Over the past week or so, I’ve been watching my daughter play a game which has given me a great deal of enjoyment. Within its auspice, she was asked to make a number of key decisions that, whilst creating an illusion of choice, became largely irrelevant when placed alongside the wider narrative. As my Blood Elf dinged L120 in Alterac Valley Redux on Sunday, there is pause for considerable though.
Player agency really has been lost since the days of Vanilla.
For context, three levels and 50% took me an hour. Sixty minutes, Horde side, when it took four times longer to get to the same level on the Alliance side. Making a choice to be Horde in those early days of AV gave you a MASSIVE tactical advantage, so much so the whole battleground got an overhaul. It’s all about where you spawn at game start: it’s considerably easier to get to Snowfall when you’re on the Red team.
That fight, in pretty much every game I played as Alliance in the first week, was the point where games were decided. By this weekend Alliance had become wise to the ‘push Snowfall’ tactic, most because the Korrak quest is of minimal interest. You’ll get a better reward weapon for your alts in January anyway, or you can go buy them with badgers. It doesn’t help, of course, that lots of dedicated PvE people are in a PvP event to start with.
The choices you make in this BG are predefined long before you press Join Queue.
When designers throw around the concept of ‘agency’ it has a lot of significance as to why and how we play the games we are given. The assumption in Warcraft is that, of late, we have very little real effect on what happens in the world. Reality however, states that this has been the case since we left Azeroth and went to Outland. That path was predetermined based on what Vanilla showed designers we enjoyed doing.
Classic has become a mirror for a lot of the malaise that Retail suffers from: frustrating, actually infinite grinds on items that without which, we are not nearly as powerful as those who have put in the work. Alts are underpowered and disadvantaged, based on the assumption most players will favour one character over several. Narrative, for many expansions, assumed players were happy with the status quo of Alliance v Horde without question. However, there’s one key factor which overrides all others.
Classic forced us, as players, to make meaningful decisions over our destiny.
There were no Best in Slot guides, you just had Raid gear or you didn’t. If you chose to run certain quest lines, they granted more prestige than any amount of Achievements or kill videos could ever manage. If you spent your time RP-ing in Goldshire that was perfectly acceptable, or fishing in Ferelas, or making tens of thousands of gold crafting Epic cloaks for raiders. It didn’t matter. You worked it out for yourself.
As the game grew in popularity, people didn’t have time to do it all. They started demanding shortcuts, and easier access, and more choice… as long as that choice did not affect their ability to keep up with their mates. The moment the game stopped allowing its players to dictate what was powerful, it all changed. Why bother wasting time working out an optimal spec when that website has done it for me?
Agency was handed over to third parties, and nobody really cared.
It was only fans however mirroring what was happening in game: streamlining processes, improving quality of life, because once you’ve done six expansions how can you even remember where the Meeting Stones are anyway? When you go back and look at the disparities in Alterac Valley Redux (of which there are many) there is the reminder that the biggest single threat to agency that matters to players isn’t decision making, but time.
Time has always been the problem in this game. There’s never enough, or just too much. It is what allows the designers to make content last beyond the realisation that at least one player will not stop until they get the item you locked behind a grind, often at the expense of their own life, health and wellbeing. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as that guy with the YouTube channel is determined to be FIRST, they will be.
That’s what agency has now become to represent in Azeroth: can you get something before anyone else? Can you be the person who owns every piece of player transmog? Pets, mounts, raid achievements, World Firsts… the abstract principle that autonomous beings, players, are capable of acting by themselves, and beating everybody else to that ID number that was datamined six weeks previously.
This does not make for longevity in gameplay, that’s for sure.
If you want to know the real reason all your mates left for Classic, this might be a more solid explanation than wanting to see what all the fuss was first time around. In the early days, honestly, you were just grateful you won something. It was the freedom of a world that you never got bored of exploring. An awful lot has changed in fifteen years, and not all of it made your life easier.
We are all to blame for signing away those freedoms. One can argue, very successfully, that all the designers have ever done over the years is give people what they’ve asked for. As the systems were simplified, agency was handed from ourselves to others. The true reality however is this game has never given us real, meaningful choices. That’s what we did for ourselves, because there was no other way to make them happen.
Azeroth’s destiny never, ever truly rested in player hands.