WoW! Thoughts! — On the Inevitability of Content Droughts
With Legion‘s release date announced earlier this week, we now know when we can look forward to the new expansion, and also when the reign of Hellfire Citadel will end. On August 30th, Patch 6.2 will have been live for 434 days, setting a record for the longest content drought in World of Warcraft‘s lifetime. Blizzard knows that these types of droughts are bad for the game. Mists of Pandaria saw the game subscriptions drop below 6 million players during its final patch, and Warlords of Draenor‘s subscription numbers have dipped so low that Blizzard decided to cease announcing subscription numbers going forward. I often regard Mists as one of WoW‘s best expansions, but the complaint people often give is that patch 5.4 lasted for too long. The problem with 5.4 was that its length was directly tied to Warlords‘ extended development. If anything, Mists should be blamed for the forced longevity of the Hour of Twilight patch that capped Cataclysm. As the Fury of Hellfire drags on, the fault for this current dry spell is entirely with Legion‘s slow production.
This was not supposed to happen. With every expansion , Blizzard states that they know that these content gaps are terrible for the game, but whatever actions the company takes to rectify the situation continue to fail. Lead Game Designer Tom Chilton claimed that WoD was delayed because they grew the team by 50%, and then spent an unexpectedly extra amount of time training these people. (Also, garrisons proved to be a bit more of a hassle than expected). But that problem should have self-corrected at the end of Legion. Everyone that worked on Warlords now had a full expansion of experience under their belts, and anyone assigned to Legion had all of Warlords‘ lifespan to get brought up to speed.
At this point, the increased team membership should be fully in place. Legion should have been in development since Warlord‘s launch in late 2014. Comments by Assistant Game Director Ion Hazzikostas indicate that two zones were already in production as of Gamescom 2014, a full year before Legion‘s announcement. Just yesterday, over twenty months later, Blizzard finally released the last zone in the Legion alpha. That amount of time seems like it should lend itself to an output of more than six zones.
Blizzard has a clear problem. In their dogged pursuit of quality, they have always been slow with the development of their games. Normally, when waiting during the gap between entries in a franchise such as Diablo II and Diablo III, there is little strife. Players may get anxious for the next chapter in their favorite series, but there is no ongoing fee that requires the player maintain a relationship with the game. Blizzard can afford to chase quality when not asking players to pay for game maintenance – maintenance which should include regular content updates. Instead, Blizzard has attempted to solve their lengthy development problem by increasing the team size, only to fail to use it properly.
Blizzard is notorious for working two expansions ahead. While it may not quite be a situation with two separate teams working at different points in the pipeline, hindsight would suggest that anyone working on the expansion after Legion has been wasting their time over these last several months. Warlords desperately needs content, and given the 14 month lifespan of 6.2, anything with a development time of less than seven or eight months would have sufficed. If Blizzard had planned properly, we could now be enjoying some sort of post-Hellfire denouement for Warlords in Farahlon, just as the Timeless Isle provided a satisfying resolution to Mists. (The fact that several familiar characters were shown hanging out around the center of the island was one of my favorite aspects of that expansion.) Blizzard could easily have done this again, devoting some of their internal resources to providing a patch 6.3 which could further the story of Grommash’s fate after helping to defeat Archimonde as well as providing fans a final chance to interact with Yrel and for Khadgar to further warn of the Legion‘s actions. Instead, Blizzard has developers working on an expansion that may not be out for two or three years while the current game languishes. And while it is easy to sit and say this is a lesson taught with the benefit of hindsight, the fact is Blizzard keeps making the same mistake, and they know it.
“. . . I think one of one of the struggles obviously working on a live game is that we are incredibly committed to quality but at the same time that can’t come at the expense of quantity – of getting things in players hands. If we’re slaving away at something, making it perfect and players are starving for content, that’s not doing the right thing by players.”
Ion says that Blizzard cannot do something, and yet these last ten months we have seen Blizzard do just that. Blizzard loves to polish their games, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is time for them to admit that if they are going to take a year plus to get a game out, then they need to have resources dedicated to keeping the live game interesting during that time. In that same interview, Chilton admits they have developers working on the next expansion as well. The fact that those people have been working two expansions ahead while next to nothing was planned for the immediate future is foolish.
I am writing this with the knowledge that Warlords of Draenor cannot be saved. The damage done by leaving its underwhelming end game to support the Warcraft franchise for a year cannot be mitigated at this point. Instead, I am writing this for Blizzard to realize they need to plan now for Legion to not have a yearlong development gap upon its conclusion. Let them announce Legion‘s follow up at Gamescom or Blizzcon or whenever they need to. Let Legion have two raid tiers if that is what serves the story best. These decisions need to be made now so that the project timeline can be set and adhered to.
We know that from launch to finale, Blizzard can deliver a compelling expansion with the proper pace, as Mists of Pandaria proved, and I have no doubt Legion will right the ship in that regard after Warlords‘ many missteps. But end of expansion content droughts have hounded World of Warcraft throughout its history, and as someone who not only plays the game but also comments on it, it is tiring to either defend or chastise Blizzard for these gaps, and I am sure they are tired of hearing the complaints. If this is to stop, now is the time to look at Legion‘s development and to make sure that there are resources available to keep working on Legion until whatever will come after is ready. Otherwise, WoW may be stuck in development hell until these gaps finally kill the game.
LEGION RELEASES ON 8/30! Because the dog days of summer are the best time to enjoy the dog days of an expansion! https://twitter.com/Warcraft/status/722109345475874818
New Legion alpha build! The Court of Stars dungeon is set in LA Superior Court, right? http://us.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/20743334323
Haste Stacking is fun! https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/4fk3vk/what_happens_when_you_stack_haste/