Already time for a new WoW post!
2020 is here, and we are less than two weeks out from the Visions of N’Zoth. Two hidden cinematics, a large amount of plot distance between us and the Shadowlands, and an uncertain way forward.
These are the times I enjoy writing about the game, because it is fascinating the number of possibilities we have in the near future. Today, I’m going to focus in solely on one topic, the one that most of us will be asking about this year until we have it…
When does Shadowlands come out?
In an earlier post, I dissected the topic but ended up talking more about Battle for Azeroth and the patch cycle it might end up having. This post aims to remedy that by not even touching the topic of BfA at all! (post-edit – yeah, okay, not completely clean of the topic, but fairly close!)
So, Shadowlands. All we know based on publicly-available data at present is that it is in development, pre-orders are open, and the pledged launch date on the pre-order is “before 12/31/2020.” That is it! Given this, you’d think there’s not a lot we can discuss…but oh, you’d be wrong! I even promise that much of this is going to be legit analysis without padding!
Let’s first talk about some interesting twists with Shadowlands already:
-Preorder available immediately at announcement: This is a change in strategy for Blizzard – one they used with Warcraft III Reforged (and we’ll talk more about that momentarily) but unusual for WoW. Legion was announced in August 2015 at Gamescom, with preorders not available until November of that year (at Blizzcon, making it a close parallel to Shadowlands, at least). For Blizzard to open up preorders for Shadowlands immediately, a few things could be driving it. The mundane answer (and maybe conspiratorial, so strap on the tin-foil hats!) is that Blizzard knew they’d be in for a financially-soft Q4-2019, and rallying around preorder income would be financially prudent. It would also hold off any potential Q4 weakness from the Blitzchung fiasco, although there isn’t a lot of solid data externally to base that idea on.
However, what makes me think somewhat excitedly about this move is this – pre-orders have traditionally signaled that Blizzard has a rough idea of when they want to launch. BfA preorders came out in January 2018, with the launch date announced by April 2018 and immediate availability of preorder bonuses upon announcement. Shadowlands preorder bonuses have been in waves – the retail box rewards were available immediately, with only one major feature in-game – new race Death Knights – being held for proper patch implementation. That comes out in under two weeks from this post, putting us on a similar timeline to BfA bonuses.
-WoW Development Team Growth: This time last year, speculation was ramping up to the February earnings call of Activision-Blizzard, where two things happened – large-scale layoffs, which sucked, and the ill-defined promise of more development staff for WoW, among other games. While that promise hasn’t been discussed largely in public, I can tell you anecdotally from following a handful of Blizzard staffers on Twitter and the discussions they’ve had there, it does seem like a fair number of folks have been moved onboard to WoW, and people I knew from fansite Blizzard Watch have started working for the company too – with former site editor Adam Holisky and writer Anne Stickney both taking jobs with the company. Now, Adam’s role isn’t on the WoW team, but Anne’s definitely seems to be. Other developers seem to have chimed in that they’ve moved to the WoW team (a lot of refugees from the Heroes of the Storm team, mostly) and so that leads to an interesting question. I can say, with some degree of certainty, that the expansion has been a development priority since 2018, as when I visited the team in Irvine, about 70% of their space was off-limits to me, with a much smaller team working on the BfA content post-launch. At this point, if I had to guess, I’d say the expansion has already been in development for nearly two years, with around 6 months of that being under a larger development team, as the added team members would logically be better suited to get up to speed with the new and future content paradigm than learning BfA systems design and development just to then move on to Shadowlands later. While the state of the game wasn’t super clear at Blizzcon, and there was a lot of uncertainty in the air, an increase in development staff and resources with a majority of the team having spent the last year and change working on Shadowlands tells me that any expectations of a late launch might be premature. Speaking of that though…
-Blizzcon 2019 Didn’t Share Much, But That Isn’t Unusual: Looking back at the panels at Blizzcon 2019, there was an air of uncertainty around the game – a lot of to be determined and “we’re thinking about that” thrown around. This led a lot of people, myself included, to at least start thinking about the possibility of the expansion launching later in 2020 than we might like – maybe even reaching that December 2020 window allowed for by the pre-order text. That is a fair thought, but then I started thinking about the ways in which Blizzard has shared design notes before, most recently with the 2017 unveiling of Battle for Azeroth, and it struck me. Blizzard is, as of late, approaching content releases with a newfound caginess. Burned in the past by pre-announcing content and features that never wind their way into the released product, I think it is clear that Blizzard is under-promising or omitting things even where they know how they’ll work so that they can explain the whole system later on, perhaps with a beta launch or some context. Comparing the most recent two announcements, you can draw to that same conclusion. The Heart of Azeroth system was pretty clearly described at Blizzcon 2017, but how traits would work and be acquired was generally glossed over (other than noting they would not be random and could be targeted as a result). Likewise, Islands and Warfronts were both described at a high level, leaving a lot of detail missing.
Now, we jump to Shadowlands. Covenants seem pretty clear, in retrospect – the campaign quest model seems pretty clear and is derived fully from the Order Hall/Legionfall/War campaigns of the past, while it is not difficult to picture certain points of growth tied to the plain old reputation system (if it was a new system, I’d be genuinely shocked). Likewise, the Soulbinds seem ill-described but the UI screens and discussions with developers on Twitter make clear that the team does in fact have a full view of how they’ll work – just not one they were ready or willing to distill down into a Blizzcon soundbyte. Torghast similarly seems more fleshed out than they are letting on – my guess is that the technology side to make it work will need to be more fully implemented before they can fully show it off, but I suspect that it won’t take very long – especially given the increase in development resources.
The challenge that Blizzard Team 2 faces in modern times is not that they aren’t ready to show off the full extent of systems and features, but that things are subject to iteration and it would be hard to predict what things may end up cut or added as development time is poured into things. Given the fan reaction to a lot of content discussed on stage at Blizzcon that never makes it to the game (give me the WoD Shattrath raid!), it is perhaps wise to keep some cards close to the chest.
-August is Too Good of A Release Month To Pass Up: This one is easy and follows Wilhelm Arcturus’ prediction the other day – while I could see a delay or push to move the game later in the calendar year, August is just too ideal of a launch window for Blizzard. It means pre-patch in the summer, with younger players on summer breaks from school. It means not competing with the crowded holiday calendar in the game industry. It means coming to market before Square Enix starts their 2020/2021 FFXIV Fan Fest calendar, and the first such event in Las Vegas in November is pretty much a lock for the announcement of the next Final Fantasy XIV expansion. If Blizzard takes their time and waits until November or December (historically, both months WoW expansions have launched in), they risk losing mindshare to FFXIV announcements, along with losing out on a chance to hype upcoming content for Shadowlands at Blizzcon. If they can’t get across the finish line prior to Blizzcon, that would be one thing, but given my points above, I think they can get there and are playing this one close to their chest for the time being.
-The Longer Battle for Azeroth Lingers, The Worse The Perception of the Game Gets: Look, I think 8.3 is going to be fun but also seems fundamentally underwhelming in terms of strong new content. I’m stoked for the raid and a few stabs at the Horrific Visions at max difficulty, but outside of that, I worry that 8.3 is not made to be a long-lived content cycle. There’s just not enough meat on the bones of the patch content to really get into, and the best parts are large-group content and one-time story content, with Horrific Visions being firmly in good but maybe not great territory for me. However, there is another possibility here…
-Patch 8.3 Isn’t Meant To Be Long-Lived, and If That Is True, Hooray: I’ve tempered my expectations of 8.3 as “it doesn’t have much, but it’ll engage me slightly more than I currently am for a few months.” However, mentally, I’m prepared for it to last for up to a year. I certainly don’t hope for that, but I am ready for it if that is how it goes down. The other possibility I see is this – Blizzard pulled a WoD-lite here, and cut their losses on BfA to move more quickly to Shadowlands. WoD was troubled with missing content and obvious holes, but that came from a rapid move to Legion which fell somewhat flat since the game took a bit longer in the oven than expected. My suspicion, looking at the content in 8.3, and this is all speculation, is this: Blizzard probably planned a more comprehensive 8.3 originally, with Ny’alotha being more prominent and featured in the raid as well as perhaps a zone or two of actual content. When the reception to BfA was chilly and getting colder, I think the team took a measured look and pivoted away, but wanted to avoid doing what WoD did and cutting all of that connective tissue content in the middle part of the expansion. So rather than skipping Dazar’alor, or Nazjatar, or even skipping Ny’alotha and holding N’Zoth for another day, Blizzard paid off the full story beats of BfA, with few dangling bits left (especially compared to WoD) and designed the last patch of BfA to cut short on gameplay in a few ways to move forward to Shadowlands on a faster timetable.
If you look at the features of Visions of N’Zoth, one can see odd decisions where corners were clearly either cut or implementation was shortened. In my ideal world, Ny’alotha should have been a world zone with world quests, the Horrific Visions would be unique landscapes and new places, and we’d have some other stuff to accompany that. The real state of 8.3 cuts some corners to arrive in a “close enough” to complete state – using Stormwind and Orgrimmar for the Horrific Visions allows for character moments, which are cool. The “new zones” being invaded versions of Uldum and Vale of Eternal Blossoms ties in prior Old God chicanery while also not requiring a ton of rework and new content. The Ny’alotha raid can have interesting scenery and vistas without having to allow players to explore every nook and cranny of the space. The legendary cape even seems like a leftover – the original iteration would be way more suited for, say, a world zone Ny’alotha where being there would slowly drive you mad, requiring you to ration your playtime carefully and bail out to restore sanity before it overtook you – which also sounds a lot like a great trial run for the systems described for Shadowlands’ Maw zone. Of course, this is just me theorycrafting and pulling ideas out of my ass, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think that there are some red flags on the 8.3 content that indicate it got truncated for some reason. My suspicion is that the reason is ensuring Shadowlands hits earlier, which is a good cause, even if it means that the next 6-8 months of BfA aren’t going to be as cool.
Now, all of these points lead me to think the August 2020 window is far and away the most likely, but that isn’t to suggest it couldn’t be another time. My suspicion, however, is this – if it is not August 2020, then it will almost certainly be later. To break that point down:
-The Pre-Order Release Window Leaves a Lot of Room: Blizzard has given themselves until December 31st of 2020, and while that may not be needed, Blizzard has a history of not doing that unless they think it’ll be used. The Legion pre-order window went only through October, as an example, while Warcraft III Reforged had 12/31/2019, and here we are on 1/3/2020 and the game won’t be out for nearly 4 more weeks.
-Rushing BfA Did No Favors: Easiest one to state simply – BfA was obviously rushed without a lot of endgame systems testing, and it didn’t even take particularly long for the Azerite loop to be revealed as particularly unenjoyable – Island Expeditions were dull at launch, Warfronts don’t really capture that sense of conflict, and predictable world quest emissary rewards, while good, do mean that the threshold at which one sees no value in doing them is sooner than it was in Legion. A lot of these issues were obvious so fast that one wonders just how that was missed. Even if Shadowlands is content-ready for release today, count on Blizzard taking longer to test for completeness and to make sure the vision is realized as they want it to be.
-Shadowlands Has More Interlocking Endgame Systems: This one ties into the last point, but needs be stated on its own. Shadowlands has heavy interlocking of systems via Covenants and Soulbinds, the ways in which Torghast ties into these, the Maw and its new world systems, and then the ways in which the abilities and buffs given via these systems tie into dungeon and raid content. In fact, arguably more than Azerite, these systems will require fine-tuning, tweaking, and fixing to ensure they are gameplay-ready in execution.
-The New Leveling Experience Will Require Work As Well: Blizzard had a real struggle with 7.3.5’s experience revamp and world scaling, so much so that it took 3 tries in total to land where we are now, and even then, Shadowlands is basically a fourth shot at it! With that level of difficulty managing the systems underpinning the whole experience, Blizzard is asking for more trouble with this one. Yes, there will be lessons learned, but the complexity in play for Shadowlands is greater, as they are also modifying the experience for hero classes and making huge tweaks to the overall experience, as well as implementing new content with the new starter zone. On top of that…
-The Level Squish Is New and Unprecedented, and Will Likely Be Messed Up on First Pass: Figuring out the level squish is going to be a gigantic hassle, make no mistake. I’m sure much of the early design energy on Shadowlands was poured into mathing out all of the things that have to go right for it to work, but even still, I have a hunch that what was shown at Blizzcon was a “good enough” pass without balancing actually done. A core concept of such a squish should be to bring stat growth into line along with ability growth, and what we saw was level 50 characters with the same stats as a 120 and the same current ability loadout we already have on live. Designing and implementing the leveling path will be difficult, and it will require figuring out how to make a lot of things work, like the rate of ability acquisition for hero classes (everyone in general really), designing scaling in dungeons to make that work at all levels (think about it like this, you can theoretically do Deadmines or Freehold at level 10 in the new system, which are very different dungeons designed for very different levels of character progression and play skill!), and ensuring nothing else breaks. My theory is this – just like item squish v2.0, there is going to end up being a lot of sore spots or unexpected breaks – dungeons where the original design required a tank to have active mitigation abilities they might not have in the new paradigm, or AoE pulls from expansion dungeons that just won’t work for lowbies. That isn’t to say these things have to break – this assumes they just map the ability acquisition we have at present to the accelerated leveling pace of 9.0. Outside of that, though, we also need to see BfA content for endgame designed to work for level 50 characters, and to see old content made to work at level 50 as it currently does at 120. I hold out hope that Blizzard will get it right, but there is a bit of a trend with the item squishes in that Blizzard has not gracefully landed on these squishes at all and cleanup has been required in all cases. What shape that cleanup will take is anyone’s guess.
So, overall, all these words making two cases – what do I think are the likely launch dates? I think there are only two ranges I would stake on – if August either 8/18/2020 or 8/25/2020 (no earlier than the 18th), and if not then, then December 2020 (if so, it must be early in the month, so either 12/1/2020 or 12/8/2020). These are frighteningly specific, I know, but I’d be willing to put some money on these predictions. The large gap is down to what I suspect Blizzard will do – I’d place the majority of my bet on August, because it just makes intuitive sense and has worked well for Blizzard over the last handful of years, but if they slip, my guess is that they are going to take their sweet time to make sure that Shadowlands reaches us in the best shape it can.
Either way, my last guess for this post is the following – by the end of January, the end of BfA will be in sight, whether a last patch is announced or we begin to hear Shadowlands news is another matter, but either way, once the PTR is available again, I fully expect it won’t be long before new content populates it!