This week, a post from a now-banned MMO-Champion forums user (perhaps the first sign that something is insipid and bad is that it originates from the MMO-Champion forums) purported to have a leak of the next WoW expansion – Dragon Isles.
The basics of the leak are that there’s a new continent in the Dragon Isles, a new system called “World Shaping” and a new playable race – Black Dragons (?!). So, obviously, first of all, this doesn’t really scan because the idea of playing a dragon who has to fight in humanoid form kind of robs the fantasy of it, and while that is totally in line with the Blizzard of today, it feels too on-the-nose. Reading through the rest, it sounds like a wishlist, which is obvious as it is in all of these, but there’s the big hook that sounds like Blizzard – an added system that is overly complicated, serves only the current expansion, and would be discarded at the end.
Ultimately, though, leaks like this gain traction when they speak to something in the community, and I want to kind of visit the topic through that lens.
One of the immediate impressions I had when looking at the post is that it reads like a love-letter to old WoW. Ever since the old development maps of Azeroth included that hint and then it never showed up in the game, players break out Dragon Isles as the concept of choice whenever the next piece of content is unclear. Admittedly, it sounds cool and high-fantasy – because we don’t have any real Dragon Isles lore, it can be whatever you want it to be in your mind’s eye. Dragons also have a lot of interesting lore openings to solve – what it means that the Aspects have lost power, the state of the Infinite Dragonflight, what Chromie’s frequent interventions might have brought about, the nature and history of Galakrond, the state of the green flight after Ysera’s death in Legion, and the potential fate of the Black Dragonflight after some time for Wrathion to work at the problem and potential solutions from the Black Dragons that remain in Outland.
Then we get to the specific beats of the leak and how they reflect a desire for a return to a prelapsarian version of World of Warcraft. What was the most prominent dragonflight in the early years of WoW? The black dragons, so they get featured as a playable race. What classes? All the original vanilla ones, of course. What do people consistently clamor for from old WoW? Talent trees, so we’ll sprinkle some of that on there (via a new system because of course it would be a new, temporary, made to be trashed system). What’s the pre-launch event? A mini-Season of Mastery clone in retail that makes players go through old dungeons and raids to get familiar with the story from them, for some reason. There’s invasions, but only in the zones and continents from when the game was “good.”
Of course, in that, they give up the game. In lore, Black Dragons are nearly extinct, and Wrathion doesn’t seem to have a solution to that problem yet. For him to have suddenly found one would be a bit left-field – not out of the question for Blizzard “Shadowlands is the conclusion of the Warcraft III story arc” Entertainment, but it would be a head-scratcher – not to mention again that playing dragons only to have to be a human for fights is a bizarre take. Azeroth awakening as a childlike dragon is admittedly a reasonably interesting concept, but it also feels vaguely out of line with how the world soul has been portrayed to this point – wise enough to task Magni with cauterizing the wounds of the planet and putting things on a corrected course from the taint of N’Zoth.
Story-wise, I think dragons would be great, although some of the beats of this story in this “leak” are not constructed well or even constructed in the specific bad way I would expect Blizzard to construct them. Addressing Thrall’s temporary assumption of the Earthwarder role is an interesting idea, as is revisiting Wrathion, whose character has been consistently interesting at least. The fate of dragons in Warcraft is something that has been sitting on the table unanswered since Cataclysm, and no new content since then has meaningfully addressed those plot points. Ysera has been the most featured, and it could be argued that her presence in Shadowlands helps set up a pivot in that direction, but you only get the real flavor of that if you played the Night Fae story all the way. (Then again, you only got the Shadowlands tease in 8.0 if you played Horde, so…not an unprecedented approach!)
At the same time, however, Dragon Isles almost seems too well-built at this stage of the game – fans like the idea in a general sense, it has interesting implications, and has no ruinous story arcs tied to polarizing characters that would drag the game down to the level of the current story! Joking aside, I think that there’s not much of an obvious next-step for the story at present, because it feels like we won’t have a clue until after the Jailer’s plot is ended in 9.2, and there aren’t that many heavily leaned-upon references in the current content like we had about Shadowlands during BfA. Narratively, I can’t even pretend to know what the fuck the team thinks is logical storytelling or building (I enjoy a little weed here and there but I have no idea what they are smoking or where I can get it), so I can’t even trace a through-line in current content to point at anything. If we do N’Zoth or Old Gods again, it feels too soon. Dreadlords are the back-segment of Sepulcher, and I suspect that a mass-scale Dreadlord expansion, while possible, would be a little weak – Dreadlords always feel like supporting cast to me, and I think they’re too stereotypically villainous to be the central focus of an expansion.
What I think is interesting about the discussion around this leak, as I find interesting in all of these types of things, is that they speak to what the community at-large desires in the future, and the ways in which the current game is falling down for them. In Legion, players wanted to customize artifacts more, so we got all the speculation around a weapon-crafting system as the core of BfA. Right now, I think Dragon Isles and this leak specifically being so popular and discussed points at a few things. It speaks to a desire to return to old-school WoW ideas – dragons, Azeroth, smaller-scale conflicts, focus on the world both via the systems detailed and via the character of Azeroth as a world soul, Thrall, an attempt to replant Teldrassil or a new world tree at least, and the emphasis on older classes – giving Black Dragons only the original WoW classes being the core expression of it.
I think, to my perspective, that it does speak to something interesting to me. Having quit the game at this point, but knowing that the right content and right ideas could bring me back, there’s something appealing to the idea of an expansion that tries to find the soul of the game it lost along the way. So much of old WoW’s charm was the simplicity of storytelling in the game world and how much of the game was an adventurer’s quest through new and dangerous lands.
The problem with the leak is that lip service is paid to those ideals while the fictional gameplay concocted around it is current WoW – soulless, dull grind in service of temporary systems. Worldshaping sounds great in theory, but then you know it’s going to have an anti-grind mechanism so that you’re limited to 3 world quests and 2 dailies a day against a pool where you’ll see repeat quests every couple of days and it will be a thing where you need to progress a system in the open world to do literally anything else you might want, and the gear treadmill is going to be another random clusterfuck with no meaningful end in sight, and the core is going to be repeatable content made overcomplicated due to a decade-plus of boss mods and timers that will mean your raid will clear once or twice and then break for the season because few are interested in grinding against a wall that never gets much easier for the gear and power you gain. I’m sorry that I’m so down on the game as of late, but it has ground me down to dust at this point – I’d love to love WoW again, and I like leaks and speculation, but the core of it still speaks to what ails the current game – a near-complete lack of meaningful, innovative gameplay that tries new things and builds on the legacy of content that came before.
The other thing that I find interesting in the leak is that it hews to what I will call the “WoD Theorem” – the idea that the current expansion sucks because the development team, realizing the content sucked, pulled the plug early and went all-in on the next thing. Never mind that this is ignorant to how game development and design actually work, where things are often in concept stages for a long time prior to launch, it also creates a convenient, just-so narrative about how things in Shadowlands got where they are. It creates a weird loop of causality that logically doesn’t track – the expansion is bad because they knew it would be bad, so they pushed to make the next expansion better than the current bad one (which is bad because they pulled the resources for the next thing, to make that thing better than the current one which is bad because they lost those resources). It’s child logic, basically – it only makes sense if you stuck a crayon up your nose before eating the PB&J your mom packed you for lunch, no shade to the PB&J (it’s a good sandwich, folks, don’t sleep on it!).
But that is a thing that the WoW community loves to do a lot (the theorizing, not shoving crayons up their noses, at least I hope not). The “A-Team/B-Team” thing has been a part of community discussion forever, literally over a decade at this point. When WoW is bad, it’s because the good developers were making the next thing, which will be good, and when WoW is good, it’s because the bad developers were making the next thing, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the game pivots in new directions players don’t end up liking. I think a more logical explanation is that the team is human and they ultimately make decisions based on an aggregate view of player feedback and their own artistic instincts, and both inputs have flaws that express themselves in different ways at different points, some of which can be accounted for but some weird idea or over-correction will slip in from time to time.
The last point I want to leave on is a question of time. In a normal world and better time, we’d be expecting a new WoW expansion this year. It would have already been announced in the fall of last year at Blizzcon, and we’d be getting close to an alpha test and our first rounds of datamined content now. We’d also probably be in the final patch of Shadowlands now, as well. Obviously, that isn’t the case, for a mix of things. The big question that I think looms heavier over the game right now is this – when do we get the next expansion?
Players come back for new expansions, and those who write off current content will tend to leave for a full expansion and then see the launch of the next one as time to return. For my part, that is something I think about a lot right now – I’m not at all interested in playing 9.2, especially after this week’s news cycle, but a solid 10.0 content offering could maybe pull me back (ABK firing the worst parts of the leadership, like Kotick, Bulatao, and Townsend would maybe convince me to support even if I don’t play). The issue with the timing of current content (and the obvious-from-outside barebones state of the WoW team) is that I don’t expect 10.0 to launch in 2022 at all. There’s maybe a sliver of a chance, like 0.1%, that we get it in like, December, but more than likely, whatever the next expansion is doesn’t even end up launching until 2023. And that brings the final question I want to ask today – will WoW survive in its current form to make a 10.0?
I used to think that was a preposterous question, but I don’t know that I can answer that with any surety on either side of the coin, which is rather interesting to me in its own right.