World of Warcraft: The Idea of Limitless Grinding and the Future of Hardcore Guilds

When I first started this blog I warned that I’d be talking about World of Warcraft a lot, and so far I haven’t really kept to that promise/threat. I spoke a couple of months ago about how the community’s perception of class balance was itself creating imagined imbalances that placed a lot of needless constraints and pressure on nearly the entire endgame community. Creating problems for themselves is a constant feature of WoW’s playerbase; and today I’m going to look at another system that players use as a noose to fasten around their necks: Artifact Power.

I’ve been interested in Artifact Power since Legion’s launch, and though I’ve never really talked about it on this blog, I have written essays about it in my spare time (I am a strange, strange person). Essentially, I think Artifact Power is a rewarding system that is absolutely ruined by a community that simply doesn’t know what to make of it. For those of you non-WoWers out there, allow me to explain. In this expansion, every player has an “Artifact Weapon” that they upgrade throughout the course of the game.

One of the methods of doing this is “Artifact Power”; essentially experience points for the weapon, which are gained through most methods of gameplay (though more difficult content yields more points, as you might expect). When the expansion first released, players received Artifact Power in chunks of tens, maybe hundreds. But a system known as “Artifact Knowledge” existed to exponentially increase the amount of Artifact Points you gain over time, to the point that players now receive amounts in the hundreds of thousands. Any given Artifact Weapon needs millions of points in order to “max out” but the diminishing returns of the power gained clearly telegraphed a system in which one was supposed to pace themselves.

But of course; that didn’t happen. People went mental. Players dragged themselves through repetitive content over and over and over again in an attempt to max out their weapons as soon as possible, all the while whining about the ridiculous grind Legion “demands” of its players. As someone in a reasonably competitive mythic guild (we’re hovering around the top 10 on our realm; and it’s a pretty big realm) I’ve always been bewildered by this. I’ve never put any effort into my weapon. All the Artifact Power I’ve gained have been as a result of playing the parts of the game I actually want to play, when I wanted to play them. For me, the Artifact Power system has worked entirely as intended.

And I can’t help but roll my eyes at the more vocal parts of the community who decry the “need” for all this grinding when they barely touch any of the real challenging end-game content. And that’s not me trying to be “elitist” or anything. It’s just that those extra 0.5% chunks of power literally aren’t necessary for them. There are so many other ways to improve your gameplay that don’t involve hours of grinding. It just seems to be like picking the path of most resistance.

The discourse around Artifact Power always just struck me as yet another symptom of one of the core problems with the WoW community: give them a gameplay feature – any feature – and they’ll find a way to make themselves miserable with it.

And so it was with an almost schadenfreudistic delight that I learned of Blizzard’s plans for Patch 7.2 – which is essentially to double down on this Artifact Power system. The 20 “paragon” traits one can grind on an otherwise completed weapon is being expanded to 50 traits, and the cost needed to upgrade them is increasing exponentially, rather than linearly. In the current system, we need roughly sixty two million Artifact Power points to complete your weapon. In 7.2 we will need billions, if not trillions.

This has come with a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth from the fans, and so far Blizzard have capitulated only insofar as the Artifact Knowledge system mentioned earlier will be ramping up to a higher amount that they’d initially announced. But the numbers are still there. They haven’t backed down on the numbers. You’re still going to have to grind out those numbers. You’re still going to have to break yourself upon the almighty NUMBERS.

Except, of course, you’re not. In addition to increasing the paragon ranks from 20 to 50, Blizzard have made the reward for each of these ranks even less impactful than ever before. Yes, I can see the current argument that a 0.5% increase is important, especially when it’s all added up (I just disagree that it is important for as much of the player base as it’s perceived to be) but the new system in 7.2 is going to be even less than that. Instead of a flat damage increase, players will gain a small (and I mean small) buff at random times during combat, which slightly increases their most important stat. More ranks increase the power of this stat, but in terms of general power gain, we are talking far, far less than a 0.5% per rank increase here. Perhaps even less than 0.1%. And it is intended to take far, far longer to grind out.

Because you’re not supposed to grind it out. For me, this is Blizzard doubling down on the idea that Artifact Power is something to be passively obtained; a nice little bonus for doing the things you’d do anyway, rather than something to be feverishly pursued.

And I’m glad this is the case; not only because a literal decade of watching the community whine about anything and everything has made me a little bit spiteful where they’re concerned, but also because I just plain enjoy the Artifact Power system. There’s just something nice about collecting all these numbers.


“… That’s me…”

Anyway. Throughout all this, there’s a tiny portion of the WoW community I have yet to mention: the hardcore raiders. And when I say hardcore, I mean it – I’m talking the top 0.1%. The cream of the crop. These people, I’d say, are just about the only ones who really would need to worry about grinding out Artifact Power as quickly as possible, because when you’re that good at the game, it’s these sorts of little numerical advantages that finally start to matter. And since at that level of play guilds are generally competing with one another to see who can clear the most difficult content of the game first, I can understand the pressing need to seek every advantage.

Hardcore raiders have been in an unusual spot for years now, though. As World of Warcraft has existed for longer and longer, and the level of skill of the world’s top players has grown higher and higher, they’ve found more ways to exploit the game and take it to extremes that boggle the mind. This ranges from the reasonable-but-technically-EULA-breaking act of sharing accounts and characters to maximize the efficiency of their rosters, to more game-breaking actions such as “split-raiding”.

For a quick explanation of what split-raiding is; essentially, raids are WoW’s premier content in which 10-30 players fight difficult bosses for powerful rewards. Split raiding is when guilds take 30 players, with only a small portion of them playing their “main” characters, and all the rest playing “alt” characters. They defeat the bosses, and all of the gear is funnelled towards the main players to make them stronger faster (…harder, better. Sorry, had to). They then rinse and repeat until all of their mains have gear. So, say as an example a raid is done with 5 main players and 25 alt players. This means they will do the same raid six times in a week (raids are usually locked to one go per week) in order to get all of their characters six times more gear than they should have access to. And of course, since raiders of this level no doubt have more than one main, we could easily start getting into the realm of twelve times a week. Eighteen times a week. How far it goes depends on how far they’re willing to push it.

It’s technically possible within the game’s systems, and it’s technically legal. But doesn’t it just sound soul-draining? Even I don’t want to play WoW that much; and I’m a man obsessed. And most of these hardcore guilds are inclined to agree; many of them hate the fact that they have to split-raid. But again; at that level, you need every advantage you can get.

And this has been exacerbated with the Artifact Power system. Tales abound from hardcore players about how much the Artifact Power grind has broken them, to the point that when 7.2’s system was announced several hardcore guilds straight-up fell apart almost immediately. A staggering amount of hardcore guilds have either split up completely, or else announced their intention to “go casual” from now on.

Looking from their perspective, it’s easy to see why some hardcore raiders are finally throwing in the towel at the news of 7.2’s even more AP-intensive system. In a video announcing her retirement from hardcore raiding, Proper Bird says:

“I was tired. I barely ate, because I would forget, because I had to grind… I lost a ton of weight that I did not intend to lose; I barely slept, I couldn’t go for walks anymore… I was just sitting there like a zombie pressing my buttons, and I was consistently sick as well… I was just unhealthy at that point.”

So, yes; not exactly ideal. And when you think about how hardcore raiders tend to play several characters instead of just one, and several specializations within the same character, and how all of their characters and specializations “had” to be as powerful as they could possibly be to remain competitive, it becomes easy to see how such a vicious self-imposed grind could have come to be.

Though for those who look to this situation as proof of Artifact Power being a terrible system, I’ll note with no small amount of smugness how so many retiring hardcore players are looking forward to “going casual.” In the words of FatbossTV, WoW is “better than it’s ever been for the casual player” (and note that in World of Warcraft terminology, “casual” essentially means 98% of players). So, even the people who have subjected themselves to the worst horrors of the Artifact Power system can see how engaging and rewarding the game would otherwise be if they approached it with a less… extreme mindset.

However, with more and more top-end guilds falling apart explicitly because of the Artifact Power system (and, to an extent, the legendary system), a conversation has once again emerged about the state of the game for the top 0.1%. Setting aside all the portents of “the death of hardcore raiding” (which honestly have been going on since raiding as a concept even existed) I do think something is going to have to give when it comes to the raiding elite.

I shall make the grand statement here and now that when you endeavour to be the best at a thing, you essentially forfeit your enjoyment of that thing. Any game, any sport, any activity whatsoever becomes far less enjoyable when you are engaging it for competitive reasons, as opposed to for the fun of it. It’s why being a pro eSports player of any given game is cited as such a stressful job – playing videogames 18 hours a day might sound like a dream come true, but when you’re pushing yourself to be the best no matter what, it has long stopped being fun.

Hardcore raiders haven’t really “enjoyed” the game for years; many of them will readily admit that. The split-raids I spoke of are just one of the ways in which hardcore raiders have pulled this game apart and willingly ground out the content to such extremes that it almost immediately stops being enjoyable, all for the sake of just a teeny little advantage. Thanks to Titanforging and Tertiary Skill Procs, even split-raids aren’t the guarantee of power they once were. Essentially, though the game has become more rewarding for the average player, for the top competitors, it has become more and more futile.

And I have to ask: is this such a bad thing?

Many players have said yes. That the Artifact System needs to go. That if the hardcore scene suffers, we all suffer. But I’m not convinced. After all, there will always be a world first race. There will always be top end players pushing themselves to be the best. And at that level of skill, the players who simply have the most time to put into the game will be the ones who come out on top.

Artifact Power, I believe, has not created a new problem for the hardcore scene. Playing 24/7 and eking out every possible advantage has been going on for years. The way I see it, rather than present a new problem, Artifact Power has shone a light on an existing one. Artifact Power as well as the RNG elements added to gear has made the rewards of further time investment less concrete. In times gone by, there was a feasible “end point”, a time in which a player’s character could get no stronger. Now there is always a chance – just a chance – at the teeniest, tiniest boost to your numbers. But is it worth it?

Artifact Power may finally be the thing that breaks the hardcore scene out of a pattern it itself admits has been damaging. When the rewards for further time investment become more and more nebulous, when the time spent grinding for those rewards extends to such a degree that players are making themselves sick, maybe that is the time they decide to draw a line in the sand.

All these guilds that are “going casual” are still going to be incredible guilds filled with skilled players. They are almost guaranteed to rank high when it comes to world firsts, realm firsts etc. and perhaps in time they will come to brand themselves as “hardcore” once again, but perhaps they’ll come at it with a new mindset. One that realizes that they can only break and exploit systems so far before they are the ones being broken and exploited. One that focuses on skill and efficient use of time over raw grinding. One that has recaptured an appreciation for the game they love, rather than allowed it to devolve into a heartless, endless grind as they have for years gone by.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

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