The problem with writing about World of Warcraft right now is that there’s actually less to write about than you might think. Sure, we’ve got the ongoing testing of The Burning Crusade, but frankly the most interesting thing going on there has more to do with the character boost stuff, and I’ve already broken that down as far as it’s going to go. (Well, unless I wanted to convince people it was a good thing… which I don’t think it is. So here we are.) And on the retail side, we’ve got… nothing.
Sure, we have patch 9.1 in early testing, but not only does it seem to be pretty early in the testing process, it’s not moving very quickly, something that director Ion Hazzikostas outright admitted to in a recent interview, which provides at least something to talk about in the overall context of the game. So let’s talk a little bit about all of that because it’s there and provides some insight into the state of the game as it is right now.
What initially stuck out to me about this interview were two things. The first is the admission that patch 9.1 is not going to be out in “a few weeks,” which strictly speaking is an ambiguous timescale but practically implies that late June/early July is a more likely release window than mid-June. This isn’t surprising, but it does reinforce the idea that this patch is not right around the corner, leading to the sense of a content gap that’s happening at the start of the expansion instead of just the end.
But of more significant note is what seems like a kind of odd statement: that there will definitely be a 9.2 and this expansion will not be like Warlords of Draenor. That’s a reassurance that actually isn’t; those two things are not wholly related clauses.
First and foremost, the obvious rejoinder is that the aforementioned expansion did have a patch 6.2, which means that getting there doesn’t in and of itself mean the two expansions are going to be all that different. However, it’s also important to note that patch 6.1 was pretty content-light, more akin to patch 9.0.5 than what’s actually on deck for patch 9.1.
In other words, there are two potential readings of that comment, and I’m inclined to take the meaning more or less at face value: specifically, that this expansion will not be like Warlords of Draenor insofar as it will feature more than a single content patch. That’s seems to be the intended meaning, even if it’s kind of not what was actually said. But it’s still interesting insofar as what it doesn’t say is still there as well. Assuring people there will be a 9.2 does not equal assuring people there will be a 9.3.
To me, at least, the assurance that there will be more than one major content patch is a tacit implication there won’t be more than two. It strongly implies, at least to me, that the plans for anything beyond that 9.2 have been either truncated or wadded together with the plans for 9.2. And it definitely implies this is going to be a shorter than usual expansion, which is… probably less than heartening when this expansion had previously been heralded as the hope for the game in the wake of Battle for Azeroth.
There really does seem to be something rotten in the state of Shadowlands development, above and beyond work-from-home issues. I’ve said it before, but every additional piece of information just seems to reinforce that image.
One wonders if that doesn’t have something to do with one of the other major focuses in this particular interview talking about borrowed power and systems for same. Hazzikostas mentioned specifically that there’s a need to find a balance between borrowed power and letting things make a long-term impact, which…
…all right, there’s really no need to do so because players do not want these borrowed power systems. Seriously, even the hardcore Shadowlands stans don’t like borrowed power, and those guys are still trying to convince everyone that this expansion is great and y’all just don’t get it. There’s no need for “balance” here; there’s a need to stop putting borrowed power in as a major mechanic because that…
Sorry, I got sucked down a rabbit hole there. What I meant to say is that it implies that up until now the development team has been striking that balance. Which… well, no.
I’ve talked at length, multiple times, about how the current state of the game creates an environment wherein the borrowed power absolutely demolishes any long-term sense of genuine forward movement by ensuring that each expansion contains nothing more than stuff layered on top of your existing mechanics. The lackluster attempts to re-integrate fragments of these systems has not successfully struck a balance between making long-term effects stick and just layering more borrowed power on top of things.
Part of me still wants to be hopeful about this part, though. For whatever reason the team still thinks that borrowed power is the way to go, but at least talk about striking a balance vaguely implies that we’re moving past that as a core element of every single expansion design. It makes me hopeful that we’ll go back to at least having something new to look forward to as a permanent, important change to how a class and spec functions.
But that’s also a function of the statement being so vague as to be easy to layer on any desired meaning. Even saying “a balance needs to be struck” could mean that changes need to be made or a patronizing explanation trying to show that all of the borrowed power systems need to be in place, you just don’t understand, let us explain this to you because when you said you didn’t care for how the game was designed it must have been from a place of ignorance.
At the end of the day, that’s a lot of the interview: vague answers that are easy to take however you ultimately want to take them. And it strikes me as kind of a bad sign, even though this has long been the de facto mode of operation for the game’s development team.
You don’t get the sense of there being cool stuff that just isn’t quite ready for prime time or discussion yet or the sense that the team is working hard to react to criticisms and pain points. It honestly feels more like damage control and the promise of very moderate concessions around the borders. Here, we’ll bring back tier sets for you; if we do that, do you promise to stop asking about the borrowed power stuff we don’t want to change?
I don’t know. Obviously, I don’t have access to all of the metrics that Blizzard itself does. But I’m very curious to see what the MAU stats look like with the next investor call, even though that stat is already an obfuscation. It feels like this comes from a not spectacular place, and while some of that is down to pandemic delays, some of that is just a sense that maybe this development style isn’t working any longer.