Dragonflight launches…er, well, today now.
Dragonflight, the ninth expansion for World of Warcraft, is meeting with some initial success before it even launches due to the nature of changes made to the game that were visible in alpha and beta testing. “No more borrowed power, no longer an endless grind,” said Blizzard, and many of us celebrated the idea that the game was getting back to a more grounded, standard framework like it had for so many years prior to the systems-heavy gameplay of Legion and beyond.
The truth is that WoW (or any other MMO, really) gets a free hype pass for an expansion launch. There was a window of time in which I was hyped for Shadowlands, and Battle for Azeroth before it, and the game eventually peeked in to ruin the fantasy and ground my hype to dust. Dragonflight promises not to do that, and it seems pretty sincere in those words so far, but if that remains true is still to be seen.
Shadowlands marked a dark period for the game in many ways. COVID-19 wrecked the team’s ability to deliver content in a timely manner, coupled with departures from the company and the slate of sexual harassment allegations that Blizzard as a company, including WoW-related figureheads, faced over the summer of 2021 (and again in a new lawsuit fairly recently). Shadowlands ended as only the second WoW expansion with just two major patches, yet it also had 3 raid tiers and thus didn’t feel quite so bad in that regard. However, a long period of time between any new content at all rocked the game, with the early tiers of the expansion lasting long enough that a baby conceived on day 1 of the content cycle would be born as the next content cycle kicked off. It is almost miraculous that the final tiers of Shadowlands were the shortest, with the original Sepulcher of the First Ones tier lasting just 4 months and with the Fated tier, added as part of a Season 4 push to reuse the expansion content, lasting about the same length of time. WoW faced the biggest slate of high-profile MMO competition launching since the WoW-killer era of the late 2000s, with New World and Lost Ark both challenging the game while renewed vigor swirled around Final Fantasy XIV, whose Shadowbringers expansion was at full stride as Shadowlands launched and whose Endwalker expansion stole a lot of thunder from WoW in late 2021 and early 2022, perhaps even beating the stalwart WoW in total subscriber count for a window of time this last spring (public data around this is notoriously unreliable and so proving either direction is essentially impossible).
But god, I do not want to write about Shadowlands.
Dragonflight promises new, promises better, promises a return to form and a return to tradition. It claims to offer a new experience suffused with enough of the old recipe that it should appeal to multiple audiences within the fractured WoW fandom. Blizzard has claimed that they’ve changed their development style to move away from older, rigid structures that led to content being in-flight for two expansions forward while they’re getting feedback still on what worked and didn’t from the content of today, and that such moves are born from a desire to respond to feedback more directly with changes to the game. Blizzard’s development staff are seemingly happy – how much is public performance versus actual change is hard to say, but given the process that unfolded around last summer’s allegations, I’m inclined to trust the employees when they say things are getting better.
Dragonflight’s biggest appeal is that the team is aware they cannot place player power on a thing and then claim it is optional or do-at-your-own pace – so most forms of player power have been removed in favor of gear progression as the sole survivor. Blizzard is trying big experiments in spaces they’ve been paralyzed to innovate in for years – moving away from personal loot to a Group Loot system in all forms of raid content, moving away from the pick-3 talents to trees once again, with a twist from the trees of old, and moving away from static, boring, menu-based professions towards something slightly more interesting and dynamic with gear and talent choices of its own. The late push of Shadowlands has seen them take aim squarely at the more questionable aspects of the WoW community with the Social Contract, which has, admittedly, not felt like a huge success or change, but it still riled up assholes anyways, which is probably good.
But all of this is set dressing for the thing I actually came to write today – that Dragonflight, like any expansion before it, is a new beginning. It’s a fresh start, where the game changes and invites us all back to say hello and see how we like it in this new form. Right now, I have a ton of thoughts swirling in my head about what WoW needs to do, should do, and what I want from it, but there is excitement underpinning all of those things. Sure, the immediate rush of the expansion will be tempered by a moment’s feeling of loss as we shed our Covenant abilities (at least the ones we don’t have/can’t talent for) and watch as our legendary armor that we’ve maintained all expansion fade into nothing, becoming stat sticks with grey text to remind us of the experiment of Shadowlands. But that loss gives way to new content, new horizons, and the return of friends to the game. It will give way to new gear that will replace those crusty old oranges anyways, and to replacement gear beyond that as we engage the gear treadmill that is World of Warcraft, pushing harder and higher for ever slightly better loot. Today doesn’t mark new raids or new Mythic Plus, and we don’t have a perverse need to push for 70 straight away (although I know what my plan is, and it looks like pushing).
It’s just the joy of new things coming to be. Maybe, over time, those new things will suck. Maybe we’ll find some flaw in them, see some issue with how they interrupt our joy, but for today, even if those things are all waiting in the wings (and there’s no guarantee they are or aren’t), the game is new again for us to enjoy. If you’re playing the game today, you’re probably pretty excited, and that’s a good thing – the world thrives on new happiness and excitement, and I know I will be there right with you, enjoying everything on offer with a new expansion. Cynicism will be in the back of my mind, clouded and obscured by the fun I hope to have, and the more fun I have, the harder it will be to conjure that cynicism from the depths of my mind.
For me personally, Dragonflight is a new beginning in other ways too. It’s my first launch with my new guild, the one I helped to found, with friends old and new alike. I’m excited to play with them, to dive deep into the content and just have a good time. The mood is bright and everyone is excited. Sure, I’m also a little scared of the obligation I’ve signed myself up for, and there will be hard weeks to come of researching raid strategies and defining how we tackle the content to come, but that is fun to me (in a weird, sorta perverse way, haha). While I’ve been back playing WoW for nearly a month now, it’s also a new beginning of pushing into content again – I stayed pretty low key with my gameplay for the last month, opting out of pushing ahead to a Season 4 KSM or trying to do anything in raiding higher than LFR – I just wanted a minute to catch my breath in WoW, figure things out, and move forward.
Dragonflight is my first main character switch since…well, since the start of Shadowlands. I’ve opted to play a monk tank for the expansion, and my early experiences in prepatch with Brewmaster have been fun. It’s my first time playing the spec seriously since the tail end of Warlords of Draenor in 2015/2016, so while I have played it before in raids and dungeons, I also played it when Stagger was a substantial damage deferral, when Purifying Brew cleansed ALL staggered damage, and when hitting Guard (remember Guard? I sure do) would give me an absorption shield as high as 3x my maximum health total, so it has been long enough that the spec is essentially brand new compared to what I played back then. My switch at the start of Shadowlands was motivated very differently than this switch, and I am happy to make this switch and confident in it for my own play experience and what it will bring to my group.
Dragonflight is also the first expansion for WoW I enter having deliberately sequestered myself from the datamining process as much as possible. I had beta but only played 45 minutes of the Evoker starting zone, I could have watched streams and videos but chose not to, and I’ve avoided almost all information and visuals of the zones, quests, and gameplay – short of a datamined story snippet missing a lot of context and a couple good sidequest beats, I know nothing about what waits for me on the other side of 3 PM PST today. Today is the first day I even so much as looked at the new profession systems to see talent-styled options waiting, and I have no idea or context for how those systems work. I will learn by doing, by playing, by experiencing – the same consideration I gave to Endwalker this time last year, when it captivated me.
Dragonflight will be judged later, with appropriate context and experience. For now, I am living in the sheer delight of being excited about WoW again. It has been far, far too long since that was a thing I could feel, and I am happy for it. It is a breath of fresh air that an expansion launch is not being marred by designed bullshit for the first time since Legion, and even early Legion was still a happy place. I can look around and see a myriad of people excited for the game in much the same way – those friends around me in our new guild, excited to build together, strangers on forums, blogs, and subreddits, and social media, even as Twitter burns under the childish incompetence of a South African emerald heir. Sure, the cynicism is hard to completely banish. Sure, the track record of Blizzard and the question of ethics in supporting them remains. At the end of the day, those conflicts and questions are hard, if not impossible, to fully remove unless they are resolved. But Dragonflight has something about it that feels new, feels different, compared to the recent run where Blizzard was arguing with us right up to launch and then went silent as we clashed with the new systems. Dragonflight has had precious little clashing, and a fair deal more excitement.
That, in and of itself, is a new beginning.