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

    
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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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Jokerchyld
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Jokerchyld

They are on a extremely bad downward trend and this is the easiest thing to do to initiate a turn around. This was no come to jesus moment, we need to change. This was an “oh shit, pull the ripcord we are on fire” moment.

Until executive management changes nothing changes. And it will be apparent in their actions as they move forward which direction they will go on (regardless of what the useless PR talking points say).

The veil has been lifted, there is no going back.

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Armsman

This has nothing to do with the change in leadership per se. It’s all about the fact that because of Blizzard’s exposed 20 years of misogyny and worse; Management had an Epiphany that perhaps they can stop the mass Exodus of players by actually responding to player feedback that they’ve been ignoring for years.

Personally I hope it fails big time and Blizzard reaps what its sowed.

Bobby Kotick has got to go, along with the rest of the upper management that let this now exposed corporate culture exist for so long.

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Neowolf2

Interesting blog post on this subject at In An Age:

WoW Should Face Existential Crises More Often

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Ashfyn Ninegold

When we get Blizzard 2.0 where their misogynistic shop gets a make over and women are not discriminated against, let me know.

Until then, anything these yahoos do is meaningless.

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tyyriz tyyric

you’ll have to wait for Silicon Valley 3.0 (or 4.0 or 5.0)

SV v2.0 (1975-97) was so misogynistic there were simply no women around at all. (which is weird given that computer programing in the 1950s/1960s has a very large female-male ratio)

SV v2.0 (1997-either 2010 or present depending on if you think social media changed everything) has a lot more professionalization but is male dominated because it recruits from PhD programs that are male dominated. So while there is a lot more female inclusion – many times its not in the financial or the development side.
but VCs are also funding lots of smaller gigs with minority/female/lgbtq perspectives

but just take a look at Blizzcon and who presents. its a long time before all those white guys retire.

so we are a long way from Silicon Valley (like Wall Street and like Dental Offices) being egalitarian centers of society.

sorry.

look at blizzard it follows this tragetory. Blizz 1.0 was making rts’s and wow classic – it was all dudes making games for other white dudes – just look at blood elf and female demon outfits – you have characters running around in thongs.

blizz 2.0 is more professionalized – bought by Activision – more suits, more international (esp the chinese market), and much more obsessed with quarterly growth figures and YTY revenues. there are more women within the organization but not many in places of power that are determitive to either development or company culture.

what will Blizz 3.0 be? the 1.0 guys have left. players dont like the 2.0 suits for all their cash vampirism and their metric professionalism. theres now a woman in charge (co-charge? ya. ok. i’ll be impressed with Act-Blizz when she’s running blizzcon, till then they put here there “because we need a woman” and have probably already nerfed her authority). so change is happening but will it matter? idk.

right now SV is ossifying into a oligopoly of massive corporations – the way cars did in the 1950s. that usually means more of the same and slower innovations and peter principle leadership positions taking up space.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

TL;DR: When hell freezes over.

Yeah, I’ve been of the female persuasion for over 70 years. I know how the deck is stacked.

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Danny Smith

I don’t think theres any way there is a 9.3. Shadowlands may have sold well on release but its been a pretty catastrophic expansion even by the standards of the worst in the past. I legitimately hard more fun and put more time into Warlords of Dreanor. The game felt fun, the zones were connected and not floating bowls in a void and while the story was deeply messed up after late in development reworks there were moments and characters that felt like the wow team wanted to take a look at things we would have never otherwise gotten a chance to see.

Then you have Shadowlands that is filled to bursting with fomo to burnout mobile game mechanics to drive players to need to login every day to upkeep a time gated progression system cavalcade only to end up in mythics, pvp or raiding just like any other modern expansion. Only now with upkeep on top of the usual stuff, what fun!

To say nothing of a story that has done nothing but damage the setting. You have seen the afterlife. That curtains pulled back forever and the afterlife is just outland 2.0. Thats it. Case Closed. No more mystery ever. All for writers to imitate the MCU with “Tha-not” and Danuseurs increasingly cringe Syvlanas simpvalry. Its cringe at best and at worst has retconned so much of the original teams work its beyond the point of fixing unless they really do pull a “it was all a dream put in your head by Nzoth” because how else do you go back from this?

How do you go back from “My human dude who started in Elwynn Forest 17 years ago can now stab a dagger so hard it kills the atavistic personifications of the building blocks of reality. For sick purples”. How can anything ever be a threat after this? horde vs alliance? what the fuck can they pull to ever make that a viable story hook again? Void lords? get fucked we literally turned hell into our daily quest hub.

We are meant to be playing the grunts in a rts game given free reign. Not the Nephelim in Diablo taking down the prime evils. But now we are and they can’t ever walk it back without pulling a major cop-out like Destiny 2’s “Oops all your stuff was in one box and it got blowed up xD” to wipe the slate clean.

All you hear from people is “FFXIV can use the same systems for a decade, why do we need a new one that gets abandoned in the next expansion each expansion” and “i just want to play a character exploring a world and dealing with grounded threats” and no wonder games like XIV, New World and ESO are pulling people away in droves.

If you want what World of Warcraft offered back in classic that doesn’t exist anymore in World of Warcraft. It killed it dead. Now you play literal god tier capeshit OC’s in Ion’s hamster wheel to take more steps to do the same tired shit you were doing before but it demanded far less of your time.

They are pulling stuff back because they have no other option but to do so. This expansion is best described as “sabotage”. It is a giant hole blown in the side of a leaky ship. You can’t patch it. All you can do is rewind and pretend it never happened.

If anything Shadowlands should solidify that Ion needs to be bumped down to a raid designer and a new lead with a vision for an mmo and not a funnel to raids be put in charge of the world and as for the writing? christ i don’t know. I honestly won’t be shocked if half the people that wrote some of the last two expansions never played WoW in their lives and get in via nepotism or something at this point. Its hard to say how you fix it beyond going “who wrote the wrath to pandaria stuff and were they in the cosby suite or not?” at this point.

Maybe this can help fix the gameplay experience but the story? at this point i honestly don’t know if you *can* fix it anymore. Not without a reboot.

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tyyriz tyyric

the only part I wish to dispute is the player-as-god-tier-is-new.

like you, I started as a nothin’ pally fighting wolves in Elywnn. by the end of vanilla we were killing Fire Lords, toppling Dwarven Empires as conquistador like urban raiders, and murdering old gods.

and then I invaded a dead planet on the far side of the universe only to stop the elves from sucking out all the energy of reality. and then I went to Sweden and killed the Lord of the Dead.

I don’t dispute that the story is a mess. i find more enjoyment doing achievements in old expansions right now. but, we’ve been God-Killer-Tier for a long time.

the problem is, we might only be God-Killers given that we killed Sargaras, Argus, Denathrius, Void Sylvanus (ok, not dead dead – which we all saw coming = a waste of time). and PVP in the story is an absolute disaster
(how do I go from HIGHLORD of the Pallys to having to kill Horde pallys in BFA warzones? my tauren druid wasn’t cool w/ burning the Big Tree. WTF was that? but then I have to murder Elves in pvp? I’m more like – guys, Im a bull-bear-elk I’m with ya!

like you, i kind of miss doing quests in westfall that led to a dungeon with a boss – legion kind of did the same.

rafterman74
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rafterman74

Isn’t it obvious why all of this is happening? What’s going on with WoW, and Blizzard, is unprecedented, and it’s not just your usual end of expansion lull that’s happening. Blizzard is in real trouble, and WoW is still a major cash cow, so they are pulling out all the stops in order to try and stop the bleeding. They also released another 6 month mount package as well, so they’re throwing everything at the wall and hoping it sticks.

None of this would be happening without the lawsuit, major content creators jumping ship, and a mass amount of players following them. And these things aren’t being done because Blizzard ever thinks they are wrong about anything, they’re merely doing it because they are trying to save what’s left of their population, and possibly gaining people back.

Honestly, this patch doesn’t even move the needle IMO. They are doing a bunch of good stuff here, but until they can prove they will do this kind of stuff, without making their players wait years in the process, it means next to nothing in my eyes. When the next expansion hits and they actually listen to player feedback *during* the alpha and beta, and not 2 years later, maybe I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. When they don’t put in shitty player engagement systems and stop designing their game based on metrics in place of fun, maybe I’ll give them credit. For now it’s just a shitty company trying everything they can to keep from drowning, and I’d just as soon let them sink.

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Peter Taylor

I suspect that the cosmetic options are less about a paradigm shift and more a (happy) symptom of the content drought.

Not all video game programmers have identical or even interchangeable skill sets, especially when it comes to art vs encounter design and mechanics. It might be while the in game art team had a bunch of extra time and said “Well, let’s see how many pieces of jewelry we can fit on a Nightbourne’s face. Turns out the answer was yes.

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Jeremy Barnes

When someone from ‘outside’ comes in, everyone feels that they’re being evaluated. Change is coming in one way or another. I work at a company where everyone has been there for many years. Even if we don’t mean to, we ‘protect’ our way of doing things.

I remember years ago we got a new CEO and he bent over backwards to tell us that he wasn’t going to fire anyone and didn’t even want to change the things that his focus was going to be hiring new people (sales, support, etc) for areas that didn’t directly effect us (development). It didn’t matter, everyone started paying a little more attention to their jobs.

It also seems Ion has been making a game for himself and his friends ignoring the userbase at large. His “Hardcore bleeding edge raid or die grind grind grind” game isn’t popular and it really seems like he didn’t care.

Until now, when the new boss who isn’t part of the ‘old guard’ showed up. The new CEOs likely don’t have to say anything indicating they expect an improvement to the numbers.

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Utakata

“It also seems Ion has been making a game for himself and his friends ignoring the userbase at large. His “Hardcore bleeding edge raid or die grind grind grind” game isn’t popular and it really seems like he didn’t care.”

Ion was the guy that who made players have to get Silver in Proving Grounds (a pointless MoP mini-game) before they could do Heroics back in Warlords, in the example. I mean, it had Hardcore, Cupcake! written all over it, as they said back in WildStar-that-was. And it almost killed off that version of dungeons, as folks could skip it on their way to getting the phat lewts. I know I did, lol.

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tyyriz tyyric

i feel the same way about the design. and if youre in software dev. then i’m really glad i read your comment.

i feel like this game is designed for World First Mythic Raiding + Esports Mythic+.

the covenant energy system tells us that. it doesnt do anything – effect anyone – except the bleeding edge of raider/m+. Im LFR casual – even if i play all the time – and I’ve barely used it. but it slows down the bleeding edge grps/ evens out the competition in m+ runs.

torghast is the same thing – its clearly designed as an esports speed run for grps. soloing it on Enh. Shammy or Outlaw rogue – sux! but DH, w/ its nukes, is a breeze. but it has long corridors and lots of mobs – perfect for esports grinds.

form follows function – and I cant help think wow’s function is to cater to the “git gud” 1% who mythic raid and push m15+ and thats why the player base is leaving for story heavy FFxiv and the content creators are burned out running the same 6 korthia dailies. wow is supposed to be a HUGE world and the last expansions feel stuffed with op mobs, elite zones, and not really much to discover.

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Dug From The Earth

The relative lesson here for blizzard to learn (not the only lesson, but the one that ties to this issue specifically):

– Players dont need months and months to figure out if a system is not fun or enjoyable.

Then again, I get the sinking feeling the Blizzard is well aware of this, and simply doesnt care. Mostly for the following 2 reasons.

1. Part of their long term strategy for keeping subscription numbers rolling in, is to deliberately keep some of the games “fun” out of the game early on, and to add it in later when they need a “bump” up in player numbers.

2. Arrogant designers/leaders who insist they “know best”, regardless of how many times they are proven wrong.

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Jeremy Barnes

I don’t think 1 is really a thing. It’s almost always number 2. Ion had no incentive to make a game “everyone wants to play”. He made what he and his friends wanted to play. Got to look at the numbers of people who hung on because they’ve been playing WoW for a significant portion of their lives and go “I am so smrt. Look at all the people who play my awesome game.”

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Dug From The Earth

#1 is just the observation after 4 expansions now.

Release stuff that is hindered or gimped with the newest expansion
6-9 months later unhinder/ungimp said stuff
Announce “We hear you and agree”

Players, “I really wish it had been like this at the start!”

Rinse, repeat with the next expansion

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Jeremy Barnes

“never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

EmberStar
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EmberStar

Just because something is clearly stupid doesn’t mean they can’t also be *maliciously* stupid.

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tyyriz tyyric

I am so smart,
I am so smart,
I am so smart,
I am so smart,
S-M-R-T,
I mean S-M-A-R-T

doh!

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Danny Smith

Honestly i don’t think they even really give two shits about subscibers anymore. Its all “how can we keep our heavy spender whales logged in with that cash shop button on their screen for the most amount of time to secure more RMTs?”

and look at their shareholder calls. Its certainly working.

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Dug From The Earth

Eh… any other game id agree, but WoW’s cash shop is pretty limited. There are only so many mounts and mini pets to buy, and then thats it.

Now, if you are referring to buying WoW tokens or whatever, to convert to in game gold, that could be a thing. I know Shadowlands brought some messed up upgrade system heavily reliant on something that benefited from having gold in some fashion, but before that, “Whales” were not such a huge deal.

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Bereman99

I’d imagine the whales they are targeting are probably the ones that are buying tokens.

And when, in the investor meetings/calls, they talk about “strong reach, engagement and participation in value added services” I’d be surprised if that wasn’t mostly talking about token sales, with possibly a mix of character transfers and character boosts filling most of the remaining amount, and the one-off items like mounts and pets being a small percentage.

Stefan
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Stefan

You make a good observation Eliot when it comes to the customization options but i do not share your enthusiasm that this means something more is happening behind the scenes that will lead to an eventual change of design philosophy, PTR patch notes are up and while it is early i think it is business as usual.

These kind of patches have been happening ever since the introduction of Borrowed power as main expansion feature and so it is more a pattern that we see repeating here.

While Ion is correct in his use of words and i also cannot recall him making a statement he had to come back on he does state that these options were not to be expected during this expansion, that means they were actually being worked on just not for now, so the time table got moved up there but i do not believe for one bit that this will change the main focus of their content what is competitive PvE content.

As a side note it is good to see them taking steps to cleaning up the in game group finder advertisements.

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tyyriz tyyric

basically, asmongold’s argument. this is X.3 stuff coming in X.1/2

and from my vulpera’s perspective – which missed out on almost all of BFA when it could have easily been added in 8.0 to help free Voldun from the start – its hard to argue.