WoW Factor: Guessing at Battle for Azeroth’s release date using math

This is not hard to do.

The “when will Battle for Azeroth” speculation train is rolling once again because it looks like patch 7.3.5 is just around the corner. We haven’t actually been told when that’s landing yet, of course, but the World of Warcraft community continues to push forward with the sort of boundless optimism that it’s so well known for. “This time is going to be different!”

Here’s a spoiler for the future: It’s not. This time is going to be exactly the same, just like how previous times have been exactly the same, just like each time we’ve talked about this have been exactly the same. Betting on anything before October is optimistic, betting before September is wildly unrealistic. Similarly, betting on 2019 is pessimistic, and later than January is wildly unrealistic just as surely.

The funny thing is that while we have a relatively small sample size for World of Warcraft expansions, we have a pretty solid set of data just the same. And all of these data points point in the same direction.

Let’s start with my personal favorite set of data, which is a favorite just because it’s so marvelously consistent and is also the set that almost everyone seems to ignore. A lot of tracking dates for averages tend to point at things that are either subjective (what counts as the last major patch) or ambiguous (how long did players have to wait with no real new content), but we have a reliable metric available to us by tracking expansion announcements against expansion releases. So let’s start there.

The Burning Crusade: Announced 10/28/05, Released 1/16/07 (13 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Announced 8/3/07, Released 11/13/08 (14 months)
Cataclysm: Announced 8/21/09, Released 12/7/10 (13 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Announced 10/21/11, Released 9/25/12 (11 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Announced 11/8/13, Released 11/13/14 (12 months)
Legion: Announced 8/6/15, Released 8/30/16 (12 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Announced 11/3/17

Based on these numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the average time between announcement and release is 12-13 months. Surprisingly, we only have two expansions that actually serve as outliers, and we can see that in this sense Blizzard actually has gotten faster with releases over time on average. Based on these numbers, you’d expect release to hit around November, with October or December both plausible within a reasonable margin of error.

We really could stop there, let's be real.

Let’s try a different set of data, and this is one that can actually work to incorporate extra dates. Every given expansion, including the base game, has a certain lifespan. Between when a given expansion launches and the last day before the new expansion, there’s a span of time. How long do the expansions tend to last?

Vanilla: Started 11/7/04, Ended 1/15/07 (26 months)
The Burning Crusade: Started 1/16/07, Ended 11/12/08 (22 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Started 11/13/08, Ended 12/6/10 (25 months)
Cataclysm: Started 12/7/10, Ended 9/24/12 (21 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Started 9/25/12, Ended 11/12/14 (25 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Started 11/15/14, Ended 8/29/16 (21 months)
Legion: Started 8/30/16

The spread here looks wider, and it is, but it’s actually not nearly as all over the place as it might look at a glance. In fact, it’s got some interesting clumping going on; we seem to go back and forth between expansions that go slightly less than two years and ones that go slightly more than two. Overall, the average seems to be 23-24 months; however, taking into account those cycles, the average seems to be 21 for “short” expansions and 25 for “long” expansions.

Legion is pretty clearly in the longer point in the cycle, and an average there would give us a 25 month cycle in… November. Late November, to be entirely accurate. So this estimate backs up previous data, with November as likely and both October and December as reasonable outliers. It also suggests that a 21-month lifespan is not out of the question, which opens the door for a launch in early June; considering the expansion’s prequel novel isn’t due out until June 16th, I think this seems far too optimistic and not supported by other data.

In other words, that's not the way to bet.

Let’s try another set of data. How long do expansions tend to be in beta testing? I don’t have as many firm dates for these, but the month-by-month picture works well enough.

Vanilla: Beta March 2004, Launched November 2004 (8 months)
The Burning Crusade: Beta October 2006, Launched January 2007 (3 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Beta July 2008, Launched November 2008 (4 months)
Cataclysm: Beta June 2010, Launched December 2010 (6 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Beta March 2012, Launched September 2012 (6 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Beta June 2014, Launched November 2014 (5 months)
Legion: Beta May 2016, Launched August 2016 (4 months)

Funny, it feels like forever ago that we were arguing about the difference between Legion’s alpha and beta testing, isn’t it? That number gets a lot longer if you count the game’s alpha testing, but we’re talking about betas here. Betas seem to run for about 5 months, give or take a little extra; these don’t really seem to be all that affected by any sort of cycle. Excepting the base game’s lengthy cycle, the average is closer to 4.5 months. But this doesn’t help us guess about Battle for Azeroth… unless we compare when titles were announced compared to beta kickoffs.

The Burning Crusade: Announced October 2005, Beta October 2006 (12 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Announced August 2007, Beta July 2008 (11 months)
Cataclysm: Announced August 2009, Beta June 2010 (10 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Announced October 2011, Beta March 2012 (6 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Announced November 2013, Beta June 2014 (8 months)
Legion: Announced August 2015, Beta May 2016 (10 months)

Yeesh, this one is all over the freaking map, but there’s a pretty steady history of having a rather long stretch between announcement and beta. 9.5 months seems like a pretty solid average. Since the betas can start at varying times of the month, there’s some ambiguity compared to announcement dates, and it has definitely gotten better in more recent years, so we naturally need to use some rather fuzzy math.

However, it’s important to note that the expansions with the longest beta turnarounds (The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King) also have the two shortest beta cycles. So it’s important to consider that in context: Beta length is inversely proportionate to the delay of the beta.

So let’s think about this for a bit. A nine-month average would put Battle for Azeroth starting its beta in mid-August, and wrapping up for release around mid-December. That seems a little loose, but it’s still within an established overall window; there’s enough wiggle room that I feel comfortable saying that this is still consistent with release between October and December.

Like, seriously, you should know this.

Last but not least, let’s use a classic metric, measuring from last major patch to the release date. Note that by “last major patch” I’m using a very straightforward criterion of the last major numbered patch. No fussing with definitions or whether or not something counts, the last time the Y in the X.Y patch format increments to the release of the expansion.

The Burning Crusade: Last patch 8/22/06, Released 1/16/07 (5 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Last patch 3/25/08, Released 11/13/08 (8 months)
Cataclysm: Last patch 12/8/09, Released 12/7/10 (12 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Last patch 11/29/11, Released 9/25/12 (10 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Last patch 9/10/13, Released 11/13/14 (14 months)
Legion: Last patch 6/23/15, Released 8/30/16 (14 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Last patch 8/29/17

Ain’t those data a mess? Eleven months is a reliable average to take from all of that, but it’s got a huge range of variance. If only there were some better metric than just the last patch, like, say…

The Burning Crusade: Last raid 6/20/06, Released 1/16/07 (7 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Last raid 3/25/08, Released 11/13/08 (8 months)
Cataclysm: Last raid 12/8/09, Released 12/7/10 (12 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Last raid 11/29/11, Released 9/25/12 (10 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Last raid 9/10/13, Released 11/13/14 (14 months)
Legion: Last raid 6/23/15, Released 8/30/16 (14 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Last raid 11/28/17

Now those data look much nicer. For one thing, we’ve fixed the fact that The Burning Crusade was such a wild outlier compared to everything else; for another, it points out that Legion in particular had a raid added significantly after the actual patch date. It also doesn’t change the averages at all. Eleven months is a reliable average, and that puts our release date around… wow, late October or early November. Again.

There’s a whole lot of evidence here pointing in the same directions: Battle for Azeroth looks as if it’s going to be landing sometime between October and December. Obviously, there’s nothing certain or announced yet. But earlier estimates require things to move absurdly fast compared to every prior expansion, and similarly later estimates require everything to be combining all of the worst possible scenarios. There’s a pretty reliable set of data to extrapolate from, and it paints a pretty clear picture.

Most of the more optimistic measures or predictions I’ve seen tend to be based less on Blizzard’s operation over more than a decade and more upon its operations during this particular patch cycle. We don’t have an official statement yet. But predicting a launch at the end of the year has a whole lot of data to back it up.

As always, feedback is welcome down below or via mail to; if there’s some glaring error in math or figures here, feel free to let me know. If any of my methodology is unclear, you can also feel free to ask about that, since that makes the whole exercise worse than useless. There’s a lot of potential variability still, but it seems less unclear than it might appear at a glance.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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