.

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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Motherball

Do more with less. Nobody is surprised these days when nearly every company in the country is raising prices and slashing quality to meet unachievable bottom lines. WoW still has one of the best auction systems of the main MMOs that are left, imo.

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Tom316

I think the biggest problem is that Blizzard is still trying to chase that log into me every day style of gameplay. When in reality FFXIV has shown that you do not need to do that. FFXIV encourages its players to take a break if they feel like they are getting burned out on the game and content.

Instead of creating these system that get boring after the XX time of play through why not just focus on making a fun, engaging story and fixing up the pvp system. Gives classes a big selection of abilities and stop worrying about trying to make every single class exactly balanced with every other class in the game. As long as every class can clear the content then what really does it matter?

For me what made the original World of Warcraft so fun to play was that the world was interesting to explore. The classes all felt you where powerful enough to beat x class but turn around and almost always got beaten by y class. The content felt somewhat challenging but not unbeatable.

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Sarah Cushaway

The real reason: Blizzard is a lazy shill company who doesn’t care about the majority of it’s “casual” playerbase– aka the playerbase that got the game to its greatest sub numbers.

It’s all for cash shop whales and streamers now.

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L B

I wouldn’t say its for the streamers anymore. Aside for a small handful of them most of the biggest named streamers are acknowledging that WoW has major issues right now particularly around the casual player.

Alyn
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Alyn

Is WoW broken? Nope, runs just like they want it to. Are we happy? Some, I guess. Was a good run, but-

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NecroFox4

Blizzard has spent nearly 11 years stripping customization out of WoW, making every class into cookie-cutter carbon copies of one another, with fewer skills and abilities, as well as making redundant something like 80% of the game’s content. The fact that they’re not adding any customization should come as absolutely NO surprise.

The only real exception is transmogs.

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Bruno Brito

To be fair, WoW customization was always pretty weak. WoW will never be RIFT/Archeage.

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NecroFox4

You’re not wrong. But at least WoW used to have customization in regard to character build, and by extension thereof, rotation, and thus also play style… But no longer.

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Nathan Aldana

ehh, even in the days of talent trees there was an optimal setup and a bunch of shitty subpar ones

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Holden Nagata

erm, when? talent trees always had a set path you needed to go down if you wanted to do group endgame. and that, by extension, always meant each spec had a set rotation. even by Wrath this was the case

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NecroFox4

Ah yes, the good old “viability” argument. Yea, there absolutely were preferred builds, but nothing FORCED you to use them. Sure, maybe you did 3.4k DPS instead of that coveted 3.5k, but unless you played with a bunch of dickheads, that didn’t stop you from playing the build you wanted to play, instead of the build the min/max theorycrafters INSISTED was the ONLY VIABLE BUILD.

That kind of thinking is precisely why Blizzard destroyed character build customization.

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Holden Nagata

you can apply this same thing to the current talents though; you have specific talents that line up with different rotations that can feel different but are still viable for the spec. my main issue with talent trees is they gave a bigger illusion of choice because you get points instead of 1 choice.

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NecroFox4

It wasn’t an illusion of choice, it was actual choice. But that’s only part of the issue I’m talking about here. Blizzard also significantly reduced the number of skills, as well. So we had a significant reduction in talents AND skills. That’s a reduction in character customization, at least from a build / play style perspective, and at least for me (and many others I know, though obviously not everyone) that reduction seriously reduced the level of enjoyment.

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Neowolf2

I suggest another possibility: they’ve decided to hold back on customization options in order to put them on a cash shop.

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Khrome

You’re forgetting #5, which will very likely be the most probable one:

Ian just doesn’t see the point and gives it an extremely low priority. Raiding and M+ above all, after all.

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Khrome

Edit option is gone, so as a reply: I forgot to add that this is also the reason why we don’t have housing. Ian just doesn’t see the point.

Transmog and the new options we *did* get, along with the new allied races, were probably hard fought for despite Ian, not because of him.

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Scott Leyes

There is SO MUCH complexity behind any game, even more behind an MMO, so I hesitate to simply say, “Why don’t they just do X” – but I am reminded of a BlizzCon Q&A session where the devs complained that the ancient spaghetti code wouldn’t allow then to alter the original 16-slot bag size… only to have them reveal at the NEXT BlizzCon that a dev looked at the problem and said “Nope… we can fix that easily!”

Blizzard (and game developers in general) have gotten so d*mn isolated from actually playing games – they live in a small sandbox, and despite their assertions that they are “Gamers at heart” or some such thing, they cannot see beyond their own noses.

I can’t say I’m surprised; most places I’ve worked have similar myopic problems. But WoW has been around for decades, and there are MANY other “similar” games that do things that WoW simply IGNORES – Housing being the most obvious, but Customization is another HUGE issue.

I was thrilled to see Blizz adding options; I applauded the ethnic human options, any many others. But let’s get real: they did the BARE MINIMUM to most races, and completely ignored others. Lightforged Draenei are a perfect example – sure, they’re a “new” race, but they are (almost) just recolored “normal” Draenei… WHY wouldn’t Blizz give them the same custom options, like tail length? WHY can’t Nightborne Elves share the Hairstyles and face options that “Normal” elves have?

I cannot accept that this is a programming limitation… it’s just lazy.

I keep hearing this in my head:

“You THINK you want more customization, but you really don’t.”

Bulls**t, Blizz… stop telling us what we want, and listen to us so you can make a game we WANT to play.

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giggity

You’re right. Its all cost savings for them. I look at the weapons and armour they use to make back in the day. Quite a few different options. Each dungeon, raid, pvp gear each held a unique look. The lack of diversity in gear and looks in SL is mind boggling. Does it really cost that much to make a unique DH armor set? Its about making the game cheaply as possible to put money back into the pockets of the shareholders and CEOS bank accounts.

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texyFX

“This is something that can be said about so many design decisions made leading up to Shadowlands that I’m frankly tired of writing it. I have less than zero interest in just restating any of this stuff.”

the less shitstorm, the less impact, cuz the basic issue is psychological:

“One of the weird things about WoW development since about midway through Mists of Pandaria is the persistent sense that the people in charge are aware of what players want but don’t seem entirely to understand the why.”

anyways:
“I’ve heard some people say that they’re tired of hearing about COVID-19 impacting game development, and I certainly understand that in the same way that I’m sick of having anxiety issues. Unfortunately, being tired of something does not actually make it not a thing, and the reality is that we are all still in the middle of a gigantic global pandemic that’s having ripple effects on literally everything.”

this is year 2 of Covid. year 2. if any industry hasnt adapted yet, its unlikely they ever will. y?
cuz they r incompetent(, incompetence means incapable). many already adapted the new condition, authorities, hospitals, media, many r working home office, many studios deliver in time, despite of Covid.
my Bongcloud IQ starts to feel insulted by this argument, Covid is no longer an excuse for incompetence. if any industry cant re-organise production to adapt any new condition, stagnation (and the inherent shitstorm) is deserved.

science was very clear on the persistence of Covid mutations, as a study as early as march 2020 at Faroer Islands already verified: ( https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Inseln-im-Nordatlantik-als-Corona-Labors-4692917.html ) >40 Covid mutations (march 2020). so better adapt, cuz those vaccines wont immune forever. Covid is here to stay.

but then Covid is a chance. a chance to rethink society and its values. /s

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Holden Nagata

at this point “getting back to normal” gives me more anxiety than COVID itself sticking around… ignoring the problem makes it worse, both in dev and irl

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Danny Smith

I think Shadowlands in general was a gamble that came out the gate and things like the maw and torghast were expected to be these huge hits that made people feel like they had small, daily reasons to login for bursts of content and the audience for the most part seems to have entirely rejected it to the point “i don’t care about the rewards i’m not going to the maw. period” is a sentiment you can find commonly as far back as december.

I think theres elements that are sound. Revendreth in particular just feels like something i wouldn’t be shocked was saved from the legion cutting room floor or something but i think a lot of the systems expected to answer peoples problems with Bfa have actually just fallen flat on their face and pushed more people away than islands or azyrite ever did and they are going to scramble to salvage the expansion while trying to course correct over what i assume they thought would be some expansion long molten front meets timeless isle that people are refusing to take part in.

in an expansion where everyone is pvping for the gear even if they absolutely hate it. They finally made something people want to do less than wintergrasp.