WoW's devs will continue to use private auras, which limit UI addon functionality, in The War Within: though they'd like to be selective to avoid cures 'worse than the disease'

World of Warcraft void elf character Xal'atath looking intently in a close up
(Image credit: Blizzard)

World of Warcraft has a bit of a problem. Unlike an MMO like Final Fantasy 14, which makes user addons technically against its terms of service, WoW has always been very lenient with its UI—to the point where the game was able to leave its ancient HUD untouched until Dragonflight.

This has both benefits and consequences. In the pros column, Weakauras (powerful programmable UI elements) and the like allow for a huge amount of customisation and accessibility—as someone who has put a few petty auras together, the process of fiddling with your UI can be pretty dang satisfying, too.

In the cons column, however, it also means that players and developers are engaged in a vicious arms race. UI addons are absolutely required for high-end content, and world-first raiders will keep experienced coders on retainer to develop bespoke Weakauras in the field.

Enter "private auras", which are a kind of flag that Blizzard can put on a specific mechanic or spell to place it beyond the reach of most UI addons, giving very limited information for them to work with. These were trialled in Dragonflight to varying degrees of success—and have been cropping up again in The War Within's alpha and beta tests.

In a recent interview with WoWHead, the game's director Ion Hazzikostas and associate game director Morgan Day touched a little on the challenges of gating telegraphs in this way. Hazzikostas sketches out a rough philosophy to "limit the computation power of addons and reestablish more room in encounters for players to coordinate", adding that he'd like his team to be able to design encounters without that pressure.

"What we've seen though, is that when we try to use private auras to apply to raid wide coordination mechanics … and the rewards [for succeeding on those mechanics] are more significant, players will find cumbersome workarounds involving creating manual macros"—in case you're unfamiliar, macros are a separate system, allowing players to make icons on their action bars which run very simple scripts.

For certain private auras, these macros acted as a middleman, using the player's own response to the mechanic to deliver information to addons. If this sounds complicated and annoying, it's because it probably was.

"In that case, the cure is definitely worse than the disease… we're not actually helping here—we're not improving the player experience."

"A lot of what it boils down to is reclaim some design space," Day adds. He says that "swirlies"—ground markers that telegraph deadly mechanics—have become so ubiquitous in part because of addons. "That's become more of a baseline," he observed, despite it being used as a specific mechanic to characterise an encounter.

"I think we've approached War Within with a desire to refine our continued use of that tool," Hazzikostas says, "to steer clear of applying it in areas that we know are going to cause more frustrating behaviour, and to continue to use it in areas where we think it can allow [for] player decision making and creativity that isn't delegated to addons automatically."

It's not an enviable position to be in—though WoW's problem is an interesting one to fix, considering it doesn't have a unified telegraph system. While there are a few mainstays like "swirlies", their colour and presentation can vary significantly. Meanwhile, a game like FF14 has a specific and concrete set of warning markers—reducing the need for addons at all. As someone who's played both, I think WoW's move towards private auras is a healthier one long-term, but it'll need to tune up its visual language going forward, lest we end up in another Inky Black Potion scenario.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.