Tuesday, September 24, 2019

My Thoughts on Warfronts

Much like Island Expeditions, Warfronts are another feature that was added in Battle for Azeroth as a new form of content. Also much like Island Expeditions, it offers scenarios that can be queued for with no regard for role. While I wasn't as excited about them as I was with Island Expeditions, I was interested in the idea of what appeared to be raid scenarios and zones that would change faction control much like Wintergrasp and Tol Barad did.

When they finally became available, I personally found some of the content highly enjoyable but had mixed feelings because of other aspects. This opinion improved as Warfronts were added to and improved upon, though some flaws remain and I wish to see various related additions in the near and distant future. In this article, I will summarize my experience with Warfronts up to the 8.2 patch series iteration, then give my thoughts on the current state of Warfronts and what in future iterations that relates to them.

Content Summary

There is a lot more to talk about compared to my Island Expedition article this time around, so I have split it into three subsections for each patch series in this expansion.

8.0 Patch Series

The release iteration of Warfronts introduced players to how they would work, with the content being split into three distinct phases that would be rotated through over the course of about a month.

The first phase is what I call the "Contribution Phase." During this time, players can complete quests to contribute various goods such as gold, profession items, and War Resources to earn some Azerite and increase the level of contribution, which allows their faction to enter the next phase. This is reminiscent to gathering war supplies during the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj event, but on a smaller scale. While contribution progress is region-wide, each quest can only be completed one time per character every time this phase is available. Contribution progress at the time typically increased at such a rate that the next phase would begin about a week after this phase does.

The second phase is what I call the "Battle Phase" and it allows players of the same faction to access the Warfront scenario content for a week. The scenario consists of a 20-man raid that awards some Azerite and a piece of gear every time it is completed. In addition, each time this phase is available, players can complete a one-time quest to earn a stronger piece of gear. The Battle for Stromgarde is the Warfront scenario that was made available during this patch series and it awarded a piece of item level 340 gear upon completion (equivalent to LFR Uldir) and a piece of item level 370 gear from the quest. The scenario's objectives are similar to the objectives of the older Warcraft games because players are encouraged to gather resources early on to upgrade and build up a huge base, then go on the offensive to ultimately defeat the enemy commander with the help of allied forces, especially by constructing siege weapons. There are also optional objectives that can help to bolster allied forces, though from my experience these were rarely done.

The third phase is what I call the "Control Phase" and is available after the Battle Phase for a faction ends. The faction will gain control over the contested zone, which in this patch series granted players access to a World Boss, which could only be looted once each time this phase is available, and some one-time generic kill quests to earn a high amount of War Resources. Players could also hunt and defeat rare spawns to earn item level 340 gear, cosmetics, and other rewards. Since the Arathi Highlands itself is an older zone, players who purchased the ability to fly in it may do so. The Control Phase would last until the Battle Phase ends for the opposing faction, making this the longest of the three phases.

8.1 Patch Series

When patch 8.1 was released, the Darkshore Warfront became available along with some updates intended to improve upon the feature as a whole.

The Battle for Darkshore Warfront scenario has a similar reward system but with different gear rewards. The gear itself consists of new sets for transmog purposes. The item level reward for completing the scenario was 340 when patch 8.1 came out, with a one-time quest for an item level 385 piece each time the Battle Phase became available. The item levels for these gear rewards were increased to 355 and 400 respectively after the Battle for Dazar'alor raid was released.

The scenario's objectives are somewhat similar to the Battle for Stromgarde, but with a more prolonged first part that involves cutting a path through numerous enemies of the opposing faction to take control of the base. After this part, the objectives become more familiar, though I personally found that resources tended to be scarcer to find and it was better to prioritize taking control of enemy bases. Furthermore, unlike in Battle for Stromgarde, siege weaponry is entirely unnecessary and the entire scenario can be won without them, though it does take a while. Allied assistance also seems a lot more limited since from my experience, far fewer and smaller waves of allies push forth from the base. The penultimate phase of destroying the last of the enemy's defenses has been improved upon by giving players the ability to use vehicles, turrets, and interactable objects to help speed up the siege instead of only having the option to repel enemy forces from the siege weapons like in the Battle for Stromgarde.

When it comes to improvements made to Warfronts in general in Patch 8.1, the Control Phase got the most major changes. The most notable change is that World Quest content was added to the Arathi Highlands and Darkshore when they are under the faction's control. These World Quests otherwise have the same frequency of availability as other World Quests and feature typical objectives and rewards in addition to awarding Service Medals, a currency that could be used to purchase some cosmetics, a useful ring, and heirlooms. They also count towards the Honorbound or 7th Legion emissary quest. These quests were more advantageous to do at the time because flying mounts were available to use in the Warfront zones.

Other changes include the addition of Service Medals as a reward for completing Warfronts and Contribution Phase quests being made available daily, though there are fewer quests available at any given time.

8.2 Patch Series

While the 8.2 patch series so far hasn't added much in the way of changes to existing content, it did introduce a Heroic difficulty for the Battle for Stromgarde Warfront scenario that requires a premade group of 10-30 players to join, much like a non-Mythic raid. It was initially unavailable, most likely because it was meant to be made available around the time when the Eternal Palace raid. Once it was made available to join and bugs relating to being unable to join it were fixed, the rewards made it apparent as to why. While players are only awarded Azerite and Service Medals upon completing the Heroic difficulty, they can complete a one-time quest each Battle Phase for a piece of item level 430 gear.

I personally found the scenario to be significantly more challenging, though it seems to be more time-consuming to complete than anything since players largely seem to understand what to do even with additions such as the enemy commander attacks. Said commander attack, incidentally, only happened once near the beginning for my group over the course of a 45 minute battle. Fighting against mobs that were intended to be soloed to begin with was probably the biggest annoyance since their health, especially with larger groups, is scaled up to the point they can soak up a lot of damage, even though they're not that dangerous otherwise.

Thoughts on the Present Iteration

When it comes to the content design in general, I would have had more negative things to say were this article written shortly after the expansion's release. I would specifically say that while I enjoyed some aspects of Warfronts such as the scenario itself, other parts needed serious improvement. I would have noted that the Control Phase had underwhelming content and a second release day Warfront would have helped to reduce the downtime caused by the even more underwhelming Contribution Phase since it would be unlikely both Warfronts would be stuck in the Contribution Phase for the same faction for long. However, patch 8.1 in particular ended up fixing a lot of the problems I had with Warfronts from a general perspective by adding a second Warfront and greatly improving the content available during Control Phase. The addition of the Heroic difficulty in patch 8.2 seems reasonable considering the patch was focusing on implementing new zones and a new dungeon (in addition to the obligatory raid) instead of converting an old zone into a Warfront with an accompanying scenario.

One criticism I see when it comes to the Warfront scenarios is that they are too easy and to a degree, I agree with this. However, I don't believe the normal difficulty versions were made with the intent of being punitive in the sense that the player, at best, gets a consolation prize for losing a Warfront that currently doesn't seem to exist anyways. Players are still fundamentally punished for failing short of actually losing a Warfront scenario because every accumulated mistake means the scenario takes longer to complete. However, while Warfront scenarios have many variables that can result in these accumulated mistakes, they are easy to minimize after players learn what to do, which will be likely to happen within a couple of runs at most. To that end, making enemies more lethal especially in later stages of the scenario would be reasonable since losing is much less likely to happen at that point anyways.

When it comes to Warfront rewards, I only have strong opinions on Warfront scenarios. The gear rewards from Warfront scenarios are equal to or a bit better than what one might expect from a LFR run of the any raid besides Eternal Palace. I don't think they need to be improved at this point in time since the difficulty of the Warfront scenarios themselves haven't been increased. Heroic Battle for Stromgarde's gear reward is also somewhat reasonable and is useful despite the existence of Benthic gear. However,  I believe non-gear rewards were and continue to be lacking despite changes that were made. Much like with my suggestion regarding Island Expedition rewards, I believe Warfront scenarios should award a small amount of War Resources when completed.

Overall, I think Warfronts are in a good spot despite the desire for some improvements. It's nice to have some content that isn't tied to a traditional daily or weekly lockout, since while each scenario in particular may be available only about once a month, players can queue for it as many times as they wish when it is available. Furthermore, there's a decent amount of content to do about 75% of the time for each Warfront, which again is why it's good there are two of them.

Thoughts on Future Iterations

Much like with Island Expeditions, I see a lot of potential with Warfronts and a fair amount of that potential has to do with the future of raid scenario content than the future of Warfronts as a feature themselves. This is because much like with Island Expeditions, I expect the narrative purpose of Warfronts to diminish once the game's story changes its focal point, in this case away from faction conflict like the 8.2 story quests have already shown. However, I believe it is more likely that Warfronts will continue to be added after this expansion is over since faction conflict is more of an overarching theme of Warcraft in general compared to Azerite, as past overworld battlegrounds such as the aforementioned Wintergrasp and Tol Barad have shown.

The potential I see because of the addition of Warfronts has led me to devise three suggestions involving it and they are as follows:

Make New Warfront Objectives More Different

At the moment, the two Warfronts are more focused on building up for an offensive in a manner similar to melee scenarios in the Warcraft RTS games. However, there are more scenario ideas that can be drawn from such as defense scenarios where the goal is to simply survive waves of enemy assault. Assuming more Warfronts are added in the future, I believe the next one should play more like said defense maps, with players focusing on keeping the opposition from taking outlying bases and ultimately repelling a final assault led by the enemy commander. Some side objectives could also be added that would encourage players to not simply turtle but put their defenses at risk for potentially useful rewards and other benefits.

Adding at least one defense scenario would help to vary up the gameplay Warfronts offer. In addition, such a scenario may be considered harder because players have to focus on playing defensively to avoid losing instead of leading countless reckless assaults that are typically penalized by up to a 30 second wait at the graveyard.

Add A Solo Version of Warfront Scenarios

When the Battle for Stromgarde scenario was made available, I played around with trying to take objectives on my own and found I was successful a surprising amount of the time. Part of this has to do with my Hunter class choice but it's highly likely players will be more capable of such accomplishments due to better gear and the option to coordinate attacks with waves of allied units. While some tuning may be required to ensure players don't spend an eternity trying to complete the scenario, or at least a suitable reward is given for spending an extended period of time, I otherwise believe the current Warfront scenarios could have solo versions of them made available without the need for much work.

I make this suggestion for a few reasons:

The first is that while scenario groups are easier to fill, there may be a fair amount of dead time where not enough players are queuing, especially if said scenarios strongly emphasize outdated gear rewards that are undesirable to players.

The second is that I believe there is an appeal in having solo versions of existing group content, which I briefly mentioned in my previous article. Warfronts, which already involve NPC units doing a fair amount of the work towards completing the objective, serve as a good starting point that could eventually lead to other solo content. For example, solo dungeon content with NPC party members, such as the champions that are used for mission content or combat allies, has already been done to a degree in other games and could be enjoyable.

Finally, if Blizzard were to take the time to do so, solo Warfronts and possibly all solo instance content in general could be tuned by at a player's behest to offer a greater challenge and is more customizable, accessible, and interesting than wading through countless waves of enemies in Proving Grounds Endless or overcoming static, temporary challenges such as the Mage Tower solo scenarios in Legion. This could be accomplished by using a system similar to how players can choose game difficulty in Diablo 3.

Consider Adding More Raid Scenarios

Unlike group scenarios, raid scenarios in general are a relatively new thing with the most notable addition aside from Warfront scenarios being the Assault on Broken Shore scenario. Since then, more permanent additions such as the Rumble Card encounters in the Brawler's Guild and Warfront scenarios have been added. This tells me Blizzard may be willing to implement more raid scenarios in the future.

My reasoning behind making this suggestion is that I believe raid scenarios are easier to implement than raids due to the looser constraints on encounter design. This could allow several raid scenarios to be added every major content patch without affecting the addition of other content or be added later on in the patch series when players start to become bored of the currently available content. I also believe they could be added as leveling content to provide another leveling activity while giving players a taste of what raiding content, even if raid scenarios have no role requirements. Accomplishing both goals can be as simple as adding many raid scenarios with a single boss similar to that of Final Fantasy 14's trials.

Assuming raid scenarios as content are meant to have no role requirement to join and are for more than 5 players, I think raid scenarios should also have the following qualities:

Raid scenarios should be split into two difficulties. The lower difficulty would generally provide a moderate challenge based on the level and average item level requirements, with level cap content at most being slightly harder than LFR. The higher difficulty can be used to experiment with unorthodox and possibly brutal encounter design even harder than Mythic raiding, such as enemies that exclusively have lethal mechanics, but players can resurrect nearby on a timer. Ideally, raid scenario difficulty progression would be linear to provide a learning environment for varying levels of player skill. To further accomplish this objective...

Raid scenarios should have a level scaling system with no upper limit. This not only would make it easier to form a group for lower level raid scenarios, but also provide players with the ability to run content that has a difficulty level they are more comfortable with if they find higher level raid scenarios too challenging.

Raid scenarios should typically be less rewarding than dungeons and LFR versions of raids of their level at the lower difficulty and entirely at Blizzard's discretion for the higher difficulty. This is because raid scenarios should have no lockout and can accessed as much as the player wishes as long as any one-time requirements such as level or quest chain completion are met, assuming such requirements are set. This would be an expansion on how Warfront scenarios work since they already appear to have a similar reward structure and accessibility, but there would be no specific phase requirement for the scenario itself to be accessible.

Finally, much like I mentioned in my Island Expeditions article, improving replayability by altering mobs spawns, events and other variables could help to make the experience more enjoyable because the content can be accessed at any time by players. It wouldn't completely prevent players from getting bored of specific raid scenarios, but it may help to slow how quickly that boredom occurs. With that said, it's possible to justify having some static raid scenarios due to storytelling purposes or the like.

Ultimately, this suggestion to add more raid scenarios is the one I would most like to grace future iterations of WoW. Warfronts are yet another step towards that reality and I really hope Blizzard takes the idea of implementing many of them as an additional form of content seriously. I strongly believe raid content of this kind would further help with keeping players engaged with the game in a way that doesn't have them crawling back every Tuesday for their weekly few hours of current raid content or the like. I would like to think what I'm suggesting isn't evil.

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