WoW’s Endgame Grind, and the Illusion of Choice

Here’s the thing: the endgame grind for World of Warcraft (WoW) hasn’t changed a lot in the fourteen years since it released. You hit max level for whichever expansion has just released, you grind “reputation” with various factions for rewards, do daily quests to (eventually) get better loot, run dungeons and, eventually, raids. You repeat this, day in and day out, until you hit max levels of reputation, gear, and raiding…and then the next patch, or the next expansion hits, and you do it all again.

Yet, as a veteran WoW player who’s been in the game (off and on, admittedly) since the original (“Classic”) game released…endgame has never felt so good. The world feels more expansive, there’s almost always something to do, and the horrible repetition of daily quest and weekly raid and dungeon runs just doesn’t seem to be there.

But…why?

All the elements are there: rep grinds, daily quests, a weekly cycle of group content, the slow upward tick of your average gear level. All the things that used to drive me out of the game after every expansion release, that made my game time feel like a second job, still exist in the game.

So why can’t I stop playing? Why am I not terribly bored, as I was so many times before?

I think it comes down to a subtle change that was first made during 2016’s Legion expansion: a greater illusion of choice.

For those not familiar with World of Warcraft, prior to Legion, a player’s travel through an expansion was basically a straight line. New in-game areas would have set enemy level ranges, that you’d advance through in a steady upwards climb, culminating in whatever the “endgame” area was for that expansion. Once in that final area, there you would stay for the remainder of the endgame, performing a limited number of repetitive daily quests, and grouping up for dungeons and raids.

Legion blew open this format in a couple of ways. One is that it introduced level scaling, making it so that all enemies in a region (with a few exceptions, such as“world bosses”) would match the player’s level, gaining power as the player does. This allowed the new areas in Legion to be tackled in any order the player chooses, instead of being routed through a set path.

The other major change was the addition of “world quests,” semi-random objectives that were only accessible once the player had reached max level. World quests, unlike prior daily quests, were scattered across the entirety of Legion’s new play areas, and would spawn and expire on timers. (Note that this is not exactly a new idea in MMOs — being basically a different take on the titular encounters in Rift or “FATEs” in FFXIV.)

It’s not a big change, in the grand scheme of things. Yet, this system (that I first encountered in 2018’s Battle for Azeroth (BfA) expansion, having skipped Legion for a number of reasons) goes a long way to freshening up the game, and making daily play feel more heroic and spontaneous. Instead of running a laundry list of errands for the same five quest-givers, you dash across the game world, killing mini-bosses, fixing problems, putting out fires.

BfA even ups the ante by splitting its new areas between the warring Alliance and Horde. The main questline of the expansion focuses players on the island controlled by their own faction — while a secondary questline, and later world quests, send you to the island controlled by the opposing faction. Questing on opposing ground is understandably more tense, as you skirt enemy strongholds and risk pitched PvP encounters.

What’s interesting is that the core hasn’t changed. You level up by questing across the new areas. At max level, you do world quests (instead of dailies) to gain rep and gear, you increase your gear score, you run dungeons and raids each week. In BfA, you run the new PvE battlefronts each week, along with “island expeditions” against AI or player opponents.

The change comes from a feeling of control. By the endgame of BfA, you’ll have inevitably run through all three areas for your faction, plus a set questline in the three opposing regions — but the ability to choose which area to tackle when grants a sense of purpose, that the player is directing the assault. Likewise, world quests serve the same functional purpose as daily quests, but there’s a sense of picking and choosing, of being a wandering hero roaming the countryside, instead of an errand boy.

But…that choice is an illusion. Completing all three area questlines is mandatory. Avoiding the daily groups of “emissary” world quests reduces the rep grind to an interminable slog. Despite the greater amount of group content, repetition of dungeons, raids, and battlegrounds is unavoidable. Yet the illusion that we are the masters of our own destiny, rather than following a carefully disguised path, makes the entire endeavor more bearable, more entertaining.

I’m reminded of the howling that arose from some sectors of the gaming community after the release of Final Fantasy XIII, complaining that the game was horribly linear, “railroading” players through the story without any choice, mitigated only slightly by an “endgame” after the story’s finish full of side quests and bonus bosses.

Now, I’ve played FFXIII, and I’ve played many of the games that came before. And after playing FFXIII and hearing the critiques, I replayed some of fan-favorite FFVII with a mind to see just how “non-linear” that game might have been in comparison. After all, surely one of the greatest Final Fantasy games of all time wouldn’t fall into the trap of linear hand-holding.

What I found was…it really wasn’t that non-linear at all. The entire Midgar opening is basically point-a-to-point-b. Even once kicked out into the “overworld,” advancing the plot is all about following the breadcrumbs from one town or dungeon to another. Side quests and mini-games existed…but had almost no effect on the plot, or only existed to give minor equipment upgrades early. Once left behind, towns and dungeons were hardly revisited.

The difference between FFVII and FFXIII, much like the difference between old and modern WoW endgames, is almost entirely in the illusion of choice. Despite the fact that FFVII’s overworld is largely barren, filled with random encounters and gated behind story triggers, the ability to roam gives us the appearance of choosing our own destiny. There’s nothing to do if you wander, for the most part…but if you wanted to, you could!

FFXIII, in contrast, doesn’t leave the player that glamour — it has a story it’s trying to tell, and it doesn’t really care if you want to wander off and fuck around in the Golden Saucer for ten hours while it’s doing it. Only after the story is done does it release you to wander, opening up quests and “bonus” bosses that have no more relevance than it’s predecessors…it’s just that FFXIII doesn’t let you pretend otherwise.

But as World of Warcraft proves, sometimes that illusion is everything. And why shouldn’t it be? We play games to escape, to be heroes, to be masters of our own destiny for just a little while. What’s the fun in coming home from work and booting up the game, just to do what some faceless developer has told us to?

Better the illusion, if only for a little while.