I've been an off-and-on player of World of Warcraft since the very beginning, dating all the way back to the game's open beta just before launch in 2004. I can still recall how the final hours of the beta turned into a chaotic clusterfuck of Horde and Alliance players invading each other's starting zones before they all had to start anew again at launch. In the early days of WoW following its release, Blizzard had not yet patched out text communication via special characters when speaking to the opposing faction. This was an especially useful tool for me being on a PVP server, where everyone was at risk of being ganked at nearly any time. I was able to leet speak my way out of potential conflicts and into making friends with my enemy. I remember when Gadgetzan was truly a hive of scum and villainy, as players would jump on top of buildings and take pot-shots at opposing AFK players with the guards unable to do anything, so Blizzard finally patched in boomsticks for the guards that would knock players off the rooftops. I have a lot of fond memories of this game.
I remember a lot of random stuff, and it was a lot of silly fun, but there was also the dark side of early WoW. Disjointed quest design that would have you traveling across multiple regions just to turn in a single fetch quest that offers a paltry amount of experience. An endgame that is woefully grindy and a source of endless guild drama fighting over who gets what armor piece that dropped. So as someone with a far-reaching perspective on the game over the years that neither has rose-tinted glasses for the past nor immediately jumps on the hype train whenever a new expansion gets announced, I thought I might be able to offer a balanced look at the game throughout its tumultuous history, and describe why I feel it is headed in the wrong direction for reasons that don't simply amount to "it just needs to be more like vanilla WoW". Maybe even offer some solutions on how it could be fixed. Although I'm personally a PVP player to the core, I'm sure many of my experiences and sentiments mirror that of other former WoW players regardless of your background with the game. If nothing else, maybe you will gain some insights seeing the game from a different perspective, so strap in, because this is going to be a long journey.
As previously mentioned, classic World of Warcraft was prohibitively grindy. Not only in terms of the endgame, but even to a lesser extent with the quest design. A lot of quests did simply amount to a thinly-veiled excuse for killing X baddies over here or fetching Y goodies over there with no real story to invest you. The PVP endgame in particular was especially atrocious, basing your PVP rank on how well you perform against other players in farming for honor points. Keep in mind that these points aren't based on how well you perform in terms of kill-to-death ratio or anything like that, but rather just how long you can endure farming battlegrounds for hours on end. Then at the end of the week, the game would compare the amount of points you earned against other players and adjust your rank accordingly. Looking at the top of the leaderboards on the mini games of Super Mario Odyssey should already tell you how this is going to turn out. You can basically forget about becoming High Warlord or Grand Marshall and rolling around Azeroth in your epic PVP gear. Someone is always going to out-grind you, and since only the highest officer ranks were the ones that offered worthwhile gear, basically anyone who didn't farm their character 24/7 and hire someone to play for them while they sleep at night shouldn't even bother with it. Just stick to raiding. Of course, some old school players would tell you that this extreme "no pain, no gain" approach to design is part of the game, and that's just how it should be. And if that's the case, great, then the upcoming World of Warcraft Classic servers will be an excellent fit for you, but I think the majority of players would reasonably ask for a fairer system while still respecting the desire for challenge and reward. In spite of all these frustrations though, there was a certain charm to classic Warcraft that made the whole experience feel worth it. You felt connected to its world and its community, and at the end of the day, I can't say that I regret my time with it. For the most part, anyway. The old honor system can still blow me. :)
Thankfully, Warcraft's early expansions sought to address many of these more obnoxiously tedious elements of the gameplay. The first expansion, Burning Crusade, started off mainly with minor tweaks around the edges, lightly speeding up the leveling from 1 to 60 to accommodate for the new increased level cap, and introducing arenas as an alternative option for PVP. I'll be honest, I can't go into much detail here because I largely skipped over this expansion after being burned out from the grind of vanilla WoW, so I'm just going to jump straight ahead to Wrath of the Lich King where the changes were considerably more noticeable. All that needs to be said about Burning Crusade is that it introduced the blood elves, which are super animu, so it's an improvement by default.
Wrath of the Lich King
With the release of Wrath, many consider this to be the game's "peak", offering a plethora of high quality endgame content, and dolling out rewards at a much steadier, reasonable pace. It felt like you had to work for your gear, but it was manageable and also felt like you made a decent chunk of progress by the end of the week. The refined arena system was a fucking godsend for PVP, and miles improvement over the old honor system. Now you could buy PVP gear through cumulative currency you earned that was not compared against other players. As long as you played a certain number of matches each week, you were practically guaranteed to earn something by the end of it. Only the highest tier of PVP gear was placed behind a tough arena ranking to reach, but you could still get some really powerful stuff even if you could never perform to that level. Moreover, your arena ranking was based on your victory ratio rather than farming endlessly through hundreds of matches, so you actually had to improve your strategy to earn rewards, not spend more sleepless nights grinding out the fights. There was even a full-on world PVP raid zone added to the game complete with controllable siege vehicles, which the Horde and Alliance would fight back and forth over for access to a dungeon with some nice rewards inside. In the PVE department, Northrend was also a beautifully-realized continent, with quest designs that actually started to have a few interesting stories, and scripted events which added character and context to the objectives. Raid dungeons received a similar currency system to PVP where even if you didn't get any good drops from bosses, you could eventually buy them from a vendor in the city with enough earned points. Wrath had improved on the game in nearly every way and made it infinitely more accessible, but without sacrificing too much of the balancing act between progression, challenge, and reward, so it's no wonder that this expansion saw some of the highest subscriber numbers that the game had ever experienced up until this point.
The release of Cataclysm was a controversial turning point in the game's history; one that marked the first major rift among the playerbase. This is chiefly because of its complete revamping of old world content, which had started to feel neglected after the past two expansions, as well as some streamlining decisions that not all were comfortable with. For the most part though, I personally still consider this expansion to be a step in the right direction. Cataclysm cleaned up a lot of little lingering pet peeves for me, like the fact that some classes were seriously gimped during the early leveling phase. Rogues used to be heavily RNG-based because of how high their miss rate was, so you could miss a critical backstab when engaging an enemy, causing the exchange to be annoyingly prolonged, and in some cases even resulting in you dying to a trash mob that was only a single level above you when it should have been easily dispatched. Meanwhile, hunters could just steamroll through everything with their pets and give no fucks. Cataclysm fixed all this by rebalancing the early leveling experience and buffing classes that desperately needed reworking. And holy fuck those new water effects. I know I'm kinda making a big deal out of nothing, but WoW went from having some of the shittiest water graphics to being a top-tier modern game in this department. Furthermore, with the old world being revamped, this also means they brought the questing design up to par with the rest of the expansions, adding in more diverse objectives, less pointless travel, and more scripted events and backstories that contextualized what you were doing. For me, the overall leveling experience felt like an improvement, albeit perhaps slightly too easy at times. Some of the newly-added zones were my favorites too, like Vashj'ir, WoW's first completely underwater zone, and Uldum, an Indiana Jones-esque desert adventure. One of my absolute favorite new features to the game however was definitely transmogrification. Suddenly all gear was valuable again regardless of level and stat ranges, because transmog would allow you to change your appearance to whatever piece of gear you want it to look like while still keeping your stats. The only caveat being of course that you still need to actually acquire the item that you want to have the look of, but this allowed everyone to customize their appearance however they liked without having to sacrifice viability in combat. My only real issue with Cataclysm was that it marked the point where some aspects of streamlining the game were starting to overreach and leading to unforeseen consequences, which I will get into later.
Mists of Pandaria
While for many it was Cataclysm that sowed the first seeds of discontent, for me it was the release of Mists of Pandaria that marked my first major disappointment with the direction of the game. From a story and theming perspective, I feel like it is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the franchise. Sure, Warcraft has always had an underlying sense of humor to it, but it was still always at its core a high fantasy franchise with some darker themes sprinkled in, and it treated itself at the very least with a modicum of seriousness and urgency. With Pandaria, it marked the first expansion where the main focus was a humorous light-hearted detour based on what was originally supposed to be an April fools joke in Warcraft 3. It's true that Blizzard later officially canonized it, but even then pandarens were always kind of treated as a goofy background race that isn't central to the story. Their treatment was akin to murlocs, so that still doesn't excuse it for me, as I wouldn't want an expansion called Mists of Murlocia either, much less have murlocs actually be a playable race. Nonetheless, even all that could be set aside if at least the core gameplay remained intact, but sadly by this point in the game's development, Warcraft had reached a tipping point where Wrath and Cataclysm had already struck a strong balance between challenge and reward, so any further streamlining would only break the balance and unnecessarily change things for the sake of changing things, yet unfortunately Blizzard felt the desire to press onward anyways, judging that players don't have the attention span for this type of game anymore. When the first pre-launch Pandaria patch hit at the end of Cataclysm, I immediately noticed a huge boost in damage with my warrior I was playing at the time. I was wrecking baddies like nobody's business, and at first I was feeling pretty pumped at how powerful I felt, but then those aforementioned unforeseen consequences started to settle in.
There really wasn't any challenge to questing anymore. I pretty much never died, and I just wrecking-balled my way through everything without the slightest hint of effort. That feels pretty good at first but gets old fast. More importantly, it led to deeper consequences for the social aspect of the game. Since enemies had become such complete pushovers, there was no need to interact and group with other players anymore to gain an advantage. Old WoW was always technically capable of being soloed, but you still felt drawn to other players because some quests were considerably more difficult to try and manage on your own. That led to some great times making new friends, cracking jokes, and coordinating together. By the time Pandaria had hit the scene though, that experience had been so diluted by lack of challenge that it was becoming a distant memory. It was more efficient to solo to the endgame, so why bother talking to other players? I need to get to the max level, and they would only be slowing me down. When given the choice, players will always choose the path of least resistance. On top of this, despite that each expansion was successively increasing the size of the game, it was actually beginning to feel smaller from all of the convenient portals and instant teleports warping you to nearly every conceivable location in the game. That might seem like another improvement at first, but again, this creates its own set of unintended consequences. The sense of scale was lost. You don't feel like you're part of a big living and breathing world anymore, but instead a series of isolated zones that you teleport to on-command. Everything is immediate gratification with no buildup or anticipation. The small skirmishes and games of cat and mouse that would dynamically break out between factions were gone; replaced by teleports directly into the instances once you had assembled your group from the dungeon finder. Yes, it's true that sometimes I could get a little frustrated by these old encounters and just wanted to run my dungeon, but the dynamic and unpredictable nature of these skirmishes made for great storytelling experiences and always built a sense of camaraderie with my team. The world had grown barren and empty, save for sparse concentrations of players in the major cities. Pandaria was probably not the first expansion to begin suffering from the effects of these changes, but it all felt like it really came to a head for me with this release when these problems had been so especially exacerbated in it.
Warlords of Draenor
At first glance, Warlords of Draenor seemed like it might be a return to form for the long-running MMO. Moving away from the silliness of pandas and returning to a focus on major events from the game's lore sounded great on paper. In practice however, the expansion's implementation of it felt somewhat clumsy and convoluted, opting for a time traveling plot that now creates two different versions of Outland; one set in the present (Burning Crusade) and one set in the past (Draenor). As a result, players had to travel through the Dark Portal again, but this time taking them to the past version of Draenor. As for "old" (but also technically new) Outland? That's just relegated to an awkward little mage portal now which unceremoniously teleports you there from one of the major cities. I'm not really sure it was necessary to have us going back to Outland again in this way. It might have been a better alternative to expand on the already existing version of Outland with new regions rather than creating this awkward split that makes the lore confusing. To the game's credit though, we were now beginning to see some pretty cool uses of in-game cut scenes in quests that really showed how far WoW's engine has come, and seeing old characters from Warcraft's history was a treat. Unfortunately there's little else I can say positively about it. Instead of fixing WoW's pervasive easy-mode problem, Draenor doubled down on it, with typical encounters amounting to carelessly rounding up five or six NPCs at once and slaughtering them en masse. What little danger and challenge was still left from Pandaria had been removed at this point.
Garrisons were yet another cool idea on paper but half-baked in practice. It's clear Blizzard wanted to create this feeling that you're a commander overseeing the establishment of a new base of operations in Draenor, giving the player an increased sense of importance and agency in the war effort. However the restrictive nature of garrisons mostly killed this feeling, as you aren't really allowed to choose where you build your garrison, and managing the garrison itself just felt like an exercise in spreadsheets, menu navigation, and added busywork. Worse still, garrisons effectively turned endgame gear progression into a joke, allowing the game to play itself and hand me free stuff without even needing to lift a finger. By placing bones that I collected from PVP on my gladiator sanctum, it would automatically spit out gear and currency over time even while I'm not logged into the game. The bones themselves were pathetically easy to acquire. They dropped by the hundreds in the designated world PVP zone, which basically rendered the old battlegrounds obsolete as a means for farming gear. I was more or less able to complete my PVP set in under a month, and with that I was done with Draenor and unsubscribed. Warlords of Draenor was quite possibly the peak of Warcraft's casualization, taking all the wrong lessons from previous expansions and expanding on them in the worst ways. The garrisons were boring and played the game for you, PVE combat required no effort, the new zones were forgettable, and the time travel story was messy.
Surely Blizzard couldn't do any more damage than they had already done with Draenor, right? Haha, ahah, ahahaha! Wrong again sir. Blizzard just can't stop tinkering with stuff that aint even broken. With the release of Legion, we saw the introduction of level scaling as a new feature. This means that as you're leveling up your character in a region and supposedly "increasing" your strength, in actuality enemies get buffed along with you, which in practice means that you aren't really progressing. Now Blizzard is messing with fundamental mechanics that underpin the core feedback loop of the game. You fight stuff, you get stronger, and you move on to the next greater challenge, creating a sense of satisfaction where once-challenging foes no longer pose a threat to you, and enemies that previously were beyond your abilities are now capable of being overcome. This has always been an integral part of the experience, but now even this was on the chopping block. There are few things that annoy me more than a game trying to fake progression with meaningless stats that only give the illusion of growth. I may be hitting that ogre for 6000 damage instead of 5000 now, but since his health increased along with my damage, I'm not really killing him any faster. This frankly comes off as dishonest, like the game is trying to tell you that you've been rewarded for your effort when all it really did was pat you on the head and tell you "Good job!" I get that this feature does offer some benefits like being able to play where you want instead of being limited to certain regions, and being able to play with your friends who might have out-leveled you, but are these gains really worth essentially ripping apart a core motivational component of the gameplay just to achieve? I think there are much healthier ways to address these issues that don't require effectively rendering the leveling system meaningless and arbitrary.
As if the previous feature wasn't bad enough, Blizzard wasted no time gutting PVP gear progression as well. Now in Legion, gear stats are totally ignored in PVP. Yes, you read that correctly. They do absolutely nothing. When you engage with another player of equal level to you, your stats automatically adjust on-the-fly to be nearly identical to theirs. The only bonus you may receive is a slight stat boost based on your gear's item level, but the difference is so negligible it might as well be useless when you crunch the numbers. Once again, I understand the reasons behind this. Players can now stand on equal footing and be judged solely on their skill. Except there's several problems with this. First of all, imbalances due to stat differences were never really that big of an issue, as all players already had the same potential to obtain the same gear. It's not like once someone claimed their epic PVP set, no one else was allowed to buy it after that point; giving this player an unfair advantage over others. Everyone eventually could reach the same level if they worked for it. This potential for growth was what used to serve as a primary motivator for progressing in PVP. So in essence, these changes eliminate incentives to progress in PVP in order to solve a problem that was never much of a problem to begin with. Secondly, these imbalances used to create interesting dynamic situations in world PVP. One of my favorite moments in WoW was when I encountered a fully decked hunter who was so powerful that he mopped the floor with both my brother and myself when we tried to engage him. We couldn't take him on our own, so we found a new group member to help bring him down. He started attacking me again before we could regroup though, so I hopped on my flying mount before he could score another kill. I distracted him on a long chase from Duskwood over to Westfall while my brother and our newfound friend positioned themselves for an ambush. They hid behind a large tree that obscured themselves from his vision. Then when they were ready, I deliberately dismounted near the tree, giving the impression to the hunter that I was going to try and fight him solo. He took the bait, sealing his fate as my brother and our friend quickly sprung the trap and joined the battle. We were finally able to take him down, and it was a satisfying moment of outwitting an overpowered foe. These are the kinds of moments that were only possible because of the varied range of stat differences created by gear progression, which Legion now just destroyed.
As much as several of Legion's changes enraged me, admittedly there are at least a few redeeming qualities about it. The new class specialization system is fantastic. Now when you pick between your three specializations, each feels incredibly distinct, giving you completely different ability sets to suit your playstyle. They're so versatile in fact, that if you want to play a melee hunter now, it is a viable option via the survival specialization. With specializations feeling so unique now, it's effectively like having three different subclasses for each class. The new nightfallen race was a nice addition to the lore too, with an interesting backstory and essentially introducing dark elves to the Warcraft universe. They're unfortunately not playable yet, but I imagine that may change in the future. Legion also finally took a step back on casualizing PVE combat, as I actually found myself dying a few times in the early quests, and it wasn't quite as easy anymore to just round up packs of NPCs and obliterate them. However, I still found that once the game fell into its regular rhythm, Blizzard seemed to have quickly given up on maintaining that vanilla-style challenge, and quests were still relatively easy to complete by soloing the whole expansion. And furthermore, outside of the nightfallen, Legion's storytelling was outright dreadful, with major characters speaking almost exclusively in platitudes and cliches. It was one cliche after another back-to-back, seriously bordering on parody of itself. I get that Blizzard wants the plot to feel epic, but when your characters speak like every moment is the end times, it just comes off as hammy and loses its impact. I lost count of how many eyerolls it took for me to get through this video. Overall, I found that none of the steps forward that Legion achieved were nearly enough to make up for the disastrous changes that have accumulated post-Cataclysm.
Battle for Azeroth
And now we finally arrive at Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard's latest announced expansion. If there was ever any sliver of hope I had that Blizzard might change course, it was quickly squashed with this announcement, as they yet again doubled down on their current design philosophy. Level scaling will now spread to every zone across the game; continuing to strip away meaningful progression. Unsatisfied with already destroying PVP progression, Blizzard now sees fit to take away PVP servers altogether. The new PVP system works by throwing everybody into the same servers, and to engage in PVP, you must flag yourself to enable it. Blizzard says this change allows for them to provide a new foundation from which they can improve the world PVP experience. That's all fine and dandy, until you realize that this system is nearly identical to how it already works on PVE servers, so their great solution for improving PVP servers is by forcing everyone to play on PVE servers. Brilliant!
The whole point of PVP servers is that it's not optional content. If you play on a PVP server, you have to deal with other players, especially in the open world. How is this at all supposed to improve the PVP experience for people who like it this way? Blizzard seems intent on wanting to improve the PVP experience by catering to PVE players instead of, you know, the people who actually want to do PVP. I suppose it's worth noting that there is one small compromise which differentiates this system from traditional PVE servers. Now you can't just flag yourself for PVP combat anywhere you want; you can only do it in major cities, so to a certain extent, players can't just choose to opt out of PVP whenever they feel like. However, what did I say about players earlier in this analysis? When given the choice, they will always choose the path of least resistance. Since players no longer have to make a commitment to PVP from level 1, why would anyone willingly subject themselves to risk of ganks when they know that other players on the same server don't have to deal with it? Put this another way with a more extreme example. If Blizzard just gave you the option of receiving full epic gear at the start of the game and faceroll your way to max level, why would anyone willingly handicap themselves without it, even if they normally prefer to earn their gear? The mere existence of such an option for more casual players would devalue the experience for everyone else. So sure, the traditional PVP server experience is still supposedly there as an "option", but almost no one is probably going to take it. They'll either wait until max level or just unflag themselves whenever the going gets tough. Instead of having to think creatively on how to deal with enemy players encroaching on their questing area, they'll just hearthstone back to Stormwind and be back in action in no time. This makes for an incredibly flat and boring world PVP experience.
Now critics of my assessment might say, "You just want to gank noobs." To which I say, uh, yep. It's fun and hilarious, and players opted into this experience when they joined a PVP server. They knew what they signed up for. Moreover, I have to start at level 1 too, so I'm not getting a free lunch here either. This is the experience I want; I see no reason to be ashamed of it. The diverse range of power levels is what makes the experience interesting to me. There are players weaker than me, and there are players who can kick my ass too. The power imbalances are what drive me to continue growing stronger as a player. If I want to play a perfectly balanced skill-based game, I've got plenty of other options besides WoW to fulfill that need.
Perhaps I'm wrong though. Perhaps players will still fully dedicate themselves to the world PVP experience under this new system. There's still a lot that Blizzard hasn't elaborated on as to how it might work, and the devil is in the details. If the PVP flag mechanic has something like a steep 24-hour timer before it acknowledges a player's desire to opt out, this could deter lazy tactics like hearthing back to town to exit PVP, but we'll have to wait and see. However, given Blizzard's current trend of always erring on the side of caution over ambition and catering to PVE players over PVP, my outlook is decidedly grim for the future of PVP in WoW.
The Problem of Player Choice
Much of modern WoW's major problems seem to stem from one central idea, and that is the philosophy of player choice. Blizzard consistently calls back to this phrase as their reasoning behind many of the decisions they've made. At a glance, it does seem noble to want to accommodate all types of players. Unfortunately though, there comes a point where in your efforts to please everyone, you can't execute a vision, because you're stuck trying to please a widely diverse range of players whose desires run directly in conflict with it. What you're left with is a watered down experience; directionless in its efforts to juggle too many things at once and failing to excel at any particular thing that it tries to do. Furthermore, there also comes a point where you need to recognize the limitations of your demographics and stop trying to futilely pull in new audiences who in all likelihood wouldn't enjoy this type of game anyway. Granny and grandpa, much as we love them, are simply never going to play WoW. It's not their thing. The same for Johnny who loves the outdoors and dreams of becoming a professional football player one day. You're never going to capture these types of players; this isn't WiiSports. While I'm sure these types of people aren't Blizzard's intended target, one has to wonder who exactly they're aiming for then, because the past few expansions certainly haven't been going for greater depth and challenge. MMORPGs appeal to a specific demographic, and no amount of making the game more accessible to newcomers is going to entice people who fundamentally have no interest in this type of game, much less video games in general. After a certain point, continually trying to expand your demographic by casualizing the experience runs an unnecessary risk of alienating your existing audience while failing to pull in any new ones. No matter what decision Blizzard makes, there is always a price to pay, and they will never be everything to everyone. There is no such thing as infinite growth.
So if Blizzard truly wants to get serious about fixing world PVP, they should start by recognizing who it actually appeals to and make the experience fun for them rather than worrying about everyone else. And who are the people most likely to appreciate this sort of experience? Bombshell: that would be PVP players. Wow, that was really hard to figure out. Glad you're able to keep up with me here and follow along. Want to know another way to improve the PVP experience? Take a page from Nintendo: execute an ambitious vision, and even if it isn't what many wanted or expected, they'll learn to appreciate it anyway when they see how well it is realized. Imagine a world where the PVP experience is fully intertwined with every stage of the game. The Horde and Alliance must juggle completing quest objectives while also having to fend off opposing faction invaders. Towns and regions are conquerable with bonuses and rewards for having the territory under your control. The landscape is always dynamically shifting and you never know what challenges you'll run into. Humans would be encouraged to band together for safety in bigger numbers when invading orcs encroach on their land for loot and plunder. These are the kinds of experiences that I'm sure many PVP players would find enticing, reveling in the spontaneous nature of player interactions and the chaos that unfolds from battling over territories. All of this would require treating PVP as an integral part of the WoW experience though, not optional side content that you just turn off with the flip of a switch. If Blizzard wants to make world PVP something interesting, they can't just make it into something inconsequential that half the players can simply ignore. In order for world PVP to be meaningful, it should leave an impact on the world.
Of course, much of these changes could potentially alienate some PVE players, but as I've said, there's always a price to pay for every decision you make, and at least with this approach you've got potential to grow your demographic by tapping into audiences who already have an interest in MMOs; those audiences being former MMO players who craved the PVP emphasis of games like Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online. At the bare minimum though, if Blizzard is going to continue to insist on half-hearted compromises in the name of "player choice", then at least give me the choice to keep playing in the way that WoW has already been providing for over a decade. I see no benefit in what they're currently planning on doing with their merging of PVP and PVE servers.
This post is quickly turning into a rant about how Warcraft has been failing me for the past several years, so let's change course and talk about how it might be fixed. Stepping away from the upcoming expansion now, let's take a look at more general changes that could be done to address WoW's contemporary problems. Unfortunately with WoW being in the current state that it's in, many of the features that have been implemented over the years have become a genie-out-of-bottle situation. They're difficult to roll back. However, with a few concessions here and there, I think players would be receptive to changes that could be done to restore WoW back to some semblance of balance.
Charisma Bonus - Instead of enemies scaling to your level while questing, why not scale your stats to your friend's level when they are online? Essentially when you're in a group with a friend who is too high level for you to quest with, they can activate their "charisma bonus" which will buff your stats to be at the same level as theirs. While this bonus is active, you will be able to quest together and earn experience at the same rate as they do, while items and loot that are dropped still only reflect your current level. The bonus would be ignored in PVP though, and caps could still apply like if your friend is more than 20 levels ahead of you, it can no longer be activated (similar to how Battle for Azeroth already plans to implement global level scaling). This feature would effectively allow you to keep questing with friends even when you grow apart from each other in level, while still having enough restrictions on it that you feel encouraged to keep progressing when you're flying it solo. I think this would work much better than just blanket level scaling at all times because you can keep the more granular sense of progression, whereas in Battle for Azeroth it will take grinding out chunks of levels in increments of 20 to notice any real difference in power.
Meeting Stones - These were already implemented before at one point in WoW's history, but were eventually made obsolete by the dungeon finder. While I'm not suggesting that the dungeon finder should be totally scrapped in order to bring meeting stones back, what I would instead like to see is the removal of the instant teleportation feature in the dungeon finder. You can still assemble a group with it, but once your group is ready, you have to manually travel to the dungeon and summon the rest of your group via the meeting stones. The point of this is mainly to bring back opportunities for Horde and Alliance skirmishes to break out while heading to dungeons, as well as increasing the sense of immersion and adventure; that feeling that WoW is one giant living world. Although at times it may feel tedious having to travel across Azeroth's expansive landscapes, this really did add a sense of immersion back in the day and built up my anticipation for whatever destination I was heading to. In addition, some degree of mandatory traveling helps ensure that the world feels populated instead of largely empty outside of the major cities like WoW has been for quite some time. I think meeting stones are a great compromise that still allow for travel but without waiting too long for the group to get together. Once enough group members have arrived, the rest can be summoned through the stones.
Reduced Portals - As a corollary to my points regarding meeting stones, Blizzard should similarly reduce the number of instant teleportation portals across the world, which have slowly accumulated over the course of so many expansions. Now there are so many portals that players can practically get to anywhere they need with little to no traveling at all, which again negatively impacts the sense of immersion as I described earlier. I'm not looking to turn every trip into an hour-long trek, but again, some level a balance here would be nice.
Flying Mount Fatigue - Once again, at first glance I'm sure many would find the implementation of this feature annoying, but even Blizzard has acknowledged that the impact of flying mounts on the game has led to some negative consequences. It's something of an overpowered ability to be able to just fly anywhere and everywhere at any time. It reduces the sense of danger in the world, and adds to the sense of emptiness when no one has to actually travel through regions and instead can just fly right over them. Adding flying mount fatigue is one way I think this issue could be addressed without totally scrapping flying mounts, and it would help make ground mounts relevant again too. The way it would work is that a fatigue meter would appear that slowly accumulates over time while flying. Once your mount reaches maximum fatigue, it descends to the ground and can't be flown again until it is taken to a flight master to be stabled and nourished for a period of time. You can retrieve your flying mount from any flight master in the world once its resting period has completed. There are already numerous flight masters scattered throughout the world, so this wouldn't be too difficult of a feature to implement.
Aggro Management - Enemies across the world should be buffed in difficulty again to be on par with the threat they once were during WoW's early days. Believe it or not, back then it still wasn't that hard to bring down a baddie. The main difference was that you had to be more aware and cautious of your surroundings, because picking up one extra aggro could be life-threatening. With certain spawn areas being more claustrophobic than others, it could get trickier to complete your quest objectives. Rarely was it outright impossible without other players though, but because of the steeper difficulty, you felt more inclined to group up with others to get the job done. It was a delicate balance that was well-executed, as it allowed players to solo if they had to but still encouraged them to group up whenever possible. MMORPGs are a social experience, and any opportunity to facilitate more cooperative play is usually a good thing.
Arena Stat Scaling - If players still crave a highly competitive PVP experience, arenas would be the ideal place to facilitate this, as they're already designed with competitive play in mind. Keeping stat scaling in arenas while removing it for all other PVP content would be a nice compromise in bringing back gear progression to PVP while still supporting the competitive scene.
Resource Management - It used to be the case that when you ran out of mana, you were actually out of mana. Nowadays Warcraft seems to rely more on cooldowns than resources as a means of limiting your abilities, as there's always a quick and cheap way to get your resource back even if you're running low. Resource management can add an element of tension to combat when you're running low, and it makes you more carefully consider when to use certain moves rather than just immediately spamming buttons once their cooldowns have expired.
Remove the Fucking Pandas - OK, I'm just being a dreamer and a dick on this one. Does anyone even play pandarens anymore to begin with? I never see them walking around.
These are just a few ideas that I think could go a long way toward adding back some actual challenge, progression, and social interaction to WoW without being too punishing or restrictive.
When WoW originally launched, it was in many ways already a significant evolution from previous games in its genre, reducing much of the tedium and annoyances that had plagued MMORPGs for years. It is understandable that in keeping with this trend, Blizzard saw fit to continue honing their craft and streamlining the experience. Somewhere along the way though, it seems Blizzard never stopped to ask whether continually making the experience easier necessarily makes it more fun. All the hyper-streamlining of the game over the years ironically has exposed the progression treadmill even more thoroughly than vanilla WoW's repetition ever did, because at least the earlier days of WoW offset the tedium with the sense of reward from overcoming a difficult feat and having a good time with friends. Now everything is so automated and so immediate in gratification that it feels perfunctory. In Blizzard's endless pursuit to be everything to every player, it is actually compromising many things that players loved about the game in the first place. If Warcraft is to save itself in the long run, it can't keep compromising what it is to try and become something that it will never be. WoW is a MMORPG and always will be. Blizzard should be mindful of this and not forget the fundamentals that originally made World of Warcraft such a captivating game.