The interesting thing about World of Warcraft is how the little things about the game don’t bother you when you’re in the trenches.
Two weeks ago, I wrote here about allowing my subscription to World of Warcraft to lapse, and I have not played the game since. At that time, I had my reasons for temporarily quitting the game, and I still do and will be remaining out of the game for at least a little while longer.
However, something interesting has taken root in the days since that last play session.
At the time I let my sub lapse, the thought, overwhelmingly in my head, was when I would return. I assumed I would, even as the CA DFEH lawsuit against Activision Blizzard picked up steam and heads were beginning to roll for it. Since then, the only main-play MMO I’ve engaged with is Final Fantasy XIV, and a brief login to Guild Wars 2. Those games, different as they are, highlighted and contextualized some things in my head about my relationship with World of Warcraft.
I want to start the meat of this post with a few broad declarations. Firstly, while I am going to touch on the way people discuss leaving WoW, I find the comparisons to abusive relationships in poor taste, mostly because of the way they trivialize what is a relatively serious issue, but also because I think it is flat-out wrong in many ways. Secondly, I want to say quite clearly that I haven’t made any decision in actuality about my future play of WoW or lack thereof. In this case, I am working through the possibilities publicly because I’m not quite sure how things will go as of yet. (The end of this post will be some of this!)
1: You Don’t Always See How Time-Wasting Blizzard’s Design Is When You’re Knee-Deep In It
WoW as a game has been increasingly built around artificially elongating content to pad out engagement and subscription metrics. When I was playing the game pretty actively, I’d kind of disagree with this idea – it was quite clearly true on some level, but I could play Devil’s Advocate to it when I was taken in by it. The story pacing is necessary to let the lore settle, the gameplay pacing is to keep things feeling satisfying, and the slow and steady upward power creep makes the game feel better – I might say.
The contrast I’ve had with FFXIV has always been sharp, especially now that I’ve been a full expansion deeply in the FFXIV trenches as well. Patch day for FFXIV is people racing to do whatever they want, and the game gives you pretty much everything on patch day. When 5.3 launched, I woke up near server up time and played for 5 hours straight, getting through the whole story in one shot. It was a fantastic experience (except the sleep deprivation and some indigestion that is not Square Enix’s fault…I think) and one that set a pretty sharp contrast in my mind against WoW.
WoW’s story content has a myriad of huge structural problems, but absent even all of those, the biggest problem I have with WoW is the artificially-slow pacing of the story. From a gameplay perspective, it makes the small amount of content feel even smaller to drag it out by splitting into 9 chapters over 7 weeks. Sure, I’d hazard a guess that if we just count raw gameplay time of the base story of WoW 9.1, it would stand toe-to-toe with an FFXIV patch and the story content within. However, the story of a patch like Reflections In Crystal or even a windup patch for a new expansion like 5.4 or 5.5 feels better absent any quality comparisons (because, I mean, WoW’s storytelling is pablum even at its best these days) but because the story is paced well. It’s paced well not even just in a “I can play it all in one sitting” way, but also for the fact that the story of an FFXIV patch does have multiple breakpoints where you can run off and do the normal MMO gameplay like your daily Roulettes, or you can simply choose to log out and come back to it later.
WoW, on the other hand, quite clearly artificially draws out the time you spend in-game and subscribed on multiple fronts. Splitting the story content into weekly small batches is one thing, and done well, I’m fine with it. What irks me to no end is that in Shadowlands especially, Blizzard uses Renown as a second gate on the story content, so most weeks of 9.1, you don’t just simply log in, chase the next story quest, and play – you’ve got to go to your Covenant sanctum, pick up the anima weekly, go to Korthia, get the Death’s Advance weekly, spend 1-4 hours knocking both of those over (at least doing them together has some synergy!), and then back to the Covenant to turn in anima, back to Korthia to turn in the DA weekly, and only then does the Primus spring to life and tell you he’s made progress on the solution to the Covenant’s woes. Why design the game this way? Well, despite any protestations that Ion Hazzikostas and team would make, it is clearly only serving one purpose – drawing out playtime. If I were to resubscribe right now, I’d have to plow through 4 Renown or so to get a story quest started, and while I could do it in around 2 hours on the low end if I hustled hard, it would be a barrier to entry. It only artificially gates the content – in lore, Renown isn’t really a thing as represented to the player – it’s just a clumsy mechanism to keep you out of the fun stuff until the game wants you to play it.
If you’re in the game for the long-term, this happens in small chunks with lots of things. Mythic raiding opens a week after Normal/Heroic, why? Well, in theory, it lets Mythic teams farm some gear and get some practice with base mechanics. In practice, it also means those teams are subscribed for longer, playing a smidge longer, and that drives up Blizzard’s metrics. Why does Renown gate power increases like Conduit slots and Enhanced Conduits? Because it means that your early season play feels bad compared to later, so even if you play very casually, there’s a power progression track the game pushes you onto regardless of how invested you are in it, and the hope would seem to be that the dopamine hit of being more capable of doing things in the world will bring you in more, and it works – because power gain is one the biggest and easiest ways to keep an RPG player invested. You can only do two rewarding Torghast runs per week because any more and the risk is that you’ll get your favored legendary and nope out.
We all know that the game’s various borrowed power systems all exist to rope us in and keep us over a long period of time, and that generally, like it or not, it works. However, there are so many things in the game that exist solely to keep us engaged week after week – raid lockouts, mythic dungeon base level lockouts, the Vault, rotating Mythic Plus affixes, rotating Torghast wings and Torghast reward caps, capped weekly currencies like Tower Knowledge and Valor, and more.
What I think I see very clearly with the gift of distance, however, is…
2: Blizzard’s Gating Of Content Makes the Core Content Less Engaging
In FFXIV, raids have only a single limit – loot. For 8-player raids, you’re limited at launch to a single piece of loot per boss, for Alliance Raids, a single piece of gear per week. If you run a raid and don’t hit that limit (you don’t need an accessory token in Eden, you don’t get a Healing drop in Tower at Paradigm’s Breach), you can run it again, and again, and again, until you get what you want for the week. FFXIV loot is limited in another way, which is that the 8-player loot is tokens which require you obtain a certain number to even turn them into gear (anywhere from 1-4 tokens, with weapons being 4-7 depending on the lifecycle of the raid), but you still get something every week if you play enough. Why does WoW have raid lockouts still? On Mythic, okay, sure – I can buy that Mythic players want to have locked team rosters and to dedicate themselves to a single team’s efforts, and that is the biggest and best loot, but at the same time, over the long-term in WoW, the mythic gear you have today is meaningless. When I left two weeks ago, my DH was at an average item level of 239, pretty power, heroic raid equivalent. That’s great, but I was already not the cutting edge, and I won’t stay near it, and in a couple of months, everyone will push towards that current Mythic raid-level 252 gear via catchup mechanics and dungeon caps being raised.
Why do I care about the story quests – it’s just going to be a crumb of lore spread thin over 60-90 minutes of gameplay? Why do I care about doing the world boss – I’ll kill him, he’ll give me either a single piece of underwhelming loot or 75 gold, and the quest will give me 500 anima (and big DA completion for that weekly quest if I have it!)? The game props up all of this repeatable, restricted content – if you can only raid once a week, man, then it gets exciting to push deeper into the raid with each subsequent week. Except that it also makes the game frustrating – you can only kill the Tarragrue so many times without getting a glaive before you get irritated and give up. You can only run so many 15s a week before the game tells you enough.
On the one hand, I get it, right – Blizzard’s history with WoW has included a lot of chapters where people have pushed way too hard on a subset of content because it keeps offering rewards and then those people get mad at Blizzard for making it mandatory even though the design intent was never that, so just put up walls and barriers to keep people from doing that. Sure, you can run Torghast 8 times a day if you really love it, but the game is specifically telling you with each run past the first run of each instance for the week that doing so is a waste. You could help your friend with that Necrotic Wake base Mythic on your super-geared main character, but you already did one that week, so there’s no reward that you can even disenchant – so you run on a lower-geared alt or just not at all instead.
What I find genuinely enjoyable about FFXIV is that the game doesn’t tell me what I can or cannot do, and lets the strength of its content (or lack thereof) tell me when to stop. One night since coming back, with no loot restrictions on the final NieR raid, I ran it 4 times in a single night to farm loot for all my jobs, since it drops item level 520 stuff. It took a fair bit of time, and wasn’t always a smooth or rewarding run, so that 4th run tapped me out, and when I queued for a 5th, I thought better of it and stopped. I still like the raid, and I don’t regret having done that – the game let me say that doing that was the best way to chase my goal and cleared itself out of the way. In WoW, the game would never let me run raids like that – even old raids with mount and cosmetic rewards. I can’t run Dragon Soul 5 times back to back on the same character to try and farm the last mount reward I need from it. I can’t do Antorus until my eyes bleed on a plate DPSer to get Taeshelach. I’m held back by the game, limited by what it will allow me to do.
Sure, you might argue that this means when Invincible finally drops that it’s meaningful, but is it any more meaningful than it would have been if you spent the same amount of playtime to get it in like 4 months instead of 4 years? You can argue that current content should be gated for gear progression, and to a point, I agree with that point. However, I feel like FFXIV has the right cadence of it – drops are limited until the next minor patch, then everything opens up and you can farm to your heart’s content. A similar model would, I think, only help WoW, because it means that past a certain point, the chase is on your terms and when you can dictate your own terms, things are just more fun.
3: Blizzard Doesn’t Take Feedback Seriously
The alpha and beta cycle of Battle for Azeroth was full of people pointing out the flaws with Azerite and how it would lead to problems. This feedback was, often condescendingly, ignored or talked over, and then when it was proven right, the WoW team stuffed some Ion commentary about how that was correct into the back of a random Survival Guide patch video for 8.2, without a lot of fanfare or any real apologies. They’ve doubled down on Essences, Azerite itself, non-targeting of Legion Legendaries until the very end, and now, they’re doing the same with Covenants and Conduit Energy, sitting out and letting players complain while offering half-thought justifications as players note how unsatisfying the system is to play.
Time and time again Blizzard falls into this pattern, one which may also contribute to the other problems at the studio – the developers are rockstars instead of being people making a product for others, and after a while, I don’t care about your experimental album, I just want the greatest hits or something new with that original flavor on it. If nothing you can do is ever wrong, then you’ll never correct course to make something right.
I’m not going to pretend that players always have the right idea either, but there’s little to lose especially now if you humor the players and try something, even in like a PTR capacity. It might actually be a really good use of the PTR as a mechanism – instead of just testing big patches, test small tweaks. Let players go onto a PTR with no conduit energy and see how they feel about it, see what it means for play. You could test all sorts of small changes – removing raid lockouts or setting them to loot-rewarded basis, playing with unscaled world content, allowing rapid story progression instead of weekly spoonfuls, and even perhaps limitless Covenant swapping or other such changes. If you can show players that you’re listening and iterating based on it and that sometimes you get it right when players may not see it, you only stand to benefit from that.
Instead, we have a pretty big problem – the current game is made by insistent, obstinate fools, who get a lot of things wrong and refuse to pivot or, even worse, double-down. I don’t believe the customer is always right, but at the point where you’re losing most of them anyways, who cares if your design is better philosophically?
4: Blizzard Lets The Community Be Trash Monsters
I think I want to draw a fine line here – Blizzard is not responsible at a base level if someone decides to drop racial slurs, harass other players, or generally be shitty. However, you can create a culture – one in which players are not penalized for being trash monsters, which only ever emboldens their trash-monsteriness.
The key difference I would say exists between Blizzard and Square Enix on community policies is a single word: enforcement. Square Enix has well-written, mostly unambiguous rules about how you should behave with other players and what kind of things are or are not okay. Blizzard has rules written out as well. If I report a player for saying a racial slur in FFXIV at any point in the game’s history, that player is, if found to have said it, going to sit out a suspension or ban from the game. Until 2021, WoW would let you send messages with slurs in them, and only finally started blocking messages with a single slur in them. If you’ve been in WoW long enough, you know that reporting players using slurs or hateful language is a big crapshoot on whether or not anything will happen, and there is a perception of inaction such that large channels like City General and Trade will fill with vitriol and hate.
Sometimes, the FFXIV team errs on the side of overcorrection, offering suspensions and bans for what might be relatively minor offenses, but I personally think that is far better than WoW, which is a wild-wild-west of just the sludgiest, worst chat often going completely unpunished.
For me personally, the way WoW’s communities center this kind of toxicity is a turn-off from elements of the game. I would actually enjoy PvP if it wasn’t an open secret that WoW PvP is full of the most openly-racist and hateful shitheads in the gaming world, with chats so full of toxicity that any teams comms get lost to someone shouting in caps calling people R-words. The argument I’ve seen is that the game incentivizes this, and while I find that very dodgy (and most often used by trashmonsters trying to distract from their own stench), there are some elements where that holds true. My biggest point though would be this – outside of any game design analysis, Blizzard lets the community be trash because it doesn’t enforce its own TOS or rules to any satisfactory or consistent degree. People are friendly and constructive for the most part in FFXIV because crossing lines results in account actions. People are shitty to each other in WoW because Blizzard so rarely acts on feedback, even obvious feedback (I ran into a swarm of druid farming bots with names that look like I passed out on my keyboard, report them all…oh they’re still in the game a week later, a month later hitting the same obvious route), so a lot of players rightly pick up that Blizzard won’t act on them being shitty, so they can then be shitty, and even turn it up.
At this point in WoW, I’ve actually left Trade and General chat on pretty much all of my characters. I have no interest in or patience for seeing whatever caustic discharge a group of strangers decides to spray into my line of sight, and the game’s other matchmaking and social tools allow me to reach my gameplay goals without wading into…all of that.
So, Where Do I Stand on Returning to WoW At This Point?
Well…I still find myself coming to the idea that I will come back, although how soon and with what kind of vigor remains to be seen.
For most of the last two weeks, I haven’t missed the game at all. My life has gone on perfectly fine and there have been no pangs of longing or burning desire to play. At the same time, there are elements of the game I do like and that I think it does very well, and when I’ve watched friends stream those or read up on them, I find myself kind of wanting to play a little bit.
However, the moment-to-moment gameplay of WoW can be deeply unsatisfying, and I think time away from the game has opened my eyes to that. I don’t miss doing the same set of quests on rotation in Korthia. I don’t miss having weekly chores that get in the way of my goals instead of themselves being goals. Basically, with time away, I can see the timewasters for what they truly are and were – timewasters. I have no affinity for Renown, Torghast gating, raid lockouts, or the drip-fed artificial cadence Blizzard tied us all to because they’re scared to death that we’ll quit playing too early.
What is especially funny is that I think most WoW players know on some level that they’re not quite enamored with the game. It was very common in my old guild for Discord and guild chat to be full of people saying things like, “you think I have time for fun, I have WoW to do” and like, haha funny joke, but also, that is on some level serious, or at least it rings true for most WoW players I’ve met and talked to and for myself.
The way I put it is this – I love WoW, but I don’t always like WoW, and while that might, on the surface, seem contradictory, it really isn’t. I love WoW because I have a deep bond with the game from 16 years of play, hundreds of little moments where it has given me entertainment and understanding. I like WoW when it is a good, well-designed game from top-to-bottom. Arguably, it hasn’t been that for a long time now. Even the eras I personally enjoyed, like Legion – great expansion, interesting story, but oh look, Borrowed Power v1, Legiondaries, missing story beats like any kind of Tyrande/Illidan interaction or even Illidan/Malfurion, Khadgar just nopes out at the end, the design of Argus and lack of flying, the very piecemeal Broken Shore campaign (11 quests, 11 weeks!), and the genesis of evil mastermind (and clueless idiot) Sylvanas Windrunner. Those very same systems, taken to their next logical progression, resulted in BfA – one of WoW’s worst expansions ever, and the ideas in use aren’t really all that different from Legion, and Shadowlands continues that same path.
In many ways, not playing WoW for a minute makes you realize the ways Blizzard gave up on meaningful, ascending progression. Each WoW expansion is a bubble onto itself, and when we end the expansion, all the effort progressing systems we put in is wasted. Sure, you might say, the same is true of gear progression, stat progression, and all kinds of progression systems, but there is a real disconnect – I get to keep my gear and relative power ascension from that going into the next expansion, but all the work I put in on my Artifact, on my Heart of Azeroth, on my Covenant Soulbind and Ability – all of that is flushed for the next major chapter. When I connect that to the gameplay in the moment, it feels absolutely terrible. Right now, we’re farming weeks worth of Renown, building up our Conduit libraries, our Soulbinds, and growing more comfortable integrating our Covenant abilities into our gameplay rotations, all through systems that parcel out the content in unsatisfyingly small chunks gated behind timesinks, all so that we can lose that power in 2022 or 2023. Right now, sure, Renown gives me something – but it isn’t always going to give me something, and the effort and investment I make in it is a waste in the long-term.
Blizzard’s goal is to keep us from connecting those dots and realizing it, but with the 3rd expansion of the Borrowed Power Era underway, I think something is becoming abundantly clear to me. Blizzard has made it clear that there is nothing truly permanent in WoW, and once you realize that, the question becomes a bigger and more ominous one for them – why do I care? Why would I play a game that gives me so little and deliberately asks me to spend time that is not meaningfully rewarded?
And well, I think the idea is social rewards or self-fulfillment, or just fun. To a point, you can still get those in WoW – you can make and strengthen friendships, reach new plateaus of skill that feel personally interesting and rewarding, and some of the content in the game is fun. I won’t deny that part of what I found really captivating about M+ is that there was both a skill reward and a moment of fun, to pull dungeons in weird and sometimes haphazard ways to get a better timer, more rating, etc. I still think that WoW’s raiding game is the pinnacle of the MMO space on that mode of play – other MMOs are getting closer, but WoW just has such a rich history of raids and they keep building on it, such that while Sanctum of Domination has a complete clusterfuck of a story and a drab setting, it is still a pretty good raid tier in gameplay. I won’t say there is no reason to play WoW, as there is a lot of good-to-great content in there for anyone.
However, it hurts the game to see it gated behind layers of bullshit, whose only purpose for existing is to draw out the time you spend playing and subscribed. That’s what is sad to me from outside – the game is often quite good! – but when you make me jump through hoops to get to the good stuff, well, my desire to do so shrinks. Do that often enough, and there’s just nothing left.
Ultimately, I think my break from the game is going to be at the longer end of the spectrum from what I suspected. 5 weeks seems like a good number, but up to 8 might be even better. After all, when the calendar reaches that fifth week, I’m going to be out of state anyways, and so it’ll probably turn to 6, and hell, Diablo II Resurrected is coming up soon after, and then it’s October (and my lovely wife is taking me to Hell’s Kitchen for my birthday, where I’ll probably eat a tomahawk steak and be sad Gordon Ramsay is almost certainly not going to be there), and the space in-between is going to be busy, and then November has Endwalker and I’m just not sure where my potential hype for WoW would ever fit in and be accepted among all of that.
At the same time, I’m going to be at a guild barbecue tomorrow, and working towards reconciliation there, and while I think reconciling is the correct thing to do, it would be somewhat funny to bury the hatchet only to quit the game.
But I’m still close enough to the game, interested enough in it that the idea of just flat-out quitting isn’t really appealing right now anyways. It’s actually a rather tough decision to make, with all factors on the table.
To a certain extent, I think there’s a lot of fervor around quitting WoW right now, and it is a thing that a lot of people have been doing because they hit a wall due to Blizzard, whether it was design choices (a lot of Classic players heard they were testing a WoW Token that you could get in Classic and noped out, and retail has a large list of documented issues with its design) or the CA DFEH lawsuit against Blizzard so specifically naming Blizzard employees who worked on WoW. At the same time, a lot of the people I’ve seen quitting were already on the fence anyways, and I would say that my hiatus from the game is similar to that – I was in a spot where quitting made sense, I gave myself a last goal to hit so that I could quit for a moment without trepidation, and I did it – I got SL2 KSM quickly and then my playtime plummeted. But I enjoyed that gameplay immensely, and if things work out to where I can raid with friends (or at least acquaintances) again, I don’t think I’d be against getting into the game again.
On the other hand, with some distance from the actual game itself, without those dopamine hits of chasing new record keystones or beating newer and harder bosses, watching my power climb – I’m not so sure I know of anything WoW gives me that I cannot get in another game, including ones I’m already invested in. I’ve never done serious raid content in FFXIV. Given a moment to dip a toe in, I could see myself getting into Guild Wars 2 more seriously. I have plenty of titles on my backlog that I could run with for a moment, and Diablo II Resurrected might very well pull me all the way in (the beta test not having Necromancer playable shot my interest in that dead for the time being). There’s also a tug-of-war of some sort with the way Blizzard behaves – a boycott sounds good, but also the reasonable developers and victims don’t want a boycott, and while my decision to not play WoW is centered in gameplay and my own personal desire to get things done without a constantly viable distraction, it probably doesn’t read that much differently to an ATVI suit who is looking at next-quarter’s cost-cutting and thinking that cutting developers loose from WoW might be wise. But I also refuse to subscribe just to send a message of support to those developers because it would negatively impact me right now, but also because that message has the same amount of noise and is likely to reward the people responsible for the toxic environment at Blizzard. It’s a mess – and again, a lot of the people I’ve seen quit cleanly and make sweeping moral proclamations about it are those already on the fence. It’s Blitzchung all over again – an issue that makes it easy to draw battle lines performatively and for those with specific axes to grind against WoW a chance to grind them in the guise of justice, even if some of them don’t really care all that much about the justice.
As it stands right now, I still see myself coming back to the game at some point. “Some point” has gone from a defined 2-5 week window to a sort of ephemeral, “probably before 9.2” window. In a lot of ways, going back later has a bigger appeal, when Renown catchup will let me just put my nose to the grindstone and knock out what would have taken hours of gameplay over weeks of time in a couple of raid runs and then sprint through some +15s to knock the rust off and get some Valor and new gear to bring myself up in power. At the same time though, I find my mind wandering – I’ve been having a lot of fun in FFXIV again, and I keep thinking about how it might work if I were to devote myself to finding a static for Savage raids, or even starting one myself. The game has never quite gotten me in that way, but a lot of that is that Savage is a sort-of unknown variable for me in terms of gameplay enjoyment. I could end up not liking it, but I could also find that I like it a lot, and that is a possibility that I’ve thought hard about. Right now, I love and like Final Fantasy XIV, and it loves me back, and that feels so much better for my engagement with it than the hot/cold relationship I have with WoW, where I love it, don’t like it, and it doesn’t love me back. Also, I wish I had a better metaphor, because I hate this one now!
One of the biggest inflection points for me hit when I was unpacking to setup my new office. It is easy at times for me to lose sight of how much I’ve been a WoW fan over the last 16 years, and all my goodies were packed at my old place when news of the lawsuit broke. As I unpacked and started setting up my office, though, I had this little sinking feeling…about the nature of the content and creation of the game over the years, and over how my office is a shrine in some way for a company who mistreated women and minorities, who enabled harassment, and that wasn’t a good feeling.
A refrain I’ve seen a bit here and there since the news broke is that ATVI doesn’t own WoW, we do – players give it life through our gameplay, our stories, and our time spent, and I like that sentiment a lot. Ultimately, it’s semantics – ATVI does for all intents and purposes own WoW, but as players, we own the value we find in it and that means we can just as easily find our way in it and find our peace without that being an act of enablement to the harassers and bullies within the company. In a lot of ways, I find the sentiment of it true – so few of my experiences that I cherish from my time in WoW are about the content itself or the gameplay, but instead about the ways I’ve navigated them, how I’ve grown from it, and how I’ve made bonds with other people through the game – none of which is designed or developed by Blizzard, and a lot of it in recent years is in direct contradiction to the way they build and design the game!
So at this point, my answer on returning is a conflicted and wavering “probably, eventually, at some point prior to 9.2.” I don’t feel a big urge to return right now, in fact quite the opposite. I saw a friend streaming an M+ run with both Sanguine and Storming affixes and I said “boy I’m glad I’m not subscribed for this week” but then because I am actually unsubbed, it wasn’t a joke – just a statement of fact. The more moments of clarity like that I have…well, I don’t know that there’s a number of them at which point I’ll just give up on WoW after 16 years.
But with time and distance, the rifts in my relationship with WoW have been laid bare, and it leaves me much less certain of how much joy the game actually is responsible for.