Burnout in Warcraft’s Legion Expansion

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This article originally appeared on MMOGames.com.

The honeymoon is over. I came, I saw, I floundered, and after a few blissful months reimmersed in my old Azerothian stomping grounds, I’ve found myself completely sapped of the will to carry on.

Turns out I’m hardly alone on this one. The forums and social media communities have been aflutter with consternation about the current state of the game. There’s been weeping, gnashing of teeth, people taking things personally where they really have no reason to do so – you know, all the usual stuff. So where’s it all coming from?

The source of the brackish malaise eroding my personal enjoyment of Legion hasn’t been the easiest to put a finger on. There’s nothing wrong with the content introduced with Legion; even though the love has died, on that front, I’d still probably call it World of Warcraft‘s greatest expansion. And yet, somehow, I have absolutely no desire to keep playing it. Somewhere, below the shiny, polished exterior, something is rotten in Azeroth – and it’s not an Old God.

Metasystems in Game Design

Unfortunately for Blizzard, great content isn’t all it takes to make a game enjoyable, particularly in the medium to longer terms. While players might be more than happy to run a world quest, dungeon, or raid once or twice for the fun of it, if you want to keep them coming back, you need something else to spur them along. This is where metasystems come into play.

Layered on top of existing content, you have content rewards, one of the most important metasystems in MMO design. These are complex systems in their own right, ranging from achievements, to collectible cosmetics, to gear progression, to reputations and attunements, to even just experience (or its recently added endgame analogue, artifact power). While not rocket science, it takes a careful balance to make sure the player feels engaged, has a steady stream of self-set goals, and doesn’t feel totally overwhelmed or worry that the rest of the player base is passing them by. With Legion, for many, it feels like that balance has been upset.

We’ve seen poorly tuned metasystems wreak havoc in the past; some MMOs have struggled or outright failed because they got them wrong. Of the more famous examples, perhaps the most tragic is Wildstar (let’s face it, you knew this was coming from when you saw the word attunements in the previous paragraph), a game largely regarded as having terrific gameplay and fantastic content, yet ultimately destined for the dustbin of MMO history due to the mucked up way in which its metasystems and content reward structures were designed at launch.

World of Warcraft isn’t in any danger of sinking  to that particular level of ignominy, of course. It’s an established title with a gargantuan base of loyal fans that aren’t going anywhere. But an increasing number of them are becoming dissatisfied as a direct result of Legion‘s metasystem design, and Blizzard would be well advised to listen.

The Dreaded AP Grind

I’m not going to dwell too long on AP, since that particular dead horse has already been beaten beyond recognition by everyone with an internet connection and a passing interest in the current expansion, but it does bear mentioning as one of the principle offenders in Legion‘s new endgame metasystem philosophy.

With LegionWorld of Warcraft added artifact weapons, powerful new items that are leveled with artifact power experience and add a new form of specialization-specific progression to the title’s endgame. These weapons are designed to grow with the players over the course of Legion, and won’t be replaced until the launch of the next expansion.

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Where it’s gone off the rails a bit is that this progression, after a certain point, becomes functionally endless, creating a situation where any player with even a semblance of a competitive edge feels an immense amount of pressure to grind to keep up, while even those that don’t run the risk of being excluded as AP levels gradually becomes the new gear score by which their character’s worth is judged (in addition to their actual gear score).

I’ve never been a fan of infinite progression systems. Take Black Desert Online‘s elder game of endless grinding. It gives players something to work towards, but never to. The goal is ephemeral, unachievable, and ultimately, a bit disillusioning as a result. Every race has an end. Without one, all you’re doing is running. Once you’ve had enough, it’s the game you end up running from.

When your game has a competitive raiding scene like World of Warcraft‘s, the result is far worse. Players begin to feel as if a significant part of their success can be reduced to their /played, and any feeling of fairness between competitive progression guilds feels undermined as a result. Even if it’s mathematically not that impactful (and I’m not saying it isn’t), the feeling is what really matters here. Many players feel like how well you play matters less and less compared to how long you play, and that’s not a healthy perception for your consumers to have. Whether you personally feel that way or not, artifact power is beginning to undermine the game’s other systems for a great many players.

The New Role of RNG in Item Quality

While AP has taken the brunt of the disdain from players dissatisfied with Legion, I don’t feel it’s the only factor creating the borderline oppressive atmosphere making so many players feel an obligation to be constantly progressing. While not entirely new to Legion, one of Warcraft‘s recent reward distribution changes was to allow gear of almost any source to roll up to a higher quality iLvl, a functionality that has expanded moderately with each expansion since Mists of Pandaria. Ostensibly, the purpose of this change might be to create opportunities for lower tier players to progress more rapidly if they were lucky enough to get higher iLvl roll ups.

The unfortunate consequence of this was to create a progression system without plateaus, where a large swathe of the the endgame remains relevant progression content for the great majority of players. Where back in the day, progression activity would typically be limited to the events of a weekly night or two of raiding, it’s now encroached to encompass nearly any given moment when the player is logged in. Any combination of World Quests, Heroics, Mythic and Mythic + Dungeons, various raids at varying tiers and difficulty settings, and PvP could result in upgrades for a given player, and the result is they feel obligated to get through as much of it as possible every week – especially because getting a best-in-slot item to drop no longer necessarily means that you’ve gotten the best version of that item. Gone are the days of a lone progression night with a feeling of working from tier to tier to tier, and years past where we joked that our MMOs felt like a second job feel quaint by comparison.

The Blizzard School of Design Philosophy

Blizzard has seen massive success in its other properties over the past few years: OverwatchHeroes of the StormStarCraft 2, and Diablo 3 are all fantastic games with devout, rabid fan bases who sink hundreds of hours into each and every one of those titles. Blizzard is adept at addiction, masters of creating games that suck up time like supermassive black holes, spinning their players into an oblivion where no other games seem to even exist.

In those titles, Blizzard’s game metasystems tend to focus largely on what I would call quantifiable microsessions, where every time a player logs on, no matter how short, they can walk away visualizing exactly what they’ve accomplished, feeling like they’ve moved a step up the ladder, having a tangible sense of their account moving forward. Every time you log off, you can mentally track what you accomplished on a chart, a little imaginary bar filling in towards achieving your eventual goal.

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Progression in World of Warcraft, like other MMOs, used to exist outside of that philosophy. It was more of a long term proposition, relegated to specific weekly nights while the rest of your time was filled largely with side activities and an enjoyment of the virtual world and the other players who inhabited it. Now sure, a lot of those side-activities were absolutely quantifiable (any daily-affected reputation comes to mind), but they were a far cry from the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing deluge of continuous progression sweeping Legion‘s players away.

In the past, quantifiable microsession based gameplay in Warcraft has largely focused on cosmetic achievements and rewards. Sure, you can log in and earn progress towards a rare mount or a fancy new pet, put you never felt like you fell behind if you weren’t doing these things every day. When you bring progression into that design philosophy, the game changes completely.

It’s a tough line to tread and an unenviable balance for the game’s developers to have to maintain. It takes a lot of content to keep your players interested, but if your rewards metasystems are out of whack and too much content feels mandatory, the pressure of keeping up can end up alienating your players just as quickly as a lack of content would bore them.

Warcraft has made a striking leap from the era of Warlords offering its player too little to its new status quo of Legion demanding that its players complete too much, and while I (greatly) prefer the current iteration, it’s important that the team at Blizzard find a healthier balance of what’s merely peripheral and what players feel obligated to perform going forward. Keep all the fantastic content you’ve created and don’t slow down on adding more – just adjust the balance of systems like artifact power and gear distribution to move Legion‘s progression away from the endless, time-sucking grind we have now, back into the virtual world of possibility that millions of players have loved for over a decade.

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