At this point, we’re all kind of settling in for the long winter’s nap and also the spring’s nap and at least most of summer’s nap for World of Warcraft. If you’ve forgotten last week’s column, I’m very hurt, but I also noted during it that Visions of N’zoth is real bad… but among a lot of people there’s a sense of shrugging acceptance. Of course it’s bad; this expansion was bad. Time to settle in and wait until the next expansion when everything gets good again and everyone’s back anyway.
But, uh… quick question on that. Why, exactly, are we confident about that next expansion?
This isn’t a case where I’m holding myself as separate to the general consensus. Until I asked myself this question, my thinking was basically a resigned shrug and acceptance that yes, this expansion has been bad and pointless the whole way through, so it’s time to start focusing on the next expansion. But then I stopped and asked myself this question and it kind of felt like something blooming in the background, a sort of ominous bit of foreshadowing that no one really wants to talk about.
We all know why we expect that Shadowlands will be better, of course. The last expansion was bad, so the next one is good. This is the way of things with WoW, and it has been for a long time, so why even ask about it? Except that the more you think about it, the more it’s a case where “the way of things” holds little to no actual merit.
The game’s first two expansions? Both good. It’s only from Cataclysm onward that it’s been a pattern of “bad expansion, then good expansion,” and that’s kind of ignoring that if you look at the track record of WoW expansions, it’s only barely averaging out above 50% as “good.” It’s just a pattern, and it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. There is no law of nature assuring us that every other expansion will be good any more than there was one saying that from now on the game would alternate between good and bad.
Beyond that, though, the game’s developers have done the usual walk of shame in which things are sort-of-but-not-really apologized for, there’s a big show of people having supposedly learned just enough of the lessons about what players had been complaining about for two years now, so now you should come back and things will be better and… well, you get the idea. It all feels just a little bit rote, doesn’t it?
And it also still has that sense of being unsure if anyone really gets where the consternation comes from or whether or not we’re actually getting the changes anyone wants. Yes, I’m excited to have auras back as a Paladin, but an aura alone does not an interesting gameplay style make. What actually happens with class design and spec rotations? How will the game feel? How will spiritbonding work? What’s being done to address staleness in many parts of the game, including the fact that the story for the last expansion was a complete waste of time and largely a rehash of familiar points?
That’s not to say that all of this – or any of it – will actually be bad. I do not have the ability to see the future. What I do know is that it’s a problem to look to the game and think that this expansion sucks and that the next one will bring food and water and smite our enemies because that pattern requires only one failure to bring down the whole damn thing.
Heck, let’s not act like there’s some Good Expansion Team working on Shadowlands when the same people responsible for all the decisions that made Battle for Azeroth such a misfire on every level are also working on the next expansion. The same people are signing off on design decisions. Do you think that these are people passionate about the project? Do you feel like this is a team with a plan? Are you looking at Visions of N’zoth and thinking, “Gosh, I can’t wait to see what this team produces next; it’s going to be an absolute banger”?
Sure, you’re probably not looking at it at all if you’re playing on a Mac, but that’s part of the problem here in the first place.
The reason the question scares me a little bit, if we’re being honest, is that I suspect the development team itself is basically banking on the next expansion being good… but they devs have not yet put in any leg work to actually make that seem like it’s a thing that’s going to happen. Look at Legion for some clear contrast. That expansion was announced early and basically was screaming out from the start that you should look at all of the cool stuff going on within it. All the stuff you wanted for ages like Demon Hunters and so forth are being added to the game! We’re reworking playstyles and leaning in on cool ideas! Aren’t you excited?
I’m happy that Shadowlands doesn’t try to just go fanservice expansion 2.0, a strategy I already was dreading. But by contrast, it hasn’t really done much to sell the idea that this is going to be a much better expansion than its predecessor. Indeed, what little we’ve gotten so far has felt like a touch of foot-dragging. “Well, we guess you guys want old abilities back, so here, we’ll give you some. We’ll change the leveling, fine, but the level cap is still the important part. Maybe you’ll get a different way to gear up. Maybe.”
Right now, there’s reason to hope that Shadowlands is good, but there’s no reason to expect it beyond patterns that happen to hold true. And ask yourself what the game is going to look like if it’s not. Ask yourself about the position this title will be in, both critically and commercially, if this winds up being another Battle for Azeroth in terms of quality and play.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me anxious about the long-term health of the game.
You can certainly explain why the messaging isn’t there yet, of course. It’s quite possible that we’re going to be getting content to pump up the buzz through February and onward, that we’ll get more features showing off the expansion’s playstyle and rotations and such, trying to hype people up before an actual launch date and reassure us once whatever pump was going to happen from the last patch has faded. Totally understandable.
But I think it’s important to ask this question: What if Shadowlands is real bad? It’s entirely plausible, and it might even be the more likely option based on who we know is working on the title and what the overriding design philosophy has tended to be.
And if it is bad? Well… this is going to be a really rough year if that’s the case. WoW has survived for an awfully long time in a state of alternating between good expansions and bad, but I’m not sure it has the strength to weather two bad expansions back-to-back.