Blizzconline was a week ago today.
While Diablo was the centerpiece of this year, with 3 games proceeding to release including two that are near completion, WoW was arguably the runner up with two new things to discuss – TBC Classic and Shadowlands patch 9.1.
When a new expansion launches, getting out that x.1 patch is often crucial for maintaining player interest. In BfA, patch 8.1 took just under 4 months post-expansion launch to arrive, a timeframe that was often cited as exacerbating player disinterest in the expansion. Meanwhile, back in Legion, patch 7.1 was announced before the expansion even came out and was on the PTR very shortly thereafter, with the actual patch launching to live servers before Blizzcon that year! When you have lightning in a bottle, as Legion often felt like, or when you at least have a measurable increase in player interest (as was the case for Shadowlands), keeping players engaged is often what creates positive energy and forward momentum. Legion had problems as an expansion, but the breakneck pace of content often kept players so consistently involved that it created a sort of blind spot for them.
Shadowlands has been out for just a day or two over 3 months as I write this post today.
We are set to receive the systems and balancing patch 9.0.5 with an ill-defined date range of “sometime in March” which is all well and good, but late March would mark 4 months of Shadowlands with no new content whatsoever, surpassing the mark at which many were getting restless in Battle for Azeroth.
Going back through x.1 patches, though, they take between 2 months (Mists of Pandaria’s 5.1) and 5 months (Wrath of the Lich King’s 3.1), so by that metric, a patch launch for 9.1 by the end of April would keep it from being a record-setting delay.
There’s just one problem with that, though. What was discussed at Blizzconline doesn’t sound like a finished patch, and in some ways, it didn’t even sound like a completely designed patch. Most systems talk was left out of panels altogether, and while the later Q&A panel and interviews did help illuminate some of what we weren’t told in the main 9.1 panel, it also sounded sort of incomplete. Empowered conduits were brought up in one interview, but with no actual real details and a lot of uncertainty around the design. It was clearly stated by the devs as such, but nonetheless, there were a lot of things like this. Raid rewards? We have an idea, but no specifics – on and on.
I don’t begrudge the developers this too much in our COVID-riddled hellscape. I’m glad that we got some details and the broad strokes of the content planned, in a way that gives something to look forward to. However, it does paint a picture of an unprecedented delay for the x.1 patch, pushing perhaps even far past the Secrets of Ulduar into much more delayed territory. Shadowlands has been, so far, generally better received than BfA before it, but there are indicators that time is running out to keep players pulled in. The oft-hailed SuperData reporting for January 2021 came out this week, and showed WoW shifting downward to about it’s normal place on the chart, indicating that the game has lost most of its returning or curious players and is settling back into a groove with the diehards and spawning a handful of self-satisfied comments about how dead and bad WoW is on general-MMO sites (why do I read the comments on WoW posts at MassivelyOP?). I can say personally that the first week of February marked a pretty large downtick in traffic for my site, which isn’t uncommon for it, looking at the trendline, but this year the drop was from hundreds of views a day to around 50 daily, which was…pretty sharp of a drop! I thought it might have been the domain switchover, but redirection from my wordpress.com domain remains in-place and my more frequently-searched posts (soloing Torghast, raid difficulty comparison between FFXIV and WoW) were still getting a fairly standard number of search-engine hits.
It sort of occurred to me tonight in raid as well, as my raid spent the full night working on Heroic Sire Denathrius – the raid tier, for us, is almost over, and once AoTC achievements are earned for our raiders, I have practical concerns over the long-term prospects of our raid, especially in the current split-rosters era for our guild. If 9.1 was a month out, I’m sure we’d raid all the way through, farming Denathrius and getting everyone right up to or past item level 220, giving us what is likely to be a headstart for normal next tier.
However, most WoW patches incubate on the PTR for around 90 days. If 9.0.5 launches in late March and 9.1 immediately hits the PTR afterwards, then we are in for a patch launch in June or July, 6-7 months after the initial expansion launch! That is…not great!
Shadowlands has a pretty reasonably good starting experience and has pulled a lot of my guildies back into the game, such that we have two raids running and making progress and our Discord is full of chatter and joking on a daily basis. However, the problem with such a long raid season is twofold – at some point, players will just hit saturation with the current content, and even if you love the content, the second problem exists – eventually, there are no rewards left to earn (even under current loot conditions) and once the Skinner Box is empty, that creates a void that love of the content might not fill. For my guild, people will split in a few ways, in my estimation – some will quit for the season and come back in 9.1, some will just plain quit retail WoW for the time being with no set return (if any), and those that remain will have split interests between main raiding, alt raiding, or pushing into other endeavors like Mythic Plus or PvP. In fact, with Mythic Plus becoming more rewarding in 9.0.5, it seems fairly likely that we’ll have a group that will stop raiding to push keys and a group that will raid in some form. We haven’t actually discussed this yet in any serious fashion, but the reality increasingly looks like it will be a topic in dire need of addressing.
But all of this dances around my actual point with this post. When do I, personally, think we’ll get 9.1?
Well…it’s hard to say. What was shown at Blizzcon looked pretty good in terms of having actual assets and such together – there was boss art, dungeon and raid art, plans for bosses with unique assets that were shown with finished-looking models, and a sense that things were pretty well together. The promise of no major system changes also helps the case – part of the reasoning for the large time gap on the launch of patch 8.1 was the reworking of pieces of Azerite, by designing the mew outer ring with additional traits, designing new class, spec, and raid-flavor traits, and introducing the new Warfront and the new systems for the open-world Warfront content on top of a full raid tier. Legion’s 7.1 had far fewer systems changes, but still was the origin point of the “megadungeon” concept with Return to Karazhan and had a 3-boss miniraid in it.
The problem is that a lot of the gameplay specifics were completely absent. Now, if what they said to start the 9.1 panel is true, then the expectation is to put the systems in front of us on PTR and show them completely, gathering feedback during that process instead of sounding a horn to announce a system and then having it absent from play until a later date. That may work out well, as it will certainly improve the signal-to-noise ratio on feedback over such changes or improvements. However, until we see more, the interviews, Q&A, and panels all sort of make me think of this as an excuse of sorts – it’s the sort of thing I would tell my English teacher in high school if I wrote an iffy first draft paper in the 5 minutes before class (which is a thing I probably did too often). However, for what it’s worth, Valor Points are going through that process now, and they haven’t been too bad – there are a lot of practical and logical concerns about them, but each build has tweaked them based on feedback and fixed things up – aligning costs, making upgrade progression straightforward and clear, and if the patch indeed has 2-4 weeks left in the incubator, then it stands to reason that the system could land fully-formed based on player feedback and might end up being responsive to player wants and needs, which is undoubtedly a good thing.
My gut feeling is that if we get a late-March launch for 9.0.5, then we are in for about 3 months more wait past that point. There is a 10 boss raid to test across 4 difficulties, an 8-boss megadungeon, a new storyline campaign, a new world zone with open world content that has to also slot into an existing zone and allow for a before/after state for the Maw, Pathfinder quirks (making sure collision in currently-unreachable places is correct, setting boundaries since each zone is fully independent with no player flight between them), and updates to systems – expanded Soulbinds, the Covenant cosmetic armor sets, and the Empowered Conduits in whatever form those take. All of these things take time to test, and will require a diligent rollout strategy to keep players running through what needs the most focus.
A post on the Icy Veins forum sets out an estimate of either June 22nd or June 29th, and I think that is reasonably accurate, all told. That leaves the question – is the current content enough to last another 4 months?
Personally, I have my doubts…but we’ll see if that even ends up being necessary.