If you needed a sign of just how bad things were getting at Blizzard HQ, that sign came with the announcement that BlizzConline was not going to be happening in 2022 after all. This is actually something to be really worried about if you care about the long-term health of World of Warcraft! And it’s a sign of a problem in a lot of different ways, some obvious and some subtle, and all of them painting a picture of what’s going on behind the scenes that is neither flattering nor reassuring.
This is not to say that having the convention, virtual or no, was a good idea. Rather, it’s a simple observation of the way that Blizzard has traditionally operated. Under normal circumstances, a combination of ego and community expectations would have meant that even with nothing to announce beyond a WoW expansion and some smaller content updates, Blizzard would have still held the event and put forth its usual lengthy tribute to its own existence. The fact that this is not happening is a sign of the shift in leadership and priorities, as well as the effects that the ongoing scandals have had on the overall cadence of release and communication.
Let’s be clear: If we’re not having a BlizzCon this coming year, I think the odds are low that the convention is coming back in any format. It seems pretty likely from where I’m sitting that the changes in leadership culture are looking at the convention as an unneeded expenditure that prompts a lot of criticism, especially in light of how the last few BlizzCons have gone and how they’re likely to go in the future. There’s no real motivation to bring it back once the studio has let it go.
But let’s leave that to one side for the moment because whether or not you believe the convention will come back in the future, if you believe that there’s nothing to announce to go along with the event… that alone is pretty damn dire.
We’re not so far removed from the days when a new WoW expansion would indeed be considered sufficient content to anchor an entire BlizzCon, the big marquee announcement to carry things through. It’s a bit weak now with Overwatch in de facto maintenance mode (as development on the sequel seems to be dragging, to compound the problems) and Diablo 4 seeming to make very slow progress, but it’s not unheard of to make that the big announcement.
If you don’t think that announcement was planned for BlizzConline, that’s honestly even worse because it shows that the delays we’re talking about in terms of content for the game are reaching the point of years rather than just months. We’re already looking at the tail end of a year in which the game delivered one actual content patch. One!
Shadowlands has not been a high point for the game, and yes, at least one of the reasons for that has been largely outside of developer control. But it’s been more than a year and a half at this point that Blizzard has been expected to adjust to working through a pandemic, and all of the other studios behind the big five games have managed. WoW’s cadence seems to have just gotten worse, offering far less than its competitors both in terms of frequency and quality of updates.
Cancelling the studio’s big showcase reveal this time around is almost certainly the right choice under the circumstances. But it does raise the question of what in the world the various product teams are going to do in order to build up hype and engagement again, both of which are currently languishing.
My personal concern, needless to say, is WoW. And the situation just keeps getting worse here, not just for me but for the community. Right at a time when players and fans need to feel like there’s something to look forward to and good stuff is right around the corner, cancelling BlizzCon feels like admitting plans are in freefall and there’s nothing to announce. It’s like a tacit admission that Shadowlands is going to be sticking around well into 2023, which – for both fans and the company – is easily the worst-case scenario.
Or to put it more simply, right now things are bad. This means that the studio is essentially telling fans that there is no clear picture about when things will get better, and there’s no reason to look forward to a specific date. The studio says it will have unspecified news on unspecified games at an unspecified date. And that is… not a sentiment that makes people more likely to log in and play.
It wasn’t so long ago that I was even speculating about when we would be getting our next expansion announcement because there was honestly a fair bit of ambiguity around that. There still is a lot of ambiguity about when the announcement will happen, for that matter, and what this realistically does is throw the whole situation into a no-man’s land wherein there is no longer any clear date outside of, well, almost right away.
Again, the fundamental problem Blizzard is dealing with at the moment is that people are not happy with the current content and have no real reason to assume it’s going to improve any time soon. This is compounded by the fact that aside from the art, it’s a general and all-consuming sense of disapproval, that there are no positive factors in the game’s favor at the moment. We went from one weak expansion to the next without any real reason to get hyped.
Heck, given all of this the whole “Season of Mastery” server for WoW Classic (which I was originally going to write about this week) is starting to look like an uncomfortable stopgap to paper over the clear lack of any new content happening for the franchise. I’m not saying that’s precisely what’s going on, but once the idea wormed its way into my head, it wouldn’t leave despite my best efforts.
So what comes next? Well, at this point it’s anyone’s guess. My personal feeling is that we’re going to see some kind of announcement the week of November 22nd, although whether that’s a preview of patch 9.2 or the next expansion announcement I can no longer be sure. It seems odd to talk about expansion announcements before a patch announcement, but it feels like at this point there’s a definite need to have something to look forward to. Then again, it’s an open question whether or not enough work has been done to even make an announcement in the first place.
Beyond that, though? It’s incredibly hazy and unclear. Blizzard is continuing to lose control of its own narrative with fans, and the lack of clear communication and goodwill is creating a perfect storm in which players aren’t motivated to keep playing by content and aren’t convinced there’s going to be new content on anything like a reliable timetable.
And quite frankly, right now it feels like an open question if Blizzard is even capable of putting things back on track along the way. Some real work needs to be done to re-rail the game, and everything – including the cancellation of BlizzConline – is just pushing things further and further off the tracks. It’s making Blizzard’s existing problems worse.
November 2nd feels like it’s going to be a bad day for fans.