The past few weeks have been pretty well packed, both in a personal and in a professional sense, so it’s easy to sort of overlook the fact that Legion finally has an official launch date. Which also means that we’re looking at around a 14-month content gap for World of Warcraft this time around, and a content gap which is going to continue for at least the next few months. So much for faster releases, then, although we’ve all more or less burned that bridge of our expectations, I imagine.
I’ve been doing my best to stay relatively pure during the lengthy test cycle; I’ve been playing enough to get a sense of the game, but I don’t like playing until my eyes bleed on a beta when I’m going to need to do the whole thing over again when the expansion actually launches. So let’s take a look at the state of the beta, the launch date, and what we can expect for the game as we move forward from here.
Unfinished but polished
In some ways, I think Blizzard has become a victim of its own track record. The studio that had a lengthy reputation of taking time to deliver something very polished has a certain expectation of polish, that every new addition has to be even more polished than the previous addition to the game. The result is a beta that at once feels very unfinished in certain places while feeling polished to a mirror shine in others, and it creates an odd disconnection.
What is finished and completely working in the current test is very refined, but it comes with lots of odd gaps buttressing it on any given side. The result is a test that feels very good but also feels like being shuttled between a set of Potemkin villages, and it’s hard not to speculate about what’s going to fill in those gaps when the time comes around.
A lot of the action bars feel oddly unfinished, to boot. Some of this is the nature of how much I’ve done in the tests and how the expansion is structured; more than ever, it’s clear that Blizzard is designing this expansion as a stand-alone entity, with everything before the expansion serving more as a trial run. Another part of it is my own gaming habits; when you’re accustomed to games that strain to fit everything on 24 hotbar slots, a simpler rotation is going to feel a bit more empty. But there is also a certain element of having a very simple core flow with cooldowns, rather than having a few different things you’re juggling at once.
That having been said, the new class shifts feel really solid. Some of them look pretty scary on paper, but the experience of playing them is very satisfying, and I don’t feel that I’ve lost much in any of the cases. Ranged Survival and Marksmanship have fundamentally been rolled into Marksmanship as a whole, and you can get much of the same satisfaction; Demonology is the only tree that feels as if it has lost something, and the improvements to demons make me fall on the positive side rather than the negative.
Most of the changes made over the course of the beta have been positive, to boot. A few things have been lost, but most of those elements were either too powerful or led to degenerate gameplay. Making it a bit harder to get to class halls feels like it’s a net benefit in the end, making the whole experience more grounded rather than less. You can’t just dart back and forth from anywhere, which was one of the issues that Garrisons had.
There are also signs about the developers planning ahead a little bit more, like being ready for flying and having a framework in place well in advance. This is good, although there seem to be some weird gaps in planning or expectations that players will love things that history hasn’t shown them loving. Ah, well.
I think the game is going to be ready for August, although I think it could have used less emphasis on polish and more emphasis on trying things. There are design issues that I feel are still a gigantic pile of missed chances, some of which might have been fixed if the developers were less worried about polish. But all of that’s pure speculation, and more time does not automatically mean a better game; we should all know that by now. So put that down for what it’s worth.
Gaps and the future
Saying that World of Warcraft has a problem with content gaps is only a contentious statement if you’re absolutely fixated on defending Blizzard from criticism. We’re coming in on a 14-month gap, although it remains to be seen when we’re going to have our Demon Hunter early access rolled out with the expansion pre-patch. My bet would be in June to capitalize on movie hype, but July is a realistic possibility as well.
This is most definitely not the longest gap in the game’s history, but in some ways that doesn’t matter. Players are increasingly unwilling to forgive the game for lengthy content gaps, and we’re reaching the point where every expected content gap just turns people further away from the game. You can argue that the developers have just learned to accept churn as a reality, but some of that churn is only a reality because the game keeps not catering to a large portion of players and then goes ages between updates.
Plus, saying that churn is just a reality ignores the fact that “leave and comes back for the expansion” only takes a little extra motivation to just be “leave for good.” Keeping affection and attention is much easier than fighting to earn it back every year.
The Legion launch is a chance to turn a lot of things around, starting with perception. What little hints we’ve had of the pre-patch and the pre-launch event are heartening, giving players plenty of reasons to jump in and take part in the game’s ongoing events. I’m also hopeful that the developers have a more realistic development cycle in mind for the future. Mists of Pandaria had a good cadence for patches; if we could get back to that point and start rolling things out steadily, that would be better than big patches to start with followed by silence.
To that end, I’m kind of hoping that we start hearing about the next expansion sooner rather than later. BlizzCon is probably a bit on the early side, but it would be good to know that the expansion is under development then rather than later. I don’t expect it’s going to happen, but it would go a long way toward giving a sense that the future is not going to just be a repeat of the past year of complete abandonment.
Although if they want to go ahead and patch in the new transmog system now, I’d be all right with that. Man, I love that part.
Feedback, like always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time around, I want to speculate about what the game could look like without the current expansion model, and if that might be better for the game in the long run.