My suspicions about Blizzard’s patching plan are starting to look truer.
Yesterday, Wowhead dropped a bevy of new datamining from Battle for Azeroth patch 8.2.5. Despite having been on PTR since July, the patch has been rather quiet during August, for some reason or another…
The new datamining is rather large and includes a lot of what we expected to see – new recruit-a-friend rewards primarily. There are some interesting new NPCs that have been seen so far, and yet others (Saurfang’s apparent new model) that are still MIA.
Today, however, I want to focus on two very specific additions (well, technically three).
The first is the addition of two encrypted cinematics to the game data. Now, in the modern state of WoW, cinematics aren’t a surprise, and it is completely expected that where story emerges, a cinematic will follow. What is shocking, however, is that these two cinematics are clocking in at much longer duration than anything we’ve gotten in a minor patch (and even most major patches) – the shortest of the two at a weighty 3 minutes and 18 seconds and the larger one at a bountiful 6 minutes and 18 seconds. The comparison made by Wowhead to two major lore events we’ve recently seen reveals this size disparity – the Eternal Palace finale cinematic was only 1:22 and the death of Rastakhan in Battle of Dazar’Alor was only two minutes even. The smaller of the two cinematics is only 4 seconds away from matching both of these combined!
To be fair, we all expect that 8.2.5 is going to be a lore-heavy patch. The expected pivot to N’Zoth requires a lot of storytelling to connect the dots, and there are a lot of disparate threads needing to be bound together. The war between factions has simmered during 8.2, largely being shelved past the liberation of Baine and the initial journey to Nazjatar. Sylvanas has pretty much been absent since the end of the Naga quests that led us into Crucible of the Storms. These elements are clearly bound as Sylvanas has been running around with the husk of Xal’atath, the Black Blade of the Empire, while the being Xal’atath has been freed. We’ve quite apparently freed N’Zoth, and all of these elements seem pretty likely to join together to form the core of the story going forward.
However, one other eye-opening part of the patch was unveiled in the flurry of datamining activity.
The splash screen that shows all the patch features was also datamined (anecdotally, also a sign that the patch is likely much further along than we would have expected for the PTR activity) and the cover feature, the main event of the patch is…the story. Not a surprise. However, what is sort of interesting is the text that accompanies it and the image selected. The image is of Sylvanas, which is a huge surprise I know! – but the text indicates that this is the final chapter of the War Campaign.
Now, there are a few ways to interpret that information. Firstly, I think that most of us expected this to be the case – an end to the war campaign and what comes after in patch 8.3 would then be called something new. That is a fair reading to take, and is likely the most accurate one. However, that activated my speculation centers in my brain, because while it is somewhat expected, it also seems somewhat interesting to refer to it as such in game. Since Blizzard has been doing expansion-wide stories, all the way back in Warlords of Draenor, even as the shape of the story and our targets have changed, the branding has remained consistent. All of the main story in WoD was the Garrison Campaign. All of the main quests in Legion were the Order Hall Campaign, even as we went to Argus and left our Order Halls behind. It makes sense to me logically, then, that even the Old God invasion we all see coming for 8.3 would still be the War Campaign – our targets and motivation changing and shifting for the new enemy, but still a war all the same!
So where am I going with this?
Well, a few months ago I wrote some analysis about what I expected BfA’s patch cycle to look like. At the time, the expansion was floundering and the game was clearly not hitting the mark for a majority of the playerbase, and so one of the things on my mind was if that would result in us seeing Blizzard pull a WoD on us, pull the ripcord on the expansion early, and move on to 9.0 after an abridged patch cycle. At the time, I put forward my hypothesis that ultimately, Blizzard wouldn’t do that, because they seem to have a plan that stretches on to an 8.3 and fits what we expect.
But this blurb and those long cinematics has me thinking that maybe, just maybe, 8.2.5 could end up being the end of BfA. Why?
-The Old Gods story is sufficiently meaty for an expansion unto itself: While I saw the most likely patch 8.3 content being N’Zoth and possibly Ny’alotha, I also have always felt like it would be too small a stage, unlikely to be seen by many who’ve already passed on the game for the rest of the expansion. Having a big endgame zone in an x.3 patch wouldn’t be new (hello, Argus!) but I just found myself feeling like the scale and epicness of Old Gods deserves something more. If Battle for Azeroth ended with an epic defeat (dealing with Sylvanas while the titan Azeroth rises in a corrupted state), that would be a mighty fine transition to an expansion.
-Battle for Azeroth isn’t improving enough with content patches and the core systems at fault will remain so long as we are in 8.x: While Essences are a far better system overall, Azerite as a whole concept was a dud. We’ve all known this for months, the game’s engagement shows it, and the current way the system works is a weird stitching together of these vestigial failures from 8.0 onto the better systems from later. The weight of that failure is splashing onto damn near everything else in the expansion – Islands are not popular because they are too married to Azerite even though they are fun, the random dungeon reward being a tiny spec of Azerite is ill-fitting and means that once you gear a toon, no one is running random heroics, some world quests just feel like Azerite chores, and the whole system just feels divorced from most players. Warfronts can be fun but are also far too simple, and the requirements to gather for a Heroic Warfront skew towards existing social groups like raids or guilds, both of which have been on the decline. The raids in this expansion have been a bit of a let-down, and the dungeon design has leaned in to overly hard trash a means of propping up Mythic Plus in a way that is alienating to a lot of people. However, the content model of WoW means that as long as we still log in to see a Battle for Azeroth logo and login screen, we’re going to be perpetually stuck with these things. New expansion means fresh start, which means many of these systems will be retired, or tweaked and moved forward in new forms.
-Blizzard never fully confirmed a patch 8.3: Last year’s Blizzcon had a large What’s Next panel for WoW, which was fascinating for what it confirmed but also what it did not confirm. The What’s Next panel under Ion’s leadership of the game in Legion was used in 2016 to give us a ton of details – we had fleshed-out 7.1.5 plans, 7.2, some 7.2.5, and the big tease of 7.3 with Argus’ concept art (the planet, not the boss). The expectations for 2018 were set based on this, and while I think it was alright, it definitely did not deliver the same level of hype. 8.1 wasn’t even out yet, so a portion of the panel was talking about that and unveiling the Terror of Darkshore cinematic. 8.1.5 was announced and detailed, and then we launched into 8.2 features and concepts. A brief mention of 8.2.5 as the patch where Worgen and Goblins get their new models was made, and then the only thing close to a teaser was the glowing-eyed fish on the The End? slide at the end. At the time, I thought this made logical sense – Blizzard would surely have an 8.3, the red-eyed fish was clearly N’Zoth hype even though it was very hard to see, and we’d repeat the Legion cycle sort of, with an 8.3 and an 8.3.5 – likely no need to launch an 8.3.2 to open a raid since they do that without patches now and they are running behind the Legion schedule as-is, meaning that the patch wasn’t going to be out prior to this year’s Blizzcon anyways.
I can imagine that at that point in time, Blizzard probably did plan for an 8.3, and as their practice generally is, they surely had an outline of the full expansion content and where it would go. However, by not using the term “8.3” at Blizzcon or in any interviews, they’ve created an interesting offramp for the expansion. They could still do an 8.3, and we all expect it as-is. But by not confirming it, they could also subvert our expectations and make 8.2.5 a bigger content drop, then move quickly to get into 9.0 on an abridged time scale. We’ll come back to this in a moment, because it is crucial.
-Unlike WoD, tapering off the expected ending of BfA to resolve next expansion is a better play: We fully expected that the Battle for Azeroth would go from a battle over the land between factions and turn into a literal fight to save the world-soul of the planet, which makes sense with the current lore. However, WoD rushed to the ending by cutting out the middle, leaving tons of unresolved plot points and scrapping a lot of cool ideas like the Shattrath raid. It rushed a lot of the plot points into 6.2 – the formation of the Fel Horde happens fully in a cutscene that doesn’t seem to represent a large shift but then suddenly 6.2 comes out and it is clearly a huge change. Overall, the way WoD shortened its content cycle was not great – for a lot of reasons, but the “skip-the-middle” approach was definitely key. BfA, on the other hand, has played out in an order we all likely suspected with the plotlines heading into the expansion, and so if they cut short at 8.2.5 and saved Old Gods, Ny’alotha, and the Shadowlands for 9.0, you can just roll right into that content and lose nothing. There won’t be any awesome landmarks with tons of player sentiment just lingering on the landscape like warts showcasing what could have been (guys, I really wanted that Shattrath raid). In fact, given what we think we know of the Old Gods vs. Death plotline, it may serve better as the meat of an expansion, rather than one side being wrapped up fairly neatly in a patch that fewer people are going to play only to make the big reveal of Death leading into 9.0.
Alright, so those are some reasons why it could happen, but what does that mean for 8.2.5?
8.2.5 definitely needs to have a clear resolution to the current faction conflict, and given Thrall’s dialogue after the rescue of Baine, I imagine it is going to involve peeling away at faction restrictions at least slightly. Sylvanas’ current storyline needs to be wrapped up, and while she doesn’t have to die to do that, there is a lot that rides on how well her story is handled. N’Zoth is obviously looming large over everything and he must be introduced properly and the stakes must be raised with the Old Gods to make their constant presence in the lore make logical sense – they cannot be downplayed or jobbed out here. There are other plot threads from this expansion that need to be addressed too – Tyrande and Malfurion, the growing tension in the Alliance, what happens with the Horde leaders that aren’t aligned with Sylvanas, Mekkatorque’s freezing, Magni and MOTHER, and then all the stuff we expect 8.2.5 will introduce – Wrathion, Calia Menethil, the undead Night Elf that was datamined as new in 8.2.5, and yet still other things I’ve probably forgotten.
From a gameplay perspective, we know that outside of the story quests, 8.2.5 is pretty light on gameplay. The core pillar on that side is the new Recruit-a-Friend system and the mechanics that aim to support it – Party Sync, Quest Replay, and all the scaling technology to enable those features. There are likely some balancing changes coming, but overall, the core is those RAF-adjacent features. This leads to a nice segue!
The Problems with 8.2.5 as The End
I write this speculation knowing that marking 8.2.5 as the end of BfA poses a fair number of challenges, many of which I am not confident that the current Blizzard team can overcome! These must be discussed with the speculation because they all individually could spell doom for WoW if not acted upon.
Big Content Gap: If 8.2.5 launches with only its confirmed feature set as the final patch of BfA, we are in trouble content-wise. With no new raid, no new dungeon, and the already two-month old Operation: Mechagon and Eternal Palace as the core features to tide us over, the game is going to get dull in a hurry. For many, it already is dull! Blizzard could pad this out by adding a filler raid – the sometimes rumored Battle for Thunder Bluff would be a prime candidate for that role, since it would not require as many new assets and would likely lean on existing lore characters rather than fully new art direction. Blizzard could also surprise and amaze us with an early 2020 launch of 9.0 in this case, but while I enjoy speculation that is charitable to Blizzard, I am not delusional!
Customer Dissatisfaction: To be fair, BfA is already unsatisfying to many, so ending it early may salvage this. For others, ending BfA may also similarly be seen in a poor light. WoD has a lot of posthumous criticism directed to it for being the first expansion to increase the box price while also being the shortest expansion in WoW. Should BfA go this route, it will unquestionably be seen as a cash-grab, especially given the context of 2019 for Blizzard. Doubly-so, given that an early launch for 9.0 would likely command an additional box purchase, further increasing this resentment. There are also people who enjoy BfA, and for them, ending the expansion early is a risk too.
The Very Concept of “Early”: Even if Blizzard planned BfA to end with 8.2.5 from the start, it is hard to deny that any expansion ending in a x.2 patch cycle feels early. Sure, technically WoD only had 3 major patches with minor updates that were more or less hotfixes, and while BfA would be ending with 4 patches of larger size and scope, it would still seem small. BfA upended a lot of how we think about WoW’s content structure – making Battle of Dazar’Alor a raid tier unto itself rather than a continuation of the launch tier was a big change that feels fairly large while also not being completely different from the way that say…Nighthold was treated. While we’ve had 3 tiers of raiding and 3 seasons of content in BfA so far, it also still feels smaller and lesser than the equivalent point in Legion. Moving forward is possible, but even if Blizzard makes the strongest possible case for why they believe this to be the correct move and it makes a lot of sense, people are still going to feel shortchanged on what the expansion could have been.
Overall? It’s a mixed bag, and very difficult to predict accurately. I’m not confident enough in this idea to gamble and say out loud that a patch 8.3 will never exist, but honestly? I can see the seeds being planted in such a way that if Blizzard did give us that news at Blizzcon 2019, it would make sense. At the same time, I think that right now, the more likely outcome is that Blizzard plows ahead with an 8.3 and beyond and the 8.2.5 conclusion to the War Campaign is more of a shift in the story rather than a definitive endpoint. The exciting thing as someone that plays the live game is that the potential options on the table are all fairly cool and if done well (this is key!), Blizzard could salvage BfA or strategically scrap it and give us something cooler as a result.
Either way, I’m glad to see 8.2.5 jumping that much closer to live servers and I hope it marks a turning point for BfA!