WoW Musings; or, Variation and Progression in a Worgen Eat Worgen World


This is the first of several planned posts discussing my random musings about my favorite MMO, World of Warcraft, and where I think the game should be headed to prolong its domination in the MMORPG world, and still keep crusty vets like myself engaged, enthralled, and entertained.


Edit, July 1, 2013, 09:16PST: It seems like I’m not the only one thinking about what WoW has become and what it’s doing to the MMO genre. The Escapist’s Steven Bogos just posted an entry quoting former WoW developer Mark Kern as saying “Sometimes I look at WoW and think ‘what have we done?’ I think I know. I think we killed a genre.”

Fret not,  Mr. Kern. I’ve got a few ideas in the noggin brewin’ up…

To introduce this series, let me preface this with what inspired these musings. I call them musings because really, what else is a player to do without access to the empirical data and the technological expertise that Blizzard has at their disposal that enables them to make the tough design choices? I can only offer perspective and feedback, so that’s how we’ll categorizing these musings.

I had a conversation with a buddy from my ship the other night. It started off with him making an off-the-cuff remark about how he has no desire to log into WoW. This after having stopped for a few years, reinstating his account and leveling a new character…and not only that, but getting 10 of our other shipmates to do the very same thing.

Essentially what turned him off was the vastness of the game and exactly HOW MUCH catching up he had to do. While he was willing to put in the time and effort, ultimately what killed his desire was the cycle of gearing and the seemingly stilted progression that saw him endlessly and mindlessly running through dungeons.

It got me to thinking…

The other night I made a post in response to another post that discussed the need (or lack thereof) of “end bosses” and how gameplay structure in terms of goals, objectives and storytelling surrounds the concept.

The Formula:
Use learned abilities + avoid/mitigate y damage and/or special abilities (aka, outlive boss) = dead bad things = z reward.

Save the princess! No, shoot…stupid girl is in another freakin’ castle.  Wait, this is like the 17th Mario game in which Peach is getting kidnapped by Bowser. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here…Hrmmmm……

Mind. Blown.

I digress.

What would happen if you took a game like World of Warcraft, and you took the boss encounter structure out. What would that even be like? The adage goes “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Well, let’s imagine what WoW would be like without it’s epic big bads that poop equally epic rewards upon the killing blow.

WoW’s cycle is pretty much a variation of the simple formula above with one slight variation:

[((Use learned abilities + avoid/mitigate y damage and/or special abilities = dead baddie with z loot that doesn’t belong to you/your class)n, number of times it takes until you DO get said loot)^16, the number of gear slots to fill]*infinity… because the cycle will never end.

I’m sorry, did I say simple? Well, yeah, it really is. You kill a boss over and over until it drops a gear item you need, move on to the next until your entire set is complete, and then repeat the cycle over and over and over as each new raid tier (tier! not just expansion, but an individual tier WITHIN said expansion) is released. And there you have it.

So the idea of a megaboss-centric structure complements WoW’s overall gameplay formula.

But let’s have a little fun here. Not totally crazy…you know, like hypothetically imagine an Azeroth free from big bad encounters, but instead, let us reduce the number greatly.

In changing the structure, any of the developers will tell you it’s a lot easier said than done, and they couldn’t be more right. There are a few things to consider. We’ll call them our challenges.

Challenge the first: Replayable content.

The first thing to look at is the replayability of the content. You kill a boss, it doesn’t drop what you need, so you come back a week later (or the next day if it’s just a 5-man heroic, or immediately if it’s a regular dungeon) and try again. You can do that because the perpetual online environment does a pre-determined reset based on the level of challenge and difficulty allowing you to retry as many times as it will take to get what you’re seeking. This could take a day, a week, or even several months and the life of the content patch if you’re so unlucky. The point is, with this design, you’re MEANT to play nearly everyday or more often than a typical RPG/action game. The dungeons and raids are so designed for you to keep going in, to keep killing those mobs, to keep murdering those poor bosses that just, you know, want to chill in their cribs planning to take over the world (when really, who DOESN’T want to take over the world?). Any dungeon with story content is experienced once or twice before Blizzard allows you to skip the story bits altogether and get right to the stabbystabs and the pewpews. And by the time you DO get what you want, you have the raid/dungeon on automode and soon forget why you’re even in there in terms of the story.

So, in order for the reduced boss encounter design to work, you’d have to create a format of traversing the area that would stimulate intellect and provoke strategic thought amongst its groups of adventurers. Thankfully, you don’t have to go far to see something repeatable yet so different from experience to experience than in another Blizzard title, Diablo III. The use of random dungeon layouts as seen in Diabo III is a great step forward and one that I see working in a format like WoW (again, ideas on paper must eventually meet the technological limitations of practical application…so we’ll just pretend for the moment, that there are NO technological limitations, indulge me). Blizzard already has toyed with the notion of introducing RNG into the boss encounters prior to actually engaging them (Halfus or Stone Guardians, for example). What this idea suggests is expanding it to not just what bosses are traipsing around the inner halls of the raid, but the actual layout itself. While even games like Diablo are having problems with that structure – i.e. not enough maps to keep the idea of randomness going –  this would keep at least the 5-man dungeoning structure from being completely mundane. And when introduced into the raid-level structure would mean that the few bosses that would be left could then genuinely be epic-feeling bosses that are of significance to the story. Yes this would mean a LOT more design work, but it would also mean squeezing a bit more life out of content that becomes redundant after a week or two of dedicated gameplay (even for casual MMO gamers). Imagine if you will an ever-changing raid that takes into account your past kills. You downed the first boss, so the following week, there’s an entirely new boss in its place (that really doesn’t have to have different mechanics…but mostly tells a new part of the story). Does the number of boss changes have to be high? No…just enough to vary it out from week to week and learn something NEW in the story. Rare spawns in the dungeons…remember those days? The point is something would be different each lockout period to intrigue me enough to WANT to keep going in other than just getting loot that’s as stubborn to drop as Fox News is on saying ANYTHING positive about the President.

Challenge the second: player progression in an unending leet vs. casual arena

In straying away from the “end boss” trope, and first dealing with the replayability of the content, we must then evaluate the process by which characters progress in the game. In Diablo III, aside from the randomness of the dungeon layouts, it’s also the loot rewards that keep players coming back. The itemization on each piece is so completely and utterly random that it’s quite possible to conclude that one might NEVER obtain the most optimal gearset. But the question remains, should raids in WoW be the only source for the BEST gear in the game?

Of course at this point you can surmise I’m going to respond with a resounding, “no.”

This is a dilemma that WoW’s developers have been attempting to solve for quite some time. Currently, the system in place in Mists of Pandaria is that the BEST gear will come from the most challenging content, i.e. the heroic-level raids in the current tier, which at this point in time is 5.2’s Throne of Thunder raid. To alleviate unlucky streaks, “thunderforged” gear was introduced to fill certain gaps in the traditional boss-kill gearing method to complement the expansion’s staple drop chance-enhancer, the bonus loot roll gained with the collection of certain charms in daily gameplay activities. Add to that all the valor gear that can be obtained from Pandaria’s various factions and crafters and voila! Gear for err’ybodeh.


From the beginning of my first raiding experience in Karazhan (I was a Burning Crusade baby), the idea that great loot could only be earned through successive and repetitive boss kills irked me then as it does now. I mean, Beatrix Kiddo, in her roaring rampage of revenge to kill (Bill) the man who put a bullet in her brain, didn’t aim to raid his Mexican bungalow to kill him and have his sword for herself. Uh, she went to the bloody manufacturer and had him CRAFT one for her…his most powerful one, according to him. So why I can’t I do the same in the game. It’s already there…the last few legendary-level weapons in game were made by completing tasks and garnering certain hard-to-obtain materials. I’m just saying that there should be a way to do the same thing OUTSIDE the raids. It can still be painful, RNG-based, and time consuming, it just doesn’t have to require a raid kill. The point is, there should be ways to progress the character without having to go into the raids.

Hanzo’s Sword of the Begrudged Samurai
+2084703958 Stamina
+2398434849 Agility
+1308534 Hit Rating
+1309850 Critical Strike
Chance on Use: Instantly kill an enemy with a single melee blow…or just amputate their appendages
“You must’haz big grudge if you needs Hattori Hanzo’s steel.”
Made by Hattori Hanzo

I think it was Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street who argued that with this, the problem then becomes less about making challenging content, and more about getting players to stop choosing the path of least resistance (I believe his words were “the most efficient” method of progression). And while the developers will have access to all the analytical data that would suggest Ghostcrawler is right in that assumption, I could only hope that the player base would appreciate the introduction of options. Do you want to raid and get gear, which would probably be the quickest by design? Or, do you want to traverse the world doing tasks, chores, and hunt around for the materials needed to craft your awesome? See, options.

Challenge the third: overcoming volatile/unpredictable player behaviors

If you were to introduce those aforementioned options, and Ghostcrawler’s assumptions are correct, and less people went into raids, would that even be a bad thing? The problem I’m constantly seeing now is that features like Looking For Raid (LFR) are so ridden with the most volatile of players that if they’re really good, they’re elitist jerks that bark orders to everyone, and if they’re too new or slightly undergeared, they underperform and eventually get kicked from the group. Now, while Blizzard can’t control player behavior, what it can do is continue to offer alternative methods of progression. Here’s a slightly optimistic perspective: if progression could be had either within a raid, or outside of it, then those who would otherwise be less inclined to challenge themselves would stay out of the raids and those who would go in would be genuinely there to experience gameplay at their level. Thus, gearing happens in parallel. Yes, a percentage of the players would then pick what they feel is the “easy” route, but in the bigger picture, the initial rate of progression really doesn’t change much to what we see now live in game. The raiders will gear quicker, but those who don’t raid will EVENTUALLY get that same gear; however, EVERYONE progresses. The achievement system and other cosmetic accoutrements could be used to distinguish the efforts of raiders versus that of non-raiders even more so than the live systems do currently. Blizzard is ALREADY stepping in that direction, with the Kor’kron war wolf mount that will drop off Garrosh in 5.4’s Siege of Orgrimmar raid. It’s obtained by completing the raid while its still current on normal difficulty, thus disabling players from getting long after Orgimmar’s seige has ended and players face the newest threats to Azeroth.

Ultimately, what a player achieves and the rate in which it is achieved should be the result of player choice. Blizzard can certainly GUIDE that choice, but the choice should be ours nevertheless, even if we want to be lazy (because at least we’d still be paying customers, no?).

So to end this, my favorite extreme dungeoner, Raegwyn, the awesomely talented Blood Death Knight, has officially become the first solo-player to down a Mists of Pandaria boss. See him take down Tier 14’s ultimate big bad, Sha of Fear:

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