I’ve been covering MMOs professionally for about 13 years now. That’s a long while. And it’s kind of strange to me that I’ve been doing so basically covering World of Warcraft’s long slide from grace. Consider this: While I have noted that the game’s batting average of expansions over the entirety of its life cycle is at about 50%, which is pretty terrible, but if I limit that scope just to the time I have been working we’re looking at the majority being bad. Cataclysm, Warlords of Draenor, Battle for Azeroth, and Shadowlands all took their at-bat while I’ve been writing.
Were any of those somehow my fault, I’d call for sacking me, but that’s correlation and not causation.
However, this does prompt a question: What is it that keeps me invested in WoW at this point if the design is, frankly, consistently bad? What is it that makes WoW itself worth preserving, and why do I care about making it good instead of just moving on and playing something else? Because there are definitely reasons, and they’re not nostalgia… and I think it’s an interesting question to ask and answer.
The adolescent fun factor
Let’s just acknowledge something up front: For all that I have used the analogy of how eating a whole can of frosting leaves you feeling kind of sick and disgusted by the end, the first third of the can at least is freaking awesome. You are just eating frosting, and nobody is going to tell you not to! Life is brilliant right now.
I want to make it clear if it wasn’t already from context, I am not using “adolescent” here as a pejorative. There is a fun and awesomeness to just turning over all the toys in your collection and mashing them together while worrying about how they fit later, if ever. And WoW is nothing if not a game of diversity in terms of setting, scale, characters, playable races, sapient races… the list goes on.
This is fun. It’s like the campaign setting you made for D&D when you were a teenager, trying to cram everything in at the various margins whether it made sense or not. Sure, it could result in an incoherent mess, but it also meant having hawk people with dual pistols and floating space ninjas using psionic blasts to disable foes. It’s cool.
WoW has a lot of excess to it, but that’s all part of the game and setting’s charm. One of the things that people always loved about the Engineering skill, for example, is not that it provides major mechanical benefits but that it’s just neat to have a profession mostly about making bombs and weird gadgets that provide neat tricks without being geared toward utility. That’s just worthy. It’s the sort of thing that makes the game weaker as it moves away from it, but it also means that whatever you can say about the game, it is rarely conceptually boring. More often it’s bonkers and diverse.
A strong aesthetic
It’s been a widely accepted fact that whatever criticism you can level at WoW in general, the art team is killing it and has been doing so with basically every expansion. And I am not going to contradict that idea; the fact is that WoW looks great, and it looks distinct and memorable in ways that a lot of games don’t manage.
There are a lot of reasons that WoW trampled over a certain other game that launched in a similar timeframe, but one of the reasons seems obvious to me: WoW has style in spades. It doesn’t look like someone set out to draw fantasy staples with a notebook full of college ruled paper and a time limit; it looks like all of those ideas have been pushed through a distinct stylistic filter and come out the other side as some mashup of Ron Spencer, Mike Mignola, Joe Mad, and maybe a touch of Jim Lee.
Yes, I’m well aware that the principle artistic influences came down more to Samwise Didier and Chris Metzen, but that’s beside the point. This is a style that’s memorable and catchy, and while it’s evolved a fair bit over the years, it has remained remarkably contiguous all things considered. The art upgrades over time have been necessary and helpful, but even from those first steps in the game Azeroth has always looked like nothing else in the best way.
Plenty of strong foundations
One of the nicest compliments my wife ever paid to me was saying that I have forgotten more about video game history than she ever knew. And it’s somewhat applicable to WoW, too. This is a game that has eliminated more good design than a lot of games ever had in the first place, and it still has a massive backlog of things to draw upon if the developers would actually focus on making a cohesive game instead of bolting something new to the front and ignoring the rest.
Let me pick pick an example: housing. Most games that want to implement housing have to come up with a lot of bespoke assets to use in housing, but WoW literally has years of arranged elements that have been used for years in various settings and could easily be adapted into a housing system. It’s all right there! You just need to reach out and take it.
Artifact weapons are sitting right there any time devs want to use them. Better loot systems are right there. Heck, we’re seeing with Dragonflight that it’s clear the ability was always there to actually just improve the talent system and it just… wasn’t being done. And while there’s a natural impetus to get annoyed that the solutions were all right there and being ignored, I think it makes more sense to celebrate the idea that these systems are here and could be implemented.
The problem is not that WoW cannot be good or has always struggled with system-wide issues that it’s never figured out. The problem is that those solutions tend to be ignored except for slapdash implementation or one-offs as more stuff gets crammed onto the front. These aren’t just problems that could be solved but already have been.
For all of the game’s problems right now, that’s honestly a big draw. The solutions are there, and the only thing that’s lacking is the will and management to implement them correctly. I’ve talked a lot about how the game needs to forge ahead and do new things instead of just roll back to the past, but the fact of the matter is that the past contains valuable information. This is all useful material.
Unique, fun classes
Look, Shaman and Demon Hunter and Monk and Death Knight are cool to me, and I will die on that hill. I might still be pining for a form of Paladin we’re never getting back, but I like these classes and that’s worth a lot to me and my investment.
Although we’re really past the point when we should have some more weapon options. Just let Shaman use swords already. If Anduin can still be called a Priest in heavy armor with a sword, we can let Shaman characters have swords too.