WoW Factor: World of Warcraft’s next expansion needs to restore faith in the game

    
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We're actual size, but it seems much bigger to see.

It’s the next World of Warcraft expansion! Except it isn’t. But it’s the announcement of the date on which that will be announced! In a month. I’ve seen a lot of people more than a little miffed about the fact that it’s essentially a case of “announcing that we will announce this other thing,” but that’s not actually much to be mocked; companies do this all the time. It’s pretty normal. “Get ready for this announcement on such-and-such a date” is a pretty common thing to build some hype ahead of time.

Now, doing so more than a month before the actual announcement? That feels a bit more deflection-ish, so that part gets a little bit of side-eye from me. But only a little bit. It’s not the most interesting thing to be discussed and speculated about at this point in my mind, hence why it’s just relegated to a mention here in the introduction. What’s far more important is what’s actually going to be in this announcement, a portentous event that you could argue will determine the very future of WoW as a whole.

Yes, aside from the fact that it’s literally announcing the next expansion. I’m going somewhere here.

The past few years have generally sucked for WoW. Blizzard managed to follow up a well-received expansion with a hideously underwhelming expansion, and it followed up that with some lukewarm leftovers that keep getting pushed as being far more impactful than they really are. That’s bad enough in and of itself, but this has been compounded by multiple scandals coming out of Blizzard in short order, being horribly mismanaged by leadership, and a general sense of flailing around in desperate effort to distract from an ongoing trash fire of a company.

Shove in some clear pipeline and development mismanagement and abrupt course changes and it’s pretty clear that Blizzard has basically spent the past few years struggling to get anything to work properly, helped not one whit by the fact that what it’s been trying to get working is not something that anyone likes or wanted. It’s like bad comedy.

Now, months after when we would usually get an announcement about the next expansion for WoW, we’ve been told that we’re getting our next expansion, and we’ll find out what’s going on there in April. Supposedly this ties into the end of the raid somewhat, although how relevant that even is could be debated at this point. Most players seem to want to put Shadowlands in the Forgetting Closet altogether.

Forgetting.

First things first: This makes seeing the expansion in 2022 intensely unlikely. Never say never and all that, but the fastest turnaround that Blizzard has ever managed between announcement and release is 10 months, which would put the next expansion out in February 2023. Getting it out in December would make this the absolute fastest expansion release ever.

Is that possible? Sure. Is that probable? Not really. It’s not the way to bet.

This is kind of a big deal. It means that 9.2 and the content-free 9.2.5 will have to suffice as WoW’s only draws for another year, and that seems more than a little unlikely to draw widespread praise. Still, that’s the bed that Blizzard has made for itself at this point, and I’m willing to bet that at least some of that comes down to a sense that it’ll all be worth it if the next expansion manages to be well-received. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some level of edict that taking a little more time was acceptable assuming that the expansion manages to win back the crowd because at this point that’s what WoW really needs.

Unfortunately, that’s where the problem lies because it’s not actually a foregone conclusion that the next expansion actually will win back that crowd. It’s more of a hope at this point, and considering that Shadowlands was meant to win back the crowd, I’d say more than a little skepticism regarding what the current team sees as crowd-pleasing is entirely merited.

Let’s not mince words: The people in charge of this expansion are the same people who were in charge of the last two expansions. Most of the same people were in charge during Legion, as well. So what we’re assuming here is either that the team has finally decided to check its own ego and listen to player feedback about the many elements that have been cited as major problems for the game or that somehow the loss of players and fame have produced an air of desperation that produces an actually good expansion.

Is that possible? Sure. Is that probable? Well… it’s still a pretty dubious bet, if you ask me. Far from a losing bet for certain, mind you; a fall from grace can definitely produce some different work, and sometimes a thorough drubbing leads to people re-evaluating what worked before. But it can also lead to the same people doubling down and insisting that you’re just playing it wrong.

Oh snaps.

Do I think that whatever we get is going to mirror the various speculative expansion exercises that I did? Not really; that was never the point of that. I was throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck, and at the end of the day I am one person with one person’s perspective coming up with stuff on a column deadline, not an entire dedicated team able to put together way more ideas and refine them with the help of a large collaborative exercise. I freely expect that Blizzard could do much better than any of my ideas if it wanted to.

But that’s the if. The problem isn’t really with the game itself. It’s not that WoW is old and needs to decline; it’s not that the team behind the game isn’t capable of producing good work. It’s that the current team has a very narrow idea of what acceptable play looks like and routinely diminishes playstyles that lack an interest in that engine, reducing options and making the game increasingly feel flat.

This is why I mention that this is a portentous moment. This doesn’t need to just win back the crowd; it needs to win back the faith of the crowd in a way that’s never really happened before. People don’t just need to be sold on the next expansion; they need to be sold on the idea of the next expansion, on the belief that it’s not just going to be more borrowed power, discarded systems, content islands, and general nonsense that players have repeatedly said and shown they don’t like.

If that’s what’s on display during this announcement? A lot of people are going to stay tuned out from this expansion and increasingly on the game itself, something we’ve already seen in terms of population plummets over the last few years. Right now, there are a lot of people who still care about this game and what it’s built over the years, who want it to be more. If the next expansion promises the third time in a row that WoW fails to deliver on that possibility, the game is going to keep on the slide that it’s been on for a while now, and it’s not going to look pretty in a year’s time.

Is that slide possible to turn around? I definitely believe so. Is it probable?

Answer hazy. Ask me again in April.

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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