Why World of Warcraft’s Covenant systems remain a big choice

World of Warcraft fans are always excited about a new expansion — it’s like unwrapping a big present chock full of content. But players were worried about one thing in Shadowlands: Covenants, an endgame system where players join one of four powerful factions for new abilities and sweet cosmetics. Now that the expansion is out, and fans have had time to dig through the campaign, the system seems to be working.

It’s a simple system: pick one of the four major Shadowlands regions and commit to their cause, earning powerful abilities and sweet pieces of gear. World of Warcraft was never a traditional talky RPG with BioWare style choices, but over the years it’s become less of an actual roleplaying game. Shadowlands aims to change this.

“One of the major themes and emphasis on Shadowlands is choice and player agency,” said Frank Kowalkowski, technical designer at Blizzard, in a call with Polygon. Covenants are meant to be one of those choices; you experience them as you level up, and then you have to pull the trigger and make a choice. “No matter what your motivation is for making that choice, it’s going to be very well informed.”

“We don’t want this to be something you can just kind of slip on and off when you’re back in town; we want this choice to be meaningful,” he added.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Shadowlands takes lessons from the previous World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for Azeroth, which offered some smaller but character-based choices. Do you side with the Warchief or the rebels in an internal civil war? Do you purge the giant eyeball in your skull, or let the Old God influence settle there? Now, Shadowlands has the Covenant choice, but also lots of little dialogue tree additions and tweaks, like using your Inscription profession for a clever quest dialogue option, or picking a spacefaring character’s home world.

“The theme of choosing a Covenant fits in with where the Shadowlands is, and its narrative in the first act of the story,” said lead narrative designer Steve Danuser. “If you think of it as a multi-act play, the first act is about dealing with the hardships that have afflicted the Shadowlands, the drought that takes away all of the anima.”

The players aren’t the sole champion or the main hero, they’re one of many Maw Walkers who have shown up from Azeroth. The players have to make the four Covenants stronger, so each player makes a choice. “Whichever one speaks to you, whichever one you want to side with knowing that other heroes are building up the other ones as well,” Danuser said. “If you carry that thought forward, as the story progresses, then the theme will be ‘OK, we’ve built up our strengths. Now how do we combine them to face the greater threat that’s posed by the Jailer?’”

Shadowlands asks players to make a choice, and part of that can be figuring out a character’s ideological stance. Does my paladin believe her past is a virtue or a burden? Is she beholden to duty or glory? None of this is incredibly sophisticated; World of Warcraft has always been closer to comic book pulp than Spec Ops: The Line, but it’s still a beefier choice than fans are accustomed to.

So, despite fan furor, the developers kept the Covenant choice in, albeit with the option to slowly switch to a new group.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

But the fan concern came from a real place — fear of making a “wrong” choice. What if a Death Knight picks Night Fae, and then can’t find a group because that’s such a suboptimal choice? What if raids will check and make sure you picked the right Covenant to pump out the most DPS? Even World of Warcraft Classic, which has become trivially easy in a modern player hands, can be plagued by gatekeeping, where leaders try to ensure everyone is playing the “right” way.

Now that the expansion has been out for a couple of weeks, and the endgame content is starting to unlock — including Covenant’s end game activities and the Castle Nathria raid — it seems like Covenants are a successful system. Wowranks, a website that tracks in-game stats, is tracking which Covenant players are choosing. The site has the Night Fae as the most popular at 30% and the Necrolords as the least popular with 15%. An ideal, perfectly balanced set of four Covenants would be at around 25% apiece, but that’s not a bad distribution to start with, and later patches will likely diversify Covenant choice further.

“We wanted the choice to be more about which of these groups you wanted to align with. and which one spoke to you thematically,” said Danuser. “The bigger storyline of what’s going on with Sylvanas and the bigger powers? Let that be more of a shared experience for people.”

If Shadowlands can succeed at getting over the hurdle of player choice that may possibly impact a player’s DPS rotation, it’ll be a huge step toward making World of Warcraft feel like a proper RPG, with a realized character as the star. For me, having to sit down and puzzle out which Covenant my character would join — and why — was some of the most fun I’ve had with World of Warcraft in ages.

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