WoW's UI arms race rages on as Blizzard says they'll crack down on sparkly new combat overlays

Archimonde, a boss from World of Warcraft's Hellfire Citadel raid, reaches towards the camera in defeat.
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

As a Final Fantasy 14 player, I'm sometimes jealous of how good World of Warcraft players have it. Thanks to FF14's EULA forbidding interface addons entirely, I have to stick to definitely only hearing about them third-hand through unmentioned friends, with mods I absolutely do not have installed. Then I'm reminded of events like this, and I'm suddenly counting my blessings.

Last week, Wowhead made a news post highlighting some new overlay tech that was being used in raiding. These are different from your bog-standard UI mods in that they don't use the game's in-built addon support, and can be slapped over the game window or put on a separate monitor entirely. 

Some also operate by reading WoW's combat logs, which are written directly to the disk and aren't accessible in-game. This new tech was unveiled by Warcraft Logs, who created a new damage tracker to solve the issue of the game's current DPS addons, which don't properly track Augmentation Evoker's damage contributions (since the spec works by buffing its allies).

Obviously, with this new tech getting popularised, players have been working on proof-of-concepts that are pretty busted—one example, created by Reddit user Shamzaa, comes complete with a full radar-style overlay. It compiles data from the combat log in real-time with what I can only assume is some cyberpunk-level techno wizardry. You can see the results below:

Blizzard have finally addressed this in a thread on the World of Warcraft forums: "We intend to make changes to how the Advanced Combat Log is populated, in advance of Dragonflight Season 3, that will prevent its use in this way." Community manager Kaivax also cites section 1-C of the EULA, which has a few applicable sentences on the subject—particularly when it comes to software "not expressly authorised by Blizzard". Seeing as these overlays don't use the in-game addon system, this all seems straightforwardly forboden.

This kind of thing has also been stopped before—back in 2015, the Hellfire Citadel's raid boss Archimonde was slain with a controversial addon that drew lines on a radar-style UI, stopping players from crossing the streams. Blizzard stepped in to make changes to the game's code, nipping addons of its ilk in the bud. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

It could also be a relatively straightforward fix, as Wowhead notes: "Out of game overlays only work because the Advanced Combat Log reports this information in real time. If the Combat Log didn't, this would no longer be possible." Change how the straight-to-disk combat log works, and the engine mostly falls apart. 

It's a double-edged sword of WoW's free-range philosophy for its modding community: everyone shares their creations like a gaggle of wild-haired scientists in a lab a thousand strong. Its creations are powerful and quickly iterated on, but they also have to show their working with each other, making it far easier for papa Blizzard to come in and shut everything down.

Which is completely understandable, since this kind of wizardry shakes up intended game design something fierce. As both Final Fantasy 14 and World of Warcraft prove, embracing or rejecting addons has its ups and downs. Reject them, and your game's encounter design gets a lot more straightforward, with modders having to whisper in secret or risk the ban hammer. Embrace them, though, and you let players custom-build their own experience and massively improve your game's accessibility—all at the cost of engaging in an arms race with an army of tinkerers that outnumber you ten to one.

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.