The announcement went up late last week, with 12 days of advance notice to the actual patch date.
Eternity’s End is on February 22nd.
I’ve been pretty critical of this patch, as it marks the first point ever where I have willfully stepped away from new content in WoW. At the same time, I’m not free of the game yet – more of a lapsed fan, watching from the sidelines waiting to see what happens next.
In this post, I wanted to put forward a sort of analysis of why this PTR cycle has been fascinating to watch unfold, and while I ultimately have my own assessment of the value of the coming patch content, I do think there are some harbingers of good in there. At least, that’s what I’ve chosen to believe!
The Process of Feedback…Kind Of Worked?
One thing about most PTR and test cycles of WoW content is that players say “hey, this feels bad” and Blizzard goes “don’t worry, it’ll be better at launch” and then it isn’t and there’s an outcry that Blizzard fixes two weeks/months/patches later.
9.2 started on a road that felt a little insulated in that same way, with the early PTR not having much and largely not acting on player feedback, but then that started to change in a positive way. Tier set bonuses on first iteration were pretty bad across the board, and then Blizzard did rounds of changes to fix many of them. Some are still a little meh, depending on who you ask, and the design intent is perhaps questionable (fixing an unpopular talent with a temporary gear bonus instead of…fixing the talent itself?) but the iterative process, taken in collaboration with the community, is commendable because it is the polar opposite of what Blizzard so often does – ignore us and then regurgitate our own reasoning back at us when they finally deign to fix it – the cross-faction announcement post is exactly that, in fact!
But the PTR process for 9.2 had a lot of positives in this regard. The research system had too many timegates, so change it (it still has a lot, but they are often smaller and the total research time doesn’t stretch into a second subscribed month). The tier set bonuses are iffy for most specs, so fix them (some are still a little meh, but overall they landed much better). Tier set acquisition in raid shouldn’t be fixed pieces dropped but rather tokens – so out with the pieces and in with the tokens. The road to a second legendary was a painfully slow and gated rep grind with huge penalties for missing a day of activities, so it got switched to a less painful story gate and the reputation gate around the memory for crafting that legendary was restructured in pieces to a better overall outcome.
While I’ve definitely been down on the game as of late, I will give kudos where earned – the PTR process has never felt as collaborative as this for as long as I’ve played WoW, and Blizzard has never seemed this invested in player feedback. If this becomes the norm, then I could be convinced that positive change to the game as a whole is possible, and that the future state of things could be better and more interesting for it.
The Content Is Still A Lot Of What We Expect
For the credit I gave 9.2 above, I will say that it falls into what is becoming a predictable pattern for WoW patches – a new zone, new raid, new season of content with increased item levels, the new zone has a new mechanic designed solely to elongate your approach to goals through mobile game-styled design elements, and there are a few chapters of new story alongside catchup mechanics designed to pull players forward into the new hotness over doing any of the old and busted content (okay, a lot of it is fine, but the design of WoW discards the old stuff immediately when a new patch comes out which is a thing I want to talk about more in the future).
Having said that, I think some predictability is good, actually. One of the things I have said a lot about FFXIV is that the predictability of its content cycle is what makes it appealing, because you know a patch comes at a certain cadence (most of the time) and delivers a consistent value of gameplay depending on the point in an expansion cycle it launches at. WoW’s patches have been hit or miss in the past on this front, but since Legion, we’ve largely seen a formula that gives players something close to that expectation, at least in terms of content.
For what it’s worth, Zereth Mortis seems to have a better core zone design in terms of gameplay than Korthia, and the dungeon affix for Mythic Plus offers a lot of that interesting dynamic of kiss/curse in gameplay that allows you to make interesting choices and means that there will be some open debate early in the season on what works or doesn’t work. The raid itself is larger than prior raids in Shadowlands, with 11 bosses against both Sanctum of Domination and Castle Nathria’s 10, and the thematic variation of bosses within Sepulcher of the First Ones is much better than the very-template design of most bosses in both prior Shadowlands raids. In the ways that 9.2 breaks from what has become the WoW pattern, it is mostly refreshing for it.
The Story Is…Well, It’s There
That sentence title might as well be a running gag here on my blog (file it alongside “Overly Long Post Titles” and “Fart Sniffing Real Media Dramatic Titles”), but yeah, the story of WoW continues on a painful road with patch 9.2.
The thing that is interesting is that we don’t really know what the full extent of the story will be yet. We got an unveiled cinematic on PTR as a pathetically sad counter to Endwalker launch day, and that cinematic has been very polarizing, to say the least. My personal opinion has remained that the story of Sylvanas, twists and turns and potential backstage issues and all, has been a net negative for the game and one that has put into sharp focus the slapdash nature of WoW’s storytelling and its focus on rule-of-cool moments that are disjointed and disconnected over delivering a consistent, well-built narrative that connects what came before to what comes next. There are some hints that are interesting in a minor way, but this is one thing where I am really down on the game. The story is just bad, and outside of any individual character plots or story beats, I think it’s bad in a writing structure sense – there’s just not enough actual structure, building plots, or meaningful foreshadowing built in.
But I think the thing a lot of people are hanging their hats on is that Shadowlands, leveling experience aside, has largely been the ending of the Sylvanas arc they’ve been building since Legion, and the hope that comes with that is that an ending will bring a new beginning with a more focused and better narrative. I think a lot of that hope is misguided, to be frank, but I am open to the possibility of being wrong (and would indeed be delighted to be wrong). There are hints at major story beats from the datamined text and details we’ve seen, which I am leaving out of this post to keep it spoiler-free, and those will be waiting until mid-March, as the raid doesn’t open until week 2 of the patch and the raid’s first week only allows access up through boss number 8 of 11, saving our big showdown with the Jailer for the following week and the story to come attached to that, in all likelihood.
The story of Zereth Mortis as a zone is somewhat interesting, with some rather large caveats to dive into in future posts. Where that leaves us for the future is, however, an interesting topic.
What Comes Next – 9.2.5 and 10.0
9.2 critically is NOT the cross-faction enabling patch, as things will remain as they are until 9.2.5 at some future point. This is our first confirmation of at least one further patch in Shadowlands, although what else it might contain is a mystery. Given the 9.x.5 patches of Shadowlands have all been content-free tweaks and changes, I don’t expect that we’ll get any story bridges or new lore in that minor patch, but instead system changes – cross-faction, a likely re-evaluation of rewards design and structure in the 9.2 content (probably a point at which they’ll open the floodgates on people grabbing tier sets and catchup armor in world content), and some other small changes like balancing specs or introducing some alt-friendly mechanics (like finally allowing Mythic Plus achievements to unlock Valor upgrading for alts as was the case in 9.0.5!).
Beyond that…well, we know a new expansion is in the works, or at least should be, given that the normal development pipeline at Blizzard (for as much of a joke as that term is right now) would be to have the next expansion in early development prior to launch of the now-current expansion. There’s not much to analyze from a lore perspective (similar to BfA dropping Shadowlands hints from the start, there are perhaps some aspects of 9.0 lore that could be extrapolated to a whole expansion), but from a timing perspective, there’s something to look at.
There was originally supposed to be a Blizzconline 2022 in “early” 2022, before the revelations of the scale of sexual harassment and discrimination at Blizzard and a multitude of high-profile delays out of potential 2022 releases (Diablo IV and Overwatch 2 could have theoretically launched this year, but have been nudged off the calendar). We didn’t have precise dates (I could have sworn they had announced them, but a quick search through revealed nothing more than “early 2022”) and the Blizzard announcement of the cancellation confirmed that they’d be doing unveilings for franchises anyways, absent a formal scheduled con or online event for the whole company.
My expectation is that within the next 45 days, we will see an unveiling of 10.0 for World of Warcraft. My gut instinct is that it will come post-raid, as a way of setting a clean break from the tainted legacy of the current lore and gameplay, and that the ending of the raid will likely see some measure of setup, however small, for what is to come.
What do I want it to be? Well, that’s fodder for a post all unto itself, but I can summarize briefly. If I think about what I personally want, what would draw me back in to World of Warcraft as a game I would play, it would be simple – a focus on core gameplay and strengthening the long-term, permanent elements of the game as opposed to the implementation of temporary, disposable systems. It would be a focus on the social environment of the game, making WoW a more hospitable place in-game but also focusing in on how to make group content more rewarding and interesting at all group sizes, from small world quest parties to massive raids – including fresh lines of thought on how to make raids a proper team sport where the gameplay encourages a constructive environment to work together in. It would be a focus on Azeroth, the titular World of Warcraft, and bringing back that element of exploration and excitement for new lands and old familiar places. It would be a story that makes meaningful strides forward away from stereotypes, lazy shorthands, and constrained “return to status quo” storytelling – a world with hope, where change is possible and where the goal is not a return to normal but instead advancement of the civilization of Azeroth and the betterment of society for all, a worldview that isn’t fundamentally constrained and ideologically bereft of value.
What do I expect it to be? Well, if we assume that the 9.2 PTR is a bellwether for what is to come, I think we can see a more collaborative and interested Blizzard working to act on player feedback. I don’t believe that they’ll get rid of bolt-on systems altogether, but I could see some constraining of them to be more player-friendly in some ways. I think the announcement is going to include a lot of gesturing at responding to player feedback, although how much will actually be done remains to be seen. I also think Blizzard will, in their own way, acknowledge that the Shadowlands ends an era of WoW storytelling and try to set apart 10.0 as a new chapter conceived to deliver more of what players want – it won’t involve admissions of the rumors and drama around the story that led to Shadowlands or even an acknowledgement that the story of Shadowlands post-launch has been very poorly received, but instead will sort of hint at that feedback and those ideas.
If anything, I’m happy to see what comes next so we can see if any of the numerous “leaks” were anywhere close to accurate, and while I doubt that they will be, it would be funny if they were!