World of Warcraft: Dragonflight's update cadence has been a game-changer, both for the playerbase and the development team.
Comparing the game's ongoing Dragonflight expansion to its most-recent predecessor is like comparing night and day. Shadowlands was dark and gloomy. Dragonflight is bright and hopeful. Content updates were few and far between in Shadowlands, but Dragonflight's are fast and frequent. Where Shadowlands forced players to abide by restrictive systems, Dragonflight is largely content to let players do and play how they want.
In an interview with GameSpot, WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas and executive producer and vice president Holly Longdale made clear that the team at Blizzard has learned a lot in the past few years.
Some of those lessons have come from player feedback. Some have come from internal data. But no matter where those lessons have come from, how Blizzard has approached WoW's latest expansion has "changed a lot of what we've experienced in what it means for WoW to be a live-service game," Longdale said.
Much of that change stems from WoW's 2023 roadmap. Announced towards the end of 2022, Blizzard outlined an ambitious plan for new content updates every eight weeks in 2023, with two new major updates and four smaller, yet still substantial, updates before year's end. Fast forward to September 2023 and Blizzard has made good on those promises. The game's 10.1.7 patch just released, and introduced new story quests, Heritage Armor questlines for Forsaken and Night Elf players, and a new public event. One patch, the recently announced Guardians of the Dream update, is the last update mentioned on the roadmap.
Longdale called the faster content cadence an "experiment we had a lot of confidence in." The results speak for themselves. Activision Blizzard's most recent quarterly earnings report stated that Dragonflight's "subscriber retention in the West remains higher than at the equivalent stage of recent Modern expansions."
"For us it's pretty staggering," Longdale said. "It's a really noticeable change."
Longdale said the plan is for the eight week content update schedule to continue into the future, and that the WoW team has expanded in recent months and years to deliver on the idea that Azeroth is alive and there should always be new things to discover and even newer things right around the corner. One thing the more frequent updates allow for is more cohesive storytelling, Hazzikostas said, with the ability to sprinkle in prologue, epilogue, and standalone quests in each update to further flesh out WoW's world and story in a way that previous expansions didn't allow for.
"We are going to tell, given the nature of our game and the world we are building, stories that play out over a meaningful period of time, but it's essential they stay engaging and coherent throughout," Hazzikostas said. "Our content cadence gives us so many more tools in that space."
It's a big change for Blizzard's MMO, which has, over the course of its nearly two decade-long history, occasionally suffered from long content draughts where players were still paying a $15-a-month subscription but had little new to do. Longdale said the team has essentially "reinvented" itself and is trying new things, ranging from the more frequent update schedule to the popular Trading Post feature, a rotating shop of cosmetics and mounts added in an update earlier this year designed to reward players for simply playing the game. If WoW has had one controversy in recent months, it's the addition of the Trading Post specific currency, Trader's Tender, to select in-game shop bundles, giving players a way to essentially buy with real money a limited amount of a currency that was previously only earnable through in-game activities. Longdale said the team is still experimenting, but wants to serve players, some of whom might not have time to grind out a month's various activities to earn the currency needed to buy that month's rewards. Longdale made clear the Trading Post always has been and "will continue to be" a way to reward players for playing, not a microtransaction shop.
"That will always be its primary focus," Longdale said. "And then on the other hand, we're trying stuff. They're not very vocal, but there are some players that ask, 'I don't have time to get all my Tender, I'd buy some of this stuff,' and so, you know, we try it out."
Blizzard's MMO feels like it's on a new trajectory, in part thanks to the homecoming of one of Warcraft's founding fathers, Chris Metzen, who originally left Blizzard in 2016. It was announced last year that Metzen had returned to Blizzard in a "creative advisor" role and would start by helping primarily on WoW before branching out to other Warcraft related projects. Since then, however, additional details on what exactly Metzen has been up to, or what specifically his role entails, have been few. Longdale said Metzen's official title doesn't do him justice, calling him a "force" that is frequently seen at Blizzard HQ and one that is "dedicated and passionate" about making Warcraft as a franchise "everything it can be."
Hazzikostas said having Metzen as a resource for the team to "bounce ideas off of and jam with" has been "amazing," especially as the team looks to go beyond much of the existing lore that Metzen himself helped to create.
"As we look to the future, it's no secret…we've almost exhausted the Warcraft III-era canon of what are the villains we have yet to face and what are the places we have yet to go, and we are creating new ones as we speak," Hazzikostas said. "The Primal Incarnates that are central to Dragonflight are a new creation to World of Warcraft. Having Chris available as a resource and as a partner as we start to create new things, new places, and yet have them still feel quintessentially Warcrafty is something he is uniquely suited to do."
When it comes to what's next, Hazzikostas and Longdale joked about rumors regarding WoW's next expansion being pirate-themed, a theory Blizzard president Mike Ybarra recently shot down in a tweet. Patch 10.2 will introduce Azeroth's magical nature realm, the Emerald Dream, as a new zone, something that many players have long theorized could be an expansion in itself. Hazzikostas said when it comes to expansions, the team looks for places that can include a diversity of settings and vibes, something the Emerald Dream lacks. It's for that same reason the team discarded an older idea revolving around an Old God themed expansion, which Hazzikostas said would have started to "feel pretty oppressive" were the team to stick to the dark tone its subject matter demanded.
Next year will mark WoW's 20th anniversary. That would seem an opportune time for Blizzard to revamp WoW's original continents, the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, much in the way it did with 2010's Cataclysm expansion. Hazzikostas said an old world revamp is something that is "likely to happen" in the future, but that the team would learn lessons from Cataclysm, which was criticized for essentially deleting parts of 2004-era WoW, and use modern solutions to preserve currently existing pieces of the game were it to become a reality.
"We are definitely open to it at some point," Hazzikostas said. "It is a shortcoming, if you take a step back and think about World of Warcraft as an ongoing living world, if we've kind of painted ourselves into a corner where we have all these iconic locations but we can't really use them because they've already been used."
Whatever comes next, players won't have to wait long to learn about it. BlizzCon 2023 is right around the corner, and with it what will certainly be the announcement of WoW's next expansion and more. But it seems clear ahead of the first in-person BlizzCon since 2019 that WoW is changing, as Blizzard delivers on its content promises and doesn't seem afraid to experiment.
"The way our charts look are unlike any other time in the past, in a good way," Longdale said of the game's player retention numbers. "Which continues to blow us away and which has us believing we are doing the right thing. We just have to fine tune and keep trying stuff out."
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