There are, as I type this, 30 days and change until the global release of the Shadowlands expansion. This is important not just a context setting for where this post falls chronologically, but to the theme as well.
Two days ago, Blizzard announced a sprawling, widespread number of Covenant ability changes and tweaks, including a new Rogue ability altogether and the prospect of a complete redesign for the Necrolords Demon Hunter ability.
To be completely honest, my initial reaction was a good one. The DH changes, the only ones I read completely, were decent, and the talk of redesigning the Necrolords one because of it being antithetical to the class design is a good realization.
However, after that, I had a sort of contained distaste for the situation.
Shadowlands, at the time of that announcement, was 32 days away.
Blizzard has, through the beta process, been slow to react to feedback on Covenants and Soulbinds, has dragged their feet on even responding to such feedback, other than terse, constant droning about how they swear to make the choice of covenants meaningful and fair, with differences in tuning being down to fitting within different types of content or choices you can make (high mobility abilities for PvP, PvE being more throughput focused, single target vs. multi-target, etc). They’ve talked about breaking their own design as “pulling a ripcord” and have been hesitant to acknowledge, much less confront, the community’s apprehension with the design head-on.
Shadowlands launches in 30 days.
Blizzard has been presented with feedback and challenges on this very topic since the concept of the expansion was announced. They had the means to test internally, to focus and direct testing to create meaningful friction with these abilities that they could then use to iterate upon them, but increasingly, it is obvious that they did not make a meaningful testing plan past the initial leg of alpha, where they slowly rolled Torghast to more classes, which was done more for anima power testing than anything else.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands launches in 30 days.
Conduits weren’t even fully available until recently in the beta, depending on class, and even then, the ranking system and the mechanics of it have not been unveiled short of a datamined system that randomly upgrades a lower-ranked one as a reward. Soulbinds as a system have some balancing flaws of their own which Blizzard has largely left unattended, save for the main conduit slots being balanced so that every soulbind has the same number of throughput slots. You will have to make difficult choices like with Azerite, in that conduits are typically spec-specific, but unlike with Azerite, where you could, eventually, obtain as many full sets of it as you wanted to load with traits for different scenarios, in Shadowlands, you have 3 soulbinds max, which, for many, may mean one per spec, or a PvP/PvE split, but will mean making difficult choices to emphasize one mode of play over another (or, rather, to emphasize 3 modes of gameplay over any others). This is without mentioning that Demon Hunters with two specs have an innate advantage, and that a Druid who plays all 4 specs (a rare breed, but still) is shut out of having a proper soulbind for one of those specs. Yes, you can constantly change out conduits if you wish, but this is a nuisance of the sort the modern game has largely moved away from.
The eighth expansion to World of Warcraft launches in 30 days.
With 30 days to spare, the pre-patch for the expansion remains release date-less, and the glimmer of a release build was reverted today, back to a test build and no longer marked for release. The pre-patch event isn’t anything particularly special, but the absence of it this close to launch feels odd and unwelcome. Battle for Azeroth is a party guest that has overstayed its welcome, and you are talking to it by the front door while yawning, in your pajamas, wondering if it will ever get the fucking hint. The moon rises, and the dawn of a new day is close, because, as we’ve discussed, the next WoW expansion is 30 days away.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that game development is a complicated beast composed of a myriad of challenges in the best of times, worse so when remotely interacting with your coworkers, and doubly-so when interacting with a game that has had as many changes in design paradigm, team, and philosophy over the span of 16 years. The challenge with any testing of an ability or spell in an MMO is that the way it presents can depend largely on how it is used. How a player might use a given ability changes in form and effectiveness between a raid, dungeon, PvP, or open-world gameplay scenario. When in a beta environment, it is difficult to get players with free will to move to mass queue for dungeons to test, to run Mythic Plus knowing that any rewards they might win are temporary and ephemeral (well, more so than usual), and that testing is a tug-of-war between the multiple changes. You need players to level new characters from scratch to test your big level squish, you need them to level 50-60 and see that the core content nearly everyone will start in on with the first day of launch works and is enjoyable, you need to test dungeons that exist on 4 difficulty tiers under different assumptions of balance, you need players to see the capstone Covenant experiences, the Torghast concept from many angles, and to suffer in the Maw. You also need provisioned, carefully managed raid testing, at a time where the raid design and dev team is available to monitor results but that your globally spread raiding community is able to also log in without having to be awake at weird hours.
That is a lot of content that needs to be tested, with a launch looming just 30 days away.
Then we come to Covenant abilities once again, and the wrinkle they add. You need to see all of the above, just as always, but with the added need to see these abilities in play. You need to see every class, every spec engage with every ability, a total possibility space of 144 different “classes” to balance. While the Covenant adds a single ability for the class and a generic ability with the Covenant flavor, it is Blizzard’s stated goal that these are so defining they belong alongside your class when discussing how you are playing. Given that, you might expect that Blizzard would use a structured beta process with limits on what classes can be played, or incentives/requests to play certain class and covenant combos. Dungeon events, “play with the Blues” events, any of a variety of different ways to leverage players into trying something they need data on and then asking for that feedback. Instead, beta has been very freeform – I’ve rolled or copied my DH around 10-15 times, but I’ve played my priest for about 2 hours, my monk for about 3 hours, and my paladin for about 30 minutes. Just framing this experience through my Demon Hunter, I hadn’t seen any observed Covenant ability changes until builds in the last week, a change made to Fodder to the Flame, which is likely to be redesigned. Instead of building the test as a test, pushing players through some sort of incentive or even just a simple ask to play different classes, specs, and covenants, players have been left to their own devices.
Despite having levers to test with, Blizzard has not used them, and now there are 30 days until the game launches.
Any sympathy I had for Blizzard turns into a sort of bemused look into a process that lies in disarray. The game has been in a public testing phase for 6 months, of which 2 so far have been highly public with thousands of invitations. Social media, game forums, streams, and in-game discussions of the expansion have nearly always turned to covenant abilities, nearly all negatively, and that avalanche of feedback has been dropped onto Blizzard any time they so much as appear in the public eye. Yet, despite this, they’ve flat refused to use structured testing, act on feedback in a timely fashion, or to provide any updates about the process of balancing the Covenant abilities – unless that update was “we understand, but trust us, it will be good.” Evidence has been mounting that it is not good, and as recently as two weeks ago, Blizzard was doing what amounted to a very long post about how they were sticking their fingers in their ears, still insisting that their design was sound and they were mindful of the impact these abilities could have on player’s enjoyment of Shadowlands.
That post, 14 days ago, took place about one-half of the remaining time before Shadowlands launch ago.
Blizzard has displayed a lot of contrition during the process of unveiling Shadowlands and moving it towards release, but has one core flaw that comes back and pushes them into conflict with players. In Battle for Azeroth beta, we were told that the rough and unpleasant edges of Azerite wouldn’t feel so bad in the finished release, and that the game would feel much better than the rough preview we had been given to test. We were told traits would be balanced, that acquisition would be fair and reasonable, and that the systems wouldn’t place undue burden on alts or alt specs with your main. Of course, the game launched, and the community collectively lost its shit over how poorly Azerite had in fact played out. That system was not much different than the beta one we had tested, in fact, it was the very same with a shinier face and inverted trait ordering. Players were rightly incensed for being led by the nose through beta by Blizzard, and their response was to…go silent or passive-aggressive for days, prior to a Reddit AMA in which they announced tweaks and hotfixes to begin over the weeks that followed. Traits remained unbalanced and in a difficult place until the launch of 8.1, 4 months after the game initially launched.
They received a similar avalanche of beta feedback in BfA, and did not act on it until the expansion was -30 days from launch (a fun bit of symmetry).
When I visited Blizzard campus in 2018, I was told a bit of trivia in response to my feedback about Battle for Azeroth. This (now-former) employee told me that a traditional internal testing window that would happen before launch, where the team would sit down and play the late beta builds and offer their own feedback on the finished process, had been skipped due to a time crunch on the development of the game. I can’t say for certain that this was genuine as this is just one team member’s word on it, but in our discussion, I mentioned that it made a lot of sense and you could feel it. There was a sort of idea in the design of the expansion that was appealing, but the execution felt like it fell far short of that. When the team played with Azerite, you can tell there was a difference in opinion, and the team worked over 8.1 and into 8.2 to patch the system into a form that would be fun, or at least non-offensive.
Such changes and feedback gathering took longer than 30 days, the amount of time remaining from now until the launch of Shadowlands.
When I saw the notes of this mass of Covenant ability changes, it reeked of the whole team playing the beta, coming out the other side of development, and realizing that the game wasn’t feeling so great. Team 2 is, in many ways, heavily segmented. During that aforementioned visit, there was the art team, the quest team, the encounter team, the design team, and each of these existed in a sort of siloed blindness to what everyone was working on. They almost certainly have scrums, stand-ups, and calibrate with one another on a regular basis, but it is ultimately a workplace, and if I am a designer, I am going to present my work in the best possible light, explaining the vision even if the execution isn’t there. But, as development on the base 9.0 experience winds down, and people get their hands on the finished product, this feedback pushes into the face of the team, as even people who have poured hours of sweat equity into the game are forced to admit the vision isn’t executed in a matched way.
Just in time, as the game has 30 days before launch.
So here we are now, and my suspicion is this: Blizzard is doing the right thing in responding to feedback and moving to correct glaring issues, and that is great. However, they’ve had a great amount of time to do so already, and we know that they could have, but they have chosen to not do so and instead defend their choices, always presenting Covenants in a defensive posture. And in a way, that is ironic – by talking about Covenants as a protective creator might, they’ve created the perception that Covenants have something wrong with them. And ultimately, while they still aren’t perfectly balanced, they aren’t so impactful at most levels of play as to have these imbalances feel bad. I’ve had fun with the worst Covenant abilities for my class, in fact! There are some unfun ones, I feel, but generally, I think the idea has a few rough edges but overall isn’t that bad. Blizzard has had multiple opportunities to address feedback less defensively, to respond with more collaborative spirit, and to meaningfully improve player experience with these abilities during beta, they have chosen to do so now. Better late than never, but talking about a possible redesign at the 32 day countdown mark is an awful, no-good strategy.
Unless a surprise is lurking, Blizzard has 30 days to fix these and improve player perception.
I sure hope they pull it off, because I would not want to be in that boat.