The Release Cadence of WoW In Shadowlands – Is The Game In Trouble?

The TL;DR of this post is simple – yes and no.

Today, we finally got the release date for patch 9.1.5, after two months of anticipation – 11/2/2021 is the drop date.

There are a lot of speculative questions I could ask and answer in this post – is the timing good, what does that do for the competitive landscape in the broader MMO ecosystem, etc – but I want to save most of those for another post.

What I want to do here today is a short-form response to what the patch represents and what is in it.

Firstly, I can’t escape talking about 9.1.5 without generally being positive on the quality of life changes. Shadowlands gets a lot of fresh air from not suffocating you with Covenant choices, and that alone is a fantastic change well worth the release. Likewise, the Torghast changes will at least make getting a legendary and keeping one at max a lot easier – we’ll see how that goes in 9.2 when we likely get new ranks of Shadowlands legendaries, but it is a positive change to let you farm Soul Ash and Soul Cinders indefinitely and one that actually does not have that much impact on the game’s power creep overall (although Soul Cinder purchased sockets might spike power levels slightly). Renown catchup being buyable to 40 is excellent, as is 9.0 Covenant campaign skip once that Covenant is completed once, and the ability to send Anima, slot-specific Korthian Armaments, and Mythic 0 armor to alts is going to be a godsend for getting a fresh level 60 alt off and running.

I’m also excited for Legion Timewalking, particularly the new modes of both Timeworn Keystones and the return of the Mage Tower. While this week, Blizzard invalidated most of my prep guide (by disabling pretty much all borrowed power inside the new instances), the Mage Tower in particular is exciting to me. However, this event won’t even start until 12/7 and run for two weeks past that, which is an interesting choice (putting it right in the middle of the fresh endgame of FFXIV) and that is a choice which baffles me.

In looking at the patch, one of the things I keep coming back to is this – what is there to bring back a committed player?

While I commend the quality of life changes, I think a lot of the kind of person that would be constantly switching Covenants is already engaged with the game and dealing with that the hard way, and removing that barrier, while it will make their play better, is not likely to make it more exciting – simply less tedious. Alt players are likely to get a boon from the changes as well, which is great (I have 3 alts to level to 60 to have every class there myself), but again, that is reliant on people otherwise digging the content that is currently there, because there is nothing else.

In BfA, flawed as it was, we did get little bits of story in these x.x.5 patches – in 8.1.5 with Jaina meeting with Baine as Sylvanas’ horrific plan for the dead Proudmoore son came to light, and in 8.2.5 with the anticlimactic (even more so now in retrospect) ending to the War Campaign. Shadowlands so far has…no new Shadowlands content whatsoever in those patches. There’s nothing new to grab onto or be excited for, and while the changes to existing content are exciting, they are more stopgaps and less actual things to grab onto with excitement.

Which leads us to a further problem – with 9.1.5 releasing in November, it means we are certainly not getting 9.2 in 2021, meaning this will be the first time an expansion has gone a full released year with only one content update. That is…a pretty big problem for player retention when the core Shadowlands experience and 9.1 alike have been shedding players! We’re likely going to see, at a minimum, another 7-month gap in content, with the earliest possible release I could see being February. Even then, I suspect the new delay in the Sylvanas novel to the end of March 2022 is likely to help it coincide with the patch release for 9.2, which means we will be going another nearly 5 months without new content. FIVE MONTHS.

In total, if 9.2 launches in March, the lifecycle of the content added back in late June is going to be a total of…nine months, shattering the record set by 9.0 for non-final patch lifecycle and nearly matching the best-case for a last patch of an expansion to date. That is…not good!

In 9.0, the long gap was almost forgivable in a way due to COVID and the fact that a lot of people had a lot of goals to chase that also involved leveling and gearing from scratch in a new endgame. My guild took until mid-March for AOTC and it took me and a handful of us until May for Season 1 Keystone Master. Meanwhile, in Season 2, KSM took me 10 days and AOTC took around 2.5 months instead of nearly 4. This makes sense just normally because there’s less gearing needed, less grinding levels needed, and so the goals you have fall into place a lot faster once you’re past that launch patch. If we had only a 7 month wait for 9.2, it would be less forgivable, but if it does indeed take 9 months, I’m not sure how that will go down.

That, more than anything, represents the real issue of Shadowlands. Stepping outside of anyone’s individual opinions of if the expansion is good or not, the amount of time spent waiting on new content is pretty bad. The delayed launch for Shadowlands was understandable, and I think everyone was willing to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt on that as COVID was a bitch and getting a full team set up to work from home is no small feat. However, the continued content delays are under much more scrutiny, especially as the FFXIV team had one patch delayed and then has been on their normal release cadence for all subsequent content, including the upcoming Endwalker expansion. It’s arguably even sharper a contrast, given the cultural differences between the US and Japan (Japanese people typically have smaller homes with less room for a work-from-home setup, are less likely to have a car to transport work equipment from the office to home necessitating a larger company response, etc) and thus, it is all the more damning in the public eye that Blizzard has fallen so far behind when their main competitor has not. This is further exacerbated by the way that Square Enix and the FFXIV team were openly communicative about the delays and what the issues were early on, while the WoW team definitely did not respond to anywhere near the same level and has still not recovered. Sure, to be fair, the WoW team has an astonishing number of open roles right now (and that’s without touching on the company being toxic in the public eye right now due to the legal proceedings against them) but it feels like they never really found their way out of the initial pandemic response and are stuck catching up.

Right now, we’d normally be gearing up for Blizzcon and the announcement of a new expansion to come, but the question in my mind is this – do we even get that news at Blizzconline 2022? If you asked me back in February of this year, I’d probably have responded positively and said that we’d be getting 10.0 news soon. However, now, I don’t know what to expect. Getting to 9.2, cutting losses and refocusing for an expansion might be the best way forward, but it will be perceived as an admission of defeat by some. If 9.2 isn’t even out by Blizzconline 2022, I’m not fully sure what they could even announce – because the story right now is so threadbare on potential future leads that there is no good way to share that without a load of spoilers.

In closing, I think that WoW has perhaps never felt like less of a priority for Blizzard or the developers. To be fair, there are obviously a lot of things that the company should be focused on that aren’t the game, but at the same time, the game is suffering from a lack of focus, as the game is pulled between player wishes and the developers holding to their creative vision, for better or worse. One thing that I see as a big problem is that the game just doesn’t have much to stay excited about, while competition ramps up between existing games and new hits, and it creates an interesting question that we may need to confront sooner rather than later – just how long can WoW sustain through a period like this?

I don’t know if the answer is as clear-cut as I would have assumed it to be even just a few months ago.

5 thoughts on “The Release Cadence of WoW In Shadowlands – Is The Game In Trouble?

  1. Is the cadence the issue or the content? I’m all for waiting for something if that something is “good”. If it’s tripe, then it gets pumped out at a different pace. EQ clearly has a different quality standard, and is able to launch “expansions” on an annual basis. If WoW takes 9 months to launch something that has a high value in the art department, but low value in the systems space, is that worth it? It would be difficult to argue the timeframe vs quality/quantity when looking at FF14.

    To that, how much of 9.1.5 should have actually been in 9.0 and actually given cycles to the devs to give something meaningful rather than fix prior errors? Watching this pendulum swing from one end to the other, it must be exhausting for a dev team.

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    1. I think there’s definitely a bit of both – if the quality of the releases is higher with more stuff to do, 9 months doesn’t feel that long, and if you shovel out bits of meh content quickly, it doesn’t always feel bad either. It’s the combination of both that is the big problem – a small serving of underwhelming content under encumbering secondary systems that ends up being spread thin by long periods of waiting.

      And to the point on how much should have been in 9.0, nearly all of it – the systems fixes should be the baseline really, but I think most of us know that and are generally fatigued watching Blizzard shadowbox with themselves and get knocked down anyways. Them not waiting to fix until 9.2 is, in and of itself, an improvement of sorts, sadly!

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    2. Current EQ expansions may be smaller than they were, but in the past the SOE team was routinely able to release expansions that were effectively the size of whole mmorpgs – Kunark, Velious, Luclin, Serpent’s Spine – all of those could have been standalone games. Most of the later expansions are huge by the standard of most games, too. EQII’s expansions up until Daybreak took over are massive as well and even in the DBG era both EQ games provide content in expansions and subsequent updates that keep regular players active and engaged for the entire expansion cycle. There are very few, if any, content droughts in either game. Other mmorpgs also knock out content with a much greater regularity and reliabilty than WoW, too – ESO, GW2, EVE, FFXIV…

      It’s the dripfeed of content in WoW that’s always puzzled me. It’s not as though any of their expansions are so huge they occupy regular players for years, is it? I seem to have been seeing complaints over “content droughts” almost every year for quite a while, now, but instead of things improving they seem to be getting worse. It looks as though WoW players have been trained to expect less than the players of many other mmorpgs and are finally begining to notice and complain about it and with FFXIV the core WoW player now has a very familiar-feeling alternative. I wonder if Blizzard will be able to change their cadence in response? I very much doubt it.

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  2. I honestly can’t say with any confidence that there will BE a Blizzconline – if they cancelled it I would not be surprised. If it were in-person I wouldn’t see how they could show their faces in front of the crowd with all that’s going on. At least postponing an online only event has far fewer repercussions financially. But still.

    It’s funny how they’ve tried so hard to address the “drought” issue year after year and yet they seem to be backsliding. It’s gotten to the point now that the first look at a new thing makes me wonder if it’s there to waste my time – i.e. Torghast. (I actually have some nice things to say about Torghast but that’s neither here nor there). Remember the drama around BC dailies? If we only knew.

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  3. To me, the biggest problem Blizzard has these days is their desire to reinvent / rework large systems of their game. I think they could release more content patches faster if they weren’t so focused on fixing the issues with the systems they’ve introduced with the expansion launch. By the time they have polished something they are about ready to launch another expansion. The cycle perpetuates.

    They’ve gotten so corporate that they seem to be imitating hitting quarterly financial goals via game systems. I wish they would take a step back and focus on the long term. Don’t introduce new systems unless they commit to using / supporting that system for, say, the next three expansions. Just because they are tired of systems as developers, it doesn’t mean players are. I mean, players didn’t choose to play BfA because of the excitement of Azerite gear. They played because of the content in the game, not the supporting systems. Gameplay can’t carry the game if the content is stale.

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