2020, when all is said and done, will be defined by a major event that will reverberate for several years.
No, not that one.
Not that one either.
Shortages, of course! What else could I possibly be talking about?
One of the things I’ve sort of keenly felt over the last few weeks has been a distinct lack of hype for Shadowlands. That’s not to say that people generally aren’t excited, or that the game doesn’t desperately need new content (it absolutely does), but more that the pre-expansion buzz that should be thick in the air by now just…isn’t.
Only Cataclysm had a longer wait from announcement to launch (August 2009 > December 2010), and that still felt fine for the most part because Wrath of the Lich King was a vibrant, well-received expansion overall that maintained player interest throughout. Battle for Azeroth has been, uh…
However, I think ultimately, as I’ve alluded to in past posts on the topic, that Blizzard’s bizarre launch strategy for this expansion has it hobbled out of the gate. It needed time in the oven to finish baking, and that is all fine and dandy. However, they launched pre-patch too early, paired it with a relative dud of an event (this week with zombies, the rule to avoid frustration is “don’t play” which is…uh, maybe not great?) and due to the delay and the uncertain release date as 9.01 rolled out to players meant that we had no destination date to focus our hype on until recently. Even then, with it being Thanksgiving week in the US, a lot of players are perhaps not as readily able to focus on no-lifing the game as much as they might have wanted to, even as Thanksgiving gatherings will (or should be) less common this year due to…
So, yeah. It is sort of a perilous spot Blizzard finds themselves in, and I think they recognize that. The week 2 of the pre-patch event pushed live a day earlier than anticipated and we got a new CGI cinematic that basically just exists to show off the settings and characters of the Shadowlands, with precious little actual lore or storytelling taking place. In many ways, this cinematic actually feels like the older-style, traditional expansion CGI cinematic – I liked it, but it also doesn’t really say anything (also, CGI Jailer has a very jowly face and I’m not sure I can take him seriously with that).
So that leaves us with a few questions, key among them for me is this: is Shadowlands doomed? Hyperbolic framing aside, I don’t think that it is, but at the same time, I’ve never seen a pre-patch event in the last decade feel like as big of a flop as this one was. Setting aside my personal opinions on the pre-patch event (no, don’t use the dumpster fire picture again), I have noticed that among my guildies, there was a huge day 1 spike, and then normal login patterns resumed almost immediately. That’s not to say that my anecdote is symbolic of anything larger in the playerbase as a whole, but it does speak to a concern I would absolutely have if I was Blizzard.
Players have been skeptical of how Shadowlands will be received for a while now. The theme of a trusted (well, sort of) leader pushing people to death for their own ends is, perhaps, a bit too close to home with what has happened in the real world in 2020 (dumpsterfire.jpg), Sylvanas as a character has been a sort of iffy arc that hasn’t seemed to land as Blizzard had hoped, and while I like the varied zones and tonal shifts of the Shadowlands zones, it does sometimes feel a bit too disconnected and less cohesive than I would have hoped. Largely, though, gameplay and combat feel has been top of mind since the covenant ability concept was announced at last year’s Blizzcon, and the biggest question remaining on most player’s minds is this: did they stick the landing on Covenant choice?
And well…probably not.
Wowhead posted an interesting article, breaking down how their guide writers have recommended players choose their covenants, and this chart was the overwhelming visual that pushed me to this piece:
With 83 Covenant choices recommended in their class writer’s guides, 43 of those were Kyrian. The article breaks down one core reason – the Soulbind path of Pelagos, which has higher relative throughput due to a path with two throughput traits and two Potency conduit slots, which is unique among the designed Soulbinds. This actually illustrates something that I think most of us intuitively understood about Covenants once Soulbinds became clearer – Covenant choice isn’t just about the class and signature abilities, but about the total kit of power offered to a player.
Kyrian wins in a lot of cases because the abilities on offer give strong play potential in multiple scenarios, and then Pelagos having more raw throughput than any other Soulbind cinches the deal. When I checked the Wowhead team’s recommendations for my own Demon Hunter, in fact, Kyrian was now firmly in the lead, with Vengeance tanks wanting them overall in both raids and Mythic Plus, while Havoc prefers them in Mythic Plus while benefitting from Venthyr slightly more in raid settings. The wins are explained as being mostly down to the class ability from each, but Havoc benefits slightly more from Soulbinds, at least in the logic of the guide writers. Unlike with many other specs, the other covenant choices aren’t even close enough to warrant discussion, at least to the guide writers doing these two guides.
So that is a fairly big problem, then – Covenant balance was crucial to land for the delay to feel really “worth it” to many players, and so far, at least, they just haven’t stuck the landing. On other fronts – Maw content, daily content, dungeons and raid, rewards, etc – I do think the team has done a fine job overall, and that may power them through the rough patch in the early weeks of Shadowlands Season 1 when Covenant abilities, Soulbinds, and the like are still being tuned up and down to correct imbalances. But the playerbase is already noting the disparity in effective power between Covenants, and for a choice that Blizzard wants to be highly personal and valuable, they’ve failed at making it so. That isn’t to suggest they might not fix it – I think it’s likely to be their top priority as the game rolls out – but they must act with precision. Wait too long to get viable data (like, say, the start of the content season in December) and players seethe with how Covenants are bad and “Azerite 2.0” in derisive tones. However, at this point, the game is going live with these imbalances in place – patch 9.02 is already rolled out to live servers and it will require hotfixes to correct at this point. Beta may continue on through the week for further balancing and tuning, but I expect that at this point, it will take a mass of players finding the state of things on live servers for them to be corrected.
All of that leads to what I see as the current state of things – I’ve seen fewer blog posts, less overall excitement, fewer active players, and a general state approaching apathy to the upcoming expansion. None of that means the expansion is doomed, will fail, or should fail. In fact, I remain steadfast in my opinion of Shadowlands as a package – rough, Covenant-shaped edges aside, the core content is satisfying and I do think it will be enjoyable overall. However, for a segment of players, Covenant choice not being the meaningful, balanced selection we’ve been told it would be is going to stick in their craw, and while many players may not much care for that (I was going Kyrian on my Demon Hunter regardless of anything else unless it was a complete dud in performance), some will be brought around to being dissatisfied by the state of play. Likewise, for many, the content loop may not feel as good – reducing rewards to make getting loot more meaningful is absolutely going to piss some off, the split structure of the daily gameplay loop (doing a Calling which takes less time than an Emissary, but then also being sent to the Maw or needing to run Torghast for rewards) might be unappealing to those who really like to focus in on a single style of play per session, and while the Vault offers a lot of flexibility and extra rewards over the Mythic Plus-only chest system, many players have already talked about how it forces them (“forces” them) to play content they don’t like for extra rewards.
Ultimately, all of this is opinion on all sides until the game launches and we can see how it feels, and I hesitate to say that my positive impressions of Shadowlands will last or that anyone else’s negative view of the game will be held for longer than the first couple of weeks. What I can say, less than one week until launch, is this – anecdotally, the community as I view it just doesn’t seem as excited for this expansion, and while I think some of that lies at Blizzard’s feet, some of it is just fatigue and I hope to see the community back to a more vibrant standard post-launch, because nothing makes an MMO community happier than a good expansion.