This one is a (hopefully) quick post, but our guild officers discussed the possibility a bit tonight and I think there is something to this.
So, to recap where we are on this day, 10/21/2020 – Shadowlands was delayed on 10/1 after the August announcement of a 10/27/2020 release date. On this day, the pre-patch was announced for 10/13/2020, with pre-patch events and content TBD. The patch, 9.01, did launch on 10/13, taking with it the core reward systems of Battle for Azeroth and leaving us in a state where the game is Shadowlands, but not quite. Our classes function like they will in the expansion, minus ability upgrades gained in leveling and the covenant systems, our levels are squished both character and item, and the new leveling experience exists.
Yesterday, Blizzard announced a new six-month subscription promotion, for the first time offering a transmog ensemble that looks pretty cool as the hook, and today, we’ve seen a pretty large list of changes made on the Shadowlands beta including major UI overhauls for core expansion features, a comprehensive list of tuning changes for Covenant abilities and Soulbinds/Conduits, and a dizzying array of other balancing changes and tweaks, some of which have also touched the live game due to the way in which the pre-patch has caused some…problems.
Now, with the catch-up established, let’s get into the theory. This is all speculation, to be very clear up front.
My grand theory of Shadowlands release is that the game absolutely needed to be out for Q4 2020. Activision-Blizzard reports fiscal data in a quarter and year format that matches the normal calendar year. For their FY 2020 to look as good as it could, the game would, ideally, need to have new content. However, there is some reason to suspect that Blizzard may not actually need the game to launch to keep players hooked in.
Firstly, most of the game’s playerbase is comprised of lifers at this point – people who’ve played for years and years and continue to do so on inertia, in some cases that more than any actual gameplay reason. I’m certainly that in some cases, as Blizzard has made more than a few monthly subscriptions off of me for times when I’m not even playing. Because of this, the game has a strong pre-order ecosystem – digital presales of the next expansion are always strong, and this time there is an extra wrinkle – by producing the physical collector’s edition copies early and allowing retailers and their own Gear shop to send them out early, a lot of players who spend even more money on the game have already paid a full boxed copy cost (at a premium to even the inflated BfA price!) in this fiscal quarter. I know personally that I have had my physical CE for a week now, and the pins are sitting right next to my monitor with the box in the background.
Because of this, the only revenue they’d miss out on if the game didn’t launch in this fiscal quarter is what likely amounts to a small total number of preorder/sales of the expansion, and subscriptions. Enter the six-month promotion and the Sprite Darter Wings. Give players a reason to subscribe and pay 6 months, non-refundable, right now and no later than the end of the quarter, and you get that sub revenue anyways. In fact, enough people will do this that it would probably make up some, if not all of, the lost subscriptions for players who are not subscribing until the expansion launches. I don’t point this out here to harp on Blizzard for it – my opinion on that is slightly more muted and readable in a different post – but because it is actually, in a weird way, kind of genius. Blizzard knows that players love transmog options, and the game to date has offered relatively few options for fun cosmetic transmog. Making their first such offering tied to this particular period was a gambit that, I am sure, will pay off in spades for them.
But I also think there is a reason why this delay makes sense that is both less and more business-minded at the same time that I want to discuss.
Blizzard is, hopefully, aware of the perception that BfA’s launch felt overly rushed to players and that major mechanics like Azerite felt undertested, under-iterated, and as though feedback from testers had been ignored. The interactions through the Shadowlands pre-release cycle has shown something different to the BfA one, in that Blizzard has been willing to acknowledge that players may just fundamentally not like the design direction and has seen Blizzard more willing to make concessions to carve out a compromise with players – them getting to maintain the Covenant as a cornerstone choice that players feel is important while also defanging the consequences of that choice so that players feel less hurt if the choice they make isn’t the greatest. They haven’t fully met that bar yet, but the tuning changes and balancing have gone some way towards presenting the idea of a cleaner balance, in my opinion.
Delaying the expansion was about a few things. It was a PR move – Blizzard saying to players that they respect the feedback enough to hold back on launching and try to get it closer to correct in beta before pushing live. Consequences of things like theorycrafter private forums bubbling over notwithstanding, Blizzard has at least done a reasonable amount of iteration based on public feedback and seems to be taking it more seriously than they have in the past, and I do think that is good. Outside of PR, though, the game’s health does seriously need Shadowlands to be a great expansion.
I’ve tried (and hopefully succeeded) during this beta cycle to avoid being overly hyperbolic on my opinion of the future of the game, but I think I can summarize the main thought succinctly as such – given the past cycle of odd-numbered version of WoW = good, even number = bad, a lot of players will bail on the game if Shadowlands can’t deliver the goods. Shadowlands has a lot of possible ways to be a fantastic expansion, but it could just as easily devolve into a mess quickly and cause players to leave in droves. Do I think such an event would kill the game? No, of course not. As long as there are dollars in the pockets of those who remain, the game will continue to receive funding and development – and I don’t say that cynically towards Team 2 at Blizzard but rather of their corporate parent. Similarly, WoW Classic will prop up the franchise and could even benefit from such a thing – about half of WoW’s peak popularity playerbase started after Burning Crusade, so in the (highly likely) event that we get Classic BC servers, I could see a fair number of people wanting to try that. Hell, I didn’t get to play much of BC at the high level – ran maybe 3 heroic dungeons, went into Karazhan and Gruul’s Lair like twice in total, and that was it – so I could even see fleeing to Classic in that event!
But, the thing is, if Shadowlands is a dud to the playerbase, it would break player perception of the game in a way that might not be fully recoverable. Even among dedicated fans, the good-bad-good cycle of expansions is a known meme that a lot of people believe in and see reflected in the game, and some extrapolate that even further into believing there is an A and a B team working on the game in parallel – which is largely a myth, by the way – but it also works as a protective myth. Most players I see regurgitate the A/B team idea do so as almost a defense mechanism, in a way to imply “I’m just playing this B-team expansion so I’m ready for the good stuff from the A-team!” If the A-Team doesn’t come back swinging, well, those players might be disillusioned right out of the game. While these concerns tend to come from hyperbolic places, they reflect the sorts of things that people do believe about the modern game and the attitudes of the playerbase.
It is also, however, worth exploring the human element of games development here.
Team 2 is comprised of people who deserve fair working conditions just like any other worker in the world. AAA game development is a cruel mistress that chews up and spits out souls who have their youthful excitement to create games and touch lives in the types of ways their lives have been touched exploited to feed a machine of greed that funnels those crushed up dreams and hopes into cash intake which is then shot up the chain of command to some fucking awful gremlin CEO who gets sad that people draw him with devil horns online. Sorry, my vision went red there, what was I saying? Oh right – with the holidays coming up, even in a COVID-19 infested world and in the middle of the country handling the outbreak worse than almost any other, the team deserves time off to recharge and come back rejuvenated for the work that remains to ship Shadowlands. They deserve normal work weeks of 40 hours with time for them to recharge their sanity and enjoy pursuits outside of the gristle mill of modern game development for a big company. They’ve likely been working incredibly hard to ship the game, with long hours, lots of time back at the drawing board, and doing all of it through a pandemic that shifted them to working from home right in the middle of the process. Whatever your (or my) opinion of the finished product of their labors, past, present, or future, the people who labor to create the art we enjoy deserve that human consideration and compassion.
Tie all of that together, and well, what are the odds we’re waiting until 2021 for Shadowlands?
I would say…reasonably likely.
It’s either that, or the weirdly passive-aggressive same day launch to line up with patch 5.4 in Final Fantasy XIV in December!
Okay, I guess maybe there are other possibilities too.