WoW is in an interesting time right now, to say the least. We all already know that, and much digital and real ink has been spilled over it.
Today marks the first good news, no matter how small, WoW players have had in a while. With patch 9.1.5, there is going to be a newfound ease to the game, with a miniscule amount of class tweaks, some Sanctum of Domination nerfs targeted at Mythic progression-breakers and getting more guilds like mine, frustrated after failing to put up repeat Sylvanas kills on Heroic, back over the finish line. There’s also the conveniently month-away inclusion of Legion Timewalking, with two new modes for Timewalking – the Mage Tower and Timeworn Keystones (I’m still waiting on my royalty check!).
But I don’t want to spend this post litigating the patch itself, because most of the content has been discussed to death already. What I want to do instead is use the patch news, the investor call that is today, and yesterday’s VentureBeat interview with game director Ion Hazzikostas as a codex of sorts, finding guidance into what we expect in the future.
I have to start with this, because nothing Blizzard does right now escapes scrutiny – releasing a new patch on investor call day and having an interview with a media outlet that brands itself as providing “deep context to help business leaders make smart decisions” – they have a Games section, but the focus ends up being more large-scale and leadership-oriented. The cynic in me says clearly, before any analysis of the content, that this is a deeply cynical and calculated move. We all expect the investor results and MAUs for Blizzard to be bad today, and a lot of outlets are likely sitting at the edge of their seats just waiting to write juicy headlines about the fall of a titan. Having an interview in a leadership-focused outlet the day before to assure the investors that a steady hand is at the helm charting a changed course for the troubled World of Warcraft is a clever move, as is releasing a patch and new cash shop mount close enough together to drive engagement and positive discussion about the game, even as both topics have a fair share of negativity around them as well.
Even if the game was still at late-Wrath highs, this would be a smart way to pad sentiment about the game and to keep investors happy. With the realization that patch day is also investor call day, I can piece together my own puzzle about why they launched the patch sooner than expected and not to compete with Endwalker – besides all the US-holiday-based reasons, this actually kind of makes more sense.
So then, we can move to the content of the interview.
Ion gets a reputation of being dodgy in interviews and Q&As. His statements are scrutinized and processed by a large fan base in different directions and I’m about to do the same, but I think my opinion on Ion remains softer than most. I think he’s a trained lawyer, and that he always couches his speech to large audiences in carefully-considered words. I get the impression through smaller interviews and 1:1 conversations I’ve briefly had with him, that his excitement for the game is genuine and he has a hard job – being the figurehead of what was the world’s largest MMO and thus taking in a lot of the credit and blame for the state of the game. At the same time, he falls into a lot of tropes of his own and we’ll discuss that here today.
Firstly, most of the content of the interview is about the ABK lawsuit and investigation and the changes made for that. I plan to write a more detailed post about those, so I will largely not discuss those here today.
Secondly, the interview touches on a few broad, high-level things about 9.1.5 in particular. From the interview responses by Ion, I’m led to believe that the only real planned content for 9.1.5 was Legion Timewalking originally. This suggests that any overdramatic shitlord responses about the amount of content lost because of revised paintings and renamings is, indeed, overdramatic. Anyone who thinks about that for a few minutes would realize believing we lost content to some new wall paintings in inns is a thing that idiots would do, but a lot of people want to rationalize the lack of content in a way that satisfies their own biases. But now I’m cutting into that planned post, alas.
The big thing that most people have noted is that the discussion trends towards a defense of the design of Covenants at launch, while also admitting that they could have and should have changed their minds sooner, as the feedback made apparent – they had this big idea of Covenants being like old-school talent respecs and instead made a system that just encumbered players trying to optimize. Now, obviously, this feels a bit silly to me – the idea that there would be a similar friction to talent respecs is comical when you consider how much goes into farming up a new Covenant for the first time. Now, since Renown at least holds steady at each Covenant level, it’s easier to go to an old choice a second time or beyond, but that first switch sucks – you have to spend days, if not weeks, grinding Renown and completing story quests for the 9.0 content in order to be able to unlock a Conduit slot or soulbind. Were it as simple as talent respecs back in the day, that would have probably gone over a lot better – some grumbling, but ultimately a simple matter of switching. I’m trying to be nice here, but it speaks to a sort of cluelessness about how involved the system was – if talent respecs from Vanilla were the mark, you overshot it with a nuke and completely obliterated the shooting range!
The big quote everyone is hitting is worth seeing in full, so I’m going to just quote it here and then discuss:
“But a lot of what goes into 9.1.5 isn’t a one-off. It’s a reflection of us changing a lot of the underlying philosophies that have motivated our approach to designing WoW. A lot of these things, like I mentioned regarding conduit energy, are outgrowths of lessons that were taught to us by our predecessors, by the founders and the leaders of the team, about the importance of meaningful choice, the importance of preserving character investment, that may have led to us not being friendly to alt gameplay and people’s ability to get caught up on their alts. The reality is, the way people play the game has evolved. What was the right answer for the WoW player base and for the game 15 years ago may not be today. There’s some stubbornness, but clinging to those old lessons, some things are hard to let go of when your training and your education as a designer and a developer on the team led to having these things instilled in you.“
So, a few thoughts. Firstly, this is a good line taken in a void. The thought process here is good and sound and I like that he was willing to say it publicly, that the lessons of the game’s past aren’t always worth taking on and that the MMO market has evolved. However, what many would then (rightly!) point out is that this isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a mid-expansion, soft-spoken mea culpa from Mr. Hazzikostas. In fact, the infamous patch 8.2 design insights guide was this, just a long monologue expressing a desire to better respond to player feedback and admitting that players had the right of it with their feedback on Azerite. It begins to be difficult to take any of these various admissions of fault seriously when each expansion starts with bullheaded Blizzard back on their bullshit before they come back with a gentle apology that doesn’t actually directly apologize, admits faults at a high level, and sort-of fixes them for the near future before we get to the next expansion and the cycle repeats. We’ve now had this for two expansions in a row now and if the first time had resulted in a better Shadowlands experience that clearly had learned from those hard lessons, I’d be defending this statement. But man, I can’t do that – even in BfA, corruptions in 8.3 immediately soured the room, and the way that system worked was sour for a long time in spite of player feedback, and then Shadowlands went into alpha and beta and we know the story from there.
I find it stretching credulity at this point to give Blizzard any benefit of the doubt that the WoW team is turning over a new leaf, listening to player feedback, and will act on it earlier, because there is no substantive evidence of it yet. If 9.2 has some garbage-tier system reconstruction and we all wail about it and it does get changed prior to patch launch, well, they can earn that trust then and there. For right now, though…
And again, sure, 9.1.5 is a good QoL patch and steps closer to that direction as it stands. But it alone isn’t representative of a shift – it is the same mid-expansion fix-it patch we’ve gotten for the prior two expansions!
There’s a generic “we’re looking closer at it” answer to the idea of cross-faction raiding, and the response sounds like it may very well be a thing, but I assume the game’s story direction will have to lead us there first.
There’s a similarly generic answer to the idea of WoW returning to more grounded fantasy roots, and the answer basically says both yes and no – WoW is going to try and cover the whole gamut from huge cosmic forces and universe-spanning threats down to that basic fantasy woodland exploration idea. There is some emphasis being placed on him saying “there are others who miss just being in an inn in Elwynn Forest” because the 9.1 files include high-resolution, updated human building assets.
The last thing to discuss is the 9.2 drop. It will be discussed more “soon.” Ion’s answer is that the team is holding on to details about 9.2 because of the potential story spoilers and a desire to “explain it in the full context of what 9.2 is going to be.” That’s an interesting point, and one the team has not really done in the past – we’ve gotten tons of patch details and reveals prior to content resolving the story beats leading there – most expansions in WoW have been announced and shown prior to the concluding patch of the lead-in expansion! My hope is that it represents an inflection point in the narrative, with Blizzard taking to heart honest, good-faith critiques of the quality of the in-game storytelling and using some of that feedback to make broad changes. But that is perhaps a tad more optimistic than I can manage.
Lastly, the drop of “we do have more planned after that.” This is vague and can mean anything – 9.2 could be the last patch of Shadowlands and it would still be accurate providing that new content in some form came after, or it could mean a 9.3 will still see release and we’ll be on a delayed timetable to launch into 10.0. At this point my perception is that 10.0 is going to be delayed out anyways, past 2022 and into 2023, so in that circumstance, I’d rather have more content than less, but I could be surprised (or just wrong, that definitely happens).
Overall, I find it hard to take too much of this seriously yet, and that bums me out.
Something that I think isn’t discussed a lot is that, looking just at the quality of the game we get, most of us want to be happy with the content. For as much as my blog here has diversified into other games and interests, the core of it is still WoW-based. I like it when WoW is good, and I like being able to speak positively about the game. It sucks to be writing posts distrustful of the development team, cynically analyzing their decisions on release dates and interview posting through the lens of the PR implications of these decisions. There is still a core of WoW I like, and it is still, in this one-foot out the door pandemic state, one of the core ways I keep in touch with my friends. I am not a fan of the game being bad, of elements of it flopping, of spending 3 years now trying to find the core I like after sifting through time-wasting bullshit and bad, stubbornly-grasped design. I want WoW to be good and I want to have faith in the WoW team, I want to believe in this interview so very badly.
But I can’t.
We all know the history at this point and we all understand the fundamental reasons why all of this talk remains just talk, difficult or impossible to put any faith in. The cynical reading here is the correct one – until Blizzard backs these words with action, there is no new leaf being turned over, and it is wise and helpful to our desire to see the game be better that we look at these words analytically and continue to press Blizzard to make the changes needed in the game (and doubly-so for the myriad changes they need to make to their studio environment and workplace). We can do that even putting aside all preconceived notions of Ion as the messenger – because his individual style and delivery doesn’t matter here, it’s all down to the words, the same empty words we’ve heard before.
There are signs of positive action – the Community Council concept seems like it could, maybe, be a good thing (I think it has potential, which is why I signed up for it so we’ll see), and again, for as much shit as 9.1.5 rightly gets for being a contentless content patch, the quality of life changes all quickly move in the right direction. But there is still this backstep too – just over the weekend, the final PTR builds for 9.1.5 reverted being able to skip Covenant 9.0 stories you’d already done, instead just letting you have the Soulbinds, so if you want full Renown, you’ll likely still have to do those quests again (it hasn’t been tested that I have seen so I don’t know for sure), and that is a step backwards from what was announced and kept in right until the eleventh hour.
I just wish that WoW was a game I could feel unabashedly excited for again, but it is not that right now. For the time being, it remains a problematic fave, and with both New World and the imminent release of FFXIV’s Endwalker expansion, I find it difficult to muster that excitement, which the game’s state does not help.