WoW Factor: The streak The War Within needs to break for World of Warcraft


On November 13th, 2008, World of Warcraft’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, was released to an eager population. The prior expansion, The Burning Crusade, had been well-received across both general gaming publications and specialist media, and while there were people who were really just cantankerous about the mere fact that WoW was dominating the overall MMO market (there always have been people cranky about that, and not without justification), honestly it seemed pretty clear where we were. As reviews began to roll in, it felt like it was kind of just a cementing of the new status quo. WoW was on top, and the game could keep racking up positive reviews for its new expansions as long as it kept releasing them.

Two years later, everyone got a dash of cold water in the face.

The point here is not to re-litigate the argument over whether Cataclysm was a bad expansion. What I want to do today is discuss how Cataclysm started a new status quo for the game, one that has actually remained unbroken for what is now 14 years – far longer than expectations that a new WoW expansion would honestly be good. Instead, WoW has never followed a good expansion with another good expansion. Which… is weird to be thinking about with The War Within’s beta starting.

Now, to be fair, patterns are not laws of nature. I’ve done many columns that are about predicting expansion dates with math, but the point of those columns is that you can look at data and extrapolate information which may or may not line up with the things being said by the people in charge. But it doesn’t mean that actually stated facts are lies or something. I can tell you “the pattern here is that we get 22 months between the first patch and the next expansion,” to make up data I do not track, but if a developer says “the next expansion comes out 20 months after that,” well, that’s the date.

Heck, for a long time there was the asinine assumption that there was the Good Expansion Team and the Bad Expansion Team, and the Bad Team would get one expansion before the Good Team got the next one. You have to round a little bit in places (Mists of Pandaria had that awful talent overhaul and the devaluing of currency, and Legion really saw the whole Mythic+ model metastasize), but it was at least a pattern that had been consistently followed until, well, Shadowlands launched.

But even back then I noted it was a realistic possibility.


My point here is not to speak evil into the world and say, “Well, The War Within is going to be really bad.” I do not know that, and I am as always hoping that is not the case. Rather, my point is to give voice to an anxiety that has been bubbling in the back of my mind for months now because while I am happy to make any number of jokes about how Dragonflight is one of WoW’s most expansions of all time, that is still arguably a base hit by the game’s standards.

That’s not to say no one dislikes it. Lots of people have complaints about elements of the expansion, and some people have completely clown takes on it that amount more to “I don’t know what I’m talking about” rather than substantial critique. (Yes, that absolutely includes the people who are mad about the game because now it’s all inclusive and has story and is touchy-feely. I’ll criticize the story where it falters, but those ain’t the parts that don’t work; for a story trying to put an emotional cap on plot threads that have been running for two decades, those are the ones that do work.) But in terms of credible voices, the consensus is that Dragonflight is fine. It’s all right. It does the job.

In other words, it doesn’t belong up there with Legion and WotLK, but it isn’t Shadowlands or Battle for Azeroth up in here.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, five out of nine expansions being generally good is a kind of terrible average. But it’s what we’re working with. And what do we have now? We have something that is pretty indisputably on the “good” side of the equation, and by prior patterns, Blizzard has not successfully followed up a good expansion with another good expansion since 2008. That’s a really long time. At this point, Blizzard is the Yankees. Sure, they had a hot streak, but they haven’t been hitting consistently for a very long while now.

At face value, The War Within does evade a lot of the usual signifiers that would indicate this is going to be another dud. The core concept doesn’t require an extremely big lift from the audience, the team is expanding popular features and adding new ones, there’s no borrowed power that nobody wants – heck, they even de-borrowed what would have been the obvious borrowed power-ish system, Dragonriding! That was made permanent! These all feel like promising signs.

Plus, it is way too soon to be sure about anything in the expansion. The beta just started. Sure, we’re seeing an enthusiasm gap, but that doesn’t mean the enthusiasm isn’t going to coalesce.

Yeah, we're getting into the stones here.

Still, there’s a real sense that this expansion is pushing back against habits and patterns that Blizzard has driven itself into continuously over the aforementioned 14 years of releases. Can those bad habits be avoided? Objectively, yes. They can be. Will they be? Well… that I don’t know about. And it’s hard not to be a little worried when you realize that yeah, that is absolutely a plausible ending that wouldn’t even be that surprising.

In fact, Blizzard has actually set itself an even higher tightrope than that. The studio is not betting that this expansion is going to be good; it’s betting that the next three expansions are all going to be good because they are all explicitly linked clauses. In other words, it’s a gamble on releasing four good expansions in a row, which is hardly something no one has ever pulled off (several MMORPGs have done that, even if you mark one as being weaker than the others), but it is not something that Blizzard specifically has ever managed to do.

That’s a lift. And if it works, it’s going to be awesome. Amazing, even. After years and years of mismanagement, the game could reach actual new heights once again, not through backwards-looking projects but by genuinely pushing the game forward into new directions and letting go of bad habits. It’s a big lift, but I do believe – have always believed – that there is a path forward where WoW shows the sheer amount of space and value left for it even with the long stretch of sub-par decisions that have been made.

But if it doesn’t work? Well… it’s going to be business as usual. And I’m sure we’ll get another Mystery Line about it at some point if it doesn’t. But I’m really hoping that it’s not just business as usual all over again.

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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