As we are all waiting for Twitter to finish imploding under its current ownership (because nothing is more fun than rich idiots buying things they don’t understand just to break them in predictable fashions), we all are at least still getting a little more information out of it. For example, earlier this month there was an intriguing tweet from Mike Ybarra, who you all know is currently the head of all things Blizzard-related.
— Mike Ybarra (@Qwik) August 7, 2023
Now, let’s leave aside all of the not especially great things that have happened at Blizzard specifically under Ybarra’s active watch. (Well, let’s not actually leave that aside, but let’s not discuss it further today.) What is he actually alluding to here? What makes him more excited than ever for the future of World of Warcraft? Is this actually a good thing, considering the man’s track record with WoW and what makes him excited? We don’t know. But I think it’s safe to offer some speculation.
First and foremost, I think a little dissection is in order. No, not the insane sort of read-messages-in-tea-leaves dissection that a lot of people apply to pithy comments on Twitter, but I think it’s important to note that two specific people were called out in this tweet, Chris Metzen and Holly Longdale. That’s the creative advisor and executive producer, to be clear. No mention of, say, WoW director Ion Hazzikostas, who has increasingly been moved off-camera over the past few years.
This in and of itself doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Longdale is not exactly the sort of person at loggerheads with Hazzikostas’ design philosophy on the game, but whether or not you like his design choices, Hazzikostas isn’t the ideal video presence for WoW. (Which isn’t a dig; not everyone is comfortable on camera. It’s difficult to feel confident on camera and look good doing it, and heaven knows I can’t accomplish the latter myself.)
But it is interesting. It does tend to suggest a little something, and what it suggests to me is that there’s some degree of shake-up coming with creative direction in general. That’s the sort of thing that might really benefit from trotting Metzen out because… this is Blizzard. Saying “we’ve screwed up and need to do better” isn’t in its lexicon, but trying to win back the crowd is.
So what could it mean? The logical conclusion is that what we’re going to get is the next expansion announcement and Cataclysm Classic, but the thing is that those don’t feel like slam-dunks for me. While I’ve talked before about how WoW Classic is not actually about a classic version of the game, there’s a big gap between that and just literally dropping the expansion that is colloquially seen as the cut-off point for the classic version of the game. Plus, the phrasing implies he’s talking about the modern retail game, not Classic.
Here’s the other thing, though: He’s not saying that he’s excited for the future of the franchise. That kind of shoots down a lot of what people have speculated about this being a prelude to an actual sequel, even aside from basic logic. (Are you keen on a sequel from the studio that’s still actively failing with Overwatch 2? The answer to that is either “no” or “I’m a sucker.” Choose wisely.)
All of this taken as a whole synthesizes some base assumptions we can start making. First and foremost, Ybarra is probably attempting to tease an expansion that he’s hoping will win back the crowd. In and of itself, this isn’t terribly surprising. Dragonflight launched and the crowd went mild, and now they’ve got to find a different angle to work with. So there are a few possibilities here that might be relevant.
The first is that the next expansion has some major narrative fulfillment going on for the game’s setting. This simultaneously seems like the most likely option and also the worst one because regardless of what you think about Chris Metzen as a writer, I don’t think he can really deliver The Warcraft People Want here. The narrative arcs that people were invested in already got wrapped up by now, and that leaves Metzen in a rough place as a writer even if he’s helming the expansion. Do you finish off a story people didn’t like, or do you dredge up a story people did like to do it again and alienate people? Neither option really works!
Our next possibility is that the next expansion will include something akin to the longshot features mentioned earlier this week. This isn’t really an either-or prospect, of course, but I would find it a little odd to see Metzen specifically called up if it’s a gigantic new housing addition or a rework of the class system or something even more drastic. Of course, that also means analyzing the fine print and implying that Ybarra had workshopped the tweet with corporate or something, which feels… let’s say unlikely.
So what’s the third possibility? I’d say it’s an absolute swing-for-the-fences approach, something even bigger like… well, adding a new continent. Again, this isn’t a one-or-the-other thing, but it would actually line up pretty well. Adding a new continent to the world would feel weird for a lot of reasons, but reactions would be mollified if Metzen were there guiding the lore and inclusion to the game. It would be a chance to upend some big foundational parts of the game. And it would potentially really lead to a sea change in how WoW is developed and managed.
Of course, the cynical read is that… of course Ybarra is going to say all of these things because that’s literally his job. He’s not going to take to Twitter and say that the next WoW expansion makes him dread the future of the franchise even if it’s true, since that is sort of the opposite of his job. But even with that in mind, there’s nothing compelling him to say that he’s excited for the future of the game, least of all in that tweet. He’s talking about concerts he’s attending with people. No more need be said.
Lots of people have said that Dragonflight is probably the best we could have expected from this team at this time, and broadly speaking, I agree with that. None of that means that it’s fine, of course; the only reason this is the best the team could do is because it was doing really badly before now. But it does mean that there’s probably a lot of pressure on the team to make this next expansion a home run.
So in some ways this tweet really says less than nothing. Ybarra is hopeful that this turns out to be a home run. We’ve seen what stuff he’s already greenlit and said “yeah, ship it” to, which is not necessarily encouraging, but that doesn’t inherently mean he’s wrong. It’s something to chew on as November approaches day by day, as it is wont to do.
And either this will seem like a really prescient prediction or it will be yet another entry in the list of hilarious Blizzard quotes along with “don’t you guys have phones?” So either way we win! Sort of.