WoW! Thoughts! — On Warlords of Draenor’s Lengthy Development

Thoughts on how the delay in making Warlords of Draenor might indicate that subsequent expansions won't require so much work.

“When Thunder blow, Thunder gonna blow big” – Mung-Mung, The Untamed Valley

Blizzard was promising an info dump about Warlords of Draenor for a quite some time, and while we received two Dev Watercoolers which provided tons of information, they still failed to share a complete picture of what combat will look like going forward.  Finally, on April 3, Blizzard decided to ‘blow big’ and offer up the full patch notes for Warlords of Draenor as well as making the alpha client available for datamining.

There is too much data to directly address or discuss.  The patch notes themselves span 33 pages, and they don’t even have everything.    Anyone who tried to digest all this probably would be distracted and unable to enjoy any other games for a while.  There’s been a restlessness amongst fans that we were not receiving any new news about Warlords, and that the information we were given (the watercoolers) was often incomplete and left us yearning, confused, and angry.  This will sate our hunger.  With all the information out, and a slew of interviews and appearances set for the developers in addition to a steady stream of tweets, any confusion should be removed in short order.  There will still be anger, though, but that will hopefully be mitigated over time as people come to accept what the new expansion will offer.

There’s that pesky word again, though… “time”.

Plenty of charts have surfaced regarding when prior expansions went into Beta, or were announced, or what the correlation is between the release of Christie Golden’s latest book and the start of the next expansion.  None of these dates are useful.  If Warlords releases on 9/23/2014, the first Tuesday of Autumn, Warlords of Draenor is going to give us the longest wait for new content in history (even Fall of the Lich King to Cataclysm’s launch was only 378 days, and that was still broken up by the Ruby Sanctum).  This drum has been beaten long enough that it already feels like a tired complaint. (what does that say, when things have been so delayed that complaining about them being delayed is getting old?).  Warlords of Draenor may feel like it’s going to take as long in development as Duke Nukem: Forever, but we can be confident Blizzard will have it out this year. The fact that they are announcing an alpha and distributing beta keys is a good sign that progress is being made.

However, the fact that they are announcing an alpha so vociferously is also weird.  They previously alluded that some sort of internal alpha existed.  As WoW Insider points out, the normal progression is internal alpha to friends-and-family alpha to closed beta (which grows over time) to launch.  The public is not invited to the party until the closed beta, which is when the fan sites and media usually gain access as well as the ability to talk about the game.  Warlords, as it has since its announcement, seems to be bucking the usual development cycle.

Warlords is not the first game to violate the alpha-beta distinction.  That honor goes to Heroes of the Storm, for which Blizzard made a big announcement about a semi-public alpha, with invites being sent out.  It appears to be following the pattern established by Hearthstone, except with the wrong greek letter.  Chadd “Celestalon” Nervig and Jonathan “Zarhym” Brown were interviewed by WoW Insider recently and addressed the concept of alpha vs. beta:

This is alpha — do we still have to expect six months of beta?

Celestalon: Blizzard doesn’t necessarily call different versions of the game different things, like … this alpha’s going to last X duration, beta’s going to last X duration. I guess it’s fair to say it’s more like how many people we’re inviting to see it now?

Zarhym: Yeah, with Mists, obviously with the annual pass and stuff, a lot of that was getting people in as quickly as possible because that’s what we said we’d do, but it doesn’t necessarily make for the most conducive testing environment. So I think we’re going to take it a little more slowly this time, as far as when we go into each phase. Not to say that we’re just going to take our sweet time, just that we’re going to steadily ramp it up, and that’s partially why we decided to call it an alpha. And it has to do a lot with the new CASC system and wanting to test certain aspects of that so the initial test would not have that much content available or unlocked for people to try yet, because we’re testing different things. So right now it’s in take-home alpha, it’s been in Dev alpha for a while so people shouldn’t worry that …

People shouldn’t take this as where you are in content?

Yeah, don’t read into it as a presentation of how far along in content we are.

Essentially, Blizzard is saying that this is the time to get excited about Warlords of Draenor, because the information we are getting now is the same information we would be getting  when prior betas had been publicly announced.  Alpha and Beta have now just become terms and bear little meaning (especially with respect to prognostication) for the development cycle.

The other point that Zarhym makes is how the CASC file system is going to affect beta.  Blizzard is changing the file format for their patches, and testing this new format is part of the alpha/beta process.  This new file format is intended to reduce download times and make patch management easier and faster, just like how roadwork is intended to reduce traffic and make travel faster.  However, roadwork also backs everything up while it is happening.  It is a necessary evil to endure until we can get to a state of improved flow.  That metaphor applies not just to improving the patch files, but also to streamlining and improving combat, the item squish, and all the moving parts that are being adjusted for Warlords.   I’ve mentioned before that the Item Squish and the Ability Bloat need to be done at the same time.  Blizzard might as well change the file types, too.  Let’s not forget the new player models, either.  Blizzard is completely overhauling World of Warcraft, rightly so after a decade of success, and the cost of that overhaul is in how long it is going to take.

There have been complaints that after an expansion that gave us several new features (a new race, a new class, pet battles, scenarios, and an improved talent system), the only new feature we are getting in Warlords is the Garrison.  That is completely logical given the amount of development time going into fixing the main game.  Fundamentally, we aren’t just getting Garrisons – we’re getting an entirely new World of Warcraft.  That is going to take time to produce.

However, this lengthy delay runs counter to the constant assertions that Blizzard wants to get content out faster.  Mists of Pandaria proved Blizzard could get content released on a rapid, steady pace.  Having conquered mid-expansion development, it would appear that the demon before them is release content.  We know that Warlords’ follow-up is already in the works, and we know that Blizzard is considering releasing expansions annually.  They can only do that if future expansions do not need to drastically rework combat and prior content – their focus needs to be entirely on the new content being created for that expansion.

Ghostcrawler tweeted during Blizzcon that it felt like they were further along with Warlords at announcement than they were with Mists at the same point – and while that appears laughable given how long we have had to wait for alpha/beta, he was probably right.  As far as new content like new zones, monsters, and quests, development for Warlords could have been far ahead of where things were for Mists when they made the announcement at Blizzcon.  Ultimately though, it does not matter, because redeveloping combat is the bottleneck.  If Blizzard did not have to worry about the item squish, and removing ability bloat, and reworking healing and tanking, then perhaps we would be a lot closer to Warlords’ release date than we are now.

That is the silver lining to this lengthy development time.  For Warlords’ follow-up, Blizzard will not be tweaking all these systems.  Blizzard will not be pruning abilities or squishing items for some time to come, because these are maintenance tasks that only need to happen once every decade or so.  If World of Warcraft were a car, they might change the oil every expansion with the tweaks they do, but this type of work is more akin to replacing the brakes and overhauling the transmission.  The end result may be that the car cannot be driven for a few days while it is in the shop, but it will perform better at the end and will not require this much work for a long time.  The next time the car is due for maintenance, it is only getting an oil change.

Blizzard is serious about reducing the development cycle to (close to) an annual process, so they are putting the systems in place now.  Warlords is going to take a long time to reach release, but the benefit will be that subsequent expansions will not.  While I would not expect to see Warlords provide content that only lasts a year, it would be nice if Blizzard could get it to the year-and-a-half time frame.  If the final patch (6.4?) is released within a year or Warlords‘ launch, it should be perfectly reasonable to expect 7.0 within the following six months.

Blizzard’s recent info dump was great for giving the community and developers something to discuss.  Hopefully, in the future, such dumps won’t be necessary, as the flow of content will be regular enough to keep everyone busy.  Going forward, Thunder should not have to blow big.

WoW! Blurbs!

Some of the beta keys given out at PAX granted live access to the alpha by accident.  I look forward to these people complaining about the umpteenth time they have to grind through Frostfire Ridge on their alts.

There will be eight level 100 dungeons when Warlords is launched.  Maybe Warlords can release sooner if Blizzard boosts these dungeons to 90 instead of grinding them all the way up to 100 from level 1.

Wowhead interviewed Lead Class Designer Kris Zierhut and Game Designer Steve Burke at PAX.  The interview is worth a listen, because garrisons will be a thing.

Wowcraft Episode 2 is up and has fun with drop rates and wolf sounds.  We’ve all been there.

Azeroth Choppers premieres this week.  Where are the gnomes in this trailer?–kd6W6Iuc8

Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz

Senior Producer

Host of WoW! Talk! and The Tauren & The Goblin. Sometimes known as the Video Games Public Defender. Wants to play more Destiny and Marvel Heroes but WoW is all-consuming. Decent F2P Hearthstone player. Sad that he lost the Wii that had Wrecking Crew on it. Would be happy if the only game ever made was M.U.L.E. Gragtharr on Skywall-US. Garresque on Ravencrest-US.

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