It’s been a really long time since we’ve gotten to have some math up ins. You know by this point that I really like having math-centric columns when it comes to expansion release dates and what-not, but I didn’t actually do one when Dragonflight was first announced because… well, because World of Warcraft had given me a bunch of other things to talk about and I just focused on them. That’s really all there is to it. But I have a motivation for doing some math now, and it comes down to a habit some people have of making some truly bad arguments when it comes to this game’s release schedule.
There are certain places, especially certain fan sites, where both writers and commenters will state that if you assume the beta lasts for one month, then obviously this game could be released in two months from now, totally ignoring not only the reality of development (let’s not forget that we have 13 classes in need of talent trees and we’ve seen… two) but also the simple history of how this game tends to deploy its content.
So let’s take a look at the actual math here and ask ourselves how much Dragonflight is going to be taking a speedrun, accepting that the developers actually expect the expansion to launch this year.
Announcement to release
As you know, this is my favorite collection of data points to cite here. It’s something that has been remarkably consistent over the years and serves as, I think, the best predicative model that we have in terms of where Blizzard’s team tends to actually be at. And here is also immediately where that projected release date runs smack into a wall of “are you bloody kidding me.”
The Burning Crusade: Announced 10/28/05, Released 1/16/07 (13 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Announced 8/3/07, Released 11/13/08 (14 months)
Cataclysm: Announced 8/21/09, Released 12/7/10 (13 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Announced 10/21/11, Released 9/25/12 (11 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Announced 11/8/13, Released 11/13/14 (12 months)
Legion: Announced 8/6/15, Released 8/30/16 (12 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Announced 11/3/17, Released 8/14/18 (10 months)
Shadowlands: Announced 11/1/19, Released 11/23/20 (12 months)
Dragonflight: Announced 4/19/22, Releasing 12/31/22? (8 months)
Wow. That is a really fast turnaround, the fastest expansion in the game’s lifespan by a not-insignificant margin of two months if the devs actually make that latest possible release date. It’s four months faster than the average, too, which means that for us to believe in that release date, we have to believe that amidst all the turnover and chaos at Blizzard, in the midst of being bought out and undergoing massive structural changes, the team turned out an expansion that took only 67% of the time between announcement to release as an average expansion.
Excuse me if I don my skeptic hat. But that’s just one metric; let’s look at others.
Second favorite thing to base speculation on! This one is also a decently predictive model, if not an absolute one; it tends to follow a predictable cadence without wild swings in values or a clear trend line. So that’s a good thing. What does this say about the next expansion?
Vanilla: Started 11/7/04, Ended 1/15/07 (26 months)
The Burning Crusade: Started 1/16/07, Ended 11/12/08 (22 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Started 11/13/08, Ended 12/6/10 (25 months)
Cataclysm: Started 12/7/10, Ended 9/24/12 (21 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Started 9/25/12, Ended 11/12/14 (25 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Started 11/15/14, Ended 8/29/16 (21 months)
Legion: Started 8/30/16, Ended 8/13/18 (24 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Started 8/14/18, Ended 11/22/20 (27 months)
Shadowlands: Started 11/23/20, Ending 12/31/22? (25 months)
All right, this actually looks better! An end-of-year release would actually keep well within the average expansion length field, a little bit longer than average but not actually wildly out of sync. Since we have a couple of wildly unpopular expansions in there that got cut short, that would track. Of course, Shadowlands is also an unpopular expansion that got cut short, but let’s not dwell on that.
All right. Here, we must make another assumption, and once again I am making this assumption in the interests of assuming the best of Blizzard’s development staff: that the beta for Dragonflight is right around the corner and will be launching in July. That hasn’t been stated or confirmed anywhere yet, but it is actually not that unusual or weird, and there are signs it’s coming soon. It should also be noted that terminology aside, we’re really counting from the start of public testing, not just “this was labeled beta and not alpha.” So, that having been said…
Vanilla: Beta March 2004, Launched November 2004 (8 months)
The Burning Crusade: Beta October 2006, Launched January 2007 (3 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Beta July 2008, Launched November 2008 (4 months)
Cataclysm: Beta June 2010, Launched December 2010 (6 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Beta March 2012, Launched September 2012 (6 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Beta June 2014, Launched November 2014 (5 months)
Legion: Beta May 2016, Launched August 2016 (4 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Beta April/May 2018, Launched August 2018 (5-4 months)
Shadowlands: Beta April 2020, Launched November 2020 (8 months)
Dragonflight: Beta July 2022?, Launching December 2022? (6 months)
So that’s not actually a terrible figure. It’s not a great one by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s pretty close to the average, and the average is already skewed by a really short test cycle for the first two expansions and a particularly long test cycle for Shadowlands. Very much within the average… if we get that beta test very soon. Otherwise things are starting to look very compressed.
The Burning Crusade: Announced October 2005, Beta October 2006 (12 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Announced August 2007, Beta July 2008 (11 months)
Cataclysm: Announced August 2009, Beta June 2010 (10 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Announced October 2011, Beta March 2012 (6 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Announced November 2013, Beta June 2014 (8 months)
Legion: Announced August 2015, Beta May 2016 (10 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Announced November 2017, Beta April/May 2018 (6-7 months)
Shadowlands: Announced November 2019, Beta April 2020 (6 months)
Dragonflight: Announced April 2022, Beta July 2022? (2 months)
Uh… huh. Herein we have something of a problem, and it’s where some of those structural assumptions I made before come home to roost. If you look at how long the beta would run if it started tomorrow, yes, this is a normal beta timescale. If you look at how long that would mean between announcement and testing starting up, this is about 25% of the average timescale, and even if you compare it to the shortest span of time between announcement and beta it’s a third of that. Yes, the time works out in an absolute sense, but it is still ridiculously quick compared to normal.
Last patch/last raid to expansion release
Oh, this one is always a mess. It’s the way some people really like to measure, but I don’t think it really tracks much effectively. But even here, it kind of doesn’t work. Take a look.
The Burning Crusade: Last patch 8/22/06, Released 1/16/07 (5 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Last patch 3/25/08, Released 11/13/08 (8 months)
Cataclysm: Last patch 12/8/09, Released 12/7/10 (12 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Last patch 11/29/11, Released 9/25/12 (10 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Last patch 9/10/13, Released 11/13/14 (14 months)
Legion: Last patch 6/23/15, Released 8/30/16 (14 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Last patch 8/29/17, Released 8/14/18 (12 months)
Shadowlands: Last patch 1/14/20, Released 11/23/20 (10 months)
Dragonflight: Last patch 5/31/22, Releasing 12/31/22? (7 months)
Yikes. That’s a big yikes. That would make Dragonflight the fastest patch-to-expansion setup since the first expansion. You could argue that I’m being a bit generous here by pointing to patch 9.2.5 as a content patch and that it’s really more accurate to count from patch 9.2, but I’m going mostly by Blizzard’s own standards of what counts as a content patch. It looks better if you count from 9.2, but still awfully quick.
The Burning Crusade: Last raid 6/20/06, Released 1/16/07 (7 months)
Wrath of the Lich King: Last raid 3/25/08, Released 11/13/08 (8 months)
Cataclysm: Last raid 12/8/09, Released 12/7/10 (12 months)
Mists of Pandaria: Last raid 11/29/11, Released 9/25/12 (10 months)
Warlords of Draenor: Last raid 9/10/13, Released 11/13/14 (14 months)
Legion: Last raid 6/23/15, Released 8/30/16 (14 months)
Battle for Azeroth: Last raid 11/28/17, Released 8/14/18 (9 months)
Shadowlands: Last raid 1/14/20, Released 11/23/20 (10 months)
Dragonflight: Last raid 2/22/22, Releasing 12/31/22? (10 months)
As I’ve noted many times, I don’t put much stock in these numbers, but I think here they actually are instructive, especially when taken in context of all the other data we’ve seen here. From a purely content standpoint, yes, Dragonflight by the end of the year works insofar as it fits the usual expectations of update lulls and lack of content. As always, Blizzard spends an awful lot of time at the end of every expansion not updating the live game, but this falls within the parameters people expect for that.
However, when you look at it from the development standpoint, that’s when things look really compressed. Remember, there was nothing obvious to mandate the Dragonflight reveal happening in April beyond deciding it would be in April. There was not a BlizzConline event to sync up with or anything like that. Instead, this was the pace that the developers set for this reveal, and thus it seems at least somewhat reasonable to consider that it was announced there because it was at a comparable development state to other expansions when announced.
Is it possible that a lot more work was being done by the development team before the announcement and that we just happen to be learning about it later than usual? Yes. But that’s also purely speculative and requires assuming that the team was actually very on-the-ball during Shadowlands and was working further ahead than normal, so they are – as noted – going to be able to develop the expansion faster than ever before. It’s not strictly impossible, but it requires a pretty big assumption to be true first.
Similarly, it’s possible to look at the fact that the developers are bringing on additional teams and point to that as a sign that development will go faster than it has in the past, but once again, that requires an a priori assumption that more developers makes development go faster. It does not, and we’ve already had experience with that particular approach in Warlords of Draenor. More developers can help, but when you balance “added productivity of more staff” against “time spent onboarding new staff” it can actually take just as much time even once you factor in the additional resources.
And assuming that the development is just moving faster because the developers want it to is not the way I would like to bet. It certainly doesn’t argue against a rush job.