February 2021 marks two major COVID-era milestones for my two main-play MMOs.
Firstly, this weekend, with the FFXIV virtual fan fest, and an announcement which is all too clearly going to be the global unveiling of the next FFXIV expansion, alongside some news on patch 5.5 for Shadowbringers, which will bridge the gap between Shadowbringers into the next expansion (Forspoken?).
For FFXIV, this is going to be interesting, as the very nature of the game’s scheduling and cycle build in a predictability that is smashed by the COVID-contingency planning. Traditionally, FFXIV has a series of three Fan Fest events every two years, with an initial event in the US in the fall where the expansion name and initial, very trimmed trailer is shown with some details given. Then there is a mid-winter European fan fest, where a longer trailer and more details are given, usually including a job and race unveiling. The last fan fest, in early spring in Japan, then goes all the way, with the full, untrimmed prerendered expansion trailer, unveiling the remaining job and race, and offering additional details on the story while guarding spoilers carefully. This is then followed outside of fan fest in early summer with a press tour where media outlets and influencers get to play a build of the expansion and record footage under a limited, supervised setting, followed then by a final gameplay footage trailer that includes some juicy story drops (in Shadowbringers, this is where we first had a challenge to the nature of Hydaelyn and Zodiark when it was brought up that they are primals) and the expansion then launches in late June/early July.
Because of the COVID crunch of 3 events into one, this weekend’s festivities should be full to bursting with details, as we’re likely to get at least 2 fan fest events worth of discussion, unveils, and speculation all at once, if not the full rollout of what would have comprised all 3 events. On top of all of that, there will also be some patch 5.5 news, as on Friday, the “announcement showcase” event flows immediately into a Live Letter for patch 5.5 (the first one, so I expect it to be light on actual concrete details but full of overviews and outlines for the final patch of Shadowbringers). The patch 5.5 news is almost unexciting in that context, as given FFXIV’s highly predictable schedule of content, we know the overall content structure we’ll get – uncapped loot from the current Eden’s Promise raid, a new MSQ chapter loaded up with expansion defining details, the final chapter of the YoRHA Dark Apocalypse alliance raid series, a new dungeon, some likely new crafting recipes and gathering nodes to go after, a probable additional chapter in the Resistance Weapon saga, our final Sorrow of Werlyt trial, and a variety of other QoL changes and small tweaks. The expansion, on the other hand, has the potential to be full of unknowns – new story beats, new content structures, new characters, jobs, races, potential system updates to bring the console version up to the PS5 hardware level (and hopefully options for PC improvements alongside), and all the promise of being a new shiny thing.
The thing with the FFXIV news that makes it exciting is, as ever, that it largely is completely unknowable. The story does a good job of laying down leads, but patch 5.4’s MSQ sets up a couple of different, intersecting leads that could go in different directions or be part of a larger plot that all ties together (the latter is what my money is on, with the ability to cure Primal tempering being directly involved with the conflict with the Garleans that I feel is most likely the focus of the next expansion). While patch 5.5 has a content structure that is very predictable, it too has story beats and settings that are unknowable at this point, with only some faint leads to point us in different directions.
Some of the connecting bits between the proper x.3 patch story conclusion to an expansion and the ramp up in the two subsequent patches can be a bit of a slog in FFXIV, but they also open up creative new things. In Stormblood, I loved the Burn on all fronts, and the slow transition of the story left interesting cliffhangers that all paid off in Shadowbringers. So far in Shadowbringers, I’ve really liked the way that FFXIV tells a story about peacetime, and how people so intrinsically tied to conflict manage the time between battles but also especially how they handle the time without a clear conflict on the horizon. Plus, there are still some major unresolved plot points to explore from Shadowbringers MSQ (the Hydaelyn and Zodiark primal drop sticks out like a sore thumb with a giant red flag on it to me!) and with what went down in 5.4, YoshiP might not actually have been joking about us going to the moon in 6.0!
For FFXIV, this is an exciting week of ramp-up and by this time next week, there will be so much more to discuss, which is exciting!
For WoW, on the other hand, we enter the slow march towards patch 9.1. The Blizzcon after an expansion launch is always relatively weak for WoW fans, and I don’t believe the repurposed 2020 one will be any exception. Now, that isn’t to say it isn’t worth being excited about or watching, mind you – but when the cycle is a two-year loop of new expansion details > x.1 patch and Q&A watching, well, I know which one of the two is a more attractive proposition.
Of course, Blizzconline is for all fans of Blizzard, which means if you like two or more Blizzard titles, it will still be a huge event all the same. I fully expect to see more details on Diablo IV, and I eagerly anticipate that. If you love Overwatch, I bet there will be a fair amount of detail on Overwatch 2 and the progress made over the last 14 months since the game was unveiled at Blizzcon 2019. Hearthstone will have a new expansion cycle to hawk (and, according to my Google suggestions, a pissed-off fanbase to reckon with), Starcraft II and Heroes of the Storm will remain very maintenance-y titles, and I fully figure that part of the key art having such focus on Lilith from Diablo IV is that we’ll see news of the rumored, Vicarious Visions-developed Diablo II remake, which, as someone who put over a thousand hours into D2 as a teen, is also news I am excited for.
But it is worth evaluating the WoW news potential more closely here, because this will be our first real Q&A with the developers since the launch of Shadowlands, and the unveiling of the 9.1 plans should tell us something about what the development team has in store for the future. While Shadowlands has been better-received than Battle for Azeroth by a fair distance, it is also fair to say that many players are starting to lose interest based on things you can see publicly – Mythic Plus numbers from Raider.IO, the disbanding of the guild that Preach and the two members of the FatbossTV channel, and general declines in logged-in time for guildies (anecdotal, of course, but I know I’ve seen this, even as raiding interest and focused gameplay remains at a high for us). I think the loss of interest comes from a lot of different places, but one of the easiest ways to remedy that (and one that nearly always works) is more new content. It is no coincidence that the decline in player activity started with the end of the Covenant campaign and the slower trickle of Renown coming in, and my suspicion is that after this upcoming reset, it will further decline as players who raid LFR defeat Sire Denathrius, unlock their last cinematic events and dumptruck of Anima (well, in the current climate, 2,500 anima is a lot!), and then wait patiently for the end of the month for the news.
There is a potential event I would very much like to see, however, and it is simply this – a content schedule and plan past 9.1.
In Legion, during the “slow” Blizzcon that would have been 2016, we actually got something tremendous as WoW fans – a huge info dump that had 7.1.5 news, 7.2 details including raid information, boss details, the Mage Tower (my love!), and then a tease of 7.3 with the concept art for Argus. Basically, in one fell swoop, Ion came on stage and gave us the whole expansion ahead of time, providing the roadmap the team was using to deliver us content, and it was incredible. It was exciting, it invigorated the playerbase, and I still think fondly of how well prepared the team was for that Blizzcon, taking what would have been a sort of dull news year at Blizzcon for WoW and turning it into a phenomenal show of faith in the game. They met all of those plans, and while some elements of that unveil later turned problematic (hi, Argus!) it still set the tone for what was one of Blizzard’s best-planned expansions, and for me, one of my personal favorites (in fact, probably my personal favorite still at this point overall).
The attempt at doing the same at Blizzcon 2018 for BfA was less successful, as we had 8.1 still on PTR, and the team only unveiled a fraction of the 8.2 information with some 8.2.5 details, leaving the remainder of the expansion under wraps.
Blizzard, at this moment, clearly has a lot of plot threads and potential for Shadowlands past the launch experience. There are a ton of fan-favorite and fan-unfavored characters running amok in the afterlife, and clear setups for future story arcs involving many of them. It would seem, in fact, that the rest of the expansion should have some clear setup and plans, and the delay on the launch of the expansion, while focused primarily on the launch content, should have also afforded the remainder of the team more time to construct and realize the post-launch content plan. It would, therefore, be my biggest wish for the upcoming Blizzconline event, for us to get the full timeline in a similar fashion to that of Legion from Blizzcon 2016, with breakdowns of pending content all the way up to 9.3. This would still leave actual story beats unspoiled (since knowing what raids happen when doesn’t tell us anything of the connective tissue between events) but would give us a strong gameplay foundation to be excited about. Even in the Legion plan, things obviously were changed and tweaked as well – the Netherlight Crucible and the 7.2 artifact revamp were not on that roadmap but were a part of what we got in the full package, and with Shadowlands, you could make similar tweaks and updates for things like the Covenant systems without having a concrete plan today that is ready to be shared.
Outside of that, my biggest hope is that the news for 9.1 brings some substantial improvements to gearing, Anima acquisition rates, and offers meaningful details on Pathfinder and the return of class-based tier sets, which is supposed to be happening later this expansion.
Either way, February is going to be bookended with big news dumps for both of my favorite MMOs, and I cannot wait to learn more!