What Makes a Reward? An Analysis of Classic Reward Structure and Where It Changed

The discussion posts I’ve written about World of Warcraft Classic have attempted to communicate something delicately – I’m not interested in playing WoW Classic as anything than an ultra-casual exploration of the old game. I certainly haven’t logged in daily, or spent long periods of time playing, and my interest in it is as something of a curiosity.

Earlier this week, I read a bevy of other writer’s posts about Classic and the comments on one from Shintar in particular got the wheels turning.

One of the things I’ve felt in retrospect about vanilla that was somewhat unsatisfying is loot. Now, for many people, this might not feel like an issue – it is certainly one of the things that people claim to like. The change in focus is an interesting one and it definitely marks a shift in model for WoW when it moved from the slow drip loot systems on to more generous ones.

My take on my time in vanilla, looking back, is that I geared up well, but it always felt slow and sort of tedious. My next step in this analysis was to extrapolate that as a whole to the reward cycle of vanilla. Loot in vanilla is slow, and therefore, rewards are slow, and while that can make it feel more “meaningful” it also feels kind of bad to complete a raid with no real rewards.

However, a comment string from Grimmtooth on that aforementioned post speaks to something I hadn’t really considered and find very fascinating – WoW vanilla has a slow loot loop, but uses other means of “reward” to compensate players for time and these systems are longer-term and more present throughout the game.

What do I mean? Well, think about talents. Every level from 10 on gives a reward – a talent point. They also give stats which are called out clearly in the chatbox. In the modern game, we don’t see the stats we gain in the same way, and we don’t gain talents on anywhere near the same pacing.

The same applies to other systems. You get a new spell or spell rank every 2 levels. Weapon skills and defense skill all progress at a decaying pace as you level, but pad out the early levels and begin to taper first at 50 points, the equivalent of level 10, where you have other elements to fill the progression and reward void left behind as skill points start to become harder to earn.

Together, these systems make an interesting argument – the game does give you a lot of things at a fairly fast pace, and is built in a sort of intelligent way to keep the pacing of rewards feeling valuable throughout. When they taper at level 60, especially as you have your hours put in at endgame, the loot fills the void – mostly. The game was built in such a way that new content, higher level loot, and the slow pacing of that grind are built to compliment the absence of skill points, talent points, and the like.

It is an interesting perspective because I think it actually serves to explain a lot of the difference of opinions on Classic vs. Retail that people discuss. Classic was built on the foundation of these systems interlocking in gameplay to serve up constant rewards, and paced in such a way that you constantly feel the rewards and are conditioned to see them, acknowledge them, and feel however they make you feel – usually like something positive has happened.

The funny thing is that at the time, the removal or streamlining of these systems was applauded as they were slowly stripped out as quality of life changes. Talents stayed in the form they were introduced in until Cataclysm, where the pacing was slowed before Mists of Pandaria introduced the 15-level tiers we’ve had ever since (we’ll not talk about the oddball 100 tier for WoD and the complete lack of anything past that). Removing spell ranks was intended to design fights with a steadier set of expectations for the potency of spells and abilities. The redesign of ability levels and changed pacing between classes and specs was designed to make all of a classes’ specs have a viable leveling path with signature abilities available sooner. The removal of skill points was to limit the frustration for weapon-bound classes so players could more rapidly equip weapon upgrades.

What is so interesting to me is that all of these changes were largely received as positive, and because they came at points where it made logical sense, it didn’t feel bad. Talent points were getting unwieldy, and a 5 point gain in Cataclysm would have made the system as originally designed feel very strange. Spell ranks were cool and I liked the strategy they offered, but it was also kind of a weird feeling to not use full power abilities and it made balancing fairly challenging – as balancing became more important to the game, it was a good thing to think over, even if Blizzard hasn’t always (or ever, really) hit an ideal balance even post-spell rank removal.

As these reward mechanisms were chased out of the game, it leaned on the only thing that remained – loot. It’s easy (and tempting) to think that Blizzard gave in to some imaginary cabal of casual players that wanted gameplay focus when they started throwing epics at everything, but in reality, it was the best available option for the removal of skill points and talents. These systems offered player progression – skill points in a weapon was a direct damage increase, and talents were often doubly-so. It is no coincidence that by the time MoP was around, epic armor was far more available through the constant availability of Valor Points – because you had spells every 2-5 levels, talents every 15, and no other means of player power progression.

The modern approach feels different because seasons and world quests ensure that loot is constantly available, but to be frank, these systems just make the amount of loot you receive more visible. In the old systems, loot was obfuscated, but now, short of raids, you know you’re going to get loot, and often can farm a specific piece with a greater degree of precision. Blizzard backed themselves into a corner, where the only way they gave themselves out was to push loot out of every orifice with similar minor-percentage point boosts to throughput.

I don’t have a great amount of nostalgia for the removed skill points system either – but it was absolutely a way to reinforce a perception of progression for players. Talents, I liked more, and I feel like all of the alternate progression mechanics Blizzard has been using lately are attempts to get closer to talents without just admitting talents were better in the past and throwing them back in.

It goes a long way to explain why the current game is the way it is, though! Leveling isn’t rewarding, why? Well, you gain fewer spells and abilities, fewer talents, have no skill points at all, and the best way Blizzard has to “fix” that for non-level capped players is to give quest rewards a random chance to upgrade quality to improve player power randomly. Why aren’t dungeons as rewarding and vital to gameplay? You no longer need the loot from them, short of maybe a small window upon hitting the level cap, because every other activity in the game gives you equivalent or better loot, once you’ve geared to a certain point. Why does raiding feel less rewarding? Now, I get a piece of loot at minimum every week for showing up and killing a few bosses – and that isn’t bad! – but it also makes every loot event less exciting, unless it upgrades to a certain point.

So it raises a question in my mind. I’ve been largely dismissive of the idea that retail would take anything from Classic, because the two are different models, but in many ways, they share more DNA than a tribalist player of either would admit. The core reward mechanism, through this light, could actually take something back from Classic – a leveling redesign done properly could really offer more to players through the process, and the means of player progression at endgame don’t have to be overly complicated leveling systems with alternate currency and bars and heavily-pruned mini-talent trees (talent shrubs?). You could just offer a means to skill up – hell, the “make a weapon” idea that people like Taliesin and Evitel floated before BfA was announced could be a great way to do that. Imagine sharpening your skill with a weapon by using it, which could be an experience bar or even a simplified version of the skill points of the early game, and each rank offers increased power in some way.

But one thing is clearer to me, at least – there is certainly an interesting amount of reward happening in Classic, in a way that many of us asked to get rid of, and yet that may also have led the game down a very different path.




2 thoughts on “What Makes a Reward? An Analysis of Classic Reward Structure and Where It Changed

  1. Going to bounce off this for (hopefully) short post this morning, before I get back to playing Clasic! TLDR version is that we used to talk a lot about Skinner Boxes to the point that we pretty much made ourselves paranoid about them but those were the levers that the games pulled to make playing feel rewarding. Kind of a necessary evil if you actually want players who don’t wander off to other games, lookiing for their dopamine hits over the fence.

    Liked by 2 people

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