Playing video games these days can often feel like a job. No, I’m not referring to my literal work here – over the last ten years more and more games have adopted some form of “live-service” element that incentivizes long term play and commitment. What better way to make money off your game than to ensure butts are firmly planted and playing your one single game till the end of time (or until the servers are shut off)? Crank out the updates, roll out the battle passes, and make loot the star of the show: it’s all about keeping players hooked for that sweet, sweet recurrent player spending!
It can be argued that World of Warcraft’s massive, zeitgeist capturing success during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion is what set us down this path towards “forever” games. Destiny may be the progenitor of the “live-service” model of gaming, but Bungie clearly took inspiration from Blizzard’s juggernaut MMO. The idea of always having something to chance – a perpetual carrot on the stick – wasn’t Blizzard’s to begin with, but they polished it such a degree that everyone and their Guardian wanted to replicated World of Warcraft’s success.
Everything comes full-circle eventually, and the last two World of Warcraft expansions – Legion and Battle for Azeroth – were tailor-built to maximize player investment and involvement. There was a time you could casually enjoy World of Warcraft without feeling like some idiot dredge, yet those two expansions were designed with FOMO (“fear of missing out”) heavily in mind. There’s always been some element of FOMO in World of Warcraft, but it felt like the concept was taken to it’s absolute maxim these last four years.
Playing World of Warcraft felt like a job, and a particularly unrewarding one specifically during Battle for Azeroth. Players could theoretically jump off the Artifact Power/Azerite treadmills to stop and smell the Riverbud, but it often felt like we were falling impossibly far behind for doing so. Part of this was due to World of Warcraft’s famously strict endgame community, which abused the piss out of the GearScore addon back when it debuted during Wrath and never looked back. There were and are chill communities out there, but if you wanted to take part in World of Warcraft’s endgame you had to meet the community enforced standards.
It all had to do with the “unlimited” power grind attached to Artifact Power from Legion, and it’s follow-up replacement Azerite in Battle for Azeroth. You could technically grind either of those resources out until your eyes shrank into the back of your skull, meaning they became the new yardstick in which the community could beat you over the head with (the less we talk about the damned Heart of Azeroth the better). Pair these with Warforging/Titanforging – a mechanic that allowed gear to possibly drop at a higher item-level and with better stats – and you had both an infinite grind and heavy randomization dictating the tempo of the endgame.
I’ll be honest and admit I’m supremely burnt-out on this style of endgame progression in video games, period. Battle passes may not be infinite, but their heavy reliance on FOMO ensures you’ll constantly pursue leveling them season after season, lest you miss out on the rewards. Obnoxious amounts of randomization (like what’s found on Destiny 2’s armor) are there to keep you hooked long term as you pursue the perfect rolls on your drops. All of that work, and none of it is permanent; it’ll all be replaced in a month or two when the next update comes out. It’s fucking maddening.
The majority of my playtime in World of Warcraft is from Wrath of the Lick King: I have over 150 days logged in the game, and I’d wager over half of that time was clocked in during Wrath alone. That expansion wasn’t perfect (despite what my rose-tinted goblin glasses may sometimes lead me to believe), but the endgame grind of World of Warcraft’s second expansion is what established my preferences today. Gear was gear, you had daily and weekly lockouts that set the pace for progression, and there were currencies in place that allowed us to keep up with our gear progression when loot drop rates failed to roll in our favor.
The reputation grind with the Son’s of Hodir for shoulder enchants was tedious, but I could take breaks during Wrath and not feel guilty for doing so. Sure, gear in Wrath would be replaced by more powerful drops in each content update (which is a common design wrinkle in themepark MMOs, such as Final Fantasy XIV), but that felt like the only real bugbear in the whole equation. My gargantuan time commitment to Wrath was born not out of obligation and FOMO, but genuine enjoyment of the game. Shadowlands has recaptured that sensation – at least for me – and I couldn’t be happier.
Gear is back to being gear, untainted by Warforging or Titanforging’s randomization bullshit. I can once more target my best-in-slot gear and clear it from my checklist the moment it drops and I acquire it. Renown Ranks replace Battle for Azeroth’s Azerite, and though the system looks like a battle pass at first glance, it’s a far more forgiving and easily maintained form of progression. It’s not infinite (it’s time-gated), and the major unlocks (Soulbinds) don’t have a perpetual treadmill attached. You can increase your Renown by either clearing your two weekly Renown quests, or earn missing ranks by doing regular activities when you fall behind. It’s amazing.
I’m currently sitting here on my main in raiding-capable gear earned entirely from completing weekly campaign quests I unlocked via Renown, and I’m barely over halfway towards the current rank 40 cap. I’ve upgraded pieces of it to higher item levels with the new Anima resource I easily collect weekly, with plenty to spare for the other side tasks I enjoy, like improving my Ember Court. I can jump into Mythic+ dungeons and up to the Heroic-difficulty raid, and I didn’t have to grind day and night to do so. I’ve been farming mounts and other cosmetic items from rare bosses because I have the time and freedom to do so. I’m actually leveling alts for the first time in ten years! I’m not playing Shadowlands for tens of hours a week because I feel like I have to; I’m doing so because I’m once again enjoying my time spent in World of Warcraft.
I still miss the old Valor and Justice currencies for PvE gear, though the Great Vault does an okay job of countering bad luck (though it too can fall victim to shitty randomization), but Shadowlands overall doesn’t feel like a job. I can once more savor World of Warcraft at my own pace without feeling like I’m falling behind for only playing once a week, taking a day to farm mounts, leveling an alt, or doing anything not directly related to chasing the carrot on the stick. The expansion has its faults, there’s no denying that, but in an environment where every game these days is vying to be my one and only game in the blind pursuit of my hard earned cash it’s refreshing to have one I can play on my own terms without it feeling like work to stay caught-up.
Fingers crossed Blizzard sticks with this more forgiving design mantra throughout Shadowlands. There’s plenty to do, and I love how the vast majority of it is optional. I adore being able to sit back and dump days into Shadowlands because I want to, not because I feel like I have to. World of Warcraft set us down this path that led to all these endless live-service games with deep FOMO-tainted hooks when it exploded in popularity over a decade ago. It even fell victim to these design conceits itself. I can only hold my breath and hope Shadowlands is able to pioneer a new path forward, where long-term games don’t have to feel like second jobs.
- This article was updated on:January 14th, 2021