Much has already been said, both here and in all other corners of the WoWosphere, about how drastically, awfully, terribly late the upcoming Chains of Domination, patch 9.1, is already.
With an encrypted build hitting Blizzard’s CDN servers on Thursday of this week, the prophecy of a launching PTR this upcoming week looking ever more real than even the blue text did (and, since Blizzard can’t actually launch a counter-programming patch to FFXIV’s patch 5.5, this PTR launch will serve to take some shine from that game as is Blizzard’s style).
I want to explore something I’ve kind of been looking at ever so briefly in prior posts on the topic of 9.1 – the impact on player groups of the delayed patch.
I want to start this post with an important proclamation that kind of needs to be out of the way first, because…
I Don’t Blame Blizzard Fully, But Their Messaging and Management Could Use Improvement
This patch is incredibly late by any standard. Given the circumstances of the world under COVID-19, I get it – there wasn’t an ideal path available and compromises had to be made. Moving to work from home and delaying the launch of Shadowlands remains commendable, as it was the safest bet based on the science for our present times and delaying the expansion to allow a final pass on things, along with some redesigns, made good sense to give players the best possible product. Likewise, I am sure the timing was awful on moving to WFH and it seems clear that the design and development of Shadowlands’ endgame was harmed by the process – much of the delay wasn’t polishing so much as demolishing, rebuilding entire chunks of the endgame of the expansion to respond to beta feedback. This almost certainly affected patch 9.1, as any gameplay planning and feature expansion would have been based heavily on the launch mode, as the 9.1 patch rarely makes substantive transformative changes to the base endgame gameplay but is instead an expansion of it.
My praise and understanding for Blizzard, however, end here.
There is an amount of the well-known Blizzard hubris in believing that your design is so sound and sure to win players over that you didn’t test it until later, expecting that players would love it, and then, as with many things in the game over the last 5-8 years, realizing they didn’t and having to oscillate between smug dismissal (players on beta just haven’t seen enough to really understand how it will work!) and put-on apologetics that allow them to make small tweaks and appear to be responding to player feedback while not really acting too much on it (the Maw design/redesign says hello). To their credit, the Shadowlands endgame is generally closer to good on average, with some great elements and a handful of subpar designs, even the worst of which manage to avoid the pits of Battle for Azeroth or Warlords of Draenor. Despite an avalanche of beta feedback submitted on the play-feel of things like the Maw, the team avoided making any real shifts in gameplay until the delay was announced, keeping on a fairly fixed route that was being met negatively. Outside of the Maw, covenants were and remain a hotspot of contention – Blizzard decided to not punish you for switching with a two-week process to win trust, but has instead created a one-week groveling period for returning to an old choice and made the path to maximum player power equal parts friendly via catchup but also obscure and magical, meaning there’s no real actual plan you can follow short of just “play everything in the game for a couple of weeks,” which is also something the game doesn’t really expose or explain.
The bigger point, however, is about communication. When I’ve broached this topic recently, my benchmark is Creative Business Unit III at Square Enix – the FFXIV team. They had to delay a patch and shift their whole cycle back because of the adaptations needed for WFH, but they made that clear incredibly early, discussed timetables frequently, and even featured their project manager for the game on a Producer Live Letter to break down how the process of patch and expansion development works and to show the impact of the pandemic response on that schedule. Blizzard fell far short of this standard, releasing preorders for Shadowlands with a release date, but remaining unnervingly silent on the pre-patch launch before announcing pre-patch alongside the delay announcement. As far as we knew from the outside, the original October 2020 date was going to be valid, until 10/1/2020, when I turned 35 and they announced the delay (a curse on my birthday!). Blizzard doesn’t need to tell us everything, and I certainly don’t need Lore with a slide deck of content plans (although, dare I suggest that Blizzard is perhaps not as well-structured and scheduled as Square Enix), but more communication is rarely worse. Just some sort of heads-up of the impact of various changes and some reasonable time on the horizon to build hype to. I liked (REALLY liked) that they announced ahead of time that the PTR was coming, because it created a little bit of buzz for me personally, and for many players I know. Having more of that done more regularly would go a long way to restoring some trust.
So I think that Blizzard’s response to COVID-19 is overall great from a public health and employee health standpoint, but then I have to say that I feel like there is a lot more they could do with just very simple announcements and expectation setting in public to make players keep faith, alongside some long-needed humbling in their design process to bring them to the table with players more, so they aren’t stuck redesigning major elements of the expansion within the confines of a 30-ish day delay.
But now, let’s talk about the impact this delay has on social cohesion within the game!
The Real Social Cost of Content Droughts
WoW guilds are fairly used to end-of-expansion content droughts at this point, because they are almost as certain as death and taxes at this point. However, what we are not used to is early-expansion content droughts.
My experience in pretty much every expansion is this: the game launches, I’m hyped, I try some sort of sprint to the new level cap, jam in a bunch of the new content, move on to the first-tier raid, and then by the time my guild has earned the Ahead of the Curve achievement in there, not much time remains and there are elements of the launch content that I don’t get to until later, and achievements or goals I either can’t get done in time or have to delay, like first-tier raid Glory achievements, Hero dungeon achievements, or pushing keystones much past wherever the ceiling practically is for my guildies.
In Shadowlands, however, I’ve done almost everything I could want. I’ve got Exalted with all the covenants, done two out of four full Covenant campaigns, gotten AOTC and Glory of the Nathria Raider, and my average weekly keystone is between +12 and +14, with more guildies getting Keystone Master mounts and that becoming a core focus for much of the roster of our guild, and seeming increasingly more likely to be a thing that actually happens for a lot of us.
Short of the remaining Covenant campaigns, KSM, and maybe deciding to level all tradeskills, bring up all my alts, or other less time-limited activities, I’m effectively done for the patch. Keystone Master looks more appealing the more realistic it seems, and given my M+ DPS performance as of late, I think I can get myself there with guild groups, given the last +14 I ran was a well-timed and executed run.
However, what I have now is the practical side of the absence of new content, seeing it hit my guild in different ways. For my team’s main raid leader, not having raids and being focused on KSM caused a bit of a rift, where some unexpressed feelings burst out all at once and created a lot of guild discussion while he went off to take a break, which has some possible practical implications on raid rosters and balance next patch, assuming he returns. It also led to a notable uptick in guild cohesion with Mythic Plus runs, however, so while I might have landed on disagreeing with his actual trigger and the manner in which he decided to drop his emotional burden and bail, it still had something of a positive effect!
But it is creating problems with social cohesion, because for a raiding guild with a set ceiling that we chase, the game works best for us when we are all aligned in that common goal of AOTC. Once we reached it, and still had 10-16 weeks of the current status quo left, it caused some breaks and pressure points. There’s not a lot of tension, per se, but there is a sort of wearing on the guild. Some people are playing less and less and may be less likely to return at all. A few players are questioning their roles in raid and how they want to move forward, and reshuffles of roster may come down to more than just dramatic exits and hurt feelings, but also fundamental desires to keep people engaged with raid content when we can finally push something new once again. Some people see themselves as above our level, and are sort of drifting because despite our enlarged roster, there wasn’t interest outside of like 2 uber tryhards to even attempt Mythic raids, and the keystone runs, while they’ve been pretty great with multiple groups running on several nights, have also exposed a sort of natural clique-y-ness that comes from a guild being the result of a merger – there’s more cohesion between the halves than ever before, but there are still moments where the divide feels sharpish and potentially problematic.
Now, I express all of these logistical concerns from an excellently prepared guild’s standpoint. If we lose players from now to the launch of 9.1, we have large enough raid rosters that there is a possibility of maintaining two 15-18 player raids, or if numbers dip low enough and our meta-chasers decide to switch main characters (or our delusional souls are asked to play something else to keep a spot), we can recombine. Even that is fraught with some peril as 4 tanks become superfluous immediately, which means people may have to change roles, feelings might be hurt, and we already have a bit of a tank availability dilemma for getting M+ running, which has resulted in some people gearing tanks, leveling tanks, or people who’d rather not tank donning the armor and trying anyways (that’s me!). Still, if even as much as half of our roster got irritated and left the game tomorrow, we’d still be on pretty good footing for next tier.
But it does make me think of our recent past, when we were a smaller, more tightknit guild pre-merger, and how precarious it could sometimes feel if things were problematic even for a few weeks of content. Even during Uldir, much less after in BfA, we lost players, people switched roles and mains, and the whole reason we landed in a merger situation was largely due to those fluctuations (it was an overzealous response from one of our officers, but it did put us in the situation we are now where things feel less like our guild will explode between tiers, so hey!). For most WoW guilds, they’re small. Well, smaller than mine. The world first race doesn’t have that many guilds participating, and most guilds are raid rosters of usually just a group of friends that caps out low and doesn’t really recruit or want to recruit and bring new people in since that can fuck with the dynamic of such a group.
In that situation, a delayed content patch is about the worst thing possible this early in an expansion. It creates a genuine conflict for many players, who won’t have a build-up of nostalgia for Shadowlands if they leave or take a break this early on, which means they’ll be less “sticky” to the game and less likely to return at all. Most of the people I know who cycle in and out of the game do so because they get in, their nostalgia for WoW powers through, and then they either run out of nostalgia and leave again, or they get hooked by a new thing in the game and stay. In the past, that second category is often stuck to the game pretty well at that point, because regular content updates keep the hook planted and build up fondness, such that even if they do take a break mid-expansion, there is something there to hold onto and come back for.
Right now, no one really has Shadowlands nostalgia. There’s no one saying out loud “remember the early days in Bastion?” because it wasn’t that long ago, and I remember it without rose-tints – the side questing was awkward and long, the zone layout ain’t great, and there’s also the brutality of the Kyrian in their story that still feels like Blizzard missed the point of what they wrote and thus it kind of takes some weight away from the 9.1 reveal trailer, since the Kyrian falling feels like a potential net positive in a weird way! If you leave the game right now, there isn’t really a strong pull from Shadowlands. That isn’t to say that you couldn’t find anything to grab onto – some players may have affinity for zone stories like Ardenweald’s, or emotional moments like the Night Fae vessel of the Kyrian campaign story, and some long-term Warcraft fiends may have a strong desire to see the heavily-Warcraft III character focused story of Shadowlands play out, with all kinds of things happening with characters like Jaina, Sylvanas, and Thrall – not to mention Bolvar, Anduin, Kel’Thuzad, and more.
So if I were in a smaller guild, I’d be quite worried about what happens when players start sitting out. We have like 5 people on some form of break, and with no organized raids running next week, we may very well see that number grow. For those folks, I don’t know if I could identify if they would all come back or not – some of them I predict absolutely will, but others…it’s actually kind of hard to say!
The worst part is that Shadowlands had a successful launch overall, warts and all included. For all of the very valid complaints about things like Torghast balance, gear progression, and the overall awful state of rewards (Broximar pointed out on Instagram that Renown only unlocking the ability to purchase many of it’s “rewards” actually makes it feel really bad and very counterintuitive compared to how such a thing might work in just about any other game!), people liked the core gameplay on offer enough to stick it out. A lot of the people I’ve been meeting in guild came back from pre-merger hiatuses, and most of them have stayed – more than I would have predicted in a normal scenario! The challenge here is that Blizzard had momentum post-launch, and they stalled it completely and have driven it into the ground. The game is still here and still seems relatively popular, but it’s easy to see the signs of wear. Here in the blog scene for the game, as an example, there just isn’t that much left to say. People that are still talking about the game are sharing increasingly smaller anecdotes about their personal experiences, and if you’re really reaching, you could always make a raid-leading experience into a post or two or even three, and use that lens to talk about the game without almost even talking about the actual content at all!
MMO’s thrive on social cohesion, and while it is a popular meme to suggest that WoW is the island of misfit toys – an audience of solo players who are socially mute in any scenario where they have to talk while also being socially inept and toxic, the truth lies somewhere in the middle here. WoW’s largest, most impressive goals all still require some form of team – from an arena team of 2 all the way up to a multi-raid group gaggle of 40 or more people, and often, you’ll find yourself in a single guild with a single goal – be that casual play, alt play, some level of organized raiding, PvP, etc. Once they reach that goal, a lot of people can start to peel off. With less agreement on goals, you have less cohesion, and with that, you have more player abandonment and toxicity.
In my guild, it has taken some degree of conscious management of getting people to unite behind new goals. The sharp increase of focus on Mythic Keystones and the Keystone Master achievement is both a goal shared by a smaller number of players, but also something that can be worked towards to bring more people in. One of our players is an incredibly shy and unsure Holy Priest, who can be an impressive healer but often requires a much friendlier and more accommodating environment to grow into a role. Because of that, Mythic Keystone dungeons are often quite scary for her, and so we’ve found times to run with a group of less-elitist players on lower keystones so that she can gain comfort and find new goals with the group that would encourage her to stay active in the game past raids. Hell, even for me – I find some value and fulfillment in being useful, so I’ve been trying to learn how to tank Mythic Plus, which isn’t something I’ve done a lot of and is a different skillset in some ways to raid tanking, which is far more static and less demanding in many ways. But at the same time, I need to be with a group of people I know and like, who I know won’t be strident assholes to me if I goof up occassionally, and so I similarly to that priest must find groups at good times with players that I know are level-headed and generally friendly – which means that I have a list of “no-tank” players and one who has even reached my shit list to a point of “no-play.”
That is what I would distill down from my guild’s experiences the last few weeks. Not having a common goal shared by everyone brings tension to the surface, pushes players away, and can sometimes create new rifts based on pursuit of new goals. The longer you have a gap where these issues can fill in, the worse those problems can be, and while you can actively manage a roster with distracting new goals and things like alt-raiding, achievement runs, and such, those tend to not be valuable for as long as we likely still have before the patch. It is a difficult situation for all, but can be especially challenging for small guilds.
To be clear, breaks aren’t bad either. We have people who are off playing Monster Hunter Rise, and I might struggle next week as will a few others to find time for WoW when the story bridge into Endwalker in Final Fantasy XIV begins to ramp up. We’ve had some raiders finding more time for the new season in Diablo III, a game that hasn’t been seen much in our guild’s Discord statuses at all until lately. A lot of these folks are very likely to return, and I have no doubts that they will. Such breaks can be good – getting to see something different for a decent stretch of time can freshen up WoW and make it feel new again (alongside new content and tweaks, of course).
So for many guilds, I get why this feels tense, moreso than usual. Social cohesion is a thing a lot of small guilds have a lot of, but events like extended early content droughts can sometimes unveil cracks in the foundation that the game’s typical content schedule hid.
And if you’re playing with friends to stay connected during our current moment in history, seeing people fade away in-game and losing that aspect of your bond probably feels a bit worse than it otherwise would.