This is a thought that hadn’t occurred to me until today, and the more I think about it, the more I find questions.
In the past, every Final Fantasy XIV expansion launch has been counter-programmed by the WoW team. Heavensward was countered with patch 6.2, Stormblood with 7.2.5, and Shadowbringers with 8.2 – not always the patch itself, but with the centerpiece content. 6.2 launched with the raid ready day and date to Heavensward, 7.2.5 opened the Tomb of Sargeras, and 8.2 had launched two weeks prior and opened Eternal Palace to compete.
With Endwalker now 50 days away and a big QoL patch hanging for WoW in 9.1.5, it makes some logical sense to how Blizzard has operated in the past that 9.1.5 will drop November 23rd and fight for attention with Endwalker.
In the past, this was a given in attitude because Blizzard also had reason to be confident in their game – that a suitably large audience was not playing both or were locked-in with WoW, and that the patches released as counter-programming improved the game in a way that would bring WoW faithful back to the (virtual) pews. In the Legion case, the game was already riding a wave and while Tomb of Sargeras wasn’t the best raid of that expansion by a longshot, it sucked enough people in and kept them there, while in the WoD and BfA cases, the patches in question offered substantial quality of life changes and freshened up both expansions in an exciting way.
Which brings us to Shadowlands. 9.1.5 is a great QoL patch from all indications – a lot of improvements to core Shadowlands systems that, in theory, are exciting and should bring back people who were otherwise repulsed by the launch experience or otherwise put off of the game. At the same time, the actual content of the patch is, as we understand it currently, incredibly light. When the patch launches, the only “new” content that isn’t tied up in the QoL changes is repurposed old content – Legion Timewalking, with the Mage Tower 2.0 and the celebratory launch event of having access to that content for two weeks. Legion is a fan-favorite overall and it getting the most comprehensive timewalking event (Legion dungeons available, Mythic Plus in Timewalking?!, and the Mage Tower with new rewards) means that there is more to chew on there than just “run 5 dungeons for current normal raid loot.”
But in 2021, the MMO landscape is fundamentally different, and Blizzard might actually be wise to…not release 9.1.5 alongside Endwalker.
Why is that?
Well, to those keeping up with both games and the wider genre, there’s an obvious problem that Blizzard faces – a lack of enthusiasm. I know maybe 2 people who are fiercely onboard the WoW train and willing to unequivocally defend Shadowlands as a good expansion with no qualifiers. That isn’t to say that you can’t do it – I think there are grounds on which it is doing decently and depending on how you play the game, your subjective opinion will differ and that’s both okay and good! – but the sentiment about WoW publicly has, perhaps, never been lower. Blizzard faces a new game in town with this week’s launch of Amazon’s New World, Guild Wars 2 is speeding towards its third expansion, and of course, there’s the matter of the multitude of lawsuits and investigations centering on the Activision-Blizzard team as a whole, specifically centering on Blizzard and with some of the most unsavory parts specifically centering on the WoW team.
On top of all of that though, the competitive picture between the two games is pretty bleak for Blizzard right now. In the past, WoW still had some measure of momentum on its side, particularly in that there were a bevy of streamers, influencers, and players who would grumble about systems and gameplay but continue to play fully dedicated to WoW. Right now, WoW is seeing an exodus of such personalities to FFXIV – some made the move earlier for gameplay reasons, and others made the move in the wake of the ABK lawsuit with California becoming public news. Either way, there was a barrier to entry for FFXIV for a lot of these folks in the past, which was worn away with two straight expansions of system-encumbered drudgery and then smashed down for many more with the news of just how much Blizzard’s outward, friendly image was a façade. A lot of these creators have made shows of no longer playing WoW either – deleting characters or making long public statements to show their particular distaste for what the game and the company behind it are.
In the past, there was a lot of reason to remain competitive, to sort-of cheekily acknowledge the comparison of the two games by asking players to choose or split their time between the games, because Blizzard had a pretty locked-in fanbase that would choose WoW, or at the very least would split time to meet guild, raid, or other group commitments. I know in my case that it meant a mix of both, as even in the Shadowbringers launch window, I was continuing to meet raid obligations for a fresh new raid in Eternal Palace, and I even enjoyed the raid – it didn’t feel like too much of a stretch to commit to playing both, and within launch week, I had finished the MSQ in Shadowbringers, geared up my White Mage from dungeons, all while still playing/enjoying the WoW content on-offer (in the raid at least, because I wasn’t a huge fan of Mechagon or Nazjatar).
This time, though, I’m clear to just play Endwalker, and that’s down to a mix of things – my raid team already has Ahead of the Curve for Sylvanas (as of last Thursday, hooray!), I already have Keystone Master for Shadowlands Season 2 as does most of the serious Mythic Plus players in my guild, and PvP goals don’t particularly appeal to me, but I also have a month and change to work on those if I so desire. My raid team is likely to be on break soonish, and with no new raid or meaningful mass group content coming with the patch, I’ll be free either way to play Endwalker unobstructed, and it is the release I am more excited for personally.
That perhaps is the biggest issue for Blizzard. If released simultaneously, there will be a fairly simple choice to make – no directly new content and only a couple new goals to work towards in WoW versus a full range of new content in FFXIV. Sure, the presence of Mage Tower in the 9.1.5 content and it being open and available at launch means that for someone like me, there is something of a challenge to choose between the two, but the FFXIV expansion launch window is an exceptionally exciting time to be playing that particular game. Mage Tower will come back again and again and be a long-term obtainable goal in its new form, and while the FFXIV community is very good about spoiler discipline, I like being there from the start and getting to experience it firsthand, along with being able to check all the memes that emerge from the new content.
Lastly, a cherry on top – Endwalker’s official, non-early access release date of November 23rd is two days before Thanksgiving in the US, a consideration which is likely to make Blizzard consider holding off until the following week or release ahead of Endwalker.
So, then, if I had to bet, is 9.1.5 going to counter-program Endwalker? No. It doesn’t make sense from a business perspective, even if it is a logical conclusion based on a robust pile of past data. Asking players to choose between the two games at this juncture is suicidal for WoW – not that it would actually kill the game, but it would be an unforced error which Blizzard would take a hit from.
Ideally, in my perfect world based on the current timeline (because of course there is a lot more further back we would ideally change to get to a perfect state), 9.1.5 would be out late October or early November, with the two weeks of Timewalking to commemorate the launch concluding prior to Endwalker early access weekend. However, on the 9.1.5 PTR currently, the event is scheduled to start on 12/7/2021 and end on 12/21/2021, putting it firmly after the Endwalker release (but right around when the 6.0 raid series is expected in FFXIV).
So I think Blizzard is, perhaps, if this holds true, doing the wise thing – not asking players to pick one over the other. In the past, it was a baller move to play it that way, but now? It might be a shot in the foot – I think nail in the coffin would be too severe, but definitely at least a shot in the foot.