Shadowlands’ promise of player agency fills me with hope, but can the game follow through?
Day 1 of BlizzCon has come and gone. We will learn more details about the specific systems coming to Shadowlands tomorrow. But as an initial impression of WoW’s next expansion, I am left filled with hope for the future… but I’m also fearful about what this expansion means for the game.
Player Agency: The two magic words
I was honestly shocked and incredibly pleased today when Ion Hazzikostas emphasized the need for “player agency.” Let’s be clear: this is a total about-face in WoW’s design philosophy. The overarching design of modern WoW is that we play the way the Warcraft team wants us to play and there is no alternative.
This attitude has been rampant in every beta process and every WoW Q&A of the Ion era. They hear what we want, but they disagree. They’re going to do it their way, and if we don’t like it? Well then too bad. You can see this perspective from top to bottom in the game right now, like the Commandments of WoW:
- Thou shalt not equip what is forbidden. (Do you want to play a two-handed Frost DK, a Monk that strikes with a staff, or a Fury Warrior with one-handed weapons? That’s not their vision for the game.)
- Thou shalt earn no currency to purchase items, either for PVE or PVP. (Everything is either rigid like Honor system unlocks or random from drops and loot chests.)
- Thou shalt complete World Quests for faction reputation. (Grinding mobs and running dungeons provide no rep like they did in the past.)
- Thou shalt embark on Island Expeditions to upgrade your necklace. (Every other way is far less efficient.)
I could go on and on with these, but you get the point. It’s striking when you go back to WoW Classic, because there is so much player agency, from the flexible talent system itself to the wider choice of items to equip to the type of experience you want to have in any given login. Maybe revisiting Classic helped the WoW team realize what the modern game was missing.
You can see this increased player agency already in Shadowlands in the way the leveling system will be updated to allow questing in any previous expansion’s zone from 1 to 50. That’s putting the leveling experience entirely in the player’s hands.
You can also see this agency in the new character customization options. WoW characters have been extremely rigid in their customization for 15 years, with a handful of options for each race. Shadowlands offers a complete reimagining of what’s possible for our characters — once again, leaving it up to us as players how we want our characters to look and what we want them to be.
Other lessons Blizzard has (hopefully) learned
Today’s announcements also showed the world that Blizzard has learned from the biggest mistakes of the past two expansions. First, according to Ion, there will be no infinite Artifact Power grind. That alone is a reason to rejoice, since both Legion and Battle for Azeroth forced players to go after all that AP in unhealthy ways. Players who didn’t grind their utmost risked falling too far behind for raids or Mythic+ runs. BFA’s Azerite system was particularly onerous, as upgrades could actually become downgrades if you didn’t have the AP to unlock all of their bonuses. It’s a shame it took Blizzard two expansions to figure out how annoying this entire system is, but at least they get it now.
Ion also said that Legendaries will no longer be acquired at random. Instead, we’ll have a way to craft them using the existing professions. This, too, is a big relief. Having your performance be so dependent on such extreme randomness was a terrible design flaw that also led to unhealthy player incentives and behaviors.
Acquiring Legendaries should be exciting. It should be a rush to obtain such a powerful item. But that doesn’t mean they need to drop out of the sky. Asking players to earn them through a bit of elbow grease (and our own character’s skills) is a much better plan.
Cutting down on randomness seems to be a theme of Shadowlands. Blizzard will also redesign Mythic+ loot chests and the way that profession recipes work. All of these changes reduce the burden on the player.
But there’s still that creeping dread…
Two things make me nervous about Shadowlands. The first is Covenants. This type of disposable content has been a theme of the past three expansions. We had Garrisons, and then Artifacts and Class Halls, and then Azerite. Each time, we poured countless hours into the system, only to leave it all behind.
I understand why the WoW team likes this type of content. It defines an expansion and gives players a reason to log in every day. It’s good for metrics. And it means that players can skip an expansion and come back to the game without missing out on anything important.
To me, however, these disposable features are feeling more and more hollow with each passing expansion. I’m pining for something more permanent. I wish our Garrison was instead a permanent player housing feature. I wish our Artifact Weapons were a permanent part of our character’s toolkit, even if in just a small way. I wish Class Halls had remained a relevant place to gather with other members of our class. I wish Azerite … had never existed in the first place, but I also wish some of the essences offered permanent gameplay or cosmetic options.
Yes, this would mean Blizzard would actually have to support these systems moving forward. But it would also mean that Blizzard wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel for every expansion unless they really wanted to add a brand new system.
As it stands currently, they’re giving themselves no choice but to design expansions this way. I dread that every future expansion will focus on disposable content for the rest of time.
All that said, Covenants do look very interesting and the rewards are slick. As Joe mentioned to me on Twitter, the Covenants do seem better tied in to the story this time around. I appreciate that we get a choice (back to that player agency thing) and that they have individual themes to add some flavor to our character. Do we want to work for the angels or for those scary pale guys who live in the black castle?
Blizzard isn’t taking enough risks
The other thing that bothers me about Shadowlands is that Blizzard hasn’t taken any of the risks that many players were hoping for. For all the iteration and concessions to player agency, which are admirable, Shadowlands looks to be a fairly rote expansion.
We’ll get 10 levels, a new continent, and a new Garrison-like area to upgrade. There was no mention of a mission table today unless I missed it, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see one smack dab in the middle of our Covenant Sanctums. In terms of story, we are once more back to “the factions must work together, despite tensions, to save the world.” On its most fundamental level, this is a WoW expansion by the numbers.
Battle for Azeroth was the perfect opportunity to, if not unite the factions, at least dissolve some of the barriers between them. To let players choose whatever race they want for either faction. It would have been a risk, but I think it would have modernized WoW unlike any other change they could make. But Blizzard took a pass.
The talent system seems like it will also remain exactly as it was. It’s unclear what else Blizzard has in store for classes, but any big changes or additions like the rumored “prestige” versions would have been mentioned today because that is a trailer-worthy feature. Ion mentioned an “unpruning” at least, and we may hear more about this on Saturday.
I worry that the team has grown too complacent with the formula. We may never again have a big shakeup like Wrath‘s raid restructuring, Cataclysm‘s zone revamp, or Mists‘s talent trees.
Will Shadowlands bring players back to modern WoW?
Let me just say that the art of Shadowlands is an absolute slam dunk. Modern WoW has consistently produced top-notch zones, monsters, weapons, and armor designs. It’s all simply breathtaking, and this expansion is no exception.
I worry, though, that Shadowlands doesn’t have enough compelling “back of the box” features to convince lapsed players to dive in. There’s no easily identifiable, sound-bite reason to come back, like a new class, a new race, or a new class feature. If anything is a risk with Shadowlands, it’s this. But it’s definitely not the risk that players asked for.
Even so, I’m hopeful that the change in the dev team’s attitude toward player agency will mean better days ahead for WoW. Putting more choice in players’ hands can only help. Role-playing games have always been about creating the character you want, not what someone tells you it has to be. WoW is once more letting us do that, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
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