Yesterday, I shared my immediate thoughts and impressions on the reveal stream of World of Warcraft’s 9th expansion, Dragonflight. It was tempered but I think there was some genuinely good stuff there, even if it didn’t necessarily inspire me with hype in the way that past expansions have.
Today, I want to look at the deluge of press materials around the event and apply a more critical gaze, because I ended yesterday’s post having seen a headline about Renown coming back in Dragonflight, and I think I want to contextualize this more along with the other news.
Firstly, a disclaimer to say – all of this information is based on interviews and hypotheses put forward by the development team based on early production work. We haven’t seen the gameplay flow, the end-to-end journey of how things will work in practice, and so all we have to go on for the moment is the hypothetical way things will work based on today’s implementation of some of these concepts and the way they were presented and explained for Dragonflight’s future. I’m fully open to the possibility that things will be different, can be different, for better or for worse, and so any opinion I have now is based on incomplete views into what Blizzard is cooking up.
Secondly, I will state that I am in a phase of my WoW fandom where I feel rather burned by Blizzard, so if I specifically have a strong objection to Renown in Shadowlands and they say that system is coming back, it will push a panic button for me that raises a red flag. I was very much sold on Shadowlands from the Blizzcon 2019 hype, and I landed….well, here, so I am going to attempt to be more reserved. I’ll state my case clearly and my specific objections or hopes, and they are just my perspective on things – not to speak for anyone else or answer anyone else’s ideas on the systems in question (I had to give up on a conversation about Renown with friends yesterday because a friend was putting up strawmen about the system rather than listening to my specific concerns, and that was frustrating and definitely colors my post today!).
I’m going to try to keep some structure and level of restraint here, because I could probably write 5,000+ words on all of this together!
The Return of Renown
This mention is something that, I will admit, killed my hype for the expansion dead for a moment. It was a hyperbolic reaction, and one that I have tempered with thought, but to me, Renown reflects the worst habits of design from the WoW team – gated, controlled access to rewards that start to feel like chores designed to spread a thin selection of content over a longer stretch of time. First, I’ll quickly explain why I feel that way.
Renown in Shadowlands was overly gated, controlled, and something you needed to be current on if you wanted any chance of getting into groups for more difficult content – medium-high Mythic Plus keys, Normal and up PUG raids, and to keep up with a guild. If you fell behind on Renown, it felt really bad and the only way out was to struggle against an opaque catch-up system hoping that a wing of LFR, a dungeon, or other activity would reward a catch-up Renown to you. It also controlled access to story content and regulated things in a way that was beneficial to Blizzard but from my perspective, didn’t offer much to players. If I wanted to do the story on hitting level 60, I just couldn’t, because I had to jump through these hoops first.
I’m a firm believer that players should have a measure of control over their content consumption, and if I want to do the entire story in one sitting on launch day, that should be my prerogative. I also think that Blizzard over-allocates power rewards as the only meaningful form of compensation for completion of content, when other rewards like cosmetics, titles, mounts, pets and such are often longer-lived and more valuable to players over their lifespan in a game like WoW, where you can reasonably play for 20 years on and off.
Renown, to me, ties the antithesis of these things together – we say when you can do the story, when you’ve had enough, and the only rewards we think you’ll really play for are power. Renown in Shadowlands had some measure of cosmetics tied to it, mostly by unlocking them for purchase (which also felt really bad), but the majority of the rewards were power – stamina buffs, unlocked Soulbind traits, and the Covenant legendary power in 9.1.
So for me, this is what Renown represents – the removal of choice and personal pacing through content and enough player power locked behind a set of gates in order to push you through it or else you are not equipped ideally for difficult gameplay, with a frustratingly random catch-up mechanic that makes coming back mid-content cycle difficult. This has been improved in Shadowlands over time, to be fair, and even more so recently via hotfixes, but it remains a wart on the expansion, in my view (there’s a reason they hyped getting rid of new levels of it in 9.2!).
If Renown replaces reputation as a mechanic that allows you to reach a set of cosmetic rewards, I would be thrilled with that, to be honest. If it remains in the form it was in Shadowlands as-is, that is a tough obstacle to my interest in the game. It made keeping alts current more difficult, created an unfriendliness and checklist of things you felt were mandatory in order to keep progressing on the stuff you wanted to do, and it wasn’t earnable through content I personally enjoyed, so it meant taking time away from spamming keys and running raids to do a vehicle quest or a daily where I have to find and feed critters that despawn if some other player chucks food at them first. It didn’t feel good or fun, it was just a checklist item I needed to mark off to play the actual meat of the game.
I am also cognizant of the idea that Renown currently helps provide a wall that helps keep players with less playtime on a good footing. I had a good discussion with a guildie yesterday who only gets a few hours a night to play around his kid’s and wife’s schedules and needs, and I respect that Renown in its current form helps someone like that not fall behind someone like me who can pour hours into the game as desired, but that is a problem rooted in the player power provided by current Renown. Such a gate is not needed if that player power is moved elsewhere or simply does not exist – and there is no real need for it to exist, in my opinion – which is a topic for its own post.
So in short – Renown for cosmetic rewards as a replacement to reputation? Solid, I’m a fan. Renown as a timegate preventing access to story and locking off player power needed for progression content? Not a fan.
Obviously, it’s too early to say what the deal with Renown in Dragonflight will actually be, and the idea of it progressing all four allied dragonflights at once is a good thing on paper. I’m eagerly looking to beta news to see how that holds in practice, however. Until then, I guess I would say I am tentatively cynical, because Renown raises my hackles for the reasons discussed.
Dragon Riding Good?
The introduction of Dragon Riding as an expansion mechanic is an interesting one, which I was actually quite positive on in yesterday’s post. There’s a simple reason for that – it is Blizzard relenting slightly on player feedback that Pathfinder has only been an unfun obstacle for years now, and it adds gameplay that all players can engage with. That is all good, and I stand by that.
What is interesting to me as more details emerge are the particulars.
For one, the plan is that you will not be able to fly in Dragon Isles on any mount but your dragon, and you will not just fly, but will always be using the dragon riding gameplay. I dislike the lack of choice, even given that you can customize your dragon in a lot of ways, but I think that if the gameplay of dragon riding is fun and good, then the latter point is a net positive.
I mean, I am sold on the idea of this system such that even hearing there will be limits on it that require progression doesn’t turn me away from it. I have concerns about how things will work with how large the zones are supposed to be (the interviews have touted that Dragon Isles are the biggest continent added to the game, although if that means “in an expansion” or “even bigger than Kalimdor” remains a question mark), but if the design is thoughtful of player needs on content reach, that is fine to me. If the player friction is carefully thought out and planned around, I think it can be a meaningful and interesting system. I do have a small measure of fear that Blizzard will muck it up by trying too hard to keep players on the ground, and I suspect that the restrictions on normal flight and mount choice are things likely to fade by 10.2 or 10.3, but I am excited for this one, genuinely.
On the other side of gameplay, the ability to unlock cosmetic choices for your dragons is great and I like that idea a lot. I hope these are account-wide (I hope most things including Renown are in Dragonflight, to be honest!) but this is a solid step towards having a non-player power reward in the cards as incentive to do things, and if it means we can get some wicked cool customizations for things like Keystone Master or Ahead of the Curve raids, that would be great.
I am still sort of iffy on the reintroduced and reformed talent tree system. Curious to see how it goes, but the only thing I can add from yesterday is this – if talents are rewarded from anything other than player level progression, I am going to be side-eyeing the fuck out of Blizz on it, because the reintroduction of talents should be about player power progression that is permanent and earnable by all even past the point of Dragonflight.
The Overall Theme and Story
I still feel a little mixed on the overall idea of Dragonflight as an expansion. A lot of people have drawn a contrast between this expansion and Mists of Pandaria, and I think that is fair to a point – a lot of MoP was focused on this new and mysterious land and being lost adventurers looking around it, uncovering its history and local threats before we focused on Garrosh as he went wilding out. My objection here is that MoP had a lot of focus on the Pandaren and their philosophical take on things – on conflict and the value of life mostly, and Dragonflight doesn’t really seem to have a guiding philosophy on the same level. A big part of the MoP reveal cinematic was also about Pandaren as a race, and we have no such grounding for the Dracthyr – I would have been satisfied to even see one in the cinematic, but alas, we got no such thing. As a result, the cinematic felt lacking to me, and upon rewatch and reflection, I still come away feeling vaguely confused about the goals of our characters and the civilizations of Azeroth here. In fact, we don’t really have much grounding on the current goals and objectives of the dragonflights – we know the Aspects have a pact with the Titans as protectors of Azeroth, but each dragonflight has carried that goal out differently over time and a couple have deviated – the Blues under Malygos, the Black flight under Deathwing, and the Bronze becoming Infinite under Murozond – and while some purported leaks that got other details right have painted a picture that Nozdormu becoming Murozond is likely to be the major plot point of the expansion, I want to better understand how we get there or why Dragon Isles are instrumental to this process.
On the story, I will let my cynicism reign for the time being – I do not expect the writing team to pull off a nuanced or interesting story here. I suspect that leveling stories will be great, because the writers who work on those plots seem to have their shit together, but I expect the overarching expansion narrative to be a fucking trainwreck. This is, for sure, a cynical and defensive reaction to years of being hyped for WoW story to be let down in the end (massively so in several cases), and I would be immensely pleased to be wrong here (please, for the love of god, let me be wrong on this point!) but this is the space in which Blizzard gets 0 benefit of the doubt from me. I will cast one voice of dissent to my own cynicism here – the expansion feels totally new and divorced from what came before, instead of being presented as a serial narrative picking up where Shadowlands left off, and WoW’s best and most notable story elements have often come from this approach, so if that ends up being true of the story to come, it could be good. If it starts with some event in Shadowlands kicking us to the Dragon Isles, then my own glimmer of hope will be snuffed out and I’ll sigh, but for now, I’m going to clutch this small hope tight.
Also, I find it weird that we’re coming back to Azeroth and we still haven’t dealt with the giant fucking sword sticking out of the planet as we rally with the protecting Aspects of Azeroth, like…hello? We gonna do something about that, or…?
Specific Gameplay Changes
Some small and large gameplay details have been noted in the interviews with the team that went out yesterday. PvP gear is set to work as it did in WoD, with a PvP item level across the board on all Conquest gear and the item upgrades only being for PvE use of the same gear, which is good I think – not a WoW PvP guy, so not much I can offer there.
What I can comment on with interest is the changes to Mythic Plus.
Blizzard’s intent is to use an aspect of the upcoming Shadowlands Season 4, by rotating older dungeons in and out of use for Mythic Plus. Each Mythic Plus season in Dragonflight will have 8 dungeons, 4 from Dragonflight and 4 from prior expansions (Shadowlands excluded due to how recent they were available, with all 8 new DF dungeons available in lower difficulties at all times). I kind of like this, all told – it means that Mythic Plus will feel fresher each season, and while it will mean new routes every few months, that is already the case due to many seasonal affixes, as they often change the ways you pull through the trash of a given dungeon, so it will be a change but also not as drastic as it sounds. I’ve thought for a long time that one of the most poorly-used assets of WoW is the large roster of legacy content the game has and just does nothing with, and this is a great change to see. If it means we get Mythic Plus added to older dungeons (as they are doing for the fan voted WoD dungeons for Shadowlands season 4) then it could set up a long-game where eventually we can get every dungeon for Mythic Plus and have a robust roster to rotate through, as well as opening up things like more Timewalking Mythic Plus events or even a dungeon smorgasbord season where we could get every dungeon on the table for players to run through.
The Great Vault continues on in Dragonflight, which is great news as I think it was unambiguously a better system than the weekly M+ chest from Legion or BfA. They’ve mentioned vague hints at further iteration in the vein of the consolation prize they added via hotfix recently, and I hope that reaches my ideal state – where players of all stripes have options for the Vault, like world quests or daily quest slots, pet battle slots, dungeon rewards outside of just Mythic Plus, and other various things.
I guess it’s difficult to pin down how I feel about Dragonflight succinctly.
On the one hand, I find a lot of what is presented to be interesting and even compelling on the face of it – there’s stuff that does take clear consideration of player feedback into account and offers changes that sound, on the surface, like improvements. The artwork is stunning as always (I still dislike the Dracthyr model, and I feel like it is definitely the necks and overall gangly-ness of them), and I’m sure WoW’s core competencies will continue to shine – strong dungeon and raid content design and fast-paced tab-target combat. On those merits, I think I’d be willing to pick up the expansion and at least level through once and see it for myself.
On the other hand, I find it difficult to have a strong positive opinion right now because I have felt burned by Blizzard the past two expansions. I was so excited for both BfA and Shadowlands, and the sheen wore off of those expansions quickly. Shadowlands in particular came after a string of disappointments and was itself not particularly amazing, so it finally added up to me uninstalling the game for the first time since I started playing. Granted, not all of my objections or reasons for not playing right now are Blizzard or the game’s fault, but in the past, WoW offered me enough to power through non-game reasons for not playing and Shadowlands has simply not given me that enough. I have been conditioned over the years to watch with a distrustful eye when Blizzard doubles-down on something that met with player dissatisfaction, and seeing them just namedrop Renown in the hype for the expansion immediately made me wary.
It’s early days, and I have no reason yet to say the expansion is bad, obviously, nor do I even think it will be bad. I think it will probably be better than Shadowlands in some ways, because there are obvious lessons learned that they are carrying with them, and that is a good thing. I will 100% give them their flowers for that, because Blizzard has had a habit of not learning lessons and being stubborn and obstinate on such things. However, my patience for Blizzard hype has worn perilously thin, and thus I also find it difficult to be unabashedly excited for the expansion, given that Blizzard has taken that investment and devalued it over the last two expansions. All I can do now is voice my concerns and my excitements alike, and then wait to see – what does alpha look like, what does beta look like, what is the gameplay flow on offer and how do these things all coalesce into a total package when the game is finally available for all?
Until I can answer that question, I can’t really say. I’m cautiously optimistic and tentatively cynical at the same time, and I think that is more than I expected, so that is a positive start in my book.