Under normal circumstances for World of Warcraft, this would be a very stupid topic for an article because it would have a very obvious answer and thus would make a column about two dozen words long at the most. When do we get our next expansion announcement? During BlizzCon because this is an expansion announcement year, so of course that’s when it’s going to happen. Discussion over, drop it. Have a nice afternoon, everyone. Did you bother to see that new James Bond film? Like, who cares, right?
But these are not normal circumstances.
They are not normal circumstances for reasons entirely unrelated to the ongoing scandal that Blizzard is dealing with; instead, it’s down to the incredibly long turnaround time for patches that we’ve gotten throughout Shadowlands coupled with a total communication blackout. Those circumstances are only exacerbated by the ongoing scandal. But I think that there are three plausible windows for when we’ll learn about the game’s next expansion, and I think each one has different implications for the title’s future and the current expansion… so let’s talk about them.
November 2021 (the “very soon” option)
You all remember that survey Blizzard sent out that we all had a good laugh over when it happened, right? Because you also remember that the rival MMO expansion that survey was asking about specifically is launching in November, right? I know, I know, we were all busy giggling over it at the time, but this is an actual real thing with real repercussions, so we need to stop dissolving into a fit of giggles about it. That actually happened.
And, you know, it might provide some interesting insight into Blizzard’s overall strategy, which feels pretty relevant right about now!
Keep in mind that when I say “announcement,” I don’t mean that I expect Blizzard to actually share much about an expansion devoid of a full three-ring circus; I wouldn’t even be surprised if such an announcement were just a trailer and a promise to share more Soon™. But absent a major content patch to release right around the time of the expansion launch (and that is not 9.1.5), releasing the name and even the slightest details about the next expansion would be the best sort of counter-programming that Blizzard could muster against a competitor at the moment.
Such an announcement would almost certainly feel a bit rushed, and it would pretty well confirm that Shadowlands had been trimmed down to just two major content patches. Then again, that’s what most people are expecting at this point anyhow. It would also make a release in 2022 feel more likely, which would keep the overall cadence of expansions largely consistent and avoid having Shadowlands outlast its welcome any longer than it needs to.
Of course, the flip side to all of this is that assuming this is happening also means assuming that Blizzard has its act together and has really been planning this. So I don’t blame you if this sounds highly unlikely at this time. Remember, these are theories, not predictions.
February 2022 (the “next BlizzCon” option)
Sometimes when you have already shot yourself in the foot, the best way to stanch the bleeding is to stop trying to walk. Actually, I think that’s any time you’ve shot yourself in the foot. This analogy got away from me, but the point is that there’s a strong case to be made that maybe the best way for Blizzard to stop with the self-inflicted wounds is to not worry about counter-programming or really doing anything beyond just getting back to the making a good game part of their business model. That was the business model at one point, right?
And hey, we already know this event is taking place next year. So rather than try to gussy things up, maybe the best option and the one management will go with is to just take a mulligan on any kind of announcement this year. It’s not like announcing the expansion would fix the current expansion’s problems, after all, and there’s a general sense among players that making the game actually fun is more important than anything. So why not hunker down and prepare for a truly star-spangled reveal when the next BlizzCon actually rolls around?
Sure, the downside to this will mean that it’s also less likely that the expansion will actually be out in 2022, which is going to have some pretty notable ripple effects on the game as a whole (that every-other-year cadence has an impact on the bottom line, don’t you know) but some of that can be offloaded to the ongoing pandemic and, well, the giant scandal that kind of disrupted everything for a remarkably long time. And hey, is that such a bad thing? Will people really riot about an early 2023 release if the expansion is actually good? Probably not.
Of course, that also presupposes two things. The first is that the amount of work disruption going on is still aiming toward 2022 even if that target is wildly optimistic, and the second is that the next expansion will actually be good. It’s possible that stuff got thrown out and redesigned following recent events, after all…
Fall 2022 (the “oh no everything is on fire, let me try to put it out, oh no now I am on fire” option)
It’s pretty clear that a combination of factors have disrupted operations at Blizzard substantially. While we don’t know it for a fact, I think it’s entirely plausible that the sheer degree of disruption is severe enough that any hopes of an expansion in 2022 have effectively been dashed at this point. Blizzard is no longer in “retain players” mode but “figure out some way, any way to address the problems that have put us in a tailspin,” and that means basically abandoning the game’s cadence to tear down and go back to basics, so to speak.
Announcing the next expansion a year from now means that it won’t be out until 2023 at the earliest and ensures that Shadowlands will be with us for quite some time, which is no doubt going to lead to more short-term retention problems. But you can see the logic if the developers are pretty certain that a wholesale rebuild of major process elements and design goals will fix the problem that WoW currently has. (Whether or not this is a correct assumption depends entirely on what the conclusions are from that initial premise.)
Basically, this is the absolute desperation possibility. Things didn’t just get delayed; they got obliterated on the back end, and now the team is struggling how to remake the game with only slightly more time and not enough to really reboot the whole thing. It would mean a massive disruption to long-term operation and it would be a risky gamble at best, leaving open the very real possibility that more subscription losses occur while hoping that a revitalized experience brings some of them back eventually.
I don’t think this is the option that would ever be chosen as part of a deliberate strategy. But I can see it being the option that’s chosen because in the midst of wide-scale disruption and upheaval, it’s the only option that has a shot at working instead of just pushing out a next expansion and kicking the problem further down the line.
So which of these is accurate? We’ll find out in a month or a few months or a year, won’t we?