WoW Factor: How World of Warcraft makes you cheer for removing features

Slightly disappointing context.

Yesterday, MOP’s Justin wrote a column about The Elder Scrolls Online that detailed its key virtues. It’s a good column, and one of the things he mentions is that the game does not consistently introduce systems only to completely remove them a couple of expansions down the line. Wink wink, nudge nudge, moon emoji. It was polite of Justin not to mention World of Warcraft in this context, of course, but it’s also generally good form in this case; you shouldn’t need to point to someone else doing something wrong to explain why something is good, and vice versa.

I, however, am not being nearly as polite because I think it’s a point worth considering. WoW is lousy with features that were implemented and then abandoned, and usually it has come to a point where people are cheering the removal of systems that make various parts of the game less engaging. Why is that? How do you have a game that keeps discarding things and then makes you happy you’re getting less game? I’m glad you hypothetically asked.

For starters, we’re going to be looking at mission tables because it’s a feature that’s a decade old. Yes, you read that right. If your image of “WoW a decade ago was when it was good,” this is your reminder that a decade ago is when Warlords of Draenor launched. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. This slide has been going on for a while.

Where was I? Right, mission tables. When mission tables were first introduced in Warlords it was as another feature attached to the Garrison, which people didn’t like. So people also didn’t really like mission tables very much. Why was that? There are a couple of reasons, I think, and the people saying that they want to be playing the game instead of managing other people having adventures aren’t being disingenuous. But I think that’s also just a part of the problem, and the real problem was Warlords itself.

Human beings are aware that they are playing video games, and they are going to trend toward the most efficient way to play those video games even if they don’t like them. If the gap is small, people won’t feel locked into them, but in Warlords a big part of the problem was that most of what people were actually able to do was queue up for unpleasant dungeons, either wait for raid night or find their progress stonewalled, grind reputations without quests, or… sit in a Garrison sending out missions.

Ogre, without layers

Under those circumstances, why would anyone be excited to manage a mission table? When there’s no other game, when it isn’t a side activity, players are just going to get annoyed at it. Even more so when it’s the best option to make actual progress in several fields and it’s basically the best way of making money while you do everything in your Garrison. That’s going to chafe. And chafe people did.

When Legion rolled around, the developers were still working to make this mechanic actually function. The mission table got an overhaul with a smaller list of people to recruit, replaced by generic troops in large part as you managed your overall roster. Add to that an improved set of mechanics and things to actually do outside of sitting in your order hall, and they were generally received better. But there were still people who disliked the mechanic, and… that’s always going to be the case.

Some people are just not going to like that element of the game, just as some people don’t like playing healers or being in melee or listening to canned generic Dwarf dialogue from flight masters telling you “Keep your feet on the ground!” as you take off on a flight path. And that’s fine. But rather than accepting that some people will just not enjoy this element of the game, Battle for Azeroth had to tinker with it again. It had to make it feel more special when you used the mission table.

This is, at its core, part of the problem. To Blizzard’s design team, nothing is so horrifying as the thought that eventually normal and mundane parts of your experience might become less special. The problem was that by making mission tables more irritating, Blizzard made the people who did like this feature annoyed (because it was no longer a fun, lighthearted side activity) and the people who didn’t like this feature still didn’t like it.

In many ways Shadowlands did nothing right, but its changes to the mission table mechanic were definitely far up there. Now the whole thing was a bizarre minigame that took a ton of time instead of just being a case where you stop in, send some people off to get things, and then you stop in tomorrow to get some rewards. So even people who did like the mechanic before now just wanted it gone.

And then it didn’t come back for Dragonflight, and everyone was happy because now at long last nobody gets a toy at all.

This is what I always wanted.

Cory Doctorow coined the term “enshittification” to discuss the way that various platforms are steadily more interested in making you pay more for worse service than what you initially signed up for. It’s a familiar pattern: Companies sign up as many people as they can and condition shareholders for infinite growth (a thing that is mathematically impossible), then try to squeeze customers more to keep growing when they have reached a market cap.

WoW’s design in this regard is a little more insidious. Ion Hazzikostas has, in the past, mentioned how any system you introduce today and keep supporting is going to make every part of the game more complicated moving forward. That is very true. But instead of addressing that complexity or finding new ways to make it accessible, the designers discover it’s easier to find the parts of a system that are worthwhile, tear them apart and make the system more annoying, and then gut the system or remove it outright.

For example, remember when Reforging got really annoying? Remember people cheering when it was removed from Warlords right before every piece of gear became completely randomized in its stats, thus requiring you to not just hit that slot machine but hit it over and over until you got the secondary stats you actually wanted?

Gosh, Reforging sure sounds nice there, doesn’t it?

Strictly speaking, I know it’s true that systems build up in complexity over time. But WoW in particular seems to relish making something a vital part of the game, then making it worse and more annoying until you’re glad it’s gone. And then when you miss it, it says, “Look, you were all happy when it went away. Why would you want it back? This stuff is complicated.”

And it’s happened so many times that if you don’t have Blizzard-implemented issues with object permanence, you’re more than a little leery of each time that the designers promise you once again that this time will be different. Roll the clip, please.

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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