My attention for WoW has turned to Blizzcon 2019.
In live, I’m just logging on to raid and do Assaults to level my warrior slowly but surely (119!), and while I’ve switched to DPS on my Demon Hunter part-time for raiding, the game just isn’t holding me as much as I’d like. FFXIV is starting to let up a little bit, since most of my main-play jobs are level 80 and I’ve begun experimenting with crafting/gathering (got my first DoH/DoL job in Botanist to 50!) and Blue Mage (what a fun idea, specifically because it is designed to be unbalanced).
So, naturally, I’m thinking about Blizzcon. I have 5 weeks before I leave the country to go around the world and come back to the US via Blizzcon (so in truth, I have a lot more exciting and newer destinations on my mind!) and this year’s Blizzcon is a bit of an anomaly.
We have key art for this year’s con, and the featured WoW character is Sylvanas. That is an interesting choice, but also one that suits Warcraft as a whole – she’s a featured actor in Warcraft III, the Reforged version of which should be out by year-end. She was the main driver of the Battle part of Battle for Azeroth, although in 8.2 she has taken a backseat. She’s a fairly popular lore character with a strong following.
She’s also likely to be the driver of our move into 9.0.
Now, the speculation on the internet that I’ve seen is a bit heavier on the idea that Blizzcon 2019 is “too soon” to introduce 9.0. One of the people driving this idea in my orbit is my guild leader, who, to be honest, is wrong about this every time he says it, and has no justification for why he believes that other than that he just does. He also gets very mad at being called out for always being wrong on this, but hey – he always is! The other is Gnomecore, whose recent post discussed a good lore grounding for why this might be. He makes a fairly interesting case, but one that I believe is ultimately not going to play out.
The history of Blizzcon and expansion announcements is long and storied, but all ultimately center on a similar duration of events – about a year before the release of the next expansion, the announcement comes. In the modern era, it usually follows the conclusion of the prior expansion’s story, however, this isn’t typically the case. For past expansions, only two have been fully story complete prior to the announcement of the next expansion – Mists of Pandaria was complete before WoD was announced, and WoD was complete before Legion was announced. TBC was announced about halfway into the patch cycle of Vanilla, Wrath was announced with Sunwell still unannounced, Cataclysm was announced prior to the release of Icecrown Citadel, Mists of Pandaria was announced prior to Dragon Soul, and BfA was announced before Antorus opened and the true ending of the expansion was known.
Now, we are at something of a crossroads here. Expansions have been announced both before and after the story conclusion of the current content, with most being announced prior to the story conclusion of the currently active expansion, but most recent expansions being announced after. Now, BfA has a bit of an asterisk next to it, as while we hadn’t seen the proper ending cinematic for Legion, we knew via datamining that the sword of Sargeras was going to be plunged into Azeroth, a topic which was sort-of danced around.
My thought personally is that we are going to have a 9.0 announcement at Blizzcon. The story details that might be revealed are going to be strategically talked around, but the features, content, and core design principles are absolutely going to be spilled for all to see. There are a few reasons for this:
1. Lore Can Be Danced Around: Blizzard doesn’t do this artfully, but they will likely try to discuss the expansion without spilling too much about what happens in 8.3. The thing is that if 9.0 is full Old God, it will be easy to dance around because the seeds are planted for that story, if it is death themed, the same is true, and if the theme is some out-field idea, it will be a surprise that likely leaves 8.3 fully under wraps. Most of us paying attention to the BfA lore expect to see a Death-themed expansion, and this would dovetail with Sylvanas being the key art representative of WoW (like Garrosh and Jaina before her) and with what we all expect. I also see the way Blizzard tends to treat lore and spoilers, and when announcing an expansion, they often play loose with spoilers, seemingly not caring as much about what the announcement reveals. I would hesitate to say Blizzard doesn’t care, but well, if the shoe fits…
However, one other key point that deserves its own bullet…
2. 8.2.5 Will Be Out Prior to Blizzcon: While I could be wrong on this one, I think they’ll move to have it out within the next two months. The main gameplay features are pretty packed, but also lean heavily on existing technology. Today’s unveiling of the new Recruit-A-Friend rewards in the patch is a hint that it will be sooner than later, as it is one of the pillars of the gameplay content in the patch. The biggest thing I expect to see in 8.2.5 that hasn’t fully been revealed yet is the storyline transition from the faction-grounded Battle for Azeroth to a literal Battle for Azeroth. The likelihood is that this will be grounded in our existing characters and returning champions – Saurfang (with new model!), Zekhan, Thrall, and Baine leading a Horde insurrection, Wrathion pushing against the Old Gods with his Blacktalon Watchers relaying messages to us, and the fallout of the Eternal Palace giving us a transition point to make all of these shifts. Waiting to drop this content would be foolish, and while PTR updates have been silent since the hype for WoW Classic ramped up, they’ve been adding encrypted files and are likely to start really ramping up to meet a mid-October launch. I’ll say I could be wrong on this one, and while I think 8.2.5 should be out by Blizzcon, it may not be. I thought the same with 8.1 last year and that took far, far too long.
3. Battle for Azeroth is Struggling, and Classic Momentum Will Have Settled: Two easy points – BfA has floundered and is faltering even worse as Classic pulls modern players out of guilds and raid groups for that content, leaving the current game in about the worst state it has ever been in. The modern game absolutely needs the announcement of 9.0 to sustain playerbase excitement. Likewise, while Classic is currently a phenomenon, when we revisit it in two months, I suspect that many nostalgia-fans and the vocal rose-tinted glasses crowd (Classic is harder than live!) will have burned out and moved on – either to BfA or unsubscribed altogether. While Classic will remain somewhat popular and find a strong core audience, BfA will continue to dwindle overall, even though the content has improved slightly over the course of the expansion. Blizzard needs to act now before the situation worsens – and new expansion hype will give people reasons to remain subscribed, if for nothing else than to play Classic to pass the time.
4. Shadowbringers is Going to Grow in October and Continue to Threaten WoW: FFXIV is still riding high on the Shadowbringers wave, and while most players are now settling into a groove and have experienced the content they wanted, patch 5.1 (likely to release in October) will further develop the game. If it follows the trends of Stormblood, 5.1 will likely contain a new dungeon, the 24-player Alliance raid series starter (based on NieR Automata, which is going to bring some outside eyeballs in out of sheer curiosity) and will feature a number of other features designed to pull players deeper into the thrall of FFXIV – New Game Plus for the main scenario quests, the likely beginning of the Restoration of the Holy See of Ishgard – endgame crafting and gathering content, and some quality of life changes and balancing. It will also probably remove loot restrictions for the first tier of Eden raids, which will increase the number of players queuing for that content directly. If Blizzard doesn’t have something new to offer players like me who play both games but are not liking the current state of WoW, the risk is that those players convert to FFXIV solely. This pressure is lessened by the fact that Classic requires an active subscription to the game, but depending on what someone is looking for out of their game time, it just might not be enough to keep them on the hook.
5. 9.0 Should Be Far Enough Along to Discuss: Outside of timing relative to the current expansion, it’s also worth noting that the 9.0 content has been under development for a long time. For what it is worth, during my tour at Blizzard last October, I was not allowed into 2/3rds of the space the WoW team holds, because there was work on 9.0 in all of those spaces. At this point, one imagines that current content is the smaller development effort, and that 9.0 has likely taken over the team’s attention. It is hard for me to believe that they wouldn’t have enough to talk about – the only question that would leave is if they are ready to discuss what they do have, which, based on what I wrote above, I think they will be.
6. Blizzard Needs to Avoid Blizzcon Disappointment: Last year, Blizzard let community hype for a Diablo 4 announcement go unmitigated for too long, before releasing a timid statement that players should adjust their expectations. A bizarre move to be sure, but the motive for it became very clear as Blizzcon 2018 started – not only did Blizzard not have Diablo 4 to show, but they instead had Diablo Immortal, a tough misread of the Blizzcon audience that turned antagonistic at the later panel, and while some fans being jerks is a part of the story, ultimately, the blame for that fiasco lies at Blizzard’s feet.
WoW 9.0 hype has been churning for a few months now, through “leaks,” forum discussions, surveys about level squish, and the built-in expectation that a new expansion is discussed every two years at Blizzcon, which hasn’t really ever failed, although 2015 was Legion’s announcement at Gamescom and then deep dive systems panels at Blizzcon. The expectations, both unrealistic based on 4chan trash, and realistically based on pattern recognition of Blizzard’s habits, lead to the assumption that Blizzcon 2019 will be an expansion reveal year. If anything, I could see Blizzard having pulled out of Gamescom 2019 as a bigger indicator of that – in addition to making Blizzcon more valuable in a year where prices to attend went up across the board and the likely attendee cap also increased, it gives Blizzard their own stage with their own timetable to unveil what they want to. I would also take this as Blizzard not wanting to take the stage at Gamescom with a limited hand, as if they were not going to announce WoW 9.0, Overwatch 2, Diablo 4, or anything of the sort, it doesn’t make sense to pay for the exhibit space to talk about patch 8.2.5, Classic, a new Overwatch hero, or the millionth season you can grind through in Diablo III (although, to be fair, I think the season concept there is pretty cool!).
I think if Blizzard wanted to hold off on announcing WoW 9.0, now would be a good time to release a mealy-mouthed forum post asking players to calm down their hype before the crushing letdown. While Blizzcon is already sold out and the transfer deadline is passed, you can at least try to salvage some player goodwill by getting in front of that now, rather than waiting like the Diablo team did until just a few weeks before the con. (Although, I supposed we are only 7 weeks out now, which for some will be too close anyways, given the reasons above!)
With that, I think I’ve made my opinion fairly clear – could we be surprised by a non-announcement? Sure, the possibility exists that they won’t announce 9.0 and I’d say there is definitely a non-zero chance of that. However, I think that the cycle of Battle for Azeroth is similar in a way to Warlords of Draenor – in a bad way. Warlords of Draenor suffered from a lot of player loss, panning of key expansion features, and long gaps between new content, which created player apathy. Similarly to Cataclysm, my WoW hill to die on is that WoD’s content, when it was released, was actually quite good – there just wasn’t enough, and when Blizzard realized that they were treading water and in danger of sinking, they nixed big pieces of the expansion (Shattrath will forever be my what-if raid!) to move to the finale and then straight to Legion, announcing the expansion only a few weeks after the launch of the last raid tier of WoD and with a number of minor content updates like Pathfinder and Timewalking dungeons still to come.
BfA, to me, suffers from a different problem – the player apathy is that the content they’re releasing isn’t quite to the standard most of us expect and so the game is bleeding active players, with only momentary relief offered by Classic. The game is losing players due to design decisions the team made, and since their model depends on keeping features in place for their given expansion, it will take 9.0 to pull some people back in, particularly those put off by Azerite.
So, while I could be wrong (and the case made by Gnomecore is a compelling one!) I do think that as of right now, I would bet on there being an expansion announcement.
Either way, there’s not long left to find out!