Tomorrow, we’re getting a 7.1.5 Developer update from Activision Blizzard, and with Christmas not far away I’m finding myself thinking it is unlikely we’ll see this patch before the seasonal break, which means (amazingly) my prediction for Nighthold in early January is looking pretty solid. Next week we’ll begin the first of our traditional two part ‘look back at 2016’ retrospective. Before this happens, however, it is time to gaze forward while simultaneously attempting to work out what 2017 holds for World of Warcraft. Ironically, we already know a lot of this in basic terms, but what is not clear at present is how this will all the pieces will ultimately fit together. What is apparent, however, is that the next chapters of game are arranged and pretty deep into development, at least based on the information already available.
January promises players The Nighthold as a raid, which will be familiar to those of you who, like me, spend a lot of time face down and dead in Suramar because their outdated rig can’t outrun the guard casts. It only occurred to me recently that all this work and effort on the max level zone wasn’t just to make the Broken Isles look pretty, but it will become the first stage in a journey that is likely to see lots of art assets recycled or at least having multiple uses going forward. After all, if we all want our Expansion content yesterday, there has to be some corners cut somewhere. This patch will also see a fairly substantive redefinition of stats on gear, so much so I’m seeing people suggest you might want to check out the Item restoration tool in an attempt to salvage some of the stuff that’s been previously trashed.
It is also a pretty safe bet, looking at the current schedule, that none of this new stuff will drop until the New Year. The new Micro Holidays are currently being tried out, one a day, from the 6th until December 23rd, and once we get to that stage it’ll just be turkey and fireworks to about January 6 (plus that normal Christmas Day bundle to pick up your presents from Greatfather Winter). In fact, I’d not expect to see any serious work done in the game until the 9th, and so early in the month is a good place to stick my pile of Goblin gold. However, what happens as soon as 7.1.5 goes up is that the PTR will come down, and if we’re going to keep up with the grand push forward you’ll have brand new Broken Shore based content stuck there for people to poke as soon as is practical.
Therefore, when PAX East rolls around in early March, there’s probably a better than average chance that the Tomb of Sargeras will not only have a trailer but could also be able to play that content in Boston if previous years are an indicator of intent. If you bear in mind that the Broken Shore will will be unlocked by players in the same way that Lion’s Landing was ‘gated’ during Mists of Pandaria, then they might want that form of content testable by a large audience. This would also give the company a chance to sell the upcoming new raiding content and Tier at the same time. However, when would 7.2 go live? Easter Sunday is on March 27th this year, and I can’t help but thinking that two months in the next major raid might not be quite enough time, and so it would be more likely we’d be looking to a date sometime in April.
If that is the case, it would make sense to suggest that we would be wise to expect 7.2.5 before the next whole number of patch, most especially as that is going to shift us to an entirely new location on the map. Details then become become largely irrelevant, all we need to know is that undoubtedly there’ll need to be balancing after the Tomb is completed, possibly more abilities assessed and redesigned as we’re seeing with 7.1.5 right now, and that undoubtedly new items may be added and some taken away. More importantly, as has been noted with the introduction of the new Warcraft holidays, we don’t have any of these scheduled for the later half of 2017, so presumably they’ll need to be added somewhere.
However, if we bear in mind that 7.0 to 7.1 was ridiculously short in terms of turnaround, are these timescales even approaching realistic? Well, if existing location resources are going to be extensively re-purposed then raiding is sorted pretty quickly. All that takes time are the items and art assets, but as we’ve seen in the last week with the re-emergence of classic blacksmithing skins from the past in new 7.1.5 patterns, Blizzard is taking the task of recycling very seriously indeed. You have to wonder if it is faster to simply take an existing skin and make it HQ than it is to design from scratch, and if that is the case that’s 12 years worth of potentially ‘new’ content waiting to be sorted through.
Then finally, we’re at Argus: Draenei home-world, famed Demon HQ, and confirmed location for 7.3. This is important because that’s not a new Expansion, so if we’re talking about April for 7.2 then you’d be seeing 7.2.5 June/July, which would allow Blizzard to have Argus ready to roll for Gamescon. This could be the most telling indicator of all. If, for the sake of argument, I was going to announce my Expansion in Germany again, that would mean that we could yet again be ready to roll with a release during that little event in Irvine. Meaning that Blizzcon XI would be all about that new location, merchandise and all the inevitable publicity such a high profile announcement would bring. In fact, if they could launch late November from the August announcement that would be just about perfect.
That would also satisfy the people who didn’t think that Blizzard could keep to its timescales and would prove in spades that the company is committed to keeping the bandwagon rolling. This would pretty much slay most critics with a single, decisive stroke. Because that would mean that, from start to finish, we’d have seen SEVEN patches in just over twelve months. Writing that seems impossible to grasp, but if you look at what is now on the table, it is entirely possible this pace of change could come to pass. That would mean, if there was the ability within them, we’d be seeing yearly Expansions (and presumably a massive increase in revenue as players struggle to keep up).
Somewhere on a whiteboard at Blizzard HQ there will already exist a 2017 release schedule: could it all happen this fast? Yes, I think it could, if the company is genuinely serious about its changes to operating practices. We’re already seeing some quite serious commitments for improved communication, major treatises coming out of the design department on how problematic specs will be addressed and ironed out, and tomorrow’s Q&A says to me that the company is more than aware that to keep the pace of momentum going, they need to be pulling everybody possible on board. I have my own question submitted on communication changes, and I’m looking forward to seeing what gets chosen to be answered this time around.
If I wanted to affect long-term and realistic change in release and content delivery, this is already a fairly solid blueprint. Produce a lush, rich ‘template’ well ahead of time, whilst at the same time re-purposing and upgrading areas of the Old World to be placed alongside them in tandem. Listen to what players are looking for in terms of content specifics, but at the same time maintain a close hold on your own notions of class fantasy and long term objectives for both environment and mechanics. Most importantly of all, however, understand that you cannot return to a situation where a full calender year elapses between the release of one major content patch and the next one.
The presentation given by Ion Hazzicostas at Blizzcon X was notable for many things, not simply that the company for the first time in my memory took the contents of the presentation and then published them on their own website. The Game Lead spelled it out: major patch numbers for big things, decimal patches for the details. The framework has been established and is now in place, and players are already working hard towards flying achievements because they know full well when that will happen, and the chances are that when Argus rolls around nobody will care it’s a no-fly zone because they will have forgotten that entire fight from 6.2 to begin with.
What we have on the table in the next twelve months is a very definite statement of intent. Clearly defined direction plus seductively presented carrots for everybody, and the hope that those sticks and strings will lure even more players into 5 Mans, Mythic Plus, Raiding and PvP. Once they’re in they’ll forget that there’s anything else to do, and once you hand over the cash for the game itself, that’s really job done for the team, especially if they can promise to have a new Expansion title every 12-18 months. I knew this was possible, have been pushing for this level of development since Cataclysm. Now we have it, all I hope is that the company can keep it up without either burn out or consequence.
If they are capable, the rewards for doing so may yet be even more immense and significant.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Column, Legion, MMO, MMORPG, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday