This is an opinion piece rather than a guide.
4.2 brings with it minor changes to the default UI, among them the removal of the keyring and the addition of the Dungeon Journal. The journal provides basic information on boss fights and loot tables in dungeons and raids. A typical entry on a boss includes a snippet of lore and then what are basically the tooltips for the various boss abilities arrayed in menu form. Some encounters have brief phase descriptions attached to them; others do not. The loot information, held on its own tab, is nothing more than a list of icons and names with mouseover tooltips. Overall the information is basic and is descriptive much more than it is instructive. It’s a bit like a flight itinerary, telling you some relatively fixed things to expect but not how to personally get between gates.
I can’t say that this development dumbs down WoW. It does not tell you how to play the game any more than looking at a boss’s abilities and loot table on Wowhead does. It’s also fair to say that the amount of information we gain from studying fight videos and guides is far greater and more detailed than anything we might glean from the journal. The journal appears to be Blizzards ‘in-house’ version of what players already habitually incorporate into their gameplay, much like the updated default raid frames are Blizzard’s reaction to the widespread popularity of Grid-like addons and the new quest tracking features are its reaction to the ubiquity QuestHelper-like addons.
I will say, though, that there’s a meaningful difference between turning a blind eye to something and actively participating in it. That is, it’s one thing to not fight against sites like Wowhead and another thing to duplicate some of their features in-game. In this respect I don’t view the advent of The Dungeon Journal as a dumbing down of the game so much as part of WoW’s movement toward a different model of MMO.
I believe that vanilla WoW tried to hold more to what I will call the purist model of MMORPGs. Note that this ‘model’ is just an archetype that I’m making up for illustrative purposes, drawn from a lifetime of playing computer-based RPGs in my spare time. In this model the UI exists only to enable the player to interact with the game world, passively translating mouse clicks and key strokes into actions taken by the player’s avatar in its immediate in-game surroundings. The UI is intended as a window, a translator and a conduit; it is not a guide, a friend or even a Clippy. To the purist model, the UI is an unfortunately necessary medium between the user and game environment, there to make gameplay possible and detract from immersion as little as possible.
Vanilla WoW’s closer proximity to the purist model (again, to be clear, just an archetype I’m making up for illustrative purposes) left it a bit more mysterious, unforgiving and physically grounded as game than it is today. Questing involved actual searching and uncertainty. The UI didn’t care if you never opened your talent tree. Dungeons and battlegrounds had to be traveled to because they were supposed to effectively and not just conceptually be parts of the world’s geography. In general, WoW used to favor what was logical for the game world and its lore a bit more than it does now; that is, it used to care a bit more about immersion and consistency. Yet, as much as this tendency toward RPS purity had many virtues when it came to what an RPG should be, it also had many drawbacks. “Cared a bit more about immersion and consistency” often translated in practice into “didn’t care that it was being a huge pain in the ass.” Its priorities and limitations sometimes lead it to replace depth with grinds, immersion with a slowed pace, and mystery with obscurity.
Bit by bit, WoW has been moving away from the purist model. The Dungeon Finder, for example, allows players to cheat both the game’s physical space and the RPG tradition of finding party members in a town or city and then venturing off together to fight foes. The DF makes no sense if WoW is only viewed as an RPG, but from an MMO designer’s perspective of wanting to maximize the fun-to-time-spent ratio it makes a lot of sense. Likewise for incorporating quest information into the in-game map. This change detracts substantially from immersion in my opinion; instead of scouring and exploring the game environment, the player is thoughtlessly following dots and a sentence or two of text on a two-dimensional representation of the game environment (the map). However, it also removes a lot of drudgery from questing and relieves the players who want rewards and experience more than lessons in lore.
The Dungeon Journal is in keeping with these changes. It is not some tattered, incomplete, ink-stained tome that the player’s avatar might have inherited from a wayward uncle as a call to adventure. Rather, it’s a polished, precise UI element replete with 3D models; it’s a thing more fit for science fiction than fantasy, and even there it’d be a stretch. It simply feeds far more information to the player than the purist model would allow. With the Dungeon Journal, WoW’s UI is taking one more step toward a different MMO model, one where the UI starts to work like a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in addition to a simple ‘Babel Fish for hardware events.’ Except, it’s not quite like the HGG in that the extra DJ information is, within the game lore, miraculous: it clearly helps you but you can’t really explain how you possess it within the logic or lore of the game environment. If even Brann Bronzebeard doesn’t know what’s around some corners, how or why does the player? Instead of encouraging immersion and merely permitting the use of miraculous information (via Wowhead, etc.), the dungeon journal does the reverse, directly providing miraculous information and merely permitting immersion (that is, you can choose to ignore the DJ and stick to ‘roleplay-only’ sources of information like quest text). The purist model tried to minimize miraculous information; the new WoW model embraces it like a writer who thinks that a deus ex machina is a fine way to resolve a plot. I can’t say that this is a bad thing; it is merely different and a matter of taste. It also makes a lot of sense from the perspective of a company that wants to make it as easy as possible for new players to enter and understand a frankly complex and expansive game world.
I expect this trend toward more and more immersion-defeating UI elements to continue in WoW and other Blizzard RPGs since it works well and Blizzard has a history of copying its successes in one game into another (such as achievements appearing in Starcraft II). I hope, though, that the increasing amount of ‘miraculous information’ is more a response to the sheer size of WoW than a sign of Blizzard giving up on the ideal of immersion in its RPGs. Some of the best games I have ever played are those that show rather than tell, that encourage exploration rather than provide guided tours, that have you inhabit a character rather than merely customize it.