One of my favorite bits from The Office is when Michael is having his budget explained to him. You don’t need to know the context; the funniest bit is right on YouTube, as it’s explained to him that there are elements of his budget that are devoted not to bills or to luxuries but to things that no one would ever need under any circumstances. It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous.
That’s how I feel about the World of Warcraft process on Legion testing so far. It’s not that the decisions being made are bad, although they are, it’s that they are absurd. They do not make any sense. It’s like trying to read about the Time Cube, where every time it starts to sort of make sense you realize that no, that actually makes less sense.
I can’t even really say they’re altogether bad decisions, just… weird ones. Ones that don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Let’s just sort of… walk though them, analyze them, and try to make sense out of it. Even though I know it’s ultimately a fruitless exercise.
The first bit of news we got vis-a-vis beta testing was at Gamescom, when we were promised that beta testing would begin this year. Right then, I was predicting that we wouldn’t be seeing the expansion before June 2016, since the reasonable definition of “beta this year” included beta starting up around BlizzCon. It was speculation, but it was speculation based on what we had seen happening up to that point.
Cue BlizzCon, during which we were told that beta would be starting in the weeks following BlizzCon. That told me that June was overly optimistic to start with. I realize that the information we’ve been given included promises that the game had been worked on before Warlords of Draenor had released, but the fact of the matter is that whatever sort of pre-design work had been done, the expansion is not even in a fully playable test state. It needed to be ready at BlizzCon and it was not.
Then, there were design blogs. And then, silence.
Alpha testing started up not too long after the design blogs were posted, of course, but it started with less of a bang and more of a soft whisper. (A careless whisper, even.) No official announcement was ever made, to my knowledge; people just started being able to log in and go. The first announcement we’ve gotten is the most recent announcement that it’s expanding… after the initial version contained little more than the demo on the floor of BlizzCon. There ain’t a lot there, in other words.
Why is all of this absurd? Because it’s completely kneecapping any hype, any enthusiasm, any forward momentum that Blizzard could otherwise generate. That attitude of cautious excitement surrounding BlizzCon has gone down to nothing. Yes, I feel that pretty strongly since I’m currently not in the testing, but that’s secondary to the fact that the developers are not putting forth a strong effort to capitalize on any kind of momentum.
Instead, we’ve had weak gestures that technically fulfill the promises put forth with little to no buzz, with the expectation that fan sites will take up the slack of promoting and getting people to care. And we are definitely looking at very early testing builds, the sort of thing that make even the September date on the Legion pre-order page look kind of optimistic.
It seems to me like this is the sort of thing that Blizzard would and should be trumpeting from the hills. But then, it seems to me that the company really should have been ready for beta testing to start at BlizzCon based around what was said when the expansion was announced, so what do I know? That’s when we get into “absurd” territory, where the actions being taken just do not make sense. Not “these are bad decisions” so much as “these are decisions designed to pursue absolutely no discernable goal.”
Well, unless you assume there’s some sort of elaborate The Producers-style situation going on here, but Warlords of Draenor already launched, so I think we missed the window on that.
The datamined stuff we’ve seen thus far looks pretty cool, although looking at the Artifact setup both confirms my existing thought that it’d be ridiculous to just abandon this system and implies that it’s really not going to stick around past this one expansion. A shame. We also got the out-of-the-blue announcement of Gnome Hunters with no other combinations anywhere, which seems pretty odd – it’s not as if WoW has historically lacked in the population of Hunters, although I suppose this will stop people asking when we get Engineer as a dedicated class of its own. That’s something.
But by and large, we’re in the midst of a content drought without new information coming. There’s no way that information will make up for a lack of things to do, but it can at least serve to sustain interest. The current silence, on the other hand, does little more than just sort of leave people cold. It’s like the game getting put in maintenance mode, except with the promise that you should totally care again in, like, half a year.
There was a time when this worked, but increasingly, it’s not working. And I can’t understand why this is now seen as somehow unusual by a company that previously understood this quite well. Heck, it’s one of the major elements that has allowed the company to succeed with other games over an extended period of time.
One of the long-standing excuses for Blizzard as a whole that people bring up with some regularity is the idea that WoW is no longer important to the company, that it’s sort of the old game that the team feels obligated to keep supporting. That seems pretty obviously wrong, though; the game has enough history and enough of a playerbase that ignoring it is literally leaving money on the table for no reason. The company clearly cares; it just keeps relying on practices that were outdated quite some time ago.
And that’s where I get back to absurdity. It’s not that the designers want people to quit the game on a regular basis because every player that leaves for a while is that much more likely to leave forever. The designers want people to stick around. And then they offer very little incentive to do so.
The game doesn’t have to be like this. This isn’t a function of age. It’s not a reality of any game design. It’s a result of choices made in development and deployment. And they’re kind of absurd.
As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time around, assuming that we haven’t gotten any new huge revelations or the like, I’m going to discuss the datamined information and otherwise revealed information from the first few expansion builds. In more depth, I mean.