Black, White, and the Space In-Between – Judging Quality

(Behind the scenes note: I thought this would be up way sooner, like Tuesday, and would be faster and shorter, but it turned into a sprawling thing because the topic fascinates me. So when I say “read today” – I mean Tuesday :))

Something I think about quite often, more so now that I am playing WoW more again, is this:

“Is modern WoW a good game?”

This is a hell of an interesting question to me, because I think much of the stink around Battle for Azeroth has centered on various elements of the game, and there is only a single link between them I can really call to, which I will explain here.

I think we can all agree that WoW has had good expansions and bad expansions – Cataclysm and WoD the notorious “bad” expansions primarily because of a lack of content, with many good expansions being the opposite. The problem with this, besides my intense distaste for the idea of a singular qualifier for the game’s relative level of enjoyability, is the fact that such a system is very black and white. If an expansion can only be good or bad, it means we are willing to shuffle a lot of positives or negatives off the table in order to define the expansion around the community narrative.

Mists of Pandaria was good – but it also required large shifts in gear, gems, and enchants late in play, had a last raid tier that went on far too long, was the first expansion in which Blizzard did not add a single 5-player dungeon, had iffy tank balance, and pruned the talent system to the tiered one we still have today. Warlords of Draenor was bad – but it had some of the best raid content in the game, a better implementation of the treasures/vignettes system that started in MoP, a strong level-up experience, a good middle-ground between pruning and ability additions through a new talent tier and the use of the leveling perks system, and time-respecting endgame content via the single daily table in the Garrison and later, the streamlined daily systems in Tanaan Jungle.

The thing with this scale, though, is that it has worked, more or less, for WoW’s content to this point. Sure, MoP had some sore spots, but it was a good expansion and people pine for it today. Sure, WoD had some highpoints, but it was overall a terrible expansion that didn’t offer enough to do.

My argument today is that even if you believe that a black or white, good/bad scale broadly applies to WoW’s prior expansions, it kind of doesn’t fit with BfA.

One sentiment I read today that kicked this thought into overdrive is a simple question – “why am I still playing?” It’s a layered and difficult question for many of us to answer – but I think the thing I arrive at is this: Battle for Azeroth is an okay expansion. WoW has had a lot of 9/10 solid efforts and a couple of 3/10 bombs, but I would say BfA is a 6/10. The problem I think many of us have when judging the quality of the expansion is this: so many elements of the game are still good or even great – the raid content is fairly well designed (outside of a few choice Uldir encounters), the world quest system remains versatile and allows replay of a lot of the more fun and engaging level-up quests, dungeons are still pretty alright albeit with bad trash design, the world itself is beautiful if somewhat frustrating to navigate from the ground, the music is excellent (even if there is a Brower-sized gap in the soundtrack), and some specs have standout designs, even as others have been pruned to oblivion.

The problem with that paragraph is the duality of it – many elements of the game are great, but then there is an undercurrent of bad or awful to them. Warfronts can be fun, but they’re designed to be so simple and straightforward that you can’t really squeeze much enjoyment out of them. Island Expeditions can be fun – but the system around it was poorly designed at launch. Level and power scaling are great systems overall – but the hump at the start of 120 is too harsh, too long, and chased too many players away, and gearing is an awful experience overall. Azerite powers are interesting – but they don’t make up for the things we lost between ability pruning and the artifact, without even touching on the method of progression and the slow pace of this development.

I think with this newfound perspective, I can actually see what it is about the game that is acting so repellent to many players. We are used to a WoW that is either a shining exemplar of what an MMO can be, or one that offers us tiny morsels of great content paced so far apart we nearly wilt to death from content malnourishment. BfA has decent enough gameplay, with a few buts, interesting systems, with more buts, and is artistically sound. It releases content fairly regularly – not as much so as Legion, but enough to whet your appetite for WoW. The problem is that WoW has always been a wagyu beef at a classy steakhouse – it was so good that you’d pay the price asked for the morsels it offered, and sometimes, times were good and you could get a lot and it was so satisfying to chew through, while other times, you could only order a couple of ounces, and they came out with large gaps between, but they still tasted great when they showed up and you could devour them when they finally presented.

BfA is like getting a steak at a mid-market chain restaurant – American readers will know Applebee’s and immediately see where I am going. The main attraction of the entree is okay – it’s been cooked by a competent but unimpressive chef, who at least managed to cook it to the temperature you asked for properly…mostly. The sides are a mix – a couple of bland ones, but one really stand-out item alongside. You got 3 ounces less steak than you paid for, and when they bring you a portion to make up for it, it is a little overdone and tough, but at least they’re trying. There’s a table nearby with a loud baby and you can’t really fully get into the experience, but at the same time, this isn’t a place you go for experience.

That is BfA. It’s eating a steak dinner at Applebee’s. Few people really look forward to it, it might surprise you pleasantly, but it is unremarkable and you’ll probably forget the meal by the next time you go out to the nice restaurant.

To my eyes, the problem I have with my Battle for Azeroth experience is that nothing grabs me enough to keep me in the game longer than 2 hours and 30 minutes at a time. I can have a pretty good time in that 2.5 hours, but it never is enough for me to extend my logged-in time much past that. This speaks to me about the quality argument – during Legion, I played almost exclusively WoW, for upwards of 4 hours per day, and enjoyed enough of that time overall that it was valuable to me. Warlords of Draenor, I logged in more to level alts and play through that content than I do currently, because the content that was there was pretty good, overall.

The problem with BfA is in that loss of a “hook” so to speak. Nothing about the current game really grabs you and glues you to your chair in a fun way. Some systems want you to play through them for hours at a time or in a marathon, but the value you get out of that exchange of time just doesn’t seem to be there. The thing about this design is that it works for some people – there are a fair number of folks who still play regularly and enjoy their time.

That is the thing about the analysis of this expansion that is frustrating at times to me. I am not quite happy with the game, not wanting to engage with it for the amounts of time I was once all too happy to put in, but yet the underlying assumption of this meaning the game is “bad” is faulty, too. The thing that I think has to be said, and it’s such a huge point it’s about to get a line all to itself, is this:

WoW has always had some fundamentally awful gameplay mechanics and systems, propped up by the excellence of the other content around them.

Why do I say this? Well, let’s take a look at the big one – loot. Loot has, traditionally, nearly always been a mess of patchwork systems and incentives for varying pieces of content. PvP needs gear to itself, it was determined, so a PvP reward system was tacked onto the game. PvE loot was simple and constrained by the incredibly low drop rates in Vanilla, and the whole history since then has been Blizzard turning a drop rate dial up and down wildly and looking at us for approval. Why did PvP need separate gear in Vanilla? Well, it didn’t. But the perception was that players wanted to feel like they earned something special, so they added PvP gear alongside the honor system in patch 1.5. Has it maintained that value? Well, no. Molten Core gear still requires farming and luck, while PvP gear can simply be purchased, and relatively easily at that. Blizzard has basically been trying to make PvP rewarding ever since, first with special tiers of armor for top ranking players, then with special transmog enchants and other various goodies, to whatever you can even call the current system of paced rewards.

PvE content design has had a similar, but different upheaval. Raiding was fun, but the raid size debate was such a mess early on and discussions regarding it were among the most unpleasant interactions you could have with a WoW community in their heyday. 10 was for “casual scrubs,” 25 was for “no-lifers,” but this heavy conflict led to concessions being made in various directions. When 10/25 modes were the norm for all content in Wrath of the Lich King, the concession was that 10 player gear was less powerful, itemized a full tier below that of the 25 player mode. In Cataclysm, the gear was equalized, with the concession that 10 player raids got much less of it, which was evened up to proportional droprates in Mists of Pandaria. Then Thunderforging was added in Throne of Thunder with a higher chance to occur on 25 player, meaning that the larger raid size would gain power faster, which eventually gave way to Warforging in Siege of Orgrimmar, at which point, the game gave way to flex raids (makes it easy to quell online arguments since you can’t really debate the merits of a 14 player raid vs. a 22 player raid as easily) and the “prestige” raid difficulty being made a fixed 20 player size, with tiers of loot changed in accordance.

Since then, Blizzard has largely stuck to this formula, although they’ve also made efforts to curtail loot discussion altogether, first by introducing personal loot, then by tweaking its droprates, before finally making it the only mode of looting in the game. Each of these moves has been met with some approval and some disapproval – and Blizzard will likely, if I had to guess, do something similar in 9.0.

Look also at loot rarity – Epics used to be hard to come by and when you saw someone wearing a full set of epics, it was awe-inspiring. They sought to make epics more available to players, first with the badge system in TBC, which was still somewhat protective of the rarity of epics in the open world, before the Emblem system changes in Wrath, coupled with expanding the activities that could drop epics, exploded the availability of such gear. Look at what happened after that – Cataclysm limited epics again at launch by removing the end-boss epic that was the trend in launch Wrath heroics, but then slowly opened them up through Valor points and eventually as dungeon drops again through the patch-addition dungeons – a model which has remained ever since. Yet, with other systems added alongside these old systems, or replacing them – Emblems and points-currency being phased out first for Apexis Crystals, and later for nothing, but with World Quests added and capable of rewarding epics alone – epics have become far more common, such that the default level of gearing for most reasonably-played end-game characters is a full set of epics – which still meets with criticism from some players. You can even see this still being changed now – while Season 2 of Legion forward made everything over the original item level for Epic designation Epic quality, now, Normal and Heroic dungeons still drop blue-quality items, and world quest rewards follow a similar pattern.

For another example, look at dungeon difficulties. If you look over the history of the game, Vanilla only had the one difficulty, and few dungeons that could be played at endgame. Those varied in difficulty slightly, but all were arguably at least somewhat challenging. TBC made a concession that Normal dungeons could be a bit easier, introducing Heroic as a much harder difficulty to aspire to, and it was challenging. Wrath eased the challenge, making Heroics a lot more friendly, and responded to backlash to that in Cataclysm by making the launch Heroics much more challenging, which led to a pendulum of difficulty swinging back the other way yet again, with Mists having easy Heroic modes and adding dungeon challenge through the Challenge modes, which were far more challenging and also used item level caps to prevent out-gearing the dungeon. This was continued into Warlords of Draenor, with the mid-expansion addition of Mythic difficulty, which was made baseline in Legion and expanded with Mythic Plus. Blizzard has, for all of this history, never really gotten dungeon difficulty to a point where everyone is happy. Challenge modes are hard, which is good, but the rewards being cosmetic sucks – so you get Mythic Plus, which rewards gear and scales up rather than remaining fixed and scaling you down. Mythic Plus was cool in Legion, but the order of affixes scales the difficulty up too high at the tail end of progressing a key, so let’s move those affixes down to the first slot and add seasonal affixes that offer new challenges. Hey, these are cool, sort of, but the design of the seasonal affix currently dictates much of the metagame for the mode through the season, with the Season 1 affix valuing a mix of single target and AoE, the Season 2 affix valuing AoE damage, and the rumor being the Season 3 affix will move to a single-target emphasis. This design has been met with mixed reception, and so you can bet that 9.0 will bring additional changes. This is without even touching on trash design philosophy (Legion had trash that could largely be rounded up and AoE’d, making trash difficulty increases through affixes manageable, where BfA dungeons have crazy trash with abilities and kill priorities that skew trash-buff weeks much worse). That also even ignores the design elements that attempt to add flavor and skew balance hard (the Mythic Dungeon Invitational cannot even use Siege of Boralus, because the Horde version is so much easier that it would skew the timing for Horde teams, if there even are any, in a major way).

Professions are yet another example, since they were originally tied to the old skills systems used for everything in the game, and then maintained a similar structure after that system was removed until BfA, where it now has this new skills by expansion system, where it is possible to just learn the base skill and BfA (profession name here) and go out and level just the BfA version. On the topic of professions, one could point out how fundamentally broken they have been through much of the game’s history, with it taking profession perks to add some semblance of greater value to many crafting professions past Vanilla, only to later remove that and with it, much of the desire to really maintain anything for playing markets except Enchanting, Alchemy, and Jewelcrafting (which cratered pretty hard in its own right in Warlords with the changes to sockets). Oh, Cooking can be good too – gotta get those feasts! – but everyone can have it, so the value is diminished.

This is, I think, something that I have noticed over a decade and a half playing WoW – these examples are just the easiest to serve up quickly, but many aspects of WoW are fundamentally broken or poorly designed. In the past, the great things pulled your attention away from this – professions weren’t always great, but if I level Blacksmithing high enough, I can add a gem socket, so I’ll keep filling this bar. Loot rewards are structured around random chance, but I like the armor look and the content I have to do to have a chance to earn it is fun enough that it is worth doing, so I will keep going. PvP is a confusing mess of rewards, but I enjoy the quick-paced strategic gameplay, so I’ll keep hitting the battlegrounds.

All of us have various, myriad reasons for playing, and most people I know play WoW for a small bundle of reasons, which helps to offset the less-great things. I, for example, enjoy PvE gameplay, particularly those middle-difficulty raids, I enjoy dungeons for a while, I enjoy exploring the world, I like feeling powerful and being able to mow down world quest targets, I can find myself soothed by the painterly artwork of the game, and it gives me means to maintain friendships that might otherwise have faded. You probably have your own reasons, a list of things that WoW offers you. The thing I think is most disappointing about this expansion, and the reason discussing it is so difficult, is that many of the things that were once the best just aren’t anymore.

Do I think there is some business angle – the metric of Monthly Active Users or some other measure of success? I mean, while the allure of such a neat bow to package this up under is appealing, I have to say no – at least not directly. I don’t think Blizzard is actively making the game suck to appeal to Activision executives who want us playing for more time. The most recent financials reveal that Blizzard (as an entity, across all franchises) has lost 8.5% of their monthly active users. Are mechanisms like Islands, Warfronts, world quests, and the like all used to sucker us into playing more (and failing), or are they genuine efforts to appeal to us as fun gameplay mechanisms?

I think, as much as we often refuse to believe it, that these are the things that Blizzard thought would be fun. The team at Blizzard found the morsels of fun they could in these systems and tried to build them out. To be fair, they have failed in many of the newest cases, but they aren’t completely bereft of fun. I can see the idea and I could find the fun – it’s just not there in the current iterations.

The desire to turn towards conspiracy is understandable – how could a game that used to be so great be not so great? Yet, I sincerely believe that the team tried to act on feedback made in years past, and this led to changes we saw (It is obvious that they missed the boat on feedback provided during the alpha/beta phase of BfA, and I absolutely believe that should be held against them). Every creative professional has a bad product to their name – and I think in context, a long string of mostly-great expansion releases with a couple that were bad primarily because of missing content and large gaps makes it understandable that the team was due for a stinker eventually.

That is the lens through which I view BfA. I think that the developers sincerely wanted to make a better product – and I think they did try out of a genuine interest in creating a great game, rather than any business metrics – save perhaps for the number of continually time-gated mechanics, which is a discussion for another time. I think they failed in many regards, and some of the things we see in 8.2 are showing a change in direction to pivot away from some of the problems.  Just in this patch alone you get:

-A unifying story element that brings together some of the Horde and the Alliance to challenge the larger existential threats
-Changes in Azerite systems to smooth progression and improve gameplay through the addition of new active mechanics
-Targetable gear upgrades that offer improvements to players at all levels
-Multiple new zones with separate progression systems, questlines, and exploration elements to add lots of repeatable content
-Flying in the open world, including in the new zones, thankfully

All of these are changes that directly oppose the launch state of BfA. The problem for many is that this expansion (and for some, WoW as a whole) are written off as a loss, and many of these players aren’t going to return for this expansion, if ever. Even as the game works towards fixing the worst offenses of Battle for Azeroth, the audience that remains was likely to stay anyways. Within community discussion, that early impression is going to linger until 9.0 – BfA will, for some, always be a “failed expansion,” the “point where I quit WoW,” or “the worst WoW expansion ever.”

To circle back to my theory here, let’s close with this – earlier, I discussed how I would rate BfA a 6/10 right now. To be fair to Blizzard, this is a new kind of failure for them. Where I think Cataclysm and Warlords failed is that they didn’t offer enough content. What was present in these two expansions was largely good to great. I liked a lot of the gameplay that was in Warlords, the problem was that there just wasn’t enough of it to go around. I really enjoyed Cataclysm, but for your average player who is chasing the endgame (which is really what the game is designed for anyways), Cataclysm just didn’t offer enough to those players and while patch content tried to close the gap, it just wasn’t enough.

The failing of BfA is that there is so much I can do but few things I really want to do. Warfronts could be great, but they just aren’t where I want them to be in terms of engaging gameplay (holding out hope for the Heroic mode, however). Islands feel like they got the trash mobs that dungeons should have, while dungeons feel like punishingly tedious slogs through difficult trash to get to the bosses for your prizes. I enjoy World Quests, but the early scaling was a hard hump to get over and the scaling break-even point was set far too high, in my opinion. Cataclysm and Warlords are “failures” in that they gave you excellent bits of content, by and large, but just didn’t give you a big enough serving of it. BfA is a “failure” because it is offering you a ton of middling content.

Would I say BfA is bad? No – I think there is still a decent game there.

You just have to overcome a lot of mediocrity to get to it.

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2 thoughts on “Black, White, and the Space In-Between – Judging Quality

  1. I think that you have pretty much hit the nail on the head – right on target. There are many ups and downs in the gaming industry and many variables. I think that Blizzard is one of those companies that wants desperately to find a “winning” formula for themselves, however, they have forgotten the formula that included the consumers that play the game – targeting only what makes them look good to their limited audience in the Board Room. So sad, wish they would learn how to put “fun” back in the game.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Nice piece. I sort of look at an expansion with a time element. Much like a play or musical. The Music Man has some darned boring dreary scenes but ends with a darned marching band going down the aisles with 76 Trombones, a real crowd pleaser. Wicked can be completely confusing but with a bring-down-the-house song like Defyin’ Gravity — well, the audience loves the show. The pacing of an expansion must be the same as designing a show; the trick is not to have them leave at intermission.

    Liked by 1 person

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