On Thursday this last week, Blizzard unveiled the next full content patch for World of Warcraft – patch 9.2 of Shadowlands, Eternity’s End. In this patch comes a lot of things, it would seem, and yet the feeling among the playerbase could best be described as frothing discontent.
For my part, I found the unveiling both promising and yet disappointing, in that it showed that Blizzard had new things coming sooner than expected and yet also had so little substance around gameplay as to be disappointing. Then came a pile of interviews on all sorts of different sites, and things were becoming clearer and yet also murkier.
I would have written more on Thursday, but I had an afternoon dentist appointment (yuck) I cut it close on to write what I did write, so I tried to stay more analytical, more summarizing, more positive.
Now, I have no such time pressure, and I want to explore what it was I felt about the announcement and why I think it reflects a Blizzard that hasn’t learned very much or even reckoned with the state the game is in.
The running theme of a lot of discussion about WoW right now is that Blizzard is basically fucked ten ways to Sunday and the future of the game hinges on whether or not they realize that before the playerbase evaporates in favor of other gaming experiences. It is fairly safe to say that WoW is no longer the number 1 MMO, as most active player estimates and census sites for the MMOs that are out there agree that WoW has largely flattened out in 2021, with a pretty dedicated base of players and nothing more, as the game hasn’t made an attractive pitch to pull new players in at a rate that would replace players bowing out and has thus been withering on the vine.
9.2 would be the first real bit of new content discussed since the summer, since late July brought news of the sexual harassment and inequalities that had deeply rooted inside Blizzard, and since the exodus of players to Final Fantasy XIV and the launch of serious/but not that serious new competition in New World. What was the answer?
Well, it was tone-deaf.
I want to start the actual analytical part of this post thusly – today, I’m not going to discuss how these things relate to the harassment scandal and lawsuits at Blizzard at all. I think there’s a tack that people have taken about the 9.2 trailer that is sort of gross (complaining about “diversity” in the employees on the video says more about you than it does about the people in the video, frankly) and a lot of thinkpieces could be written focusing on how the harassment saga will shape Blizzard in the years to come, but today, I want to narrow our focus to game content and delivery.
So when I say tone-deaf, I mean it thusly – that Blizzard has shown a lack of learning from their recent history in the game, that they’re still pitching like the game is the number 1, undisputed MMO champion, and that they continue to employ some of the dumbest and worst tactics for disseminating this information.
Let’s tackle each of these, piece by piece.
Part 1: Blizzard Still Thinks They’re The Top Dog and Able To Revise History
The first part of the video was an almost immediate turn-away for me on a simple front – the revisionist history of the lore. Starting with the lore was how I knew straight-away that Blizzard is ignoring player feedback or hearing it and just don’t care – the lore of the game is a lowlight right now and has been for some time, and starting a hype video with “but the lore!” was easily the biggest dumb move they could have made. Calling the story of 9.2 and the conclusion of Shadowlands the “end of a chapter in the Warcraft saga that started with Warcraft III” is idiotic, because it isn’t really doing anything with that lore. It is spun of new lore that was clearly not in anyone’s head back then that is sullying the reasonably accepted name of Warcraft III by trying to pretend that everything has always been a cosmic-level mindfuck. We’ve all watched this franchise grow in real time, and no one had even said the weird name of Zovaal nearly 2 decades ago when WC III came out (I need to lie down realizing a thing from my teen years is nearing 20 years old itself, I’m still not used to that). Pretending that all of this is a deeply-woven narrative with decades of aging is not a smart move when it obviously isn’t true! It also reeks of riding the coattails of the Endwalker release for FFXIV – they’re concluding a saga, so why can’t we? The only problem is that FFXIV has been written like a story with acts for Hydaelyn and Zodiark and ramped that story over time in a consistent way – so they’ve earned the ability to sell the game that way without getting eye-rolls, while Blizzard has done no such thing and thus only elicits disapproving sighs for trying to sell it as some epic story that was totally there the whole time, guys!
After waiting though, my tested patience for Steve Danuser’s opinions on his own writing was rewarded with…a dissertation about artstyle and design. And hey, I like these pieces and I think quite highly of the WoW art team, so I tried really hard to process this one positively, but I can’t do it, man. Bragging about the art is cool when a game is released and we can all play the content and feel the things they’re describing – why certain things happen the way they do. It works when we have context to anchor to. In this case, we have nothing – and the art team was contradicting itself, with one speaker talking about the research they did to make a realistic place and then another speaker talking about how they wracked their brain to make something alien and completely new and foreign to us, two statements which don’t meet in the middle! There was the infamous water gaffe, describing walking on water as this totally new and fascinating thing despite the fact that multiple classes have it as an ability and long-time players have mount equipment to do the same while mounted.
But here’s the thing – all of this is stuff I would be more okay with if Blizzard was shipping good content today. If you’re the top dog and you want to flex, great – do it and most of us will be fine. However, right now, Shadowlands is just flat-out failing at player retention, and you cannot convince people to come back by still trying to toe the same line, to insist on your greatness when no one outside your bubble is seeing that. Even the most dedicated WoWites I know can only half-heartedly defend the game at this point, basically latching to the thing they enjoy and handwaving the rest. When I describe liking the core combat gameplay in Shadowlands, that’s me – I do genuinely like that, but the rest of the game is…uh…not good, folks!
What Blizzard needed on Thursday was a clear-minded, straightforward message about gameplay and player engagement and how that was going to feed into the new content. Instead we got…well…not that.
Part 2: What Is My Gameplay Loop?
Blizzard’s excuse for not explaining the same in 9.1 was basic – the trailer was for hype and we’ll let you see the gameplay on PTR to contextualize it. Okay, the first time, it was fine, whatever – but at the same time, this is Blizzard’s dismissive line – you’ll understand it better when you play it and then you’ll see the genius! Well, as someone who is still waiting for the genius of Shadowlands, 3 lifeless patches later, I think I’m going to need you to try harder to explain it.
9.2’s introductory video has this problem in spades. What content do you actually know anything about from just the trailer? There’s a zone and a raid, a language that we need to learn, and a bullet point list with no details – updates to conduits (item level or new ones?), soulbinds (ha, just kidding, they’re not updating soulbinds at all even though they said it in the video which was edited and produced to be a succinct preview!), and a Season 3 of Shadowlands with Tazavesh being split for M+. What else do we know? Anduin and Zovaal are raid bosses – and that is it!
The core issue of Shadowlands is that Blizzard focuses on flavor and shitty lore at the expense of the actual gameplay. Covenants were a disaster for many because you made players choose a flavor that could impact power and force players to make a decision they disliked, the story pivots around Sylvanas frustrate people who hate her character (just die already) and those who love her character (you sucked all the meaningful personality and character traits out of her to make a warmonger and then made her dumb as rocks), and the joining of these ideas in gameplay is bad, because a lack of focus seemingly permeates every gameplay corner of this god-forsaken expansion.
So like, okay, cool, a language to learn, nice, but I’m also dreading how time-sinky it almost certainly will be, but I can’t even make definitive statements about the gameplay from your own trailer because you didn’t fucking put them there! AHHHHH. Why aren’t the gameplay details there? Well…
Part 3: Piecemeal Interviews Do Not A Rollout Make
Blizzard games have global reach in markets and languages all varied from my interests as a primarily English-speaking American. That’s fine, I acknowledge this and respect it. However – what I have no respect for is the shitshow rollout of patch details.
Blizzard had multiple Chinese interviews on different topics that weren’t discussed elsewhere, and then a French -language interview with yet other details. Over the course of Thursday, it felt like every 30 minutes someone at Wowhead found a new article to machine-translate to milk for news – the fact that we could equip two legendaries came from the Chinese interview with Ion, and then the French interview clarified that it was 1 covenant legendary and 1 other legendary and oh hey, Torghast is dead. It took a bluepost to clarify that “soulbind changes” as said in the trailer actually meant, “no soulbind changes” and then a separate post from that to confirm that soulbinds would still work in the new content! We found out from an interview that the raid is 11 bosses and the first week only 8 of whom will be challenged, the last one of those 8 being Anduin, but that wasn’t in the official materials!
Like, on the one hand, I get having interviews – it is good to support international audiences with original, authentic native-language details and interviews, and I think that is great. What is not great is that all of these details should have been in your official, main communications that are pushed to players through high-visibility means like the launcher. Right now, the WoW team has created a situation where know-it-all losers like me have read all these transcripts machine-translated from lanaguages I don’t speak and thus has as complete a picture as can be, where Chinese players know Torghast is done and that you can wear two legendaries, but without knowing the restriction on legendary source, French players know that Renown is replaced with the Cypher of the First Ones but haven’t heard the good news about “double-orange” from the Chinese interviews, and then the American audience only has what’s in the launcher which is a miniscule amount of actual gameplay along with some fucking monologue about amazing water, and I’d be willing to bet that most players haven’t even watched the launcher content in years and won’t know a patch is coming out until the extended maintenance announcement goes out in June 2022 (okay, it’s probably March 2022).
Again, not to harp too hard on how big of a failure this is compared to FFXIV, but I mean, Yoshida can sit down for a live letter around once a month and talk until he’s blue in the face, and maybe that format isn’t always perfect either, but at least there’s a clear communication with the community about what is coming with everything in one, official source. He still gives interviews for local publications later (Famitsu often has YoshiP interviews about FFXIV that fans try to translate and post to the game’s subreddit) but those often only discuss already-announced details from public, official communications. Even in the current climate, the information economy around FFXIV is nowhere near as robust as WoW’s fansite network, but it doesn’t have to be because the official site and disclosures are good enough to build and maintain hype levels. A big part of that is that the team on FFXIV makes an effort to share details with the community, instead of a publicity blitz with less and more scattered information. Ironically, perhaps, Square Enix likely gets more hype from a Live Letter than Blizzard gets from this obviously image-focused approach, because every fan site and gaming site writes up the live letters in detail and those sometimes extend into multiple news stories depending on the site.
A consistent weak spot for WoW is player communications, and it should be obvious to Blizzard that this approach does not lend itself well to clear informative disclosure, but it wasn’t obvious to them in planning, and while I’d hope that having to make two clarifying posts about one single throwaway line in the trailer would make this clearer, I’m not betting on that or holding my breath.
Part 4: Even With All Available Context, Very Little Is Truly Exciting
If we take all the disjointed disclosures, the multiple interviews and various issues, and we clamp that all together into a single ball of news, what are the impressions I have about patch 9.2? It’s…not that reassuring. WoW as a game needed a clear win, and this information is not it. Two legendaries is cool until the covenant-specific restriction for one is added, and then it just becomes a mess of balancing – and sure, who knows what Covenant will be top dog in 9.2 for each spec, but the legendaries that were added in 9.1 become a much more important part of that logic now! Right now, Balance Druid is strong as hell off the back of Venthyr covenant and the appropriate legendary, so being able to add a non-Covenant legendary like Pulsar back into the mix could well push Venthyr far above something like Night Fae, whose covenant legendary basically splits Convoke the Spirits into half, an effect that was hardly inspiring in raw power terms. New conduits? It’s probably just ranks, which means raid drops and probably some new world drop/rare drop items for upgrading, but without those details, hard to get any sort of feeling from that news. No Torghast? Cool, but what content replaces its role? No Renown? Great, but you say the Cypher system replaces that gameplay, so are you telling me I’m going to need 15 weeks of grinding two Cyphers a week to unlock all 30ish in the screenshot from your press kit, because if so, that sucks.
So there’s a new raid, and that’s fine, but in a normal patch cycle, I don’t spend the majority of time raiding. I need details on what fun I can have outside the raid, what the Mythic Plus seasonal affix will be, because those are the things I will engage with more regularly and more purely for fun. I enjoy WoW raiding still and it is one space where I still trust Blizzard overall to deliver a fun experience, even though Sanctum of Domination has adjusted that curve downward a smidge.
So I’m left to fill in what little was shared with auto-completes from my brain, using my historical knowledge of the game’s history to construct how things will work, and then I think about how many weeks I’ll be doing the Cypher questing through some repetitive grind just to unlock a special rare fight and treasure chest, or how big of a progression wall Anduin is intended to be in the raid, and oh hey, Tier sets are cool and getting them from Mythic Plus and PvP is great, but the visual design is sort of hit or miss and not always as clearly identifiable as good class sets should be, and I like the zone aesthetic but it’s also just similar in my mind to a handful of other zones in the game, it has Oribos in the middle of a green-grass zone that looks similar to Jade Forest, Krasarang Wilds, WoD Nagrand or Zuldazar, oh but it has a sand part that looks like Voldun, Silithus, or Uldum. There’s nothing for me to really grab onto and get excited for – just a pile of half-described things that offers me little that is independently worth waiting for.
In Closing – There’s More To See, But Get Better At Announcing Things Blizzard
In the back of my head, this patch could very well end up being fun or amazingly good, even. I don’t exclude the possibility that once the patch is playable, all of this is answered in a satisfying way and the patch ends up being worth the wait. However, it is clear that of all the ways Blizzard could have done this announcement, they chose a pretty bone-headed one that deflated most WoW bloggers I follow and where the general player sentiment I’m getting is a disappointed sigh and headshake.
WoW can be so much more than this, and it could do so much better at getting fans on board with small tweaks to how information is presented to players. Blizzard needs to learn that sooner, because the game may not last to a later without that education.