WoW Factor: The problem with borrowed power was never new systems

    
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Whoops.

There’s a bit of cognitive disconnect that I notice is still tripping up some particular fans of World of Warcraft even at this point. Let’s put it succinctly: Most people were pretty happy with Artifact Weapons in Legion for various reasons, yet those were in fact the definition of the borrowed power systems that most people have been hating and railing against in World of Warcraft for the past several years. Dragonflight does not have any such systems (debatably), so players are wondering what the big draw of the expansion is supposed to be. Is there no way to satisfy you people?!

And it’s a fair question. At first glance, it’s a downright slam-dunk of a question. The problem is that Legion showed what these systems could be, but no one’s problem was ever with these systems as main draws for the expansion. I would argue that while there were problems and issues that needed to be dealt with when it comes to artifact weapons, the real problem came when Battle for Azeroth was announced… and suddenly everything changed completely.

Let’s start by acknowledging something that the developers have brought up multiple times which is, in fact, completely true: Yes, every system you add to an MMO carries an escalating cost of complexity that echoes throughout the remainder of the game. Every new class is upping the complexity of the game. Every new system magnifies that more. Things that people (including me) have suggested – like having multiple artifact weapons for each spec with different abilities – would, in fact, have a very long-standing impact on the game and would create a meaningful change in how the game works from then on out.

You know, just like adding Inscription, or adding gem sockets and the socketing mechanics, or reforging, or enchanting, or so forth. And you will note that all of these features were long a part of WoW up through Warlords of Draenor, which is not coincidentally when a lot of the trends that have persisted with the game to the present began to accelerate. It’s resulted in Blizzard’s consistent and frankly uncomfortable temptation to design for today rather than for the long-term health of the game, to add in something that will be fun for about two years and then totally abandoned.

Yes, it’s true that by adding in new systems, you are adding in complexity to everything further on down the line. This is why before you add in those new systems, you think about that for the future and add only those new systems you expect to keep supporting as the game moves forward.

Initially, some of these changes were seen as a relief, as a good thing. After all, it was definitely nice to no longer get a drop in a dungeon and say, “Well, this’ll be good gear after I reforge it and socket it and get an enchantment on it.” There is an indisputable difference between getting something and then having to change it to make it useful and getting a new drop that is immediately useful. No argument there.

Birb?

But does it actually make the game better? Did the game actually improve when suddenly making gems was no longer particularly relevant or worthwhile? Or did it ultimately remove something from the game in the hopes of chasing a particular feeling? Speaking for myself, I say that as much as those steps could be annoying, they were also engaging and helped the game feel like a collection of moving parts.

The issue is not helped at all by the fact that stat distribution on items became so heavily randomized that whether or not a given drop would actually be an upgrade went from something you could plan on to being a total matter of chance. Sacrifice a goat to Ba’al and maybe you’ll get a new item that actually has stats you want; there’s no way of being sure even if the item you want drops! And it was all in the name of chasing that rush of “ooh, new thing dropped and I can use it right away.”

Herein lies the problem: When you look at features like artifact weapons or the Heart of Azeroth or covenants, you’re looking at borrowed power. And yes, borrowed power is bad. But taking these features out of expansions altogether is also bad because you’re looking at the phrase “borrowed power” as if it’s a single coherent idea impossible to split further despite the fact that it’s literally two words.

The problem has never been the power portion of the phrase. The problem is the borrowed part.
The problem has never been the power portion of the phrase. The problem is the borrowed part.

It is a tricky path in literally every MMO to create expansions wherein a player feels more powerful even though the actual ratio of player strength to enemies remains more or less constant. (Not absolutely constant, but in broad strokes your character is probably going to be balanced at around the same level.) Adding in systems like legendary weapons of power are definitely tricks in the toolbox to allow you to do that. Same with customizing the stats on your armor in various ways, adding enchantments, and so forth. You feel stronger even though realistically the designers know exactly how powerful you’re going to be at the level cap and have pitched the content accordingly.

So, whatever.

So you might say that functionally, taking away these systems is similarly irrelevant, but it creates a bad impression. It’s giving players fun toys and then taking them away, and it’s revealing that a whole lot of system development actually doesn’t matter beyond the last couple of years. Even if the game is balanced around you having X number of legendary items and that number drops from two to zero, losing them feels bad regardless of whether or not you’re actually getting weaker.

And it results in situations like… well, the one we’re in right now. Where we’ve had borrowed power taken away and replaced with, functionally, nothing. Even though it doesn’t affect the balance, even though it’s not a major difference, it feels worse. Just like it feels worse to not have Mark of the Wild as a buff Druids offer even if your raids are balanced around it and you can just avoid ever needing to press the button.

Am I saying that all of these systems were great and should never have been touched and every streamlining decision is a bad one? No. Not in the slightest. I’m saying that at the end of the day, treating the addition of new systems as if they’re some kind of zero-sum game and people didn’t like those systems at all is, ultimately, buying into a false equivalency. The question is not and never was whether or not adding new systems for player power was a good thing. The question is, and always has been, about whether or not that power feels earned or loaned.

Considering that interviews are already talking about how the talent system will probably only be around for a couple of expansions before it has to be replaced again and there’s not a whole lot of talk about all the new abilities classes and specs are getting (remember when we got whole pages detailing new spells and abilities?), I don’t think that lesson has been actually learned.

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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