Last week, I argued that a lot of the elements of World of Warcraft: The War Within that at least sound good on paper. Apparently I missed the fact that the cinematic having Anduin show emotions angers some of the most toxic awful fans of this game, so that’s another mark in its favor. But a lot of worthwhile chatter has instead focused on the idea that these expansions will definitely be smaller so Blizzard can get them out faster, whether or not we’ll be getting enough content to justify price tags, and so forth.
Here’s the stance that might be surprising: I don’t actually care about any of that.
In the abstract, sure, I would be more than a little miffed about being served up yearly expansions for full price and half the content. But at this point being afraid about that is basically a matter of being apprehensive over something that has yet to actually happen, and it’s overlooking that announcing all three expansions at once means that WoW has something it has not seemed to have for years now: a plan.
Way back in 2019, I wrote about how at the time it definitely didn’t look like WoW’s designers had a plan. That feeling has not gotten better since then; if anything, it’s gotten worse. At best, you can point to things like the developers saying outright that Covenants were going away after Shadowlands as proof that there was some kind of long-term planning at work, but even then that means trying to justify planning to add something just to remove it later. In the words of Chidi Anagonye, that’s worse. You do get how that’s worse, right?
Of course, there was a lot of marketing hand-wringing about how Dragonflight was the start of a third era of development, something that is also not credible as a buzzword, but it also didn’t come with any sense of a plan. Indeed, it seems ever more clear to me that Dragonflight was mostly a grab-bag of loose ends and ideas and filler, a vague set of content bits that could sort of go anywhere to buy some time. It does not feel like an organic bridge to a future, but it does have the foundations that are being carried forward into the future.
And while that might seem like a little thing, that’s actually a big deal. The idea that what is being done now will still be a part of the game with the next expansion and the next expansion after that is a really big deal. Even if it shouldn’t be.
See, one of the consistent problems you run into when you don’t have a plan is that you don’t really have anything that doesn’t fit. You plan for solving the problems you have Right Now instead of thinking further ahead. It’s the sort of mindset where borrowing a hundred bucks from Peter so you can pay back Paul makes perfect sense, even though thinking ahead would tell you that all you’re doing is shuffling the deck chairs.
Why does everything in the game keep being rebuilt on a regular basis? Well, that’s why. Because there is no plan. There is not an overarching design; there are problems to be solved today, and if those solutions are going to cause problems further on down the line, we can deal with those problems then. This is not a good idea as it does not make the game play well or feel cohesive, but it is an idea that has become very pervasive for Blizzard as a whole.
“Having a plan” means that these counterproductive, reactive design whims must be reined in on some level. We can’t be sure whether, say, Midnight will involve adding a different Hero Spec onto your existing lineup or if it’ll expand Hero Specs to more talents or whatever. But we can be confident that Midnight is not going to suddenly rework the whole talent system again because that would wildly deform what had already been done and wouldn’t be compatible with the existing plan.
The flip side to that, of course, is that when you have a plan, you can run into roadblocks. Let me use an obvious example: If you have a firm plan, it’s easy to find out partway through the expansion that players hate a specific element of the design for Demon Hunters, and you’ve already committed to that for the next three expansions! Isn’t it better to not have a plan?
Well… no. Because it’s very obvious that this can happen when you don’t have an overarching plan just as easily. Look at the Sylvanas arc through Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands. It was pretty clear that people hated her arc at the start of the expansion, and even if we’re generous and assume that the ending for that expansion was planned from the start… did anyone like it more when Shadowlands tried to call a mulligan and give her a redemption arc?
The problem isn’t that a plan locks you into a bad idea; it’s when you go with a bad idea to begin with. A plan just means that you at least know where you’re heading, even if you need to change the details and course-correct.
I’ve also mentioned before that Blizzard has an unfortunate tendency to overwrite the past consistently by focusing on the newest thing, and that’s another symptom of not really having a plan beyond doing what seems cool and catchy in the moment. This doesn’t mean that you’re always wrong. Sometimes what seems cool and catchy in the moment is actually cool and catchy! But it also means you’re forever playing catch-up and can’t effectively make use of all of your past material. One of our commenters on a recent WoW piece noted (correctly) that WoW has a huge amount of content but only the tiniest sliver of content that’s remotely relevant to players, compared to other games where more or even all of it still has some purpose.
Considering that the expansions are going to involve returning to Quel’thalas and to Northrend, I think this is an area that the developers are trying to address as well – and it’s a great place to dig in. There’s so much in this game on top of the new things being added, and this is another place where content can be offered without making us feel as if we’re getting less per expansion.
Now… as always, the big key here is going to be executing on this plan. Having a plan is all well and good, but if you have one that doesn’t work, you don’t really get the gold star or even a passing grade. I’m glad to see that the studio is trying to make a plan and stick with it, but a lot is going to depend on the execution. Heck, it’s even possible (though by no means certain at this time) that we really are going to have such a notable paucity of content in the expansions that it’s going to be a real problem.
But for right now, I’m happy that we have a plan that extends well into the future. There are loads of reasons to be suspicious and not to award passing marks just for having the plan. But I am more hopeful now that it exists than I was before anything remotely similar seemed to be in place.