Well all right, then. This was unexpected. I honestly did not expect that Blizzard’s need for content would overwhelm basic needs of testing and maintenance, but it turns out that the company is at least now stating the expansion is totally going to come out this year and World of Warcraft will not have an expansion year slip by un-expanded. Not going to lie, this was not my prediction and was not on my metaphorical bingo card for this particular story.
Fortunately, there’s a whole lot to talk about when it comes to this particular announcement, starting with some actual questions about how reliable that end-of-year date actually is and moving from there to associated speculation vis-a-vis the expansion itself and what we’ve seen so far. As always, I want to cut a fine line here between cynicism and optimism; there are a lot of people who are insistent that this is definitely going to be like last time based purely on wishes, and there are a lot of people who are insistent that this is going to be awful based purely on history. So let’s try to thread the needle.
First and foremost, there’s a question to be asked here that a lot of people seem to be ignoring out of hand: Is this a genuine statement? Is Blizzard actually serious about launching the expansion this year? And the answer is… yes, probably. But not necessarily.
This is not the first time (or even in the top 10 times) that Blizzard has done the “we don’t know when it’s releasing yet, but it’ll be by the end of this year” thing with an upcoming release. And as it happens, the company’s track record for meeting those deadlines is pretty good! But not perfect. Warcraft III Reforged clearly came out way before it was ready even if you ignore the many ways the title was botched, but it also overshot its predicted end-of-year release by a month.
As a result, it would not be a shock like none other if Dragonflight got delayed into 2023. There is precedent. Shadowlands was delayed itself. But recall an aphorism that is oft-quoted but remarkably difficult to source accurately: The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet. While there is uncertainty and potential ambiguity, it’s more reasonable to assume that Dragonflight will indeed by out this year.
Is that going to work out, though?
MOP’s own Andy McAdams adroitly pointed out that if you were working at Blizzard and tasked with producing an expansion that could actually be released this year on a realistic timeframe, Dragonflight is what that expansion would look like. It’s smaller than usual in terms of raw landmass, it’s got some elements that make for a relatively low development cost, and it has a lot of things that feel like they could be convincingly made to control scope as much as anything. It works in that regard.
Of course, in the very same thread I point out that this is also what would look like the first step toward a rushed and slipshod product. That’s the real struggle here. It’s not that he’s wrong; it’s that in either case, we are making assumptions based on things we don’t know and can’t know ahead of time when it comes to the overall quality of this particular expansion until it’s in our hands.
Consider the following: By the timeframe established now, the expansion has less than six months to go through public testing and release. Is this impossible? Of course not. Is it unusual? Very. Is it, in fact, directly out of character for Blizzard and actually directly opposed to what the developers have said they want their philosophy to be moving forward? Entirely.
If we assume that all of the talk that’s been put forth about “we’re going to listen better and iterate more on feedback” was an actual philosophical shift behind the scenes and not merely the equivalent of your college boyfriend making vaguely apologetic squawking noises until you agreed that you weren’t breaking up, this immediately undercuts that by virtue of the simple reality that a shorter timeframe means less time to iterate. Even if Blizzard gets the best and clearest feedback ever and it responds to it with the best turnaround ever, it’s still giving the developers less opportunity to actually do anything about this.
And for all that there are areas of corner-cutting within the expansion’s concept, there are also a lot of things here that are immediate sticking points to me as potentially having issues. Talent trees, for example, are not just being reintroduced but basically built anew from the ground up, and there’s no assurance that every tree works correctly and is engaging to play with. That’s an obvious place where a few changes could mean the difference between “this is fun” and “this is garbage,” and less time to iterate upon that when players get their hands on it means more chances for it to be the latter.
Not to mention that if the past four or so years have taught us nothing, it is that we really, really should not count on Blizzard making the right decisions the first time around. So if the vetting process for “we’re going to do better than we did during Shadowlands” starts with “we’re giving less time for feedback and less time to act upon it as well,” then… you’ll forgive me if that announcement doesn’t fill me with confidence.
Ultimately, I think this is what simultaneously bothers and worries me the most. While I definitely like the idea of getting the next expansion sooner rather than later (after all, the less time we wind up spending in Shadowlands the better), my predictions about Dragonflight not making it until 2023 have been predicated on the idea that whether or not the developers are trying to make something good, a rushed expansion is not going to actually fix anything. And this definitely has the look of something being rushed.
Do I know for a fact that it is rushed, that Blizzard doesn’t have more work done at this point than expected, or any of the above? No. But that’s definitely what it looks like from this vantage point, and ultimately all we have to go on is speculation. It’s possible that there’s a substantial chunk of the story we don’t know at the moment, but it’s also possible that first impressions are even more accurate than they initially appear and Dragonflight is definitely going to be a rush job.
And the thing about rush jobs is that they are always worse than what would happen if you weren’t rushing. Not that they’re always garbage; you can have a rushed project that still winds up being pretty darn good. But a rushed product will always be worse than a non-rushed project, and it’s hard to see the current state of Dragonflight as anything but rushed.
If it turns out to be a rushed expansion that’s otherwise good? Awesome, even if it’ll still be less than it could have been. But if it’s a rushed expansion that turns out bad, making a downright hat trick for Blizzard? That feels like a pretty solid argument for not rushing.
So yeah, I’m a bit more nervous than excited.