There’s been quite a discussion around the subjective topic of good or bad expansions recently, so far, on my limited catch-up on this via the blogs in my feed; I’ve not seen the topic of theme added into the mix of possible factors. I believe it may have started at Kaylriene’s blog in a post discussing the subjective nature of judging World of Warcraft’s expansions. The post covers content cadence and volume, and draws an important distinction on overall quality issues:
Increasingly, the issue is not that the overall game is weak, or that there are huge weak points, but rather that enough points are below average or weak in a way that affects the game’s perception as a whole.
I think that sums up well a lot of views I’ve read about Battle for Azeroth. I think the point made about having a new coherent land to explore is also important; it was referencing the disparate level 80-85 content in Cataclysm, but applies somewhat to Battle for Azeroth. Players are split across two three-zone islands. If you only play Alliance or Horde that’s all you get to level alts through, no alternate paths like in Wrath of the Lich King. I’ll come back to this later as it relates to my main point for the post.
Other posts have added to the conversation, notably Wilhelm’s argument that expansions are generally bad as they split the playerbase in numerous ways, and Bhagpuss’ post offers the Everquest and Guild Wars 2 points of view. Both are well worth the read as they’re both very thoughtful additions to the original post. I’m sure there are others I haven’t yet discovered.
For myself, I think the factor that is missing from this discussion so far is theme. Although storytelling in MMORPGs is often critisized, I enjoy it immensely. I prefer MMORPGs over single player RPGs because of the former’s grander scope and longer lifespans. Expansions often have quite a strong theme and that can be a gamble. Rift’s Storm Legion expansion was quoted in this discussion so far as being a particularly bad expansion. It was criticised for the overly-large size of the zones and the punishing XP curve: I’d add the gear level step-change, but also more importantly the theme. It was too mono-thematic compared to what came before and didn’t have a strong enough central theme to make up for that. If the one and only main theme of the story, the one and only vibe of an entire half of the content, is dreary and dull (one of the two huge islands was all death and decay), then leveling very slowly through its zones is not going to go well. The original games zones were thematically varied, so it was a stark contrast.
Coming back to World of Warcraft, in the case of Cataclysm, I think the lack of ‘new land to explore’ really did do it a disservice at least from 80-85. It may have made sense in the context of the revamp of all those 1-60 zones, but for the majority of the playerbase at the cap it felt like short shrift I imagine. The ‘good’ expansions (very subjectively) such as Wrath of the Lich King or Mists of Pandaria had enough new zones to offer at least some choices of levelling path, so that subsequent alts would have a different experience to some extent. Legion had a different variation of this, although there weren’t enough zones for varied paths, each class had its own content to keep things somewhat fresh as you leveled them.
The theme factor plays a role I would suggest. Wrath of the Lich King and The Burning Crusade both tapped into the deep lore and nostalgia of this MMORPG’s strategy game origins. The storytelling kept me enthralled despite its less slick polish compared to today’s offering. I was mildly positive about Cataclysm’s storytelling, elemental stuff does interest me. Warlords of Draenor had a terribly mixed up plot and thematically was a bust: it was orcs, orcs, and more orcs. Legion by contrast tapped even deeper into those same lore and nostalgia roots and was very powerful thematically, perhaps because of all the class-specific storytelling that linked to the main narrative.
Battle for Azeroth so far has been a weak expansion for me, it’s not over so I won’t say it’s “bad”, but I refer back again to the quote from Kayrliene’s post. A lot of aspects of the expansion feel weaker than Legion even though they are so similar – the missions, the world quest rewards, the Heart of Azeroth vs Artifact Weapons – all seem progress in the wrong direction. Less incentive all round to do the same things on different characters or for a sustained period of time.
For me the biggest factor remains the theme. I care not one iota for the faction war. Playing through the Horde side has been painful because of how little any of my characters would go along with a single thing they’re asked to do by the Horde. The Zandalari levelling zones are really beautiful, and there’s some nice zone-level stories to experience, but the war is omnipresent in its overshadowing of more local matters. You have constant reminders from either Nathanos or Sylvanus herself that you should ‘get on with the blatantly evil stuff quicker’.
Playing mainly on Alliance it’s better, although some of the war campaign has been troubling (e.g. anything relating to Teldrassil, the indescriminate slaughter we dole out in many vehicle quests). I just can’t wait for the much hinted at ‘reveal’ that the faction war was an orchestrated distraction while not-so hidden darker forces gathered strength.