Evaluating Battle for Azeroth – Could It End Life as a Good Expansion?

Something that occurred to me the other day is that I cannot evaluate Battle for Azeroth solely as BfA, the product – yet.

Because I realized that where I am today, right now, is actually pretty similar to where I was two years ago in Legion. 7.2 had burned me out, I was feeling like I didn’t want to play the game much, Stormblood had just come out for FFXIV and I was playing that all the time, and the flying grind wasn’t even disguised in 7.2 – do all 11 weeks worth of Broken Shore, although probably less content-intense then compared to now.

Broken Shore was a desolate fel green zone, everything I know I didn’t want out of Legion because Warlords of Draenor’s 6.2 fel green everything had bummed me out too. I only did Cathedral of Eternal Night once or twice, just to see the story and get the acheivements racked up in my score, and I was talking about finding a static in FFXIV and trying Savage raiding.

In the end, I didn’t do that, and I came back around pretty quickly once the initial flying grind was done. FFXIV faded from my gameplay, not because I was unhappy with it, but because it wasn’t my first (gaming) love – WoW was. Once I was over the hump of unlocking Pathfinder and had a few weeks to reflect, the process felt better, and I ended up coming around on it. Legion remained in high acclaim for me, and I began my grind to 36/36 Mage Tower appearances – not even conceiving of it as such at the time, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to build the skills with my underplayed alts, even though I ended up sticking the landing and getting all 36.

It raises an interesting question for me. Will Battle for Azeroth end up being perceived as a “good” expansion to those who currently dislike it?

No.

Okay, jokes and fake post cliffhangers aside, I do think the answer is no, but yet, I have a little bit of suspicion that Blizzard is going to try and pull it off.

Legion started off, for me at least, fairly strong. I was enjoying Demon Hunter gameplay, the artifacts were fun and empowering, I was logging in regularly to send Class Hall missions and keep Artifact Knowledge up to date, to the point that I installed the game on my old Macbook Air so that a business trip to a conference would not stop me from gaining AP, and was about to have to do the same for Blizzcon (fortunately, the Legion phone app added the ability to pick up and re-queue AK orders around that time).

7.0 turned into a bit of a grindy experience, and it wasn’t particularly alt friendly. My opinion on Legion was souring, rapidly. Then 7.1 launched, and there was a little bit of content worth doing, plus the Suramar Insurrection stuff, which I enjoyed. Some alt-friendliness measures began to make their way into the game – mostly, the ability to catch-up on Artifact Knowledge on alts through rapid purchases, rather than needing alts to go through the 4 day waiting period on each new rank, at least until they were 5 levels below the highest AK on your account. This made playing an alt feel better, but not as good as I would have liked.

7.2 had some alt friendly additions, but largely was focused on Pathfinder, and then the Tomb of Sargeras raid, unlocked in 7.2.5. I think this was something of a breaking point for me, as Tomb of Sargeras was incredibly dull in raid design – some fights were fun, but far too many had soaking damage mechanics and the end result was that the whole thing felt a bit repetitive. Coupled with the Stormblood release on the same day, and well, my attention was stretched.

7.3, coupled with returning to writing here, started to refocus me on WoW. 7.3 became far more alt friendly, with automatic, global AK, new gear tokens for 880 base gear or 910 raid-quality items, and the power enhancements of the Netherlight Crucible, as frustrating as those could be, also offered an improved feeling of power, especially on alts. 7.3.2 brought Antorus, which I liked a fair amount, and then 7.3.5 came with the leveling changes and pre-order Allied Races, and we were set for the rest of Legion.

That recap, besides allowing me to showcase how much dumb trivia about WoW I remember, also serves as a bit of a reminder to me about the cycle of WoW content. Due to the nature of Blizzard’s own release schedules, the last patch of an expansion is nearly always the longest lived, and so when any of us look back on an expansion as a whole product, we tend to think heavily of the play time in that last patch. In Legion, it was great – I maxed out all my alts, I got my 36 Mage Towers completed, I unlocked and leveled both Alliance Allied Races from the preorder bonus to 110 and got Heritage Armor, we ground our way through Antorus until we got our Ahead of the Curve, and in the end it felt pretty freaking great.

Part of me believes that with as rocky of a start and mixed of a middle BfA has had, that is proof-positive that they could stick the landing in 8.3 if it delivers good enough content. I mean, Legion’s 7.3 also had the flying restriction on Argus, pulling us right back to the ground after unlocking it, which was not popular, and yet there wasn’t much of a backlash against the game as a whole due to that – the content on offer was well-received enough to mitigate those effects.

However, Legion appealed more to the core audience at the beginning, and I think that kept people engaged longer than they have been in BfA. Legion’s main issues at launch were generally alt-related (AK sucked for alts, off-spec artifact grinding was bad) or grind related (player choice largely, but the incessant grinding of Maw of Souls keystones for AP, which forced Blizzard to equalize rewards based on dungeon length to avoid people running literally hundreds of MOS runs a week, the Artifact system in general, Legendaries as a system until the vendor).

BfA’s core problems have had deeper impacts – dungeon layouts and increased trash have impact down to the most casual players, world mobs scaling to item level makes raiders less likely to engage in open-world gameplay until they’re over the hump while pushing out more casual players altogether, the Azerite system still encourages some grinding but the new Knowledge system means that hardcore players hit a point of minimal return faster, Islands largely offering little new gameplay and no real predictable rewards outside of Azerite until 8.1, Warfronts being overly simple and un-loseable (unless you do Heroic), raid design being a little worse off, and the general structure of systems like the early War Campaign, Allied Race unlocks, and the absolute awful state of professions. Where in Legion, I saw mostly casual players burn out early in the expansion, BfA has seen more of a mix, at least from my perspective. My most hardcore raider friend dropped out of Mythic, joined my guild, and then hasn’t raided since Eternal Palace came out – he’s been playing FFXIV mostly. A more casual friend of mine dropped out of raiding during Dazar’Alor and is just now starting to come back to raid. Our guild started the expansion at around 16 raiders, and by Dazar’Alor we were down to 13, of which, around 12 show up regularly for Eternal Palace.

These metrics do point to a difficulty in retaining a player base that will negatively impact any such miraculous recovery in 8.3. Legion managed to stick the landing because people stuck with it through the rough patches near the beginning and middle. BfA has not had the same degree of retention.

My personal take is that I don’t think it will stick the landing, as it stands. The delayed patch schedule of BfA compared to the tight 11 week turnaround for everything up to 7.3 in Legion means that we’re likely to spend less time in 8.3 content than we did in 7.3 – probably a lot less. 7.3 was out in the end of August 2017, and was the active content we played for around 11 months. My expectation is that we’ll get 8.2.5 in September or October, already nudging us nearly 3 months behind Legion’s schedule, and I suspect 8.3 won’t be out until January 2020 at the earliest. If we assume that August 2020 is Blizzard’s target for a 9.0 release, that means 8.3 is only going to have 8 months, give or take, to make a lasting impression. Even if it ends up being the best content the game has ever seen (and I’m open to insane optimism!), it’s not going to have long to really stick out in our minds and erase what came before. What worked in Legion’s favor is that the awful stuff in the early parts of the expansion were quickly swept over, and within a year of release, we had 5 patches, each with enough content to keep us engaged, but most importantly, with the changes coming fast enough to erase the negative perception of some systems in the launch state of Legion.

Recounting the early state of the game, I only remember aspects of it because of how annoying it was to me individually. Artifact Knowledge in the 7.0-7.2.5 state sucked, especially once I had alts at 110, and especially because my job at the time had me traveling a fair amount and having to figure out ways to claim it. Alt management in general stands out because for a brief time in 7.0, I had my monk and priest geared and maintained to a reasonably high level and was trying to keep them semi-current in case I didn’t like the way Demon Hunter played in raids. The majority of the expansion was spent under the much better 7.3 systems – Artifact Knowledge being a freely given treat, alts being far easier to gear and maintain, and the amount of content available being much larger and more fulfilling with a variety of activities across world content, instanced solo challenges, strong dungeons, and mostly good raids. I spent the last year doing Antorus, a far better raid than Tomb of Sargeras, which was 22 weeks of agony, and followed the excellent launch and 7.1 raid trio of Emerald Nightmare, Trial of Valor, and Nighthold. Frustration over the launch artifact experience and the Paragon trait was gone by 7.2, when the trait was essentially scrapped and replaced with the 4th points for launch traits and Concordance of the Legionfall.

BfA’s biggest problem in this way is that the systems that caused the most player anguish were made to be expanded within the base design – even though the Azerite traits of launch are largely secondary to the much better Essence systems, you still have to play with both and be reminded of the launch state. Further, this expandability plays against it – the Artifact expansion worked because it was constrained to a single UI panel, and the Netherlight Crucible, while adding another panel, was a low-interaction option that you set and left alone until you acquired a new relic. If you min-maxed, you probably messed with it a fair bit more than most, but for many players, you’d reach your best relics, set your traits, and be done. Essences have a more hands-on management, which is fine, but the whole system feels held together by tape – the necklace level feeding 3 unrelated slots, and then the necklace becoming important again through the essences and the leveling game it introduces.

I don’t doubt that Blizzard is going to make a strong effort for 8.3, and it seems like they are pushing to bring big plot elements in. Wrathion, N’Zoth, Calia Menethil, the return of Thrall, and all of these things are converging on what will be an epic patch. However, there just won’t be much time out of the total of the expansion, a large number of players have already left, and the end result of all of that is going to be that players will have mostly the same opinion of it they already had when they left. Blizzard’s model is both fundamentally unafraid on making bigger system shifts through addition as an expansion goes on, while also unwilling to divorce systems from the core of an expansion once they’ve already become the albatross around the game’s neck(lace).

BfA is going to be the disjointed Azerite expansion, and the best Blizzard can hope to accomplish going into 8.3 is to make the system a more baseline, nearly invisible part of the content. I imagine they won’t do this, but if they could – 8.3 could be special to many more players than it is likely to reach.

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