WoW Factor: Shadowlands has a release date… again

    
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WoW Factor: Shadowlands has a release date… again

I really thought I had written a column when World of Warcraft properly announced the launch date for Shadowlands. Alas, I apparently did not. But I obviously did write about when the expansion was delayed for an indefinite length of time opining about how this was a good thing for the game as a whole, that it could be a very good chance for the developers to make some pretty significant changes and improve things through testing and by listening to feedback.

Now we have a launch date. And that delay… appears to have been squandered.

Don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not trying to claim that the extra time was entirely wasted, no extra balancing was done, no one paid any attention to feedback, or any of that. There have been several tangible changes made over the course of the month of extra time (more or less) and there will no doubt be more as the developers move toward the actual November 23rd date. And yet it feels like in terms of big changes, very little of the stuff that people disliked has actually been addressed.

A month’s delay in a project like this is, when you get down to it, not a whole heck of a lot of time. It’s enough time to refine things and do some extra balancing, of course, but it’s a pretty minor delay in the scheme of things. You could argue, then, that expecting any sort of major changes was always kind of ridiculous.

Heck, you could argue that it was kind of ridiculous to expect that from the beginning because the same people are still in charge of the project and thus it was unlikely that anyone was going to sign off on big changes. All reasonable, and all things I did touch upon in that initial column.

I’d also like to note that in that initial column I also speculated about “late November” as the new release. So let’s mark that one down in my prediction market.

Spiraly

The reason I use the word “squandered” there is that the big problems Shadowlands had before – and has now – were things that really did require a bit more reworking. As I think I’ve mentioned before, things like conduits and covenant powers are problems that aren’t just suddenly materializing but had been discussed for ages. An extra month gives more time to balance, but it doesn’t give much time to address the actual structural issues that led to these things being contentious in the first place.

As it turns out, that doesn’t appear to have ever been in the cards. Instead, the developers really did just figure that with a little bit more balance tuning, everything would be good enough.

Now, you may also remember that I’ve gone on record saying that I don’t think Shadowlands is going to be terrible. That hasn’t changed. That was true before the month-long delay. I think it’s going to be… fine. It’ll be fine. But as I wrote back in 2019, sometimes the real question isn’t about whether or not you manage to turn out something non-terrible but whether or not people are actually excited.

Like, sure, people were happy when it was announced that Covenant abilities wouldn’t be arbitrarily turned off when players left the Shadowlands to go do old content. But in the very same breath, we were all told that this has already been designed as a borrowed power system yet again, and you could sort of feel the air whisper out of the room once more.

All of this, in other words, points to the exact same problem that the expansion already had. The trouble isn’t balance for the Covenants… or more accurately, that is a problem, but it’s not the core problem that’s causing that issue in the first place. The more fundamental problem is that the developers have a clear vision of how they want this system to work, players don’t like it, and the response is to keep insisting that it’ll be balanced enough so it’ll be fun to play.

Does that sound like Azerite to anyone else? It’s not just me, right?

When the lights come on, this whole place gets ugly.

One of the reasons I kept reading Mark Rosewater’s excellent columns about the design behind Magic: The Gathering years after I had stopped actually playing the card game was that Mr. Rosewater tends to have a lot of insight that’s applicable to a wide variety of different parts of life. Case in point: I remember a column in which he talked about changing a major mechanic in playtesting because players kept using it wrong and hated it when they were corrected.

As he put it, when someone reads a new mechanic, the first impression of how that mechanic is supposed to work becomes how it does work, and if someone hates the mechanic then, it’s not a good mechanic. Trying to convince people otherwise means that you’re fighting with base assumptions, and in a fight between designer intent and human nature, the latter wins every time.

His point wasn’t that the mechanic in question actually was bad. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But he had to cede ground because however good it might have been on paper, it wasn’t going to go over well. Even if he had designed something that would have been flawlessly beautiful with the right adoption, it was never going to be anything but an albatross.

I think about that a lot when it comes to WoW in general, and Shadowlands in particular.

The extra time to balance and implement new mechanics for Shadowlands has almost certainly helped the expansion as a whole. I have no doubt that it has produced a better expansion with better balance, nicer covenant abilities, and generally a more fun atmosphere. None of this time was wasted.

Using the word squandered up above was intentional because it reinforces the idea that ultimately this extra time has been devoted to improving something that it seems players are still only fifty-fifty on at best. And I just keep thinking about how the developers seemed to “know” what was best for the game, and then even in the face of overwhelming negative response, kept on insisting that this was the right way to do things.

Yes, it is probably too late to change much. It was probably too late to change much even well before the delay was announced, and ultimately the delay was a series of polish passes because the whole thing was too far along to undergo any major redesigns. I accept that as a likely reality, even if I think it’s still a preventable situation.

But I also find myself wondering if any lessons were learned here. What comes next? After a month’s delay and players expressing their consternation, will the next expansion address these issues pre-emptively? Will ways of thinking about design change? Will this be enough to give Shadowlands the bump it needs as players look increasingly perturbed with how Blizzard manages this game?

Or was this delay really squandered in every meaningful sense? Because it sure doesn’t seem to have made the expansion overwhelmingly better, from my (admittedly) not-a-beta-veteran perspective.

I kind of hope I’m wrong.

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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Jokerchyld
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Jokerchyld

I’ll be there on day 1. I like the rush and seeing all the players together. The expansion sounds good on paper but skeptical if they can execute given the development drama. Hoping to get a good month / month and a half out of it and I’d be happy.

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Danny Smith

This is the first expansion nobody i know is buying day one. Including the Vanilla midnight launch, and every midnight launch after crowd. The trust just seems to have been burnt out and everyone seems exhausted by less rpg mechanics and more mobile game retention trap mechanics with each expansion.

Well that and the Sylvanas cringe being Lightning all over again.

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Chris

I’m one of those “been there for the launch of every expansion and vanilla launch” folks. This is also the first expansion I’m simply not going to bother with, though it’s for a variety of reasons.

The biggest one for me being that the narrative has been a mess for a few expansions now and this totally-not-a-retcon of Sylvanas’s evil absurdity in BfA is the complete opposite of compelling — even moreso than in BfA itself.

Next after that is that I’m just tired of one expansion after another of some new major mechanic that serves as a timegate and gets thrown out wholesale when the next expansion rolls around.

And lastly, just… I dunno. It just isn’t that fun anymore. Maybe it’s the overt emphasis on theme-park-ness versus the more sedate exploration of vanilla and BC. Maybe it’s the overabundance of gimmicky quests that try to “change things up” by shoehorning in alternative gameplay elements in lieu of the harder task of creating interesting and diverse challenges built around the core combat mechanics.

And in fairness, this started back in Wrath, and was my least favorite element of that expansion as well. In many regards, despite how much I loved the overarching narrative, Wrath introduced much of what has gone on to grow tiresome to me over the years. Making each region too much of an overtly self-contained and — to varying degrees — railroaded experience. The use of phasing to reinforce this linear game design. Too much emphasis on the player being the Big Damn Hero instead of an adventurer weaving in and out of a bigger story.

None of this is to say that WoW has gone wrong or is a bad product. It’s just developed in a direction that doesn’t appeal to me like it once did. I actually was disappointed enough in BfA that I regretted returning to the game for it, and I’ve seen nothing about Shadowlands that makes me think I would be any happier with it than I was with BfA, even setting aside my extreme dissatisfaction with the storytelling anymore.

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texyFX

i dont have any other base assumption than: devs exist in their very own parallel universe, which doesnt per se mean their design is a priori un-fun. empirically its the opposite, i had and still have fun, even WoD.

i dont need an emotional affinity to any game systems, as long as the total sum of these transcends their inherent limits (Sid Meiers Pirates! as reference, its simply combined minigame systems, that compliment each other elegantly).
many design decisions factually werent smart, but obstrusive, user-unfriendly and without any elegance. but my personal disagreement didnt stop me from having fun. cuz (personally) all of those nuisances didnt compromise the soul of WoW.

i dont care about borrowed power, renown, conduits etc., but balance, challenge and diversity, aesthetical, narrative and gameplay coherence, accessibility, replayability, convinience, socialising (options) and also tech (netcode, bugs, troubleshooting etc).

Blizzney always delivered those preferences, so i ll grant the benefit of a doubt.
cuz if they dont meet my expectations, ie. fun, i ll unsub and move on.

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Paragon Lost

I’ve decided to not purchase this expansion. I’ll keep subbed for the time being, mostly tooling around in Classic. Every once in a while logging into Retail to work on certain achievements if possible at the 50th cap and to see what’s possible to do when you can’t advance past 50th. Maybe I’ll buy the expansion after this one, who knows.

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TomTurtle

Ah but Blizzard knows better than you and I. Naturally.

While their particular implementation of borrowed power goes too far, I have to wonder what system(s) could reasonably take its place. I know we’ve talked about them not bumping up the level cap every expansion, but I don’t see them going that route outside of potentially resetting you to 50 every time to have you climb back up to 60 with a new expansion.

They clearly want to keep things fresh no matter what and their answer has become sectioning off the game to the latest expansion largely in part with disposable borrowed power.

My reaction to that is to tell them to stop doing that, to make all of the game relevant. But I just don’t see that happening, and given such a restriction, I don’t know what else to reasonably suggest. This is where my lack of MMO variety shows as I’m sure there are MMOs out there that have already solved this.

Still, at the very least, if we’re stuck with this road Blizzard is hellbent on, I’d like to see them tone down the borrowed power and beef up the classes’ core design. More like what they did earlier in WoW’s life since really, there’s always been borrowed power in one form or another. It just hasn’t been this egregious.

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Utakata

“Ah but Blizzard knows better than you and I. Naturally.”

From technical point of view, most certainly yes. From an enjoyment point of view…it’s been a very long history of hits and misses. And where they’ve been running out of excuses for the misses. /sigh

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Flávio Gomes

whoever tested the beta knows that shadowlands problems were much more corrections and adjustments in number and systems than redoing things in general, this time that the game was postponed was basically for the game not to suffer in its release corrections that are extremely difficult to repair with the live game..

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Ironwu

The Stans will be frantically applying lipstick in a non-stop effort to make this expansion, and thus Retail WoW, look good and viable.

But, I think what is being delivered is another BfA disaster.

Just the way I see it, of course.

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Bruno Brito

I think what is being delivered is another BfA disaster.

Shadowlands is mediocre, sure, but it’s tonnes better than BfA, just at it’s pre-patch.