My Games of the Decade Part 6 – World of Warcraft

Obviously, from the beginning of this mini-series, this one was coming.

WoW has been, for me at least, one of the more influential games in my catalog. It was the reason this blog started, the reason it ultimately continues, and has been something of a glue in my social life at varying points in time.

This last decade has been the first one where WoW has been present throughout the whole thing (in the public eye, at least, as the game started development in 1999!). During that time, we’ve seen the following expansions launch:

-Cataclysm
-Mists of Pandaria
-Warlords of Draenor
-Legion
-Battle for Azeroth

Capping off the decade at Blizzcon 2019, we had an announcement of the eighth WoW expansion, Shadowlands, and with it, a sense of how we start this decade off in the game. For today, however, we’re sticking to last decade.

The 2010s were a contentious decade for WoW. It started hot on the heels of one of the highest-rated expansions in the game in Wrath of the Lich King, and in particular with some fantastic content in the form of Icecrown Citadel currently in the game. Cataclysm was set to launch in December of 2010, and with it came the first point of true weakness in WoW. Since that time, WoW has largely settled into a pattern that has seemingly repeated since – even-numbered patch cycles being largely ill-received alongside the much more fondly-remembered odd-numbered patches. Mists of Pandaria was the last point at which the game was able to manage its obscene scaling of rewards, as the item squish came in at the tail end of the expansion with the WoD prepatch to bring stats back to earth, only to blow them up even higher with Legion just two years later.

The overall story of WoW in the last decade is one of painful adaptation. Blizzard has played with various ideas, only to dial them back in the next expansion. Cataclysm’s split focus in content gave way to a very focused endgame structure in Mists of Pandaria. Mists of Pandaria’s daily quest overload gave way to WoD’s minimal endgame content, which then gave way to world quests in Legion, whose random rewards led to more deterministic ones from emissaries in Battle for Azeroth.

WoW’s growing pains in the 2010’s highlight something important for the games industry to note – even a juggernaut like World of Warcraft is vulnerable to bad decision making or half-baked ideas. The Blizzard team working on WoW often adapts to player feedback, but tends to pendulum ideas too hard one way or the other, rarely settling on a middle ground. Blizzard does sometimes stick the landing, but it is increasingly rare. As a perfect example of this, BfA is in many ways a reaction to Legion, which theoretically answers a lot of the complaints from fans in a good way. Grinding AP for all your character’s weapons was obnoxious, so now you only do it once per character! Sure, we also made the scaling more obtuse through scaling down, and the limits on how low a level can scale mean there is not the same degree of rapid catchup for alts or after breaks that the Artifact weapons had, but hey! At least it is only once per character now! World Quests scale higher, emissary rewards are clearly stated with no grab bags, Legendaries are gone so no need to farm every random drop source constantly, and Mythic Plus has tweaked tuning and changes to the levels at which affixes come into play!

Having given this brief history lesson, then, what defined the decade for WoW?

The game received a number of visual quality upgrades over the course of the whole decade, with Cataclysm bringing substantially higher-detail player races for the time in the Worgen and Goblins, but even more notably, much more detailed armor models with higher resolution textures. Environments in Cataclysm had notably more detail, with similarly higher-res textures and more effects. Finally, Cata also saw the first iteration of a 64-bit client for WoW, allowing more memory utilization. Mists of Pandaria showed this further with the Pandaren being the gold standard in detail up to the release of WoD, and new animation rigging skeletons used to allow for Monks, which were then iterated upon in Warlords of Draenor with the new character models bringing every race slowly up to the standard of Pandaren, although the Cataclysm-added races had to wait until patch 8.2 in 2019 for that same treatment. Legion brought minor tweaks, but allowed Blizzard to revisit most demons in the game with new models, and introduce a new, much longer draw distance and view distance setting, allowing those of us with high-powered graphics cards to push draw distance out into adjacent zones. Battle for Azeroth then followed this up with modern graphics API updates for DirectX 12 on Windows and Metal on MacOS, along with patch updates bringing a modern multi-threaded rendering engine to the game at long last, meaning that most of us saw substantial performance improvements just for that code change with no upgrades to our own setups.

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In terms of audio direction, the game has always done a great job, although with the departure of Russell Brower from Blizzard during Legion, it is difficult to imagine the soundtrack of the game having quite the same soul and punch. BfA has done fairly well in this regard, but, to my ears at least, has fewer must-listen tracks, sadly. The overall presentation package of the game is still very well done and the modern game is still an enveloping experience.

As for gameplay, Blizzard has had a bit more mixed of a track record here. Over the last decade, WoW has focused largely on streamlining systems to avoid the bloat and inflation the game’s design naturally fast-tracked it for. Cataclysm halved talent points while making other small tweaks to the original point-based system, before MoP introduced the tiers of 3 model we’ve had ever since. Ability pruning began with WoD, removing some abilities and adding no new ones, while Legion furthered this by using spec identity to further prune and divvy up abilities between talent specs, while also using the Artifact ability to add some layering to gameplay, which then left BfA to finish the decade with even more pruning, leaving the classes near a level of bare main rotations they haven’t been in a long time.

From other gameplay aspects, the game has streamlined professions, first with catchup recipes to grind through the early levels of a tradeskill using current expansion materials, and then finally the BfA model, splitting each expansion into its own level of trade with no prerequisite other than the base (Classic) version of the skill. Stats on gear were sharply simplified in Cataclysm, removing several mathy stats like Armor/Spell Penetration to make gearing easier and adding Reforging to allow players to change up their secondary stats by taking one stat on gear and turning a fraction of it into a stat not on the gear. Reforging was then removed after MoP along with other stats like Hit, Expertise, Spell Power on weapons, and tank stats – replacing them with Versatility, Multistrike, and refocusing tanks and healers by giving them Bonus Armor and Spirit respectively, but focusing these stats on accessory pieces only. This experiment lasted for one expansion before Legion further pruned these, pushing out Bonus Armor, Spirit, and Multistrike and doubling-down on Versatility, the most boring of the new stats.

In terms of combat, the game was getting fast – aggressively so, as latency limiters began to drop and more abilities came into play. Through pruning, Blizzard also took measures to slow down gameplay, mostly in PvP until BfA made a large number of abilities locked to the global cooldown, a controversial decision that was largely (but not completely) undone via patches as BfA has progressed.

From a design perspective, WoW continues to have a set of defined strengths and questionable weaknesses. The game has forsaken its commitment to an immersive world, with BfA having separate continents for the factions and a third wheel in Nazjatar, Legion having a series of very different landmasses inexplicably joined together, with the last time a continent felt cohesive in-game being, oddly, Draenor.

Raid gameplay has remained largely strong in WoW throughout the decade, although in Legion, raid design was definitely hamstrung by the leadership departure of Ion Hazzikostas, who took over the director role and left the chair of lead encounter designer. Tomb of Sargeras was one of the worst raids from a gameplay perspective in the game’s history, in my opinion, and no raid in Legion felt as strong as the raids in WoD – where they were the sole highlight in the game. Dungeon design has remained highly competitive, although the introduction of Mythic Plus has incentivized the team towards some questionable trash padding that can be more frustrating than fun.

The game’s overworld design has largely moved towards creating durable, reusable quest content, with various quests completed during leveling then later being reused as world quests with maybe tweaked objective counts. World scaling, which I still think is a net good overall, has been slightly overdone with BfA and gear level scaling often creating situations where a moderately geared 120 can feel worse than the same character at 119, which is no fun and counter-intuitive to the nature of the game.

The game’s storytelling has progressed, but also arguably regressed. Where once the game did an excellent job of featuring your character alongside the heroes of lore, as the game has shifted to a more cinematic mode of presentation, a lot of the focus on your character has disappeared. Quest text and various other moments still try to place your character on a pedestal in-lore, but I would debate if these implementations have actually been successful.

All of that said, my main takeaway is this – given everything I just said, why is WoW still on my list and arguably still my main game?

Well, maybe a part of it is Stockholm Syndrome.

But, jokes aside, a larger part of it is that WoW remains an excellent world to passively play in. My freetime can be spent doing nearly any content in WoW while also watching internet video, listening to podcasts, or even using time on flight paths and loading screens to write or read. Its world is familar, comfortable, and even as it has grown over the last decade, immersiveness aside, Azeroth remains among the most well-realized fantasy settings in a game I have seen. The game has a clear sense of how it wants to be seen artistically and realizes that, puts effort into crafting a whole world with a sense of place and purpose, and short of a few missteps along the way, still feels like one of the most complete packages in the gaming space. Casual solo content, serious solo content, small group content of all levels in PvE and PvP, large group content, eSports potential, collection games, Pokemon analogues – WoW truly has it all.

One thing I leave unsaid when I am being critical of WoW is this – I am critical because I care. I’ve played this game since June of 2005, and short of two smallish breaks, it has maintained my interest throughout. When I feel let down by WoW, it feels more personal, and the expression of that letdown comes from a desire to see the game be better and do better.

If you somehow are an MMO person and have never touched WoW, I want to know what your life looks like – but at this point, I very highly doubt such a person even exists. WoW is a cultural touchstone so major that I can’t even simply say you have to play it. Most of the planet would recognize WoW at a glance, or are familiar with the title in at least a very high-level conceptual manner. While I can’t say that the game is worth playing today, it is less than two weeks out from a major patch that may be worthwhile, and if nothing else, Shadowlands has high potential to be great – provided the huge blank spaces and TBDs all over the Blizzcon 2019 hype aren’t ominous placeholders for boneheaded design. That is definitely a possibility, but I would argue that for now, I remain highly excited for Shadowlands and at least engaged with the game for the remainder of BfA – or at least until my guild has our Ahead of the Curve achievements from N’Zoth!

My Games of the Decade Part 6 – World of Warcraft