So how did this year go for Blizzard Entertainment? Well… badly. You cannot have missed all of that. But it also went badly in lots of more subtle and direct ways aside from the company’s massive screw-ups. And while I’ve spent a lot of time talking abut the ways that Blizzard has shot itself in the foot this year, for this particular piece I just want to look back over the last year of World of Warcraft and talk about that.
Which, you know… is also bad. It’s bad in different ratios and for different reasons, but still bad. Yay.
One of the things I find interesting about this year, for example, is the fact that Battle for Azeroth wound up with a lot less patch activity this year than Legion had during its full year of operation in 2017. The latter had two minor patches and two major patches, while we only got two minor patches and one minor patch this year. One wonders whether some of that was related to the Classic rollout, but that in and of itself is a point worth discussing.
Low enthusiasm and nothing to do
During Warlords of Draenor, there was a great player post about feeling like there was nothing to do in WoW. Obviously, I’m not going to be diving full-force into that particular post, seeing as it was two expansions ago and involves discussions of stuff that is relevant for historical purposes more than current play patterns. But I think it does tie into the nature of feeling like there’s nothing to do in the game right now, a feeling that’s been very strong through this expansion.
One of the things that has persistently dogged this expansion is a sense that not only does no one enjoy the current Heart of Azeroth system, but we all know it’s going away when the next expansion rolls around. That makes even transitory rewards feel as if they only matter if you’re chasing the current raid tier. Even now, I get annoyed when emissary quests reward power to the Heart of Azeroth, because I know I’m getting that in lieu of a reward that’s actually going to be useful by this time next year: money.
The result is that a lot of the content this year has felt like things meant to reward you for playing with systems no one likes. Play a bunch of the new areas and you can finally fly in the expansion regions, the region you probably don’t want to level through in the future! Get new powers for the Heart of Azeroth, which you already don’t like or want! Advance the story of the War Campaign, which isn’t liked and isn’t good storytelling anyhow!
Also it ends in a narrative cul-de-sac, but we didn’t know the extent of that until we had a year of setting up some actual development only to be told it’s going nowhere.
The result is that at a glance, the last year has been spent with new content released that people are bored of before it launched, trying to drum up enthusiasm for things people hadn’t liked in beta and didn’t have any fall-backs of “at least it’s fun at the moment.” The majority of the game’s population at this point is people who are very interested in pushing high-end raiding or M+ runs, and even they weren’t happy with the content being released… which is bad when your audience is reducing to that focus.
Stealing its own thunder
Whatever you feel about WoW Classic, I feel like one of the most significant elements of the legacy version is also one frequently overlooked; it launched in August. Why does that matter? Because patch 8.2 dropped at the end of June.
Anyone with a larger sense of the industry as a whole has a pretty clear picture of why it dropped in June, of course, considering that this is hardly the first time Blizzard has timed a big release in an attempt to undercut another title. (You remember what else launched around then, right?) But what’s interesting about the launch date for Classic is that it was in a situation wherein the new option wasn’t competing for attention with anyone but itself.
Obviously, revenue reports from Superdata and investor reports definitely tell a picture of the effect that this had; it led to a big burst of income for the division which then dropped off pretty hard, perhaps not an altogether surprising outcome. But I also find myself wondering how much of the launch date was motivated in part by a need to reverse fortunes, so to speak. Put another way, was this a case of timing the launch once it became clear that another big patch with a fairly extensive ad campaign failed to draw subscribers back?
I don’t know and, really, can’t know; this is behind-the-scenes stuff that would require me to be deeply involved with the behind-the-scenes stuff in order to make any sort of ultimate pronouncement. But I do find it interesting as a moment of Blizzard trying really hard to derail its own hype cycle, and this was before the moment when the company desperately wanted to take back the reins of the narrative in October.
Maintenance mode for a live game
All in all, it feels fair to say that this particular year has not actually gone over nearly as well as the designers expected. It wasn’t made much better with BlizzCon or the long delay for patch 8.3, either. The unusually long anniversary event certainly feels like some of it ties into the simple reality of the duration, but also like another layer of trying for approval. “Look, we’ve buffed your experience for a long time, please just come back and play again?”
It feels like maintenance mode. It feels worse, in some ways, because it’s not just maintenance mode for a live game but a case wherein we know we’re spinning our wheels. However much better leveling might be right now, it’s going to all be changed once we get the pre-patch for Shadowlands and a big level squish hits. And the developers have nine months to get that right.
Except they really don’t. Are we all confident that the next several months will involve actual previews of the “unpruning” promised for each class, or is this one of the first thing that’s going to get rolled back? Remember, we were told before this expansion that the developers planned to return some of the missed abilities like Mark of the Wild, but then that was left out with some waffle about balance being easier this way.
No, I don’t think that it’s necessarily likely that will happen again. But is it possible?
2019 was a bad year for the game, but the reasons why it were bad as much involve players feeling like this might not be A Bad Time but, instead, the new normal. And therein lies the really difficult dance of next year, to convince players that this year and expansion was just a blip. Which would be a lot easier to do if your game’s history over the last decade hadn’t been more “miss” than “hit.”