Another major MMO patch launched – arguably larger than the FFXIV patch I detailed in my last post.
With patch 9.01, Shadowlands is now, in some ways, live. The systems changes, level squish and item squish, new tuning and class designs all run amok. With them, we lose some systems – gone are rank 4 Azerite Essences, Corruptions, and in general, a lot of the incentive structures that have worked to keep BfA populated with players over the last several months.
In their place is…uh…well, as of today, nothing. And that is going to be my main talking point for this post, so here we go!
Last month around this date, we knew the expansion was in trouble. Major endgame systems had yet to be fully detailed, rolled out on beta, or tested to any acceptable degree. Major tweaking was being done to covenants and soulbinds, and the experience had some holes (despite being at least reasonably well-built with regards to content structure and activities). We had a release date, but no prepatch date, and time was ticking perilously closer to launch.
The delay of Shadowlands was a good thing, as I’ve discussed multiple times since the news broke here. However, there is a catch – with the announced pre-patch date now here and past, we run into a first-time ever problem in WoW – a pre-patch for an expansion with no active launch event as of yet and no release date for the expansion. The question a lot of us had leading into pre-patch, then, was simple – what will we actually do?
The answer is here – nothing new…for now.
This on its face isn’t the worst fate. BfA’s current endgame is hit or miss for people but it has maintained an audience and interest. Despite proclamations from people not even actively playing endgame content that the squish would horribly imbalance things, most current endgame content has been fine, with some outliers (Mythic Jaina seems to hit harder proportionally compared to before, and N’Zoth has some tuning to do) but overall, the experience seems to be okay so far. However, the endgame reward mechanics are fundamentally broken with this change.
When pre-patch was not live, doing content had a bevy of rewards. Increased item level and stat progression, corruption powers amplifying this substantially, azerite essences and gear to work towards, etc. Some of those things continue to exist, but crucially, the endgame of BfA from the spring forward has been defined by chasing corruptions via random drops and the vendor, building up Echoes of Ny’alotha to purchase the ideal set of corruptions for your loadout while increasing your corruption resistance steadily week over week. This was, for all of the myriad flaws of corruption as a system when it launched, a good thing. Likewise, it going away prior to Shadowlands is good as it creates better balance.
There’s just one problem, though. We are likely about to be in limbo for about 4-8 weeks between now and the expansion launch. In that time, there is limited value to gear progression (knowing it will be replaced in short order), there is no corruption to chase, which makes pursuing Horrific Visions or Echoes of Ny’alotha a near complete waste of time, and while ranking essences up to 3 is viable, those powers also have an unknown but Soon ™ expiration date on them. With these things taken away, we have a major problem – what, then, is the incentive to play? Sure, yes, to enjoy content – I’m fine with that, and it is a good reason if you enjoy the content. The problem is that WoW is built with rewards in mind, and if content no longer has meaningful rewards, personal motivation can only push one so far.
I logged in on a handful of characters last night, sat down in the barber’s chair for customization, and got in a few old raid solo bosses on my balance Druid. It felt fine (fun, even) but I was left with a big question mark on it – what is there to do? Pre-patch with an event on the horizon makes things exciting and new again, brings old players back to see what is going on, and creates hype for the expansion. Instead, last night felt like a sort of seeping dread of the unknown.
I say all this knowing that for whatever concerns people do have legitimately with Shadowlands, I’ve played the beta a lot and enjoy it a lot. The endgame, short of a few problems, is great and legitimately enjoyable. What I fear is that this patch launch is botched because it doesn’t give us any meaningful target date to channel excitement into.
In my estimation, Blizzard mistook the “no prepatch date?” concerns as being the primary concern, when the actual concern was that it represented problems with Shadowlands that would require a delay. So they fixed the real problem (delaying Shadowlands for polishing and retuning) while introducing a new problem (pushing the pre-patch out far too early as we have no even good estimate from Blizzard of when the game will actually launch). It creates a fair amount of speculation – if the expansion launches sometime over the next four weeks, how much did the delay really offer us? If it launches in December, holy shit, that pre-patch cycle is way too long. Both of these create problems of varying severity for Blizzard and the team. If pre-patch drags on without the launch event for too long, all the excitement pre-patch is supposed to create dissipates into thin air, leaving Blizzard to have to basically start the hype cycle over again. If the expansion launches within the first two weeks of November, then it begs the question – why even do an unannounced duration delay in the first place? If you figure you needed 3 weeks to fix the game, then telling us that, giving us two weeks of pre-patch with no event and the launch event on 10/27 would allow us to play around for 3 weeks with new content and give us a fixed point to focus our excitement on.
Instead, the game feels sort of rudderless right now. Like, the core gameplay is still there and still very BfA-y, so if you want to grab some Azerite and smash through some dungeons, you can – but there just isn’t a real reward loop for it and the feeling of meaninglessness seeps in slowly as you realize it will be a short but indeterminate amount of time before you replace everything and move on. That realization is…not great!
On a technical level, I haven’t had any real problems with balancing across a swath of content thus far, and in fact, the game runs smoother now with the engine updates made for Shadowlands. Where in late BfA I was getting mid-60 framerates in Boralus, I now consistently get 90-100 even with a similar or larger volume of players. Most of my addons were already updated and the process of getting running was quick and painless for me. No class or spec I’ve goofed around with has felt all that different, which is a good thing, IMO – I’ve only spent major time on Balance Druid, though, so I’ll probably report back again if I find something askew. Most of my time thus far has gone into logging through characters and recustomizing them, building new transmogs for the new looks, and then logging over to the next character to repeat the process.
Overall, I have to say that the patch feels really incomplete right now and judging it feels sort of rushed. It has some flaws in theory and execution, and most significantly is the sort of feeling of emptiness it has without an expansion date to tie to it. Outside of that, though, until the launch event starts, we’re right back to where we were a week ago – if you enjoy BfA content, it is still there and playable, neutered reward loops notwithstanding. If you are looking for the new hotness, however…maybe come back later.