You might be surprised that I haven’t written a piece in WoW Factor yet about the BlizzConline announcement that we would get no new customization options in World of Warcraft throughout this expansion. But the reason is that there’s not actually much to write about there. This was a bad choice that ultimately hurts the game, rinse and repeat. This is something that can be said about so many design decisions made leading up to Shadowlands that I’m frankly tired of writing it. I have less than zero interest in just restating any of this stuff.
What I find more interesting, though, is examining what we do know and placing it in context. We know that at this time there are no plans for more customization options, which is contrary to what many statements prior to the expansion launch seemed to indicate, particularly for the various allied races (all of which have a decided paucity of customization options, especially if you’re a Nightborne).
So why are we here? Here are four possibilities.
Option 1: COVID-19 is disrupting Blizzard a lot
I’ve heard some people say that they’re tired of hearing about COVID-19 impacting game development, and I certainly understand that in the same way that I’m sick of having anxiety issues. Unfortunately, being tired of something does not actually make it not a thing, and the reality is that we are all still in the middle of a gigantic global pandemic that’s having ripple effects on literally everything.
We know from the launch of the expansion and various statements from the development team that Blizzard is capable of working and developing from home. What we don’t know at this point is whether or not the studio is very good at it. The simple reality is that the corporate structure, collaborative processes, and general atmosphere of the studio may very well not translate well to working from home despite the best intentions of everyone involved in the game.
In other words, it’s entirely possible that the main thing standing in the way of more options is the simple reality that creating more options right now takes a lot more work than it would otherwise, this placing an outsized amount of workload on anyone trying to do this. Stick a pin in that idea; we’ll come back to it.
Option 2: Shadowlands is more of a mess behind the scenes than we know
We are currently in the middle of the longest immediately-post-launch content drought in the game’s history. Since the Shadowlands launch, we haven’t yet had the first content patch for the expansion, and as has been mentioned prior it’d be a minor miracle if the patch arrived before May. (June is more likely.) That’s a really long gap, and it might be explained by a simple and yet kind of ominous idea: Shadowlands is actually turning into a tumultuous development nightmare behind the scenes.
This does square with some of the observations we already have, too. After all, the expansion was delayed from its original launch date, we’ve already had a patch that was full of nothing but balance changes, and people seem to have lost their luster for the expansion rather quickly. So it’s entirely plausible that between the reception and the general corporate climate at Blizzard, this expansion is turning into an absolute mess and a half.
This doesn’t entirely absolve the developers of responsibility here, of course. It didn’t take launch for people to be annoyed with yet another borrowed power system, for example, and that was already seemingly baked into the very fundamental nature of this expansion from the concept level. But the point here is that there might be a lot of problems developing what are seen as expansion-critical features that don’t leave a lot of time for what is seen as more optional, like even more expansions to customization after the pre-patch already delivered a lot.
Option 3: The people making choices don’t understand the impact
One of the weird things about WoW development since about midway through Mists of Pandaria is the persistent sense that the people in charge are aware of what players want but don’t seem entirely to understand the why. I get this sense a little bit even in the statement that there won’t be new customization options. “Hey, you just got a lot of new options! Why in the world do you want more?”
The answer, of course, is that only some races got those options, that the character creator in this game is still woefully inadequate, that personal connection is important, that these things matter to players and should be encouraged rather than looked at as hitting some arbitrary point of “enough,” and so on. But if you don’t understand exactly why people were excited about the additional options in the first place, it’s possible you don’t understand why people would want more when they already got the thing.
To a certain extent, this is even a defensible viewpoint. It is entirely the case that I would happily delete the entirety of M+ dungeon mechanics for another two dozen hairstyles, but that’s probably not the smartest use of development resources. But I also think that despite the joke, these things are not analogous. It’s not just a matter of how many resources are required to add these options but a failure to understand why people want the options in the first place.
Option 4: This is a lot harder than it should be
A whole lot of developing WoW at this point is inevitably going to be looking at something that was coded more than a decade ago and figuring out how to change it. However badly the game may have needed new customization options, I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to suggest that “adding new hairstyles” was basically never on the radar of the original development team, which means that adding more of these things might be the coding equivalent of trying to do dental work with a hammer and a wooden toothpick.
That doesn’t make it less important, but it does mean that if you’re already stretched thin, if the expansion is already a mess behind the scenes, and if you barely understand why people want more hairstyles when you already gave them some hairstyles, then you might be tempted to just say “no, no more hairstyles, we’re not doing that much work for something so small, so just tell them no more for right now.”
Heck, even if all of those facts aren’t true – if you’re looking at the workload and it takes as much time to add new hairs as it takes to get a new dungeon boss rigged – you’re more likely to prefer the dungeon boss. I think it’s almost certainly not that difficult, but it may be more difficult than we see from this end.
So which one do I think is correct? I have a feeling that varying degrees of all of the above lead into this particular decision. I don’t think it’s a good decision, of course, since we’re still stuck with the same problem: Some races get the shortest possible end of the stick, especially the allied races that were at one point meant to be a marquee feature.
But hey, at least there’s more going on here than “they just didn’t care.”