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 executive producer 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.
"You know, we added the Azerite armor system, and very quickly heard player feedback - and saw even just from engaging with the game ourselves - that it was going to be hard to expand," says Day. "A lot of the feedback we got was,'You're just going to make us re-earn the same power that we have already had from the game's launch - what the heck, Blizzard?' And we looked at that and said: 'Yep, in order to resolve this, I think we actually should create a new axis of progression.' And that's where we introduced the Azerite Essence system, and that was kind of layered complexity. We knew that that's what we were getting ourselves into." It was a fix, essentially; one system plastered over another that wasn't really working. And it was about as elegant as that sounds.
Going into Shadowlands, the WOW team knew these endgame progression systems had a place in the game and that there was a real appetite for them among players. But they also knew that they hadn't nailed them yet. In fact, as Hight acknowledges, they realised they had temporarily forgotten a vital principle of player motivation in implementing these systems in the first place.
"I think part of what we learn - or we relearn, I guess - is players want a sense of achievement, a sense of accomplishment. And so, having kind of infinite progression in the Artifact system, they didn't have that sense of fulfillment, right? It's sort of just chasing this number that gets bigger and bigger. And so we want to move away from that in Shadowlands."
Shadowlands' key endgame progression system - Soulbinds - is much more defined. (That doesn't mean it's more limiting though - far from it.) As you adventure through the Shadowlands, Warcraft's version of the afterlife, you will choose to ally yourself with one of four Covenants, which are essentially fancy, interactive factions. Within each Covenant you will meet three key characters you can form a Soulbind with, unlocking some of their special powers for your character to use. (Day likens them to the game's racial abilities, such as the Goblin rocket jump.) Each Soulbind comes with its own talent tree that gradually unlocks as you gain renown with the Covenant. You can see, depicted clearly, where you're going and the powers you'll unlock.
The issue with Soulbinds, though, is not depth, but breadth. "Think about it, we've got a dozen classes, three dozen specs, multiplied times four Covenants," says Hight. And you can multiply that by three again, with the choice of Soulbind within each Covenant: that's 432 permutations of class, spec, Covenant and Soulbind, even before you factor in the choices a player might make within the spec and Soulbind talent trees.
It is, surely, a balancing nightmare.That's certainly what players of the alpha and beta thought, some even wondering if these endgame progression systems - sometimes called borrowed power systems - made balancing the game properly impossible. Balancing was indeed picked out as a key reason Blizzard needed to delay Shadowlands' release by a few weeks, with Hight's note pointing out the complexity of interlocking systems in a game like World of Warcraft. (Alongside Covenants, Shadowlands also introduces Torghast, a roguelike-style randomised dungeon.) As Hight notes, balancing and fixing such broad and layered systems is exactly what beta testing is for. "There is nothing more valuable to us than the sort of crowdsourcing that happens with thousands and thousands of beta participants going through... A lot of people went through levelling up a character to going in, choosing Covenants, trying different characters and giving us really excellent feedback. And, you know, that's priceless."
Day reckons that, if balancing the Soulbinds is always likely to be an ongoing process, at least the team now feels it has the tools it needs to do it. "We feel very confident that we have, I guess, the knobs that we would need to adjust to get to a place where we and the community are excited and happy with where we ended up. And that's something that has been a major focus of ours over the last few weeks," he says.
But he points out that Soulbinds initially feeling off in the beta wasn't necessarily a balancing issue. With any progression system, pacing is a vital consideration. "We had gotten a lot of feedback early on about Soulbinds not feeling super impactful, or they weren't very exciting when you first grabbed them. Even within the last few weeks, we've made major changes so that the talent, I guess we could call it, at the bottom of the Soulbind tree - we actually just moved most of those to the top so that as soon as you get them, you get one of the most exciting aspects or most exciting things that Soulbind can give you." Alongside a focus on pacing, there is the learning from Battle for Azeroth that such systems need to be naturally expandable. "Something that we've been focusing a lot on and with Shadowlands is just making sure that we pace it well and also making sure that we have room to grow. Maybe going wider on a lot of these systems as well."
Perhaps the key point, though, is that Blizzard doesn't start with the nitty-gritty game design thinking at all when it approaches a new endgame system. Quite the opposite. The core of the system is thematic, even emotional. "A lot of it really stems from a place of: well, what makes sense for the theme and the setting of this expansion? What's the story we're trying to tell? Why are we going to this place?" says Day. The Covenants (broadly analogous to angels, necromancers, fairies and vampires) are a storytelling device as much as they are an option for customisation and progression, and Day thinks players' choice of Covenant and Soulbind will - or should - be driven more by roleplay than min-maxing. "We were discussing, what's the emotion we want to elicit, how do we want people to feel about this? I personally think about it almost like a sub-spec: like my Venthyr Paladin feels way different than my Kyrian Paladin. And that is something that we thought would be really, really fun to pursue, people would really enjoy engaging with."
The tuning and balancing workload kicked up by this premise is a challenging, complex and expensive afterthought, but the World of Warcraft developers clearly think it's been worth it. Time will tell on that - Shadowlands launches on Tuesday, and these systems will likely be refined over the whole two-year lifespan of the expansion. But it's true that WOW has always excelled at flavour: making each faction, every race, every class, every spec, even every individual skill feel charismatic and distinct. 16 years from launch, it's one of the things that still sets the game apart. And maybe this emotionally led design process is one of the reasons for that. I'd say that's worth a balancing nightmare or two.