June 29th in the US. Hooray!
Blizzard, surely tormented by nearly every major content creator that plays their game talking about Final Fantasy XIV (okay, not really) finally gave us a patch date today for WoW patch 9.1. Despite this, the current build on PTR is not labeled a Release Candidate (which either means Blizzard wasn’t confident in it until today or they simply forgot the label) which feels a bit like they’re trying for a buzzer-beater.
The full schedule is somewhat more condensed than you might expect, but it runs like this: On June 28th at 10 PM PDT in the US and Jun 29th at 2200 CEST for EU, the season ends. This is earlier than usual, and the servers will remain online for a few hours past that point with no seasonal rewards able to be earned. After maintenance the next day, the patch will be live, albeit without season 2 M+ keys and no access to the Sanctum of Domination raid. That content opens the next week, on July 6th, with Normal/Heroic raid opening, and with it, presumably Mythic Plus season 2. LFR wing 1 and Mythic raid open the next week, on July 13th, with each subsequent wing of the 4 total in LFR opening on a two-week stagger.
The remaining patch content should all be there day 1 to chase, so Korthia, the expanded Covenant Campaign, and the like should all open up. I haven’t seen where Taza’vesh will fall, but I would assume it would open on patch day since it is not season-locked content.
Is this good news? Undoubtedly. WoW has never felt more stagnant and aimless than it has the last couple of months, as the patch wandered through purgatory on its way to us. New content is always refreshing, even if it ends up being bad. At the same time, an early-summer launch is a bit bold – as COVID vaccination rates climb, many of us (yes, even gamers!) are taking a chance to go out and do more things, and being inside to play patch content might not be on the docket for all. At the same time, I know I will be playing day 1 to see all the new stuff in its finished state.
As far as the actual content, I remain sort of interested in Korthia. It has grown a lot in scope of content from when I wrote about early PTR to today, but the zone still feels a bit small and the world content of the patch still leans a bit too heavily on the Maw as a whole instead of just Korthia, so a lot of pent-up Maw aggression is bound to be felt. The Torghast changes are perhaps more interesting, both because I think they sound iffy on paper (I liked the explorational feel and the open-ended aspect of Torghast, so constraining that for a meter sounds…bad) but also because if the Torghast changes end up being great, it could reshape opinions of a lot of the expansion. The raid I am unequivocally excited for, and the same goes for Season 2 of M+, Tormented play-feel and dungeon tuning notwithstanding.
Now, I guess to answer the question I posed in the title of this very post – is it too late for Blizzard to release this content?
That depends. I think that while this is the weakest WoW has felt in a very long time, it also isn’t really that bad. The game still has aggressive support and a high level of player engagement, and new content always sparks those to higher levels even if people end up not being fond of the content. Most people playing FFXIV as a diversion right now will come back to WoW or play both, because there isn’t new content in FFXIV for a few months still (unless we get a bombshell in the upcoming PLL for that game!) and so it would be easy to play at your own pace through FFXIV stuff for fun while focusing on WoW. That goes for the content creators too – Quazii has already confirmed that he’ll be doing a load of 9.1 stuff while still also going through Final Fantasy XIV.
I think objectively, this length of starting patch was terrible and it is something Blizzard should endeavor never to do again. I think the launch content of Shadowlands was actually quite good and I enjoyed it to the extent that I pushed multiple goals and kept coming up with reasons to play until the last week and change, where I decided to sit out until maybe the patch (maybe finish rest-cycling my alts, probably help our last serious KSM chaser get his last dungeon in). To me, that was the story of this – the content was good enough for a player like me that I kept trying to find ways to get back in and engage, until I eventually realized I was just re-repeating a lot of the same stuff and with the reward value diminishing as we got closer to Season 2. That was on a big content budget, with the only things I didn’t touch being PvP and Mythic raiding. For many players I know, with more constrained content appetites, Shadowlands season 1 ended months ago, with many of the bloggers I read and players I know logging off in March or April and waiting patiently.
Yet we also likely know that this was never the plan. Blizzard certainly didn’t go into 9.1 expecting it to launch 7.5 months after the expansion did – and so a lot of what I want to see from them going forward is how that is to be helped. In the past, we’ve seen a lot of the x.1 patches are dictated by expected momentum – so the changes are smaller and more of evolutions to existing things the expansion brought. New zones in x.1 patches are rare – in fact, looking back over it, I believe that Korthia marks the first new zone in an x.1 patch ever. Outside of that, however – the mega-dungeon in the first patch follows the original MD from Legion, small tweaks and expansion of the borrowed-power systems fits in-line with the last 5 years of WoW, and a new raid in x.1 that expands on the gameplay concepts and model of the starting raid of the expansion. All of this fits with their standard pattern, so what was the deal?
Well, we don’t fully know, but I think we can safely say this – there had to have been multiple failures that caused this delay. Obviously, COVID is a factor, and the continued adaptation to work from home with it, but that is also clearly not all that happened. My speculation starts here, but I think it is fairly safe to say from outside that many WoW patches are planned based on player feedback and response. The Azerite changes in 8.1 BfA are a perfect emblem of this – if left to their own devices, my guess is we would have seen the system stay as it was, much as was the case with Artifacts in Legion, but player feedback necessitated a response, and while I don’t think the added outer-ring traits was enough, even when coupled with the Azerite level requirement reductions, it did help perceptions. Based on what Blizzard says, we know elements of the content of the patch were probably in-design as far back as pre-COVID. When I visited Blizzard in the fall of 2018, they already had half the WoW building sealed up to outsiders for Shadowlands work, and BfA had just barely launched, so I would argue that this tracks.
However, Blizzard does rely on players for testing, for feedback, to quantify their balancing around and to qualify the value of the content, and it is clear from the way most major patches rollout that they are sensitive to player feedback. The Torghast changes in 9.1 are a perfect microcosm of this. The early design notes from Blizzcon 2019 and the early alpha state of it were different than both the live 9.0 version and what we’ve seen in 9.1. Blizzard responded to feedback in streamlining to the 9.0 iteration from their design target, and 9.1 clearly takes notes from players about what felt bad about Torghast and iterates further. It is debatable if these are good changes or not, but changes they are nonetheless.
Likewise, it seems clear that the Shards of Domination were designed in response to raiders complaining about the somewhat-higher value of loot from PvP and Mythic Plus, at least until you reach the Mythic raid level, where the gear is higher. Does it address the actual substance of raider complaints about loot viability? Not really, no – the concern was more that it was easier to gear from those other sources, and Mythic Plus remains easier to gear from in the patch – PvP gear has an ilvl modifier for PvP that drops its value in other content (which is a weirdly antagonistic thing to do!) and the solution for the raid is gear with sockets that give you weird gem options with set bonuses. These are fine – good in isolation if we don’t look at them as the solution to raid gearing but then the fine print – the sockets are in slots that are popular for legendaries which will likely push players to have to recraft a legendary (the exact boat I’m in!) for a different slot to be able to use them, and they are literally only better for content in a specific zone – which, to be fair, covers a wide swath of the patch content, like Korthia, the Maw, Torghast, and the raid itself – but a limit all the same.
So we can tell that Blizzard started acting on player feedback relatively late, and had a pretty fluid and undefined design at the outset, given the amount of change we’ve seen just in the PTR cycle, much less from Blizzconline to PTR, and the ways in which the patch was discussed in early days, where major features they had planned on implementing were completely undesigned and they admitted as much. 9.2 presents a few opportunities to change that.
Firstly, work from home delays and issues should mostly be ironed out. My wife works from home and I’ve seen how a large software firm can sometimes still struggle with managing a remote workforce, but the initial jitters and rapport-building should largely be done. Secondly, I don’t know what Blizzard’s return to office plan is, or if they even have one, but I would imagine that some staff will start to wind back into physical proximity as vaccination rollout continues here in the US, and that may have a positive impact on productivity (it could also have a negative one, because people with the ability to WFH and companies that took the concern seriously from the outset have had employees working at home for well over a year now). Thirdly, I think there is an opportunity to learn embedded in all of this for Blizzard. Acting on player feedback can be done more rapidly, and the scope of a lot of player feedback, positive and negative, includes a lot of breakdowns of why we feel certain ways. There’s no one authoritative player voice, as WoW players are a broad group full of diverging player interests around type of content, what is valuable, and the like. But as the volume of feedback grows, so too does Blizzard’s ability to cut closer to a solution, and while neither of these was a perfect answer, I would point to BfA system improvements via Azerite Essences and purchasable Corruptions as points where enough player feedback coalesced to make the need for change undeniable. Of course, there is a valid debate to be had about how much feedback Blizzard should need to take action (TLDW: I think Blizzard waits too long most of the time!) but these systems got far closer to actual player interests and desires.
All-in-all, I think the state of Shadowlands is salvageable, and this is certainly a fair bit better than the mid-July launch I had braced for. 9.1 has a lot of interesting content, and provided the lessons of 9.1’s troubled development are learned, I think there is a foundation that could build into positive momentum.
As a personal aside, I might not be writing here for a couple of days. This marks post 100 for the year, a great year of growth already for the blog, but in about an hour as I write this sentence, my wife and I have to put down our dog, Shadow. We’ve been braced and prepared for it for a while (he’s old and she adopted him just prior to meeting me after he was rescued from an abusive household) but it still kind of sucks and I don’t expect I’ll be thinking much about WoW or MMO design for a day or two. We spent his last day today at the park playing, and I cooked and fed him a steak which he devoured in seconds. He’ll be missed, but I will be back because there will be more to say, as there usually is.