Shadowlands Wish List Part 2: The Gameplay

This month, I started a Shadowlands wishlist series by discussing high-level story wishes I have for WoW in 2020 and beyond, but this is the post I know I have far more to say about.

Gameplay is, for me, the core of why I play World of Warcraft. I like its twitchier, faster-paced hotbar and tab-target gameplay, I like the interplay of the classes and specializations, and I enjoy the design of the vast majority of the game’s raid bosses and dungeon mechanics. Sure, yes, I do like the story when it’s good, but for me, WoW is at the best level it can be when it is systems and mechanics focused, driven by a strong central gameplay loop, clear and valuable reward loops, and when the content is pushing on me to improve my gameplay.

As I discussed recently in my BfA review series post on gameplay, BfA let me down in that regard. It presented a game that was slightly less responsive, clumsier, and a bit less sure of itself, with layering of frustrating mechanics on top of one another and no clear way to reach goal plateaus within the most accessible content. Over the last handful of years, not exclusive to BfA, Blizzard has also pushed the buttons of dedicated players with frustrating and sometimes incomprehensible positions on things like tier sets, flying access, portals and fast travel, and professions. All of these came to what I hope is a head in BfA with the game being received more poorly than ever for its central gameplay mechanics, and in my perfect world, Shadowlands is the beginning of a reversing trend pushing back against the tide of frustration that has accompanied many of Blizzard’s decisions in the decade of the 2010s.

So let’s start, then, diving headfirst into the deep-end of the game, and discuss gameplay systems and where I would like to see them go!

Global Cooldown Tweaks: In my BfA review, I made very clear that the GCD locking of abilities and spells that previously weren’t locked as such made the game feel clumsier and weird – introducing speedbumps where none previously existed. If the game removed these roadblocks in Shadowlands, I would absolutely love it. Now, I do feel a need to acknowledge something here – the GCD change was done to reduce the impact of burst damage, and for Blizzard, I don’t see them removing this unless they can find another way to do so. If I were to armchair game design on this one, I’d likely tie DPS cooldowns together in small ways, like putting smaller cooldowns on other such effects that trigger when another similar ability is used, preventing cooldown stacking. My point overall is that I believe there are ways to get to a happy compromise – get that fast, smooth action during burst windows back, but to do so in a way that also dials back the insane burst some specs have.

Unpruning: Blizzard is giving us back stuff that was taken out in the past several expansions, with a few specific examples given at Blizzcon 2019 and the vague promises of more, under the banner of reunifying specs under their main class a bit better than the Legion model which split specs into almost completely distinct classes in their own right. There are a few specific categories of spells and abilities that got pruned that I’d like to see return, though:

-Executes: I get warriors having it is a fun unique, but I really enjoyed having options on a lot of classes and there are ways to get a twist on it. The original model for Shadow Word: Death for priests, for example, made it usable at any time with the caveat that if the enemy was out of execute range, it would hurt you too. I think executes in general are a fun ability because they give you a late-encounter change to rotation in a way that is satisfying and simple to learn, but difficult to master.

-Unique combat abilities: I think Priest’s Void Shift (swap health percentages with a target and then heal whomever has lower health by a fixed amount after the exchange) was a really cool, fun ability. It was also probably a nightmare to balance, but nonetheless, my wish is this – if the game sometimes has inbalances in service of fun, I can get behind it.

-Cross-pollination between specs: I liked that Frost mages had Frostfire Bolt, it was fun and interesting and screamed “I’m a mage, master of these elements!” to me. All Paladin specs having blessings and healing abilities at a basic level is also nice. Demon Hunters were such a weird class in Legion because of how isolated both specs are, but BfA started to crossover slightly with Immolation Aura being available to both specs. I’d love to see more changes akin to that – Havoc should get Sigils, if not the same ones Vengeance has. Rogues should have some crossover of abilities again, with the pirate flavor of Outlaw leaking into the other specs being a particular thing I would enjoy. I’d love to see Restoration Shamans have some Enhancement abilities for DPS instead of always being casters. Things like that could go a long way towards restoring a sense of class identity and allowing some unpruning.

More Priority-Based Rotations: I know that at some level, Blizzard doesn’t necessarily design a whole rotation for DPS specs – but the cadence of cooldowns, recharges, and resource gain creates that interaction. The biggest thing I find bothersome in the current state of BfA is that many classes have very simple, straightforward rotations that don’t change all that much and use few buttons. I’d love to see larger rotations, and more breaks in rotations to insert priority abilities – proc chances for bigger damage, stuff where the use of a given ability reduces the cooldown on a better ability, Executes and the like which change the gameplay moment-to-moment. Maybe even stuff with more interplay – let’s say you play a Marksmanship Hunter, and you have Hunter’s Mark and Aimed Shot as abilities. You can use Aimed Shot with a cast time without an active Hunter’s Mark, but maybe it instant casts on your Marked targets. Maybe you could take a talent that would let you place multiple Marks, and that would make your Aimed Shot an AoE/cleave ability automatically. Stuff like that can alter your gameplay, give you moments of genuine choice and interaction – maybe if you hard cast an Aimed Shot, it also automatically hits your Mark target, so you can target something else and have a ton of damage ready to go out on the cast. I haven’t actually mathed out how that would look (hunters salivating right now) but stuff like that gives you different choices to make and, in a world where Hunter’s Mark had a cooldown, would suddenly be important to think about. Maybe you don’t use it on trash pulls, or maybe you use it all the time and aim for an uptime target across all encounters.

Healer Redesign: In Cataclysm, healers were standardized across the board, more or less, with everyone having a 3-tier healing setup of slow/mana-efficient, medium cast time/efficiency, and fast/mana-wasteful, with flavor then dropped in alongside. This setup isn’t bad, per se, but it does feel like it has outlived its usefulness in 2020, even as the spec-centric design has pushed some healers further away from it. I think that in a perfect world, healers should be distinguished from one another in their core gameplay to a greater extent. Discipline Priests are fascinating to me because their healing model is so unique compared to anything else in the game right now. Not every spec needs to be that different, but some more flavor would be nice. I also think it is long past time to take a really serious look at Holy Paladins in particular. Compared to the other specs, I feel like Holy Paladin is just this bizarre model that gained some AoE but still feels very much locked-in to single target burst healing and weird models based on Azerite traits. Those models are fun and I think there’s a world where Glimmer of Light becomes a baseline Paladin ability or at the very least, a talent choice where you can build something out of it. I think fistweaving for Monks should be a real thing like it was in Mists of Pandaria, although retooled in line with Disc’s efficiency. Basically, I want to see healers embrace more unique models that are fun and different to play, instead of a homogeneous model where everyone has the same cookie-cutter template with a few bolted-on bits of fun.

Tank Redesign: Legion was a model where tanks were largely capable of self-sustain. Battle for Azeroth has been a model of tank triage where tanks can manage their health through baseline damage but need healer intervention for most damage beyond that. This one is fully selfish, but I loved the Legion model and found the BfA model somewhat frustrating – it felt like tanks were really capable of setting themselves apart in Legion based on the efficiency of their use of self-healing abilities and resources, and early in the expansion required a lot of skilling-up. That model is ideal, in my mind, and I enjoyed the expression of those learned skills as gear levels and artifact power climbed. So, I’d bring it back, maybe retool it to be a compromise of sorts between the Legion full self-sustain and the BfA model, but I think it was more enjoyable and raid/dungeon design can use mechanics that target players with high-maintenance damage to keep healers engaged in a similar fashion.

A Satisfying Reward Loop with Tiers of Content: BfA is a big mass of intertwined systems with no clear motivation to advance, although thankfully, by the time you hit normal raiding, it begins to define a more clear stairway of content progression. To my mind, one of the best things Shadowlands could do is allow you to graduate upwards away from content. World quests are fun and should be rewarding to a point, but in Legion, the rewards were often icing on the cake, with most players wanting to do their emissary daily and then move on. I’d like to see a clear stratification of content with everything fitting neatly into tiers. Some crossover is fine – emissary rewards can continue to be higher item level and more valuable to most players, but I would love to see less of a muddled, “do all of these things!” type of mess.

Better Raid Design: Battle for Azeroth hasn’t had bad raid design, per se, but it hasn’t felt quite as sharply positive as most content cycles WoW has had in the past. Legion suffered from this for me in one tier, Tomb of Sargeras, which was widely regarded as a not-great tier. BfA hasn’t really had an exemplary tier of raid content which I have thoroughly enjoyed start to finish, but it has had some fun thinking of mechanics. Mekkatorque, for example, was an awesome communication-required fight in the Battle of Dazar’Alor, but that idea was sharpened and executed better with the Dark Inquisitor X’anesh fight in Ny’alotha. Fights like Hivemind, Shad’har, and Drest’agath in the current tier are awesome and different in ways that we haven’t really seen as much of, and I would enjoy if those carry through. I am excited for the first tier of Shadowlands raiding to be vampires, and I hope we get a good array of themes and color palettes throughout Shadowlands, alongside fun and engaging fresh mechanics.

Strong Utilization of the World Zones: The Maw sounds like an awesome concept for an endgame zone, at least as described. My core fear with this, though, is that Blizzard envisions the world in a way that is fundamentally detached from how players do. In many ways, they want the world to be its own variant of gameplay, navigation puzzles you do on the way to content. While it is true that at a certain point in the expansion, the world is going to just be this thing we blitz through on our way to content, early on, I want to see Blizzard make the world interesting in ways other than using varying elevations and sharp cliffs to make things annoying. If The Maw is supposed to be this amazing thing we want to explore, it should also be fun to explore, and exploring it should give us loads of content instead of just being a bridge we cross to get to Torghast. For the other zones, my hope is that the Covenant content allows us to master a zone. If I align with the Kyrian, I should know every nook and cranny of Bastion, should get some special interactables, and even the ability to fly in the zone prior to Pathfinder being added. If they go with this, I will bet that players won’t even be mad about Pathfinder – just give us a choice that carries strong meaning and offers gameplay tweaks.

No Endless Grinds: Okay, so this is one that Blizzard has said outloud, and great! However, given what they showed at Blizzcon, I don’t trust them on this one yet. Anima sounds like a grindable power increase currency akin to Azerite or Artifact Power – Anima Power even abbreviates to AP just the same! Soulbinds sound like a grind will be involved to gain the slots along their progression paths. You purchase soulbind traits using an item called a Conduit. Conduits are, from the early interviews (note NOT the panels), consumable items. How will you get them? To be determined. Okay, so we’re grinding for Anima Power, which is totally different, looking for Conduit items that we’ll need to stockpile in a limited fashion for when we unlock new Soulbind traits, in addition to maintaining our Soulbind via quests for the Soulbind and managing the overarching Covenant relationship at the heart of the expansion. Sure, in theory, none of these are “infinite” grinds – what they showed at Blizzcon suggests there are fairly solid endpoints on each of these goals, but when we reach them seems obviously in need of a playable client and some tuning. Therefore, I am both sounding an alarm here and also cautioning against getting too worried – these systems could end up being dreadful if the grind is not checked firmly, but to Blizzard’s credit, when I look at them, I don’t see any Paragon traits or other limitless grinds, and the Soulbind tree looks small.

Just know this Blizzard – we’re paying attention!

A Steady Content Cadence: Okay, so BfA has been roughly steady, in that content lasts about 6 months, give or take. That is fair enough, but I vastly preferred the Legion model that lasted through 7.3 – 11 weeks between each patch. I don’t necessarily need each patch on a very specific cadence – as much as I would love it. What I do need is the idea that the team is deeply dedicated to the game and working to deliver new gameplay on a better cadence.

Gear Grinds That Matter: I guess this one is a bit challenging to describe, but when I think about the model of the current game, one thing sticks out like a sore thumb. When Battle for Azeroth (and Legion, for that matter) launched, the factions of the games had raid-level armor rewards waiting at Exalted reputation. This is great! However, there’s just one problem – you were pretty much guaranteed to hit Exalted at a point when you already had something better. Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm both offered epic gear rewards at Exalted, but did so in a way that was useful – you could target a faction via tabard, rep grind through dungeons at your own pace, and receive the reward you wanted. I know that Blizzard has something of a vendetta towards this concept, but since Cataclysm, rep rewards at Exalted for launch factions have felt largely pointless when it comes to gear. Maybe it’s not the tabard system again – maybe it is championing like in Mists of Pandaria, maybe it is a different model like Covenants, but whatever form it takes, I want to see Blizzard adjust those components of the current gear grind that make no sense and restore some degree of logic to them.

Cosmetic Rewards Should Be Far More Common: Blizzard has this great functionality they got in Legion in the game engine, to be able to give you an Ensemble appearance that rewards a whole set of gear visuals you could transmog. With this, you think they would have gear appearance rewards raining from the sky, but instead, they use this functionality very sparingly, and to me, that is a mistake. I’d love to see more activities in game, achievements, and reputations that offer me cosmetic rewards. Covenant armor seems cosmetic (but I imagine is likely going to have stats too), and that is a great first step, as are the customizations they showed off for capes that come with those. I want to see more of that – if you aren’t going to do tier sets, then maybe put that work into introducing better ensembles that push people into doing content. You could even use a system like Essence gathering from raids, where you loot scraps and combine them to form the full ensemble or a piece at random until the full set is done. Weapons, armor, enchant appearances – go nuts and give us rewards like that. Hell, even in Torghast, you could do like a retro boss wing from Vanilla that rewards scraps that can convert into a Tier set appearance.

Also, if they’re not doing tier sets, I would love (LOVE) for Blizzard to implement dye-able armor. If you are only going to make one set per armor type, one way you could set that apart is to introduce dyes for armor, or maybe even prop customizations. Maybe there is only one leather set, but I could get a kit (maybe from a leatherworker?) that would put DH tattoos and accents onto the pieces, so the set is still mostly the same, but there is a bit of flair. Maybe covenants could offer customizations of the same sort, so I could affix a Night Fae customization to my armor. I know these things would still take some artist work time, but at the same time, perhaps there is a shorthand way for them to work on all armor and be made once to apply across the board!

Just…Fix Professions, Okay?: If you play WoW in 2020, you already know that professions are profoundly broken on all levels. Gear crafting is a wasteful, worthless profession that makes you almost nothing, which makes the gathering professions that feed them worth less. Jewelcrafting is valuable based on luck, although late in 8.3, you might  make money when everyone spends Corrupted Mementos on sockets on their gear instead of upgrades for Horrific Visions. Enchanting is worthwhile on occasion, and Alchemy is valuable as is Cooking.

This needs to change ASAP. Crafting should mean I can make armor to sell to others for profit, and shouldn’t require an obscene gating mechanism like Expulsom. Enchanters should be able to do more for other players, Jewelcrafters should have a steady wave of work, Alchemists and Cooks already have a good setup going, and fixing crafting should make gathering more worthwhile. Let’s get rid of BoP trade materials and open up a marketplace where people can buy and sell the essentials of craft, and lastly, random secondary stats on crafted gear blows and should no longer be happening.

Clarity of Design: I’ve opined about this one a lot in the past, so I’m going to keep it brief. Systems like Artifact Knowledge in BfA are far too murky and unclear, to the point where a player who isn’t reading blogs, checking Wowhead, and researching is just unaware that it is happening at all. This is stupid and bad design, and I feel 100% confident in dragging it as such. The best thing Blizzard can do is design systems to be clear in purpose, clear in design, and to ensure these systems are well-laid out and accessible to the average in-game only WoW player who is not going to leave the game to understand why the cost of a level reduced without warning, or why the raw numeric value of their progress decreases when this happens. In fact, described like this, it sounds like a bug. To someone who doesn’t know any better, it sure seems like one, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if there were bug reports or GM tickets about it. Fix it.

All Things Torghast: Okay, so here it is. I love Horrific Visions, and I’ve made no excuses for it. I enjoy the gameplay, the need to strategize, the changes via masks and maps, the skill check, the flexibility, all of it is great! However, Torghast is going to be here from the beginning, and needs to learn some lessons we already have via HVs. Torghast needs:

-significantly less entry gating
-better scaling off of roles/classes/item level
-varied challenges per role (why can’t I go in and heal some friendly spirits?)
-a degree of forgiveness (maybe multiple lives?)
-a progression system (HVs have this, and while it is a bit basic, it works really well and allows some tweaks based on type of gameplay)
-a hook to keep skilled players pushing deeper
-enough accessible content for casual and less-skilled players

Okay, so that is a lot of stuff. However, here is my thing – Torghast seems like a cornerstone of the expansion, with it being in damn near every bit of marketing, looming overhead. It needs to be great, expansion-defining content, something that resonates with the full WoW audience in the way that the Mage Tower resonated with me. Anything less than that is a failure on Blizzard’s part, and that sounds harsh, but they hyped it to the high heavens at Blizzcon and I sure hope they deliver!

And now, some quick hits!

Tier Sets: Reconsider this one, Blizzard, Raid replayability is drastically reduced without being able to transmog farm.

Pathfinder: Again, reconsider this one. Look, I like exploration and even wrote about how Argus’ lack of flying wasn’t that big of a deal, but it affects players more than you realize. I get that you hate flying and all, but it is here and players are going to keep gnashing their teeth on this because you draw so much attention to it with gradually increased requirements expansion after expansion. At the very least, consider 9.0 offering full flight instead of waiting for 9.2!

Allied Races and Heritage Armor: Keep rolling these out, both new allied races and armor, and also armor for the existing races.

Surprises: The world treasures, rares, and secrets are all great little additions to the game. Keep rolling with these.

And with that, about half the size of a post I expected, but my gameplay wishes are now out! Next time we visit the wishlist, we’re going to talk about intangibles – while initially I expected to discuss systems and the strategy of the expansion, we’re likely going to deep-dive into business practices and what I feel Blizzard needs to do from a marketing and content-delivery standpoint.

One thought on “Shadowlands Wish List Part 2: The Gameplay

  1. Gonna be another loong response, so get yourself a drink. 🙂 Seriously, good post, lots to think about. I even took notes (again)

    * Unpruning – honestly, I am more interested in equalization. The pruning was uneven. For example, my Disco priest has maybe a handful of common combat abilities, but my Hunter had to struggle to find a convenient hot key for the Azerite ability. Since it’s a major chunk of change, I did make room for it, at the expense of Aspect of the Turtle. Admittedly, this would be difficult, and largely dependent on how spec-curious the designer is. But c’mon. This is Blizz. Surely they can afford a designer that has alt experience.

    * Executes – very much agree. Especially on my Warlock, I have missed not having an execute-style ability. That was kinda her party piece.

    * I appreciate the appreciation for the uniqueness of Shadow priesting, but I do have to point out that similar features for other classes would likely lead to UNPRUNING. I’m not sure the two are compatible. Of course, some might argue that shadow priesting is torn between Insanity as a mechanic, and Void / Shadow, and thus is a confused spec, and I hear them. I admit however that I haven’t given Shadow a serious look since Disco became self-sufficient.

    * Priority-based rotations is a big Maybe on my part. I get it. But I also feel that the whole priority-based approach varies largely on role. I’m not so sure you can make tanking / healing priority based. Hey, I’d love it. But I think you might destroy those roles if they were more like DPS. Healing and tanking are different because they are … different. And they make different demands. Healing, at least, is very situational. I have a basic rotation, but I also have a metric ton of situational heals to toss out as needed. Knowing what I know of tanking (very little), I imagine tanks have a similar core set of abilities and truckload of situational abilities.

    * I’d love for all healing classes to get a more distinct healing mode, but hopefully not at the cost of Disco’s distinct design. Although I won’t say no to getting the Frisbee back. What’s Disco without the Disc, anyway? I’m selfish 🙂

    * I don’t Tank in groups (someday maybe I’ll get brave enough) but my impression of running tank specs in PvE environments is that part of whatever you see to be the problem with tanks is largely a side-effect of Blizz trying to make all classes / specs viable in solo circumstances. So much so that you can basically cross-index many abilities across all classes / specs. This slot for the basic DPS ability. This slot for the mobility thingy. This slot for the protection ability. Etc and so forth.

    * The danger in adjusting the reward loop is in making non-elite raiding come across as, well, elite. I do feel that upper-level raiding should provide elite rewards, and I’m not against making some rewards / designs exclusive to elite raiding (skins unique to elite raiding are fine by me), but I do feel that LFR and so forth should have rewards that feel like actual rewards. Though there is something to be said for rewarding those that don’t feel comfortable in raiding but are willing to put in effort over a long, ugly grind. I actually feel each tier should have unique looks, not recolors, what are the odds of that?

    * This does lead me to comment on raid design – I have nothing to say about the upper levels – they should be hard, yo – but I do feel that LFR in BfA was a lot less accessible than it was in Legion. I feel like Blizz were somewhat less than observant in this expansion. Otherwise I feel the tuning for LFR would have improved by the second tier, and it didn’t. At that point I gave up, so maybe it improved later on but I have a strong suspicion it didn’t. LFR is about accessibility. The mechanics need to reflect that, and then additional layers of difficulty can be added for normal / heroic / mythic.

    * I’ve heard the whole spiel about getting away from endless grinds before, and I’ll believe it when I see it. That said, yes, grinds should have some sort of specific rewards. See my previous bitching about crafting professions.

    * And again, professions don’t seem so much broken as irrelevant. All professions should be able to produce something meaningful, and not just one or two items per tier. Unfortunately, I think Blizz has been moving away from the myriad ways of adapting one’s gear (gems, enchants, glyphs, which have already been turned into cosmetic only) which makes non-gear professions problematic, and gear-based professions are even more so, in that anything you produce pre-raid is green-level or worse, and anything you produce with mats you can only get from raiding is not actually worth it because raid-level rewards far outstrip that stuff. What’s the deal, Blizz? Are you regretting the side-channels that professions used to represent?

    * Regarding Pathfinder: just abolish it. You don’t get to fly in an expansion’s zones until the next expansion comes out. That keeps Ghostcrawler happy, and resolves most peoples’ issues with not being able to fly. Either that, or consistently create zones that make flying no less hazardous than not flying – such as Naz, Mechagon, and the current Assault zones. Then the only debate is: when do you award flying?

    Again, quite a thought provoking post. I imagine I would be a rubbish game designer, given my harsh approach to some things, but that’s probably why I’m not a game designer. It’s a lot easier to be a jerk as a devops lead 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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