WoW Factor: Initial thoughts on the World of Warcraft Dragonflight reveal

And the crowd goes mild


First things first, I want to clarify something: This is being dubbed an early response to World of Warcraft: Dragonflight because… well, it’s a new expansion. We’re going to be talking about it a lot until the next year when it probably gets released (the total lack of a release date, combined with Wrath of the Lich King coming to Classic servers in 2022, should tell you up front that it’s not planned until 2023). The point is that we’re going to have lots of time and space to peel things away and really examine it in detail.

That having been said, well… gosh, the reaction to this particular reveal was kind of a giant wash of meh, wasn’t it? I don’t mean that no one was excited (someone always is, and that’s good), but this definitely did not feel like the desperate break-glass-in-case-of-emergency sort of reveal that I think a lot of people were expecting. There’s a general sense of “well, that’s the next expansion” floating around at the moment… and I think that’s understandable because the biggest thing the expansion needs isn’t in the reveal.

And it can’t be.

See, the biggest problem with Shadowlands isn’t Torghast, and it isn’t Covenants, and it isn’t… all right, I could list every expansion feature and then some, so let’s just speed through and say it’s not mechanical. The biggest problem is that the developers had an idea of how players would want to play, and when they were told that they were incorrect, they responded with “no we’re not” and doubled down. When it comes to original sins with WoW’s current state, “developer obstinance” is right up there.

You cannot really put changing that front and center in a reveal trailer. You can try, but it usually works badly (for example, look at the whole “unpruning” thing and how ridiculous that got). Reasonably speaking, this expansion was always going to be facing an uphill battle in that regard, and packaging it the way that the developers did still leaves the question of how that developer obstinance has changed. Is it still there? Is it being toned down? Are things actually changing?

Now, obviously, I would watch an entire reveal that was about deterministic gear rewards and changing the casual vs. hardcore development balance and class design philosophy that mentioned belatedly, “oh, the expansion is about dragons.” But that’s not as catchy as a reveal, so I can’t exactly fault anyone for saying that they were not doing that.

Naturally, this means that any excitement about the expansion is going to be a little more muted. We’ve seen this team talk the talk without walking the walk before, and just talking that talk again is not going to put me over the moon. Let’s temper our expectations and see what happens with that walk, huh?

Man... or dragon man?

So then, how was my aim? I’m giving myself no credit for predicting the title; we knew that already. Dragon Isles as a location? Check. No housing? Check. Wrathion is a central feature in the story? That’s a check. New class? Check (and I’ll talk about that as it interacts with races in just a moment, I promise). No discussion on new class/race combos at this time or about gearing systems; we had a nod toward discussing factions in brief, which seems to be setting the stage for more developments, but as yet I’m calling it in the same category of “no answer given, prediction yet to be confirmed or denied.”

Where was I wrong? Well, I expected borrowed power and we got talent trees back. On that I was undeniably wrong, and I’m happy to be wrong about that. (Talent trees are better than I had expected.) The other point of debate is that I predicted no new races, and we’re getting a new race for the new class… sort of.

Something I talked about a while back is that hero classes as they exist in WoW have slotted into a space wherein these classes are states of being as much as they are professions. You can learn how to be a Warrior, or a Mage, or a Shaman. Being a Death Knight requires learning, yes, but it also requires your being altered by the Lich King in a way that changes you permanently; ditto Demon Hunters. In that context, Evokers are really not all that different!

Put it another way, if we didn’t have the Dracthyr race listed as a separate race, there’d be no practical difference. All Evokers are Dracthyr and all Dracthyr are Evokers. The only thing that makes this hero class unusual is the fact that Dracthyr are not “altered” into their state; they were always Dracthyr. It’s more of a lateral move than a major one.

Taking all that into account, I’m giving myself around a 70% hit rate for predictions here. Better than usual, although I revise the right to adjust later based on how some of those “no answer given” bits shake out later. This may not matter to anyone else, but I am still personally glad to have a hit rate that’s better than a coin flip but not actually indicative of precognitive ability.

Flap flap fire fire.

So with that out of the way, what are my thoughts on the actual reveal, without starting to speculate about the things we don’t actually know about yet? Well, for one thing, talent trees are back. More than that, they seem to be adapting to a much more expansive system for talent trees, whereby you can decline less useful or necessary abilities in exchange for more focus or passives. Obviously we don’t know all of the details of it yet, and I am naturally skeptical at this point because we’ve had this excised multiple times, but I am cautiously optimistic and I’m glad it’s not straight-up borrowed power.

Dragon riding looks fun, and while a lot of people have (fairly) compared the system to another game’s mount, I think I’ve made my position on this sort of thing very clear. It also feels like the closest the expansion reveal has come to really addressing that issue of “are the developers listening” that we could expect. Look, you get flight! Right away! As a core feature! It’s more engaging and neat and has a whole system associated with it! Aren’t you excited?

The storyline that we’ve had revealed thus far looks… well, kind of boring, and it’s a big open-ended blob that has traditionally not been something that WoW’s writing team is great at. Then again, at this point WoW’s writing team is batting a really low average, so we might as well try something different. And didn’t I speculate about trying different things and less of a central throughline? Probably not a bad call when the developers want to change things up.

There’s a lot more to be revealed, a lot more to be analyzed, and a lot of stuff that’s going to depend on execution and further development. But there’s also no borrowed power, no immediate red flags in the wake of Shadowlands, and the possibility that this genuinely is working at being a more grounded and more open expansion than we’ve had for a few years. I don’t know if I’d call myself optimistic at this point, but I want to be, and I think there’s definitely space here to keep turning things around.

Put it another way, WoW is a big ship with a small rudder. That means that it naturally takes a while to turn, and it can seem as if the turns it’s making aren’t big enough. But there’s reason to see this as a potential sign that yes, the ship is turning. Whether it’s enough or not remains to be seen.

And discussed for the next year or so. Again, don’t expect this one this year.

By the way, if you’re wondering why I didn’t mention the biggest part of the Wrath of the Lich King Classic announcement, don’t you worry! I’ll have another column discussing it tomorrow. It will not be kind, nor does Blizzard already mismanaging their player saving throw deserve kindness. So look forward to that.

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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