So it looks like World of Warcraft’s next patch is going up for testing on the week of April 12th. What the heck is happening? At best, this just explains that the reason for such a threadbare presentation during the whole BlizzConline event was because there was very little to actually reveal at that point, given that we’re not going to be seeing this patch actually arrive for a couple months yet.
I know that I’ve talked about this in the not too distant past, but now that we actually have confirmation of when the patch is arriving on the test server, it’s no longer theoretical. And what we know so far is, well… bad. It’s not good news if you were hoping to see the patch at some point before June, and I don’t even think July is out of the question. (August would be a bit late, at least. That’s a small mercy.) So let’s talk a bit about this horrendously slow first patch and what it might mean in a larger sense.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that everything I said the last time is still true now. This is the longest delay between expansion launch and a first patch thus far in the game’s history, and it’s only going to grow as we wait for the patch itself. Most patches spend about two months in testing before they go live, so if the patch starts testing on April 12th, logically it’s not releasing before June 12th, which would make June 15th the earliest reasonable date to bet on the patch. A little bit longer places us easily into July.
The biggest argument I’ve seen against this seems to mostly be wishful thinking based on the idea that this is a really long patch delay, and the occasional burst of optimism that maybe 9.0.5 at least involved enough system work that there’s less stuff to test. The former is, well… wishful thinking. The latter, on the other hand, supposes that between a new dungeon, a new raid, a new zone, new quests, and all that, what’s really extending the test length is balancing.
You know, the balancing that Blizzard has never been very good at and has already had to keep tuning since 9.0.5 launched, making it clear that whatever that interim patch actually did for the health of the game, “alleviate balance issues” was not on that list.
What’s most important here, though, is the practical upshot. At this point, it’s all but a known thing that Shadowlands will take seven months to get its first content patch out the door. And if that doesn’t strike you as odd, consider that this is the year when we would expect to hear about a new expansion in November… about five months after that first patch. We wouldn’t be looking ahead to the final patch but the middle while we expect to hear about where we’re going next.
Unless, of course, we’re looking at Shadowlands as a shorter expansion than normal. Which is also a problem!
One of the recurring things people have liked to put forth as a defense for Blizzard’s overall cadence for WoW expansions is the idea that it really takes about four years for a decent expansion to come together. So what got a lot of people through Battle for Azeroth was the idea that Shadowlands was going to be somehow better. And it’s definitely better than BFA was, but I feel like a lot of the praise has been… qualified. It was from me, at that.
The idea that Shadowlands might not make it to three major content patches is one I’ve seen floated before, but given the extended delay on this first patch, it feels far more likely to me now than before. Consider that for all we’re told work is proceeding ahead of time, the actual evidence seems to be that Blizzard works on things fairly sequentially. There’s definitely work being done on the next expansion right now, but it doesn’t seem likely that all that work is proceeding in parallel to development on the current one but rather in between work done on the expansion right now.
What does that mean? Well, Blizzard is going to have to give up on something. Either Shadowlands is a very short expansion, or the next expansion does not get announced this year and launched next year, or there isn’t the usual long gap between the last patch of the expansion and the start of the next one. One of those three things is absolutely certain, and I tend to doubt the last one is what’s going away.
Why? Well, how much crap has Blizzard taken from expansion gaps over the years? If this was something that the development team had the ability to mitigate by this point, it would be mitigated. Clearly, that’s not the case.
So either we’re going to have a longer wait until the next expansion or a shorter cycle this expansion. I certainly have my suspicions about which of those is going to look more appealing to the people in charge of the game based on recent cadence. Which means that barring something really surprising, we’re probably looking at a short expansion again… which helps the next expansion very little.
After all, the last time we had a short expansion was Warlords of Draenor, and the only reason that managed to not be seen as even more of a nadir was that Legion turned out to be really good. Which means that the narrative would have to shift to mean that WoW only can turn out a good expansion every six years, and…
As I said the last time I wrote about this, to a certain extent I feel sympathy for the development team here. It seems safe to say that Blizzard’s working environment hasn’t really compensated all that well for the changes in working environments brought on by a pandemic, and that’s been further compounded with a corporate structure that uses layoffs in the same way most people use napkins. Right now it is not a terribly fun time to work in WoW development, I imagine.
But we also have to talk about results, and it seems clear that as much as anything what’s happening here is not a wholly inevitable process but rather the net results of having a disjointed and not terribly robust development pipeline in place even before now. The results we’re actually looking at include either a truncated expansion or a much, much longer delay to the next one, and considering how many divided opinions there are on the expansion even at this point I don’t see either being great for its long-term health.
Really, the damage is done now. The best things that can be done without a wholesale reworking of the leadership structure right now are increased transparency and more news about what the plan actually is. Because if you’re a fan of this game (as I am) and you’re looking at that patch delay and not getting more than a little worried about its long-term health… well, at best, you’re still living in a world wherein this game is presupposed to do no wrong.
And that ain’t the world we live in.