We don’t yet have a date for patch 9.1, but considering that patch 9.0.5 just released recently and the patch isn’t even up on the test server, I’d say it’s probably still a while off. Most of the people whose predictions I trust suspect it will be some time between late May and early July. And if you’re not familiar with the usual World of Warcraft patch cadence, that’s actually a really long time between the expansion launch and the game’s first major patch.
Divorced from context, it’s really easy to look at this longer-than-usual delay as being indicative of something almost sinister because… well, it’s a really long delay. You’d expect the first patch to be coming along sooner. And I think it’s interesting to discuss and analyze because it implies a lot for the game and its development over the next few months, but I also think that some of it is a natural consequence of development realities outside of anyone’s direct control.
What realities am I talking about? Well, for one thing, we are still in the middle of a dang pandemic. It’s easy for that to feel like a kind of tired refrain at this point, but this has had a knock-on effect for even some of the most steady and reliable development teams out there, and one thing that I don’t think you can call the overall WoW development pipeline is reliable. Trying to guess at when the next expansion or patch will be released has become a cottage industry (and I myself have made posts about collecting that data), so that is also going to have an impact.
But I think there’s another issue, and it’s one that we all got a hint of when Shadowlands delayed its launch for a month: Despite whatever line is being put forth by the developers, Shadowlands does not seem to have confidently moved from conception to release overall, and I get the feeling that patch 9.0.5 was not really a planned patch.
We don’t generally tend to get these sorts of halfway patches before the first major patch in a given expansion, for one thing. For another, usually these patches are more about content that’s not intended for the top end rather than being entirely focused on systems, much less systems that are almost entirely focused there. In fact, a look at patch 9.0.5 reveals a whole lot of work being done on things that one would have expected closer to launch.
Obviously, I don’t have a seat at Blizzard’s actual design table. But I find all of this interesting, especially in light of the highly unusual release delay. The whole thing ultimately makes me think that the Shadowlands release was done with the expectation of a first patch devoted to fixing areas that the developers knew were going to be kind of broken when it first came out.
That’s not the same as “launching broken,” mind you; it’s more that it just seemed inevitable that there would be some broken areas on launch, and for whatever reason the work on fixing that couldn’t be rolled into development on the first major content patch. This one has the feel of a patch job to cover up broken seams.
Again, I don’t feel this was entirely a case wherein issues could have been solved without this outcome. By the time the problems were clear, we were already dealing with pandemic delays and player consternation, the expansion was already taken a while, and the development team was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Delaying the expansion to 2021 wasn’t an option; releasing it broken wasn’t an option. Releasing it working but in need of more balance passes was kind of the only one left, and adjusting release schedules accordingly would make sense.
However, all of that still leaves us with a really long wait until the next patch containing actual content. And that, in turn, raises the specter of whether or not the current amount of content is actually enough for what players want.
One of the things that I’ve noticed around Shadowlands is that while it didn’t have the initial negative reaction of, say, Battle for Azeroth, it’s definitely not proving a continual darling. A lot of people seem quick to say that they bounced off of it, either publicly or privately. Analysts have said the same thing. The expansion seems to have produced the usual bump in players, but they didn’t stick around for the long run afterwards.
That is a problem that’s only going to be exacerbated by the delay. Indeed, I wonder if 9.0.5 actually helped contribute to that. If you’re already struggling to gear up your character and then find out your valor points aren’t even going to work for upgrading the drop you finally managed to get from an M+ run, are you really going to be eager to start doing that again?
It’s also exacerbated by the fact that, well… if you’re already not having a great time with how Shadowlands is shaping up, the patch doesn’t really promise much to change it. It’s nice to have flying promised, but if you’re not currently happy with the game’s content offerings, you’re not going to be happier when 9.1 rolls around either.
This creates a lull that makes it really easy to bounce off the game, which is also usually when the developers try to offer something to entice longer subscriptions to stick around. Whether or not this is in the cards this time remains to be seen, of course; nothing has been announced. But I do think it speaks to a certain issue that the game is increasingly running into where the current content model is just not working for an awful lot of players.
Therein lies the biggest problem with this delay: People are going to be excited about flying, but I’m not seeing the sort of “come back to the game because even if you’re bored now, there’s something cool coming next” buzz from what we’ve been told of the patch so far.
Putting the patch onto the test server would definitely help this a bit. More details on the upcoming elements like the revisions to the Maw would help, too. Right now, though, we just don’t have any of that, and judging by the silence I imagine the main reason is that everyone is still working hard to get the patch ready for the test server to help with that messaging.
Of course, another option there would be to just communicate more, but Blizzard basically outsourced all of its hype generation to fansites a long time ago, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Especially when the company keeps laying people off and thus has fewer members of the community team to even work on building hype in the first place.
I’m not terribly heartened by the current delay, but I do think it’s important to note that it’s likely not altogether the fault of bad planning on Blizzard’s part. That having been said, though, there’s definitely some bad planning at work here, and there’s a pretty consistent issue shot through the expansion at this point. Shadowlands might not be a misfire like BFA was, but it doesn’t seem to be lighting people on fire either… and giving more time for the fire to burn down is worrisome.