Monday, November 6, 2023

You Wait All Year For An Expansion And Then Three Come Along At Once

Now that the dust has settled on Blizzcon '23, I thought I might have a bit of a potter through the various headline announcements. I did kind of pre-empt myself with my post on Tarisland but since that was written before the actual event I think a revisit is justified.

Of course, when I say "headline announcements" I really mean what they said about World of Warcraft. I have never played any other Blizzard games and I don't even know much about them other than what I've read on various blogs over the years. The thing about Blizzard, though, unlike other major players in the online multiplayer gamespace such as NCSoft or Tencent, is that it's very hard to avoid knowing about their games even if you're not particularly interested in them. I can give a precis of the Diablo franchise or Overwatch or Hearthstone even though I've never played any of them. 

Don't ask me about Heroes of the Storm, though. What even is that?

Blizzard, unlike other developers, penetrates the cultural consciousness to an extent not often enjoyed by gaming companies. It's become evident over the past couple of years, as the Blizzard name has become a byword for deceit and depravity, that a large number of people had far more invested in the reputation of the company than would seem rational or predictable to anyone outside the bubble. For many, it seems, Blizzard wasn't just a company that had made some very successful video games; it was some kind of role-model or exemplar.

I'm not sure I was even aware a lot of people felt that way until the roof began falling in. I knew the games were popular because I kept reading people talking about them but people talk about playing things like The Sims and Civilization all the time, too. There's a fairly small set of games that crop up over and over again, in the same way certain TV shows or movies are reference points for everyone of a certain age. You don't have to have watched them to know something about them. I didn't have to have played Diablo to know what it was but I didn't realize it represented the end product of a myth-making process that extended far past the game itself.

It was only when the seemingly endless stream of dire revelations began to spew out of Blizzard like a pyroclastic flow of disgrace and disappointment that I began to appreciate the deep, emotional connection the company maintained with with many of its customers. It did seem a little unsettling, even to someone with an arguably unhealthy tendency towards brand loyalty like myself.

As the pile-up of distressing revelations continued, I learned a few things, some of the more interesting of which were the explanations people gave for their deep connection with the company. As is common in other forms of popular media, growing up with certain activities and entertainments forms an associative bond. The things that surround you as you go through formative life experiences for the first time become inextricably linked with the intense feelings created by those experiences.

I'd like to say that being in my twenties when I first started playing video games inoculated me against anything like that but I was forty when I started playing EverQuest and look how that went. What I definitely would say is that at no time did I ever translate my affection - let's not say obsession - with the game into an idolization of the company that produced it. I mean, I knew SoE was my favorite MMORPG developer for a while but I never thought it went any further than their design choices matching my gameplay preferences. It was a marriage of convenience not a love match.

Back in the 2000s, I remember reading with something approaching incredulity the reports of conventions and fan events dedicated to specific games or publishers, SOE's Fan Faire included. For some reason, even though by then I'd spent the better part of two decades going to comics conventions, where I'd sit in a side room or an auditorium listening to writers, artists and editors repeating well-worn anecdotes from glory years spanning the nineteen-forties to the nineteen-seventies, it seemed bizarre to imagine anyone might want to do the same with video games. 

After all, the people who made those were just technicians and administrators, weren't they? It'd be like going to a convention to meet the people who'd designed and built your refrigerator. (Even as I type, it occurs to me there are probably people who do exactly that...)

Eventually I either came to a more nuanced understanding of the factors involved or became assimilated into the gamer hive-mind. Still not sure which. The concept of video game expos and cons and fan gatherings shifted from "weird and a bit scary, if I'm honest" to "no stranger than traction engine meets or renaissance fairs". Which, I admit, is still weird and a bit scary but in a much more ordinary way.

I still wouldn't want to go to one and I don't even want to sit at home and watch a livestream but I do find myself being drawn towards the comfortable thrill of mild anticipation arising from the possibility of hints of things to come. Which is really about as solid as most of this stuff ever gets, making this year's Blizzcon somewhat unusual in that respect.

We didn't just get to learn the name of the next WoW expansion. We got to hear the names of the next three! It's a brave move that I imagine has more to do with setting a marker than with any fundamental change of practice or principle. 

Given the last couple of years, it looks as though the plan is to establish the new Microsoft-owned company as a solid, dependable and even predictable supplier of quality product, to be delivered in a timely and reliable manner. Announcing a trilogy of themed expansions with an explicit but finite narrative arc makes a clear statement of commitment to the game and its players. 

It says we're going to be here for the foreseeable future so you can feel safe to start making your plans with WoW again. We've got you covered for MMORPG entertainment for the next five years, minimum. No need to start looking around. 

The same sentiment is contained in the commitment to only adding mechanics that will hold value over more than a single expansion cycle and the increase in systems that benefit the whole account rather than a single character. These are moves designed to foster a self-sustaining ecosystem, where players feel too comfortable, committed and embedded to find it easy to pick up and move elsewhere. 

The only thing that's hard to understand about such a change of emphasis is how the hell it took them this long to come up with it. Every other MMORPG developer figured out years ago that you need to get players so enmeshed it's harder to leave than it is to stay. Meanwhile, Blizzard has been fostering a culture around expansions that, coupled with one of the slowest development cycles in the genre, actively mitigates against the kind of loyalty and retention they used to be famous for. 

Everyone knows you can just skip the content droughts or even the bad expansions and come back later. Or not come back at all. It's not like you'll miss anything that matters. Every new expansion is a full reset.

The three expansions themselves sound interesting enough, as far as the information available goes. They revolve around known areas of the existing world, not excursions into unknown realms, which is a solid play towards the installed base and that great mass of lapsed players, many of whom, on reading a news item somewhere, will think to themselves "Oh, I remember having some good times there!" and think about maybe coming back to see what's going on.

None of that is going to work on me because I don't have the necessary nostalgia for such an announcement to trigger in the first place. I like WoW but I don't feel closely connected to it. With the Microsoft buyout in place, however, I have given myself permission to revisit Azeroth, and I would certainly not rule out trying one or more of these expansions at some point. Of course, I'd have to re-install the game first...

The widely-expected confirmation of Cataclysm Classic interests me more. As I've said on several occasions, I know just enough about the areas that were disrupted by the original Cataclysm expansion to be curious to see how they've changed, without the significant emotional attachment to the originals that would make me feel disturbed or angry when I find out what's been done to them. And since I mostly never bothered to investigate any of the post-Cataclysm zones when I had the chance, it would all largely be new content for me.

It's always nice to jump into these things along with everyone else, so there's a not-insignificant chance I might resubscribe for a month or two when CataClassic arrives, presumably sometime next spring. I'm fairly curious about the new "Season of Discovery" that's coming to regular Classic much sooner as well, although I'm not sure the timing works for me to join in right away. 

As I commented on Shintar's WoW blog "Priest Without A Cause", this really does seem like Holly Longdale making her influence known. Sony Online Entertainment began the idea of the rolling nostalgia circus as far back as 2008 but it was under Holly at Daybreak that the operation really took off. 

For years now, it's been the practice at EverQuest and latterly at EQII to fire up new nostalgia servers at least once a year, almost always with slightly different rulesets. Go back far enough and it was generally assumed these servers would stay up, if not permanently, then at least until there weren't enough players left on them to justify their continued existence. In more recent times, there's been a much clearer expectation and understanding that they'll only run for a couple of years or so before being merged into a more recent or a more stable server.

Much of that predates now-familiar online gaming concept of "Seasons", a more elegant solution to the concept of shaking things up to keep people interested than booting up whole new servers every five minutes. The Blizzard way of doing things is marrying up nicely with the Daybreak experience, potentially creating a more flexible model for endless experimentation within a fairly fixed framework. It's presumably just what they wanted when they made Holly an offer she couldn't and didn't refuse.

It is ironic that, in both games, the supposedly most traditional part of the game, the nostalgia-driven servers where time, if it doesn't exactly stand still, certainly travels in a closed loop, is also the place where the companies feel most free to experiment. If you tried these kinds of shenanigans on Live or Retail there'd be uproar. It makes me wonder sometimes who the true traditionalists really are.

All in all, I'd say things are looking good for the immediate future of WoW. Certainly a lot better than it seemed they might a year or two back. The last expansion, Dragonflight, while reportedly no resounding success, was certainly no disaster, either. People seemed generally affable towards it and largely still do which, under the circumstances, has to be considered a win for Blizzard. 

Responses to the announcements at Blizzcon '23 also seem generally favorable. No-one's jumping up and down, waving a flag or claiming the glory days are back, or at least not that I've seen, but the tone of the reporting has largely been optimistic and positive, if occasionally grudgingly so. 

Equally, I don't think many are claiming the myriad problems of the past have all miraculously gone away but there's only so long most people can retain a sense of outrage and frankly there are a lot more serious things to be outraged about right now than what happened at a video company a few years ago. The company changing hands may well not fix all or even most of the underlying problems but at least, until and unless evidence of new or ongoing malpractice surfaces, it'll be convenient for many of us to act as though it has.

Finally, there was one announcement at Blizzcon this year that took my fancy. Warcraft Rumble, the new, free-to-play mobile title, is already up and running. I think I might go take a look. After all, it's not every day Blizzard gives us something for nothing. Well, not anything we might actually want, anyway.


A note on AI images used in this post.

The header is by DreamShaper XL alpha2  with Prompt and Refiner Weights both at 50. The prompt used was "Firiona Vie from EverQuest as a character in World of Warcraft". I used Uncrop to reformat the image to fit the space and it mostly added some foliage. Firiona has dyed her hair for some reason and seems to have grown a second belly-button somehow but otherwise it kind of works.

The second image uses the same source and settings. The prompt was "a pyroclastic flow of disgrace and disappointment World of Warcraft". I tried it without the WoW suffix but either way it just gives a volcano. I was kind of hoping for some personifcations of abstract ideas but no such luck.


  1. "We didn't just get to learn the name of the next WoW expansion. We got to hear the names of the next three! It's a brave move that I imagine has more to do with setting a marker than with any fundamental change of practice or principle. "

    Actually it does mark a change in practice, which is part of what makes it exciting. Historically they've only planned one expansion ahead, if that. I don't know if that's been 100% true the entire history of the game, but I believe it holds true as a generalization. Planning three expansions ahead, let alone working on all of them in tandem (as has been confirmed to be the case), is a big change in how Blizzard operates.

    I do expect this is going to mean smaller expansions with less ambitious feature lists, but under the circumstances I think that's a worthy trade-off, assuming they don't trim back *too* severely.

    1. I thought about that when I was writing the post and I thought that, even though Blizzard never reveal the name or content of anything beyond the next expansion, it seemed highly unlikely they didn't already have something mapped out. I'd have thought there'd at least be some work going on the expansion after next at all times - not the actual coding and design but background, lore, concept art and so on - but maybe I'm giving them too much credit for forward planning.

      I note that they have confirmed they have at least two teams now, one working on the War Within and one on Midnight, so they're going a lot further than just pre-planning by the sound of it. They also say the work on each of the three expansions feeds into the others, which sounds eminently sensible, although possibly more restrictive than previously. There's a risk of a sense of sameness, I guess, but as you say, better that than the delays and disappointments of recent years.

    2. They have indeed said in the past that they're usually working about two expansions ahead - so e.g. at the end of BFA, just as Shadowlands came out, Dragonflight was also already in development. It's supposedly the reason they've been seemingly slow to react to certain types of feedback, because it's harder to pivot when you already got the next expansion built a certain way. (I got that from this video - link goes to the relevant timestamp.)

    3. @Shintar - thanks for that detailed info. I assumed it had to work something like that but I didn't know for sure.

    4. @Shintar -- The link says they work two years ahead, which is one expansion cycle. I guess depending on where in the cycle you look at it that could cover more than one future expansion, but it's still seems to be less planning ahead than they're doing now with Worldsoul Saga.

  2. Meanwhile, Blizzard has been fostering a culture around expansions that, coupled with one of the slowest development cycles in the genre, actively mitigates against the kind of loyalty and retention they used to be famous for.

    From what I remember, this was in response to people complaining that there was too much catching up to do if you took a break, or that it was hard to get a friend to the right level if you wanted to get them into the game. Presumably there are other ways to deal with those issues, but constant resets is what they went for...

    1. That's a great example of the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't cleft stick many mmo devs are caught in. I've seen it in plenty of games I've played - players militantly demand changes then turn around and complain just as militantly about the results when they get what they asked for. Of course, there's nothing to say it's the same players each time and that's the problem - mmorpgs are such a broad church it's just about guaranteed that what appeals to one faction is likely to alienate another.

  3. (I thought that second belly button on Firiona was a mole. Oh well. As for that second image, it fits right in with Cataclysm if you ask me.)

    Even as I type, it occurs to me there are probably people who do exactly that..

    There are professional conferences for Engineers, Scientists, Historians, and others in professional and academic environments, so yeah, there are cons where people talk about that stuff. When Neil Armstrong was an Engineering Professor at the University of Cincinnati after his astronaut days, people would sign up for his classes because they frequently devolved into what was colloquially known as "Neil's War Stories". For me, I'd love to see a talk by Frank Whittle about his inspiration for creating the jet engine. Technical and fanboyish at the same time, I suppose.

    As far as the announcement itself goes, I do wonder now whether Blizz was planning on originally announcing one expac and their new Microsoft Overlords asked "If you've already set this in stone, why don't you tell your fans?" Blizzard has famously kept things close to the vest for a long time because they've been caught with their pants down* promising things at Blizzcon that end up not making it into the end product. But when you're dealing with a fanbase that actively datamines your product for any information about what might be coming next --I've always wondered if that breaks your terms of service, and why hasn't Blizzard defended it's products from that behavior-- nothing remains a secret for long.

    Still, Blizzard trades in nostalgia because their fans are so loyal. It can take a lot for a game company to lose its fans --Bioware has found that out the hard way-- but Blizzard liked to proclaim itself as a purveyor of "doing the right thing" in the same vein as Google's original "don't be evil". And as we saw how long that one lasted --about as long as Google went public and there were profits to be had-- it turns out Blizzard wasn't so noble on the inside after all.

    Blizzard will never recapture that moment when they became part of the cultural zeitgeist, but that doesn't mean that people won't care about them. They'll just be like that kid who finds out that the world isn't all just black and white, but all those shades of gray in between.

    *I just realized how much that plays into the office revelations. Oh well.


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