WoW Factor: World of Warcraft’s mid-expansion endgame zone problem

Those are people who died, died.

Hey gang, who wants to go explore new zones in Dragonflight? Does that sound exciting to you? That’s great, and for the past several expansions World of Warcraft has made a tradition of adding new zones for players to explore mid-expansion, so it makes perfect sense. But before we go, you’re going to have to join me on another adventure… to the Timeless Isle.

You suddenly seem less excited.

I’m picking Timeless Isle here because, well… that zone wasn’t terrible! It wasn’t a bad zone, it didn’t feel awful to explore, I did not hate it while I was there, and I was actually on the whole happy to be there when I was there. But I have zero desire to go back, and it’s the easiest place to start when looking at the many mid-and-late-expansion zones that the game has added over the years… usually without much in the way of compelling reasons to return aside from specific hunts for appearance or mounts.

WoW’s initial release had these zones, too. It’s just that they weren’t added to the game because there were several zones already in the game that were very clearly not actually finished in any realistic way. Sure, Silithus was there from launch, but if you went there, about all there was to do is look around at a whole mess of dangerous bugs and think, “Huh, maybe it’ll be really neat when they actually put a zone here.” And then it happened, and unfortunately Silithus became a pretty time-limited place to hang out… which did not help matters when not too much later it became a template for the future.

The Burning Crusade was actually the odd expansion out at first for adding the Isle of Quel’danas, since neither Wrath of the Lich King nor Cataclysm added a full new endgame zone along those lines. Indeed, both fleshed out existing zones with more content and dailies in a manner akin to Silithus. But from Mists of Pandaria onward we’ve had at least one Here Is The Endgame zone and more often two or more. Tanaan Jungle, Mechagon, Nazjatar, Korthia, all of Argus, Zereth Mortis… yeah, this has become a whole thing, and while you can argue some of these are not true whole zone additions, it is indisputably an ongoing pattern that we can look to. That’s not even all of them.

So what’s the problem? Well… these zones are kind of horrible after about half an hour.

This is just how it is now, huh?

Now, I want to cut a fine line here. I like these zones, in the abstract. More often than not when I’m actively playing the game, these zones are where I spend the majority of my playtime on characters who are at the level cap. They usually offer things to do for a wide variety of player types, and that’s a good thing. But these zones are also… kind of an endless spiral, and they wear on you quickly.

The thing about all of these zones is that while many of them do have quests at least designed to introduce you to the zone, most of their structure forms up around vague objectives or clearing world quests on a steady basis. You have a questline to follow in Nazjatar, yes, but much of it is gated behind doing things in Nazjatar over a period of time. If you stretch it out over a week or so of regular logins, it’s not so bad. But if you try to just get to the next quest, you’ll quickly run into a problem where progress slows down to an absolute crawl.

Why? Well… these zones aren’t really for you to explore. These zones are there so that people who would otherwise log in and raid for an hour and then clock out have something to do. There are world bosses and rares and rare appearances and pets and mounts and such, as well as catch-up gear for alts. That’s the point. That’s always been the point.

Heck, it’s not even subtle most of the time; nearly all of the zones I’ve listed explicitly harbor the entrance to the Next Big Raid therein. Playing in any given zone, you are very much told to wait until the player characters get to the fireworks factory because it’s coming very soon. So you take a deep breath and you wait.

And therein lies the other problem that’s a bit harder to ignore: Once you no longer need to do the raids, these zones fall apart. They’re full of projects that take too long and have no place whatsoever in leveling or advancement, even when you’re on the same expansion.

Do you go back to the Timeless Isle now? Do you have any desire to revisit Tanaan Jungle? These are not leveling zones, and they’re not even catch-up zones. They’re made to be explored as the endgame, and once they cease to be the endgame, no one wants to see them ever again.

Nah, you're gonna make it, buddy!

From a visual and thematic standpoint, sure, this makes a certain amount of sense. It’s already weird that when you level through the game there’s a constant sense of “nah, we’re not doing that conflict” as you play through. Bring a new character through Battle for Azeroth content and there’s tons of setup for the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde, for the properties of Azerite, for the various governmental problems of the island nations you’re exploring… and then suddenly at level 60 it’s “oh, that isn’t real stuff, the Alliance and Horde are friends and exploring the Dragon Isles together, forget all that old nonsense!”

But something that’s already a problem in terms of the game’s narrative cohesion becomes worse with these zones that fit into no leveling path and have no meaningful integration to the game whatsoever. People can still have reason to go to Netherstorm, but not the Isle of Quel’danas. You go there at max level to pick up something you otherwise missed, not to follow a storyline or explore the area.

How do we fix this problem? I… don’t actually know. At this point WoW’s narrative and zone cohesion is so bad that it requires a lot of complex work to be done in order to improve it, made not one whit better by the fact that the design team seems to actively dislike the idea you might have to complete one story to see another. It’s a belief borne out in no small part because that’s the way the team has always done things, so if you change it now, you start breaking the mechanisms completely.

But it’s also not a good thing that we have so many zones hanging out without any real reason to exist except deleting them would make things unobtainable, plot threads that were resolved previously but now remain in the game as truncated portions. It’s not great, and it’s yet another example of the way in which the game has an abundance of content but a complete disinterest in making use of that abundance in any meaningful fashion. And that… sort of sucks.

It also makes the prospect of new zones feel less than exciting in the grand sweep of things. Which is not, I think, the reaction you should have to getting new areas mid-expansion.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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