WoW Factor: What’s behind the turning of the tide in World of Warcraft’s patch 9.1.5?

Get back.

There’s some interesting stuff going on right now when it comes to World of Warcraft’s next major patch, due in no small part to the fact that it’s clearly the patch all about pulling the ripcord. Indeed, it’s a patch that is pulling that cord so hard that I suspect the cord is going to come right off. If you’ve been following the news, you’ve almost certainly caught the fact that patch 9.1.5 is basically doing everything players had been asking for, from free covenant swaps to full Legendary refunds to more customization options.

You may recall that the last installment of this particular column was entirely based around speculating what the changes in leadership might mean for WoW on a whole, and it’s hard not to look at this sudden hard swerve and not ask a few questions – even when we’ve been told that Ion Hazzikostas is still in charge of the game. So what’s happening here? Why are all of these changes being rolled out so quickly? And what does this mean for the game’s future and the immediate plans for the expansion?

First and foremost, I want to make something clear here: The whole reason we have the “ripcord” analogy people are using to discuss all of these patch changes is that the development team was well aware of this feedback as far back as early beta testing for Shadowlands. Hazzikostas specifically said that the team was not pulling the ripcord at that time even though it was totally possible to do so, which means that it’s important to consider the changes and design shifts in that context.

More directly, this should not be read as the team suddenly listening. Rather, this should be taken as the team finally acting on consistent feedback that’s been in place for months now. This is one of the things supporting the more cynical reading of this particular move: that this is what always happens with unpopular systems as the expansion moves forward.

Oh snaps.

To a certain extent, this is true; however, saying that also elides the fact that these are somewhat more significant steps than were taken late in the expansion for Legion or Battle for Azeroth (both of which were far into the borrowed power mechanics). The latter case is particularly telling; this is far more of a gutting of how Covenants had been previously designed than anything done with Azerite armor. Whether this is because of a bigger philosophical shift or simply because there are fewer dials to tweak with Covenants is really part of the question in the first place.

For one thing, I think this particular set of changes all but closes the book on any expectations of a patch 9.3. I realize that this theory has been bouncing around the collective thinking for some time and has been something I’ve speculated about before as well, but seeing these major shifts this early all but assures that patch 9.2 will be meant to wrap this expansion up. It’s not quite Warlords of Draenor insofar as we have gotten two actual content patches, but it’s definitely more in line with that expansion than I suspect the developers wanted.

For another thing, there’s the real question to be asked about what this means as a whole. Ybarra has gone on record saying that yes, Ion Hazzikostas is still calling the shots when it comes to WoW. But does that mean that the higher-end influence isn’t being felt at this point?

To my mind, there are two ways to read those comments, and both of them are currently equal in plausibility. The first is that there has been no actual philosophical shift and this is, indeed, just a matter of easing up requirements as we can always expect while the expansion wears on. The other possibility, as MOP’s Bree and I were discussing the other day, is that Ybarra’s public statement is more of a veiled threat – as in, “Ion’s still in charge of WoW… and if he can’t turn the sub numbers around, that means he loses his job, not me. I’m just making sure he does that.”

And oddly, I think the most telling data point in this entire exchange is through the most seemingly innocuous change, which is the reversed course on adding more customization to the various allied races. It’s such a minor thing, and yet it speaks volume about what’s going on right now behind the scenes.

Oh, so they get to just fly under their own power, that's fair.

I realize that February of this year feels like a lifetime ago, but it really was that recently when we were being told that we just got a bunch of new customization options so we shouldn’t be asking for more or expecting more during this expansion. You could argue that this was in some way an error of speech with some developers, but one thing that I’ve noted before is that Hazzikostas in particular is unfailingly precise when he says things. If he had wanted to clarify that the statement applied only to core races, he would have done so.

He did not.

That indicates pretty clearly that plans have changed. At one point, there were no plans to put more effort into adding new customization for the allied races. Now, there are. This is something players had been requesting, and perhaps just as importantly, it’s something that’s more ornate than pulling a ripcord, so to speak. Time needs to be devoted to model and texture new options for players to use. This is a diversion of resources to create something that it certainly seems as if Hazzikostas and other WoW team leaders had and have no particular interest in cultivating. And now they’re doing it anyway.

We can only speculate about why the shift happened. But it seems like too significant and sudden of a change for this to be something that was done as part of an otherwise planned late-expansion fix. This feels like the sort of thing that happens with a heavy hand on the back and a reminder that if you don’t act on player feedback, you aren’t going to have enough players left to act on it at all.

Obviously, this is pure speculation. But when you look at the sheer scope and velocity of the changes, it definitely seems as if this is more than a late-hour change to make things a bit easier. It looks like the team is throwing everything it has that’s more or less easy to do in order to stanch the bleeding of subscriptions, starting with a lot of system changes that are easy to make and art changes that require time but not overhauls to programming.

How deep does this go and how much of an impact does it have? That’s harder to be sure about still, but I suspect the influence of new leadership is already being felt, and I have a hunch that when we finally get the next expansion announcement, we’ll see the fingerprints all over it.

As I said, these changes don’t require a whole lot of large-scale system revisions. But if this is a change in philosophy, there’s going to be a sense of new direction visible sooner rather than later… and it’s going to be in stark contrast to the last few years, even if no one ever comes out and admits that the past few expansions have gone the wrong way.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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