The Dragonflight expansion announcement last month was…odd.
It was weird because of a confluence of factors – COVID-19 delays to Shadowlands’ entire content pipeline, how late it was in the normal hype cycle of a WoW expansion unveiling, the style and delivery of it compared to the traditional unveiling at a Blizzcon, and, of course, the ongoing issues with Activision-Blizzard’s workplace, with news about employees being union-busted coming out on a regular basis and the issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that were unveiled nearly a year ago now. The announcement was content-light and a bit lacking, in that there was a mix of specific details (scattered to the winds via interviews) and vague confirmations of cool new features in the official hype video.
But in the month that has passed now since the unveiling, I’ve noticed an interesting response or lack-thereof to the expansion news, and that is what I want to talk about today.
One of the posts I read with utter intrigue was that of Bhagpuss, whose MMO tastes are about as diametrically opposed to mine as could be. A small comment up top in his post and a small thought experiment in the comments later, and it left me thinking. This trend repeated in Wowhead comments, with a few exchanges from the author of that site’s most recent look at the ATVI investor data that caught my eye. I’ve screenshotted the comment that most grabbed me, because it will become the theme I want to explore today.
In both Bhagpuss’ post and this comment, there is a clear theme emerging – the discussion of the viability of WoW, Activision-Blizzard as an entity, or Dragonflight as an expansion divorced from the current goings-on at the company itself, the expansion looked at as a product alone on just the merits of what it delivers. In order to discuss the expansion, there is a certain amount of “pretend for a moment that Blizzard isn’t embroiled in numerous scandals” that happens in order to push forward into discussing the game alone. To be fair, I think this is valid – at this point, there is a baseline understanding of the turmoil at Blizzard and evaluating the product of that work environment does not itself mean a good review or favorable opinion of the product is an endorsement of the work culture that created it. There are things in the Dragonflight preview that looked great, and to a certain extent, most fans reading a site like Wowhead or an MMO blog like Bhagpuss’ or my own are people entrenched in the news around the game.
However, I think there is an assumption, made largely by the Wowhead author shown above, that the controversy has made its mark already and that the game is not likely to suffer more losses due to it, and I think this is an assertion worth challenging.
On the face of it, I think that WoW has taken the majority of the impact it was due to receive from the scandals at Activision-Blizzard. It probably got hit the hardest of any ATVI property, in part because some of the most visible people of the scandal – Alex Afrasiabi for his harassment and general behavior and the laissez-faire “let it slide” that kept Afrasiabi around from J Allen Brack, the game’s former producer and then President of Blizzard – were both WoW-centric personalities most known for their work on the game. In that light, it is probably fair to say that most active, steady WoW players have already made up their minds on staying invested in the game or not – and they’ve either left, continued as normal, or found a way to make that decision in-line with their own moral compass, and so on the surface, sure, why not – the impact has been had.
But sunk-cost fallacy is a hell of a drug, and there is a prevailing mindset I see often in my circles around the game, which is that they paid for the current expansion and they’re going to get all they can from it first. Most of them are still enjoying the game, maybe not as much as they’d like, but there is enough there for them to dig into and the stock stuff they enjoy is still there. Some of them will certainly defend the honor of the videogame from perceived attack, and yet the need to do so throughout Shadowlands has clearly worn on them. Hell, I felt that a lot in 9.1 myself – I went back and forth quite publicly here about how I felt with WoW last summer, both pre and post-revelations. For this type of person, I think that they see Shadowlands as sunk-cost – a sort of “I paid for this content, and I’m going to get all of it before I decide to keep going into 10.0 or not” mindset. Regardless of the fact that you have to keep paying for that sub, whether through money or gold, there is a reasonable response in the idea of wanting to get the investment of money in the box back out of the game in enjoyment. Right up until I uninstalled the game, I had the same mindset myself – I felt a need to see it through, to see the whole story, to justify the $120 collector’s edition purchase, and to be able to validate my early impressions and desire to like the game. To that audience, they are locked in through Shadowlands unless they hit a wall, but Dragonflight? I wouldn’t assume that they’ll all stay.
Yet at the same time, I think that there is a side missing from that discussion.
In the community around WoW and MMOs in general, we all understand that there is a cyclical business model where a large chunk of players come back, play a new expansion, dip out around 1-3 months deep, and they’re happy. Hell, a ton of my old raiders and friends are this way with WoW specifically – it is this piece of their life, but not a going concern, so we see them every expansion, they tease maybe playing more or going deeper this time out, but they hit that wall and bow out. Yet a frequent blindspot (my own often included) is that these players are probably the bulk of those healthy, record-setting day 1 sales numbers. These people are not blind to the news about the game, its developer, and the culture under which the game was made, and they weren’t recorded as objectors back last summer when the news broke because many of them had already unsubscribed and left the game behind for Shadowlands. If Blizzard wants to have a strong day 1 and another record-setting launch day, they need those players to come around – and they aren’t showing many signs of it, at least in my circles.
And it leads me to wonder – what if Dragonflight being good isn’t enough?
The preview didn’t have much to go on, but it looked promising enough as a WoW expansion. There are elements of reinvention, of classic Blizzard “inspiration” taken from other games, pivots on things that players have bemoaned through Shadowlands, and a lot of long-term things that have needed addressing, like the UI rework, earlier access to flight, and some vague promises in various interviews about mindfulness of player time and effort with more ease of access to things like Renown and a conscious design effort around making boss fights in raids less addon-dependent. I wasn’t 100% sold or impressed, but I can respect that Blizzard and the WoW team are making a conscious effort to meet the playerbase closer to where they are, or at least it seems that way in these early days. Did I feel as hyped for the news as I have been at any prior point? No, but my reaction is in some ways understandable as such. Was my circle of WoW-friends as hyped? Also no, and that one caught me off-guard. Sure, there was some measure of excitement, including from me – but it faded very, very quickly, and that is something I actually didn’t predict.
With the gift of hindsight and having written for 5 years and the prior two expansion announcements before Dragonflight, my site metrics can paint an anecdotal tale. When both BfA and Shadowlands were announced, I saw sustained traffic for up to two weeks that was beyond my normal numbers. The BfA news was my most-read post for around 3 weeks and provided a two-week shot in the arm of visitors (roughly a doubling of traffic tapering to a 50% increase after the first week), while Shadowlands’ unveiling was a 100% increase in views that lasted for nearly a full week before tapering off, and the increase was far larger in pure view count given the increased visibility I had at that point. Dragonflight’s announcement got me…a two-day spike of around 40%. These are all anecdotes, obviously – my site is not anyone’s definition of an accurate read on how these things are working, but at the same time, I can say that a lot of my traffic comes from search, not normal readers, so even with my turn away from WoW overall, I would have expected to see more views over a longer period of time, especially since I had follow-up posts quickly on the heels of the announcement for a few days.
Through this lens, there is a lot to unpack. Ultimately, do I think any one thing is driving down the response towards Dragonflight? Not really, no. I think that there are a lot of impact points that are adding up to a general sense of ennui towards the expansion. In no particular order, there’s the lawsuits against Blizzard, the outward lack of visible changes and the visible ones often being poorly received (the Diversity Index tool, the co-leads role imploding, etc), the unionization push being stepped on by the company at every opportunity, a string of sub-par WoW expansions leading us to Dragonflight, the lack of details on Dragonflight, the scattered approach to the unveiling that has things without context in interviews and other online content instead of in a single place, the lack of a release date or even window for it, and the general competitive state of the MMO market right now. All of these things add up to a lot of hits on WoW, and the current push around Dragonflight just isn’t strong enough to overcome them – yet.
Will these things make an actual difference once the game is closer to launch or actually launched? It is hard to say. Right now, the game is obviously on poor footing because there isn’t much to it one way or the other – if we do the thought experiment of putting all other factors out of mind, Dragonflight hasn’t inspired a hype train just because there isn’t much there yet. I believe that it will end up getting a more proper hype cycle in due time and that interest in the expansion will increase, because actual gameplay, alpha tests, and influencer content is going to show a more-realized expansion than what we have now. At the same time, however, I find the Wowhead author train-of-thought on this one to be tellingly wrong – I don’t think we’ve felt the last tremors of fallout from the issues at Activision-Blizzard on WoW’s playerbase, not yet. Once Shadowlands is firmly in the rear-view mirror, I think a lot of people are going to have a decision to make about whether or not they continue with the game, and a lot of people poking their heads out to see about returning after playing the first 3 months of Shadowlands might not bother to come back. I don’t think there’s a massive wave of such people, and I think the author of that comment left it open-ended enough to account for some reaction like what I’ve described here, but I think the general view inside the house of WoW has yet to fully account for what reactions will be like when the whole fanbase is called to the game by a new expansion for the first time after what has happened and been revealed.
My bold prediction for now is a gamble – Dragonflight will be the first expansion to underperform its predecessor on launch day(correction: Shintar in the comments correctly noted that it would be the second time on record, as MoP was previously outsold by Cataclysm by around 600k units after a week of MoP sales). It’ll sell strong and there will be a lot of active players on day 1, but Shadowlands was just shy of 4 million day one copies, and I don’t think that Dragonflight is quite going to get there. I don’t believe that it will be far below Shadowlands’ day-1 results either, like maybe a 3 million opening, but I think that there’s already been a sea-change in the genre and a lot of WoW players have been vacuumed up by other games or just exited the genre for other things. Right now, the game being weak on subscriber count and MAU metrics is to be expected – it is the final arc of the expansion and there’s not a ton of new stuff to see, and even with the Season 4 content to come, there isn’t a whole lot of actually-new content to sink your teeth into unless you do Mythic Plus, PvP, or raid.
My conclusion is this – I think that expecting Dragonflight to do poorly is missing the point as there just isn’t enough about the expansion out yet to draw that conclusion. Likewise, I think that believing that the worst is over now for impacts to WoW’s bottom-line over the harassment and discrimination cases brought to light last summer is also naïve to a degree, because I think there is a category of player who is bought-in for Shadowlands as a whole and once that is over, all bets are off. My opinion is that Dragonflight is going to have some issues pulling players back in, regardless of how great it may look as we get closer to an actual launch, but I also think that it is still going to be a fairly big launch with a strong player number – not as high as the continual record-breaking launches, but not in the toilet either. As long as Blizzard doesn’t jump drastically in one direction or the other, I expect this analysis to hold – everything is off if they decide to crush the union, fire people, and Bobby Kotick drinks blood live on Twitch, but it is also off if they unionize the whole company, fire Kotick, and give everyone who has played 15 years or more an Alexstraza statue with both of her forms in it.