2020 as a year is going to be the butt of jokes for a long, long time. It was a thoroughly exhausting, sometimes sad and depressing year with a lot of things going against it. But today, rather than discuss that directly (I am planning that for tomorrow!), I’d like to look ahead to 2021 in my favorite MMOs and for the future of gaming technology.
2020 set the stage in a lot of ways, with a new WoW expansion in Shadowlands, content advances through Shadowbringers in FFXIV, and the top end of Nvidia and AMD’s GPU lineups, AMD’s newfound performance lead in most of the CPU market, and Intel’s slide downwards while also preparing to get back on track in 2021.
Because of these things, 2021 is going to be a fascinating year on all of these fronts, in that a lot of new things are coming for both games, mainstream-level GPUs are coming that should offer substantial performance uplifts, the CPU market will be competitive in a new way, and sadly, the trends set out in some ways in late 2020 will continue, in all likelihood.
Editor’s Note: There will be some brief spoilers of Shadowlands covenant campaign chapters 8 and 9 based on beta content, and Final Fantasy XIV spoilers for patch 5.4 MSQ present in this post.
World of Warcraft would, in many ways, be easy to predict in 2021. Under a pre-COVID-19 world, Shadowlands would be on 9.1 or at least with an announced 9.1 patch, and the fall 2021 Blizzcon would be very easily predictable as being the point of announcement for the next expansion, with 9.2 coming in the spring or summer and 9.3 for late 2021 or very early 2022.
In a post-COVID-19 world, however, the whole idea is shaken up. On one hand, development was very obviously delayed, and mostly, I would speculate, due to work from home limitations and learnings. On the other hand, Shadowlands is not the latest they’ve released an expansion in a calendar year (Cataclysm launched in December 2010!) and even in that case, the following Blizzcon in September 2011 announced Mists of Pandaria. We know that in all likelihood, the 10.0 core experience is already under development and likely has been for several months at a minimum – when I visited the Blizzard campus in October 2018, over half of the development space was already off-limits to us for Shadowlands development! This makes making any predictions sort of dicey – I have some confidence still that we’ll be seeing a new expansion announcement coming next year by year’s end, but nothing can be assured in the current state of the world.
While I’ll expand on this further in a more detailed post later down the road, the other interesting thing with Shadowlands is that there aren’t any directly hinted possible futures. Within Shadowlands, there are story hooks at the end of each Covenant campaign save for maybe the Venthyr one (which conveniently has a main villain addressed in the current raid tier). We still need to address the divergent paths of the Kyrian, represented by Uther remaining in the fold with his memories and past life while the Ascended do not have those gifts. We still need to address the power-sharing of Tyrande’s Night Warrior powers before they tear her apart, and the Necrolords still seem to have unfinished business with Vyraz despite unifying most of the houses under the Necrolords. The most obvious 9.0 hook is the Jailer and Sylvanas, who seem to be doing something strange that relies on the power of Anduin Wrynn, and there are hints at Frostmourne, the Helm of Domination, and a more contrite-seeming Sylvanas with unsure motivations that almost sound altruistic, and then the whole dormant Arbiter saga. Of course, there is also the WoW All-Stars concept of what the Shadowlands enables – and we have some hints or outright statements of characters like Arthas and Garrosh Hellscream all being present in the Shadowlands.
What I will predict with certainty is this, however – with the upcoming Blizzconline in February 2021, I expect to see a pair of announcements for WoW – a patch 9.1 with a PTR drop and a solid outline of new content, and the news of a 1H 2021 release for WoW Classic Burning Crusade, with a beta shortly after the event. Why do I suspect this? Well, there have been clues and hints to Classic TBC all the way back to the summer, and with the full slate of Vanilla content now in Classic, the community there will, inevitably, want to relive TBC – at least some of them. The beta window this time won’t be so much for engine testing and ensuring the actual experience is sound, as the work done on original Classic paved the way there and the major system change that came with TBC was a change from percentage secondary stats on gear to combat ratings. What I suspect Classic TBC beta will entail is testing functionality of server types – being able to run a progression server with fresh characters, a transfer server with current Classic characters able to move forward, while also still hosting vanilla Classic for those wanting to forever be stuck in their ideal, prelapsarian version of WoW, whatever flavor that is. That is a guess on my part, of course, because it could just as much be the case that Blizzard storms ahead with progression for all and in the process leaves behind those who aren’t playing TBC content, or that they offer limited server sets.
As for 9.1? I suspect we’ll see new Renown ranks, the word is that Pathfinder comes with 9.1 and flight happens sooner this time out, which is great if true, probably a new raid, and a likely story hook to begin moving us to the latter parts of the expansion and breaking away from the very localized Covenant-focused stories we’ve had thus far. My hope is that we get a BfA raid tier structure – for all of its faults, BfA offered more raid content than most expansions, with 4 full tiers of raid encounters, a half-tier in the Crucible of Storms, and world boss additions with each patch. I would, however, like to see it tied to a Legion dungeon styling, with each raid tier also bringing a new dungeon forward to play in, and so I would love to see a new dungeon. Will we get one? Eh, I wouldn’t bet on it, but it could happen.
My suspicion is that we’ll see 9.2 by late summer then, with 9.3 in development and announced by year’s end, along with (possibly?) a 10.0 expansion announcement at a late-2021 Blizzcon. Of course, I don’t have as much confidence in that because of the impact that COVID-19 had on the Shadowlands development process, where my cited example of Cataclysm was a stream of constant, standard in-person development and collaboration which led to that fast turnaround. Still, with an early November 2021 Blizzcon, Shadowlands would be nearing a year old, and thus it could work. I’m currently about 60/40 on whether or not they announce a new expansion in 2021, with the 60% side being on them announcing something, even if it isn’t quite as far along as the design and development of the last several expansions were prior to announcement.
FFXIV had a similarly tumultuous 2020 in that the patch cycle for 5.2 lingered on for months longer than we would have normally had such a patch, but FFXIV benefitted from 2020 not being their standard expansion launch year. Instead, we missed what was all too likely to be the reveal of the next expansion at the North American Fan Fest in November, as it was cancelled due to concerns of human malware, as were both the EU and Japanese versions of the event. Instead of the 3-festival hype cycle we normally get every two years, with an unveiling at event 1, some job, race, and world details at event 2, and the full hype beginning at event 3, we have one virtual event in February to tie it all up.
All that preamble serves to make an obvious observation – I fully expect the February virtual fan fest to contain an expansion announcement, and I will go one further and say that the community-discovered Square Enix trademark of “Forspoken” will be the title. The meaning of that word, coupled with the current narrative themes we’re dealing with in the game, makes all too much sense. I suspect that it will release a little later than usual, but not two months later – instead of early July, I would predict August 2021 at some point, earlier in the month rather than later. I imagine we’ll see at least one new job (there are some hints towards that in the story content of later Shadowbringers) but I am unsure of new races, given that YoshiP expressed doubt about adding new races in the future. I could see them expanding the gender options for Viera and Hrothgar, but even that is a stretch and would be something I would expect more for fan satisfaction rather than a solid lore reasoning or plan behind it.
In the meantime, I think we’ll see 5.5 in the spring, which will then be able to more definitively point us at a new expansion with its story. Right now, I am unsure where the story would go – the Garlemald prediction feels sound, but the addition of Fandaniel and the 5.4 plot of recreating the Final Days on the Source feels ripe for sending us to the moon, which would turn YoshiP’s jokes about “maybe in 6.0” into a whole other layer of foreshadowing that will make the whole FFXIV fandom break out their corkboards and yarn. While I’m not as well-versed on the particulars of the lore of FFXIV, my outlandish prediction is that we’ll either end Shadowbringers content or start Forspoken content by paying off the Hydaelyn/Zodiark are Primals angle with us or someone summoning Hydaelyn to invoke the parallel to the Final Days of Amaurot. My only foundation for this is that the story is pointing us at Primals again in a more interesting way with the ability to remove tempering, and I am curious to see if we turn that power on our own Hydaelyn-tempering in 5.5 or beyond. Pure speculation from me – but I think there is a lot of potential!
FFXIV predictions are otherwise fairly easy to make, moreso than WoW because of the pattern of content the team at Square Enix follows. 5.5 will have the conclusion of the YorHA: Dark Apocalypse alliance raid series, a new dungeon with gear upgraded by 10 item levels or so, some new crafting recipes to make higher item level gear and the removal of weekly drop restrictions on the current Eden’s Promise 8-player raid tier so that players can farm up all the gear they want in anticipation of the next expansion.
And a pure curveball announcement? If FFXVI is further along than we might expect, I’d reckon we’ll see a crossover event in XIV during the next year, even if it just ends up being character cameos and a short questline like the Noctis stuff was for XV, perhaps with the FFXVI version of Ifrit we saw, or perhaps Phoenix as either a special fight or a story fight for Forspoken?
Next year should be both better and worse on the gaming technology side. First, the good – mainstream versions of all the current technology should be coming to the lower-cost side of the market, making things very good for building a new sweet-spot gaming PC. There are already rumors about an Ampere RTX 3060, 3050 Ti, and 3050, which will mark the first time that Nvidia has brought ray-tracing to the xx50 lineup. With the recent RTX 3060 Ti launch and that card performing around 20-30% better than an GTX 1080 Ti, the rest of the lineup should offer suitable upgrades for those still holding onto lower-stack 10-series cards. Likewise, the RDNA 2 lineup from AMD will likely expand downwards to RX 6700, 6600, and 6500 families, although rumors so far only point to an RX 6700 XT. That card would represent a near-perfect buy-in point for most gamers – slightly above that mainstream pricing, but with a likely 12GB of VRAM and more RDNA2 compute units than the Playstation 5 has, it will enable proper next-gen experiences alongside the Nvidia competition.
In the CPU space, Intel will launch Rocket Lake at some point over the next 3 months, and the early leaks of benchmarks show that Intel might be able to reclaim their single-threaded performance crown already, albeit by very little. Rumors on the AMD side point to a Zen 3+ refresh rather than a fully new architecture, which would have some tweaks (Zen+ over the Zen launch design was a 3% uplift) and would likely be an easy way to dip a toe into new technologies, as 2021 is the likely year where AMD transitions away from the AM4 socket and to AM5 and DDR5 memory with it. With competitive products from both Intel and AMD, 2021 is fine to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, as the Zen 3 push coupled with Intel catching up at Rocket Lake means that an upgrade to either product will see most users gain a substantial performance improvement.
And of course, with Rocket Lake and continuing with AMD, we’ll see more PCIE Gen 4 implementation – better NVME SSDs with more performance and the 2021 launch of Microsoft DirectStorage APIs, continued use of Gen 4 on graphics cards to drive additional performance improvements, full implementation on current GPUs of PCIE resizable BAR to enable better memory management and slight performance uplifts, and more games beginning to leverage technologies now available in the current consoles, like raytracing, further advancement of temporal anti-aliasing and dynamic resolution scaling, and DirectX 12 Ultimate features that focus on efficiency like variable-rate shading.
Now that heralds the bad news, unfortunately. COVID-19’s impact on the supply chain for technology is only likely to remain in effect through the first half of 2021, meaning that GPU supply, new CPU supply, and access to a myriad of components will remain tough. New game consoles will continue to be hard to find, and pricing for scarce component supply will remain high with no hopes of price cuts or oversupply. Some aspects will normalize as products reach more people in their slow trickle (it is easier today, by some miniscule measure, to get a Geforce RTX 3070 or above, for example), but I would expect mainstream-level products announced in the next couple of months to be in short supply for most of the next year. If you are a gamer who buys graphics cards around $250, you’ll likely have competitive options from both AMD and Nvidia in the coming months, but good fucking luck buying one. On the flip side, the good news is that most of the mainstream parts use unique silicon dies to those lineups, with smaller die sizes that mean a single high-yielding wafer can produce a far greater number of graphics cards than even a perfect wafer of Navi 21 or GA102 silicon. Couple that with a smaller number of required components like power stages, capacitors, memory chips, and smaller PCBs and reduced-material coolers, and you’re looking at what may be a good scenario at those lower price points. In short – if you’re buying at the high end, expect supply misery to continue but with slightly better odds each resupply as people filter out of the market after buying or deciding on lower-tier parts, but if you’re buying in that sweet-spot for a gaming PC, I fully expect that while early launches will sell out, it won’t be nearly as hard to get an RTX 3050 or RX 6500 compared to their higher-end bretheren.
Overall, I suspect 2021 will be a year of cautious optimism in PC hardware, but not a massive revolution – supply chains will relax constraints and people will find their way to the new hardware they want, eventually, while new products will continue to launch and may suffer in the short term for a lack of availability, but it won’t be forever.
And back to the MMOs of my choice, 2021 will be an interesting year to see how Blizzard capitalizes on the generally well-received Shadowlands launch and to see how Square Enix maintains momentum as FFXIV has become a dominant force in the genre after the exceptional launch of Shadowbringers.