Category: Battle for Azeroth


There’s been a distinct drop off in attendance in our guild over past few weeks. We’ve had to cancel raids quite a bit – exacerbated by the fact two of our prominent players have had busted computers and a tank has been moving house, so has had no internet for a while. But people have also been having breaks because they feel a bit bored.

Battle for Azeroth has had rather a shaky start. At first, the majority of players seemed happy with the new landscapes and dramatic questlines. Initially, island expeditions and warfronts were regarded favourably. But as time’s gone on, these aspects appear to have lost their shine. The ongoing fulminations over Azerite armour and its implementation hasn’t helped. I too haven’t been playing as much, mainly because I’ve been swamped with work, getting several books ready for publication in December, but also because I haven’t felt the driving need to log on every day. And you know – I think this is actually a good thing.

I’ll explain why.

In previous expansions, and especially so since mission tables became a thing in WoD, most players have felt obliged to log on every day to attend to tasks, which, if left unattended, might result in lost opportunity, gold, gear or whatever. Emissary caches felt mandatory because of the RNG rewards in them – essential mounts and so on for collectors of such things and, previously, the chance of legendaries. But I quite like the fact I don’t feel so driven by these concerns any more. When I have the time for a long run of play, I can pick and choose what world quests I want to do for their specific rewards. Gear for alts, or pet tokens or whatever else might be of use. Now I’ve got my main characters to exalted on all the factions, I don’t feel it’s necessary to get to that point with alts. It actually feels liberating not being bound to daily activities for fear of missing out somehow. Things like warfronts and island expeditions can also be dipped in and out of. You don’t feel you HAVE to do them every time they’re available, but just if you feel like it. You can raid and do mythic + dungeons, if you feel like it. You can level alts. Or you can go back and collect things from previous expansions – because you have more time for it now.

While some have complained of lack of things to do, I think it’s healthy to have a bit of a lull between patches. You can have a break, or a semi break, then return refreshed and enthusiastic for new content. Blizzard seem to be keeping to the promise they upheld in Legion of fairly regular new content. How quickly a player uses that up is down to them, but if you’re so inclined you can pace yourself to match the stream of release.

All this said, I do think Blizzard are responsible for some massive whoopsies at the start of this expansion, but with patch 8.1 some of the things that upset people are being addressed head on. I won’t go into detail about the patch, because videos and blog posts about it can be found all over the internet and I don’t need to repeat it all but suffice to say I’m happy with what’s coming.

It’s become almost a fashion to hate on Blizzard at the moment, which I don’t think is good for the game. This is spearheaded by a contingent of streamers and youtubers whose settings are set permanently to pissed off. They want to be pissed off, and people find voyeuristic pleasure in watching the rivers of woe that pour from these doomsayers. I think it’s important people talk about what’s not working in the game, and suggest how it might be improved, but an endless stream of negativity and pessimism doesn’t help anyone. Those who love WoW don’t want to see it founder. They simply want mistakes corrected, and the game to go onwards and upwards. But others seem to take delight in proclaiming WoW is dead and how terrible a game is now is. They’ve been doing that for years.

And the fact is, it’s not that terrible. Having played a little on the WoW Classic demo, I could appreciate fully how much WoW has come on since its early days. All the little quality of life features we take for granted and barely notice become huge when they’re suddenly not there. Modern WoW is flawed, yes, but can any game ever be absolutely perfect? Blizzard make what seem to be insane decisions sometimes, as if the developers don’t actually play the game themselves, for surely no player would implement some of the daft ideas we’ve had to stomach over the years. But good came with the bad and continues to do so. We’ll never have the game that’s perfect for us, because it’s doubtful any two people have the same absolute concept of what the perfect game is. Quite frankly, I think if we’re happy with three quarters of WoW and disappointed with the remaining quarter, we can’t really complain.  We’re all too different, with differing requirements and preferences, ever to have that 100% hit from one game. People’s dissatisfaction in BfA has in many cases slithered towards being disappointed with more than a quarter, but it seems the complaints have been heard. Something’s being done about it, and hopefully successfully, and there’s much to look forward to in 8.1.

It was probably revisiting WoW Classic that opened my eyes to all this. I played only for about fifteen minutes on the demo and that was enough. No, I don’t want to go back there. I do miss the old landscapes, yes, because it was where my characters grew up, but looking at them again now, they’re not quite the idyllic places I remember. They’re crude and bare in comparison to the lush, rich landscapes we frolic about in today. It really is as if we look back on Vanilla through the eyes of a child. But we can never revisit childhood, not with the same sense of wonder and newness – we can only remember what we felt like back then. The questing was often frustrating and meandering. There were no guides to point you to where you had to go. Finding a quest objective might have meant wandering around for hours looking for it. Levelling was much tougher, and if you weren’t ultra careful with your pulls, and attracted more than one mob, you were quickly dead. You had to run around on foot until level 40, and then the amount of gold required to get your first mount was punishingly high. Gold came very very very slowly in Classic. We were all paupers. I remember grinding mobs for weeks in 1000 Needles with a few friends, because the ones at the raceway dropped trash that sold for slightly more than mobs elsewhere. Weeks. Every night. We’d kill things until our relatively small bags were full, then run to the vendor to empty out before going back for more. We felt euphoric if we garnered a couple of gold each time we visited the vendor. Even at top level, I only ever saw a few players with upgraded mounts that ran faster. These beasts cost 1000 gold, which in those days felt like the 5 million needed to buy a brutosaur mount today.  I can remember that when The Burning Crusade came out, a richer friend insisted on helping me out with the gold to buy a faster mount, because you bloody well needed one sometimes to escape from mobs in the new Outland zones. A slower mount merely helped kill you.

The hunter I made on the demo felt horrible. I’d forgotten you couldn’t use your ranged weapon close to a target, never mind the inconvenience of having to know where you could buy arrows or bullets nearby so you didn’t run out of ammo. The boar I was given as a pet (no choice in the demo) was a rough bunch of blocky polygons, who wasn’t a great deal of use, because in Classic you had to go off and hunt for skills for your pets. Only by taming certain animals could you learn the skills needed for an effective companion. I quite liked that part of it at the time, because it was fun to go hunting, and there was no sense of urgency about anything back then, (for me, at least), but I’m unconvinced modern players who never experienced young WoW will feel the same. People don’t have the same amount of patience today. And one thing you needed in Classic was patience. Let’s see how things go when it’s released next year. I probably will make a character to tinker about on now and again, simply to revisit the zones as they originally were. I do miss them, because they meant something to me at the time. It’ll be cool to take a walk down Nostalgia Lane. But I think some people who are currently longing for Classic (and probably never played it) will be both shocked and disappointed. I think for most players who try it (discounting the diehard Classic fans who’ve played on private servers), it’s destined to be a curio – a kind of interactive museum it’s interesting to visit sometimes to see the past, but not an experience to replace the modern version of the game.

I think it’s better to look upon the aspects of the modern game we love, and not dwell gloomily on the parts of it we’re less happy with. It’s still WoW, most of us have been with it for a long time, and if we take a break now and again, there’s nothing wrong with that. The good thing is that there’s always new stuff to come back to.

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(*A 17th Century term for altering the direction of a ship – seems pertinent.)

Despite its faults, I’m really enjoying Battle for Azeroth. As a storyteller myself, I appreciate how the game has gradually changed over the years into what feels like taking part in a movie or a novel. The story is a driving force. While this could be said – to a degree – of former expansions, it wasn’t so obvious, since most of the action and drama took place inside the large raids that few players got to see back then. But now, even my friends who’re not that interested in lore like the way the story’s currently presented.

But… There are problems with the game, not least the rather stumbling iteration of gear progress this time round. I have to be honest and say I can live with that, (albeit with a sigh and a frown at the ineptitude of the development team), as to me gear is only a means to an end, and if our guild can complete the end game content with the gear we have, fab. I don’t lust after ever higher ilevels, nor enjoy the prospect of having to sim my gear continually (urgh the tedium). To me, the most efficient and least awkward way of maintaining your character’s effectiveness is to be aware of which secondary stats are good for their spec and why. Also, we should be able to tell easily from the dungeon guide where the ‘best in slot’ pieces drop for us and aim for them. Surely it shouldn’t have to be more complicated than that? I resent having to look outside of the game for information about my gear, (which for Azerite armour appears essential). If I can do my job effectively in a team, that’s good enough for me. Our guild habitually finishes Normal mode in raids and then ventures into Heroic, not always finishing it before the next raid comes out. We’re not hardcore by any means, and I suspect the majority of guilds are similar to us, with a range of player ability and skill. We take part in a wide range of WoW activities, more than enough to fill my limited play time. However, outside of mythic raiding and the high level Mythic + dungeons, I reckon the gear as it stands is good enough for anyone. It’s not right, and in some cases is frustrating to acquire, but it works, and teams can still kill bosses. That said, I do understand the anger and frustration the vocal players are expressing on MMO Champion and such like. For them, gear is all.

Other mishaps that have occurred (to put it lightly) such as the mismanaged class balancing, the pruning of talents and skills, the fact some characters fare far better than others in solo content, and the frankly horrible changes to the GCD, really need seeing to. I have no idea how things got in such a mess, but you’d imagine the development team is savvy enough to fix it. Shouldn’t have happened in the first place. What on earth were they thinking? Certainly not thinking things through sufficiently, such as the detrimental effect that removing legendaries and artefact weapons would have on characters during levelling.

But, there are many good things about the way WoW is changing. The world of Azeroth looks great, the dungeons and raids are fun, the new voice acting from established actors, including from well-known shows such as Game of Thrones, is very professional and perfect for the story, plus the questing and storylines have been enjoyable, atmospheric and on theme. For those who like collecting, there’s plenty to collect. There are more activities to take part in at end game. And we’re only a few months into the expansion, so there will be much more to come. But I have been aware of niggles, things that have made me slightly discontent, or else had me pondering what improvements could still be made, outside of the obvious ones to do with gear and classes. I’ll leave the dissection of that for those who are adept with the number-crunching aspect of WoW; its more competitive side. I’m going to look at the aspect of pure entertainment. I know my views won’t be shared by everyone, and I don’t expect all to agree with me. These are just some ideas I’ve been pondering.

I do think WoW is in a strange position at the moment. It’s an old game, and a large proportion of its player base, those loyal subscribers who’ve stuck with it since Classic, are also older. Looked down upon as ‘casuals’ by whatever demographic still plays relentlessly 24/7, some of these players must now have responsibilities and interests outside the game, not least young families that they might not have had at the start of their adventures in Azeroth. Yet they still want to play, albeit in a pared-down manner. I too have less time than I did to tinker about on WoW, because my publishing company has got busier No more staying up till 4 a.m. because I just have to get a particular alt to a certain level before bed.

Older players, who were once hardcore raiders, often now want a more laidback approach to the game, and fewer hours spent bashing theirs heads against raid bosses. They still enjoy raiding, progressing through Normal to Heroic, but they don’t want a frenetic pace, frayed tempers, dramas or burn out. I know because we have such people in our own team who were once in dedicated raiding guilds but who don’t want that pressure any more. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the higher end of raiding is on a downward slide in general, as more and more people feel the same way about it. WoW is predominantly a game for grownups now – It’s quite worrying that the excuse we used to make for badly-behaved idiots was ‘they’re kids’. Sadly, I don’t think that excuse is quite so accurate nowadays. But anyway…

Subs are said to be sliding too, and this could be because the more hardcore type of player is stomping off or sighing dismally, or whatever it is they do before cancelling their sub. Perhaps one of the truths Blizzard has to face up to is that the modern WoW player is different to what they were back when the game was launched. And… here I almost wince as I type it… most players probably want less group content not more. In fact, if I dare go so far, I think the majority of players would cheer from the rigging if Blizzard took that tack and steered the ship into waters where a solo player could do more in the game, the type of player who might have a few friends they can team with now and again, but who often finds themselves online alone. I see time and again on forum threads people bemoaning the fact their friends have left the game, they’ve got no one they know to team with, don’t feel they have enough time to commit to a guild, so are forced into the murky swamps of Pugland, simply because Blizzard designs the game to include a lot of group content.

I play both Alliance and Horde, with my main focus being on Alliance, but even on that faction I often have to pug my way through story progress, because guild mates have already done it on their main, aren’t interested in progressing alts through it, or are concentrating purely on Mythic Plus dungeons and don’t want to waste their limited playing time doing story stuff. As for Horde, I have to pug or nothing. There’s rarely more than two people online in our Horde guild. I hate pugging and have to steel myself to do it, as does just about everyone else I know in WoW. I don’t think progressing through the story should ever involve group content. Like professions, it should be a solo activity. The only exception to this is perhaps the plots that unfold inside raids. If you’re not in a regular raid team, it’s fairly easy to keep your head down in LFR and not attract the attention of idiots, so to me it’s acceptable that raids provide a bigger stage for the bigger stories.

The new communities feature has helped with team activities for our guild. We’ve joined forces this expansion with two other guilds comprised of great people, one guild on our own realm, another somewhere else. This has been a lifesaver in terms of raiding, and it’s been wonderful (if not a relief) to start making new friends in the game. But I don’t think this is enough. Each guild has their own activities outside of raiding and, as yet, we’re not teaming up for any other kind of content.

Blizzard has to face the grim reality that pugging can be a dire experience, and mature players don’t necessarily want ‘enforced teaming’ thrust upon them. Sometimes, it’s as if the developers imagine we’re all like happy little children, dancing around holding hands as we complete dungeons together in perfect harmony. As we ALL know, the truth is very different. It would be really liberating if Blizzard could let us have the choice about group content. We know scaling technology exists, and surely that can be utilised further, so that more content is soloable, or playable for small teams of two or three players. Even dungeons. It’s been done in other MMOs and I’ve really enjoyed sampling that kind of content when I’ve played through it. I’d love to be able to tackle achievements in the current expansion rather than have to wait until I can steamroll through them at a higher level in the next expansion. The dungeons don’t have to be made easier, simply scaled to single player, rather like the earlier challenge modes or mage tower, but not quite so challenging – even solo dungeons could have a mythic+ mode for those who like a harder experience. This would inevitably interfere with the enshrined idea of the ‘holy trinity’ of tank, healer and 3 dps, but we have to deal with that already in island expeditions that are for a team of 3. Tanks are a great help there, but healers aren’t essential, more DPS being preferable for an effective run. All the solo scenarios we already do require us to survive by ourselves. For those who have plenty of people to team with, or are happy to pug, the 5 person version of the dungeons would still be there.

As far as trying to complete dungeon and raid achievements, I admit I could make the effort to try and recruit other like-minded players in the group finder, but then I won’t know the other people, making it more complicated to coordinate them efficiently to succeed at the achievements, preferably using voice chat, and if that’s not possible try to organise the team through typed text etc. It all seems rather a tiresome, time-consuming headache, before I even get started. I’d just rather do it with friends or alone, on the spur of the moment with no fuss. I think this is a dream of many players.

During levelling, needing a group to complete quests along the way is often annoying and time consuming, when you just want to be getting on with the job. Are group quests really appropriate for working towards max level? I see their point and relevance in end game content, but not before. For the more difficult quests, perhaps quest text could signal that a group would be helpful, but shouldn’t a skilled player be able to solo tackle all the ‘group quests’ as they level, regardless of class? This time around, the situation’s been worsened by the fact our characters get progressively weaker as they quest towards 120 and all mobs continue to scale with us as they did in Legion. So, instead of being able to go back to those group quests a bit later on, we’ll pretty much always need a group, or at least one other person, unless our character happens to be one of the privileged classes who can cheerfully do things by themselves because they have the toolkit to do it. (Paladins are a prime example of this. I’m currently taking mine to 120, and it feels like levelling a character in an earlier expansion. She’s unconcerned with mob strength or numbers because of the tools she has at her disposal to ensure her survival until all enemies are dead. Even surprise ambushes by opportunistic mob patrols converging en masse are unlikely to kill her. But I wouldn’t fancy my mage’s chances faced with the same situation – other than by running away!) I imagine few players will want to go back and do group quests once they do outgear them, because they’ll be irrelevant by then. It’s surely preferable to do them as they’re current in our levelling. This also applies to dungeons being required as part of vital campaigns within the game. On the character you level first, it might be easy to find guild mates or other friends to do them with you. Not so on your fifth alt and beyond. Dungeons with a pug can be… an interesting experience. Occasionally, it’s good, but you tend to remember the worst examples of teams you’ve been herded into.

For players who get stalled on group content during one of the few evenings a week they can play, the game might lose its shine, and possibly lose those players completely. If certain aspects were more solo friendly, perhaps a lot of disaffected former players might be tempted to return, because they could play at their own pace unimpeded. And there will be more for them to do. The solo pet battle dungeons are a great idea – that could be extended to dungeons in general, couldn’t it? And island expeditions? And war fronts even? I would say raids, but perhaps some things should remain sacred as an activity for teams, and remain entirely group focused until a later expansion, when people can pile in and steam through them solo if they want to. However, I must confess the idea of raid scaling for smaller teams of 5 holds great allure! I realise this is probably impossible because of balancing issues.

I imagine that some people reading this will be saying to themselves, ‘she’s off her head, this is an MMO – multi player – we’re supposed to group’. I’ve heard this refrain many many times. But the fact is, you can be part of a dynamic, thriving online world, teaming with others when you like, and interacting with them in other ways, but still spend time alone in it. If we compare it with real life, you might live in a town full of people, yet you don’t group with them to go shopping, or visit the dentist, or form a team to do the housework. You get together to socialise and take part in specific activities when it’s appropriate and desirable. No one (well few) would want to live in an empty ghost town, but neither would they want to do everything with other people. It’s good to feel part of a community but do our own thing within it. Sometimes it’s cool to go shopping with a friend, but it’d be an almighty pain if you couldn’t go shopping without one. I know that other players feel the same, because I’ve talked about it with them. That doesn’t represent everyone, obviously, but a range of people.

Another thing that could be addressed is how to keep players online – providing an experience so they want to log on every day or at least as often as their real-life permits. That is not the same as feeling you have to log on every day to do stuff that doesn’t exactly set your heart racing with excitement. At the moment, Blizzard’s main weapon in this battle is shoving a lot of rewards behind RNG so that people have to grind endlessly with no guarantee they’ll even get what they’re grinding for eventually. (The mounts from the Paragon caches in Legion being a prime example – I’m still working on them in BfA.) Quest chains to acquire cosmetic items are a great idea, if they don’t involve RNG. For example, I’ve already spent too many hours trying to get the pterosaur egg that will enable me to start a long quest chain on Horde to acquire a mount. Unfortunately, the egg to start the chain won’t drop from the appropriate mobs. If the egg were a tad easier to acquire, so I had a starting point, from which I then had to log on every day to do tasks to make it hatch, I’d be online to do so, even if it took quite some time. Making people grind mind-numbingly isn’t the only way to keep them online. I’d happily do any amount of quests and so on if I knew the reward was 100% at the end, and so would many others – instead of thinking, ‘why the hell have I just wasted two hours or more mindlessly killing mobs for nothing, when I could’ve been doing something productive? Sod it, I can’t be bothered, life’s too short…’ and abandoning the endeavour completely. Blizzard at present dangles the carrots, but for many the carrots are never reached. So the idea of carrots becomes horrible and players are no longer tempted by them. I cannot understand why luck should be such a huge factor in the game, because some people simply don’t have it. Some RNG is essential, perhaps, but not to a punishing degree.
Blizzard does implement non-RNG content effectively sometimes, with quest lines like the ones for Ba’al the demonic goat pet. They’ve included activities like these for a while now and they’re – mostly – fun. The Lucid Nightmare chain from Legion wasn’t that great, because some of it was well, ridiculously difficult and/or irritating, but the tasks to unlock Kosumoth the Hungerer as a weekly quest were fine. This kind of content appears to be popular. At the moment it’s aimed towards collectors – mounts, pets, toys – but perhaps it could also extend to gear, say a desired weapon or piece of armour – much like the original legendary quest lines in earlier expansions, but easier to acquire than those legendaries in that you attain them in a different way that doesn’t involve RNG, although perhaps a lot of time investment or other game activities (professions?). By this I mean, regular engaging content that has a beginning, a middle and an end, much like a good story.

Another thing that seems somewhat nonsensical to me is the continuing faction divide. If the common forum threads on the topic are anything to go by, it appears that the majority simply don’t care about it anymore. Some people, I know, are still invested in the war of Warcraft and think the heart of the game would be destroyed if the faction divide should go, but it has more or less gone already, but for the artificial resuscitation it’s received via the story in Battle for Azeroth. In every expansion, Horde and Alliance have ended up working together to defeat a common foe and save the world. I’m fully prepared for a moment later in this expansion when the factions resolve their differences again and focus on what really needs to be done. Does any other outcome seem at all likely? (Please prove me wrong with great plotting, Blizzard, but I won’t be holding my breath.) The faction divide could still exist as a kind of ‘cold war’, and that could provide many interesting stories. Neither would such a change have to affect the PvP aspect of the game, because battlegrounds and arenas could remain as they are, (regarded as a kind of gladiatorial combat), nor world PvP for those who want it. Think what a relief it could be if Blizzard allowed players of different factions to communicate and team together, and perhaps even go so far as to join the same guilds (as in Rift). The friends that many players have who are part of the opposite faction would be able to play with them. At present, the faction divide halves the amount of players available to each side, in what seems to be a diminishing player base. Doing away with it to some degree would double (roughly) the amount of potential team-mates. There could be limits, such as not being able to visit the other faction’s cities, but I’ve even seen some players suggest that earning rep with an opposing city so you could actually set foot in it would be another game activity for people. There’s a lot that could be done, post faction divide, that would provide content, not cull it.

One thing I’m firmly against is WoW going free-to-play. In the MMOs I’ve played where this has taken place, I’ve seen nothing good come of it. In fact, those games end up being far more expensive to play than simply paying a sub, because if you want to get the best of the game, so much has to be purchased from the store. I’ve no doubt WoW would go the same way if it went free-to-play. That business model is a cold-hearted, greedy game killer that simply encourages gambling with loot bags etc. I hope Blizzard do everything they can to prevent this eventuality for WoW – and part of that might well include listening to the best ideas from players, ideas that a large part of the player base would welcome and enjoy. I really think expanding solo content dramatically, reducing RNG and bringing in some ‘crowd pleaser’ features that players have asked for repeatedly could provide a boost for the game. And it goes without saying, (although I have less hope of this happening), that class balance, talents and skills could be addressed with a surgeon’s precise hand and expertise rather than hacked at with a butcher’s cleaver, not caring if the best bits of the meat fall off with the fat and gristle.

If you got a group of WoW players together (sensible ones, not whiners, haters or hotheads), and asked them all to come up with an activity to keep them online that wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility, you’d get dozens of cool ideas. Instead, it seems that Blizzard has an edgy relationship with its customers. Sometimes, like a warped parent, it showers us with gifts, such as the fan-pleasing elements of Legion, yet other times it’s almost as if they delight in being cruel, denying what players want, making us struggle – and sometimes making quality of life and classes worse. It comes across as if they enjoy taking things away from people just as much, if not more, than giving them things. This seems at best a peculiar relationship. For example, why won’t they bring in player housing, something that’s been asked for persistently? Wildstar’s rendition of it is universally praised, and that was an MMO that took itself quite seriously in its appeal to a more hardcore type of player (perhaps too seriously since it’s no longer going – we can only conclude the hardcore are a minority). This idea could go even further, such as the guild housing found in Runes of Magic, a free to play game. While suffering from the downsides of other ftp MMOs, in that it’s very expensive to play, the guild housing is amazing. Castles to be built up over time, players contributing resources to add features and conveniences, plus the ever-expanding visual aspect of the guild hall. The original Guild Wars had amazing guild halls, all intricately themed and beautifully rendered. I would imagine a large amount of WoW players would love this feature.

A large proportion of modern players lack the time or dedication to play an MMO like they used to be played over a decade ago, and surely it could only benefit Blizzard to go with the tide. Adding features like player housing to the game, with built-in longevity, plus more solo content, and less RNG could make it far more appealing. If such changes came to pass, we might even be able to ‘recruit a friend’ again. (That pool dried up years ago for me.) As it stands, all that potential new players see is a wall of levelling in front of them, too much catch-up, too much group content, and too much focus on progressively more challenging end game. It’s fine to have all those things – and they are part of what make a great MMO – but emphasising them exclusively does nothing to appeal to a wider audience. People I’ve spoken to, who I know would love WoW if they tried it, always say the same thing: ‘there’d be so much catch-up it’s too daunting to start’. And there is – if players aim only at cutting-edge content at the current highest level. The hardcore players (or more accurately perhaps, the wannabe hardcore) complain that WoW has been dumbed down and made too accessible for their taste. Their desired content is valid, but is it the prime interest of the majority? I love WoW and I don’t want to see the game sink further into decline as its players drift away. There are things that could be done not only to retain players but to attract new ones, which frankly I don’t see happening at all at the moment. One character boost does not a new fan make.

After mulling over all these ideas, plus others (too many to list in this article) that other players have come up with, I can’t help thinking that giving WoW some of the benefits of a solo RPG, but within an MMO environment would be a good direction for it to head towards.

I’ve played Battle for Azeroth for some days now, long enough to talk about my first impressions. I’ve also got my main character to top level.

First off, navigation about the world is far more user friendly than it was in Legion. Finding quest objectives in the previous expansion was sometimes so difficult the majority of our guild resorted to using an addon that helped you find where you were supposed to be. There’s a new version of it for BFA but so far I’ve not had to turn it on. There are still quest items and mobs hidden in caves, but at least the dot on the map specifying where they are in the landscape is reachable without going round the outside of a huge mountain, across a few lakes, to find a tiny hole in the ground amid dense shrubbery that’s the hidden entrance to the cave you need to be in. Now – there’s simply a pretty clear path to a cave. Short of physical sign posts along the path, it can’t get any better.


(Drustvar Mountains from the Air)

BFA’s landscape is also less vertical. While there are breathtaking mountains aplenty and beautifully realised topography, pathways up the mountainsides are clear and easy to find and lead to where you want to go without any screaming, hair pulling or frantically looking things up on the internet.

The questing itself, however, isn’t quite so user friendly. It’s clear this is because at the end of Legion we had to surrender the perks of our incredibly powerful and multi-talented artefact weapons. We were used to being amazingly strong, scything our way through foes as if they were mosquitoes. While the artefacts still work as ‘stat sticks’ until around level 115, even though their special qualities have been disabled, thereafter they’re replaced quickly by questing greens – those throwaway bits of gear you hasten to replace immediately you hit top level. Your legendary items work until 115 too, so the first half of levelling feels like you’re skipping round the beautiful landscape, singing to yourself and admiring the scenery. Then… at 115 all the special qualities of your legendary items are disabled. Bam! The mobs have scaled up as you have, but you are effectively far weaker than you were only a level ago. You’re soon replacing those legendaries with more questing greens. From thereon, questing gets slower and more onerous. We’re used to being superheroes in Legion. Now we’re back to being foot soldiers, wielding a stick with a nail in it, dressed in ragged hand me downs rather than sparkly armour.

It’s always been this way at top level in new expansions. Traditionally, the moment you get to max, you go from carefree questing to being as weak as a kitten who can’t even hit a ball of string. We expect it then. The idea is that at top level we start earning new and better gear through world quests, dungeons, raids and so on. That’s what end game’s all about. But levelling to get there wasn’t taxing or that annoying – other than (in Legion) problems with navigation.

I really hope Blizzard will do something to fix this situation, because I think the effects of the recent stat squish and scaling, coupled with the disabling of our superpowers, have been more catastrophic than they realised. I’ve read forum threads about this topic, where there are plenty of people scoffing at those complaining, claiming that levelling is supposed to be hard, not ridiculously easy. The usual smug cries of ‘learn to play, noob!’ abound. Actually, levelling is supposed to be fun. It is (or should be) the easy part of WoW. The challenging content comes in dungeons and raids, in doing mythic+ content, or the various challenges Blizzard offer to the hardcore and those who really like to be tested.

My main character was equipped with heroic raid gear from Legion, so was used to having a fairly easy time of it in the open world, but he struggled through the last few levels to 120. He died to things I’m really not used to him being killed by. The main problem is that he now doesn’t regenerate energy fast enough. He’s a Druid, and I habitually level him in his Feral cat form. Now, he doesn’t have enough of the Haste stat to regenerate energy efficiently, and if more than two foes attack, making a fight lengthy, he quickly has no resources, so I can’t use his skills and have to wait painfully for his energy bar to refill. This also has a huge impact on his instant Regrowth procs, essential for a cat whose skin is rather thin. Friends who play Rogues or Monks have also reported the same frustration. Now, after my Druid’s limped to top level, hissing furiously, I’ve had to use his bear Guardian form instead of cat. It’s going fine as his personal resource regeneration is far easier to manage in that form and the reduction in damage is more than made up for by his survivability. I’m trying to finish the quests in all the zones in order to gain reputation with the various factions, and hostile creatures in more than pairs would be lethal at top level for the cat. Mini-bosses found at the end of quest chains also seem overtuned. Some quests intended to be soloable really aren’t. I know I only have to wait to get more gear and be patient but… patience isn’t my best quality, and I do think questing shouldn’t be so burdensome.

How on earth my lesser alts will fare, especially the extremely squishy cloth-wearers, I can’t bear to imagine. All my characters capable of being a tank will certainly be one the moment they set foot in the Isles. But if things don’t improve for the more vulnerable characters, (including all classes affected by the drastic reduction in resource regeneration), I can’t see me levelling them, because the experience post level 115 won’t be fun at all. As a friend said to me today as I was complaining about the situation, this will be the worst it’ll ever be in BFA. From now on, we’ll be earning gear and getting stronger. But that won’t help my mages and priests, nervously waiting in their flimsy negligees for me to take them out to level up. (I won’t include warlocks there. They are a class unto themselves and operate outside usual WoW parameters – as any player with a lock will know!) I wish Blizzard – and all the masochists banging on about loving challenge – would just remember that a game, by its very nature, is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.

Another thing I’m really not happy about is Warmode, Blizzard’s way of (allegedly) pleasing both those who like to PvP (player versus player) against real people in the game and those who prefer their enemies to be pixelated, i.e. PvE (player versus environment). I hate world PvP, which to me seems only to give unpleasant people, who love annoying others, license to be a jerk. I’m no good at it, and don’t have the gazelle-like reflexes to cope with my characters being attacked by frenzied teenagers without dying almost immediately. So I avoid it as much as possible, doing any kind of PVP only with gritted teeth, when there’s a reward I particularly want that demands I take part in it. But with Warmode, which players can elect to ‘turn on’ in their capital cities, they can do all their questing in PvP, only seeing other players in the landscape who’ve made the same choice. So ideally all the pvpers can inconvenience each other to their hearts’ delight, leaving us pvers to get on with levelling hassle-free. Except… Blizzard has dangled an immense carrot with Warmode. Players who elect to have it on get increased experience and better quest rewards. As this is an attractive prospect to any player, regardless of their feelings about PvP, they begin to think it’s mandatory to do it. A lot of players are desperate to get to max level in any way possible because the thing they enjoy most in WoW is end game content, and levelling is just a chore they do to get there. The knock-on effect of this is that quite often I’ve been playing on my own in the landscape, never seeing other players. I can only assume this is because so many have opted for the rewards and turned on Warmode, thus making themselves invisible to me and the PvE world seems empty. This makes it difficult to find other people for group quests too. I’ve tried making my own groups, but after 15 mins of no applicants, I’ve given up.

Another downside of Warmode is that Blizzard will now see world PvP in BFA as a big success. They won’t (or will refuse to) see that the majority of players only turn it on for the rewards and swift levelling, not because they want to PvP. I read one forum thread where some PvE players were discussing the hardships of Warmode levelling. ‘You only get killed about once every 7 quests,’ someone said plaintively. ‘So it’s not as bad as it could be.’ Excuse me? Getting killed by a PvP player once every 20 quests would be too much for me and would only make me angry. I want to get on with killing mobs and picking up quest items, as well as paying attention to the story, not have to fight off aggressive players as well. The impression I’m receiving is that people are resigning themselves to Warmode in order to level faster, not that they’re enjoying it. But what they don’t seem to realise is that they’re allowing Blizzard to set a precedent. Since I started playing, it’s always seemed they’ve wanted more players to take part in PvP. They’ve often forced PvE players into it to complete important quest chains or achievements, which we’ve done with a shudder and a grimace. Now, they’ll claim Warmode is a huge triumph and clearly players have wanted it all along, which could lead to world PvP being forced on us even more. Really, I think people who hate PvP but are using Warmode for convenience are stupid and doing harm to the PvE game. Why not take a bit longer to level? Is an extra day really that bad? And for how long exactly will you keep those slightly higher ilevel questing greens? The precedent is dangerous, because once lines are crossed, it’s nigh on impossible to go back over them.

Enough griping! There is still so much to enjoy in BfA. I’ve tried out the dungeons and they’re all amazing to behold, with some interesting bosses and beautifully designed landscapes and interiors. The island expeditions for three players are also enjoyable, which you can complete either against NPC foes or in PvP mode against the other faction. These are a race against time to gather resources and stop the other team from grabbing them. We still have Warfronts and the first raid to come, adding more content to end game play. On top of that we have factions to cosy up to and increase our reputation with them, unlocking vendors who sell gear and crafting patterns.

The storylines in each zone are compelling and rather like reading a story or watching a film. You want to know what happens next, which helps offset the horror of being jumped unexpectedly by multiple mobs that slash your questing greens to ribbons. There is a main narrative thread, but also multiple sub plots found in the landscape. Drustvar did not disappoint me. I adored that zone, especially the spooky child quest line. That was genius. More of that type of thing please, Blizzard. The whole zone, with its theme of dark witchcraft and tainted families, its strange wicker effigies and creatures that are seemingly constructed from sticks and bones, PLUS the absolutely disgusting pig men – apparently humans with heads of pigs grafted onto them in some obscene magical experiments. I loved wandering through the haunted forests, and in such a setting the constant sense of threat works very well.


(Drustvar Forest)

I’ve just finished questing through Stormsong Valley too, which is more of an open landscape. The theme is sea-faring communities and – naturally – pirates. Here, the minions of the naga queen Azshara begin to make their presence felt as well. There’s something funny going on, with Lovecraftian beings appearing here and there. Evil is building in this beautiful zone. The Alliance also meet with the Tortollan, a race of humanoid turtles, who are amusing creatures saying things like ‘I’ve seen things that would scare the shell off you!’ We need to be friends with them (and as they’re a neutral race I assume it’s the same for Horde) because a lot of crafting patterns are locked behind reputation gains with the Tortollan.

From what I’ve seen of professions in BFA (and I’ve only scratched the surface so far), advancing them will be more pleasurable this time round, after the horrid mess that Legion made of crafting. The fact that each expansion will have its own crafting tier is a great idea. In BfA, we start at level 1 in each profession we have and only have to reach 150 to max out – which anyone must agree is a far better prospect than levelling up to 900 through all the expansions.

So, after nearly a week, my first impressions are mainly good with only the levelling experience and Warmode to complain about. Actually, well, the levelling experience is rather important right now, so perhaps casts a dark shadow over all the good stuff. I hope not, and that Blizzard will make a few adjustments to make the process smoother, especially once everyone’s got their main characters to top level. Take pity on the alts, Blizzard.

There is some explanation in this article for people who aren’t familiar with the story of WoW, which inevitably contains some spoilers concerning all the pre-patch events before Battle for Azeroth. Don’t read if you’ve not yet played through the Siege of Lordaeron and don’t want the surprises ruined.

Here we are at the eve of a new World of Warcraft expansion. Launch nights are always, for my guild mates and me, an exciting time. It happens once every two years or so and you really feel you’re off to discover new landscapes and races and adventures. All good. Battle for Azeroth will take us to breath-taking new lands and, having been in the Beta for it, (albeit not doing much as I don’t want to spoil the story), I can’t wait.

However, the run up to this particular expansion has been more melodramatic than usual. This is down to how the story is developing within the game. Azeroth is a huge world, with an immense amount of lore attached to it, which could give Lord of the Rings a run for its money in terms of complexity and fully realised histories of multiple nations and continents.

When you’ve played an MMO for getting on for twelve years or so, its native people feel more like friends than bunches of pixels. When I began playing WoW, back in Classic, I didn’t even notice the story and only started to become interested in it during the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. The story within The Burning Crusade, the first expansion that led WoW out of Classic into a new age in a lot of respects, didn’t engage me as much, not because it wasn’t compelling but because so much of it was hidden inside raids, and at the time my guild could only access the 10-person Karazhan and Zul Aman. The bigger raids, for hardcore players only, held the meat of the story within them. But in Wrath, you occasionally ran into the Big Bad, Arthas the Lich King, as you were doing quests and levelling, as well as in the 5-person dungeons. There were dramatic cinematics to further the story – and not this time hidden in raids that were simply for the hardcore elite. Raids – often the most spectacular part of the game – also became accessible to more players, specifically for guilds with smaller teams. Our guild loved this. Everyone felt involved.

WoW has built on this type of story-telling ever since, so that players can engage with what’s going on. You feel like you’re in a book or a film, and it’s not just a case of mindlessly killing 10 of this or collecting 10 of that for quests. What you do has more purpose. You’re busy helping oppressed races or fighting enemies that threaten the whole world. Through the story, players have changed the world of Azeroth, for better or worse.

In Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard is (initially) taking the story back to the faction divide. If anyone’s reading this who isn’t a WoW devotee, I’ll just explain that when players join the game, they choose either Alliance or Horde and begin playing their first character in that faction. Eventually, we might make characters on the other faction in order to see the story from both sides, and I imagine very few players don’t do that nowadays.

In the build up to BfA, Horde and Alliance are at each other’s throats again, in a tit for tat war. For the uninitiated, here is a very simple precis of a quite complicated story: Horde Warchief, Sylvanas Windrunner, nuked the World Tree Teldrassil, which was home of the Alliance Night Elves. A great many civilians perished, burned alive. In retaliation, the boy king Anduin Wrynn led Alliance forces against the Horde at the occupied city of Lordaeron. Here, Sylvanas decided to release the Blight, a hideous, fleshing-eating disease that killed both her own troops as well as Alliance soldiers, all of which she then raised gleefully as undead to fight for her. Despite this, she still didn’t win, thanks to the timely intervention of Jaina Proudmoore, a somewhat conflicted character herself (to put it mildly), and a very powerful Alliance mage. The leaders of both sides escaped the devastation, thus setting the stage for the launch of BfA.

Sylvanas’s actions at Lordaeron following the slaughter of civilians in Teldrassil has left a lot of Horde players feeling pretty angry. They disagree with their leader’s tactics and decisions – and it seems several non-player characters in the game feel the same, as shown in the movie-quality cinematic Blizzard released last week – The Old Soldier. In this, the veteran Orc general, Varok Saurfang, is so disgusted with the ways things are going – including perhaps how his world has changed since he was young – that he’s prepared to take off his armour and go to face the Alliance troops alone and unarmoured on the morning before the final battle. Sure suicide. But to Saurfang, honour is everything, and he feels the war he’s caught up in is dishonourable. He’s only dissuaded by a young Troll shaman who, as the dawn breaks over the mighty war engines of the Alliance surrounding Lordaeron, brings a degree of hope back to the grizzled old fighter. It was well-written, well-directed and beautifully depicted, and I found it profoundly moving. But the cinematic only highlighted the discord within the Horde itself.

I like the drama of this, and it makes me eager to discover how the story is going to play out. It’s clear Blizzard wants everyone to feel furious with Sylvanas and worried for the future, regardless of their faction, but I think the developers have got more story surprises up their sleeves. Some players are suggesting this plot is a precursor to doing away with faction divide completely – something I’d personally welcome, although a lot of players (perhaps even 50%?) would hate that. To me, faction divide is annoying in many ways. Story-wise, we’ve been teaming up to fight a common foe for over a decade. Everyone (player and fictional character alike) is older and wiser, yet even so, Horde and Alliance are now back to scrapping like school kids. It doesn’t make sense to me. Surely, a type of Cold War plot would be more convincing? I’m mainly an Alliance player, but I do have a lot of Horde characters I love just as much. Unfortunately, I can’t do end game group content with them, because all my friends play Alliance exclusively at top level. My Hordies are paupers in comparison to my rich Alliance characters, and because they’re on opposite sides, I can’t mail my Horde gold or resources, which is really galling when my Alliance have far more than they can use. Removing the divide, so that the factions could group for high level content, and otherwise communicate in all sorts of ways, would mean my Horde characters might even see a bit of raid and dungeon action, which I’d be really pleased about. But… if Blizzard does decide to sow permanent harmony between Horde and Alliance, a large proportion of the player base might have tantrums about it. We’ll have to see whether Blizzard wants to risk that. I have no gut feeling either way, because so much is up in the air story-wise at present.

There are many predictions about how the narrative will go and I enjoy being tantalised by this. It’s like beginning to read a novel in which anything could happen. But… I can’t help thinking that some of the narrative decisions that have been made since the beginning of the recent (brilliant) Legion expansion have their roots in what has become popular in genre fiction as a whole – whether in books, comics or film. I don’t think anyone can dispute that Game of Thrones has been a huge influence on story-telling. It was this show (and books) that popularised the idea of provoking (and perhaps displeasing) the audience by killing off major characters en masse, characters who normally readers/viewers would expect to be comfortably invested in. It seems a cold-hearted act, almost breaking the contract between writer and reader, to exterminate too many characters simply for the sake of being shocking. The Grimdark genre truly deserves its name. I hate the brutality of this story-telling fashion in fantasy fiction, the attention to gory detail, the gloating over torture and torment, and the constant soft porn, which is just boring. The way I see it, if someone wants to watch porn, they can go and watch it on a channel or DVD devoted to erotic titillation. I don’t see its place in mainstream entertainment. But there it is, and it’s probably not going to go away now. The demons are out of the bag, which means that me, and people like me, just can’t watch some shows, even if we otherwise like the story and setting. (For the record, I can stomach the soft porn, even if it’s dull and wastes screen time when some actual story-telling could be going on, but I simply cannot and will not watch drawn out torture, dismemberment, graphic executions and rape. What kind of person enjoys such scenes?)

I think WoW has been infected by this trend, which began in Legion with the slaughter of the human High King, Varian Wrynn, one of his veteran generals, Tyrion Fordring, the Horde Warchief Vol’jin (a much-loved Troll leader), and several others. The fact that WoW lead developer Ion Hazzikostas recently compared the Burning of Teldrassil with the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones speaks volumes. You can see it must’ve been an influence, however unconsciously and if only for its shock value. OK, the upsetting moments at the start of Legion moved the story along and created high impact drama. It set the scene for the amoral Sylvanas to become Warchief of the Horde and the young and inexperienced (and pleasingly pretty) Anduin to become the human High King. New stories to be told, new characters to invest in. And now we are facing its legacy in BfA. But I do think Blizzard might have gone a bit too far with the ‘realism’ in a game that’s essentially an escapist fantasy. I’m not sure I trust the creators (who are primarily game developers rather than fiction writers) to handle the story skilfully and convincingly. And the players want to be convinced by the story. The professional writers Blizzard do employ undoubtedly have to work to a predefined script, so can’t be held responsible, and certainly don’t deserve the threatening vitriol that’s been directed at them on social media, but quite honestly the current writers are not that great. I would like to read the WoW novels to discover all the story detail that doesn’t happen ‘in game’ but I can’t bear the hackneyed writing. I did try, I really did… But it just hurt my eyes, never mind my own creative sensibilities, to read it. As an editor as well as a writer, I couldn’t stop editing the prose in my head as I was reading. But anyway, those people are just employees, and it’s some committee, somewhere deep inside Blizzard, that calls the shots.

The good side of all this is that story has become very important – nowadays, people expect their entertainment, even in games, to have complex, mature themes, realistic characters and situations, and convincing dramatic tension. I’m delighted I’m sitting here writing about all this, because it means story-telling is alive and well, and that modern obsessions with technology, plus short attention spans, haven’t damaged it past repair. Quite the opposite, even if fiction has expanded far beyond the pages of books.

Part of The Old Soldier showed Saurfaung morosely removing his shoulder armour and throwing it to the ground. In an act of defiance against Sylvanas, (or solidarity with Saurfang, who is currently in the custody of the Alliance), some Horde players are currently choosing not to display their shoulder armour on their characters. I read that on some servers, (perhaps those devoted solely to role-playing, sadly I can’t remember), players congregated in the Horde capital of Orgrimmar to demonstrate, in a ‘Not in my Name’ kind of way. That shows how the story is affecting people, so Blizzard are doing something right. WoW is a game, yet its narrative touches people deeply. As a writer of fiction, I applaud this – and of course this is why WoW has held my attention for so long.

This evening, as midnight strikes in Europe, the islands of Kul’Tiras and Zandalar will open, and the conflict of the Horde and Alliance will be taken there. I’ve already seen the landscape, and it’s incredibly beautiful. The artwork has come on a long way since Classic WoW. One zone in particular – Drustvar – is a haunted land of dark witchcraft and supernatural strangeness. That’s the area I’m heading to as soon as I reach Kul’Tiras. From what I’ve seen it’s entirely my kind of place. I’m crossing my fingers that the story as it unfolds will be grand and surprising, and ultimately satisfying for all players. Sylvanas will definitely not be Warchief by the end of this expansion, I’m quite sure of that, but even though Saurfang seems the obvious replacement, I’m not so sure about that. Anduin will grow and change, perhaps pick up a wife along the way (the Wrynn dynasty needs continuance and Anduin could do with a strong partner to support him. There are several compelling female characters who’d make outstanding queens) – or… maybe the boy king won’t survive the story. Whatever happens, it begins tonight, like a two-year long movie or novel. I loved Legion, its story, its landscapes and its characters. But now we’re moving on to new horizons. I’m more than ready to be part of that.