If this is what Blizzard listening looks like, folks, now is the time to be concerned for the future of World of Warcraft.
All right, that’s slightly hyperbolic because the time to be concerned for the future of this game was more like seven months ago, but now is as good a time as any to come to the conclusion that this game is in trouble. We just had our big shiny reveal of the game’s next major content update, and the general fandom reaction that I’m seeing is at best a tired sigh and a mutter of “give us a date already.”
Not that you would know any of this from the video Blizzard put out, which is the exact same back-patting celebration of Blizzard itself that it’s been putting out basically forever. It’s just that the illusion isn’t working any longer, and now people have gone from being willing to buy into the illusion to being exasperated that it’s still being presented as some sort of truism. And that’s what got put forward. Absolutely baffling.
Let’s back up for a second, though. Why is the reaction for Eternity’s End (the next content update, if you somehow missed it) so “meh” as an aggregate? After all, people have been complaining that Shadowlands is lacking in content, and this is content. What else do people want, right?
Well, an indication that feedback is being taken into account. This video wasn’t it.
Let’s just pick an example. One of the things that we know players will be doing in this patch is figuring out how to speak the language of the automa, the not-quite-robots who have a not-quite-robot name that’s going to bother everyone. (Yes, I want to type “automata” every time. That’s not the name, but let’s not quibble.) The language is musical and runic, and taken at face value, that could be fun and a different sort of gameplay loop.
Then, of course, you realize that this is almost certainly going to be more of the mandatory time-gating that we got from Renown and Blizzard’s other systems under a new skin, and you can just feel the energy in the room fizzle out like a punctured whoopie cushion, letting out a sad little whine as it empties into a flat, sad piece of useless rubber.
Obviously, I don’t know that yet. I haven’t played with this new content, and it’s entirely plausible to say that you have faith Blizzard wouldn’t do that when people have been complaining about time-gated content with this expansion. But what reason do you have to believe that? It’s subtle, but I already said it. Faith.
You know, that thing Blizzard is real short on lately.
Hoping that this isn’t going to be another time-gated grind like before is all well and good, but we have no actual evidence for that, no reason to hope for better other than having faith that Blizzard wouldn’t triple down on something players loathe. Do you have faith in that at this point? I sure don’t, and judging by the general reactions, I don’t think the majority of gamers have faith in that either.
Of course, none of this would be an issue if it had actually been communicated by the presentation, but again, that would have taken away from the actual presentation being an uninterrupted back-patting session for the studio. We heard more about how this zone had the most amazing water that you can walk on than we did about actual gameplay mechanics, not to mention plenty of talk about how this is the conclusion to a saga that started back in Warcraft III, which…
Well, no. And quite frankly, this is insulting to your audience.
It’s insulting on one level because we actually did have an expansion wrapping up all that story. Warcraft III was easily the game most focused on the big-picture cosmology of the Burning Legion, the game that introduced them very clearly as an existential threat to life on Azeroth, and then we got Legion in which we thoroughly defeated that threat. It even featured the fate of several major lore characters from Warcraft III along the way. That was the wrap-up. You did that. It was years ago.
It’s also insulting because it’s trying to create a new narrative where all of that stuff you didn’t like about the game’s storytelling (and oh my word I have talked about this so many times; at one point I accidentally turned an exhausted rant about one of these stories into a surprise bonus column) was just setting up a grand finale for someone we’ve never met or talked about or been concerned with showing up.
Seriously, I saw a great summary of the entire Jailer arc in one comment: “We’re racing to stop someone we don’t know from doing something we don’t understand for reasons we haven’t been told in a place we aren’t familiar with for stakes that aren’t clear.” Trying to tell us that the Jailer is the culmination of a storyline other than the one that introduced him is insulting to our intelligence and even the most basic understanding of how storytelling works.
And that’s what we got instead of gameplay details.
Herein lies the problem: Blizzard’s tone has not changed in the slightest. The Eternity’s End preview demonstrated that clearly. This was not the presentation of a company that knows it has screwed up in various ways but is ready to win back the crowd; this was the presentation of a company that decided that if it just acts like it doesn’t have any egg on its face, no one will notice the bits of eggshell it’s consistently blowing out of its mouth.
This, to me, is the damning part of the whole thing. I’m not saying that I realistically would have expected a gigantic shift in design priorities while we’re mid-expansion; that’s just a pipe dream. When Blizzard can barely get its act together to assemble a content update, no one’s going to expect it to announce that Shadowlands is cancelled and replaced with The Expansion You Actually Want. But it was eminently within Blizzard’s power to act on some feedback, like the feedback that it’s terrible about communicating, that people don’t like these systems, and that no one is happy with the current plotline.
What did we get? Defense of the lore and more recitals of how it’ll all make sense when you see how it ends, don’t you know. Interviews scattered across outlets that contained valuable information being translated piecemeal without clear throughlines. A lack of clear communication. The exact same mess and a half being made without the minimal amount of shame being shown, not even a “we’re sorry we’ve been really slow with content patches” or even an admission that maybe this is being cut a little bit short.
Or, in shorter form, the exact same developer arrogance that has led WoW to this place in the first place on full display, acting as if “we brought back tier sets” was going to get rave reviews while ignoring all the other material critique of the game at this time.
So yeah, if you love WoW, I’d start feeling really worried about the future of this game. Because if this is Blizzard listening, the company still appears to be hitting a zero on the clue meter.