As you all know, Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas has been making the rounds of the gaming pubs giving interviews designed to hype Patch 8.2, coming in ???early summer??late spring?? As the various editorial staffs completed their work, we are seeing these interviews published one or two at a time. On Friday I opined about two of them. Over the weekend we saw another one come out, this one from Cass Marshall at Polygon. (I encourage you to read the piece for yourself, as it is very well written and nicely intersperses analysis with the interview itself.)
Before I get started, I do want to quote the opening part of the Polygon piece, because I think it is a very decent dispassionate description of what we see in BFA.
The latest expansion from World of Warcraft has been nailing the high points players expect from the MMO: The raids are excellent, the cinematics and cutscenes are stunning, and the visuals and music set the scene perfectly. The problems players have with Battle for Azeroth are with the connective tissue of the game: character motivations, endgame rewards, content at level 120, the Azerite system, and technical issues.
… many of the answers to the problems plaguing World of Warcraft don’t lie in the places players go, but the characters they use to go there.
I am not sure I would gloss over the “connective tissue” problems so quickly, as they really are the meat of the game for many players, and while I would characterize the raids as decent, I think the mechanical problems with them (the lack of true team size tuning and the push to force specific team class composition) keep them from being “excellent”. Still, I like the Polygon general analysis of the expansion.
Anyway, on to the interview itself.
Heart of Azeroth. This neck gear has not been anything I have ever seen as more than a vehicle for grinding. In Legion, I complained about the endless grind of the artifact weapon, but I liked the idea of it being so personally connected to my character. (Though I do think it could have been improved by not making you repeat the process on every spec of a class. I also think many of our class balance problems were created when Blizz effectively changed 12 classes to 36 classes, but that is a discussion for a different day.) The point is that the Legion artifact weapon was a personal story, tied in even with the rather useless class halls in such a way that players had a personal stake in the weapon and identified with it. For BM hunters, Hati was a rather poor imitation of a real hunter pet, but it was a compelling story line — so compelling that there was demand to bring Hati back in BFA.
In the Polygon interview, Mr. GDH discussed this lack of personal connection to the Heart of Azeroth. Again, from the interview piece (original emphasis):
The Battle over Azeroth becomes a Battle for Azeroth, and the key item of the expansion is getting gameplay reworks to match this emotional importance in the story.
I think this sounds promising, but of course we will see how it actually plays out. It is difficult to see how that change can be made this late in the expansion, after people have been largely indifferent to it for several months. The large hint that Horde and Alliance will set aside their differences and begin to fight to save the planet instead of annihilating one another is tantalizing, but I still don’t see myself suddenly forming an emotional attachment to a neck piece, no matter how crucial its role in saving Azeroth. (Nor do I see myself suddenly forgiving the Horde for their heinous war crime, after they all tacitly agreed to commit it.)
Changes to end game player agency? One of my criticisms of the Hazzikostas reign has been that he has steadily implemented policies that seem to limit player options in the big picture while vastly increasing complex “choices” that really do little or nothing to truly influence play styles.
What do I mean by this? Well, for example, no matter what a player’s end game goals or style may be, almost every choice now requires the player to raid, run dungeons, do some PvP, etc. Want to concentrate on your profession? Gotta run raids and/or dungeons. Want to just finish out your research table? Get your butt out there and run Island Expeditions — probably for 3-4 weeks — to get your required “five different” ones.
But on the minutiae end of the spectrum, there is such a dizzying array of azerite talents, secondary gear stat permutations, and downright weirdo trinket effects, that the player is overwhelmed by “choices” that still in the end make no significant difference in the big picture preferred play style.
It is as if you want to take a nice unstructured walk in the woods for pure enjoyment and are told you must enter the woods at Point A, follow a prescribed path, and exit at Point B. But hey, you get plenty of choice as to how you proceed along that path — you may walk, saunter, run, skip, roll, jog, perambulate, hike, march, traipse, tramp, schlepp, canter, rush, amble, lope, scuttle, sprint, trot, gallop…. You may not, however, deviate from the designated path. This is false choice — discretion in the small things but tyranny in the large ones.
The Polygon piece does indicate Mr. GDH has a certain amount of frustration over an inability to make endgame play both engaging and rewarding, and once in a while we get a hint that he understands that true player options play a role in this. He admitted, for example, that it is possible the devs have gone too far in limiting new talents and class traits as a player levels. Still, he is unwilling — at least in this expansion — to allow choices that would allow players to significantly influence their class play style.
“For the rest of Battle for Azeroth, we’ll be looking at talents from a tuning perspective and a diversity perspective,” says Hazzikostas. “Things that no one is picking may be designed and improved, but changes to talents as a whole will be something for a whole other expansion.”
Forgive my pessimism, but whenever I see “diversity” connected with player talents, I immediately see more Blizz-designated winner and loser classes, with the winners getting the useful and desirable talents and the losers getting pacifiers. What raid these days, for example, does not include one of the few remaining classes with battle rez? If it’s a choice between a battle rez capable player and a high dps hunter (who had even their limited battle rez cut in BFA), the hunter loses every time.
A few — very few, in my opinion — specs do have true play style choices. I am thinking of Mistweaver monks, who do have at least a choice still of fistweaving or classic healing. Now, I do not know if this is a viable choice (my MW skills are pretty poor), or if it is a false choice like the “choice” for MM hunters to have a pet or for BM hunters to have dual pets, but it seems to me that such play style options — if they are viable and not just a crumb given in response to player complaints — should be present for every spec.
Such a change still would not get at the overall “You must take this exact path” limitation, but it might go a long way towards making players feel they have at least one major choice.
Flying. I know you’ve been waiting for it. This is where I publicly eat my words. The Polygon interview revealed, for the first time, that the 8.2 new zones of Mechagon and Nazjatar will have flying enabled. It’s a good thing I did not place any bets on this, because I would have lost a lot of money.
I was wrong. And I am glad I was. Probably of all the glimpses we have gotten thus far of 8.2, this is the one thing that makes me somewhat excited about the patch. I was depressed at the thought of another Argus. That the Blizz pattern followed in 8.2 is Tanaan Jungle instead is vastly cheering to me.
I don’t think, until I heard this announcement, I had realized how important that one ability is to me. In a game where my perception is one of very limited significant player options, flying seems like an escape to freedom. While I have gotten used to slogging along roads and taking flight path flights that seem all to be long, boring “scenic” routes, there is an exhilaration to the option to fly oneself that is intoxicating to me. It’s the difference between an old black and white movie and an IMAX one. Sure, there are people who cherish those old movies, but some of us would probably never watch a movie again if that was all there was.
Now, of course, the cynic in me suspects that Blizz will have designed the areas to be 3-D messes of flying nuisance mobs that will knock you from your mount, along with tons of invisible walls that force you into specific flight paths, but I am willing to see. If I have to once again eat my words, I will be happy to do so. Like broccoli, I am learning to like the taste.