Wednesday, November 6, 2019

It'll Squish: World of Warcraft

Perhaps the most interesting news to come out of BlizzCon this year, for me at least, was the full reveal of what's been called the "Level Squish" for World of WarcraftRumor and speculation have been rife for some time concerning Blizzard's desire to cut the amount of levelling needed to reach the cap in WoW but now we have some actual facts about how it's going to work.

The official press release sums it up like this:
"Every Level Is Meaningful: Shadowlands will introduce a new leveling system, meant to provide a meaningful sense of advancement with every level achieved. Current max-level characters will begin Shadowlands at level 50 and work toward the new level cap of 60."
There's a lot more to it than just slashing the number next to your character's name by more than fifty percent. PCGamer explains some more of the detail:
"...when you start a new character they will start at level one in an entirely new zone designed to better showcase what makes World of Warcraft special and fun. Once you're level 10, you can choose an expansion to level through that will take you the entire way from level 10 to level 50. From there you can go onto Shadowlands. Each and every level will also unlock a new ability, talent, or some other upgrade so that each level is meaningful."
That's still only scratching the surface. Massively:OP posted a much more nuanced explanation of what's being proposed, drawn directly from the Shadowlands panel at BlizzCon, complete with screenshots of the PowerPoint presentation. The gist here is that, to quote Justin "Syp" Olivetti, "World of Warcraft’s leveling process will be more like a choose-your-own-adventure than ever before… at least for veteran players and their alts. For brand-new players, however, it’s more of a strict path".

The idea is that players coming fresh to WoW will begin in a brand new zone called "Exile's Reach". They'll stay there until Level 10, whereupon they'll "tackle a mini-dungeon with two bosses, visit their respective capital cities, and then be off to a one-two punch of Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands for their 10-60 run."

Veteran players rolling alts will have a choice of Exile's Reach or any of the current starting zones. From there, after a trip to their faction's capital, they'll be able to speak to an NPC called "Chromie" to pick an expansion from any of those released before Shadowlands. That character will then be locked into the chosen expansion, which will provide sufficient xp to take them all the way to Level 50, after which it's into the latest content to finish the final ten levels alongside everyone else.

If you really balk at being railroaded this way then fine, Blizz is cool with that. You do you. As Syp puts it, "If you don’t really care about doing a specific expansion, you will have the choice to roam the world and do whatever you like".

Good luck with that, though. XP gain will also be increased (for everyone, whichever leveling path they take) by an estimated sixty or seventy percent. Since current Live rates already make it impossible to see more than a fraction of the content before outlevelling it, after Shadowlands releases Azeroth is going to zip past the windows of your speeding level-train in a blur.

I've been thinking about all of this quite a bit since I first heard about it. My initial reaction was something of a splutter. Really? How is this a good idea? Fix the problem of people not finding leveling engaging or meaningful by making it even less engaging and meaningful?

It seemed that the lesson Blizzard had learned from the enthusiastic take-up of Classic was "people like getting stuff for levelling so let's give them stuff every time they ding and make it so they ding faster so they feel like they're getting even more stuff!". They seemed to have missed the point that the reason people found that process so satisfying was a) because it felt like a pay-off for significant investment of time and effort and b) the new abilities received with each Ding made the characters feel more powerful, more flexible, more capable and more able to handle what came next.

By fast-forwarding the rewards so they come so thick and fast there's no time either to look forward to getting them or appreciate the difference they make to gameplay seems likely to defeat the entire object. It's hardly thrilling to gain the ability to breathe underwater if you never need to go swimming in the first place because none of your main sequence quests require it, for example.

Once the initial shock and outrage had faded, though, I began to come round to the proposed changes, at least somewhat. Playing Classic right now, I am already running into a bit of a wall through the combination of repeated content, lengthy travel and slow xp gain. What feels compulsively entertaining on a first run-through starts to seem less so on a second and third, especially when playing several characters of the same faction, concurrently.

This is largely a function of the retro nature of the Classic experience. Playing an unfamiliar MMORPG, it might take many months, even years, before the content begins to go stale, something that was even more true back in the Golden Age, when the genre itself was less well-understood. But Classic isn't new any more and neither are MMORPGs; that process doesn't take as long.

Retail WoW is already a very different beast from either Classic or the WoW of various periods in the past. And we have Classic, for those who want something approximating the original experience. In the future we might even have Classic servers for all the various Expansions, if the demand exists. Who knows where Blizzard will take the concept over the next decade?

Meanwhile there's the main game. And it is a game now, not a virtual world. The people in charge of WoW's future clearly see it as belonging to a very particular audience: people who want to Raid. Retail WoW has become a conveyor belt to some very specific content and the Level Squish is designed to make that belt move faster and deliver its passengers more smoothly to the endpoint.

Curiously, the specific way they've chosen to do it could have positive implications for players with no interest in raiding. What the new approach to levelling does is split the whole fifteen-year package into separate games, all of which end in raiding. At which point, if you don't like raiding, you might decide you've "won".

I've often suggested that one way to avoid the problems of power creep and content decay that plague every long-lasting MMORPG would be to maintain all the expansions as discrete entities. I imagine a system where characters have to graduate (or, as I'd lay odds it would be called, "Ascend") from one expansion to the next, maintaining continuity and integrity for the individual characters but, for the player, effectively starting over afresh each time.

WoW's new levelling game isn't quite that but it's a stepping stone towards it. Of course, it still points inexorably towards an end-game which, I believe, is of interest to far fewer potential customers than the original open world approach that once saw WoW reach twelve million paying subscribers. I don't believe the Level Squish will return the game to its former commercial success, let alone revive its lost cultural significance.

It might, however, make for an amusing series of vignettes. By focusing entirely on the storyline of each expansion and re-tooling the game so it can be played as a series of narrative-driven video games, each with its own, clear ending, Blizzard can lay WoW to rest as an MMORPG once and for all.

The extended virtual world motif never really suited a company that places far more importance on narrative than the form is able to support. By reverting to a focus on directed gameplay in service of a pre-written story, perhaps Blizzard will be able to take back control of a vehicle that long ago outpaced their ability to steer it in the direction they intended.

Looking back at posts on this blog it's clear I rather enjoyed the tight, disciplined storytelling in starter zones like Kezan and Gilneas. That's the direction WoW has been taking ever since the Vanilla era ended and perhaps it's where they need to go. WoW won't really be an MMORPG any more but maybe it will be a better game because of it.


  1. The continuous narrative that threaded through the entire game was pretty much the last thing left from the WoW that I used to play. Removing talent trees, drastically changing crafting, ability pruning, enormous class redesigns (in some cases several), and finally level scaling all moved the game away from anything I recognized or enjoyed. Now the last room is going to be knocked down and rebuilt, almost nothing of the original structure will remain. Moving from classic to retail will be more like moving from FFVII to FFVIII than moving between anything that resembles different versions of the same game.

    I think this new game that's coming out in a year might be pretty fun. It sounds better than current retail WoW at least. The "every level matters" might be really great, depending on how well it's executed.

    1. I thought the plans for Shadowlands and Retail synced very nicely with the plans for Overwatch.Overwatch2. Blizzard look like they are working towards some kind of method for revitalizing and remerchandizing existing properties rather than coming up with new ones. It's goinf to be very interesting to see if they can pull it off or whether it will be interpreted as a cash-grab. Could go either way.


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