One of the things that I find difficult when writing about World of Warcraft is adequately capturing my feelings about the game at a given point in time. This may come as a surprise, given that this very blog, about WoW, is coming up on year number 7, but I can summarize this easily – at the point of around 45 days into the prior two expansions, I was still writing about how good they were. I went on to have a very mixed relationship with Shadowlands after some early enthusiasm, to the point that I sat out the last year of the expansion without much in the way of hesitation, and I never had a moment with Battle for Azeroth where the game felt great to me. There is always a tonal shift in my writing as an iffy expansion wears on, going from a genuine enthusiasm to a worn-down grumbling.
Why is this a problem? Because this conditioning has me expecting the other shoe to drop soon on my enjoyment of Dragonflight. I’ve curtailed my desire to write a post about purely enjoying the game, instead wrapping up moments of delight – obtained goals and talent interactions – into their own posts. Dragonflight, however, carries the additional weight of being the first expansion for WoW launched after the summer 2021’s revelations about Blizzard’s work culture and the way it was specifically a problem with high-profile members of the WoW team. Today I wanted to kind of peel away at both topics a bit – to contextualize the fun I’ve been having in WoW with my fears for the potential forward paths Blizzard might take, to look at the systems of the expansion and how they are both in and also out of the way, and to discuss the quagmire that is being enthusiastic about anything Blizzard knowing now what we do.
Dragonflight Is Genuinely Pretty Good (Depending On How You Look At It)
Firstly, it has to be said that my perspective in gameplay and what I want from WoW is this: challenging, repeatable dungeons and raids with unique encounters, fun design, and interesting class and spec designs that I can use to get multiple perspectives on those fights. At the same time, I want WoW to offer me a world with a sense of place and belonging that feels like an interesting, beautiful set of areas to explore, and I want the gameplay to be organic to a point – where I can make the choices about what I want to play without feeling a guiding hand pushing me too hard in one direction or another. Lastly, I want WoW to offer me tangible goals that I can set for myself, chase after, and mark off, feeling the accomplishment of doing something that stretches my comfort zone as a player. Against those criteria, how is Dragonflight for me? Well, it’s pretty good. I’ve had multiple goals put in front of me (raid completion, Keystone Master, steady increases to equipped item level, story completion) and I’ve been able to focus in on these goals and even check one off already (KSM in almost-but-not-quite 2022, let’s go!). I’ve been able to level and play multiple alts, including having my Demon Hunter and Evoker to 70 and through some dungeons and keys in addition to my newly-mained Monk, and I’ve been cycling rest experience on my remaining alts to get them all to 70 in fairly short order. I like both the Vault of the Incarnates and the season 1 dungeon rotation for Mythic Plus, and while I have some winners and some losers in the dungeon pool, overall I like it enough to enjoy pushing on keys. The Dragon Isles is an interesting continent concept with a lot of sweepingly beautiful vistas and the ability to see many of them with relative ease thanks to dragonriding.
I describe this up top because it’s worth mentioning that I know that many different people play the game and not everyone will agree with my assessment. I’ve seen a fair bit of feedback that Dragonflight isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I think that a part of the interest I still have in writing about games and sharing thoughts is that I get to see that kind of feedback and see how it contrasts with my own. For the kind of player who would already like modern WoW – gear treadmills, power-focused progression, multi-layered content systems encouraging repetition – Dragonflight offers them what they want, mostly, and I’m in this audience. You may not be, and will likely end up with a slightly-worse perception of the expansion if not, and that’s fair. The freedom to choose routes through content and how to manage your own time at endgame has been a blessing for me compared to the grindy systems of Azerite and Artifact Power early into their respective expansions, and it has been nice to not be trapped into a bad choice like the Covenant system could manage, alongside the gated, heavily controlled path of progression through those systems that marred the Shadowlands endgame in the same early days. Being able to just choose to ignore reputation to push through dungeons, level alts, or chase other goals is nice, and having an alt be viable based solely on the work and gear put into that character is a great feeling too.
Even trying to take the perspective of someone who is into less PvE combat and enjoys just hanging out or doing quirky things, Dragonflight is streets-ahead of the past few WoW expansions on this front. Things like Hunts, the Communtity Feast, and Dragonraces all give this fun feeling to the world where it is alive with stuff you can do. I think that the Community Feast is genuinely one of the funniest and most enjoyable things added to WoW in a long time (Yes Chef!), and this makes a fantastic blueprint for an expansion (and hopefully this success is reflected in the patch content to come). At all levels of the game, there is something to do that rewards you well, encourages you to play, and pushes for a social atmosphere that is the crucial differentiator for an MMO. It’s one of the more lively expansion starts I’ve seen in a while, especially because the open world of both BfA and Shadowlands felt somewhat dead even just this early in, and even Legion didn’t quite reach the level of community engagement through design like this.
A big part of Dragonflight’s success and promise is built on the idea that it does away with the systems grind of prior expansions, which made having a stable of alts feel like an impediment since that was time you could be grinding Azerite, or made it so having alts required a lot of grinding per character to get everything up to snuff. How is Dragonflight doing on that idea?
Dragonflight, Instrumental Play, and Systems
Dragonflight is one of the more alt-friendly expansion starts we’ve had in a while on the WoW side. It’s also perhaps one of the least alt-friendly expansions so far. Let’s explore this one and circle this square.
On the one hand, with no borrowed power system, immediate progression access to Dragonriding upgrades, and the ability to freely bounce around the Dragon Isles leveling how you see fit, alts are great in Dragonflight. Time spent on alts doesn’t feel burdensome to your raiding main, providing you’ve met your goals for the week (done your M+ to the level you wanted, unlocked your Great Vault slots, etc), and the core currency of progression is back to familiar old item level and gear, so an alt just needs to do stuff that rewards gear to be “current” – and that lets you engage with the best parts of WoW’s gameplay (in my opinion, at least). You’ve got layers of Renown catchup, with every 10 Renown on a main bestowing a buff that increases the acquisition rate of it on all other characters on your account, and there are some unlocks that are account-wide, so you just need to do the thing once to get access to cosmetic rewards. Reputations are largely cosmetic rewards and that helps with the grind – you can simply opt-out, if the reward is not something appealing for you.
On the other hand, alt gameplay can feel bad if you’re trying to level up Renown, keep tradeskills thriving on multiple characters, or meet the goals laid out for you on a main. The new Renown system is grindy, and the profession recipes require getting that Renown on the character you want the recipe on, which means the grind is inescapable. It becomes especially apparent that this is a problem given that Blizzard felt it was correct to make some things account-bound unlocks while reputation recipes and the like are still firmly locked down per character. If you’re trying to keep a character up to near-parity with a main, this becomes a compounding issue – weekly profession knowledge quests, keeping the Great Vault stocked as much as possible, gathering trade materials, hitting rep targets, and the like all compete for time per character instead of at an account level.
In the past, this is probably where I’d waffle a bit and give Blizzard some room, say they can try and design content in a way that meets their metrics or something similar, but honestly, I think we are long past that now. I would have much more desire to play alts in Dragonflight if the Renown grind was a global unlock of rewards for my account. You can keep the Renown level locked per character as a means of asking me to make a choice between unlocking rewards by funneling play hours into a single character or spreading my play over many characters and making slower progress to those unlocks, but I think that the days of locked, per-character reputation rewards just isn’t it anymore. As it stands now, the choice is which character progresses the reputation path first, and that’s pretty much always going to be your main, but then you’ve got to run through the same stuff over and over again to get your tradeskills up to snuff on each alt with crafting, and that’s a pain given that the gameplay behind those systems is not particularly engaging.
There’s also the matter of the reputation gear rewards, few of which are particularly compelling in the existing Dragonflight ecosystem with super rares and multiple weekly caches that reward high item level loot. Ooh, an LFR-level and Normal raid-level piece of loot per faction! Let me just smash into this super rare for something as high as 392 and get something around 380-390 from my weekly event caches, and now it’s not really worth much to bother with rep, eh? To be fair, this has been a problem in WoW for a long time now – as far back as WoD, the expansion launch rep reward gear you could get was almost always far behind what you could get from just, like, playing normally, and it’s seemingly something Blizzard is not keen to fix. As it stands, though, this is even more baffling because of the other systems in Dragonflight that aim squarely at a more casual audience that isn’t doing raiding, dungeons, or PvP, so even that valid path for those players is, well, not quite as valid now.
Overall, I think that Dragonflight’s weirdest thing is how much it has the veneer of a free-play, pick your path experience that is actually quite locked to rails through instrumental play practices. It appears open and wide, and to a greater extent than many of the last 10 years of WoW expansions, it is. However, once you peel away the artifice, there are targets you can get value from, a structured and organized way of getting there, and an ill-defined endpoint for them if you’re not engaged in endgame content. You can farm super rares until maybe you get all 392 pieces for your class from their loot tables, can do all your weekly events until you’ve gotten max loot from them, can grind elemental invasions for the 385 epics, and can even cap out your Renown reputations and the lesser, easier reputations like one of the Black Dragon bros or the Cobalt Assembly, but several of these goals are more akin to Azerite or Artifact power – there’s a loose stopping point where Blizzard expects most players to let off the gas a bit, but the game doesn’t really push you to stop and it will let you keep going as long as you want as the benefit of doing so tapers smaller and smaller for you. And it’s like, you know, I don’t want every rare to have a loot lockout you can track or be marked on the map, because it feels against the spirit of the idea, but at the same time, it is the weirdness of how WoW loves doing things – barely explained, “go figure it out” design where the game is unhelpful at best in giving a player the guidance to how things work. Literally everything we know as a community about super rares is down to datamining, players posting personal anecdotes about things they got from a super rare, and a communal process of figuring it out. That’s really cool in a way and it fits with the sort of general idea of an interesting living world, but it also creates a gameplay frustration for the target audience – if you’ve only got 2 hours a night to play at most, do you want to spend it chasing the possibility of rare spawns with the possibility of dropping a useful item that could possibly be an upgrade, or are you just going to go the path with more content and do some world quests or run a queueable dungeon?
If all I wanted from WoW is to play one character as hard as possible, taking that one character to the absolute pinnacle of what I could reach in gameplay, sure, the Dragonflight model is better for that than even the past couple of expansions. However, when your goals and hopes start to expand beyond that even slightly, there are cracks that form and the game offers a certain amount of firm resistance to just letting you play if you are goal driven. It’s only been in the last two weeks that I’ve turned much attention at all to alts, and that attention largely boils down to trying to balance leveling and gearing an alt at a time against the needs to keep my main on the ascent – pushing higher keys, making the most of raid time, and the out of game time that comes with raid leading – reviewing logs, researching fights, and keeping my raiders happy (to the extent that I can help influence that). Even as I focus on alts, it comes with the acceptance of compromise – I can’t fully focus on maximizing crafting skills on alts just yet, gearing those alts is a relatively slower process, and the time spent on alts is time away from maximizing rewards on my main – pushing higher keys for better loot, learning the dungeons better to be able to push ever higher, raiding in PUGs to try and get more hands-on time with fights to be able to better lead them, and the like.
Don’t get it twisted – I do definitely enjoy my time in Dragonflight and I am still somewhat conditioned to expect that alt play is always going to be a bit of a compromise in terms of what I can and cannot do. I just think that Dragonflight could still do more, do better for alts and alt gameplay with fewer compromises. It’s a good step forward overall for the game, but should be the first of many.
Waiting for The Other Shoe To Drop
Something I’ve felt kind of keenly about Dragonflight is an affliction of modern WoW – if I like this now (and I do, overall), then what happens when the first major patch hits? What about the second? Blizzard has, in years past, loved doing this thing where they experiment in those patches, adding new things, changing and tweaking existing systems and content, and overall kind of pushing in a different direction. In the past couple of expansions, some of these experiments have been good (Azerite essences and account-wide HoA item level upgrades from rep, global Artifact Knowledge, freely swapping Covenants), but some have been bad (Benthic gear with RNG upgrades like sockets and tertiary stats, Korthia just like in general, random relic upgrades via the Netherlight Crucible).
The fear I find myself having (okay, fear is maybe strong, but you get the idea) is that Dragonflight’s current state could be disrupted negatively because Blizzard targets some aspect of the game as it stands and nukes it for a “fix.” World events are great fun and these interesting little things to do, but how relevant will they be in 10.1 or 10.2? Will there be new ones? Super rares are maybe not strictly good but they are an interesting system to play with more permissive gearing and players did gravitate to doing them, so what happens when we move on to new content with that idea? In fact, one of the big glaring problems I worry about with patches in Dragonflight is that the coolest thing about the Dragon Isles and Dragonriding is the idea that this is a massive place and all of it is relevant – which is great, but then we know what happens in subsequent patches in modern WoW – the scale is dialed back as we go. In Shadowlands, you had the realms of death across 5 pretty large zones, and in 9.1, it was…two zones that were relevant, one of which was already in at 9.0. In 9.2, that became…one zone, and it was new, huge, and interesting, but then it was the only relevant and current world content for nearly 10 months.
WoW has two nasty habits in modern-era that I am waiting with trepidation for in Dragonflight – the scaling down of scope and the desire to “fix” taking out stuff that players mostly like. I want to see the Forbidden Reach and see how we handle things in that zone in 10.0.7, but if it becomes the only place we can go that offers relevant and current endgame content and rewards, that’s less exciting. At least it is on the Dragon Isles map we have today, which is more than can be said for potential future zones, which would all have to be added in some way, and if they are added in a way that sequesters them from the content we have today, that’s going to feel small-scale and kind of bad. Right now I love being able to go high in Valdrakken and glide from the Seat of the Aspects into any other location in the continent in a couple of minutes. It makes the scale and sense of place you get from Dragonriding feel complete, and I fear that without it, the game will start to feel too small and not exciting enough. The Primalist Future stuff you can do today already has that problem, where it exists today as a zone to do one quest chain and one weekly event in, and even with the content coming in two weeks for it, there’s not a big reason to go there, the zone is small and it feels weirdly isolated from everything else in the Dragon Isles.
Now, the kicker here is that Blizzard could very well exceed expectations – no big experiments, carefully thought-through and player-mindful explorations of new content, and zones added in a way that grows the scope of available content instead of shrinking it. Certainly, for my core gameplay, I’m likely going to be happy either way – raids are almost always great and the new system for Mythic Plus in Dragonflight has made the mode even more engaging, but I remain wary of how the other stuff will go. I spend a lot of time engaging with the more casual side of the game on alts and in downtime, and I have interest in it being engaging for myself as well as just generally for the health of the game. Already, Dragonflight has a big strength over Shadowlands in that the world feels whole and comprehensively connected compared to what we got in 9.0, and it would be a shame to lose that.
The Roadmap Changes Things A Bit
A part of the cynicism about Blizzard and WoW is rooted in how much they appear to be just winging it – throwing shit at the wall to see what works and what doesn’t. Early in 2022, a big part of my FFXIV fandom was solidified thanks to the team putting forward a 10-year roadmap, discussing plans and ideals for guiding the game through another decade of content. WoW’s last majorly-popular expansion, Legion, was well-received in large part because the development team made a rock-solid roadmap, revealed it early in the lifespan of the expansion with screenshots and assets from in-development content, and stuck to it with a regular 11-week release cadence that kept new content consistently in player’s hands. The problem since then is that neither Battle for Azeroth or Shadowlands had this level of attention, with BfA getting a more basic and stripped-down “what’s next” at Blizzcon 2018 while Shadowlands pretty much never had a plan made public until it was time to hype the upcoming release, and then it was just about that one release. In both BfA and Shadowlands, release cadence was all over the place as well.
Dragonflight has a roadmap with a lot of bullet points on it. Those bullet points are vague, perhaps disconcertingly so in some cases, but they represent a change in approach that drives at some criticism Blizzard rightfully caught over Shadowlands in particular. The roadmap is vague, but still also has a lot of information about the design philosophy and what can be expected. Blizzard seems to be making an effort to decouple elements of patches for the sake of more regular content updates – moving from a model of megapatches on the major version numbers to parcel out content earlier instead. What the roadmap reveals is more story and questing coming in minor patches, with even more likely to be contained in the major patches as well to go with their new zones, new raids, and new seasons of instanced content. It’s not to the level of Legion yet, but there is promise in the idea of putting forward a huge plan and saying, out loud, that you’re going to ship 6 total patches for the game in 2023, the first of which will be here already by the end of this month. If that pace is maintained and backed-up with more detailed content previews and answers on how the team will meet their goals on pace, then I will be a happy camper.
For now? The roadmap is sometimes a rightly dunked-upon piece of the live services game model, but with a subscription still required, please, give me those details, and provided you meet the goals stated, I can get behind it solidly. It is, I think, a good omen that the WoW team is trying to communicate more, at least.
The Ethics and Moral Implications of Enjoying A Blizzard Product in 2023
The last issue that I feel makes discussion of Dragonflight difficult is the desire to state an opinion, however positive, about the game itself without having it wrapped up in layers of problems with how Blizzard just generally is now. The company remains on the backfoot over the sexual harassment and discrimination issues brought to light in summer 2021 and again in fall 2022 with a new lawsuit, and the company remains under the watch of Bobby Kotick, whose own leadership leaves a lot to be desired on this topic, to say the least.
In the blogosphere, I’ve seen a fair few takes on this issue and all of them are unique to a point. Some only talk about the stuff they play for free, some won’t write a single post about Blizzard without pointing at the allegations and lawsuits, some refuse to write about WoW or Blizzard in general, and if they do, it ends up being solely about the lawsuits and issues, and all of these are ultimately fine. One thing I’ve felt pretty strongly the whole time is that until a point where mass consumer action is called for by the employees of the company, we all get to make our own choices and none are more righteous or worthy than the others. I still feel that way.
One thing that kind of stuck with me for a while, at least as long as I’ve been writing/thinking about this draft, was a post from Bhagpuss wondering about the way in which so many bloggers went from “no Blizzard!” to “Dragonflight, though.” It’s something I’ve thought about a lot myself, just in how it could, maybe, apply to me. Admittedly, I was never on the train away from Blizzard just for the myriad issues posed by the lawsuits against the company, but instead a mix of guild conflicts, lack of desire to play Shadowlands given the content structure and way that expansion unfolded, and then the lawsuits and exposed issues from them were a sort of icing on the cake – never the reason I left WoW behind for nearly a year, but one of those things that made me think about returns a lot harder than I otherwise would have. I quit briefly in the summer of 2021 and again from November of that year until late October in 2022, but both of those were down to non-lawsuit issues. I also, quite readily, admitted that Blizzard could win me back with a compelling-enough content drop and contrite enough statement to support it, and so, well, here I am. And for what it’s worth, I know Bhagpuss isn’t calling me out nor would I feel a need to defend my personal position here had he done so – but it gave me pause to think all the same.
In a lot of ways, I do feel a certain challenge to being vocally delighted by a product from Blizzard, not because of any external pressure to feel that way, but because I want to maintain a consistent stance for myself that is not contradictory to things I’ve done or said in the past. It’d be like complaining about feeling unwelcome in a space after participating in bullying someone out of it and then celebrating that – sure, that’s a thing you can say, but who is supposed to care knowing that your own behavior is contradictory? I aim to never have that level of egg on my face, to never be that much of a hypocrite, because man, that would be embarrassing and you’d need a complete lack of self-reflection to even be close to that.
So cheeky in-jokes aside, a big thing that has made me contemplate writing about WoW is simply the idea of wanting to balance things well – to speak to the genuinely good work done on Dragonflight without dismissing or appearing to dismiss the very serious issues at Blizzard, to give the team their kudos without letting the spotlight fall off of Blizzard’s awful responses to issues of harassment and employee unionization, and to give the expansion a fair shake without unintentionally giving myself a fencepost colonoscopy. I think the WoW team has unironically done a good job with Dragonflight. I, however, cannot speak to the environment inside the team with any sense of actual understanding. I can say I see things on social media that seem positive and people who seem quite happy with the changes being made, and I can see a company that is claiming to change for the better. I can also see them using the legal system to drag things out on lawsuits, to pit government agencies against one another for the sake of a more favorable outcome that reduces the likelihood of justice, and one that is fighting tooth and nail vigorously against unionization or anything that would give employees a better platform to stand on for themselves. I have a dim view on the idea that Microsoft acquiring the company will do much to change the culture, if that even happens at all, given that the anti-trust hammer is being swung against the deal here in the US, at least at last reporting.
Ultimately, my stance on it boils down to this – I left for non-lawsuit reasons and maintained that a good content drop addressing my core gameplay concerns would bring me back to WoW, and Dragonflight has met that bar for me, so here I am, side-eyeing Blizzard on the everything else but willfully allowing myself to slide back into WoW fandom and public appreciation for the game as delivered. If we reach the point of a requested boycott from a representative group of employees, I’d be happy to join in that action and would do so without hesitation, but until/unless we reach that level of action, I feel pretty consistent in my reasoning for the time being.
But I do think it is an issue that deserves to have a spotlight kept on it, and I’m glad that within the community of MMO writers I run in, there’s still a focus on Blizzard’s issues and a desire to balance appreciation for the team’s output with the actions of the company at large.
What Comes Next
Overall, Dragonflight has been off to a decent start, in my opinion. I think there are still opportunities for WoW in the short and long term, particularly when it comes to addressing player feedback and meeting all players where they are as best as possible. WoW has a self-selecting audience of raiders and dungeon-runners who are always going to be okay if their core content is decent, and I think there is a lot more that could be done still for audiences outside of that one. Likewise, I think Blizzard needs a better and healthier outlook on alt gameplay and a more modern take on what can and should be account-wide to ensure players don’t feel excessive burnout from multiple layers of goals. Blizzard’s roadmap and stated plan for Dragonflight is seemingly a good step, but vague enough to do little to assuage fears that the company will swing wildly at something that players love and remove it or make it unrecognizable or fall to the same error of limiting the scope of current content in a way that shrinks the play space and excitement for it. Lastly, Blizzard still has a long way to go in addressing their corporate culture publicly and it remains a correct position to be skeptical of the company and put pressure on them to make targeted improvements, whether or not you decide to do that alongside a more direct consumer action.
In the end, it’s also kind of weird to feel positive about WoW in a way. The last few years have been nerve-fraying about the game for me personally, because of a lack of good storytelling and a lot of layers of system interactions that left a bad taste in my mouth. Dragonflight so far has felt strange because, well, the game is good for a player like me – I’ve had a ton of fun with the content on offer and it has been a fantastic expansion to get back to roots and just enjoy playing the game again. I don’t want the game to fall off or fall into an obvious trap with too much or too radical of change, but it also needs something more to attract a larger and more diverse audience back into the fold. The game can still use some TLC around alt gameplay, story and main plotlines, and respect of player time, but the expansion has also gone a fair way towards addressing a lot of the major issues that WoW has had the past two expansions – at least to my satisfaction.
I’m having fun with WoW again, and that feels great, but also weird, and while I can see the opportunities the game still has, I’m content for the first time in a while to just simply be in Azeroth, which is nice.