WoW had a patch last week, you may have heard.
This patch is a really interesting case study in what works for drawing players back in, and what doesn’t. On the surface, 9.1.5 is a content-less content patch, offering players nothing new to do short of Legion Timewalking and simply sanding off the rough edges of the Shadowlands systems – not every edge is acceptably smooth, but far more of them are now. Covenant switching is quick, with an immediate boost to 40 and the ability to simply grind Renown up to 80 provided you’ve finished the campaign stories of the expansion. The grind comes quick, as more activities have seemingly been flagged for Renown granting.
And that brings me to the duality of the patch.
Pre-launch, I wasn’t that excited for 9.1.5. I’d made a lot of posts where the stock statement I could be bothered to make about it was something along the lines of “it’s a great quality of life patch, but that’s all it is and with such a long wait coming for new content, it likely won’t be worth it.” Before launch, I think this was a reasonable approach to take – to think it was a good patch but also not the likely step forward into making Shadowlands a universally-liked expansion that Blizzard so desperately needs.
Yet, there is something in the sanding of edges that presents as appealing. Before the patch launch, I hadn’t planned to even bother logging in, much less playing the game post-patch – my goals were done, and so there was just no need – so I had thought. However, knowing how I feel about Shadowlands (the systems are the wart and the more time I can spend engaged with the core combat mechanics of WoW, the better I feel about the game), I shouldn’t be surprised by what came next.
I played…and I enjoyed it.
Now, I want to say that obviously, 9.1.5 is not enough to save the game from the fate that has befallen it. World of Warcraft is in dire straits right now, and that remains true even if play perception is noticeably better – new content must come out to fortify any improved sentiment towards the game and to build back player trust in the development team. But as a first step in a journey of many more steps to come, it is a decent-enough opening shot.
First, let’s discuss the main theme of the patch – Covenant system improvements. Free-switching Covenants is great, although it comes with a still-existing caveat of having to grind out Renown to 80 all over again. However, the ability to buy your way straight to 40 is a huge boon, and if you have finished the campaign of your new covenant on another character, you do not have to do it again to earn the Renown it once would have gated – you can grind straight to 80 off catch-up mechanics like dungeons, raid bosses, PvP, Torghast, and the like. Covenant Renown is stored, so once you’ve gotten a Covenant to 80, if you switch away and then back to it, you’ll still have that Renown and won’t have to re-grind it (this was also the case previously, but I wouldn’t blame you for leaving that pain in the ass stone unturned!). The cosmetic rewards for leveling Renown up all remain usable upon switching, provided you have a character at 80 Renown.
There are a few other changes too, like being able to access all 3 Soulbinds immediately provided you’ve met that one character at Renown 80 threshold, and the ability to buy Anima tokens in batches of 1000 to bring with you to a new Covenant (as Anima remains deposited with the Covenant you dropped your earnings with). You also now get Grateful Offerings from Calling chests, meaning there is now an additional reason to do those in order to work your way up towards all the cosmetics on-offer. For Soulbinds, Conduit Energy is dead, so switching Conduits or using one Soulbind for multiple spec loadouts is now much easier (and indeed possible).
All of these are solid and meaningful changes that make grinding out Renown easier, make switching between Covenants a lot easier, and remove much of the meaningless, time-wasting friction from those systems to make them much easier to set, forget, and play. I will ding Blizzard on only one thing here – the initial promise was to skip the Covenant story, to be able to jump right past it, only for a literal 11th hour change (4 days prior to the patch!) to remove that story skip, which would have been active if you had already done the Covenant’s 9.0 campaign. I find it annoying solely because on alts, the campaign gates the Covenant armor base appearances, as they are tied to Chapter completion and not Renown level. While I learned later on in the first week of the patch that the Renown offered by the campaign was not gated if you had reached Renown 80 on one character and competed the Covenant campaign and Korthia story, it is still annoying for the sake of the armor unlocks, although with the abundance of 200 item level loot in Korthia and the relative ease of acquiring some crafted armor, this isn’t so bad. It still feels like the one sore spot of the patch for me – an overpromise that was underdelivered, if you will.
Secondly, there’s the other Shadowlands system improvements. Torghast now has no weekly cap on earned Soul-currencies, so you can run them like mad to jump right to a Rank 6 legendary. I actually did this on my mage, soloing a handful of Layer 8 and 9 runs until I had enough Soul Cinders to take her Rank 4 legendary hands to Rank 6 straight-away, and it was nice. Don’t get me wrong, Torghast is still Torghast and the mode still has a number of fundamental issues, but with a goal in-sight, it was easy to focus in, spend a couple of hours grinding out that currency with relative ease, and then to get my prize, and that reward felt nice such that I didn’t even really feel the accumulated tedium of 4 hours worth of Torghast in under 24 hours of real time. The other changes smooth out things for gear acquisition, upgrades, and gameplay focus: firstly, you can now deposit Anima while in Korthia, with a simple quest for the Archivists giving you a reservoir in their cave and a shot of anima to test it with just because. For those who still love farming high and low in Korthia, this is a major boost. Gear chests that are bind on account can now be purchased with Valor or Conquest for dungeon or PvP gear respectively. The Valor chest requires a Season 2 M+ rating of at least 1500 to buy (so alts with spare Valor cannot buy it themselves) and offers a base item level 210 piece of gear from dungeons, which can then be upgraded in accordance with the (still stupidly character-locked) M+ rating/upgrading rules. The PvP chest, I don’t know enough about it because I don’t PvP, but it’s there! The Archivists now offer an additional Rift farming quest for a lot of their currency, and their grind is now substantially easier.
Thirdly, the patch targets alt play. Alt leveling is made substantially easier through some small tweaks – a new rank of Heirloom upgrades that travel to level 60, significant reductions to the amount of required activity in a Bonus objective on the map to get the rewards (which is good for both story-path levelers and Threads of Fate), the option through Threads of Fate to now receive daily rewards including a chunk of XP for doing Torghast (which also means Torghast is open for ToF levelers to run sub-60!) and for doing battlegrounds (which is just a supplement to the leveling you could already do there). I leveled two in-progress alts just yesterday, taking one from high 57 to 60 and the other from 56-60 in the span of around 5 hours total play, which was quite a bit faster than my last handful of alts leveled. Torghast leveling is better and worse than it sounds, as not every kill rewards you with XP, but each freed soul is worth a big chunk of XP comparatively, and the completion bonus from Threads of Fate is reasonably good. You can also buy the Renown 40 token for your alts under 60 that are on Threads of Fate, as they will gain more Renown while leveling due to most bonus objectives offering a Renown for completion – make sure to set them to that 40 base before heading out, as you will otherwise miss out on the freebie Renown thrown at you during leveling if you wait to use the token until level 60!
So for features we can see, that is about it. Overall, my opinion is both more positive but also somewhat unchanged – the patch is still content-less and offers nothing really new to do, but at the same time, if you like that core gameplay of WoW, unobstructed by systems, then this patch offers you a meaningful uplift to gameplay quality and can make the game take on a much better character. If that is where our story ended for today, that would be my TL;DR, but wait! There’s more.
The Appearance of the Patch 9.2 Content Delivery Network
On Friday afternoon, all the major WoW dataminers noticed something a bit unexpected – that a 9.2 build was already up on the CDN for WoW. This prompted a lot of speculation and some measure of excitement, and rightly so, in my opinion.
Patch data being up on the CDN has, traditionally, meant that a PTR was incoming, as getting the patch data onto the CDN is the first step towards taking an internal build and making it publicly available, with the next steps being PTR deployment and announcement. In the past, we’ve usually had less than a week (6 days max per Wowhead) for a CDN-loaded patch to turn into a PTR announcement.
To say this is unexpected is not sufficient to convey the pleasant surprise of this news. If it plays out as it traditionally has, then that means that later this week, we should get an early PTR build for the next content release, which will likely entail some measure of hype videos, dev blogs, and the like. If that unfolds, it smashes expectations – I was fairly convinced that we wouldn’t even have a 9.2 PTR until December at the earliest, and a patch release in March at the earliest. This expedites that timeline somewhat, although what impact it would have on the patch release date is harder to predict, as PTR duration is a slippery thing to track over time and too variable patch-to-patch.
For me, this prompts a bit of interesting discourse, because until we have a PTR announcement and content confirmed, it could go a few ways.
The PTR is Genuinely Going Up This Week: If the PTR were to go up this week, that would be amazing. It also would answer a lot of questions about the weirdness of patch 9.1.5 – there’s little class-balancing because that team was at work on 9.2, 9.1.5 being content-less was a plan to use hackathon QoL improvements to keep players engaged while the bulk of the team was on the new content instead, and using the expectations of players that Blizzard couldn’t deliver a new patch quickly as means of exciting us. This has some elements of 4D chess to it in my speculation, but even without that, having a new PTR up within a week of a new release is not very Blizzardy and they know that – it is, however, very much in line with the last time players unabashedly loved the WoW team as a majority opinion – Legion, whose content update schedule remains legendarily good right up to the last patch duration. 7.1 was on PTR before Legion even launched – and if we’re seeing Blizzard focus in on their production pipeline more, this would be a good outcome of that work. Given how much they mentioned “the pipeline” in the earnings call, it would be fitting and just as good a show for us players as it is for ATVI investors.
The PTR Is Not Immediately Planned and The CDN Load Is A Ruse: Blizzard, at this point, knows that the community for WoW loves watching the little minutiae, and for years now, Wowhead and the like have all sounded the alarms when new patch data hits a public server. If I wanted a public hype cycle followed by a crash to reality, posting the CDN for 9.2 and then not announcing a PTR in the same month would be…well, it would be awful, but the early press would be pretty good! I don’t think this is a viable path for Blizzard to take, and I don’t think they’re stupid enough to do it, because any depressive force on the WoW audience right now is a big mistake given the competitive landscape and the company’s own image and reputation in a world post-Cosby Suite. So I note it as a possibility (no publicity is bad publicity, after all) but I don’t think it is what is happening.
The PTR Is Nearly Ready, and Going To Be Slow-Rolled: I think back two years ago now (it feels like less time) to the Patch 8.3 PTR, which came out in October with only a bare-minimum of features to test and then slowly rolled out and added new things to the PTR schedule. This is the way I think they ought to test anyways – try to keep players on a path towards a single feature that needs extensive testing for bugs and issues before opening the whole picture to the PTR – but Blizzard has done a lot of day 1 PTR dumps in their history. I could see a new world zone being opened on PTR first, and then tested for a few weeks before adding supplemental features – whatever comes of Torghast for legendary upgrades, a new raid, etc. Given the upcoming slate of US holidays, I suspect that any PTR launch that comes would have to be in waves anyways – a pre-Thanksgiving content release, a post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas one, and then once January arrives, we’ll probably have everything. This is the most likely outcome in my opinion, even if I want the whole patch dropped day 1 for the sake of datamining and speculation posting!
Either way, it seems like we are bound for some more news about WoW in the coming weeks, much of which may end up being…good? Funnier still, we now have a shoe on the other foot, as Blizzard has now been counterprogrammed by Square Enix, with the Endwalker delay landing launch day right on the first day of the two-week Legion Timewalking event, and while I don’t believe it is intentional on Square Enix’s part (YoshiP cried about delaying the game!), it will be an interesting test of the viability of WoW against competition that is riding a tailwind. 9.2 news could very well shake the whole pot up, and that is something I am fascinated to see.