The launch of The Burning Crusade‘s pre-patch in WoW Classic has me thinking about the features that expansion brought to World of Warcraft. I know, really it ought to wait until the expansion has properly released, but especially considering what a mess this particular pre-patch launch has already been, it’s kind of hard not to find yourself dwelling on it at least a little bit. That got me thinking about dungeon difficulties, and in turn that got me thinking about outlining the stuff that I’d really like to see done with this content…
But that, in turn, got me back to thinking about Heroic difficulty. There are a lot of things I very openly like about that particular feature in the game, not the least of which being the deterministic gear system that it first introduced alongside a variety of general improvements and a general philosophy of making the most possible use of the game’s lower-level content. But is this particular system something of an original sin for the game’s present issues with content and balance?
Let’s start with a short recap. The purpose of Heroic difficulty, from a design standpoint, was to turn the max-level dungeon offerings into “functionally everything.” Instead of just having one or two dungeons that were placed at the level cap, every dungeon in the expansion could scale up to level 70 with appropriate gear rewards. The dungeons also included badges to be exchanged for gear, providing another path to rewards for players who either had poor luck or otherwise simply weren’t doing higher-level raiding and the like.
From a content standpoint, this definitely worked out pretty well, ensuring that instead of just one or two dungeons the level cap actually sported some dozen-ish dungeons for players to explore in earnest. That’s a good thing. It also, as mentioned, introduced deterministic rewards in a big way to help encourage people to run the content, which was another real boon for the overall pattern.
So all of this sounds good. How could this be any sort of bad thing? Well, in part because of what it led to. We’re currently sitting at a state where every dungeon has three difficulty modes, every raid has four, and in each case the majority of the modes barely have any relevance whatsoever. Someone went a little too hard on the idea of scaling everything forever, and it doesn’t do the game any favors.
But at the same time, it might not require that much experience for this to have deleterious effects on the game as a whole, starting with the very obvious effect that this has upon dungeons as an experience: instead of being bespoke experiences, they’re now designed to scale.
Fundamentally, when you run through a dungeon on Heroic, you’re going to be experiencing the exact same dungeon you saw on normal as well. That means that all of the bosses, enemy packs, and geometry needs to be the same across all modes. In turn, that also means that you can’t have major new mechanics be introduced between modes. You have to design everything to basically be the same no matter what.
In TBC, this was less pronounced because it was kind of novel for dungeon bosses to have much in the way of mechanics at all. But you do get the sense where several of these dungeons have to be designed to be level 70 experiences but can’t actually introduce any new tricks you have to reach the level cap to deal with. Your new abilities thus become something of a placeholder, there to fill out your bars but not given any vital place in expected dungeon mechanics for you to deal with.
It’s sort of a short slide from there to basically wind up without new abilities of any real import at all, to expect your kit to be functionally finished long before you’re done with leveling. And that’s kind of still the case; while the reduced level cap definitely means fewer empty levels, you still have less space wherein it feels like you get vital abilities that define your entire playstyle.
You also wind up in a scenario wherein difficulty is determined almost entirely by health pools and incoming damage, which in turn leads to making gear rewards more and more powerful by way of compensation. It’s an easy step and slide from there into having the kind of absurd level inflation that requires stuff like gear scaling in the open world, which in turn breaks down the game’s sense of consistency even further.
And let’s not forget that this is a big step along the path to making everything into a modular and instanced experience, wherein everything is just carefully partitioned and you need to add other elements on top of it in order to make for a compelling experience. There are a lot of articles to be written about how the current game’s love of modularity is part of its problem, and that all started right here, approaching every dungeon as if it could be scaled forward and backwards with no loss of quality.
At this point, heroic dungeons are pretty well irrelevant. They no longer give currency to be used for getting more gear and they mostly sit as the highest queueable difficulty for dungeons to be explored in, in a system which is rather unpleasant for anyone who isn’t a terribly big fan of the game’s Mythic system (for example, me). It’s easy to look at that system as being the architect of a lot of the problems the game has, and it should be noted that I really like heroic dungeons as an option.
The point here isn’t to say that this was bad and it shouldn’t have existed in TBC. For that matter, a lot of the scaling that came later actually feels like it was a good thing. The idea of having raids that could scale to different group sizes? A good thing! Having a separate difficult of raids you could just queue for and another for progression-minded players? A good thing! (A good thing immediately messed up by making those difficulties more complex, but in the abstract it’s still a good thing.)
Rather, the point is that even if you like a system, it’s important to look at what effect it has on the game as a whole and whether or not some of the failings could be attributed to good ideas taken too far. Scaling is a good thing, but not when it comes at the expense of direct fun. Multiple content levels is a good thing, but not when those content levels come at the expense of relevance for all but the most strenuous ones.
And while an idea might have been a good one when it was introduced, it might have led to some pretty bad dilution of ideas over time and ultimately done some damage to how the game manages content and player power. It’s the trick of looking beyond just what you find personally satisfying and asking about the larger picture.
I really do like heroic dungeons. I’m glad TBC introduced them. But in some ways, I can’t help but wonder if they led to some of the same current trends that hurt the game they helped improve.