WoW Factor: Shadowlands’ delay is a genuinely good thing – for everyone

Get back.

Well, this was a big old shocker for a Thursday night that’s going to screw with a bunch of data! Also, it’s a majorly unexpected change that is almost unprecedented in World of Warcraft’s history, at least to my memory. Shadowlands is going to be releasing in November or December, and while it’s not a huge delay, it’s a tectonic shift in the history of a franchise that has previously been far more willing to release an obvious beta than delay a release.

Yes, I know we have that myth of Blizzard polish, but it’s time to start admitting something about several of these expansions. It’s all right if you’re not ready to yet. We can move on.

That headline isn’t a joke, though; I am legitimately glad that the release date is being delayed, even if I am less than enthusiastic about the fact that the pre-patch is not next week but the week after. So today I want to talk about the why, the new potential dates, and what this means moving forward.

First of all, yes, on one level, this news is kind of bad. Not because we have to wait longer for the expansion but because it indicates that the developers decided during testing that the current state of the game is in some way downright so dire that they couldn’t even justifying pushing it out and fixing it later.

One of the points that I’ve made in this column repeatedly is that WoW is really in an awkward place right now. The game isn’t failing by any means, but it is flailing, and it really cannot afford another Battle for Azeroth-style debacle. It absolutely needs to convince players to jump in on this expansion. So the delay means that for reasons either real or imagined, the studio was of the mind that Shadowlands was on track to cause that sort of rift.

Corpse party.

The lack of an amended release date, at least to me, indicates that this is pretty decidedly going to be an act of urgent reworking. Which means, in turn, that I think all of that talk about pulling the ripcord is going to happen and we’re going to see Covenant abilities be more flexible in some way, and the core delay in delay duration is a matter of trying desperately to figure out how long it’s going to take. (Or more accurately, an acknowledgement it might take longer that previously expected; I imagine these discussions probably started back during the Everything Is Fine blog post that used the whole ripcord metaphor.)

Am I certain of that? Well, no… but it’s the only sort of large-scale thing that would make much sense at this point. The problem can’t be server stress, it can’t be lack of content, and it can’t just be to spend a little more time balancing because that last one wouldn’t delay a release. It feels pretty clear to me that something is being worked on in the hopes of, well… salvaging what the developers expected to be a mess.

It is a bit odd that John Hight was the announcer on this one, given the usual studio communication pipeline, but I don’t want to read too much into that.

So why am I happy about this? Is it just based on my speculation about what they’re doing? No, I’m happy about this because I want Shadowlands to be better than just not terrible. Releasing the expansion to be better than its immediate predecessor is placing the bar about as low as it can go without the aid of a trowel. While I am dubious about the studio managing to really boost it a lot with an extra month or two of time, it can only be a net benefit if that time is used intelligently.

You might note that I seem pretty confident that the expansion will still release this year as Blizzard says it will, and that faith might be unwarranted, but this is already pushing things back pretty far. There’s no legal obligation for the expansion to be out this year, of course, but with the backlash around Warcraft 3: Reforged delaying past its target launch date my expectation is that the team is between a rock and a hard place. Delaying is a necessary evil, but pushing it to 2021 is probably a bridge too far.

Whether or not it should be is… kind of irrelevant now. Like, there’s only so much you can do to fix things, you know?

So... how's things?

The point, though, is that this represents a bigger change than Blizzard has shown in the past. We’ve had expansions that were released in varying degrees of “unfinished” before, and in all of those cases the clear priority was to just get it out the door first. The assumption, real or accidental, seems to have been that WoW expansions will sell anyhow even if they’re not all that great, and you can always patch things in to fix problems, right?

It’s a philosophy that hasn’t worked for two of the last three expansions, though, and I’m both pleased and surprised that Blizzard took that to heart. Shadowlands is getting some extra time to adjust things theoretically before it goes live, rather than to slap patches on a metaphorical leaky ship.

Does this speak to some larger structural changes within the studio? I don’t know about that. My natural inclination is to say that of course it doesn’t; after all, this is just a delay to an expansion release, not a wholesale reworking of major systems. But at the same time, we haven’t seen this happen before, and especially not after the aforementioned “everything is fine” post basically defending the state of affairs. Clearly, something has happened between the two events.

My current guess at this point is late November. That’s a pretty significant delay, but it gives space for pre-expansion events and also enough time to sort out whatever the developers feel needs to be sorted ahead of the actual launch. It could just be a couple weeks, theoretically, but I suspect the team would have just announced that date right off. Maybe we’ll find out on the pre-patch date; I don’t know yet.

Do I think this is going to help the expansion in the long run? The changes being made are what’s going to determine that, honestly. The odd thing is that the announcement of the delay didn’t specify what required the pull back beyond general polish and iterating on the endgame, which indicates to me that we’re getting the aforementioned ripcord-pull; a lot of the other options wouldn’t require this kind of delay. Of course, it’s also possible that Blizzard is particularly Blizzard about it and basically sees its job as fixing the most underperforming covenant abilities and that’ll make it good, right?

But more importantly, I don’t think it can really hurt the expansion. It is, at least, a shot in the right direction. And while it’s surprising for reasons it really shouldn’t be, I’m hopeful that it marks the team taking overwhelming feedback into account and making some smart changes to the expansion. I don’t think there’s a future when Shadowlands is one of the best expansions, but I think there’s definitely a chance it could go from “it’s fine I guess” to “hey, this is pretty good.”

Or, you know, they don’t actually fix the underlying problems and we all feel rather disappointed. That’s still possible, too. I’m preferring to look on the bright side this time.

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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