Amidst all of the other things that are being changed in World of Warcraft’s next patch that has a dearth of content but a lot of customization and a lot of finally removed references that have aged badly, players will be able to use Torghast as a leveling experience. That’s a good change, and it’s one that has been long overdue since one of the most obvious inspirations for the shifting corridors was always a leveling option first and foremost. But I’m not sure if it’s enough, considering the fact that at this point Torghast’s name is considered vile enough to be used as a biotoxin among some players.
How did we get here? How did one of the central features of Shadowlands become such a reviled element of the game when numerous people, including me, were excited to see it added? Obviously it’s a little bit early to do a full post-mortem of the expansion when it’s probably going to be sticking around like a dead raccoon under the porch for a while now, but I feel like we can at least evaluate why Torghast crashed and burned so badly in the world of player perception.
Mandatory content causes problems
The first problem that Torghast has is something that I’ve touched upon before: It’s mandatory. If you want to get legendary items, you have to do Torghast. Not “if you want the best item for this particular spec,” either. The content is not optional, and it’s part of a larger problem that WoW has had for a while where nothing gets to be optional.
To a certain extent you can understand the motivation here. If you’re Joshua A. Designerguy at Blizzard, you really do want people to play all of the content that you’ve been working on during the expansion process. There’s also a perception that players don’t have enough to do, so by forcing players to engaged with every form of content, you simultaneously reinforce the idea that there’s plenty to do and ensure that everyone sees the content you were working on. Right?
But the problem shows up almost right away. Not everyone is going to have fun in Torghast, just like not everyone enjoys PvP or raids or dungeons or whatever. By making Torghast the only way to get something specific, you actually force people who aren’t interested in the content to go through it. This also means that you need to balance it around being cleared by everyone and being a universal experience, rather than another option players can take on or ignore as they desire.
One of the fastest ways to get someone to dislike something is to make it mandatory. Even if people were otherwise inclined to give Torghast the benefit of the doubt or were excited about the idea, being forced into running it on a strict schedule cooled a lot of people on it right off the bat. By trying to make this content that had the maximum effect on players, it wound up becoming an unwanted weekly chore on top of existing weekly chores, and that never sits well with players. Especially when some of them were never going to like it in the first place.
Balance matters even in unbalanced content
Here’s what’s going to sound like one of the weirdest lifts in this entire column. In content like Torghast, where balance is explicitly being not strictly adhered to… balance is still actually really important. And part of that is because balance is being discarded in the first place.
Blizzard has proven for a long time that overall it is really bad at balancing things. The specs that do the most damage are not in any way balanced around whether or not they bring the best utility; indeed, it’s frequently the case that the “best” choices in an expansion bring both with no drawbacks. And so at a glance, something like Torghast is a great place where everyone can be awesome regardless of their overall balance position.
The problem is that while Torghast can produce some marvelously fun spikes in power for any spec… at the end of the day, those spikes are built upon the bones of the spec itself. If the spec is already underperforming or fails to have really good tools to use for a variety of situations, it’s still going to feel underpowered even when you make what it does have more powerful.
It also shines a light on all of the fun things you don’t normally have access to while outside of Torghast. I’ve seen so many people who do like the tower argue that one of the best ways to encourage people to run it would be to let people take some of the more fun powers outside of the locale and just tool around with them, even if it’s only in the open world.
And all of this is assuming you get a good draw of powers. A bad one? Well, then your underperforming spec feels like it’s not even getting love when you’re supposed to feel powered up.
Far from being a place where the lack of balance doesn’t matter, Torghast actually highlights the existing balance issues even as it’s moving past them. And since everyone has to do Torghast, players get a close-up look at all of their spec’s failures and weaknesses under a microscope. Often the advice is specifically to do Torghast as a specific spec, which makes things notably worse.
Insufficient reward tracks offered for play
The reality is that Torghast being non-optional is a problem both coming and going. On the one hand, it’s a problem that this is mandatory content for everyone to engage in, like it or not. On the other hand, it’s also a problem that for the people who genuinely do like this content – or even the people who might like this more than some other options, but not on its own – there’s a distinct paucity of rewards beyond the mandatory part.
You can’t gear up in Torghast. You can’t level in Torghast (you can in 9.1.5, but that’s not here yet, and at this rate it will have not been possible for an entire year). You can’t get more than a handful of cosmetics from the optional challenge mode. There is precisely one thing you need to get from here, and if you happen to really enjoy it and want to keep playing it? You’re allowed to do so, but it doesn’t offer you anything along the way.
The result is that Torghast feels even more like a weekly chore. Once you’re done with what you need to do, you’re absolutely done. There are no more cosmetics to earn or currency toward getting cool-looking cosmetic gear, no chances to get back into the mode just for a chance of getting a fun draw of powers and getting to wreck shop. This is actually directly antithetical to the way that most roguelike modes work, where you are encouraged to go for just one more run because this run might be awesome and powerful and cool.
Put it another way, if you sorted the balance issues the game has and allowed other ways to get your Legendary currency? Torghast would still be a problem, because it wouldn’t offer you anything for successfully clearing it. It treats the addictive weirdness of the mode as the only reason to play it and just assumes people will dive back in despite a lack of any rewards along the way.
Breaking down the problems of a form of content like this can be an instructive exercise. Not for the designers themselves, mind you. If Blizzard either doesn’t already have people doing this analysis or hasn’t internalized these lessons, well, that’s a bad sign independent of what anyone has to write.
No, it’s an instructive exercise for the audience. Why so? Well, because we’re going to see responses to Torghast. We’re going to see the designers talk about what lessons were learned. And we now have a clear picture of what those lessons should be along the way. Which means that the question becomes… what lessons are actually being taken away from this particular misstep?
I don’t know about you, but I’m not hopeful.