Two expansions ago, with 2016’s Legion, high-level and endgame World of Warcraft underwent a big change. Legion introduced Artifact weapons for each class specialisation that could be infinitely powered up and used to further customise each specialisation’s playstyle. All told, it was a net positive, dovetailing well with some of the expansion’s other innovations – such as the repeatable, rotating World Quests – to open long-term endgame progression to a wider variety of players than just the raiding hardcore. WOW became a game you could pleasurably grind away at and advance your character without feeling funnelled towards more and more challenging group content in the quest for elusive loot drops. (It became a lot more like Diablo in that respect – coincidentally or not, current WOW production director John Hight also served as the production director on Diablo 3’s excellent console version and Reaper of Souls expansion.)
However, layered-on, limitless endgame progression systems of this sort come with problems. They can feel aimless or overwhelming, or both, and sometimes players can end up feeling more boxed in than liberated by them. That’s what happened when Blizzard tried to build on the Artifact system in 2018’s Battle for Azeroth. Its linked twin systems of Azerite armour pieces that can be powered up and Essences that grant new abilities felt fussy and overdeveloped, adding complication and huge grind without also adding anything particularly distinctive to your spec. The WOW community loves to complain about them.
“We also heard similar feedback… and we agree,” says lead game designer Morgan Day with the slightest suggestion of a sigh. I’m talking to Day and Hight over Zoom ahead of the release of next week’s Shadowlands expansion, which the WOW team has been finishing while working from home.