I’m on a plane as I type this article: there are no snakes, as far as I know not a single Russian terrorist attempting to hijack me and my family, plus reassuringly Leslie Neilson is nowhere to be seen. However, I need an article for this week, and my problem right now is an acceptable subject matter. Tangible news relevant to the Expansion we’re still in appears to be pretty thin on the ground. Okay, we do know that next week, *finally*, flying that doesn’t involve an Airbus and two hundred and eighty nine passengers comes to Draenor, but that’s only really of limited interest to me. What I’m far more concerned with right now is what happens *after* 6.2.2 gets implemented. Because the months leading up to Christmas potentially could herald some of the most significant changes to game play and company communication that we’ve seen for many years.
The problem is, speculation under current circumstances is a game fraught with potential pitfalls.
There was an end of Gamescom ‘livestream’ on the Sunday after the main week of events in Germany, where Blizzard promised players they’d talk more about what could be expected from Legion… except, a fair few people got frustrated that this ‘news’ was basically reiteration of the same stuff that had been announced on the Thursday. Blizzard, to their credit, fessed up pretty sharpish that they’d miscommunicated intent, and the message from this incident was very clear indeed: this is not a Expansion that’s going to promise anything until it actually works. If you want a lesson that Blizzard grasp the perils of promising stuff at Expansion launch it can’t produce at Launch, then here it is in spades. The communication changes are happening in other places too: CM Lore, in a series of posts this last week, took time to explain to players exactly why it’s taken so long for flying and 6.2.2 to make it to Live on servers, in what is actually an unprecedented look behind the curtain of game production. What has become abundantly apparent in recent months is that the company understand that keeping the player base informed as to changes and timescales is now becoming as important as making sure new features are bug free and accurately quality tested. Although some may argue there’s a lot of work to do on all three of these fronts, there is undoubtedly evolution in the air. That should mean in the months that follow that you’ll see more player-driven polls, discussions about what would like to be seen in future content and, most significantly of all, those ideas actually making it into the game’s final product.
Bearing all of this in mind, I find myself wondering what else might be up for reinterpretation in the months that follow. Long term players have become used to a set method of game implementation, which could well be about to change. Most of this revolves around a thing that, if you came into the game at any point after Wrath launched, you’ll have no idea about at all. I am referring to, of course, the UTTER AWESOME that is the concept of the pre-Expansion Event. Blizzard are promising something that will ‘shock and surprise’ everyone playing the game, and I sense that there could be one of only several aces up Blizzard’s sleeve before Blizzcon even begins in early November: this time around I think there’s the potential for an absolute plane load of testing and showcasing before we even get to see the Official Expansion Cinematic.Once 6.2.2 drops off the PTR and goes live, the next thing we’ll see (hopefully) will be the precursor to the pre-Expansion event to test. How soon that occurs will depend on how far ahead Blizzard are with the whole thing: Alpha is happening internally as I type, but what that actually entails? That’s the biggest unanswered question of all. Blizzard will want something major for Blizzcon: will it be this, or would it be the Beta? Well, hang on a minute, could we not have both of these running simultaneously?
That would certainly be a change from the norm, but would the company be able to cope with simultaneous feedback? A lot of this is going to depend on exactly how Artifact weapons fit into the equation, and their effect on pretty much every class spec and set of abilities. As the weapon is picked up whilst players complete their first pre-Expansion foray into the Broken Isles? You have to think this will need to be rigorously road tested before the levelling process begins. Class balance is pretty vital to getting everything else to work in situ, after all, and now PvP has been effectively removed from the PvE balancing equation? This should make life easier for everybody. Still, this stuff has to work for the whole 100 to 110 process to function correctly, and that means Beta may not operate successfully without the Event being complete… except you could offer people Demon Hunters as a testing exercise all on their own, asking players to take them though the process of leveling to 100 as a starting point. That would allow two separate strands of content to easily co-exist.
I want to spend a bit of time considering just exactly what we might get in terms of actual content for the Broken Shore ‘event’ because there’s a part of me that knows Blizzard understand what’s at stake if they screw this up. You need the excitement of the Battle for the Undercity (Horde/Alliance), combined with the EPIC nature of the final battle to defeat Onyxia in 40 man. In fact, you’ll have to be able to reproduce the feelings of awesome from any number of major boss encounters, providing both engagement and drama in abundance. All this also has to put the player front and centre, and that’s a pretty big ask considering what’s been presented as ‘precursors’ in the last three Expansions. Cataclysm was the last time Blizzard really tried to embrace this concept, and although walking around with a sandwich board declaring the End of All Things was cute, it didn’t really do the job. The question then has to be, can Blizzard deliver? One could argue the consequences if they don’t have already been seen in Draenor: the massive drop in subs after launch, and the subsequent drop in numbers before Legion was announced shows a Company who understand that what they produced in Warlords simply wasn’t good enough, and they squandered an enormous number of players on a concept that patently failed to deliver not simply in terms of content, but more significantly with expectations. There are those who might blame orc fatigue for the malaise, but the truth is far more damning: storyline went missing, priorities shifted and ultimately?
Blizzard have publicly admitted a whole slew of failings in recent interviews. They implicitly grasp what is expected, and will understand that anything less but something truly special? Their position as Number One MMO may already be in danger. The news that Final Fantasy XIV has over five million subscribers worldwide, many of them in a market (Hello Japan!) that Blizzard’s never really made an impression within, will give these people pause for thought, of that I am absolutely certain. However, to those who might say these people don’t care about how their product is received? Absolutely NOT true. These people totally care not simply about the product they’re making, but also appeasing for the mistakes that have been made. You can be as offensive and confrontational as you like, you can pretend you’re on the moral high ground until the cows come home, but there’s no point. They get what happened, and now we should give them a chance to try and fix it.
This should mean that we will get a very special Expansion indeed come 2016.
I’m still holding out hope for a Q2 release next year to coincide with the Movie launch, but there’s really no telling what’s going to happen and when, even with the announcement nearly three weeks old. One can only hope that once 6.2.2 is live next week we’ll finally be able to move on from the end of this Expansion and begin to look forward to the next. It’s not like there isn’t a metric shedton of new features that will require explaining and discussion to begin with, plus (presumably) a slew of Artwork Blogs to accompany every step of the way. If Blizzard have learned one thing from Warlords of Draenor, it is how to effectively prepare players for what is to come. Now, what is needed is for all the disparate elements that seem to have become somehow unglued in the last year or so to finally come together into a recognisable and cohesive unit, and the job is done, and we’ll (hopefully) end up with an expansion that brings everything that’s needed and more.
Frankly, I for one cannot wait.Related: Column, Developer, Legion, MMORPG, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday