I don’t have quite as much as I would have expected to say about Shadowlands so close to its launch. Part of that is, of course, timing; the surprise delay sort of disrupted my normal expected cadence. But another part of that is just that I haven’t been in the beta and thus I’m going to be seeing this all at the same time as everyone else. Go ahead, World of Warcraft, hit me with some content. You made a low bar for yourself to clear after the last expansion.
But that’s also only part of the story here, and it’s in the spirit of that wherein I put forth today’s column. As part of my regular daily Thinking About WoW routine, I had a thought about at least one potential new development tied to the future of WoW and what may happen in the future. Something that would put paid to the rather unnecessary bit of disappointment about this expansion and would help justify the borrowed power of Covenants at least a little.
So let’s speculate about a major ending to WoW, shall we?
First and foremost, let me make something clear: This does tie directly into my column last week in which I asked whether or not the developers knew any longer what they want WoW to be. While it’s definitely plausible that no one knows because there’s no firm plan, it’s also plausible that the actual answer is closer to “we’re marking time.”
See, here’s something that occurred to me about Covenants. In many ways, Covenants are finally an answer to how you can define characters in WoW outside of faction identity, and they’re the sort of thing that could really set up a farewell to factions in a way that reasonably tracks past the end of this expansion. Or at least, offers the opportunity to further redefine moving onward.
As we celebrate 16 years of the game, we face two indisputable facts. The first is that this game is struggling now under the weight of history. Not in a sense that it’s inevitably broken or bleeding, but the fact of the matter is that the game from top to bottom has been patched and upgraded and improved to the point that there’s a huge backlog of stuff for developers to deal with. It has to be straining under the weight of a long development tail.
The other fact is that Shadowlands also represents yet another big long-running lore bomb being detonated. We’ve had teases about what Sylvanas is planning to do in the game since Cataclysm was launched, and while I don’t wholly believe that this was always the plan, the fact of the matter is that we’re moving even further beyond the extant state of the story.
Shadowlands also primes us for a shakeup because in the eponymous region, the factions don’t exist. Different ones do. And while we were told that the faction split is a foundational aspect of WoW, especially in light of the comments about the future in the latest earning call for Activision-Blizzard… I find myself wondering about that answer.
The faction split may be a fundamental aspect of WoW. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fundamental aspect of the universe. And it seems possible, maybe even probable, that at some point it has been accepted that the development team cannot simply continue upgrading this game that has now been running for more than a decade. At a certain point, you have to start planning for the future.
So what if Shadowlands is meant not simply to have us travel to the realm of the dead but as testing the waters for what happens when factions are self-selected? What if this is the beginning of the end before we move on to something new, fulfilling the promise of the future of the franchise?
You might be pointing out that in the past I specifically shot down speculation that this expansion would lead to that, but I’m not expecting that our next expansion is a sequel MMO. Rather, I’m thinking this expansion is a test for changing how we think of factions, and that any sequel wouldn’t be announced until we were well through Shadowlands. Nor would we just be carrying our characters forward.
Moreover, the important part here is that we are specifically dealing with a test balloon working through the murky waters of a major change. Are people going to identify with Covenant identity as well as factional identity? Because the faction war is over now. We’re done with that.
If you look at the expansions moving forward from Draenor, each one of them has involved at least one major dangling thread being wrapped up. Legion wrapped up the Burning Legion, Battle for Azeroth wrapped up the faction war and the Old Gods pretty decisively, Shadowlands is wrapping up the Scourge and Sylvanas. There’s enough stuff to make another expansion of final showdowns, but it sure does feel like we’re moving into a new space overall. And it’s an escalating series of cosmic clashes; it’s hard to scale up from where we’re at now without just having the next expansion pit us against the Void itself.
What if that’s the point?
The thing is that this doesn’t inherently fix the problem with borrowed power. It’s still there and still unwelcome and complex, and I still don’t like it very much. But it does at least offer some explanation for why these things are introduced and then jettisoned so quickly. There’s a desire to hit all the big notes over time without necessarily wanting to make a total balance mess.
And even if we’re not talking a full-on sequel, it still feels like offering us a new choice of four different factions really is testing the waters about how players would react to breaking down factions across the game. If there’s a lot of negative feedback about it? Hey, that’s just for this expansion. If, on the other hand, people are annoyed that they can’t pair up with Horde members of the same Covenant on their Alliance characters? Look forward to Blizzard triumphantly announcing that they’ve heard feedback and now you can group together.
That would be a major shake-up to the status quo, and it would ensure that wherever we go from here feels new and fresh. It’s a chance to revitalize a game that soon will have been running for two decades, and a big new flashy launch could really draw in some new people. And that alone makes me speculate that there’s some room to start getting people excited about a potential sequel.
Do I think all of this is likely? Not exactly. But I do think you can broadly split WoW’s history up into eras. The first, from launch through the end of Wrath of the Lich King, was very much about paying off threads from Warcraft III. The second from Cataclysm through Warlords of Draenor focused on the broader lore, and Legion onward has thus far focused on being bigger and trying out new systems that rewrite the core of the game.
And if you told me that the past few expansions have been trying out systems and gathering feedback ahead of a big shakeup moving forward? It sure does fit a nice narrative. Even if I may well be giving the team too much credit, I also wouldn’t be shocked if this is where we’re heading.