So there’s a whole lot of stuff to talk about right now when it comes to World of Warcraft: Dragonflight; that’s not under debate. Heck, I have about four or five topics that all sprang to mind just from the initial presentation alone, and then there was another topic based off of a particular interview comment that itself springs off into an entire column. (There are actually nonzero odds you read that one first. I’m just writing these columns and trying to play the drums, man.)
But one of the things that I found immediately fascinating as soon as the announcement was made was the discussion about getting your own personal dragon to ride around with the new dragon riding system. A lot of people (including me) were almost immediately happy to see the re-introduction of talent trees and the change to how systems were set up while proclaiming, “Oh, good, no borrowed power!” Other people have been looking at dragon riding – a system of locomotion that works only in the Dragon Isles and is almost certainly not going to persist after this expansion – and saying, “Look, that’s borrowed power!” So… is it?
To answer that question, we have to first discuss another question. What is power? No, don’t worry; we’re not about to get into a lengthy discussion of definitions because what we’re very clearly talking about here is power in an MMO. Where it is… a remarkably fuzzy subject!
For example, you know what is absolutely power? Gold. Gold is power. More gold provides more ability to purchase stuff, more mounts, more pets, more auctions, and so forth. It even allows you to grab game time without spending any real money. Gold is absolutely a measure of power.
By that definition, every time a way of making gold hand over fist is introduced with any sort of time-limited component, you could argue that it’s borrowed power. You got a big chunk of power, and now it’s going away! Borrowed power! Except that I don’t think anyone would really argue that “those reagents that no one wants any more are no longer valuable” is the same problem as, say, Azerite Armor.
In other words, we’re going to need to narrow our focus a little more and take a better look at what makes borrowed power a whole thing in WoW. Borrowed power has, in various ways, been an element of WoW since set bonuses were introduced; you would get a benefit that helped you in some way, and then you would have to lose it when you upgraded your kit. But the way we use the term really has its origins in Warlords of Draenor.
Some of you might be thinking that means Garrisons. You’re only half-right.
See, Garrisons absolutely offered borrowed power… on a zone-by-zone basis. This is because in every zone, you had a thing you could build to give you an extra button to use every two or three minutes. This was, decidedly, a form of borrowed power. However, it didn’t really matter much because it was functionally just a minor open-world benefit that added some new flavor to what you were doing.
Where borrowed power started to become a problem was Legion. In that expansion, every single class and spec got an artifact weapon, and every single artifact weapon carried with it a button you could press to do something. And every single spec, bar none, was designed to operate around this one button to some degree. Some specs made it central to their rotation (Windwalker Monks, for example), while others had it as a valuable part of your gameplay without being a functional lynchpin (Enhancement Shaman), but every spec was still designed around that power and the mechanics of artifacts.
And then they all went away.
Not just that one button, which usually (though by no means always) migrated to being a talent choice. All of the subsequent and additional features of leveling up your artifact also went away with an audible snapping noise. This didn’t cripple every single spec or even the majority of specs; it didn’t mean that no one got anything useful or no abilities worked any more. What it did mean was that the entirety of what you had spent Legion working on, all of the abilities you had earned and the mechanics that went along with them… all of that was gone. Immediately. Absolutely smashed to pieces in an instant.
When we talk about borrowed power, that’s what we generally mean. It’s not really about “a feature that matters in one expansion and then doesn’t matter in the next expansion.” It’s about that feature being the primary thing you engage with in the expansion. Your power, your progression, your improvements – all of them are primarily based around this system that is not meant to last beyond this one expansion. When the expansion is over, you lose all of it.
This is, in the scientific sense, not very fun! It’s not engaging to spend your time gaining power and then having the board wiped and having to do it all again with the knowledge that you’ll do the same thing! It honestly makes you not want to bother with the march at all.
So let’s go back to Dragonflight and riding your dragon again. Is that borrowed power? It definitely seems like this expansion is taking a step back from borrowed power with the return of talent trees and everything that implies; your ability to play your spec is not going to be reliant on (or even informed by) your particular choices for the mobility-based dragon riding. That makes it seem like it’s not really borrowed power.
At the same time, it seems almost like a certainty that you will not be riding your dragon in the next expansion after this one. And while I am definitely not going to claim that “you no longer have any reason to use this specialized mount” is comparable to “here we go with another expansion of advancement that gets wiped out as soon as it ends,” you also can’t say that having a personal customizable flying friend who goes away isn’t part of player power. It is a tool you use for solving problems, even though those problems are not combat-related.
That means the answer comes down to it being both. It is and is not borrowed power. It’s not borrowed power in the way that people have been discussing for the past several years, and in that regard it does represent a step away from that particular design philosophy. But it is still a system that is introduced for an expansion with no intention whatsoever of carrying it forward, no matter how much players might like it.
We seem to be making baby steps away from some of the worst excesses of the past few expansion designs. I think it’s important to note and celebrate that fact and draw attention to the changes that are being made; pretending that no lessons have been learned would be disingenuous. But I also feel like splitting hairs and claiming that there’s no case to be made regarding dragon riding is equally disingenuous and doesn’t take stock of the ways in which the developers are still clearly making something today without the intent of supporting it tomorrow.
Progress is being made. But we ain’t done yet.