All right, here we go. Normally this is the sort of thing that I wouldn’t actually spend a whole week on because believe it or not I do actually have a couple of other World of Warcraft projects to write columns about (what can I tell you beyond “sometimes inspiration comes during content lulls”) and my point in this column is generally not to dunk on fan theories. I’ve long been of the mind that even when fan theories about the game are wrong, they do generally have the seeds of genuine care within them, and I’d rather only try to puncture ones that are actively destructive.
In this particular case, I don’t think the theory currently going around about Shadowlands being the prelude to a time skip is destructive or dumb or bad, just kind of wrong. But in this case, I do think there’s something larger to talk about. I also know that this week has absolutely exhausted me and I need something that I can comfortably bang out a column for in a relatively straightforward fashion, so… here we are. Let’s talk about all that.
For those of you who have manged to miss this particular fan theory, the genesis isn’t particularly complicated: An interview included a mention that time flows a little bit differently in the Shadowlands themselves, which some fans took to mean that while we’re adventuring there things will proceed much faster in the outer world, making Shadowlands a capper before a gigantic revision of the game sold as World of Warcraft but now it’s the sequel to itself. Details of what that would entail are a bit more vague, although it usually means the next expansion fundamentally jumping you into another time skip, but only after you’ve passed through the Shadowlands, a chance to remake the original continents again and so forth.
I don’t need to really explain why this is probably wrong, right? Wait, no, that’s kind of the crux of the column, I do.
On a fundamental level, the obvious reason why this is wrong is because the interview in question wasn’t really about time for players so much as giving an explanation for how various NPCs who died at significantly different times can all be winding up in the Shadowlands as rough contemporaries; it’s hard to believe that Uther and Ysera are arriving at the same time, for example. In other words, it’s “time flows differently” as synecdoche for “repeat to yourself it’s just an expansion pulling out lore fanservice, I should really just relax” before someone writes an enormous set of fan theories about why Ysera showed up so quickly.
Beyond that, though, there’s the simple question of what this would even look like, which the fan theories generally stop shy of actually having a clear picture of. Like, there’s the general assumption that there will be a time skip and the world will have a reset of some sort, but it’s still… basically just WoW. It’s an ambiguous hope that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I don’t think it necessarily can because it’s a fan theory of “this will happen, then WoW will be better.”
This is where we tie into the whole idea of WoW 2 as a thing. That one comes up a lot. And I definitely understand where that’s coming from… but I also think it’s kind of missing the actual problem going on here.
The desire for WoW 2 is, in some part, born out of the understanding that current WoW is definitely not as good as the game was in prior times. Fine, you’ll get no argument from me on that point. Furthermore, as the theory goes, the problem is that there’s just not much more that can be done to actually improve the game as it is, that the outdated systems and game elements and even the engine require a complete rebuild in order to really improve the game.
And on that… well, I’m not sold, I’m sorry. I understand why it’s appealing, but the problems with WoW don’t seem to have anything to do with the things that can be replaced with a sequel.
Consider for just a moment all of the stuff that’s being added in terms of customization options in Shadowlands. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad for this. I definitely cannot wait to tweak many of my characters with new options. There’s no problem there. But I think it’s also telling how these changes are also bringing the game and the characters up to what I would personally consider still the low end of character options, but higher on the low end. This isn’t engine limitations that have prevented this, it’s a lack of willingness.
For that matter, let’s consider that WoW lacks a lot of stuff present in most other noteworthy MMOs. Housing? Dyes? Noteworthy crafting? All absent, all having been asked for basically for the duration of the game’s lifespan. There wasn’t even a cosmetic outfit system in the game until the third expansion (by contrast, that’s a feature that all the other games we here consider in the “big five” had within the first year of operation, if not a launch feature).
Heck, one of the things that baffles me is the fact that over the game’s lifespan, it has added three classes. Three. The Elder Scrolls Online – a game that has been running for six years and has particularly open class structure – has already added two in less time. That’s kind of a paucity of options.
One of the things that I mentioned in my column about what happens if it turns out Shadowlands is a bad expansion was that the same people calling the shots for Battle for Azeroth were making the decisions for Shadowlands. Sure, you might have different individual artists and programmers, but the people signing off on design decisions? Same people regardless. And are you really confident that any sequel to WoW wouldn’t have the same people making the same basic decisions?
Don’t misunderstand me; I really do get the urge for something new that feels less long in the tooth. There’s a lot of archaic and outdated stuff in WoW, and some of it is stuff that might be best served by a strategic jettison of old ideas and content. But then, that’s what the game has been strategically doing for years, and it hasn’t really worked out in the long run; it’s usually been regarded poorly. (Unless there’s a sudden “the old world revamp from Cataclysm was Actually Good” movement I somehow missed, but just typing that sentence makes me tired.)
But no, I am pretty sure that when we finish up in the Shadowlands, we’re not going to be moving through any sort of time skip. And while I understand the motivation behind the idea, I think it’s kind of blaming the wrong source for any discontent with the game right now. If you’re still holding out hope for a sequel to WoW, I’ll be the last one to tell you to stop hoping, but the lack of the sequel is not what’s holding the game back right now.
Seriously. Three classes. There has got to be a way to add more player options than that.