(*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.

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