So we’re not having a BlizzCon this year again. Not that one wasn’t originally planned or at least in the early stages of planning, apparently (you can’t cancel something you weren’t at least expecting to hold), but the short version is that the convention is definitely not happening this year and we’re getting at least one more BlizzConline year. This is not a great thing considering how weak the prior presentation was, but that wasn’t helped by a sudden spate of leaks, so I’m not going to harp on that all that much.
No, what I’m more curious about is what this means for the usual update and announcement cadence. Because, you know… this is traditionally the time when we’d expect to hear about the next expansion for World of Warcraft. I realize that seems kind of insane considering that we still haven’t had the first actual content patch for the current expansion, but it’s still pretty significant when there appears to be no actual plans on deck to announce where we’re going next with the game on top of that existing delay. Yet that is precisely where we are at the moment.
Now, first and foremost, I don’t want to be solely the harbinger of doom here. After all, it’s not like we haven’t been given major announcements outside of BlizzCon before (we have!), and certainly nothing is preventing Blizzard from announcing something in August or even in November so that we at least know the next expansion is coming and being worked on as expected. That’s all well and good.
However… at this point we don’t know about any of that. Indeed, at this point it’s really hard to even guess about what the update cadence is going to look like for a while because it’s quite clear that patch 9.1 just keeps getting further and further out. While I’d like to believe mid-June at this point, it feels like we’re not really into the “couple of weeks away” stage of testing just that, and that makes things get pushed further out…
The point being that we know everything has been pushed out. But that’s also a problem because, well, it’s making Shadowlands linger in the worst way. Whatever is going on behind the scenes at Blizzard does not appear to be helping with expansion development, either; while that IGN piece we’ve all been referencing doesn’t bring it up, I can’t help but feel like some of that studio tumult is showing up badly in this expansion’s overall cadence and culture.
Everyone does not hate Shadowlands. I don’t hate Shadowlands. It’s not Battle for Azeroth, after all. But that seems to be the problem, in some ways. The nicest things you can say about this expansion are things it isn’t, and there’s a definite sense of measured praise tempered with a lot of frustrations. The long tail of the release version isn’t helping matters any.
We’ve seen some hints about how slow things are going behind the scenes that I mentioned back when talking about that last Hazzikostas interview. Things seem to be… troubled, behind the scenes. Not just because of the pandemic, either. That’s definitely a contributing factor, but it’s easy to get the sense that something just is not playing out quite right and that the studio had really planned to be further along at this point than has wound up happening.
Given all of this… well, what’s happening now? What can we look forward to after WoW Classic launches its first expansion? We know that we’re going to finally get 9.1 at some point, but what happens once that drops and we’re all waiting for more news about what’s in the future?
Here’s the thing: If there isn’t a new expansion next year, we’re going to be moving into “seriously wrong” territory. Like, that’s the point when I expect corporate stuff to be coming to the forefront. We’ve had it made very clear that the overall strategy is to alternate main expansions with Classic ones, trying to create at least some sense of perpetually new stuff for the two versions of the game. But we’d be looking at a really short turnaround for the expansion to be announced and launched in 2022 both.
There’s also the nature of content. We know that this expansion will have a patch 9.2, but we don’t yet know if there will be a third patch, and the idea of a truncated overall expansion cycle keeps looking more and more likely. That’s not in and of itself a terrible thing, but it does contribute to a sense that things are not going great across the board in terms of development.
So what’s next? Well, my first instinct is to agree with what our own editor-in-chief Bree is certain will happen: that there’s going to be an announcement about the next expansion in some other format separate from BlizzCon. At the same time, neither of us can deny that it’s plausible for Blizzard to drop the ball here and offload everything until next year. And that… well, that brings forth a number of possible scenarios.
Not good ones, but numerous ones.
So let’s look at those possibilities a bit. The first is that we hear about the next expansion some time in September or October, which doesn’t perfectly overlap with any existing events taking place (remember, Legion got announced during GDC) but might simply be a necessity of the current world. Heck, maybe there’s even a special stream and presentation in November when a BlizzCon would normally be, but they’re saving the bulk of the information for February next year. In this scenario, a 2022 release is still plausible, although it’d definitely be in the back half.
I also think in this scenario that we can more or less write off any change of a 9.3. There’s just not enough time with Blizzard’s overall glacial schedule, made even worse by pandemic changes and the simple matter of turnaround time. That’s going to make this a short expansion in terms of content.
The second possibility is worse. Under this possibility, we hear nothing about the expansion at all this year, instead waiting until 2022 to have the thing announced at all. In this scenario, I still see a patch 9.3 as being fairly unlikely, but I also see an expansion release in 2022 as all but impossible, making it far more likely in 2023. That will mean that Shadowlands is sticking around for more than two years, which will… well, not be great! And that’s with a long content gap right at the beginning and at the end.
Which of these scenarios is more plausible? I don’t know. I’d like to believe in the former, though, because while they’re both messy at least the former is trying to clean up an existing mess rather than making a bigger one. At the same time, I can’t call the second scenario implausible, just… well, worse.
And this is kind of the big question mark hanging over the game and its release schedule at this point. I think it’s fair to say that everyone reading this column wants the game to release something that’s fun, polished, and likable. But between the real-world tumult and whatever is happening behind the scenes with Shadowlands, schedules seem to keep slipping and things keep not working out quite right.