What Blizz got right in Legion

It is, thank the stars, finally 2017. With the new year, hopefully, comes new wisdom and new insight, understanding that slowly insinuates itself into your brain, and then either rests there comfortably until you need it, or explodes and spreads shrapnel ideas all over your psyche.

I had one such thought grenade a couple of days ago, which I am now going to reveal to you. Brace yourselves.

Ready?

Legion is only four months old.

I know, right? Because it seems to me that this expansion has been around forever. It is as familiar and old-hat to me as WoD was by the end. I have the leveling process down to a system, I have a routine for my main, I have set items I sell to make gold, I know the general profession-leveling path, I am comfortable with the mechanics in dungeons and raids. Even the fact that the content changes regularly seems routine — I just incorporate it into my normal schedule of world quests or whatever. In short, Legion has become the normal game for me.

It is an interesting lesson in perspective. Legion will officially last 18-24 months, and I am betting it could stretch into 30-36 months. Which means that we still have something like over 80% of the expansion to go. (Okay, 78% if you believe it will be an 18-month expansion, but if you do, I have some prime real estate in a Florida swamp to sell you.)

If Legion were a human, it would be a young adult. And that means it will certainly change — possibly mellow — as it ages, but its basic character is pretty well set. With that in mind, my next few posts will examine what I think works in the expansion, what things don’t work in it and likely never will, and the things that might work if Blizz decides they want to put forth the effort to fix them.

Today being close to New Year’s, and therefore an inherently optimistic time, I’ll start with the things I think Blizz got mostly right this time around. There is a lot of good news here, and honestly if I had to give an overall grade to Legion at this point, it would be a solid B. These are just some examples, you may have others.

Zone scaling. This was a brilliant innovation for the game, and I hope Blizz keeps it for future expansions. It gives players a lot of leveling options that help keep boredom at bay. My initial worry about scaling was that it would make all travel at level 110 annoying, because all mobs would be difficult to deal with, but that has not turned out to be the case — increasing gear levels eventually render most world mobs trivial. This is as it should be, I think, and I hope Blizz does not go berserk “fixing” this zone scaling approach. It works, leave it alone.

World quests. I really like these. I like the idea of a whole bunch of daily quests where you can pick what you want to do based on what your needs are. Need rep or want loot chests — do the emissary and/or faction quests. Want Artifact Power or Order Hall Resources — do the WQs that award those. Need some gear or profession mats — yup, there’s a quest for that. And if you need a day off, just blow them off, most of them will still be available the next day. Are there some tweaks that could be applied to WQs? Sure, but in general I consider them a great addition to the game.

DungeonsI have to admit I am not a big fan of Mythic+ dungeons, mainly because I do not like timed competitions. I run them from time to time, but I am not as rabid about them as some of my guildies, and I have not gone beyond a +9. Still, I think they are a positive part of Legion. Along with regular Mythics, they tend to encourage guild activity, which in my mind is always a good thing. I actually like the idea that you have to organize a group to run them, I think it encourages more responsible play than auto-organized group finding. The fact that they give pretty decent gear (if you are lucky) is also a plus.

“Content”. This means different things to different people, but so far I think anyone complaining about its lack in Legion would be hard put to justify their claim. In addition to WQs and dungeons, there are raid tiers and timely mini-tiers, new zone quest lines, order hall quest lines, a solid patch schedule, profession quests, artefact appearance quests, and more. Blizz certainly took to heart the “no content” criticism of WoD, and in what some may say is typical, went overboard in correcting it. Still, whether you like all of the content or not, and even if you feel overwhelmed by it, there is no denying Legion has plenty of it. We got “content” out the wazoo, people.

I am sure there are a lot of different opinions on the raid content so far, but I am relatively happy with it. I think Emerald Nightmare was maybe a tad undertuned, and Trial of Valor a tad overtuned at first, but those are minor points. My guild raid team falls somewhere in between casual and hardcore, maybe more like serious semi-casual. We are not a mythic raid team, but we do like to pound away and finish heroic content as soon as we can — we have had EN(H) on farm for several weeks now — and if we can assemble an appropriate 20-man group we can sometimes down a mythic boss or two. So, from that point of view, Legion raids have been good.

Story lines in each zone. I like most of them, and even the ones I don’t like as much seem well thought out and cohesive. Bear in mind I am not a lore person, so if you are, you may disagree with me on this. But I found the story lines enhanced the leveling process and gave me a sense of zone identity I might not otherwise have had. (The exception for me is Suramar, a story line I find cohesive but abhorrent — more on that in a subsequent post.)

Zone art. In a word, terrific. I still don’t think it is as mind-blowing as Pandaria was for me, but it is definitely a Legion winner. I am not a real fan of pink trees and gloomy gas pools and such, so I prefer the Highmountain and Stormheim areas, but I can’t deny that every zone has been beautifully rendered. And Blizz continues its standard of excellence with their attention to detail. Buildings are stunning for their outer structural features as well as for the items adorning the interiors. Locales include, for example, not just snow but grimy patches of it, not just bugs and critters but ones that move and interact with each other, not just grass or sand but renderings that move with wind and water and show not only your footprints but those of pets and mounts and NPC companions. Did they borrow liberally from previous zones? Sure, but for me it all works seamlessly, making each zone come to life.

Transmog system and other quality of life enhancements. Technically, these are mostly pre-patch stuff, but I think of them as a Legion innovations, and I approve of them. The main one that comes to mind now is the transmog system. It just works, so please, Blizz, don’t try to “fix” it in the next expansion. Same with the Legion practice of selecting one of your own mounts for commercial flights from some areas — it’s cute and fun as is.

That awesome whistle. The Flight Master’s Whistle is, quite possibly, the greatest invention in Wow, ever. It eliminates one of the most annoying aspects of the game, namely completing a quest that you have had to fight your way into, only to have to fight your way out of it again, only this time for zero reward, like having to keep paying on a car you totaled a month ago. The whistle even works underwater! In fact, if they would make it work in caves, it would actually be the most perfect piece of gear ever introduced to the game.

There are some other cool gizmos that really enhance the whole ground-bound travel experience. I have a couple of things that instantly transport me to certain cities/settlements in the Broken Isles. There are all the leyline portals in Suramar, and the comprehensive set of portals in Dalaran. There is the grapple hook, which I find fun and quirky — although I have not been able to use the Suramar grapple points yet. And there is the fact that we get a special Dal hearth, along with our regular hearth that we can set to anywhere, and our garrison hearth. Some classes even have a special instant portal to their order hall.

(On the minus side, the “special” eagle flight system for hunters is mainly just annoying. I can’t count the number of times I have used the whistle, only to be instantly transported to some godforsaken mountain top not near anything, and then forced to use a hearth or a series of grapples or a feather or kite to get anywhere reasonable. About the only time I find it useful is to get near the Dreamgrove for an easy ride to Emerald Nightmare for raids.)

All in all, travel is becoming easier and easier even without flying or without being a mage. Which of course makes me worry. (Remember, I am a school-trained worrier.) I still see Blizz’s ultimate goal for flying to be to eliminate it for all but classic zones. The fact that they retreated in the face of massive blowback when they tried to do this in WoD does not, in my opinion, mean they have given up on the idea. Rather, they have adopted a frog-in-the-pot-of-water approach. They will keep introducing ground travel conveniences while at the same time making flight available later and later in an expansion and requiring more and more onerous achievements to get it. Legion may in fact be the last expansion to permit flying. From that point of view, The Whistle may be an evil, evil contraption!

I am sure I have missed some great features of Legion, but these are the major ones. Next up: My picks for the not-so-great features, the ones I consider big design mistakes.

This could be my WoW killer

Well, now we know. No more flying in this or any subsequent WoW patches or expansions. Thus saith Watcher the Great and the infallible Blizz dev team. In what can only be described as breathtaking hubris, in a May 22 interview with Polygon, WtG explained how much better for us is his way of playing and bygod we can like it or lump it.

“The world feels larger, feels more dangerous,” he says. “There’s more room for exploration, for secrets, for discovery and overall immersion in the world. At this point, we feel that outdoor gameplay in World of Warcraft is ultimately better without flying. We’re not going to be reintroducing the ability to fly in Draenor, and that’s kind of where we’re at going forward.”

Hazziokostas confirms that this direction includes future expansions, though he doesn’t discount the possibility of adding flight options in to specific expansion ideas or zones that would benefit from it. In general, though, he believes that exploration in Blizzard’s massive world “works better and feels better in our view when you’re doing it from the ground.”

Blizz wants the world to feel larger.

Blizz wants us to think there’s more room.

Blizz thinks that our gameplay is better without flying.

Blizz feels better when we remain on the ground.

These are not reasons for keeping us from flying, they are sugar-coated lies designed to distract us from the fact that Blizz is pulling resources away from WoW, and they can stretch out the WoW money machine by forcing us to consume already-thin content as slowly as possible.

They have already stretched out the process for close to a year by coyly refusing to say if there would ever be flying in Draenor, possibly realizing that combining such an announcement with the debacle called WoD would be disastrous.

Step 1 of the squeeze-blood-from-the-turnip plan having been “stall,” they have now gone on to Step 2: explain to the mindless ditzes that are our customers that they will be much happier playing the game the way we tell them to. That should be good for several more months, especially if we hint that we may allow very limited flying in very limited places at some unspecified time in the future. Maybe.

And, just in case there are still some skeptics, trot out the never-fail fuzzy “fact” that unspecified people prefer to not fly.

Originally, Blizzard took out flying in Warlords of Draenor as an experiment, and Hazzikostas says he would have bet “slightly better than even money at the time” that they were going to bring it back eventually. But as they played the expansion and watched others play it, they discovered that they liked the game better without flying.

Of course, what this says is that Blizzard liked the game better without flying. Not the players. (And no, I don’t count that bogus forum “poll” everyone likes to cite. Even if it had been a legitimate reflection of the entire player base, which it most certainly was not, it still showed over 30% of players were in favor of flying. Blizz is the only business I ever heard of that could blithely ignore 30% of its customers and get away with it.)

I don’t know about you, but I am insulted that Blizz thinks I am stupid enough to believe that their concern for my game enjoyment is why they are no longer going to permit flying. And I am incensed that they have the [genital units] to tell me how I must play the game and what parts of it I must consider fun.

Here is the bottom line as far as I am concerned: Blizz has cut its WoW resources to the bone, and making three-dimensional play is just too resource-intensive for the final few patches and expansions. They are going to do them on the cheap, and are you sure you wouldn’t rather play Hearthstone anyway, or watch someone else play Heroes of the Storm?

By disallowing flying, Blizz can get by with creating much smaller spaces. They can ensure that players spend a lot of time just getting to their quest locations by making the taxi drop them off far away and by loading the final path up with mobs. So players go through content more slowly, hopefully making them think there is more content than there is. And holy moly they get to have this experience over and over and over again as they try to level and gear up alts. Really, by staying on the ground the fun never stops!

Not having to design three dimensionally — except for a few highly controlled areas where you can fall and jump — saves artistic and programming resources, resources that can be better used for developing Activision Blizzard “year round” games. (In the same vein, we can expect to see more and more “rerun WoW”, passed off to us as new content and “exciting” new innovations, such as time tunnels to existing areas and getting to running old instances in old gear.)

I might be able to cope with no flying ever again if I thought Blizz was telling the truth about why.

Look, we all know this ten year old game is on its last legs, and the reality is that we can no longer support extensive new content for an outdated game model. The development complexity added by flying is too much, but we’ll do whatever can to give you a couple more fun expansions.

That would be a Blizz comment I would respect, and it would show respect for the player base. But when they try to tell me a bald-faced lie and pass it off as being for my own good, that just makes me mad. I think it is getting very close to the final straw.