Ephemeral Grinds and The Current Nature of World of Warcraft

Something clicked for me fairly recently when considering the concept of grinding in MMOs.

Tale as old as time – there are fiercely entrenched camps of opinion as it concerns the concept of grinding in MMOs. A genre convention, the enemy of new player acquisition, fun passive time waste, soul-crushing active time waste – whatever your opinion, you can find a reflection of it somewhere in the MMOsphere.

WoW will be a particular focus in this post, because the nature of its newer systems dictate a new response and a term I’ll coin – ephemeral grinding.

WoW’s response to natural cycles of player engagement and disengagement is to introduce ephemeral grinds – something that is a high priority in the current state of the game, but isn’t intended to exist over the long-term. Spend two years playing an expansion, grind one or more systems unique to that expansion, watch it depreciate in value nearly immediately when the next expansion’s retail box touches shelves.

A series of excellent comments from Grimmtooth yesterday on my post discussing the current state of gear mechanics in Battle for Azeroth brought this to light. I think something that is currently fatiguing the playerbase is knowing that the grind in the game for Azerite is made to be functionally endless, although the point at which it maintains value to grind is earlier in the process than one could theoretically go. The legendary cape in 8.3 is another grind to upgrade, and with the newly-implemented weekly progress cap on top of the limits of entrance currency acquisition for the Horrific Visions, yet another grind that will carry on to a point likely past the launch of Shadowlands, at which point the increased Corruption Resistance is ultimately useless anyways.

Legion had the Artifact weapons, which benefited in a major way from a stronger system. Yes, the values of AP needed for a single point deep in the Artifact system were silly and massive, but at the same time, it behaved in a very predictable fashion. You needed x thousand/million/billion/trillion AP for a point, and when a new rank of Artifact Knowledge kicked in, each item earned and used thereafter was worth exponentially more AP. It was a simple system that scaled fairly and ensured the value of grinding that next level prior to a new AK rank wasn’t wasted. The Heart of Azeroth aimed to simplify AP by using the AK system to scale down the cost requirement of the higher ranks instead, but messed up in a few key ways:

-There is an AP floor of 1,000 per level, meaning that catching up still requires a concerted effort of play
-When scaling applies, it takes your current percentage value into the level (not raw points) and scales to the new percentage

Why are these bad things? Well, the first point is simple – playing an alt or switching raid mains is needlessly complicated and delayed. In Legion, when 7.3 hit, a fresh 110 alt could do a couple of AP-granting world quests and finish most of the 7.0 version of the artifact tree – immediately. In BfA, you still gain Azerite at an anemic pace – random dungeons give under 200(!) and so even the early levels past 35 remain a slog – a faster slog, one that completing emissary quests will whittle away at, but a slog all the same.

The second point creates a crucial distinction point that is even worse, in my opinion. In the Artifact system of Legion, no point of AP was ever wasted. If I completed a bunch of AP-granting activities 4 hours before my next rank of AK, or the day before weekly reset, and earned 12 billion AP, I gained the benefit of 12 billion AP. When AK kicked it, it would mean that my 12 billion AP could have been 96 billion, but I still had that 12 billion and it progressed my current level the same amount. In the HoA version of the system, if I did an emissary for the Champions of Azeroth last night and earned the 3,000 Azerite reward, but didn’t finish a level, it’s worth approximately 2,400 today. Sure, yes, the percentage into the next level is the same – but crucially, this means that my incentive in gameplay for Azerite is to stockpile and wait for AK, rather than play today. If I put my tinfoil hat on, it is little wonder why the AK system in BfA seems non-existent, scarcely mentioned in game – if I could see an indicator that my Azerite value earned today would decrease the next day, the only rational choice to pursue the reward is to not play today, or to hold off on quest turn-ins until that AK hits.

This is my real beef with Azerite – the system devalues your work through a constant deflationary spiral, where the value of AP in your current level decreases week over week, in a way that the game doesn’t even tell you, and Blizzard’s hope is that such a system is engaging and would keep me engaged, when the truth is rather the opposite. In Legion, I felt compelled to farm AP and the catchup mechanisms felt like legitimate boosts to the value of my play on alts. In BfA, I can take each alt through a slow crawl (faster than my main, but still) to get to a level where I can use all my Azerite traits and play in a more fun way, but then the essences become the grind. In 8.3, I can get through these things faster still, but it is completely unexplained as to how AK works once again, and further, now I’m grinding alts to gear trait levels, then to essence levels, all the while grinding up a legendary cape.

What makes all of this feel like shit is that knowledge that at the end of the expansion, the work is pretty much invalidated – by the time I am level 60 in Shadowlands, I’m not gonna be wearing the Heart of Azeroth, the legendary cape, or using essences. I’m going to be on the next ephemeral grind, working on Covenants and Soulbinds whose abilities will be great in Shadowlands and then in 2022 I’ll be leaving them behind to grind out Dance Points to build my ideal Dance Studio, which will then go away in 2024!

When the system is fun, fast, and creates a lot of new gameplay interactions, like the Artifacts did, the grind doesn’t feel so bad. It is still an ephemeral grind, yes, but there is a value in it and it felt like reaching that first point of Concordance of the Legionfall was a breakpoint, the signal to work on alt-spec weapons or slow down altogether on that character – time to move to another alt or another goal.

BfA took those core ideas and made them measurably worse, by making them less gameplay-affecting, more confusing and obtuse, introducing a less-transparent catchup mechanism that includes a deflationary spiral of current-level value invested, and is overall less engaging as a result. Much like other things with the acronym HOA, it takes my time and value from me to make my experience less interesting or exciting and constrains the possibility space in a negative way (okay, that is harsh to the Heart of Azeroth, but I couldn’t help the joke about homeowner’s associations).

So you have a system that demands constant attention to grow, is intrinsically linked to gameplay in a way that if you don’t maintain it, you lose efficacy in every mode of gameplay, is an onion with layers of grinding, and in the end, all of that grinding is made meaningless and invalid when Shadowlands comes out – might as well not have done it anyways. Now, the hardened cynic in me (and some of you) may then scream out – “isn’t everything at level cap that way, then?” and the answer is – maybe, kind of? What ultimately makes a dungeon, raid, battleground, arena, or world quest fun?

To me, those activities are fun in and of themselves. I get to play the game, be my character, use my toolkit to solve problems (combat problems, maybe navigational ones where my Demon Hunter double-jump and glide come in handy!), and I get a reward that for that moment is an excellent boost to my power. Yes, if I wait 6 months, I could do some content and get an even better reward, and that reward is just a momentary blip in the grand history of the game, a single event of thousands of different gear rewards I’ll receive over time. However, they are rewards, compensation in-game for my time, a fun thing that makes my next journey through the dungeon or raid easier and allows me to then layer in challenge via achievements or higher-difficulty modes. The Artifact sort of did this – the power it offered was valuable at all levels of play, and the Concordance trait, while a proc, was powerful enough to swing fights. Couple that with unique transmog appearances that could be farmed, and the system felt like a cohesive whole that, while it has since mostly left the game, left a big shadow over Azerite.

The biggest problem I see with the modern game is that Blizzard tries to create these grand, overarching progression mechanics that are powerful to be worthwhile, but too powerful to keep and balance across expansions, and they lean into the temporary nature of them, tying them to longer grinds that never truly end. Raiding is no longer the way in which you acquire your true best gear, because you need to do other activities to get the Azerite to unlock traits, then do the essence farming needed to really maximize your performance, and then as there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it is covered in Ashjra’kamas, the cape grind. In order to be at maximum effectiveness, I cannot just play the things I enjoy – sometimes, I have to do the things I don’t want, making them feel like a chore. Sure, Blizzard’s answer is “you can just play with a lower level neck as Artifact Knowledge slowly bumps you towards the finish line” and that is true – but at the same time, my AP has remained a stark contrast to many of my guildies. While the performance offered by Azerite is small, it adds up, and as a tank especially, not having all of the stamina boosts on the Heart of Azeroth means that I am less effective as a player in a way that can harm performance of the whole raid. So I either have to suck it up and do my chores, or allow myself to be slightly behind the curve – marginally harder to heal, marginally less survivable. The margins are small, sure – but they do make a difference.

I don’t hate MMO grinding, hell, I am in the genre because I like that constant goal-setting. The problem is that too many of WoW’s most recent grinds have been mechanics in which I am explicitly told that there will come a day where my grinding is worth nothing, where all the value of it drains out. At best, my effort today will last 12 more months – although if that’s the case, I highly doubt I make it the 12 months – and at worst, anything I grind out today is good for 8 months. In fact, there are signs that the 8 month mark is most likely now, and if that is the case, then the question on my mind is – why bother?

I can jam in island expeditions, warfronts, raids, dungeons, world quests, and PvP in an effort to really push my Heart of Azeroth to the max, but all that effort, some of which I don’t want to do, means I have marginally easier gameplay today and in 8 months, all of that is gone.

My hope for the game’s future is that ephemeral grinds become more measured and careful in implementation – having a lasting impact like the transmog of Artifacts – or that they simply disappear to make way for something more substantive and interesting in the long-term. Hell, if I knew that I could bring my Soulbinds into 10.0 and they wouldn’t end up peacing out until 11.0, that would be a better model – at least with 4 years of use, the gameplay is more substantial and important.

I think the most important lesson I want Blizzard to learn is this, though – if the core content is engaging, repeatable, and enjoyable, there is no reason to bait us with senseless grinds.

8 thoughts on “Ephemeral Grinds and The Current Nature of World of Warcraft

  1. I always find it a bit amusing when I see a post like this (and I’ve seen a few over the years) that basically boils down to “I think it was okay 1-2 years ago, but this patch/expansion Blizzard really have taken it too far with the planned obsolescence” because this was one of the big reasons I quit retail eight years ago. I just couldn’t stand how every new patch relegated all previous gear and content to the bin like clockwork, something that modern WoW players consider just a normal part of the game.

    There’s a big difference between knowing you’ll die “one day” and knowing that you only have six months left to live – the latter is a major downer! I’ve just been unable to care about any of the progression mechanics in WoW ever since. And it’s something I actually love about SWTOR’s irregular patch and expansion cycle – that I never know exactly how long my gear will be good for (until they announce that a new tier is coming that is, but that tends to come with relatively short notice). Can a WoW player even imagine the joy of earning gear without a known expiration date anymore?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is an interesting thought (and good to confirm that my post is part of a rich canon!) – but the way I see it is this – for most WoW players, gear is a part of the experience but most of us have grappled over the years with how we feel about gear being relegated to the trash every so often. In fact, WoW’s current content cycle makes us bin gear way more often. Even today, just logging in on my raid main (who, theoretically, shouldn’t be getting much in the way of upgrades until the new raid next week) meant I replaced a couple pieces of her gear with items from the quest chain you get to start the patch content!

      Over the years, WoW has cultivated the attitude that gear is replaceable – and it certainly is. The game has a turnover rate on gear of full sets every 6 months. World mobs from the start of the expansion have 50,000 health and the regular mobs in the new content have 286,000 health. If that is good or not is certainly a larger question (I have mixed opinions there), but for the WoW model, it “works” – new gear engenders harder content and more challenge which allows for better gear which allows for the cycle to repeat, do that 2-4 times an expansion, then you repeat it again but with a level change in-between. The players that remain engaged with the live game are conditioned to live with it and even enjoy it – I get a sort of weird enjoyment from watching my stats and performance creep ever higher with each patch.

      The constant grind mechanisms tend to add windows to the Skinner Box, though. To your point, actually, while patches in WoW are on a rough tempo (so gear swaps are, at best, predictable to a rough range), the progression systems they’ve added from WoD onwards serve as this weird reminder that actually, none of this matters and you don’t get to take anything with you when you leave. My gear dies “soon” – but it gets replaced with bigger and better. My Heart of Azeroth dies whenever Shadowlands launches, and while my gear has a value floor through a good chunk of leveling, the HoA doesn’t and the artifacts didn’t. In a weird way, they introduce players to the contradiction at the heart of any progression-focused theme park MMO – and that illusion shattering is something that I think pushes WoW players out specifically. We’ve learned to accept it with gear and gear is earned and done with until the next upgrade comes along. The ephemeral grind systems are never “complete” and eventually they just stop functioning, and that moment is a stark point of reckoning.

      Ironically, Blizzard has actually done good things in some ways to reign in the cyclical nature of WoW gear over the years – transmog options make old sets and gear valuable in a different way, achievements that are time-limited like Ahead of the Curve for raiding and seasonal Mythic Plus dungeon achievements give a tangible “I was here!” sticker that serves as a more meaningful reward when looked at 2 years later, and cosmetic rewards are far more common now – they are sprinkled in far too much with flat-out power gear, but hey!

      It’s definitely a weird contradiction, but one that exists and seems to permeate the live game!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. new gear engenders harder content and more challenge which allows for better gear

    Genuine question: Is that still true? Is the third raid of the expansion harder than the second raid than the first raid? Is that 286,000 health mob 5-6 times harder than the 50,000 one? I thought world scaling made it all a bit samey anyway? From an outsider’s point of view it seems more like “new gear has bigger numbers but little else changes”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In some cases, no – world mobs don’t get really noticably hard, although world scaling to item level eventually caps (below the gear ceiling) and that puts a bit of constraint on it, although the scaling determination is something they could stand to do better!

      For the raids, it does introduce some difficulty, although depending on the boss, it largely depends on implementation. Most bosses either end up pushing more heavily on one of the three holy trinity roles and relying on the power increase of gear and different play decisions to layer on challenge. Not every boss does it well, but there is a feeling of progressing difficulty that tends to come with newer raids.

      Well, mostly – BfA has had raid design as a sore spot, in that the tuning hasn’t lived up to this as well as the past.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One thing I didn’t mention in my earlier comments on the Legion weapons (because they probably weren’t relevant) is just how futile it seems in review. Go back and run an alt through Legion now. There’s a lot of stuff related to the legendary weapons that’s just gray, junk. I realize they didn’t want to put a lot of effort in replacing dozens of quest rewards and random drops with something that actually had value (beyond an admittedly decent gold value, but gold is easy to get now) – but geez.

    I realize the unpleasantness of enduring Legion to get to BfA will go away in the next expansion – you’ll only see Legion content if you WANT to (don’t get me started on THAT) but it still feels cheaply done, and makes the entire dev team that implemented it look like they have real problems understanding long-term effects of what they’re doing. I mean, it doesn’t take GhostCrawler-level skillsets to ask the question, “what happens at the end of the expansion? Will all this be seen as worthwhile?”

    What I’ve learned over the past two expansions: yes, it’s *all* ephemeral. They’re either treating every expansion as a petri dish, trying to paint themselves out of a corner with another brave new experiment, or they figure we’re not going to mind. Any new system they introduce at this point, I view with skepticism, doubting I’ll see it after the next.

    The thing is, they act as if they want us to care. But they’re training us to not care at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed – I get the impression that they’ve internalized the fact that each expansion is like a new game anyways and taken that to an extreme end with the current grinds. The funny thing is that they tried promoting that the Heart of Azeroth would still work in 9.0, which is an…odd choice, but at the same time, why do I care if it works when (assuming) none of the Azerite slots are going to drop Azerite gear and the essences are going to remain power-locked to BfA levels? At that point, it’s just a thing I can keep for timewalking, when the scaling means it doesn’t matter anyways. They could always have Azerite pieces drop in Shadowlands content, but that doesn’t thematically fit, and even so – I imagine they would have confirmed that at Blizzcon since they were willing to part with the bit about the necklace keeping its power, as if that is the real problem!

      Like

      1. Huh, that’s interesting. I didn’t follow the discussions that closely at BCon (don’t like hitting the technical details so early as they’ll prolly change). But you’re probably right, unless they introduce some sort of scaling factor or work the Heart into the Shadowlands lore somehow. That is, indeed, odd.

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