Written by: Rachel Atchley
November 2013. Anaheim, California.
I find myself buried in a sweaty sea of several thousand gamers and Blizzard fans, all of whom are holding their collective breath in a dim auditorium with a brightly lit stage. Blizzcon 2013’s opening ceremonies have just commenced with much pomp and nerd screaming. Senior Vice President of Blizzard Entertainment and idol of Warcraft players everywhere, Chris Metzen, now jaunts his way across the stage and back again as he cracks jokes and panders to an adoring crowd.
There has to be something big here. Diablo III’s big Reaper of Souls expansion announcement had come months before, as had closed beta for Blizzard’s new endeavor, Hearthstone. Even StarCraft II’s own expansion, Heart of the Swarm, was still fairly new.
The one Blizzard game that now carried rumors without official acknowledgement was World of Warcraft. It was now a year since its Eastern culture-inspired expansion, Mists of Pandaria, had been launched. True, the newer Siege of Orgrimmar raid had satiated the hunger of restless players, but it also hinted the expansion was nearing its end. Avid WoW gamers ourselves, my husband and I had caught wind of the rumors and scoured the fansites and databases for information, but no official announcements had been made.
These are the facts tumbling through the heads of the attendees as Christ Metzen begins to wind his welcome speech down. He’s been building up to something, charging towards a point—but what? The proverbial hush over the crowd is almost tangible, both the hardcore and casual gamers barely able to contain their excitement. This is Blizzcon, after all—earth-shattering announcements are all but in the contract.
Metzen’s familiar guttural roar bursts from his throat: “Friends! Champions! Fellow defenders of Azeroth! Blizzard is proud to present to you the next expansion set for World of Warcraft! We call it: Warlords of Draenor!”
My husband and I shoot wide-eyed glances at one another as the lights go down again and we join in the deafening tumult that accompanies Metzen’s exit from the stage. The cinematic trailer appears on the screens, teasing us with music, sound bites, and video clips carefully crafted to elicit only the truest sense of wonder and eagerness. It is mind-blowing. It is awe-inspiring. It is savage.
The crowd is hyped beyond measure as it disperses to attend other panels and events. Many of the panels are devoted entirely to discussing the new Warlords of Draenor expansion (while skirting spoilers where possible): the lore, stat changes, new character models, raids, and zones. In the eyes of Warcraft devotees, Warlords is now the spirit of this convention, and Blizzard is milking it for all it is worth. T-shirts and other paraphernalia are flying off the shelves.
Fast-forward several months to my living room, where my husband and I are ogling the most recent tidbit Blizzard has released regarding Warlords of Draenor (hereafter referred to as WoD): the female Orc character model. We discuss the rate at which Blizzard has been offering these sneak peeks and come to the conclusion that the expansion must not be far off. During Blizzcon, we made bets on our best guesses for release: his is March-April, mine is July-August. And we’ve stuck to our guns.
So far, neither one is correct. It is now May, and almost precisely two months ago, preorders for WoD went live on the World of Warcraft main website with an expected release date of “on or before December 20, 2014”.
Seasoned players have gathered several pieces of information from this announcement, the first being that Blizzard does not even know when its own expansion pack will go live.
Several tweets from Senior Community Representative Jonathan Brown (a.k.a. Zarhym) have only confirmed this suspicion, as he let on that alpha tests for WoD are still on employee-only status, although Blizzard itself was reporting the release of alpha in early April. With Warcraft’s history of lengthy betas, it stands to reason that if alpha testing is not even being utilized beyond the entertainment studio’s walls, Blizzard will be hard put to meet WoD’s proposed launch date.
Secondly, many interpret December as a filler date, conjured only so Blizzard could have something on the table. New MMO competitor Wildstar has already proven it will be a formidable foe, with wildly successful open betas and an upcoming release date of June 3. It is clearly looking to challenge the game hailed as the standard for MMOs right out of the gates. Bungie’s widely anticipated MMO shooter Destiny is going to be the next to enter the fray, launching September 9.
And subscriber loss has already become a grating concern for World of Warcraft, beginning with a slow decline in 2011 and dropping sharply from 10.2 million to 9.1 million in the second quarter of 2012. Mist of Pandaria’s release brought in .9 million players to return the number to 10 million. This has shown to be the highest point in the last few years as the subscription total has now fallen to 7.6 million.
But the game’s biggest problem could, in fact, be itself. Players joke about Blizzard’s frequent utilization of the word “soon” to describe anything occurring “two or three months from now” to “nine or ten months from now”.
A look into the studio’s past reveals an unsettling pattern. Players expectantly waiting for the Cataclysm expansion were stranded with no new content for nearly a year after the last Wrath of the Lich King raid had been patched. And again after the last Cataclysm raid went live, players slogged through the same content for over nine months until the Mists of Pandaria expansion was launched.
Now with WoD delayed until December, players will experience fifteen months of yet another plateau. This will claim the title as the longest stretch between expansions. Needless to say, we’re weary. Those who never have or no longer raid hardcore have had even longer of a dry spell. Raiding is all that’s left to do, and when one doesn’t have the time or desire to raid, the question remains why they are still paying for this game.
Two quarters of this year alone have already reported the loss of .2 million subscribers, and I predict we will see the numbers continue to fall until WoD actually releases. I have many friends who decided it wasn’t worth it to pay for seven more months completely lacking new content; I myself have canceled my subscription, planning to renew when Warlords hits. I love World of Warcraft—I greatly enjoy playing it—but there comes a season when I can no longer allow my time or my money to be wasted on old content.
Did Blizzard shoot itself in the foot at Blizzcon 2013, announcing an expansion it would take them over a year to have ready for launch? I understand they must have found themselves between a rock and a hard place, finding it absolutely necessary to announce something huge—otherwise they might as well not have held a Blizzcon that year.
But was it wise to build up so much hype at the start and then continue to string players along with exciting sneak peeks through the months, only to keep delaying progress and letting the players down? Games take a lot of work, I know. And there is a lot of pressure to have a perfectly smooth game with brilliant graphics and exceptional gameplay, especially for Blizzard, especially now. The stakes in the game industry are extremely high.
I don’t see a clear right or wrong answer here; unfortunately, it’s a pretty grey area and an uncomfortable situation for Blizzard to be in. I sincerely hope Warlords of Draenor comes through for the studio and for the players in the end. The numbers will tell.