A month or so before the launch of Legion, the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, I started working on an essay that was tentatively titled “Why I Keep Coming Back to World of Warcraft.” It was a piece about my play cycle with WoW. I wait for a new expansion to come out, I buy that expansion, I play it up to the new end-game raid content, and then I unsubscribe. While I’m sure that I exhibit the same addiction symptoms that many others do with the game (“just one more quest before bed”), I’ve always been able to kick it when I get to the point where I can’t enjoy the game on my own terms. The minute that I need to find a guild, or really start “gearing up,” or generally start playing in a way that constrains what I want to do inside a framework of what I need to do, I lose interest.
There are also the narrative factors too. I like to see what happens to this cast of Horde characters that I’ve been following since the release of the original Warcraft. To me, this world is legitimately interesting, and playing through the broad strokes of the story is always something that gets me over the hump of the long pauses that I take between expansion releases.
I ended up not finishing my essay on why I keep coming back. It seemed too simple, and the answer ended up being “because I enjoy the game.” There wasn’t much substance to it. Ultimately, it was for the best, because I’ve bounced off Legion like a superball off concrete, and I’ve figured out why.
I can’t stress to you how much I have tried to get hooked by Legion. I did the preamble month of events. I did my introductory quest so that I could hang out in my new class hub (more on that soon). I followed an artifact weapon into the depths of Deepholm and into the court of its elemental queen, a character who I find deeply fascinating. I gave it my all. And I couldn’t get hooked.
It’s undeniable that Legion has done some excellent reworking of WoW’s general systems. The expansion has brought significant changes to narrative systems and the delivery of story content—what I played had much more scripting, much more continual “in-quest” narrative chaining, and generally a heavier hand when it came to making sure that quests are connected to each other along a consistent thread.
There has also been a significant reworking of the game’s classes (by which I mean the jobs, like Mage or Priest). Many have been streamlined to make them simpler to play, and subclasses (like a damage-dealing Shaman versus a healing Shaman) have been stretched out in order to make those play styles more distinct. For example, I have played an Enhancement Shaman for a silly number of years. The basic idea behind that class is that it likes to punch things. You stand in front of enemies, hit your buttons, and just generally try to avoid being damaged while you summon ghost wolves and throw down the occasional healing circle. This is in contrast to the Elemental Shaman, which is a way of playing that is all about shooting your enemies with blasts of elemental energy from as far away as possible.
Before Legion’s class changes, the Enhancement Shaman and the Elemental Shaman had some weird overlap. While the latter was all about chucking rad blasts at enemies from far away, the former stood right in the middle of battle while building up “stacks” of elemental energy that it would eventually expend in the form of a close-range lightning bolt…an Elemental Shaman spell. The Enhancement Shaman was effectively tied to the Elemental Shaman in a weird way, and they both took radically different routes to a similar damage-dealing end point.
Logging into Legion to play a character class that I’ve been playing since Cataclysm is a nightmare. The abilities that used to impact each other no longer do. I build stacks of energy, but I don’t know how to expend them. The beauty of coming into WoW and dropping out of it again was the knowledge that I could always return. The situations were different, the conditions on the ground were altered, but I never had to re-learn the game. Yet here I am, at one of the busiest times in my life, and the game that I have always depended on to be the background radiation, the smooth meditation experience, has functionally abandoned me by asking me to learn it all over again.
So I have a choice. I can scrounge up the knowledge necessary to enjoy this fine #content in the age of ever-proliferating things that I can spend my time with. I can break through the clouds of innovation that seek to please newcomers and old hats of WoW in one fell swoop; it seems like a symptom that can’t be treated with one medication, but what do I know?
Or I can do the other thing. I can recognize, with a heavy heart, that this game has indirectly driven me out. I can’t get my hooks into it, or I finally grew immune to its kinds of hooks. My friend Danni, who I have played many games with, summarized it best when I was trying to help him conjure the WoW magic via Legion with me. He told me that he felt like he’d done it all before, that it wasn’t new. I didn’t press him on it, but I took him to mean the whole process: the narrative, the mechanics, the grind.
What made me bounce Legion wasn’t that I’d be doing the same old thing. It was that I would have to learn so much to do the same old thing. It’s like having to go through job training to play Tic Tac Toe; the value proposition just isn’t a good one.
I don’t know how you fix this. I don’t know how to capture new people, fix the game for those who are already there, and then also please people like me. I don’t envy the people having to solve these problems, and I would assume I am just accounted for by some number labeled “churn” or “bouncy” or “baddos” on some whiteboard in the depths of Blizzard HQ.
“Why I Keep Coming Back to WoW,” has, against all of my wishes, become something like “Why I Won’t Be Returning to WoW.” It’s a melancholy moment, but one that really does need to be marked in time. I remember skipping work and school obligations to fight quillboars with my troll hunter in the tangle outside Razor Hill. Try as I might, I can’t conjure that feeling up again in the context of Legion.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.