All right, I guess we’re doing this now. Yes, this column isn’t just about how Blizzard screws up so badly that a lot of people are still looking at the studio askance; it also covers speculation, and with just about a week until the next World of Warcraft expansion is announced during the opening ceremonies of BlizzCon we thus can turn our eyes toward the datamining that suggests… wow, a whole lot of Death Knights. Which sure does offer some grounds for speculation.
Let’s just cut directly to the chase: There’s lots of space to speculate that what we’re going to be getting is functionally Wrath of the Lich King 2. This is not entirely surprising, there’s some evidence to back it up, and… um… it actually sure does sound like a bad idea for various reasons. But let’s start by taking a step back and examining the evidence and the situation before going over all of that, huh? And coming up with some more entertaining titles for World of Warcraft: Lich and Licherer.
Those wacky death knights
The core of this speculation does, in fact, center around new NPC skins that have been mined out for Allied Races. This coincides with new models for runeblades and a new encrypted cinematic that somehow ties into the Ebon Hold. That’s the “evidence” that we have thus far for World of Warcraft: The Lichening, if you want to limit yourself to things that don’t involve any speculation or pattern recognition.
See… remember when people found new stuff tucked away for allied races? You know, the stuff that served as a forecast of the upcoming allied races actually being added as part of Battle for Azeroth? Yeah, that seems familiar, especially since “make your allied Death Knight” works as a pre-purchase bonus much like “unlock these allied races early” did at the tail end of Legion. So this is hardly without precedent.
More importantly, though, this is kind of the most obvious direction to go right now because we’ve had implications that Bolvar Fordragon may not be as immune to the corruption of his position as the Lich King as we first assumed, we have his daughter bouncing around, and we’ve got Sylvanas off as a wildcard. While nothing is certain just yet, the datamining seems to suggest that N’zoth is going to be dealt with sufficiently by the end of the expansion to not be our antagonist moving into 9.0, but Sylvanas is still out there. And if you’re thinking “undead” and wiring things in, well… having her try for Wrath of the Lich Queen (Not A Banshee) seems to make more than a little sense.
And it also kind of fits Blizzard’s general schematic with its post-Wrath expansions. After Cataclysm, we get Mists of Pandaria, something that people had been asking after for years. After Warlords of Draenor, we get Legion, which I’ve referred to as a fanservice expansion more than once. Here we are at the end of Battle for Azeroth, so what’s Blizzard going to do? Based on history, it’s going to look for what players want and crow about how people are getting just what they want so please love us again.
Augh, not the fanservice
Here’s the thing: I literally wrote a column about why fan service content like this is kind of thing is a bad idea. And I don’t think that Blizzard actually gets why Wrath was a high-water mark for the game, based on subsequent actions.
The reality is that what made Wrath of the Lich King great wasn’t Northrend, or the Vrykul, or fighting the Azure Dragonflight, or Ulduar, or any of that. In fact, it also wasn’t vehicles or deep lore callbacks. What makes the expansion still sit so high in people estimations was that it hit on a good balance of mechanical choices that developed forward from the foundation that had worked so well at launch and in The Burning Crusade, making individual specs feel unique and fun while avoiding making anything feel mandatory.
It was an expansion that touted accessibility, offering more raid options for people who didn’t want to form huge groups and letting people gear up via badges instead of just by lucky drops. It also made dungeons easy to get into in ways they hadn’t been before (there were interviews at the time about how many more people started running dungeons when the queue was added, but I can’t find them any longer and thus don’t trust myself to count numbers there). It provided a steady stream of new dungeons, too, and new content targeting a variety of different playstyles. It was more accessible than the game’s earliest days, but it also still had some loopholes and hadn’t flattened the game down to truncated playstyles.
More succinctly, a lot of people look back fondly at Vrykul and Northrend and Ulduar and so forth because they’re a reminder of the other things the expansion did well, not simply as elements unto themselves.
Leaving aside the question of the whole fanservice push that I wrote about at length, there’s the simple reality that trying to copy the surface of that expansion without the substance has more of a chance to backfire than succeed. And if we are getting back to Northrend, it’s hard not to look at the situation without feeling as if it’s an effort to win back the crowd with King of the Lich Wrath. Copying the notes without the music won’t do it.
But let’s not panic
Having said all of that… well, I’m not really excited at the prospect of Lich King II: The Wrath of Sylvanas. But there are two things to temper that not-very-excited element.
First and foremost, if that is the route we’re going, it’s certainly possible that the intense negativity around BfA and the positive response to WoW Classic actually will inform whatever goes into the next expansion. I’m always leery of the developers learning the wrong lessons from these things, of course, but acting as if that’s inevitable is just regular old original-flavor cynicism. It’s entirely plausible that the expansion will include things coming back that we enjoy, and gosh, I am willing to bet that after Blizzard screwing up for the past year, at least someone is probably bursting with better ideas about the future.
Second, the reason I mentioned that the evidence for Lich vs. Witch is thin upon the ground (so far) is that there are explanations that do not, in fact, rely on that being the next expansion. For example… just unlocking Death Knights for all races, that’ll do it.
For most of the various races, unlocking additional classes requires no change beyond selecting it on the character select screen. There are only five that really require a bit of extra work, and two of them are minimal, since Paladins need a racial mount and Shamans need totems. Druids need their forms, of course, which takes a bit of time… and then you need to explain Death Knights and Demon Hunters, since both are pretty much fixed groups.
And realistically, the limitations on Death Knights are a bit more arbitrary racially. There’s a reason only some races can be Demon Hunters because of how the Illidari worked, but Death Knights was just “who was up around the Plaguelands before Wrath,” a list that could easily include Zandalari Trolls, Dark Iron Dwarves, Mag’har Orcs, and Kul Tiran Humans.
So for all we know, the next expansion just expands lots of existing limits on races and classes and that’s why we’re seeing these things in the files now. We’ll find out in a week, won’t we?