WoW Factor: Does World of Warcraft have a plan?

Nothing else has worked.

One of the recurring jokes I use in this column’s comment section is the statement that it’d just be sad to think that fans are thinking more about the future of World of Warcraft than the developers are. It’s a joke only in the broadest sense of the term, not really meant to make you laugh so much as sigh sadly and smirk as you move on with your day. “Ha, good point, there really doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching plan.”

Unfortunately, the more you think about the joke, the more depressing it gets. I actually started thinking about the joke, and the upsetting part is that when you seriously start looking at the game over the past six years or so… well, it sounds plausible.

See, it’s not that I know the developers don’t have a plan. If I knew that, not only would I probably be guilty of some sort of high-end corporate espionage, but I also wouldn’t be speculating about this. But the key element here isn’t that it’s clear we don’t have an overarching plan – it’s that a long stretch of the game would look identical if there weren’t one.

One of the things that I like to state on matters like this – repeatedly, if possible – is the simple fact that I do not claim to be particularly smart. It seems self-evident to me that anything I can decipher on my own as an idle observer after the fact can be seen ahead of time by people who are paid far more than I am to work on a multimillion-dollar game played by people all over the world. That just seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

In other words, anything I can see with hindsight is something that must have been equally obvious during planning, or at least must have been considered and brought up. You might not be able to figure out what the long-term effects of a given change will be, no, but if you’re planning ahead, you would definitely realize some of these issues ahead of time.

And therein lies the issue. Because… well, let’s start with artifacts.

This is good planning. We know what we're doing here.

If we believe that Blizzard’s developers have a plan that stretches just to the next expansion, we have to also believe that it redesigned every single spec to balance around artifacts with full knowledge that it was going to also just delete them altogether. More to the point, the redesign was given exactly one thing that would carry over into the next talent revision; every other cool effect of the artifacts was designed, tuned, and put into the world with absolute certainty that it would then be deleted remorselessly.

We also have to believe that Mythic dungeons were a plan for the game when Warlords of Draenor launched. We have to believe that this was a feature always planned for the next expansion at the very least, and most likely a plan for the expansion that also involved re-introducing Valor points and item upgrades despite these systems having been advertised as being gone for WoD. Oh, and let’s not forget that the item squish of WoD was planned and executed with the knowledge that the very next expansion would create the same problem.

And that’s not even counting the story! This also means that while Vol’jin was planned to die in the next expansion, there was no plan to actually do anything with him during the one expansion in which he got to be Warchief. There was also no plan to get any new characterization for Varian, who was also planned to die, nor to actually build up Anduin at all. Past a certain point it becomes a game in its own right of picking out what decision was planned in advance but not foreshadowed or built up at all.

My point here, as mentioned, is not to prove that there isn’t a plan. My point is that this really seems as if it would look the same if there were no plan whatsoever past the next content update, and most of the planning is being done with a relatively short turnaround time. If there is a plan, it looks like no plan whatsoever.

Of course, the obvious question is whether or not it matters. If the developers aren’t planning out a multi-year flow chart, is that such a bad thing? And the answer is no… except when it comes to execution, results, and longevity.

If you overlook the many ways it's an awful plan, it's a fine plan.

You know how people get endlessly annoyed that with every single expansion past Wrath of the Lich King, you have to completely relearn how to play your spec? That happens when you don’t have any overarching plan for what a given spec is supposed to be or what identity it should be holding on to. It’s how you get a new kind of resource for every Paladin, then that gets removed for all but one spec, then it gets reworked for that spec too. There’s no thought given to how this is going to work in the future or whether or not this is a defining element of the spec, just “we use Holy Power now, wait, only one of you does, never mind.”

It means that stuff is just getting flung together to address the most recent complaints because larger structural issues require slow and long-term work to fix and we don’t plan ahead like that. It means that there’s no sense of a story heading anywhere because you just have a collection of events that can’t foreshadow the next twist because it hasn’t been figured out yet.

And it ultimately makes a very shallow game that’s prone to changing on a dime without any real thought given to the long-term consequences of those changes. Some of those changes will be good, of course; that’s just the law of averages. But if there’s no actual plan, then none of those changes can really be discussed or speculated about or anything. They just roll out, things just happen, and players are left to react and hope.

I really don’t think that’s how things are happening at Blizzard because… well, that’d be absurd. But the reality is that even if there is a long-term plan in place behind the scenes, it sure looks like it would look if there weren’t one. The difference between the plan and unplanned noise isn’t appreciable.

That’s kind of dismal to think about. It feels, at least to me, like it wasn’t the case for a good long stretch of the game’s development, but at some point it became easier to plan just one patch ahead. Maybe it has something to do with the multiple changes to staffing, maybe it has something to do with shifting corporate priorities, maybe lots of things. Whatever the reason, the result is that it really does feel now like there isn’t a plan guiding the decisions being made.

When the subscription numbers were still riding high post-Wrath, of course, that wasn’t a big deal. But as we enter the waning portion of what feels like the fourth expansion not actually planned out and we look at the subscriber numbers… well, you don’t need me to draw a map of the results.

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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DargorV .

They obviously don’t plan expansions ahead, evidence shows they hardly even plan one expansion ahead. They try to develop ahead of time yes, as in working on the next xpac while current xpac is still going, but thats pretty much it.

There’s also plenty of stupid suits at the top of actiblizz that can just show up and scrap/tilt/pick/start content orders on illogical whims.

Aiun Tanks

Alternate hypothesis: ‘Blizzard’ is not a coherent, singular entity, following one plan that it tweaks with over time. It is, instead, comprised of a number of conflicting, contrary personalities who vy for dominance.

When we see the wax and wane of PVP, Raids, casual-friendliness, it is the result not of considered concensus, but of singularly-determined factions getting enough internal juice. When we see stagnation, we are observing these parties cancelling each other out.

When players cry out against a change, it simply gives one faction more juice to use against the other. Like politicians, they call out the failures of their opponents policies early and often, until enough visible failures give them the chance they need to prove that their plan is the better one.

Because we’re not talking about people working to one cohesive, shared 10-20yr plan. There’s three or four 10-20yr plans, but each only only gets their ‘term’ to influence the actual game towards their faction’s individual plan. And executives only have one plan: be profitable. It’s the job of those lower down, the ones leading those factions, to prove how their individual plan ‘supports the strategic direction’ of the executive’s plan.

Arnold Hendrick

As a long-time insider in the game industry, I believe you have hit the nail squarely on the head, Alun. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised factional infighting wasn’t just about different gameplay design philosophies, but also between “old guard” and “young turk” factions. The old guard want to hold on to as much of the previous as possible, while the young turks argue that change is what the game needs.

I wouldn’t be surprised if top management periodically imposed arbitrary compromises to stop fighting in the halls and prevent duels in the parking lot. Since game company management generally has zero playing experience with their own games, some of the most illogical expansion “features” probably came out of those compromises.


Thank you, Eliot. I always enjoy your perspectives on mmo’s. World of Warcraft is a conundrum wrapped in enigma. We are left asking, “Why?”

One of the ideas you bring forth I read is that somehow due to time constraints or just the fact that it seems easier to fling things together to meet popular opinion is what WoW expansions have become. Yes, I have come to realize that, sadly, we as subscribers to WoW really aren’t playing through the story in a way that invites our participation.

What if some of the world’s most beloved artists planned and worked in the manner that ActiBlizz does with it’s expansions? Imagine da Vinci, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet , or Michelangelo’s work if it were thrown together to meet some sort of quota or the personal taste of some monarch of that age? It would have become dreck and we would never have known their genius.

Yeah, for me alone, I consider, to some degree mmo’s to be a work of art. Maybe we need to define what art is to us?


the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

“the art of the Renaissance”
synonyms: fine art, artwork, creative activity
“he studied art”

works produced by human creative skill and imagination.
“his collection of modern art”

synonyms: fine art, artwork, creative activity
“he studied art”

creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.
“she’s good at art”

For many out there, WoW remains a staple. I salute you. For me it is a number of players I have become close to, pure and simple. In many ways, WoW has become more of a habit than an endeavor. I have have seen what inviting players to become an “active” part of the story can do for an mmo. Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV have accomplished this well and enhanced the artistic quality of their product.

Keep fighting the good fight, Eliot!



Bruno Brito

The Roman Empire had a plan too.


With a string of incompetent Ceasars, oh wait that sounds familiar.

Randy Savage

And like the Roman Empire, WoW is now splintering off into two empires because it’s grown too large. I guess in this analogy, WoW Classic is the Western Empire and retail is the Eastern, although time will tell how accurate that analogy remains.

Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor

All you need to do is look at how they develop games and then abruptly axe them to know that’s exactly how they plan for World of Warcraft as well. “Fail fast” is alive and well and Blizzard.

Kickstarter Donor

An excellent, well-considered article, Eliot. Definitely worth the read. Thank you.

In my most cynical mode — which is not a place I like to inhabit for very long; as the wisdom says, what you live defines who you become — I think that the people on the Blizzard team who do genuinely care about the planning of World of Warcraft aren’t actually in sufficiently influential positions at Blizzard to enact that care as a creative policy.

The people who do run the WoW show seem to view the game as an “immortal moneymaker” by this point, no matter what happens within the game itself.

The problem here, of course — as the old Aesop fable tries to teach us — is that no “golden goose” is immortal, ever. Greed and neglect can (eventually) kill off even the most perennial successes.

As your article suggests, those who do run the WoW show these days seem to be essentially short-term thinkers.

World of WarCraft is still pulling in eleventy billion dollars (or whatever) in profits per year, and the game still has a a huge mass of loyalist regular players when compared to most of WoW’s competitors so, say the current WoW overseers, where’s the problem?

But, perhaps, that is the problem — that World of Warcraft is now regarded by those with authority over its status as primarily a constant corporate asset — as opposed to an evolving, creative entertainment offering.

The game is both things simultaneously, of course, but it seems as if those with actual power over the state of World of WarCraft these days exclusively favor the corporate asset aspect, and refuse to realize that it’s the “game as an entertainment” aspect which originally created and sustained the asset aspect for so long.

My opinions, anyway. Thanks again for the thoughtful article!

drew who

Unfortunately for Blizzard the type of gamer’s they aimed the WoW experience at have now moved on from mmo’s and the people who enjoy a more in depth experience to what WoW now offers .

The biggest factor that could influence Blizzards plans for the future is to how well the classic servers do . If suddenly they see a huge influx of people wanting the more complex and challenging experience that such servers will offer , Blizzard will realize its key demographic may no longer be extremely casual and younger gamer’s .

Where they go from there is anyone’s guess .At present they do seem a bit rudderless .


The only plan going forward that I’m reasonably sure of, is finding more avenues of monetization. Subscriptions alone are no longer doing it for this game.

Kevin Smith

Your biggest problem is you are thinking this is Blizzard still. This is not the Blizzard that gave us a game designed for gamers. This is now a corporation that is more concerned with money than making a great game. My wife’s family worked for the original Blizzard, this isn’t it.

When you are more worried about how to keep the subs from dropping more an more you stop seeing the big picture and start doing stop gap stuff to put band-aids on it. Instead of even doing that anymore they just scrap everything an start over from scratch hoping to fix the issue of subs dropping more an more every year. Blizzard became a causality of it’s own success.

Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron

This. If Blizzard has an overarching plan for WoW, it’s:

“make enough money to keep the investors happy”.

When Blizzard’s primary concern is this year’s stock prices, the whole “put out something we think will keep customers and/or bring them back NOW, and worry about next year when we’re in the middle of it” makes sense.