WoW Factor: Speculating on Shadowlands’ release date using math

Don't call it a comeback.

Gosh, I love doing these math columns. Not just because I enjoy math, although that’s definitely a part of it; there’s something so satisfying about having the numbers line up. No, it’s just because establishing these patterns and using them for analysis appeals to a certain part of my brain, the one that doesn’t like having to use fuzzy feelings from my gut to figure stuff out and just wants a simple system for determining if something is right or wrong.

Plus, it’s useful to have these data in one place. Sometimes I want to reference it for other things when discussing World of Warcraft. So now we have the Shadowlands announcement on the book, and we can plug in some relevant data for it as well as making some predictions. We also have one more piece of data in that the expansion has been promised for release in 2020, which isn’t really a surprise but allows us to discount certain outliers. So let’s look at where our data fall.

Who taught you math?!

Announcement to release

Long-time readers will remember that this one is my personal favorite point to start at just because it tends to be pretty reliable. It has a narrow spread of dates, a clear pattern, and it actually holds up fairly well overall as a sign of where the expansion is on announcement. So let’s look at that set.

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, Released 8/14/18 (10 months)
Shadowlands: Announced 11/1/19

The mean here is about 12 months, or one year. That would put release at the start of November, which is not in and of itself unusual. However, the general curve has been decreasing time between releases, which means that my general thought is that it’s more likely to trend toward the bottom than the top. And we know that it’s planned to be out before 2020, which means that 14 months is right out.

Based on all of this, my best guess for an expansion release would be some time between September and November. August is possible, of course, but it’d have to be right near the end of the month, especially given all the talk about how what we saw on the show floor was still early in testing. Let’s see if we can’t narrow that range a little.


Expansion lifespan

Hey, it’s my second favorite bit of data here, for much the same reason as the previous one! Although let’s be fair, it’s a bit more wide-ranging.

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, Ended 8/13/18 (24 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Started 8/14/18

The mean for this one comes out to about 23.5 months, but that has some wiggle room; still, that puts us in August for our release window. Interestingly enough, the median for this category is a solid 24 months. But I also noted a pattern that has been pretty consistent in the game’s development history for at least 14 years now in which the game alternates between a longer expansion lifespan and a shorter one. (Also each of those shorter expansions tends to be one that everyone loathes, with the exception of The Burning Crusade.)

If we assume we’re on a shorter expansion that has a 21-22 month lifespan, that puts release as early as May of 2020. It’s be an amazingly short turnaround, though. While that pattern might be interesting, I don’t feel it’s the way to bet; at the same time, I’d be remiss not to note that this offers a window of May-October next year.

There's a well on the hill.

Beta timescale

Now we’re getting into some fuzzier stuff. The beta timescale here feels a bit less useful, considering that we don’t actually have a beta announcement, but let’s start there.

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)
Battle for Azeroth: Beta April/May 2018, Launched August 2018 (5-4 months)

The conflicting dates there are mostly a matter of some ambiguity regarding beta dates, but that’s not a big deal; leaving off Vanilla (which had a real outlier for beta length) would leave us with a 4-5 month beta, which is consistent with the usual test schedule. Of course, this in and of itself isn’t much of a help if we don’t know when beta will start, but… well, let’s guess about that too! Because yes, we have dates from announcement to beta.

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)
Battle for Azeroth: Announced November 2017, Beta April/May 2018 (6-7 months)
Shadowlands: Announced November 2019

Oof, that’s all over the map, I know. Nine months is the median, and that would give us 13 months from now until release, pushing us into December or so… which means we’re running too long for other information, so that has to be wrong. This is the point when I suggest looking at a different metric, which would probably get us thrown out of any scientific journals if I were submitting to those.

Expansion announcements for Mists of PandariaWarlords of Draenor, and Battle for Azeroth all took place at BlizzCon. This seems indicative of how the company normally does these things. But the announcement for Legion did not; it occurred about three months before BlizzCon at Gamescom, more or less as what appeared to be a desperation move to reassure players that better things were coming. If you take that into account, its beta turnaround would be… six months or so from BlizzCon, when expansions are normally announced.

How does that change anything? Well, that implies that “around six months from BlizzCon” is a pretty normal beta turnaround time for the past eight years, and it pushes our beta timeline to covering… the late August to September range, with a nudge into October totally plausible. I wouldn’t say that inherently reinforces the idea, since these data are such a mess, but it is worth considering.


Last patch/last raid to expansion release

And last, the metric people love to use, but one I’m usually not fond of.

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, Released 8/14/18 (12 months)
Shadowlands: Last patch January 2020?

As I’ve stated before, the issue here is that this is darn messy, and in this particular case it’s even messier than usual. What’s the average? 11 months, which puts us into December or January, and that’s assuming 8.3 rolls right out when January hits. And as for the raid gate…

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, Released 8/14/18 (9 months)
Shadowlands: Last raid January 2020?

Still messy! And even if it’s a little better, this looks like a giant mess without a clear average whatsoever. About all this really seems to say is that we get longer and longer gaps between new content and the expansions, and we don’t actually know for a fact that we’re getting 8.3 in January (I’d be surprised if we didn’t based on everything, but it’s a little early to call that certain).

So about the best we can do here is look and say that January to August-October is not actually a wild outlier in terms of timelines. It’s a bit shorter than the most common turnarounds, but I get the sense that this isn’t really a metric even Blizzard plans around.

I see you there.


It’s early and nothing is certain yet, but the trends certainly seem to indicate August to October 2020 for a release date. This does not rule out other possibilities; November and December are both well within a reasonable error bar. However, considering the overall reception of Battle for Azeroth and the general state of the playerbase, not to mention Blizzard’s overall convention ethos, I think it seems far more likely that the studio would push things to release sooner rather than later, especially to use BlizzCon as a chance to show off the next patches.

My personal feeling is that September sounds right. I’d personally prefer August for several reasons, but between the level squish and overhaul there seems to be a lot left that needs doing, which means that August feels a little early to me. But hey, the whole point here was that math cares less about how I feel and more about numbers, right? So never mind that.

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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