A larger focus on the design and philosophy.
There are many articles about the pitfalls of too much choice. Do we really need 50 kinds of toothpaste, or 6 kinds of dark coffee at 5am? But what happens when there’s an illusion of choice and instead a hard track to follow?
Game design is a battle of the developers having an idea and the gamers having another one – it’s an eternal conflict. Gamers will go out of their way to play a game their way, and any hindrance to that is viewed with questioning. Something like Limbo is a linear adventure but it has clear purpose. The design choices are aligned and the overall experience in increased because of them. FF13 is a linear adventure (for 90% anyways) but it serves little to no purpose and detracts from the game’s experience.
Don’t take this like advocating for a sandbox world with a story. Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to kill that dream with maps filled with icons. The recent Assassin’s Creed is a great example of false choice. You can either go here and kill this guy, or go there and kill that guy. Compared to something like Breath of the Wild, where they just give you tools… it’s really divergent.
Vanilla WoW was about choices. Anyone who hit cap during those days knew it was an achievement because of all the mistakes you could make along the way. Most people took 7 days /played to get there. Someone hit max in BFA in 0.16 days. Expansions came with choices about gear, talents, group buildups – actual choices in combat even. The tail end of each was met with the lack of choice, as pretty much everything but top hard-mode raiding was faceroll-easy. Then the cycle starts again.
Cataclysm is certainly the first instance where we this. The initial release of dungeons needed to be nerfed since everyone had been AE spamming LK dungeons for nearly 2 years. WoD’s garrisons completely replaced the need to run dungeons, and rep grinds kills the exploration of open world. Legion’s hyper focus on artifact powers and the RNG wall behind legendaries detracted from the rest of the gameplay.
This is where things get more interesting. BfA appears to have choices, but do they really exist?
- Levels – There are 3 zones designated for leveling, but the actual act of leveling has no purpose aside from diminishing your power levels. It is meant to make you feel weaker.
- Quests – Immediate and long terms goals. They provide context/story to the world, they provide experience while leveling (and gold when not), and provide some item rewards along the path. They are a tool to present content. As a tool, they make you engage the world in specific areas, with specific goals. The fact that there are so many spread out across each part of land, is providing a framework by which the developers expect you to engage that land. Pick any spot on the map. 95% chance that specific area is designed for a quest.
- Story – The thread by which the various tools are strung together. Legion’s story was woven into nearly everything and increased (to me) overall engagement. In BfA, after the Siege of Lordaeron, I have seen a grand total of 2 quests that have anything to do with Sylvanas. Lots on Jaina.
- Dungeons – Near mandatory in Legion, though somewhat optional here. There 2 dungeons per faction that are gated by either high reputation (7500 honored) or by a very long quest that has you run multiple dungeons. These are also tools to present a story and specific rewards.
- World Quests – These were supposed to be filler activities to replace daily quests. Now you certainly have the choice of which to do, but the game is so heavily incentivized to run these for a) reputation or b) rewards, it’s becoming comical. The structure of the WQ has also turned into Zerg-mode – in particular for the super elite enemies. All of a sudden a zone gets 40 players of one faction show up in one spot.
- PvP – I honestly have no idea what is going here anymore. There was a time where PvP was so isolated that the actions therein only impacted PvP. Nowdays, it’s mixed in with PvE (War Mode) and causing all sorts of gameplay issues. Those 40 people in the WQ for 60 seconds? They cause War Mode to think the zone is being invaded and turns on CRZ for the other faction. It’s like a giant pinball game. And the rewards from PvP are given out based on breakpoints – there are no vendors. You get what Blizz says you’re going to get.
There are more examples of this shift in design philosophy, where Blizz has opted for a scripted path for players. You can tell from the various bits of feedback on BfA so far that people are taking issue with these artificial limitations. Azerite gear trading is only a small, but clear example of this. There’s an illusion of choice present because the tools presented only work in one way.
I am not against the design philosophy of targeted experiences. That’s how any large organization works – just look at Disney or IKEA. But there’s a difference when the targeted experience is focused on corporate objectives instead consumer enjoyment. Finding that balance is an extremely challenging effort for any designer. The more rigid the design is, the more fragile it becomes to player experimentation. The WQ exploit (repeating the same one multiple times), the various UI mods, the broken AH are each individually critiques of parts of the design. On the whole, it should also be seen as a challenge to the design philosophy – or at the very least a quest for a better understanding of overall direction.