Let’s talk about fan expectations and naked fanservice for a bit. In fact, let’s start with the Power Nine from Magic: the Gathering, and perhaps the greatest of the batch, the infamous Black Lotus.
The Power Nine is a group of nine cards considered wildly overpowered. The five Moxen, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Timetwister, and Black Lotus are all far more powerful than they have any right being, and they are also some of the most requested cards for reprints in the game. Yet the closest we’ve ever gotten was an online-only reprint for the online version of the card game, wherein they were otherwise unavailable. So why doesn’t Wizards of the Coast just reprint them?
The answer, aside from power level, is simple: Because once they’re reprinted, that’s it. Printing out another set of these widely demanded cards is something you can only do once, and every subsequent time is much less impactful. Each time you try to win back the crowd with your greatest hits, the less relevant it is to finally see this stuff again.
At this point, World of Warcraft already had its big fanservice expansion. Legion didn’t just consist of bringing back all of the big hits of prior expansions (complete with memorable class NPCs and even a Gilnean town tossed into Val’sharah with the weirdness remarked upon in-universe); it also consisted of all those bizarre pie-in-the-sky things you didn’t think would ever happen like, well, going to Argus. It was honestly impressive how completely the expansion managed to deliver basically everything from fan wish lists.
And honestly, yes, that was a good time for it. Player confidence was low after the collapse of Warlords of Draenor. There was a lot of anxiety and consternation. A good fan-favoring expansion was a great way to win back the crowd, something Legion did pretty well. That’s not to say it was without issues, several of which I remarked on at the time, but it was at least a good place to start convincing people to come back.
But you see the problem. You can’t win back the crowd by just doing that again.
For one thing, while memories of the Gilnean stories from Cataclysm had time to fade into fuzzy appreciation, Legion was not that long ago. Seriously, Battle for Azeroth is less than a year old; it just feels like it’s been clogging up the game for ages. Our trip to the fanservice factory is not such a distant point in time, and the stuff that it drew upon had already started to wear out its welcome by the end of the expansion.
Really, was anyone excited to keep farting around with the Valarjar or the Dreamweavers by the end of the expansion? We were ready for something new. Two years was enough time for everyone to get a bit worn out on all of the familiar elements in the expansion, often recycled without much more development beyond “Do you remember this thing? It’s back!”
The stuff that sticks with you after you get past the fanservice was more about what was actually being added to the game. That winds up being a much smaller category of stuff, because when your expansion is first and foremost a celebration of the past, there’s just less space for the new. We definitely got some new stuff, ranging from the Highmountain Tauren to Suramar, but even a lot of the new stuff was itself fanservice-laden. Yes, Argus was neat; do you remember it past it being a thematic homage to Outland all over again? Does it stick in the memory the same way?
But that’s the other thing. Legion didn’t sell itself on being an expansion filled with fanservice. It clearly was one, but its marketing was all about bookending old story beats and closing the book on things. What people liked about it was basically top-to-bottom stuff that drew on the best parts of the old and added something new or useful on top of that.
See, if the Broken Isles had just been laden with fan favorites, it wouldn’t have provided good feelings beyond the early exploration. Instead, they went hand-in-hand with tuned combat balanced around Artifacts, the balanced system for class halls, the diversity available with world quests, and so forth. The mechanics of the expansion actually worked, and it didn’t have the perpetual half-baked blandness of more or less everything in Battle for Azeroth.
Just popping out a new expansion with your favorites feels like it’s papering over the issues people actually have with the game. And make no mistake, Legion did paper over a lot of issues, but it also had a lot of positive aspects. I even wrote a whole series of columns talking about why people are pissed about BfA that solely focuses on problems not present in the prior expansion.
And that’s the biggest reason why a fanservice explosion won’t fix the issues with the game: The people who are playing (or more probably, watching with abstract awareness) will know exactly what’s going on unless some major changes are announced alongside it.
To some extent, yes, the two can go hand-in-hand. I certainly would be more excited if the developers announced at BlizzCon that the next expansion brings back talent trees, and Artifacts in multiple forms, and the badge system from Wrath of the Lich King. But those are bits of fan service relating to playing the game, not the lore. If the announcement is for the game to play just like now but you can play as Vrykul and Eredar and please resubscribe, my reaction is a slow stare and a shake of my head.
There are a lot of rumblings at this point that the game’s narrative is basically secondary to what the developers want to do, that the team comes up with mechanics and then the narrative team has to make it work somehow. To a certain extent, that sounds dubious to me; after all, there are too many places where the same goal could be accomplished with less awful writing. But that should also illustrate part of the issue with trying to fix legitimate issues with mechanics by promising you all the lore you want just the way you want it.
That’s not to say that I don’t expect the next expansion to roll big for some long-time fan asks. Some of the mechanical changes I mentioned in my last column even skew that way; things like bringing back talent trees have been asked for pretty much since they were removed. It’s just that you can’t roll out the same asks as Legion and expect all to be forgiven. No one is going to be happy if the next expansion is All Our Greatest Hits Volume 2.
All right, some people are going to be happy, but they’re happy with the state of the game now. They’re going to be happy with anything that doesn’t set their hard drives on fire. That’s not a robust fitness test.