I was briefly considering doing another math column now that we actually have a date when World of Warcraft: Dragonflight started alpha testing, but… well, let’s be real, that would be kind of redundant. My first column about math wasn’t all that long ago, and while the very next day did not in fact see the introduction of the alpha test, it was only a couple weeks later. It’s not like that wildly changes any of that initial math, after all.
But what I haven’t actually done is predict whether or not Dragonflight is going to be good. What I’ve argued several times is that release date is too soon. That’s a related clause, but it’s not the same thing.
So let’s actually talk about predictions regarding quality instead of talking around it. I’m not actually in the alpha at the moment, so I am on the outside looking in (very much by design), but does what we’ve seen so far actually look good? Does this look like an expansion that’s going to bring WoW back to its glory days? Or does it look like we’re going to have a hat trick of bad expansions with this one, for better or for worse? (Well… worse. That’d just be worse.)
Here, then, is my most fundamental and core concern when it comes to the current team that is in charge of designing WoW, beyond the teams like art and music that consistently nail it on the regular: I’m not sure that this leadership actually understands why people play the game or what keeps them playing.
Yes, I hear you in the comments about ready to state that director Ion Hazzikostas clearly understands the hardcore raiding scene and wants to support that, although whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your perspective. But I meant what I said. I don’t doubt that many of the people in charge have ideas about what makes the game better or worse, but I’m not sure that they actually understand what players enjoy and what they don’t.
This isn’t to state that there’s some simple and transparent solution, like “WoW is a game about running dungeons that you queued for” or “WoW is a game about being able to take on challenges with friend groups of all sizes” or “WoW is a game about constant PvP between its two factions.” The actual answer is that all of these have varying degrees of correctness, and there are a lot of other things that led to WoW having a particular cocktail of elements that players enjoyed and latched on to as it rose in prominence. But nothing has given me the impression that the leadership understands these reasons and sees other reasons as all being equally valid.
If anything, it seems more like the people making decisions have much more limited visions; they seem to believe the main problem is players not understanding and accepting the way the game should be played. This is a bad look right away, and it also leads to a sense of devs arranging story beats and content drops and the like without understanding what MMORPG gamers are looking for on a core motivational level.
None of this is new as we’re walking toward Dragonflight. It’s just the same old song. But nothing that I’ve seen thus far indicates to me that the people in charge have really internalized any of this as a lesson. There are just lots of subtle things here and there that make me feel like the people in charge understand that, say, players hate borrowed power… but not the reasons behind it or the way this might inform the fundamental elements of how the game is designed.
None of that prevented Legion from being a good expansion, even if it was still an expansion with issues (a lot of which became screamingly obvious in Battle for Azeroth when the good didn’t balance out the bad). It’s not that this leadership cannot deliver a good expansion; it’s that they don’t seem to understand how it happens when it does. If you’ll permit me to paraphrase a great line: Good expansions aren’t released; they escape. And the core philosophies that are going into Dragonflight are good. We’re seeing mostly good stuff.
Yeah, there’s some bad stuff too (like, seriously, Dracthyr having to be in dragon form for combat is a bad decision on several level), but if you’re expecting WoW to get things entirely right even with heavy feedback, you’re living in a dream world. There’s jank, but the philosophy is right, the approach is solid. No borrowed power in the more immediate and obnoxious sense, a flight system that seems fun, talent trees that have some issues but do at least get at the possibility for some weird builds or personal satisfaction if you don’t mind some sub-optimal picks, and so on.
None of those things is a problem in Dragonflight so far. There is nothing about Dragonflight’s content that stands up and shouts to me that this expansion is going to be bad, and nothing that triggers my carefully honed sense of trepidation. But you’ll also note that I said “content” there, with the implication being that the core might be good, but there is a problem.
Actually, there are two.
First of all, the release window is just too small. There is very little time to iterate and fix things that might not be working, and that’s even assuming that the “not working” stuff is mostly a matter of “we accidentally put in the wrong values in a spreadsheet” or “that’s doing too much damage, obviously.” It’s going to put a major time crunch on everything, and whether or not the designers crunch to get it out in time or not, there’s a better-than-even chance that it winds up either rushed and unfinished or very rushed and not good.
Second of all is the dragon in the room. System-wise, this feels like a solid base hit of an expansion, not the big showy home run that gets the crowd on their feet. And that’s not the wrong approach in the abstract, but it does exacerbate an enthusiasm gap. People who are passionate about the game (like me) aren’t largely watching saying “dang, I can’t wait to play this game.” A lot of us are saying “gosh, please don’t let this one suck.”
I have never not bought a WoW expansion. But between the scandals and the simple reality of this expansion, my current feeling is that this is making me cautiously optimistic. Some of that is just to be expected after being burned twice, and some of it is just that the expansion isn’t doing a great job of giving me a reason to stand up and cheer about the prospect of what it has so far. (This is not helped by the fact that Evokers are almost a laundry list of everything I personally don’t want, which is hardly a mark against the expansion but certainly doesn’t make things better.)
And yeah, cautious optimism is good. It’s better than “creeping dread.” But it’s not the sort of thing that gets anyone other than your most ardent fans saying “this is going to be so awesome.” We’ve got a lot of expansions that promised something good and underdelivered, and aiming for the base hit is the right call to avoid that, but it’s still just a base hit.
So that’s my prediction. I think there’s a good foundation for Dragonflight, but it still has a long way to go to build enthusiasm and it doesn’t have much time to be able to hit its stride. Both of those things make me more than a little leery of what happens when it releases.