WoW Should Face Existential Crises More Often

(More Blizzard than WoW, specifically, but I’m doing a call-back to this post from 2012)

Blizzard’s next patch for WoW is 9.1.5 and it contains… well, the words speak for themselves:

Over the past few weeks since we shared an update, the WoW team has been focused on the immediate future—both for our people and workplace, and what’s next for players too. As a part of that, the entire team came together to ask: What are the biggest things we’re hearing are getting in the way of your fun, and what are the most impactful changes we could make to WoW today to fix that?

Shadowlands Update 9.1.5 will be going on the PTR next week, and a lot of what you’ll find in it is the direct result of your collective feedback. It includes long-asked-for changes to make it easier to swap covenants and conduits, updates to make it so you don’t need to repeat covenant campaigns on alts, new character customization options for some races that were lacking them, and many more changes to help you play the way you want.

Just in case you’ve missed the context here, Blizzard is getting sued by California for rampant sexual discrimination, some egregious harassment, and general nefariousness. Oh, and more recently, allegedly shredding documents concerning all that. Some executives have been fired, some worker walk-outs have occurred, and all of this has come AFTER the mass-migration of WoW players that has been a result of poor game and story design leading into/throughout the Shadowlands expansion.

I cannot quite tell what it is exactly, but the whole thing feels nauseatingly patronizing.

Like it took throwing two decades of reputation in the garbage and an existential crisis for these designers to finally go “Huh, ain’t got shit to do today cuz the bosses are either sacked or hiding in the Cosby room… maybe I’ll give this whole ‘make fun games’ thing a try.” No, really, they basically said that:

While we hope many players will be pleased at the increased accessibility and freedom for experimentation these changes will permit, we know that you might be wondering why we didn’t make adjustments like these sooner. After all, a large portion of the community has been vocal about wanting to see changes along these lines since mid-2020, when Shadowlands was still in Beta.

When it comes to the limitations on Covenant-switching, millions of players experienced Shadowlands for the first time through the lens of their Covenant of choice, and that would have not been possible had the choice carried less weight from the outset. Nevertheless, after the conclusion of the Chains of Domination campaign, the Covenants are united against the Jailer, and revisiting player feedback in that context has led us to re-evaluate our approach.

“Covenant of choice.” Tell me how much choice a PvP Priest has in regards to Covenants again. Or Warlocks. Or basically any class/spec across the entire game? Covenants were choices in the same way stacking Crit vs Versatility is a choice: namely, choosing to be objectively correct or gimp your character in X or Y (or all) content. But now that Blizzard’s stated goal of forcing you to experience the game in a specific way has been achieved, the devs will now, in their extreme beneficence, sell you the solution to the problem they created.

This is not a new tactic for the WoW devs, of course. Each expansion launches with an obviously asinine timesink that the devs conveniently “fix” a year later after it successfully sunk millions of player dollars in subscriptions. In any other year, these Shadowlands changes would be par for the course. The fact that these changes are cloaked in this “we’re reexamining everything in the company” is just gross. It’s like, no you aren’t, and stop pretending you are doing anyone any favors here. Shit should have been changed a year ago, when everyone told you it was a terrible idea.

It’s gotten to the point where I just dread hearing anything about WoW. You know those shows out there which just sort of revel in awkwardness, scripted or not? I can’t stand them. There’s something about them that is physically painful to watch for me. And that’s what WoW news is to me now.

I watched that Sylvanas cinematic and I just couldn’t anymore. How many years have they been building to this moment, and some committee of writers thought “I will never serve” fit in with anything that was going on? What did she think she was doing up to this point? There is zero way to write themselves out of the hole they wrote themselves into. So now we’re all just sitting around and waiting to see how painfully awkward the conclusion is going to be.

To some extent, we expect Xanatos Gambits from evil masterminds. Heroes doing things that end up playing right into the villain’s hands. The key is that the heroes’ actions are usually, at worst, dumb in retrospect. Other times, they just had no way of knowing the extent of scheming that took place; can’t blame them in those scenarios. But there is no coming back from this for Sylvanas as a character. She wasn’t looking for an opportunity to snatch the One Ring at the right moment. She’s just dumb and got bamboozled by someone called the Jailer. Sylvanas never took a moment to look around the Maw? Maybe notice all the chains, all the dominated souls bent to serve? In her mind, the Jailer was just going to be like “everyone’s free now” and then put down the McGuffin of ultimate power?

It’s all so dumb.

Everyone has predicted for a decade or longer that the true WoW-killer was going to be WoW itself. But I couldn’t even imagine it playing out this way. Shit design, shit corporate culture, shit story. That’s the trifecta right there. They are working on it though! They sat down and brainstormed and talked about their feelings and remembered that all the problems were correctly identified in beta (again) so they could continue to put in minimum effort into what once was a billion dollar franchise.

The one hope that WoW has is that corporate spreadsheet dweebs like Ion Hazzikostas have an outsized effect on game design direction. So that, you know, when they are fired or quit, the ship can be turned around. If things really are built by committee though, WoW is straight fucked and the ship is going down. Or arguably already has, and the remaining population is clinging to dressers and doors while everyone else is paddling the life boats away. But hey, at least the knobs were fixed in a patch.

Posted on September 2, 2021, in WoW and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “Covenants were choices in the same way stacking Crit vs Versatility is a choice: namely, choosing to be objectively correct or gimp your character in X or Y (or all) content.”

    This is only true if you are into progression. Any casual guild will take you whatever class/covenant combo you play, since the differences are minor. When I started Shadowlands it was obvious that my druid would be Night Fae, optimal choice or not. In the guild we have some weird covenant choices and they still do fine in HM “relaxed” raiding.


    • Sure… in which case, nothing would have been lost allowing other people to switch Covenants freely, since everyone else would have stuck with their RP/aesthetic choice anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Why? If it’s supposed to be a story-relevant life choice for your character you should not be allowed to change covenant at all for exactly the same reasons. I mean, with your reasoning you should be able to switch class/race freely……

        The problem seems to be that everyone wants meaningful choices which will durably impact your character…. until they get them and then start whining that they cannot switch all the time to target some hypothetical optimum that noone except the top tier raiders need.


      • The designers said Covenants were a “story-relevant” decision but you could change Covenants right from the start with no consequence. The only thing that was onerous was changing back to a Covenant you left previously. That is what is going away with this patch, so there is little material difference.

        In your example, you decided your Druid was going to be Night Fae regardless of whether Covenants were restricted or not. So… you would have lost nothing by letting others freely swap them. Did the meaningfulness of your decision change knowing you can switch to Necrolord with a few clicks? Arguably, your decision to remain Night Fae becomes more meaningful the easier it is to change it.

        This probably deserves to be its own post, but… I am also the absolute last person to argue that “meaningful choices” can or ought to exist in MMOs. For one thing, what is a “meaningful” choice? A mutually exclusive one? We already have those in the form of the character select screen. But I would argue that the character select screen choice isn’t really meaningful because we are not aware of the consequences. When I chose a paladin to be my main back in 2008, I did not know that Blizzard was going to make my character be practically a non-viable raid tank for two expansions. Or that Retribution would be OP for another expansion and then lackluster in two more.

        The other dimension that invalidates meaningfulness is when the choice involves material gameplay. As I wrote in my response to Carson, if you ever wanted to PvP with your Priest character, you should be Venthyr. If you wanted to improve the quality of life for your Death Knight, you should be Night Fae… although it would severely reduce your DPS or Tanking abilities in PvE content. Those are choices, but are they “meaningful?” Not if you care about DPS or quality of life. They are simple math problems: A > B. If you care about story too, well, what value is there in forcing you to decide between gameplay and story?


  2. “Covenants were choices in the same way stacking Crit vs Versatility is a choice: namely, choosing to be objectively correct or gimp your character in X or Y (or all) content.”

    Would you extend that to “in the same way playing a death knight as opposed to a rogue is a [false] choice” if your aim is raiding as melee dps in SoD tier? We have to agree that there will always be permanent commitments and balance will never be perfect. If covenant perks were so unbalanced that the verb ‘gimp’ is justified, then they should have been balanced better.

    Blizzard may be a pile of garbage, and more so than we had thought in the past… but it’s for every reason except that one. Abdicating any claim to authorial vision and desperately bribing players with the removal of limitations and meaningful consequences for choices is not salutary, it’s pathetic.


    • Here is the thing: if they wanted “meaningful” consequences, they could have divorced the Covenant abilities from the Covenant narratives, and then never allow you to switch. In that scenario, you could legitimately claim some “authorial vision” and sidestep any outrage from players having to choose between aesthetics/narrative and progression viability. Would it be weird to have a Necrolord button while gathering anima for Bastion? Maybe. But there’s a 1001 ways you could narratively justify (or handwave) it away and we would be in a much better place.

      Also, this Covenant switching thing isn’t new. Blizzard changed it in Shadowlands beta to allow swapping of Covenants; there was just an onerous process from changing from one to another and then back to the original. I don’t actually remember anymore if Covenant switching was in during release, but there are plenty of documented threads talking about it since at least January, so… it’s been available for 8+ months now. The currently discussed change is simply removing the remaining (artificial) friction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Would it be weird to have a Necrolord button while gathering anima for Bastion? Maybe. But there’s a 1001 ways you could narratively justify (or handwave) it away and we would be in a much better place.”

        That would be one way of doing it, sure. Perhaps the Kyrian champion went over to check out the necrolords, was very impressed with the green bubble and decides to do a short side-quest to trade the owl for a blue Kyrian version of it. Meanwhile, having picked Kyrian still feels meaningful because it enables the character to experience that specific storyline, soulbind with those specific NPCs, use those cosmetics exclusively, have exclusive access to the little Elysian Hold quests, preserve some Kyrian-specific flavour to the way you fight, etc.

        But I still don’t like it. It admits and formalises the player’s basic breakdown of trust for the designer’s ability to balance. To draw on your analogy from way back when, the dev becomes no longer even much of a chef. They just lay out a buffet table.

        Of the examples you gave to Carson, the Death Knight just seems like a case of numbers tweaking. Mind Games makes for a very strong argument, but I can still imagine putting something equally attractive in a rival covenant. Or not giving Venthyr Door of Shadows, to make the night fae mobility more relevant. Or balancing PvP and PvE separately, as they’re increasingly doing already (e.g. nerfing the Kyrian ret burst by simply reducing the damage TV does in PvP). Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d probably try harder to be right if it constituted my job.

        Which is the whole point. You picked a paladin in 2008 because you assumed that Blizzard would find a way for you to be worthwhile and effective, either by dint of sheer numbers or middling numbers and indispensable utility. Shouldn’t you hold them to account for the basic failure of executing this implied promise, as opposed to for failing to let you work around the problem yourself?

        “Also, this Covenant switching thing isn’t new. Blizzard changed it in Shadowlands beta to allow swapping of Covenants; there was just an onerous process from changing from one to another and then back to the original.”

        I know. But the onerousness (especially upon return to the covenant you ‘betrayed’, iirc) mattered. At the risk of sounding glib, the entire game is artificial friction between you and your goals. We’re just negotiating the path and coefficient. Why not a FFXIV-style job system so that you can always play the FotM class? Why not flying from level one? For that matter, are levels really necessary, if you hold the position that the real game begins at endgame?

        The further we go down this reductio ad absurdum path, the closer we get to a different genre altogether.


  3. Seems to me that if the “choice” of Covenant is a choice between “be correct” and “gimp your character”, the right fix is to work on the balance between different options, rather than just let people freely swap between them?


    • You cannot really balance some of the Covenant abilities. For example, when I mentioned PvP Priest, I am referring to the Venthyr ability Mindgames. The initial damage it deals is whatever, but the actual ability makes it so that for the next 5 seconds, enemies heal targets when dealing damage, and damage when healing targets. It is supremely versatile in PvP and entirely unique. Need to save your teammate from death? Pop Mindgames on the enemy and if they don’t notice immediately, they’ll end up burst healing your teammate instead of killing them. Conversely, if your target has a pocket healer keeping them alive, Mindgames makes it so that the healer is suddenly spamming damage on their buddy. Mindgames is like the ultimate CC – you can still do stuff, but it punishes you hard for not paying attention.

      Checking on Icy Veins, it does look like a Shadow Priest’s Covenant options are within 2% of each other, so you won’t necessary gimp yourself in PvE by choosing Venthyr. But NOT choosing Venthyr for PvP would be absurd. And yet, how would you balance Mindgames so it’s not an automatic pick for every Priest spec in PvP? Reduced duration? Only reverse a certain percentage of the damage/healing? There is not much you can do.

      A more PvE example would be Death Knights. As silly as it may seem, there is a huge draw for DKs to go Night Fae due to mobility increase ability, which is otherwise a traditional Death Knight weakness. But Necrolord is the superior DPS pick for Unholy by a significant margin. Frost DKs can apparently pick Night Fae with no major concerns. But Blood DKs (aka tanks) would be very disadvantaged by Night Fae abilities in comparison to what they get with other Covenants.

      That’s a lot of words, but let’s be real: Blizzard has a hard time balancing specs within the same class, let alone all the permutations of Covenants across all the content in the game (raiding, Mythic+, PvP, etc). Covenant abilities should be balanced, yes, but they arguably shouldn’t be tied to narrative choices lest the true dilemma be not who you choose to back, but which endgame content you are going to interact with the most.


  4. the remarkable thing about this patch is that every single thing in it could have been in 9.0 and I still would have quit. The game just felt so suddenly and overwhelming bad back in December that I didn’t even last three weeks before I stopped playing.

    To those of you holding on, players and devs, just remember: “everything is darkest just before it goes pitch black.”


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