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.
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?
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.