WoW Factor: Is The War Within going to be ready for its launch?

The gates are closed to me.

The surprise announcement of the date for World of Warcraft: The War Within prompted what I’m sure is a lovely reader with a large number of helpful opinions to email me with a very friendly letter about how I must feel like an idiot for predicting the date of the expansion wrong. Which I guess would sort of track if I had actually predicted a date using math instead of a window, or if you assumed that I thought these metrics were some kind of law.

But they’re not. The title is even “Guessing at the release date.” The data showed that September was early but conformed well enough with the data, and the expansion is coming at the very end of August, so it’s not really that far off. That’s faster than I expected, but it’s not causing me to question the fabric of reality like I just glimpsed Shub-Niggurath in the woods. But that does prompt a fresh question: Is The War Within going to be ready for that launch?

First and foremost, it should be said that this is not a question about whether there’s going to be some secret delay. That’s not really a consideration. Expansion delays have happened, but not often by any means. The way to bet is that the game will release on the day it has been announced, and that’s what everyone is expecting from the executives on down.

It’s also important to note that I am coming at this from a perspective of not being in the beta; I am not buying beta access both because my current financial situation doesn’t really support my doing that and also because I find this setup really unpleasant, so what I would prefer and what is actually happening link up decently well. Not that it would change too much; I don’t think that the game’s beta in late June is going to actually indicate what will happen in the next two months.

Rather, this is a more abstract question. Is the expansion going to be ready in time to launch in two months? If this expansion is genuinely moving faster than most other expansions have – and that’s what math says – is there a reason for it, or are we at Mega Man 3 levels of “as long as it works, just ship the dang game” accelerated deployment?

Monsters 'n' stuff

Ironically enough, I think one of the big aids to getting this game out in a realistic timeframe is the fact that The War Within is kind of unambitious in the best way.

I definitely think the game has dropped the ball in class availability over the years (I wrote a column about needing more new classes more than new races, and Dragonflight did not address the problem at all), but just adding Earthen to the game is not exactly a giant lift. For that matter, adding Hero Talents is a way of splitting the difference on talent trees, borrowed power, and new options in a pretty elegant way. You’re not making a while new character, but you also are getting new toys, and yet it’s also tied to what you’re already doing and your class identity, and it’s specifically not borrowed. And it prevents the talent trees from needing a whole new row to make sense.

Beyond that… flight is staying the same, even if it’s no longer called “dragonriding” because you might not be riding a dragon. That was the big addition, and it can just be ported over. There are some new systems to bring your alts together a little more. And there is, of course, story and questing and such. But mechanically, Blizzard doesn’t have to reinvent the game just to get this expansion out the door.

This might sound kind of simple and obvious. “It’s easier to get an expansion out when you don’t have to build massive new systems that will only be used for that expansion.” It’s so straightforward that it feels stupid to say it, but it does kind of apply to the hope of getting this expansion out just under the wire of “summertime.”

Heck, the prepatch means that it’s going to be the first time in a long while when your character is unlikely to change to being something completely different ahead of the next expansion, barring obvious talent revisions. That’s kind of commendable.

None of this is to say that hero talents are just an easy layup. You still have to design trees that can fit into two different specs and are valuable for each, which can be difficult when one spec is a healer and the other spec is a tank, for example. But they’re less a design lift than entirely new talent trees from the ground up.

Take me to wherever this is.

All of that is good reason to say “yes, this is going to be ready.” Is there a counterargument? Well… yeah, to an extent, but I think it’s also important to note that for all of Blizzard’s longtime inability to keep to a schedule, this has not been a major problem through Shadowlands or Dragonflight. It definitely seems as if stricter timelines are being followed now, and we far more reliably get updates on time and as scheduled.

But that doesn’t always mean that they’re very good.

The tricky thing about moving quickly between announcement and release is that you have less time to make sure that what you’re developing is actually good. Now, I just finished talking about how Blizzard has a lower lift than it has with some prior expansions. This isn’t a case of a bunch of people saying “the Azerite armor system sucks” only for the developers to reply “no it doesn’t” and then singing so loudly they can’t hear you. It’s good that this sort of thing isn’t on the table.

However, Blizzard does have a history of ignoring feedback it doesn’t want. And with a much shorter schedule, including a beta that has a lot of paying participants, there’s not only less time to iterate upon feedback but also much less time to even form meaningful feedback. That makes it a lot easier to get something all the way to launch without ever being certain that it’s actually good or functional.

Of course, that’s also just the same problem that last week’s WoW Factor addressed: WoW has a lengthy habit of dropping the ball on expansions after good ones, and The War Within kinda needs to be good. Which means that really part of the problem is just making sure that it’s good, but it also means… getting the damn thing out the door and hopefully impressing players.

In fact, part of me thinks it would actually be better if parts of the expansion are sloppy in that regard. Maybe it’s just me, but something that has a passionate energy running through it even if it winds up being shaggy in spots is going to be a bigger boon than something mathematically safe but without an animating impetus. But that’s far beyond the speculative reach of this particular column, and if we’re being honest, I have a different thing on my mind for next week and beyond.

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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