Let the speculation begin

Well, it’s that time again — rumors are ramping up about WoW’s next expansion. This is one of my favorite seasons in the cycle of the game, a time when anything is possible, when you can hope for your fondest game wishes to be fulfilled, when you can be excited about something new and shiny and fun. Anticipation is one of the greatest feelings in life.

The first hopeful harbinger of a new expansion is the fact that Gamescom 2017 is just two weeks away, and that it likely will coincide with the release of Patch 7.3, which some believe will be the last major patch of Legion. (Not sure I agree, but it is possible.) Blizz has not always reserved just Blizzcon for major announcements — Legion was unveiled to the world at Gamescom a couple of years ago, and that announcement alone did a lot to stem the flow of players exiting the game as a result of WoD. So hoping for a next expansion announcement at Gamescom is not unreasonable. Raider’s Tavern has a summary of what we know so far about Blizz’s participation in Gamescom this year, and they don’t discount the possibility of a new expansion being unveiled, but neither do they hype it too much.

And now there are also rumors of leaks. Suzie Ford at MMORPG had a post a couple of days ago that purports to give us a significant amount of supposedly leaked information about the next expansion. It seems quite detailed and I suppose it could be legitimate, but who knows these days — it could just as easily be someone’s fertile imagination, or Blizz starting to hype the next expansion. The original leak was posted on Imgur by someone named elderu. It’s a fun read, though, so check it out if you have a couple minutes. If nothing else, it might get your creative juices flowing.

About a month ago, Steven Messner at PC Gamer had a wildly speculative piece on the next expansion, based on a bunch of subreddit comments about certain data mined armor features. It seemed pretty far-fetched to me at the time, but it was kind of fun and honestly some parts of it track with the most recently “leaked” information.

Others are thinking about a new expansion, too. Matthew Rossi at Blizzard Watch posted a piece asking if people are really ready for a new expansion yet, given the wealth of content in Legion. And there is a WoW forum where people are indulging their favorite pet theories and either hyping or pooh-poohing the latest “leak”.

I guess the point is, Legion is now pretty much officially the “old” expansion. Sure, there is still a lot of content left and a new raid tier to come, but generally when speculation about the next expansion starts to be widespread, it marks the psychological end of the current one. If we do not get a Big Announcement at Gamescom, I feel certain we will get one at Blizzcon. Which probably means we are about a year out (give or take a couple months) from it going live. If so, it will be a real achievement for Blizzard, because they will have carried out their promises not only about patch and raid tier timing, but about length of an expansion.

I don’t know what I want in a new expansion, haven’t given it more than a few passing thoughts. I have a better idea of what I don’t want:

  • Artifact weapons in any form. No single piece of gear should dominate every aspect of game play the way they do in Legion.
  • Garrisons in any form, whether they are renamed “order halls” or anything else. I was sick of the concept about a month into WoD, and I am way past sick of it now.
  • Cattle-chute approach to end game, where every end game activity forces you into raids or Mythic dungeons.
  • Legion-style legendaries. These are possibly the worst gear idea Blizz has ever had, and they are nothing but a headache for nearly every aspect of game play, from gear calculations to spec switching.
  • Profession levels of proficiency for every item, especially when the only way to advance them is by getting lucky with RNG. This sucks.
  • Nomi. He was an annoying little snot in Mists, and he is an arrogant incompetent boob in Legion.

I suppose there a few things from Legion I would like to see continued in the next expansion, though:

  • Zone scaling. I was not sure I would like this when it was first announced, but I think it is a real success. Above all, I like the fact that you can select any leveling order you want. It just makes the whole process more pleasant and varied, especially as you start to level a few alts. I also like the idea that once you get decent gear the mobs become mostly trivial — you should not have to struggle for the entire expansion just to pick a few herbs or do some mining.
  • World quests and emissary quests. Although these are really just dressed-up dailies, I find them much more enjoyable than I did, say, dailies in Mists or WoD. I like that you can pick and choose how many you want to do, what type of reward you want, and that you can skip a couple days and still catch up. The main improvement I would make to them would be, once you exceed the gear level they offer as rewards, you get an option to get gold or some other expansion valuable instead. (However, I do not like Blizz’s practice of forcing you into doing them almost forever because of some endless artifact or other requirement. I would like to do them because I want to, not because I have to grind out some infinite currency.)
  • Getting a special hearthstone to the hub. Seems minor, but I really like having more than one hearthstone. And while I am on the subject of travel, keep the taxi whistle, too. It was invaluable before flying was authorized, but I still use it a lot even now that I can fly myself.

I’ll have to think more about what I would like to see in the next expansion. (It might be time to actually rename all the various time-limited cities, for example, beyond “Old Dal”/”New Dal” and the like…) I’m not in a hurry, though — in addition to having a ton left to do in Legion, it is kind of tantalizing to just imagine what the next expansion might bring.

The weekend is upon us. Enjoy yours.

Wild theory time

We are coming up on a year of Legion, so it might be a good time to stand back and take a look at it from a little more long-range perspective. And, since I am coming off a short break, indulge myself in some unfounded speculation.

So when I step back and look at Legion, the main question that comes to my mind is, where exactly are we in the expansion? At the start of Legion, then-assistant Game Director Hazzikostas stated that expansions starting with Legion would be 2-year expansions, and that the plan was for new raid tiers to be released every 4-5 months. If Blizz adheres to this plan (and so far it they have done so for the raid tiers), then we are about halfway through Legion and should expect the 7.3 raid tier not later than November and a 7.4 (final) tier around April 2018.

After that it all gets kind of iffy. In theory — sticking to the 2-year expansion model — we should get a fully-developed new expansion going live around September 1, 2018. This would mean a robust alpha/beta/whatever test would have been in place for several weeks by the same time the last raid tier is released, and a PTR should be available not later than June or July of next year.

I would like to believe this is what will happen, but I am extremely skeptical about it all. Blizz’s historical pattern (WoD was a slight but only slight anomaly) has been to announce significant project details of their next expansion at Blizzcon the year before implementation, initiate early invitation-only tests around January that continue for at least 4-6 months, then begin the PTR a couple of months prior to live.

This would mean Blizz should announce the next expansion at this year’s Blizzcon. Of course, they might do that, but we see absolutely zero indication of it — normally there are plausible rumors circulating about such topics shortly after tickets go out. Also, the timeline I described would mean Blizz would be working full bore on a new expansion at the same time as they are still cranking out major new raid tiers for the current one, and I have not seen evidence that they have the resources to carry out such a schedule. What we have witnessed for the last two expansions is that resources get moved to the new one at the expense of anything significantly new for the current one. I am not knocking this, it is just prudent business practice, but I think what it means is that we will not see anything public about the next expansion while Blizz continues to put out new Legion raid tiers.

What this could mean for players is that we will not hear anything official about the next expansion until after the last Legion tier is released. I don’t keep up with international gaming events, but Gamescom 2018 might be a venue that would fit that timeline. Which would mean announcement of the new expansion next summer. Since the typical public development part of a new expansion is about a year after initial announcement, that would mean in effect we would not see the next one until summer of 2019, making Legion in effect a 3-year not a 2-year expansion.

It all depends, I think, on the development resources Blizz has available from now until the end of Legion. But with the other franchises Blizzard is running, I just don’t see WoW getting the lion’s share of them — certainly not enough to go all out concurrently on new Legion tiers and the final stages of a new expansion.

This is all wild speculation, of course. I would love to be wrong, and to be able to welcome a new expansion in about a year. But I think Blizz has set Legion up to be  elastic in terms of longevity, so as to provide themselves with maximum flexibility on the next expansion. Look at the ways they have maintained current content, for example — ever-expanding artifact traits, use of the mythic+ mechanism, world quests, extending professions by adding on new quest lines that usually require older content such as dungeon completions, bringing back classic instances in challenging form, enticing play with things like class mounts, weekly bonus events, etc. They can keep iterating on these themes almost indefinitely.

Additionally, Blizz seems to have found a cheap technical way to add on mini-expansions, a way to give players the appearance of new worlds without the full overhead needed for actual new cohesive zones. The Argus model, with its portal system, seems to be a way to add on almost limitless new “zones” without the need for complex transportation systems or even artwork beyond the immediate ported area. Prohibiting flying in these new mini-areas further lessens the development cost.

As I said, this is all just speculation, I have no inside information about the timing of next expansion or even of the length of Legion. But it seems likely, given Blizz’s history along with their approach to content in Legion, that we will not see a new expansion until late summer/early fall of 2019. I think there is a slight possibility that we could get a next-expansion announcement very early next year — say in the first quarter — and Blizz might make use of the Argus model to fill in the rest of Legion while they work mainly on the new stuff. This might bump up 8.x by 6 months or so, making its live version appear in spring 2019 instead of late summer or fall.

But whatever, I think we are way less than halfway into Legion, and we have 18 months to two years left. Legion is not a bad expansion, and the possibility of two more years of it is not really horrible. Still, I hope I am proven wrong on this, and that by next year at this time we are eagerly anticipating the next expansion going live.

So many questions, so little time

Looking back over my education, I think the single most important skill I learned was to ask questions. The Jesuits who schooled me were big believers in the Socratic Method, so we were not only encouraged but required to ask questions as part of every learning process. Sure, fractions and Shakespeare and the date of the Magna Carta and the underpinnings of an agrarian economy are all good to know. But when it comes right down to it, asking the right questions at the right time of the right people has saved my bacon in life more times than I can count.

So today I have been thinking about Patch 8.x. Yes, I know we are not even a year into Legion, and the hints from Blizz are that we have a lot of time left to experience it (my bet at the start was that we are looking at Legion being with us for very close to 3 years). Still, I feel like speculating a bit, in the form of a series of questions.

Location.

  • Is the 7.3 excursion to Argus a prelude to the next expansion, or is it just that — a one-off adventure?
  • Will we ever see the other side of Azeroth? Is there an other side?
  • What if any lessons did Blizz learn about time-travel worlds like Draenor and underwater zones like Vashj’ir? This is less a question than it is a hope — I hope they learned both these ideas were big mistakes.
  • Will Blizz expand its recent trend of making classic parts of Azeroth relevant to current game play? 

Stats.

  • What will be the nature of the next stat squish? I think a dev mentioned that much of the code has been rewritten to accommodate very large numbers now, it still is cumbersome for humans to speak of character health in the millions and boss health in the billions, for example. What about ilevel? Very soon even in Legion we will break break into 4-digit ilevels. Will secondary stats and damage/healing numbers be squished in 8.x?
  • Will stats be simplified in the next expansion? What is the official Blizz view of the complexity of stats in Legion? Do they understand the frustration of players when a higher level piece of gear is not an upgrade? Are they happy with the proliferation of web sites and apps designed to do the intricate math necessary to determine a piece of gear’s worth to a player? 

Quest hubs and population centers.

  • Will we see new faction capitals? Blizz seems — both in WoD and Legion — to have concluded that faction capital cities are too resource-intensive to justify them. If Sanctuary Cities are the norm for the foreseeable future, will we see more of them in Horde areas, with Horde racial architecture?
  • What has Blizz learned about the garrison concept? It was innovative but not well liked in WoD, and it was extended — as Class Halls — in Legion. Is this idea now a core game mechanic going forward? Will we see the concept applied as guild halls in 8.x?  More wishful thinking on that last one, I am afraid.
  • Why is Blizz so dead set against player housing? This is really more of a pet peeve question and not so much of an insightful one about the next expansion. Certainly the technology is there — that was proven with garrisons, and with Sunsong Ranch before that. And there is player demand for it, though I am not sure how much. Yet Blizz steadfastly refuses to do it, citing from time to time the “war footing” nature of the game as being antithetical to cozy homesteading. My own opinion, completely biased, is that there is a culture at Blizz that insists WoW is a “hardcore” game, and to give players housing is just too girly and frilly for them to contemplate. They put it in the same category as playing house or cutting out paper dolls, and that would destroy the manly studly war aspect of the game. (Yeah, yeah, let the hate mail begin. But deep down you know I am right.)

Class development.

  • Will there be another major rewrite of classes in 8.x?
  • What is Blizz’s long range vision of class roles and balance? Are they on a path to achieve this, or do they have none and merely make change for change’s sake each expansion?
  • And the big question: Can Blizz stop screwing with hunters for at least one expansion? (Sarcasm flag.)
  • Will we see the pendulum swing once again towards class-provide raid buffs?

Gear.

  • Is the concept of artifact gear a one-and-out for Legion, as Blizz has claimed? 
  • Are there any big contemplated gear changes in 8.x, for example cutting the number of gear slots, maybe by eliminating necks and rings?
  • Will we see some sort of non-RNG mechanism for getting gear in 8.x?
  • After the debacle of legendaries in Legion, what is the future of legendaries going forward? Will we return to a single long-questline legendary, or have we crossed a line and henceforward they will fall like candy?

Miscellaneous.

  • Is Blizz happy with the complexity level of the game now? If not, in which direction do they think it should go?
  • Are there in-game advertisements in the works? Tie-ins with other Activision franchises, such as the King line of games?
  • What is the future for professions? Will we see them get less relevant and more complex, or will we see some semblance of a return to their classic role? Will Blizz move towards a Final Fantasy approach? Are they indeed an integral part of the game’s economy, or would it be possible to eliminate them altogether?
  • Will alt play remain viable in 8.x? It is narrowly so in Legion, but Blizz’s clear preference is for players to have very limited number of alts.
  • Are there significant quality of life improvements in store for 8.x? Off hand, I can think of a few: account-wide banking, better group finder interface, unlimited quest log, *coughplayerhousingcough*, removal of that ridiculous talent-changing tome requirement, improving exit process from caves once a quest is completed, increasing the number of stable slots for hunter pets, adding mythic dungeons to the auto-group finder, probably lots more.
  • Will Blizz help to make the role of guilds more robust? Like alt play, the trend since mid-Mists has been to make guilds less and less relevant, with the removal of most guild perks and advantages to guild membership.
  • With the apparent advent of interplanetary travel, will we eventually see honest-to-goodness actual working space ship “mounts”? Will space actually be a working environment — like an underwater area only without water — or just more of an abstract concept?
  • What will be the eternal-grind mechanism of 8.x? Because we know there will be one, just a matter of how Blizz repackages AP (like they repackaged garrisons into class halls).

And last but certainly not least:

Will we get a concept of the next expansion at Blizzcon this year?

What questions do you have?

What’s next?

It’s way too soon to start speculating about the next WoW expansion (NWE), so let me speculate about it. There is not much else to write about these days anyway, and it has been a while since I have put forth any crackpot ideas, so what the hell.

Disclaimer: Everything in this post is the product of my warped but robust imagination, I have absolutely no insight into any current or future Blizzard development plans.

In considering what we might see in the next WoW expansion, the process I used was to look at past trends and add in recent game features. I am not a lore buff, so I am not going to address much at all about the background story line — plus, honestly, WoW lore/history seems really only to exist in order to explain game design not the other way around, so I have never been able to get too excited about it. (I know some of you really love it, not disparaging you for this at all, just it is not my cup of tea.)

Location and scaling. There will be new zones. Whether they will be somewhere on Azeroth or — as has been coyly hinted — on another planet is, in my opinion, not important. On the other hand, zone scaling, a huge hit in Legion, will continue in NWE, and I look for it to be expanded in some way. Not sure exactly how, but one idea might be that some legacy zones become scaled, permitting leveled players to revisit and explore them in a somewhat challenging way, making it more fun to go back and finish unfinished or even new quest lines in those areas.

Content. Blizz believes they have finally hit on a winning plan to keep content flowing in Legion — whether this is true or not is a subject for a whole different post — and so NWE will see the same content paradigm. To wit:

  • World quests.
  • Mini-events/holidays.
  • Rapid patches and semi-patches.
  • Continued use — and likely expansion — of RNG as both the carrot and the stick to force more play hours for every facet of the game, from gear to professions.
  • Mythic+ dungeons, expanded in some way. For example, there might be some sort of “plus” mechanism for non-current raids, or add the “plus” concept into weekly timewalker bonus events.

Classes. I do not expect to se any new classes introduced in NWE, but I think we may see some or all race restrictions lifted for class selection. I also think we may see some further spec role changes (not mages, of course, don’t be ridiculous). For example, we might see another spec added to Demon Hunters to give them three. I would not expect it to be a healing spec, more likely would be a ranged spec, possibly using a combination of magic and thrown weapons. In the wishful thinking department, I would like to see SV hunters become a tanking spec, using pets in creative ways to really open up possibilities for some exciting tanking innovations.

I expect to see yet another huge rewrite of nearly every class, because Blizz has demonstrated that they simply cannot refrain from doing this every expansion, even when they are able to achieve a semblance of balance by the end of one. The rewrite will continue the recent trend of making some classes more or less indispensable to certain raid fights, finally driving a stake into the now disfavored notion of bringing the player not the class.

I think Blizz will also place more back-door restrictions on spec flexibility. They will continue to tout how a player can freely switch among all their specs, but they will increase the penalties for doing so, whether by charging gold or by creating restrictive gear or by limiting the times/places it can be done.

I also think we will see a continuation of the trend of “mini specs”. In Legion, we saw the notion of class begin to take a back seat to the notion of spec, as demonstrated most obviously with artifact weapons. In addition, we saw a very distinct differentiation in spec “specialization” emerge based on talent selection, and we saw a very slight but nevertheless active attempt to put some controls on changing that specialization. In effect, I think we saw the emergence of specs as the new class, the concept of class becoming more one of general category, and a growing importance placed on specialty builds for each spec. This trend will continue in NWE, and it will become more pronounced, to the point of identifying players by class, spec, and build specialty — “Single-target destro warlock”, “Bursty MM hunter”, etc.

Gear. First of all — RNG, RNG, and more RNG. Also, the secondary stat mess will continue and possibly get worse, compounded by the inevitable total rewrite of most classes and consequent unforeseen results of overpowered or underpowered secondary stat interactions.

As I alluded to in a reply to a reader comment a couple of days ago, I expect to see some continuation of the artifact weapon mechanism in NWE. Yes, I know Blizz has told us that artifact weapons are a one-expansion thing, but remember they also told us that same thing about garrisons, then gave us mini-garrisons in the form of class halls. We will have some piece of gear in NWE that will require upkeep mechanisms eerily similar to AP and relics and such, because:

  • Too many dev resources have gone into artifact weapons to trash the idea completely.
  • Spec abilities are rather intimately tied to weapon abilities now, and Blizz seems to like the possibility of tweaking abilities by tweaking gear traits.
  • The artifact weapon — or follow-on — plays a rather large role in encouraging players to spend more time in the game chasing infinite upgrades.

As to the whole Legion legendary debacle, who knows? I think Blizz is embarrassed enough by it that we may see legendaries as lottery winnings disappear in NWE, but we may see some return to quest lines for them. I would expect these to be less involved and time-consuming than the ones in Mists and WoD, but still requiring weeks to complete. Moreover, I think we may see options for obtaining more than one legendary per character, once again with the Blizz benefit of extending game play time.

Crafted gear? No clue. Wishful thinking is that it would become relevant again, for all professions, but I don’t know. My suspicion is that it will fall prey to the drive to devalue professions in general. Which leads me to —

Professions. I am not hopeful about this area. I think NWE will give us even more hurdles to professions, and I think Blizz’s inability to see the large picture will once again give us clear winners in losers in the profession lottery, as we saw with for example winner alchemists and loser skinners in Legion. The problem I see with professions is that they are totally tied, in Blizz’s collective mind, to the use of alts. To allow profession leveling and item production for characters not played the same number of hours as mains is to condone the evil practice of having alts support a main. Why this is bad is still a mystery to me, but we have heard that oracle of acceptable game play and approved fun, Ion Hazzikostas, lecture us many times on the fact that, take his word for it, it is evil evil evil. So it must be. So professions will continue to become more and more elusive for characters that do not spend main-level time in game.

Alts. They will continue to be forced into an “other mains” play style temulate. See above, end of discussion.

In short, I expect the next expansion will be a veritable clone of Legion, just different locations and a few changes either for cause or merely for the sake of change. I am not saying if this is good or bad, I am just saying that Blizz considers Legion to have been an unqualified success, they think they have found a winning formula after the failure of WoD, and they are going to stick to it. They certainly have cause for considering Legion to be successful — I agree with them for the most part — but I suspect the formula will wear a bit thin if it is repeated. Furthermore, the tendency for self-congratulations on the success of Legion means it is unlikely Blizz will take seriously some of the major flaws and missteps they committed. They may have gotten the message on legendary gear, but thus far it still seems like they are oblivious to the pain and chaos they caused by their horrible changes to many classes and specs, and I honestly expect them to repeat the same mistake in the next expansion.

What about you? Any predictions for the next expansion? (Tinfoil hat theories also accepted.)