World of Warcraft’s level squish is not the solution

You would think that after 14 or 15 years of operation, World of Warcraft would understand itself and be comfortable in its own skin. But Blizzard seems like it has never arrived at this point and is constantly trying to make severe design changes in its core mechanics. It was probably one of my biggest beefs with the game, that you could never quite trust features and systems not to be yanked out from under you and completely redone at any moment.

Last week in a developer Q&A, Blizzard admitted that it just realized how not fun having 120 levels was with so little along the way in terms of character progression and power gain to show. Cue a collective “You’re only NOW realizing this?” from the incredulous community, which has been saying such things for 40 levels now. With the abolition of talent trees (and points), WoW simply stopped adding any new toys or options to character growth once you hit a certain point. Sure, you might be gaining more levels, but you’ll never get any new talents or skills. And with Battle for Azeroth’s bizarre leveling formula, you actually get weaker the higher up you go in relation with level-scaled beasties.

So Blizzard’s solution for this is its solution for any other feature that’s spiraling out of scope and control, and that’s to “squish” it. Too many talent tree options? Squish it into a smaller talent tree. Now squish it into even more limited talent frames. Damage numbers getting too high? Squish them stat points back down! Too many skills? Squish ’em into a fewer amount! So why not do this with 120 levels, squish ’em to 60 or so?

Well, because it solves absolutely nothing other than making the developers feel like they’re doing something to address the problem. First of all, you’re just going to end up adding more levels in the future, so eventually you’ll arrive back at the point you are now. This will, at best, just kick the can down the road.

Second, what players want is for levels and progression to be meaningful without making us wait forever between them. The original talent trees worked because players had that point every level to invest. Even if it was just a minor stat increase, it was a measure of player agency and choice, an important element that Blizzard seems to have forgotten. Yanking away every level except the ones where you get a rare talent point or a skill or a large stat chunk isn’t going to add anything of value to the game, it’s just a smokescreen.

Third, players want to see their characters progress, and I’m not just talking about statistically. It has been several expansions since we saw a new talent tier, nevermind additional skills. The character you have around level 60 or so is pretty much the same character and build you’re going to have for the rest of your game.

With the Legion expansion, the artifact weapon got people excited because it felt like a talent tree again, with steady progression and investment and choice. Then that was yanked away, a lesser version handed to us, and no assurances that that item wouldn’t be gone by the end of Battle for Azeroth. No wonder why everyone stopped caring about Azerite anything.

World of Warcraft needs to do a lot better than slap a band-aid on the leveling system by squishing it. It needs to examine useful and non-game breaking ways to give players choices and additional steps of character development in the mid- and late-game. Squishing is something little kids do to bugs, not what grown men and women should do to a premier MMORPG.

World of Warcraft, how could you get me back?

While I’ve stepped away from World of Warcraft, I don’t think I’m quite done with this MMO quite yet. I’ve learned that lesson that many of us have, that “never say never” when it comes to returning. And I’ll admit that some days, especially when I’m feeling a little listless and nostalgic, the WoW pull is strong. I miss the visuals, the tight combat, and the world. I envision working on a new character, a new project.

But then reality kicks in when I evaluate the current scene and I quickly find any enthusiasm dissipating like the morning mist. Battle for Azeroth still has those fatal flaws underpinning its entire structure, and I don’t think I could drag myself up to caring about azerite gear, warfronts, island expeditions, and the rest. At least right now.

One of the projects that I keep mulling over is returning to unlock three things: flying, Dark Iron Dwarves, and Kul Tiran humans. If and when I play again, even if it’s all the way to the next expansion, I’d like these accessible on my account.

I even went so far as to make a list of all of the requirements to get these, and just staring at that list hurt my soul. I’m looking at this and seeing it as Blizzard does, which is a forced grind to keep players chasing these goals as long as possible. And if it was, say, gear or high-end talents, I could see a reason for the barrier, but that’s not what these are. These are character creation options for alts and a re-access to an ability that we already had.

So I’ve been asking the question: What could World of Warcraft do to get me back? And as mind-breaking as it might be for Blizzard to consider, ditching these grinds and outright giving players who already purchased Battle for Azeroth with their money the allied races that this pack advertised would be a terrific start. What if tomorrow Blizzard just went, “You know what? Holding back a toy you already earned is silly, so here’s flying back for free. Enjoy!” It would generate so much goodwill.

What if Blizzard started giving fun stuff for us to do without making us jump through dull-as-heck hoops all the time? What if it repurposed old content and systems that we used to enjoy and that worked instead of making us feel as though we wasted years chasing stuff that wasn’t persistent in the end?

I don’t want to see Blizzard churn out more boring BFA story. I want the company to have a change of heart and attitude. Then, it might get me back.

Battle Bards Episode 135: Battle for Azeroth

It’s Battle Bards vs. Battle for Azeroth — and only one victor will come out of this alive! Actually, the podcast trio is delighted to have another World of Warcraft expansion to explore and investigate. Will it be destined to obscurity as this x-pack apparently will be, or does the score rise above and beyond Blizzard’s design flaws? Find out in today’s show!

Episode 135 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “The Grand Bazaar,” “Drustvar,” and “Freehold”)
  • “Pride of the Seas”
  • “Crimson Forest”
  • “Might of the Zandalar”
  • “Zuldazar Zandalari Lament”
  • “The Motherlode Dungeon”
  • “Time and Tide”
  • “Tiragarde Sound Tavern (Night)”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Pedro Macedo Camacho (Composer, Star Citizen), Katriana, and
    Jinxed Thoughts
  • Jukebox picks: “Pallet Town” from Pokémon Let’s Go, “Hunting Path” from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and “Another Voyage” from Chrono Cross
  • Outro (“Dive Bar C”)

World of Warcraft is hurting, and I’m feeling it

While I want to say that this came out of nowhere, the truth is that we really did see a big problem brewing dating back to BlizzCon last year. We were riding high off of one of World of Warcraft’s best expansion that featured tons of great content and loads to do, and there was a lot of hope about the next step for the game.

But then Battle for Azeroth was announced, and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get that enthused about it. It’s not our fault; it just was very underwhelming. The name, the concept of warfronts, the whatever-is-island-expeditions, the reheated leftovers of Legion’s content, the Horde vs. Alliance angle. Blizzard even seemed somewhat disinterested in it all, putting in a bare minimum to hype it.

Yet we told ourselves — at least, I told myself — it would be fine. Hopefully. Initially, there was a good rush of excitement around the BFA launch, and for a few weeks there, we sung the usual praises. Great zones (and they are). Good story (and it is). Wonderful music (indeed). But once you milk all that limited, one-shot content dry, you’re left with the rest… and the rest has really started to lose my interest.

Hey, you’re not a BFA boss, so why am I here?

This past week, I really felt my momentum start to slow down with this expansion. I think it happened once I got my gear around 340 and stepped back to take a look at what I had to do to “progress” going forward. Dungeons are too long and full of too much trash, so mythics are losing their appeal. I’m not going to raid. Warfronts are a joke, and I still don’t get island expeditions. This whole azerite armor fiasco has soured me on a gear system that I didn’t even care about after losing our artifact weapon a couple of months ago.

It gets worse. There’s a mountain of reputation to climb with various factions. Blizzard’s taken any of the joy out of world questing by axing that Legion addon. I can’t really make money that well any longer, thanks to a lackluster mission table and world quests that award diddly squat.

So why am I doing this? What’s the point? Patch 8.1 doesn’t really look like it has anything in store for my playstyle, and unless Blizzard comes out swinging hard at BlizzCon with amazing WoW news — and that is not looking likely — then I fear my flame of interest might be guttering out.

Perhaps it’s time, not to leave entirely, but to really scale back. I’ve been going strong on this game since the last few months of Draenor, and that’s a long run. I have some other MMOs that have captivated me lately, and Fallout 76 is on the way for next month. It’s not like WoW is my only hope of entertainment right now.

Blizzard had a good opportunity that it squandered with this expansion, and that leaves me feeling disappointed. BFA simply never wowed us with interesting new features or systems, and I worry that it won’t be able to limp on for the next year and a half to make it to the next expansion (and era) with a bulk of its playerbase intact.

WoW: Arathi Highlander

With all of the “new expansion smell” long since gone for Battle for Azeroth, the community has found itself in a strange place. Some, like me, are happily still questing and gearing and busying themselves with a hundred various activities at a casual pace. Others are highly frustrated with what they see as a recycled endgame and lackluster azerite armor. Then there are those who are waiting for Patch 8.1 to arrive and give meaning to their lives again.

I’d probably be a lot more frustrated if I had blown through all the content and was on my Nth alt, but truth be told, I still only have one level 120 and haven’t even finished all the zone questing yet on that single character. I’ve got plenty to go before I summit Mt. Warcraft again, so for now I’m mostly occupied with a mixture of questing, chasing world quests/emissaries for gear and rep, and very occasionally doing a heroic dungeon. Doing less of those lately because they do take too long and the chances of gear upgrades dropping are kind of rare.

These fungal guys are easily my most favorite foes of the expansion. Blizzard had way, way too much fun with these crazy mushroom dudes. My ghoul isn’t having any of it, however.

I am getting to a much better place, gear-wise. I have mostly blues and a few purples, and I think I’m sitting around 328 or so. The next step is to dip more into mythics and mythic+ dungeons, and there is a rumor that my guild might be setting up a regular night for that. I’d love that; I’m finding that these days, regularly scheduled guild events are the only way for me to get a social fix. I certainly don’t have time to trawl LFG or spam my need across channels.

I did get out to Arathi Highland for some rare questing the other day, and that was both fun and somewhat gear profitable. I was so excited to get a level 340 sword that I swapped it out, disenchanted my old mace, and then realized that it was a ONE-HANDED sword which meant I couldn’t use any of my abilities.

Cue running to the AH to get a 280-ish placeholder and then doing more Arathi until a two-hander dopped. Boy was my face… blue. I’m Draenei, that’s how it usually is, but more blue than usual because of embarrassment.

Nothing like bringing a giant spider train right into the home of an arachnaphobic NPC who is cowering in sheer terror from these beasts.

So I’d say that all in all, I’m in a good place for long-term survival. I do wish that there was more excitement and a personal drive to play, but when I do log in — which is at least for a half-hour every day — I have plenty to do and am enjoying the ride. Still ahead of me are allied races to unlock, other classes to level, and my Horde alt who has probably put my face on a milk carton by now because I’ve been missing so long.

How are you doing in BFA these days? Do you think that 8.1 is going to give the community what it wants and needs?

Not that impressed with World of Warcraft’s island expeditions

While the World of Warcraft community is all up in arms these days over azerite armor, my outrage is lagging behind and is still stuck at island expeditions. Remember these? Remember how Blizzard announced these last November at BlizzCon as one of the main features of Battle for Azeroth and the collective response was, “Huh. I hope they’re not as dull as they look.”?

If predictable disappointment could be summed up in an activity, it would be island expeditions. For over a week now, I’ve made it part of my routine when I logged in to queue up and run at least one of these, and I can now report with some degree of certainty that they’re just as blah as everyone knew they would be.

Island expeditions are pocket instances for three players of any random class/role mix to go through on a bloodthirsty hunt for AZERITE. I have to put AZERITE in all caps there, because this is another instance of nobody caring except for Blizzard, which has been trying to shove this down our throats for a year (and one gets the distinct impression that not even the developers care that much). So our main objective is getting power-ups for our gear that nobody really likes and everyone knows will be discarded in another year and a half. That’s not powerful motivation.

The main activity, as far as I can tell, is to blitz through an island and try to stay together as a group. There’s a lot of killing and a bit of mining azerite and… well, not much else, really. It’s not very interesting, not very deep, and not very satisfying. Add to that the stress of trying to beat the other side’s meter and it’s a “GO GO GO” experience without the excitement of anticipated rewards.

And there really aren’t any good rewards. Blizzard was crowing about how large the prize pool was for expeditions, with gear and mounts and pets and toys. But I’ve run about 10 of these things and received merely AZERITE each and every time. If the studio was smart, it would give players a guaranteed fun payout their first run to hook them, but nothing doing.

I’m of the mind to outright ditch this activity going forward. It all feels like such a waste of effort and resources to build a system that any focus group should have told Blizzard was not wanted. Can you imagine the excitement if Blizzard had announced, say, real housing instead of this? Island expeditions are the Secret World scenarios of World of Warcraft, and I shall file them away as such.

What will we get out of the World of Warcraft Classic demo at BlizzCon?

Blizzard raised some eyebrows — and perhaps excitement — by announcing that it would be allowing both attendees and virtual ticket holders at BlizzCon the opportunity to play a demo of World of Warcraft Classic. Now, it’s obvious why the studio didn’t save this for a big stage announcement; got to sell them $50 tix, after all! But I can’t fault the studio for shrewd marketing and selling a $50 demo from 2004 to fans.

We’re suckers for nostalgia.

It’s not a particularly big draw for me. I’ll still peek at the game when it goes live, but I don’t need a demo to remind me what vanilla WoW was like. I suspect that for many people, this will be a quick way to satisfy curiosity in a few departments:

  1. Is playing vanilla WoW actually fun today or is it something we merely remember as fun but the times have changed?
  2. Can Blizzard pull this off and bring back classic-era WoW the way it was?
  3. Are there things about WoW vanilla that we forget?
  4. How different will WoW Classic be to the live MMO?

People will have about six days to figure this out as they explore two beginner zones. I’m sure it’s going to be a huge event for streamers and YouTubers, and that’s another way to satisfy that curiosity.

But the more meta question that I’m pondering is this: What will we get out of this demo in the long run? I could see this demo dampening enthusiasm or driving hype for the actual product, depending on the temperment and reception of the players. Will this be the start of Blizzard talking more about this legacy server? Is it an indication that it’s nearer to reality than we thought, or are we still in for a few years of development yet? Will players be talking about WoW Classic in December or feeling as though they got their fill from that one week the month previous?

This is what I’ll be watching for next month. My only worry here is that Blizzard has already spilled the big announcements for WoW between this and Patch 8.1 and won’t have much to discuss about the MMO come BlizzCon. Might just not be WoW’s year, if all the Diablo talk is any indication.