I can remember a fairly well known Twitch/YouTuber going off on a rant a while back about the fact that Warcraft had spawned a generation of would be game designers who didn’t have the first clue about what that really meant. The numbers of people who have a pet theory about how Azeroth functions are indeed many and varied, and I’d be foolish not to count myself amongst them (I mean, look at yesterday’s post for starters.) Fortunately for me I have a number of very lovely and respected people with whom I talk to and who follow me on Social media who are exactly that. When I fuck up, they tell me in no uncertain terms, and yesterday came a discussion on testing and lead times for development which set me thinking.
Considering the pace of change currently being pursued in Legion (if I believe Reddit there’s been approximately 77 days between each patch so far) will a protracted Alpha/Beta cycle be what this game either wants or needs going forward?
A good online friend of mine has a theory about how this will pan out: we’ll get the Expansion reveal at Blizzcon, then Alpha soon afterwards, with Beta and pre patch taking us through to a June release. My problem is I’m pretty certain nobody will want an eight month testing cycle. That will mean that the Argus raid will go on longer than any previous tier in this Expansion: assuming that we’ll see it launched in September, nine months will be too long. What is needed at this point will be for both live content and Expansion content to be developed and tested simultaneously, and that’s never really happened before in the entire lifespan of the game. In fact, I can remember the times I was told by developers, in public, that they’d stopped working on the old stuff and were focussing on Expansion content instead.
That cannot be allowed to happen if we are truly to see the IP move forward.
The indicators are already in place that this is the case, that Argus has been worked on at an art level for some time. With the current size of the Warcraft team, one would hope that what is now the Patch team would shift in part to Expansion work, but there would be provision for a possible interim raid (in the style of Helya) that could happen after whatever we’re calling 7.3. Certainly it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to have PTR and Alpha servers running simultaneously. The problem, of course, is the amount of testing required to keep everything moving forward, but knowing the number of QA posts that ActiBlizz have filled in the last twelve months? You have to think somebody’s already done the maths on this.
There is the other, very significant issue to consider, and that is how Alpha/Beta testing has become an almost indispensable form of subsidiary marketing. Although many would argue they don’t want Expansion fatigue before the damn thing’s even launched, almost the same number of players now rely on that lead time to prepare, organise and absorb the huge numbers of changes that will inevitably be wrought. Could there be a new class or will we have to wait? How will my spec’s ‘fantasy’ play out this time around? Will we see a means to upgrade our weapon, or is it time to find a new artifact to lead us past the terrors of the Legion? The problem with Expansions, of course, is that they now come with a massive slew of expectations: new zones, improved content, obvious momentum forward. How does the Company balance this with their audience’s craving for a near constant slew of new things to do in Azeroth?
A couple of the ‘armchair designers’ have suggested that maybe the answer is to dispense with Expansions completely, and simply continue with the sub model plus a continuation with patch content at this level. If that were the case, the company would lose an important glob of cash wrapped around purchase of a new ‘chapter’ of their story. Could we then see the adoption of the Hearthstone model: smaller content pushes, purchasable with in game gold via the Warcraft token? Could exclusive content be gated in the way we’ve seen with flying on the Broken Isles? Is it possible ActiBlizz will break with tradition and move Azeroth away from these vast, often difficult transitions from one style of playing to another?
I’d love to think that we could be heading for some groundbreaking or innovative developments with Warcraft… and then I see that Hearthstone’s latest Expansion, yet again, pays a little too much too much lip service to Azeroth’s established and ‘conservative’ legacy. Would it be too much to expect some true innovation at present, or is that simply a risk nobody is prepared to take? Recycling and reconstituting the same stories, time and again, works only to a point. What ActiBlizz could really do with, sooner rather than later, is to expand their focus away from the stuff we’ve already seen and explore parts of this Universe that haven’t. If I believe the stuff that someone spoilt for me yesterday (you could still apologise, there’s still time) then there is the possibility that might happen, but I won’t believe it until they announce it at Gamescon.
We’ve seen vast change in the development cycle since Legion was launched. Please let this not be for nothing.