Timing is everything when it comes to maintaining a solid audience.
Given this, I felt it necessary to discuss that Blizzard is making an interesting play by holding the patch 8.3 release for World of Warcraft until early 2020, with no firm date announced. It is an interesting statement, delivered yesterday as the early sheen of the Shadowlands announcement gives way to routine in the live game, and as the 15th anniversary event launches.
I personally am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I like having a winter break from raiding – last year it was among my most productive moments in gaming, since I cleared a few titles off my backlog and had some genuinely cool experiences in titles like Hotline Miami and Yakuza Zero. On the other hand, this news means that the Eternal Palace tier is going to drag out to at least six months long, if not longer, based on how squishy the deadline of “early 2020” is. In the past, Blizzard has used this to mean “sometime in January” – it is how we got Season 2 of BfA, patch 7.1.5 with Nighthold in Legion, and various other bits of content over time. It means that for me, I largely don’t have a reason to log in to WoW for now – maybe alt leveling with the 15th anniversary event boost, maybe taking my Horde Demon Hunter through Nazjatar and Mechagon, and perhaps even boosting some professions. All of these are sort of secondary to me right now, and few of them feel like good things to do when I have fresh patch content in Final Fantasy XIV and am trying to get the gil together to buy a house plot when the new districts open up.
It does lead me to an interesting line of thought as it pertains to WoW’s 2020 year, though. We know Shadowlands is “2020” – with the preorder page giving the estimated release date of “by December 31st, 2020.” We expect that a patch 8.3.5 is likely to come down the pipeline, because given what we have now in 8.3 on the PTR, some big narrative bridges need to be dropped. Currently, that means that 2020 is likely to be a 3-patch year, with a major patch, a minor patch, and an expansion x.0 patch all to come.
At the same time, however, the idea of an 8.3.5 is based off the Legion model and not on any firm announcement from Blizzard. We don’t know that such a patch is coming, but only sort of figure one might be coming because it follows the prior pattern and feels logical that we need a clear story bridge. It is possible that we don’t get one – however slim that chance may be.
When the Blizzcon announcement came and went, I figured mentally that the team would make sure to stick the landing on an August 2020 launch, since it has served the prior two expansions well and gives a round two years for each content cycle, but if we only get 8.3 in mid or late January, it may be longer. Maybe not, though – my own assumption of the added length is that the last raid tier of an expansion always lasts longer, but there is no codified rule stating such. Maybe Ny’alotha really only does last around 6 months, before the 9.0 patch drops and everything changes.
So what is it, ultimately, that I’m getting at? Well, I think there’s something important Blizzard needs to nail with Shadowlands (a lot of things, actually) but one of the most important is timing. If the expansion floats for too long, they risk losing the plot. If they abridge the last tier of BfA to get there faster, it might be incoherent. They exist in such a troubling spot where there is a lot of room for error, but a few scenarios that can work.
I will throw out a few conditional predictions here – just spitballing, but these are what I find most likely.
8.3 – January, 8.3.5 – March, 9.0 Pre-patch – July, Expansion Launch – August: This path leaves around 7 months for the last tier, a shorter tier than most, but also long enough to allow alts, gearing, and the typical end of expansion gameplay. 8.3.5 in March is an early timetable, but my suspicion is that they’ll use the patch largely as tuning and any final features being introduced (maybe early rollout of the retuned leveling experience?) but it will also serve as the Trojan horse via which we’ll get new encrypted story content to bridge into Shadowlands. Pre-patch in July gives everyone a month to get their feet wet with level squish and class changes, and I suspect a beefy Scourge prepatch event of some sort, maybe Sylvanas loyalists attacking us at every turn and story quests ascending Icecrown to see the cinematic events unfold. The expansion then would follow in August, ready to roll out and send us to the afterlife.
8.3 – January, No 8.3.5, 9.0 Prepatch in June, Expansion Launch in August: As much as I dislike it, there is a chance (however small) that an 8.3.5 won’t happen and we’ll instead get that connective tissue in 9.0. While odd, it also wouldn’t necessarily be the worst situation. There is a reasonable amount of new content in 8.3 to warrant it serving as the major patch for 6 months. In that event, though, I would expect 9.0 prepatch to arrive sooner than later to pave the way forward, and since it would also have the leveling changes, that would be a decent way to send everyone forward into Shadowlands, which I would still expect to launch in August.
Outlier Cases (Mostly, a Later 8.3 Launch): I felt like it was worth discussing but needed to be lumped in to a grouping of scenarios, but you’ll notice both of my above predictions are largely similar – 8.3 in January, expansion in August. Why? Well, I think that Blizzard risks losing the audience even worse if Shadowlands isn’t fully deployed by the end of August 2020. I do think it has been smart to hold the line on BfA and not pull a Warlords of Draenor with compressed timetables, if only because the story needs the room to breathe without leaving too much on the table. Given that, my least wanted (but still possible) Shadowlands prediction is that if 8.3 is pushed out further than January, then we might be in a troubling situation where the expansion launches even later. Now, I could see a potential release in September being okay enough – not great, but if Shadowlands really delivers, that would probably work. If it slips past September, I do think there is a serious risk of the game losing too many subscribers and having a weak return cycle.
The business of WoW is built on the back of the return surge with each expansion launch, and I think there is a serious risk of losing a lot of momentum from that if Shadowlands takes too long to launch. A late summer launch works very well, and August has been sort of the WoW release month for a few years now, between Legion, Battle for Azeroth, and even WoW Classic. Run past that and people’s lives fill up with obligations – new school years, milder outdoor weather in many places pushing people to outdoor activities, and the like. Run too much further past that and you have a real problem – an October launch or later risks bumping up against the holidays, and also prevents a major Blizzcon built on gameplay excitement from the new content.
The other major point, one that I have briefly touched on throughout this post, is 8.3.5. It is something of an enigma at present – and there exist arguments both for and against it. However, at this moment, I have to say I think they will do an 8.3.5 patch. There are a few reasons for this – loose plot threads that exist outside of the N’Zoth story must be wrapped up, we need a clear path forward to Shadowlands in lore, Sylvanas seems largely absent on PTR for 8.3, and there is a lot of interesting BfA storytelling to do – Taelia Fordragon, the sword in Silithus, the fate of Azeroth, the armistice of the factions, and (hopefully) a last bit of storytelling on the Vol’jin plot before we charge headlong into the afterlife.
At the same time, however, many of these could fit into a jam-packed 9.0 prepatch. If there isn’t an 8.3.5 waiting in the wings, I fully expect that 9.0 would then be released earlier in order to ensure enough time to peel through all of the content.
However, for right now, all I know is that I have an open end of year break and I guess I’ll need to set about filling it!