Wow Factor: Welcome the desert of the real Blizzard

Looking closer.

This entire column came about because our team was discussing World of Warcraft at work and I observed something kind of odd: The Dracthyr just don’t look cool.

Obviously, everyone’s going to have different thresholds for what is and is not cool, but to me, it seems like the Dracthyr have somehow assiduously evaded everything that might start making being a dragon feel cool. Their willowy, serpentine frames don’t feel like a fit with WoW’s existing style, especially for dragons, and they wind up feeling out of place as a result. (Androgyny and visibly non-binary models are a good thing, but these miss the mark.) Visages look so much like other races with stuff on top of them. There’s a lack of actual armor rigging on the main models, which you can minimize but never fully escape. It’s weird on some level.

But I think it’s worth examining why that is because it tells you a lot about where Blizzard is as a company at this point. Even just starting with the most basic question of why Dracthyr lack any gender markers, the answer seems obvious: It’s because this allows the team to just animate one model instead of two. And it doesn’t even have to be rigged for any sort of armor to fit on top.

Let’s take a step back to the comfy slopes of July 2021. I wrote back then about how the then-breaking scandal for Blizzard was clearly the start of a descent for the studio, and then I wrote not too long afterwards about the fact that Blizzard was never going to be Blizzard again. But I think it was easy to miss my argument that Blizzard has simply never been what a lot of people thought it was. It was an image that was cultivated, and it was useful for marketing, but it was not actually indicative.

At this point, that image has been punctured. But that also means that we’re now seeing what Blizzard is like for real, without any of the excuses or any of the imagery holding up. And it is, in many ways, perfectly encapsulated by the often-used intensely dopey picture of a Dracthyr that I have trotted out numerous times and will continue to do so basically forever because it kind of demonstrates a lot of what the problems are.

we have au ra at home

Sure, we’ve gotten a lot of art of Dracthyr that tries to make them look cooler following this intensely uninspiring shot, but this shot is not inaccurate or weirdly framed. It is, in fact, an accurate representation (and it’s even official art, so… you know, this is what the team wants you to think of). And as noted, it’s remarkable that it completely misses the “cool” marker even with all of us being well aware that the art team for WoW has remained a shining star through everything.

How does that work out? How is it that we wind up with this? Well… you know why. Because, as mentioned, the goal was to get something out. Instead of making a new race with two genders, Blizzard found it easier to make a single race that looks kind of androgynous so it can be male or female, and you don’t have to even rig it to work with anything other than bespoke armor assets. And then you have the Visages, which you can use most of the time and are just retextured other races, and… the whole thing is a slapdash process.

But it has to be a slapdash process because holy crap, this expansion needs to come out. I’ve written at length speculating on the mess that seemed to be going on behind the scenes with Blizzard all through Shadowlands just from a development standpoint. Have you forgotten that Blizzard brought Proletariat and Vicarious Visions both into its fold to help out with things? The former was a new purchase, the latter was a full absorption, but in both cases it seems clear that the goal here is to get more bodies, more people, less autonomy, more subservience to the Blizzard core.

Why? Because Blizzard takes too long to turn out products, there’s an acquisition going on, and more things need to come out more quickly.

This is not exactly a surprising outcome. After all, it’s long been clear that Blizzard’s development on WoW since Warlords of Draenor has been the worst of all possible worlds from a production standpoint. It was simultaneously slow and bad. When your studio takes too long to release everything but everything you release turns out to be gold (StarCraft, Diablo II, Warcraft III, and of course WoW) you’re seen as justified in being fussy. But when it takes too long to release everything and everything turns out to be mediocre or just outright bad, you’re expected to either get faster or get better.

I speculated when all this first went down that there was the possibility this led to things getting better… but also acknowledged the reality that “faster” was far more likely.  It’s much harder to make things good when you can make them reliably faster, and that means we get a new race (but not really) to be a new class that still seems to be answering a question nobody asked.

This is what I always wanted.

Am I saying Evokers are bad, will play poorly, and the people who are excited for them are stupid poop-heads who deserve to get shoved in lockers? Of course not. (Although evidence suggests that the healing spec does play poorly, at least from people in testing.) I haven’t actually tried them out yet, and I’m going to find out in a few more weeks along with the majority of players.

What I’m saying is that Evokers have an air of being half-finished and something thrown together because “we need something dragon-related for a hero class, write it up, let’s make it one race so the animations are easier.” There are little signs all over the place. “Art doesn’t have time to fully rig the model, maybe we can do this like druids.” “It needs to be a healer, maybe it’s full spellcaster? Will anyone miss dragons not having claws?” “Could we get the lore team to justify these things being different from drakonids? By the end of the week, please.”

When you’re piling more people on to a project, that’s usually a sign that the project is not going terribly well, and this definitely seems to be in that overall wheelhouse. As much as I pointed out the patent absurdity of this being a “third era” of development for WoW, there is a sea change that’s actually occurred here. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of sea change that replaces a bad system with one that is not… actually any better. We’re not talking about “development before was bad but now it’s better,” just “development before was bad and now it’s a different kind of bad.”

Is it antithetical to what Blizzard used to be? Not really, no. It’s just that now the illusion has worn off and the pretensions of same are gone as well. All we have left is dragons that don’t look cool, and hopefully they play all right to be fun for somebody. And it’s worth keeping in mind how we got here.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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