The Best, Worst, And Middle Cases – What Fate Awaits Shadowlands Patch 9.1?

It has, as of today when I write this (well, start this lol) been 4 full months of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands.

We also have gone that long without a new content patch.

Historically, at this point, this is the longest we’ve gone without a content patch from the start of the expansion, and I think that it is absolutely clipping the wings of the expansion. The game had a warmer reception than expected at launch, but is starting to burn any remaining goodwill by lingering on the opening notes of the expansion for longer than has ever been done before.

In this post, I want to dive a bit deeper into what I see as the possible fates of the Chains of Domination patch – release date speculation, discussion about the patch content and what I see as working and not working. We are, at this point, a full month past the revelations of Blizzconline, and so hype from that has subsided and I think we can all take a more level-headed look at what is to come.

First, we need to lay the groundwork for what our analysis here is based on, because while in expansions past this would have been easier, it is more complicated now than ever!

The Reality of the Modern World: COVID-19, the Shadowlands Delay, and the Impact of Both on Chains of Domination

COVID-19. Ever heard of it?

Okay, bad joke aside, obviously COVID-19 has taken its toll on all elements of modern life for all of us for much of the last year, and it will likely continue to modify the way we live and interact with others for another year or so, if not longer. While improved vaccine rollouts will improve some of this, there are undoubtedly going to be issues going forward with confirming vaccination status, businesses returning work from home staff to the office, and the like. The pandemic has had a pretty sizeable impact on the release schedule of most entertainment and games are the most susceptible to this. Blizzard had made a fairly large amount of progress on Shadowlands at the office – the build we got to play at Blizzcon 2019 felt pretty far along from a content development standpoint, as it had full questlines for Bastion leveling, a completed zone map that filled in as you went with the proper, hand-drawn map art instead of overhead terrain texture captures, and there were new enemies, mounts, and a lot of work that just normally isn’t done at the reveal of an expansion (at least not the ones I’ve been there for, which is…every one except Wrath of the Lich King).

However, many of the mechanical tweaks were not yet done, and the completeness of Bastion as a zone does not mean that other zones were in a similar state, although it does seem like they were pretty far along given the completeness of many of the reveals and how close to the originally discussed state they were, even when compared to unveilings like Legion or BfA where the expansion was still fairly close to the announcement in terms of features and gameplay.

But the ravages of coronavirus definitely pushed the team to an unfamiliar model with work-from-home, and in something as collaborative as AAA game development, surely there were teething pains, many of which the various interviews with team members have contextualized. It seems that the WFH push set things back, which was compounded by the game’s delay.

The release schedule of Shadowlands isn’t even that out of line for a WoW expansion, to be honest – Warlords of Draenor also launched in November as did Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm launched in December 2010, with all of these titles being on new content patches within, at most, 4 months and with their follow-up expansion announced by/at the next Blizzcon (the Legion announcement at Gamescom actually marks WoD as the fastest reveal of the follow-up expansion ever).

However, it is obvious that the delay was built not on a state of content incompleteness (although some of that was surely in the mix) but because the design paradigm as presented on beta wasn’t working. I think the team managed to mostly stick the landing, but it creates a problem. In traditional WoW development as we have pieced together from BTS features on collector’s edition videos, Blizzcon content, dev interviews, and Q&A sessions, the game is basically being built in parallel, with different team members working on current content or future content. Shadowlands has been in development at least since 2018 (when I visited, over half of the WoW team’s space was already off-limits to outsiders because of it) but the core game content relies on things being complete in the base version of the expansion in order for patches to be built. While I’m sure design work started much earlier, it is likely that Chains of Domination will be Blizzard’s first piece of WoW content built fully by WFH employees. Shadowlands as a base experience surely has some elements built or polished from home, but the core of the expansion was likely set in stone long before the pandemic, and yet, even still, the pandemic had an impact on the launch, pushing things back over a month.

In some ways, this is both good and bad – if the last minute changes to Shadowlands represent the early doldrums of WFH teams, they are a reasonable start and the idea of content made by a more adept team who is better prepared to run with a work-from-home model is appealing, given that Shadowlands outperformed many early expectations. However, the bad here is that I would expect that some of the more heavily team-based elements will be harder to land, things that likely were already done for the base game. As an example that I saw firsthand, the artists responsible for outdoor zones aren’t all in huge cubicles sequestered away from each other, but rather in a large office room with open desks, talking to each other and showing the work they’re doing all day. While I think WFH is a very good work model and one that most businesses can use well, there isn’t as strong of a digital replacement for that, especially given that most residential internet in the US is an unregulated morass of slow connections, overutilized infrastructure from penny-pinching companies, and that even under ideal circumstances, you’re still dealing with internet latency and reductions in fidelity – nothing will ever be as good as direct discussion and being able to look at each other’s monitors and discuss.

So we have a compounding set of problems here – the team was pushed to work from home during a critical point of polish, stuck building the base game prior to moving on to patch content, and that was then further offset by the delay in launch and the likely stop of other development activity in order to focus all design and development on fixing the problems players were reporting in beta, and now the team is likely building the majority of this patch away from the office, in a setting with reduced collaborative capacity and starting late as the final RC build wasn’t out until very late in the beta process.

The impact this has had is pretty hard to measure, all told. I had seen someone say that Blizzard mentioned a 180 day delay (but could not find a source backing this up) but Blizzard themselves has said that there is and will still be some amount of delay given the circumstances, but did not quote anything specifically. Normally, for a build to go live on PTR, there must first be a CDN file for the patch table of contents, defining how things will deploy and telling the Battle.net client to expect a new version of the game. That has not happened as of yet, even two weeks into the patch 9.0.5 lifecycle with nothing new to test on the PTR taking its place (although the TBC Classic beta has launched as of 3/23/2021).

Given this prelude, here’s my format for the rest of the post. I’m going to list good signs (fast release upcoming), neutral signs (things that are neither signs of full-on trouble or delight) and the bad signs (duh). Signs for what? The release date, of course! At the very end of the post, we’ll smash all of those ideas together and spit out a date that I find likely in the best, neutral, and worst cases.

The Good News

Sire Denathrius Heroic Nerfs – Normally, Blizzard begins to taper the difficulty of endbosses only when they know content is on the horizon, unless a boss is clearly out of wack with the rest of their tier. The challenge here is that I could see both cases here – Sire Heroic was a shitshow of a fight with a challenge level far higher than the rest of the Heroic raid, but at the same time, it is learnable and doable, and the tweaks they made were relatively tame, but also enough for some – my raid group certainly was at least one beneficiary of those nerfs! As my guild leader pointed out, though, in recent WoW history, most endboss nerfs like this signal that Blizzard is closer to content and is confident it will come out soon enough to merit pushing a few struggling raids over the finish line. If we weren’t dealing with COVID delays, I would unabashedly endorse that. Still, I find it compelling on its own – even with COVID delays, it makes sense to get everyone over the hump that is H Sire. However, I see a problem with this too – if the patch is close, fine, but the historical precedent is that PTR is live and has been for a while when the patch-signalling nerfs come into play. We have no 9.1 PTR whatsoever right now, and that is a problem.

Patch 9.0.5 Was Almost Certainly Unplanned But Also Removes Some of the Balancing Needing Testing – In a perfect world, we likely would be in patch 9.1 now, after an October Shadowlands launch, and the balancing introduced in 9.0.5 would have been in that hypothetical version of 9.1 instead. We got…well, a non-patch really. It fixed some balance issues, introduced some new ones, and still has the weight of the launch systems on it, albeit with the introduction of a couple of new systems that should suitably improve the lifespan of the launch content. Balancing isn’t perfect right now, but it is better – and that should, hopefully, translate to fewer large shifts in 9.1 for class design, which should mean less testing of balancing needed and fewer class/legendary tweaks. There are some items that will need a look, some specs that remain underperforming overall and need some help, but by and large, I think 9.0.5 did the job it needed to – critical updates to keep things from totally falling apart, along with the distraction of Valor points as the means to keep people on cyclical weekly content with a less-rigidly defined progression path and endpoint.

The State of the Structured Presentations At Blizzconline – Firstly, I need to say this – I think that the retail WoW presentation was too short and I wish there was a deep dive or other better panel with more information to share. Having said that, what they showed felt more complete than I expected – even the 8.1 content shown at Blizzcon 2018 was less developed, and that was about a month away from launching at the time of that Blizzcon! There were a lot of completed assets, new bosses with animations shown in videos, a full machinima cutscene, and a pretty comprehensive feature list. We’ll be revisiting this point elsewhere, so don’t worry, but up front, I have to say it – the What’s Next panel gave me some hope in the future of the Shadowlands!

The Mythic Dungeon International Finals Date – The finals of the Season 1 MDI for Shadowlands is scheduled for April 23-25 2021. This alone is not indicative of much – the MDI season does not always cleanly map onto the in-game season, but since BfA’s version of the MDI brought more structure to the eSports side of Mythic Plus, I would suspect that the end of Season 1 MDI means the near-end of Season 1 Shadowlands on live servers. I’ll come back to this later when we start guessing wildly at dates!

The Neutral News

There’s No PTR Yet – And? Well, a major content patch in WoW requires a lot of testing, and arguably, not enough gets done even in the elongated windows Blizzard often provides, partially because so much of it leans on your average player downloading the PTR, logging in, and playing, and then sharing feedback. Getting skilled QA testers to provide meaningful feedback is a tough act, getting players to be able to succinctly distill that feedback is much worse, and we know which of these two Blizzard leans on more, sadly. Unless the biggest surprise of all is coming with patch 9.1 (Blizzard having a large and well-oiled QA test team that completed most testing internally without a PTR!) then this is more of a bad news item, but yet, the possibility also exists that between 9.0.5 being released and the relatively more compact nature of the content being released that testing could be shorter and less sprawling than we are used to. There’s no CDN yet either, which is perhaps the more troubling news, as it likely signals the patch being at least a week out from PTR first builds even, and that is something of a worry.

Nothing Has Been Said Since The Blizzconline Blitz – Blizzconline came and went and ever since then, we’ve just been waiting for more info. Launching 9.0.5 earlier than initially expected by the loose “March” timeframe felt like the silence was for a PTR launch, but there are few signs of such a launch on the horizon and we’ve heard nothing about what else to expect in 9.1. All of that combined is…troubling, but also could still be that they’re just holding for the PTR drop, so I’m feeling a Neutral rating holds fairly here.

The Bad News

The State of the Blizzconline Press Interviews Was Abysmal – Can I just say it? Don’t tell me about a feature you haven’t even fucking designed yet! Interviews for the Chains of Domination content and features were a hot mess, ranging from a myriad of vague hinty answers (well, I guess if the Tarragrue is dead after the raid in 9.1, there’s nothing to really enforce a death count in Torghast, maybe…) to statements of features in the patch that weren’t even ready to discuss (the feature that prompted my outburst up top, the Empowered Conduits, which have a name and a vague idea but nothing ready to discuss other than that name). In many ways, the interviews did, in retrospect, actually disappoint me, because the presentation was edited, tight, and had message discipline, and then everything past that point was just a firehose of diamonds in a stream of shit – found some good stuff by sifting through them but I am not happy with the mess it left. I turned the stream off Friday of Blizzconline satisfied with what was unveiled, and then it was just a ramp of various small disappointments. To be clear, most of the actual points discussed in the interviews are good (save for the Sylvanas redemption arc we all see coming and I’m pretty sure is universally loathed at this point), but what I liked about the structured presentations is that things felt far along, finished, ready for those balancing and polish passes to bring stuff up to that really strong standard you want from Blizzard. The interviews felt like they were designing live for an audience – no clue what we’re going to actually do, but hey, Super Conduits sound cool, right? What about if we totally change Torghast since a lot of people seem to hate it and find it dull and boring? As much as I’d like to be a game designer some day, I don’t want to see other people just doing it when telling me about the patch I hope will be out in a soonish timeframe. Just don’t tell me that you’re set on shipping a feature that you haven’t even designed yet, because all that tells me is that you’re going nowhere slow, and that sucks to hear as a veteran player.

TBC Classic Beta Is Going To Be A Drain Of Sorts – In the summer of 2019, Blizzard launched BfA patch 8.2 prior to the large-scale opening of the WoW Classic beta, with the third stress test (the most open one) being after the launch and raid opening that accompanied that patch. Patch 8.3 was not on the PTR until October of that year, after WoW Classic was launched. TBC Classic having a beta right now feels like a thing I wasn’t worried about until I realized that the WoW team was putting it out first, and then I realized that the odd delay on PTR for patch 9.1 feels like it was waiting for the TBC beta to launch. Could the two run concurrently? Of course, while the WoW team’s leadership is unified under a core team, both development teams have their own staff and resources, with some sharing from what we can tell outside. The TBC Classic beta is also likely to be less intensive than the original WoW Classic beta, as the core need to test in vanilla Classic was down to a lot of first-time issues, like bringing the old codebase and gameplay into the modern engine, ensuring all of that worked correctly and that all of the content in the game then also worked as intended, while also trying to see how new features like Layering would work and if they would create any points of failure that needed to be squashed prior to launch. That work could very well be needed again for TBC Classic, particularly because of the high day 1 volume of players squeezing into a single zone as opposed to the spread of new players in vanilla, but even if it isn’t, some amount of work is going to be going into making the TBC Classic beta run smoothly and that may include QA analysts and other test employees being engaged there instead of with the live retail game. Even if we assume they have enough staff and a defined-enough roster split to manage both, the leadership of the team is likewise going to have split attention. That is, potentially, a mess.

It’s Not On The PTR – Okay, I’m double-dipping this one, because look – it not being on the PTR is not in and of itself an ill omen, but it also raises the specter of issues without saying anything. If it doesn’t hit PTR prior to April, the game is going to have a tough time sustaining player interest, because many people will start to overcome obstacles and move on to either pushing for new goals or just tuning out and running to new games for a break. If they’d shown something more of the patch post-Blizzconline and were in this state, it would be one thing, but we’ve heard nothing, seen nothing, and have no schedule for when to expect something. It is easy, in that case, to fill in the worst assumptions of what that means, and frankly, right now, it seems correct to do so.

Based on all of this then, we have a bit of a problem. On the one hand, Shadowlands’ initial launch window was more positive than BfA’s, although a lack of loot in general and various issues with the handful of systems added with Shadowlands have taken some shine as players have settled in. On the other hand, players are starting to reach their defined endpoints – my raid team has our Ahead of the Curve, with the other team likely to get it tonight, more people in Oribos have their Keystone Master mounts and more Maw players are running around on Corridor Creeper mounts, and item level for nearly everyone is starting to reach the point of diminishing returns – many in my guild are in a 215-220 item level bracket where only 14+ level Mythic Keystones or Mythic Castle Nathria and Heroic Stone Legion Generals/Sire offer upgrades, while casual players have likely been tapped out for longer as Covenant armor upgrades offered 197 armor to all and an LFR weapon from the campaign quests, with only necklace, rings, and trinkets to fill in from LFR or Mythic dungeons. Gnomecore is one of my bellwethers for the LFR audience, and one of his recent posts categorized the current state of the game to him as “sheer grind.” Ouch.

My raid is in itself going through likely transition at some point. While we will be doing a full clear this week and working to get the missing players from last week their AOTC achievements, I feel like we won’t be running too much longer past that point, as people will tire of just doing the same bosses on loop with no end in sight. We’ve discussed other things as a guild, like people wanting to work towards Keystone Master achievements, and it seems like some of the energy put into progression raiding will be placed into that instead, but even that has people in two minds – wanting to do it ASAP in case the patch comes out quickly, but others wanting to ride the wave because if the patch is due later, like in June or even as late as August, then rushing to do it now even during poor push weeks feels like a lot of frustration over nothing. For my part, I’m working on learning to tank through Mythic Pluses at higher levels, but even then, there are a couple of guildies I absolutely will not run with anymore and I’m more likely to try doing chicken keystones at lower levels than jump right in to a 10+ without the practice. I’ve tanked a 9 and a 10 this expansion already and the experience both times was profoundly awful (although a lot of that is down to the awful guildie who I will refuse to run with going forward) and it usually takes me some decompression time away from the game when a run goes bad to get back into the headspace for it. It may turn out that it isn’t for me and that I also take a break, and I am fine with that too!

So then, we are only left with the news presented to speculate as to a patch release date. Let me present 3 cases – best, what I think will actually happen, and worst.

Best Case: Ooh, I’d love to say patch launch the week after the MDI finals for Season 1, which would put it on either April 27th (if it was immediately after the MDI) or May 4th (a full week passing after the finals). That would require a lot of things to line up, however – testing to begin shortly on PTR (like, Thursday PTR launch or next Tuesday at the latest, and for the content on-offer to be relatively light on potential problems. I would take a wider berth on testing and say the best case scenario I could see would be May 18th. 9.0.5 was on PTR for a month with no new content, but if we assume that the balance testing was the main focus and that won’t be as needed (relatively speaking) with 9.1, then a solid month of scheduled raid and dungeon testing with outdoor content testing rolling out in waves could maybe get the job done. May 18th, especially if we get the PTR in the next week, would offer around 6 weeks of testing – not the most a WoW patch has ever had, but not the least either. In reality, much of the testing tends to, unfortunately, happen during the first week and change a patch is on live, when the greatest number of players see it and complain about things being broken. Not that I want the raid to be like that, but you could also launch the patch in stages as they’ve done in the past. Korthia could go live ahead of the raid being open, the mega-dungeon, or any other content, which would then allow further PTR testing while the patch is live and offering content to the greater swath of casual players who aren’t wound up in the PTR cycle and would be unlikely to be testing anyways. So my best case – May 18th 2021.

What I Actually Expect: Launching a dungeon and a raid in the same patch is hard. Blizzard’s last such effort was 8.2, which had the Operation: Mechagon mega-dungeon along with the Eternal Palace raid, two new world zones, a new story connecting the BfA campaign to the new zones, new loot via Benthic gear, the Azerite essences system, and a lot of other bits and pieces of content. That patch was in testing from April to June 2019, a testing window of just over two months (4/16/2019 to 6/25/2019). My opinion is that 9.1 has less content compared to this patch, and would thus need less overall work – no expansion feature reworks, only one new zone and it is an addition to an existing zone, thus smaller, what sounds like a unified story campaign instead of the still-split campaigns of that point in BfA, and fewer small bits and pieces of stuff (from what we know so far, at least). Still though, given the work-from-home aspect of things, I would place the testing window at two months, and assume it is launching next week. If both of those things hold true, we’re looking at…June 1st, 2021.

The Worst Case: If the delay of 180 days rumor I heard is true (and I don’t believe that, truth be told), that would push us into the late summer. If we assume 180 days late on development, not counting a testing window of two months, then that would be almost 8 months into Shadowlands with no new content, and would put a patch launch on July 21st, 2021. This could end up being the case if shit really hits the fan, but I think that would require more disasters and issues to arrive at than could feasibly happen. At that point, in a world without Classic, shareholders would start demanding information and the whole thing would be an absolute mess, without even taking into account just how devastating that would be to the playerbase as a whole.

Either way, I think we’re getting into interesting uncharted waters here – WoW as a game is almost never going to be in a precarious position in a world with Classic propping up the ledger, but negative feedback about the retail game is always washed away, even if just briefly, by new content. We are reaching a point where the launch content is having a long time to marinate, and is driving players away by not offering new content to fill the void. Even for those like myself who are enjoying the time in Shadowlands, it is hard to envision really staying with it during the doldrums of the current patch, and for my raid group, those doldrums are rapidly approaching. If June 1st is the actual launch date, it will be the longest the game has ever waited for a first patch. At this point, even if the patch came out tomorrow, it would still be the longest wait for a first patch in the game’s history.

That’s really the crux of the issue here, after all – WoW’s playerbase is a mix of fierce loyalists, casual players, and progression-oriented folks, all of whom are pushed away from the game by long content gaps. An end of expansion content gap allows casual players time to breathe and push through the stuff piled on over the last year and a half while progression players can take a break, while casual players tend to tune out earlier in the expansion and often come back as progression players are leaving. Too long a delay here risks pushing the majority of the audience out – there’s little for casual players to catch up on that they can’t have already done, and the progression players are reaching their goals with nothing to chase.

The impact of COVID-19 is well-understood and I think Blizzard does get some slack here (and rightfully so, I’ll add) but at the same time, I think they’ve handled that impact worse than their contemporaries. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV team made very clear early on that content was delayed from plan and has been working to chip away at the delay, such that we got patch 5.4 in a similar timeframe to the usual gap after the x.3 patch, and 5.5 is hitting live servers in just under 3 weeks, almost fully back on schedule (of time between patches, at least) with only the initial delay of 5.3 in the books. They’ve discussed it in every Live Letter, and they even had the team’s project manager on the most recent live letter to breakdown how patch scheduling happens and the timeframe they use to deliver content, and it was dull when it was the fifth hour of FFXIV content in a block that included the Endwalker unveiling, but in retrospect, it was bold, open, and actually really cool to get that breakdown. I don’t feel that either Square Enix or Blizzard owes that level of detail to me, but I do think that for Square Enix, they’ve gone out of their way to communicate why things are delayed and by how much, while Blizzard invokes COVID delays without any sort of meaningful expansion of detail around them or what the expectation is for delays caused by it.

That really caps off the story we’re discussing here – Blizzard has a unique and new problem on their hands, and I am waiting eagerly to see them fix it. Okay, actually, mostly it’s eagerness for the new content, but watching the process around it unfold will certainly be fascinating all the same.

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