The good news is, Shadowlands still seems likely to release in 2020. Exactly when in 2020 is still anyone’s guess — the press release that is still up on the Blizzard site says “in 2020”, and the European version says “by December 31, 2020” (I think because there is some EU thing that game companies must be specific about release dates).
Before covid, most prognosticators were betting on a late August release, which would have been in keeping with recent Blizz expansion releases and would also have kept to the relatively strict 2-year expansion rule Blizz has set for themselves. At this point, I don’t think anyone — Blizz included — still has a good handle on exactly how covid measures may affect that probable release date. It seems almost certain it will be delayed a bit, but how much is anyone’s guess.
As everyone following this blog knows by now, I pretty much stink at predictions, but of course that does not keep me from making them. So my own bet is that we will see release sometime around the first of November, with the pre-expansion patch up to a month earlier. I think it’s possible Blizz may extend the pre-expansion buildup in order to re-engage bored players, maybe even adding in a series of fun world events like they did prior to Legion. In addition to hopefully re-energizing the player base, this could serve as a gear give away for alts and also as a good platform for working out the inevitable bugs resulting from the level squish.
But however you look at it, we are in for 4-8 more months of Battle For Azeroth, with the higher end of the time period being more likely. In terms of player engagement, there is a world of difference between 4 and 8 months. If they think it will be only 4 months, many players will push to finish BFA goals they have had, as well as start to prepare alts, banks, bags, etc. before the new expansion. But if they think it will be closer to 8 months, ennui runs rampant, and there will likely be a significant falling-off of player presence over the summer and early fall.
Anecdotally, in my guild we are seeing a huge resurgence of guild members returning after prolonged absences — almost certainly a result of enforced stay-at-home protocols. In fact, many of the returnees’ first comments in guild chat allude to that as the driving reason for their comeback.
One other player-activity indicator I have noted is the continuing downward slide of the gold cost of game tokens. Just in the last 30 days in the US Region, the price has nosedived from a high of somewhere around 146k gold to hovering around 110k and periodically rising up to maybe 117k for a few hours. If indeed there was a huge demand for the game token — say, because large numbers of players were returning to the game — market forces would cause this price to rise rather than fall as it has.
Of course, we all know that Blizz keeps a pretty heavy thumb on the scale here, so about the only thing I can conclude is that Blizz is keeping the token price artificially low so as to further encourage players to return. Also, let us not forget that every player using a game token for a month’s sub effectively means more profit for Blizz, since in theory someone actually paid $20 for it at some point, increasing the monthly fee to Blizz by a whopping 33%. But of course, we don’t even know if all the tokens for sale on the AH were actually purchased by players needing gold — there is nothing to stop Blizz from artificially producing them and setting a low price merely to entice players to buy them with gold. They lose their $20 on such a transaction, but they might increase the number of subs and “player engagement” metrics.
At any rate, it does seem like Blizz is getting a slight covid bump in active players. How long that will last is unknown — there is a pretty big grind curve still for a player coming back after leaving at the end of Legion or even early in BFA. It can seem daunting, especially if you are coming back to a guild that has stayed active and is full of well-geared players.
Blizz has tried to sweeten the pot here with bonus xp and bonus rep buffs, but they could do even more if they extended the rep buff to Nazjatar and Mechagon, thereby speeding up the whole Pathfinder process for returning players. They could also further shorten the Wrathion cape process for alts — it still takes some number of hours to do, and then there are the boringly repetitive grinds necessary for leveling it up.
My hope is that Blizz will continue to implement sweeteners in the game to keep players engaged over the next 4-8 months, especially if we are looking at something closer to 8 than 4 months. One thing they could do, technical factors permitting, is vastly open up the upcoming beta test, allowing many more players than they usually do to dip a toe into Shadowlands. Sure, it would be a mess, but it might keep a few more players engaged, and it might also expose volume-type bugs that more typically pop up only on release day. It might also permit a more finished PTR version, giving everyone a chance to really experience the new expansion if only briefly.
I guess my point — if I have one — is that, just like with covid adjustments, we probably need to settle in for an extended stretch of BFA doldrums. I prefer that, actually, to a half-finished release — I want Blizz to take their time and give us a well-designed, well-executed Shadowlands. Meanwhile, if they could continue to throw in little enticements for us to stay engaged, so much the better.