So right now it doesn’t need to be said that stuff with World of Warcraft is kind of a mess. Shadowlands might have been better received than Battle for Azeroth was at launch, but that goodwill faded pretty quickly, especially with the long wait for patch 9.1 to actually be released. And now that patch 9.1 is here… well, it’s not loathed by the population, but just as with the expansion itself, the general reception seems to be lukewarm to negative. Between that, the survey nonsense, and general bad looks from the story department, there’s an easy narrative to be put together of a game in crisis.
I saw this particular set of rumors doing the rounds on Tuesday evening, and I think it’s interesting. Not in the sense that it’s necessarily true, of course; by this point I assume it’s taken as an a priori assumption that something can be interesting without being true. But let’s poke at the veracity of the claims here for a bit before examining whether or not it matters either way because yes, it is entirely possible that this post is totally fake and spurious while still being worth observing.
First and foremost, let’s be honest here. A leak posted on 4chan is already low on the “plausibility” scale of things. There’s functionally no prima facie validity to something on 4chan unless and until some of it is corroborated by outside sources because, well, nothing has to be validated. You don’t even require the minimal effort of making a throwaway Reddit account, much less having to endure any scrutiny from moderators to prove that you’re not just making things up and seeing what sticks.
More to the point, a lot of what’s in this particular rumor is stuff that you don’t actually need any kind of Blizzard insider to confirm. We don’t need to be told, for example, that Shadowlands is a mess at this point. This is self-evident. Playerbase falling? Again, we already know that. You don’t need to have someone peel back the curtain to know that there’s one specific rival game that the company is worried about because as mentioned right in the intro, the studio sent out a survey about that game.
There’s also a lot of stuff that independently feels off. The idea that there’s some big political schism within Blizzard that’s causing problems, for example, feels… extraneous. It may or may not be true, but it certainly feels like the sort of thing that doesn’t really have much to do with ongoing mismanagement and funneling the playerbase toward content that the base as a whole seems to have rapidly diminishing interest in doing.
Put it another way: If you were to peruse only stories about the game right now on a site that isn’t a blatant fansite and wanted to impersonate a genuine Blizzard employee screaming about the sky falling, the rant would look very similar to this. There’s not a lot here that isn’t either cribbed from the behind-the-scenes exposé a few months ago, echoing existing frustrated sentiment, or stating known facts drawing the most obvious conclusions.
Any rumor like this, of course, is going to be judged in part based on its predictive power rather than anything else. What actual quantifiable points does it put forward? The answer, of course, is “not a heck of a lot.” There’s the insistence that Sylvanas will become the new Arbiter and that will be her ultimate fate, that the patch cycle will end with 9.2, and that the team is targeting an expansion release for early 2022.
These are certainly predictions, but the first is kind of obvious based on terrible storytelling up to this point and is a few months off from being proven either way. The second is something that’s already been predicted by plenty of people, including me, and the third is conveniently vague in regards to what “early” can even mean. Anyone familiar with the game will know that 2022 is the next expansion year for the game based on prior patterns, and “early” could just mean “before November 2022 rolls around.” Nothing is predicted in the shorter term for reveals.
What does that mean? Well, it’s got some predictive teeth, but these are all predictions that aren’t going to be meaningfully verified at the bare minimum until October, by which point the community will have forgotten all about it. In other words, it’s very easy for this to be full of crap and count on lag time to erase any memory of it, which is made even easier by having an anonymous author.
So, yeah. Probably not true. But here’s the thing: This rumor is in an interesting place because whether or not it’s true kind of doesn’t matter.
Fake leaks and rumors are nothing new. Heck, genuine leaks and rumors that seem false or are put forth in a not terribly plausible format are not new. The difference in this particular case is character. This is the rumor that’s making the rounds. It’s not about something awesome coming up. It’s not about forthcoming story developments. It’s not about all the cool stuff waiting in the wings or reassurances that Blizzard knows what’s going on and this is all going to come together in some satisfying way.
This is, at the most basic level, a story about how doom is approaching for WoW. And even if it’s not true, it’s plausible. You could, in many parts, believe what’s being said here. It doesn’t really matter whether the actual rumor is coming from a Blizzard insider or not because the parts of this that we know are true – the parts that are coming from reliable sources and have already been confirmed elsewhere – are already nightmarish when it comes to the larger scope of how the game is doing.
This is why I opened by outright saying that we all know right now that Shadowlands is a mess. How much of that is due to work-from home delays and how much of it is down to mismanagement is hard to be sure of, but at a certain point it ceases to matter. Whichever one is the root cause, the end result is the same, and something needs to be done about it. And yeah, we can all believe that the net result is management sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring obvious signs.
We aren’t doing the game any favors by pretending that this isn’t a hot mess.
I don’t know whether the leak is legitimate, although my gut instinct – and that of all of the MOP staff who’ve read it so far – is that it probably isn’t. But the fact that so many people find so many of the pieces of it are plausible should be one of the dozen or so wake-up calls that people making decisions should have taken by now. And there is a truth to it even if the rumor itself was just authored by someone looking to spread fear and discontent: Players are leaving, and they’re not coming back. The plan Blizzard has relied upon for years is just not working any more.
So does the studio double down, or does something change? I don’t know. But we’re all ready to believe Blizzard would double down at this point, and that itself is bad.