On August 6th, we now know, we’ll be hearing the name and some details on the next World of Warcraft expansion. What we don’t know is what that expansion will actually contain. The space after this expansion is a blanker space than usual, with lots of possible directions and an absolute dearth of information indicating what direction the story will go in from here.
More to the point, the next expansion is going to be judged pretty harshly simply by virtue of coming immediately after an expansion best described as “maybe worse than Cataclysm.” It’s an uphill battle all around. Now that we know for certain that we will be hearing about the next expansion in a little over a week, let’s look a little bit at what we might be exploring in the next expansion in both story and mechanical terms.
We know that Hellfire Citadel is going to be the last raid in World of Warcraft‘s current expansion. We know that the expansion wasn’t going to even have flying, but it was added in due to popular insistence. We know that there aren’t going to be any new areas such as Farahlon added into the game for this expansion cycle.
You could be forgiven for looking out at the landscape of patch 6.2 and asking “is this really it?” And you would really be right to ask whether or not this is something with any sustainability.
While the official word from the top is that the designers are keeping a close eye on content consumption and what that will mean for future content releases, but the fact is that the current patch is clearly meant as a final patch for the cycle. And here we are with no news about the next expansion or even what comes next.
Did anyone else get flashbacks to the Xbox One launch with World of Warcraft‘s flying announcement? I pictured a lot of arm-folding and sulking as it was being delivered. “All right, I guess we’ll do what you guys say you want, but we were still totally right to say you didn’t want it.” Maybe it’s just me. The point is that players have finally sort of been listened to about an issue that’s been getting serious blowback since the expansion launch.
Pretty much everyone expects that this year’s BlizzCon will feature another expansion announcement for the game, of course, which makes the development team’s attitude particularly relevant. I can tell a convincing story in which this year’s expansion is an actual return to form; I can also tell a story in which it’s a pretty major misstep again. So let’s look at what could come next for the game, from the really good to the really, really bad.
It’s been a little while, hasn’t it, friends? In the time since I last penned WoW Factor (which missed an installment purely due to transit strangeness – the only time I’ve ever missed a column, I do apologize), some stuff has happened. Like what? Oh, nothing major, just World of Warcraft completely losing its sub jump from the beginning of the expansion. Three million players, gone. And while you can feel free to giggle under your breath at those who take this as a sign that the game is dying (7 million subscribers is not exactly a low number), it also does put the game at subscriber numbers below what it had back before The Burning Crusade.
The game isn’t dying. But a 30% loss of subscribers tells a story where it is more than a little sick. Amidst speculation that 6.2 is the game’s last major content patch, there’s reason to believe that something should be done, that things need to change, that the center cannot hold.
Community manager Bashiok pointed out on the forums, quite rightly, that there’s rarely a single silver bullet issue that causes these things. In this case, I think there’s a whole magazine of bullets.
Since the last edition of WoW Factor, two big things hit World of Warcraft in quick succession. The first is that the much-discussed WoW Token finally went live, meaning that anyone who wants to buy gold legitimately or buy subscription time for gold has an option to do so. The second is that patch 6.2 hit the test server, and unlike the rather anemic patch 6.1, it promises to have a bunch of stuff for players to digest and enjoy.
It doesn’t have flying, but then, we just had that discussion.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so it’s best to start from the oldest point and work our way forward, and that means the token. On the one hand, tokens represent a big shift away from how the game has always operated, but at the same time it’s also a fairly minor shift in the grand scheme of things. And if you had the gold to afford one, you’re even helping the game’s somewhat stymied economy.
Allowing flying mounts in World of Warcraft was a terrible mistake that should never have been corrected.
For those not up on their history, here’s the deal: Flying mounts were first added in The Burning Crusade, better known as “the first time Blizzard actually launched a WoW expansion.” At the time, they were pretty darn cool, and while a few people voiced concerns about them, most of the playerbase was focused on the idea that we could freaking fly. That seems legit; I know far too many of my superhero characters were given the ability to fly just because, you know, flying.
Warlords of Draenor does not allow flying mounts right now. It might never allow flying mounts in Draenor. The designers have said that flying mounts were a mistake and probably should never have been added to the game, which I entirely agree with. But I also think we’re at the point that questioning whether or not they were a mistake is beside the point. They’re a mistake that’s been made, and they should have been in WoD at launch, same as several other features.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider Warlords of Draenor to be a sub-par expansion. My opinion on that has not changed; I spent the last installment of this column noting the ways in which the expansion has cycled multiple game mechanics back around, and the first installment of this column discussed expansion issues. Yet today I come here not to bury Warlords of Draenor but to praise it.
For all that World of Warcraft has removed or made worse many gameplay elements over the years, there’s a part of my heart that will always be invested in the game, and for all the missteps that can be made, there are still things of shocking beauty. So let’s talk about things that are completely praiseworthy in WoD, starting with something that I’m happy to say my opinion has changed on in the time between the beta and launch.
After more than a decade of operation, a curious thing has happened to World of Warcraft: It’s circled back around on an awful lot of its design principles, not in the sense that Warlords of Draenor is only a hop and a skip away from the game’s original incarnation, which is demonstrably untrue, but in the sense that a lot of what has changed over that original incarnation has slowly wound up coming back to the same place.
This is something that I think has been cycling around for a while, due in no small part to the simple fact that designers are people too, and the people designing WoW are big fans of the game’s original design without understanding the iterative improvements that happened over the years. Whether or not these changes are good or bad depends on individual taste, but it’s educational insofar as understanding why the game is what it is now.
Remember when World of Warcraft launched? I sure do. I remember when the game’s developers strapped into a helicopter and broke into the building of every game’s development team and forced them to change their code to more closely align with what World of Warcraft was doing, instantly transforming Warhammer Online into a close clone of their own game. And then there was that time that stores stopped handing out copies of Star Wars Galaxies to potential players, with a cleverly disguised installer that made people think they were going to be playing a Star Wars game right up until the character creator. “Hey, that’s not a twi’lek! Oh, well, as long as I’m here…”
Wait, that didn’t happen? Of course it didn’t. That would be absolutely ridiculous. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to the narrative told by some portions of the MMO fanbase.
I really didn’t want Massively Overpowered’s inaugural column about World of Warcraft to focus on the negatives. But I can’t in good conscience ignore the fact that patch 6.1 for Warlords of Draenor is not getting the Iron Docks that many players were expecting. It’s not that I think it’s a grand betrayal of player trust; it’s not. Things get shifted around in development. Stuff gets held back for the next patch. It happens. This feature was never promised for Tuesday, and it isn’t coming out then. Seems fair.
No, the problem here comes down to one of perception, presentation, and the simple fact that there’s plenty to do at level cap in Warlords of Draenor… but also absolutely nothing to do.
It seems ironic that an expansion that led to an enormous subscriber surge is also seemingly tone-deaf on a number of points, but it also seemed ironic when Cataclysm followed Wrath of the Lich King by undoing a good portion of what made the prior expansion so popular. So why is there so much negativity, even from people who do like the game? How can a game be replete in things to do while at the same time have nothing to do?