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Editorial > WoWNov 24, 2020 2:00 pm CT

How complicated is too complicated for WoW’s game systems?

If you’ve been keeping up with the Shadowlands expansion — and trying to understand all of its systems — you might be finding yourself slightly overwhelmed. Covenants, the Covenant Sanctum, and Covenant Callings — Soulbinds, Conduits, and Anima — Renown, Soul Ash, Torghast. Keeping all of that in mind at the same time sometimes feels like playing your character in World of Warcraft has become akin to doing algebra homework.

I’m sure there is a grand plan where each of these pieces fits together nicely for a great gameplay experience… but is it becoming a little too much?

Systems feel hollow without a purpose, a fantasy, attached to them

Players loved their Artifact weapons in Legion because of the “cool” factor. Those were weapons of legend, with great lore built up around them! They made you feel powerful — you were wielding the actual Ashbringer, or the Doomhammer, or the Scythe of Elune! I don’t see anyone excited about Azerite Armor or Soulbinds in the same way. It doesn’t matter if the systems are exactly the same, or even if they’re designed better than the previous systems. And why is that? Because fantasy matters.

Playing an RPG is not just about getting the highest possible numbers on your spreadsheet — thought that is certainly a lot of fun for a certain fraction of the playerbase. But the truth is that the majority of players need to feel engaged in a more personal way. They need to care about their characters, to feel engrossed by the story, by what they’re doing in order to be the hero — or antihero. They need a sense of purpose. And cold, logical systems — no matter how well-designed — rarely give such a sense of purpose.

Would it be better to create a simpler system — but one which players actually care about? Why were so many prominent community members so vocal about “pull the ripcord?” Will Shadowlands become impossible to balance? In fact: how much work is too much work to balance?

These questions were asked not simply because community members and influencers were looking for reasons to complain. But rather, because Blizzard has not displayed a very favorable track record with these extra systems recently. Azerite Armor was a fiasco, and several fixes needed to be made to it throughout the BFA patch cycle. Taking it on blind faith that Blizzard will also manage to satisfactorily balance four Covenants — each with three soulbinds and several conduits — across 36 class specializations is, in fact, a lot to ask.

But should all of these extra systems even exist?

Why does “borrowed power” feel bad?

A disclaimer is in order: I didn’t play Battle for Azeroth as a raider, or Mythic+ player. And as a casual player, when Patch 8.3 rolled out… I simply never bothered gathering all the Essences, because I knew I’d be losing them within a few months. Now, if they had been permanent additions to my character, like a new talent system on the side that I’d carry with me forever, I’d be extremely excited to earn them all. I would have spent a lot of time and energy chasing them — not as pieces of borrowed power that I would lose in a few months, but as actual, permanent character progression. Which is what, in my opinion, playing an RPG — any RPG — is all about.

These borrowed power systems have a secondary downside as well. When a new expansion rolls out your characters often actually get weaker as you level up. Some players might be high-end raiders with great gear, while others might be super casual alts — or, later, freshly leveled alts — yet the developers need both kinds of players to start over on equal standing so that one expansion won’t give you a leg up on the next one.

Also, there is the issue of scaling. Most classes are designed to play slower and weaker at first, so that you actually feel your character improving with every upgrade. Your Rogue might start an expansion with very slow Energy regeneration, but by the final tier it’s lightning fast. It feels good to feel more powerful! But then a new expansion rolls out. If they just kept you as powerful from the start, you’d either see no improvements as the expansion progresses, or you’d scale to absurd, game-breaking levels.

The solution they’ve found to those problems is to “reset” your power level with every new expansion — which is a problem in itself, but becomes aggravated by these borrowed power systems.

Could there be a permanent solution to endless power resets?

With every “ding” when getting to the new level cap, your stats scale worse and worse, and you get weaker and weaker. This already happened just from your base stats and gear. But borrowed power adds an extra layer to that — everyone remembers how incredibly ineffective they suddenly felt once their Legion Artifact Powers were disabled during the transition to Battle for Azeroth. A de-scaling problem that was already bad was further exacerbated and became much more apparent — and annoying.

There is certainly an argument for a permanent progression system that does not get changed from expansion to expansion. Perhaps something inspired by the Paragon leveling system from Diablo 3, but without the limitless power gains. Whatever it is, I would much rather have a single, continuous, easy to understand system that sticks with you, like your talents or your professions. I feel like we have hit “borrowed power fatigue” at this point — yet Shadowlands shows no signs of stopping that trend.

How many systems are too many systems?

WoW Classic is out there, and it’s undeniable to say that it was a success. Compared to Retail WoW — especially since the last two expansions, Legion and Battle for AzerothClassic feels like a much simpler game — a game where you try to level your character, obtain gear, kill bosses, and engage in other social experiences. Is Shadowlands too far removed from the basics of what constitutes an MMORPG?

Chris Kaleiki touched upon this on his “why I left Blizzard” video:

We focus too much on the extrinsic rather than intrinsic gameplay. I feel there’s too much focus on these progression systems and on engagement, and instead, I think we should really focus on the core features of the game — systems like the guild system. I feel like we should be focusing on features that only an MMO can do.

This is a sentiment that I have felt as well. While WoW Classic is not exactly my cup of tea — mostly because it’s too time consuming to play two MMORPGs at the same time, and I’m far more invested into Retail WoW — there is a certain allure to it. Anything you earn is yours for the taking, immediately. If you acquire gear, you equip that piece of gear — the most optimization you might need to do is enchanting it. And that is your core gameplay loop: kill boss, earn gear.

Was Reforging a good thing, when most players just used an external tool to optimize their gear? The idea behind Reforging was sound; but in practice, it became nothing but an extra hoop you had to jump through before you could actually use the piece of loot you had just earned. Did this extra layer of optimization really pay off? It served a purpose, sure, and it could be argued that it fulfilled that purpose well. But didn’t it introduce an even bigger problem instead?

Each new layer of systems further detaches players from the core of the game

I definitely feel like Shadowlands has, in fact, introduced too many systems. It feels like they’re trying to avoid repeating some of the mistakes that were made in the previous two expansions by front-loading all of the intricate parts they’ve designed to cover the entire expansion — yet it might have been too much at once. Time will tell. This is not meant to be a “doom and gloom” assessment of the next expansion: I don’t think that Shadowlands will fail because of how many systems it has, and certainly, others will feel it hits the sweet spot of compelling gameplay for them.

But I do strongly believe that this abundance of systems makes the game feel more sterile, more distant — and more muddled. Legion had some clear enticing pieces leading into it. You would grab an Artifact Weapon and use it to destroy the Burning Legion, while leading prominent members of your class, many of which you’d already encountered in your travels. Shadowlands feels much more removed, murkier. We need to stop the Jailer — who we’d never heard of before now — and prevent the drought of Anima, and improve our relationships with new Soulbinds who are in Covenants, and… what was that other part again?

Maybe we shouldn’t need to worry about grinding three or four different types of resources, and filling out five or six different trees. Maybe we don’t need a new “alternative talent system” every single time. Maybe, at the end of the day, WoW should be simpler.

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