The World of Warcraft: Shadowlands segment at BlizzCon 2021 was disappointing. Don't get me wrong: The update itself, called Chains of Domination, sounds amazing. During the Shadowlands Update panel, game director Ion Hazzikostas and principal game designer Jeremy Feasel laid out their vision for a new raid, mega-dungeon, and the new chapter in the story. But aside from a cool cinematic trailer, Blizzard had very little to show to illustrate the update, and there was almost zero actual detail about the new progression systems, boss fights, or new activities. The best we got were screenshots so bland they could've been from anywhere in the Shadowlands. And it made one thing clear: The new update is likely months away.
It's been 92 days since Shadowlands launched. That's just enough time that most players are knee-deep in its endgame mix of dungeons, raids, and PvP. Shadowlands' new Covenant system, which lets you upgrade an undead faction hideout, currently has a total of 40 Renown levels, and dedicated players should be around Renown level 36. What I'm saying is that, for a lot of us, the new car smell on Shadowlands is gone. And while there's still plenty to do in Shadowlands right now, a lot of us can see the finish line and are eager to jump into something new.
That's the reality that settled on me as I watched Hazzikostas Feasel reveal Chains of Domination on Friday. After that panel was over, I spent some time going back to rewatch BlizzCons of yesteryear—specifically those which took place following the launch of a new expansion where Blizzard would be outlining the next update. The difference was stark.
BlizzCon 2018, for example, happened just two months after the Battle for Azeroth expansion had launched on August 30. That panel was a whopping 50 minutes where Blizzard not only unveiled update 8.1, Tides of Vengeance, but also showed update 8.1.5, 8.2, and 8.2.5—almost an entire year's worth of stuff crammed into one highly detailed panel. Nearly every talking point was accompanied by slides with screenshots of the new zones, enemies, bosses, and even nitty-gritty details like ability descriptions. In hindsight, it's a little nuts. Going back even further to BlizzCon 2016, Hazzikostas couldn't talk about the first update to the Legion expansion, which had launched four months earlier, because its first update was already out.
Compare that to this most recent panel from Shadowlands, and it's hard not to feel disappointed—especially because a good chunk of its measly 25-minute runtime was spent summarizing the story so far and replaying the Chains of Domination trailer. I don't bring this up to criticize Blizzard or imply that it's being lazy or unprepared. But it's obvious that Chains of Domination is still very early in development and there was little to say and even less to show.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. "Blizzard covered zero systems details—legit zero, to the point where we don't even know what we'll be doing in the new world content," said WoW YouTuber BellularGaming in his video breaking down the announcement. BellularGaming goes on to suggest that one possible reason for the barebones reveal is because Blizzard doesn't want to commit to anything without first getting player feedback on Chains of Domination from the test servers.
"Was it just me or was there nothing of any substance shown or talked about regarding the future of Shadowlands?" Asked another player in the WoW forums. Spend a little time on the WoW subreddit and other communities, and a theme emerges: People are excited for 9.1 but worried about its timing.
The existence of patch 9.0.5, slated for March, also suggests that Chains of Domination might not arrive until May or June. WoW's 0.5 patches are typically for smaller tweaks and fixes that Blizzard wants to implement right away. They tend to happen about three months before the release of a bigger update.
Patch 9.0.5, for example, will address one of the biggest complaints with Shadowlands by making it possible to upgrade gear earned from Mythic+ dungeons. It's fantastic that Blizzard is responding to feedback so quickly and is pushing out this fix, but this patch wouldn't need to exist if Chains of Domination were closer to being finished. I can't imagine a world where 9.0.5 comes out and is followed a few weeks later by 9.1. World of Warcraft has never worked like that.
Since we're already 92 days into Shadowlands, that means we're headed into one of the longest gaps between the launch of an expansion and its x.1 update. I did the math on how many days separated the launch of each expansion and the first major update. Assuming a best case scenario where Chains of Domination launches on April 25 (it won't, but let's play pretend), that would be 152 days—equal to the current longest gap which was during Wrath of the Lich King in 2008. But that's an extremely optimistic guess.
The answer to why this is happening is pretty obvious: coronavirus. Last summer the Game Developers Conference found that of 2,500 game developers surveyed, nearly one third had to delay a game because of the pandemic. Blizzard, like everyone, is having to reckon with a situation that has required the bulk of its staff to work from home, many of them alongside kids who haven't been able to attend school in person. If I had to speculate, my guess would be that Blizzard had to dedicate the entirety of the Warcraft team's resources to finish Shadowlands on time instead of working on the expansion and its future updates simultaneously. But we don't know for sure because Blizzard isn't telling anyone (and, yes, I asked during an interview prior to BlizzCon).
I'm in no way suggesting that WoW's developers need to crunch in order to get things done faster. I'd rather Blizzard take its time, but I also wish it would be more transparent and acknowledge that things are going to take a lot longer than we expected and explain why. Based on what Blizzard has said so far, Chains of Domination sounds fantastic and unusually large for a x.1 update. Since Shadowlands is already such a great expansion, I'm fully expecting it to make it that much better. But be prepared for things to get a little boring while we wait.