Well, they did it. (Tentatively, at least.)
Yesterday, Blizzard announced a November 28th launch date for Dragonflight, the 9th expansion to the World of Warcraft. With this news, we’re in a similar boat to this time two years ago – no pre-patch date, testing still ongoing on the beta and PTR servers, but Blizzard confidently pushing out a release date all the same. At the same time, the expansion has fewer issues than the Shadowlands beta did at that point in time – there’s no Maw-sized issue lingering over the whole process, no Covenant pushback, nothing quite of that same scale.
In cadence, this puts Shadowlands in an interesting spot – not as long lived as some of WoW’s more notorious expansions, but one in which content cycle was a series of draughts over the life of the expansion, with only two major patches each around 8-9 months apart. In that way, while Shadowlands has not been the longest-lived WoW expansion, it has certainly had moments where it felt like an eternity (Patch 9.2 being called “Eternity’s End” is perhaps too on-the-nose, in that way!). But we’re not here to eulogize Shadowlands or do too much in the way of retrospective, which will come later as it always does. Instead, I want to look at what led us here, and talk a bit about how Blizzard has both positively changed and yet also stuck to some of their stubborn, bad ways.
Dragonflight launching this year felt like a giant question mark when they announced it. I certainly did not believe they would do it, yet I think we all knew that they kind of needed to. Even FFXIV, with Endwalker pushed back to absorb the content cycle desync caused by COVID, still got the expansion out within the same year they would have maintained pre-pandemic. The longer Shadowlands dragged on, the worse things would get for the game, and it felt like a must that they maintain their even-year release cadence, established over a decade ago with Wrath of the Lich King. At the time Blizzard had claimed a release prior to the end of the year, it seemed an insurmountable obstacle, however – the team that had been drip-feeding lower quality content to us for much of the last two years was suddenly going to pull out all the stops to get a full expansion to us by the end of 2022?
The news came quickly after that proclamation – alpha testing, studio acquisitions, and Blizzard personnel being asked in multiple interviews from all angles about the release date – and the continued, steady insistence they would deliver. Here we are now, and it looks pretty likely – still not guaranteed, as Shadowlands’ delay taught us – but more likely than it seemed even just a few weeks ago, which was far better than a few months ago, which was far far better than the announcement event back in March seemed to place the odds. What is on beta now represents a big puzzle that has mostly come together in the public eye – zones feeling finished, testing done on some dungeons, raids queued up for testing in the coming weeks, and a general sense of anticipation starting to build as Blizzard makes some statements that contrast sharply with the stubborn design direction of Shadowlands and the late beta window for that expansion, where Ion was arguing design direction with content creators in streams and standing the ground the team had established, ground that would fall out from underneath them once the finished product was in our hands.
Dragonflight feels very experimental and new for Blizzard in some ways, with changes coming to a lot of the philosophical underpinnings that have made WoW well, WoW, for better and for worse. Changes to loot, fixed-drop BoE items, completely removed raid loot trading restrictions, early access to flight (in a new, gameplay-centered form), larger and more interesting zones (for a definition of interesting that may or may not appeal to all), changes to the seasonal methodology for Mythic Plus that will see old dungeons being rotated in for play to keep the pool fresh throughout the expansion, and the rollover of well-received catch-up systems like the Creation Catalyst as a new part of the baseline experience of the game. I’ll admit, they’ve made a hell of an appeal after two disappointing expansions back-to-back to try and make up some lost ground, and they do seem to be learning some lessons from competition.
Of course, the challenge here is that as ever, I have to temper this feeling with a different one, knowing that Blizzard has so often presented content in beta in ways that are convenient for testing but also downplay or hide some of the repetitive, long-grind behind systems and gameplay modes. A lot of WoW expansions, even the worst ones, look great in beta until the full picture becomes clear in late testing, and we’re not fully in that late-testing window yet! At the same time, with a lack of borrowed-power systems and similar nuisances of the past 3 expansions, we may not ever even come across such a window, and while I’m hesitant to let my guard down for that idea fully, it is a nice thought.
But at the same time, Blizzard loves to cling to things that are just for the purpose of making you pay a sub for longer, and with that, let’s talk about the mini-controversy with one piece of news that was tied to this release date announcement.
With the launch of Wrath of the Lich King Classic, Blizzard offered a promotional mount for retail, the Frostbrood Proto-Wyrm. How do you get it? Easy enough – play through the full starting experience for a Death Knight on WoW Classic. To enable this, they removed the first-DK restrictions of actual Wrath, where you needed a level 55 character – your first DK on Wrath Classic is a freebie, offered to you regardless of how much (or little) you’ve played on Classic. This was advertised as a limited-time deal, which, okay, fine, and with the Dragonflight release date in sight, that date is now listed as the end date for this promotional offer.
And so, okay, let’s talk through this a little bit. Firstly, the DK starting experience isn’t exactly difficult. It’s a nice little side-story for WoW, heavy with context of the Lich King gearing up for his attempts to bring the Scourge to bear against Azeroth, and it has a lot of progression built-in as you unlock your talent points in pieces to spend, gaining power with each quest. It doesn’t take a ton of time, and you can choose to knock it out in one sitting or spread the questing out as thin as you’d like. It’s fine, really – nothing too strenuous or challenging, and the mount reward is a cool one.
Where Blizzard is catching flak for this is the decision for it to be time-limited to this extent, because it reeks of business. There’s no actual code or resource reason it needs to cut off on November 28th, it doesn’t cost Blizzard money to keep an account-level flag for earning this mount, and if retail WoW is your focus, then why should you have to subscribe during a downtime in the game?
What is interesting about this to me is that I saw this debate first pop up from a dullard who made the argument that no one should be worried about the time it takes because it’s easy, which is fine, but it’s also not the argument people are making (given that this person is basically “missing the point” personified, I am not surprised, but hey). The argument I’ve seen on digging is that FOMO mechanics suck, and on that point, I agree. Classic realms aren’t hurting for players, at least not now, and a lot of the audience who will zip over to grab the mount aren’t going to stay – my friends who did it installed Classic just to do that, did the questline, and uninstalled the client. Retail is about as healthy as it has been at any other point in Shadowlands – I’ve been observing more people starting the end-of-expansion break, but the game still seems okay overall with people logging in and playing.
So it leads to that old, bad Blizzard behavior – why FOMO lock this mount? The answer is obvious – business metrics – but at the same time, it is so clear that this serves investors and bean counters over the actual players. It’s especially interesting because in other such cases, Blizzard has done the opposite – it’s been 6 years that you can earn the Lady Liadrin hero for Hearthstone by just leveling a WoW character to 20, with no sign of that going away. I don’t think a two-month window is too short to earn the mount, or that this pre-announcement is itself bad, but I think that it is incredibly short-sighted to be overly dismissive of the idea that people might not like this, or to chalk it up to being “difficult” or “stressful” when most people aren’t making either argument. They aren’t interested in subbing and this feels like Blizzard being a bit petty and recalcitrant towards players, people who want to come back (you need to fear the missing out part to actually have FOMO, after all) but either have no new content to explore in the game or might be constrained by real life factors, be it time, money, or capability.
It’s a topic for another day, but broadly, I think that Blizzard’s use of FOMO in WoW borders on excessive. With more FFXIV time under my belt, the thing I appreciate there is that there is virtually no FOMO stuff in the game. Savage Raid mounts? Still guaranteed drops even multiple expansions later. Ultimate weapons? Can get them anytime, still have to do the content scaled to level so the challenge is still mostly intact. Relic Weapon chains? Still there, if you want to do those grinds. WoW, by contrast, pulls the rug out on players on a ton of things, from seasonal rewards to mount drops to Mage Tower skins, instead of figuring out ways for them to remain desirable goals for years. At a base level, I get why FOMO works as a business tool, but I feel like the energy spent on figuring out ways to remove stuff from the reach of players could be used to find ways to keep those things relevant. Sure, you can farm Mythic mounts solo in an expansion, but at a sub-1% drop rate, people start to reach burnout and frustration on those – I know a lot of players who gave up on old raid farming for mounts once they hit transmog goals, because it just feels like unrewarding routine at a certain point.
So ultimately, the Frostbrood Proto-Wyrm is a particularly friendly example of FOMO, in that there’s plenty of warning, you can resub for prepatch and still be good, and the content itself isn’t hard to do or vastly time-consuming. But that also makes it all the more egregious as a point of removal – there’s no prestige tied to it, unless you want to brag about being subbed to the game in a downtime period, it doesn’t demonstrate some form of mastery or conquering some plateau in-game, it’s just a basic reward for doing something simple in-game. There’s no particular reason it has to be removed at all, or this early – but of course, the point is business metrics, and when you’re trying to convince the retail crowd to stay subscribed without new retail content when they’re not interested in Classic innately, this is one way to do it. I’d have a hard time calling it anything particularly bad – but it is an interesting case study in FOMO mechanics and the way the game has captured some of it’s audience into downplaying how these things are a cornerstone of WoW’s design and how they so often use promotions and limited-time items as bait to subscribe instead of, you know, new content.
Despite this mini-topic, though, we have the way forward for WoW established, with Shadowlands on the last two months of its fabled and often-stormy life and the new, big thing on the horizon, with some aspects showing a more refined and better design approach, and others still reminding of why WoW has seen a drop in playerbase. What happens beyond this will be fascinating to see, as it will likely define the fate of the game for years to come.