After more than a decade of expansion cycles, Blizzard is changing their approach to World of Warcraft. Step one? Take players to a new planet.
During a BlizzCon panel, World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas made a surprise announcement: the game is about to venture to a whole new planet, Draenei homeworld and demon stronghold Argus. Initially, people assumed it was a wink toward the next expansion. Nope. It's set for an upcoming patch.
"Patch 7.3 is taking us to Argus," Hazzikostas explained to me in an interview at BlizzCon after his panel. "It's the story of Legion. Legion's story is one that extends beyond Azeroth."
It's a big leap for a post-expansion WoW patch, but Hazzikostas said to expect a consistent stream of meaty (and less meaty) story content — rather than lengthy breaks — until the next expansion comes out.
"We're working on a new expansion," Hazzikostas told me. "It's gonna be great. But we're setting ourselves up to be much more flexible in the amount of patch content we create. We're making sure that we're always gonna be working on the next step, the next link in the chain. To keep our players engaged, to make sure there's always something new to do in Azeroth. The expansion will be done when it's done."
He added that he doesn't think this will have a material impact on the next expansion. He doesn't want these things to deflate expansions or the momentous feeling that surrounds them.
"I don't think [this will impact how much content is in the next expansion]," he said. "Obviously, the expansion will come out later than if we decided to make less patch content and focus on the expansion. But there's always a process of iteration that goes into making our expansions. That's gonna happen regardless. I think it's more about making sure we have a contingency plan in place so that when it's done, there hasn't been a gap."
Obviously, though, this new patch plan further blurs the lines between updates and expansions. I asked Hazzikostas what the difference is these days — you know, aside from the part where grabbing one without forking over $US40 ($52) is legally considered theft. In short, it comes down to new mega-villains and wholly new features.
"I think an expansion is level cap going up, you're going to a new set of zones, a new continent or new sub-continent, entire new features and systems, and new major antagonists being built up," he said. "By and large, major new features like Artifact Weapons — that level of content — that's gonna be tied to a new expansion."
That said, features like Dungeon Finder originally launched in patches, and Hazzikostas said the team's certainly not opposed to testing out new technology and systems in regular updates.
Now, this all sounds nice, but if you've been following WoW for the past few years, you might notice a trend here: Blizzard roles out an ambitious new expansion release rate plan, and then... it doesn't happen. For a while, it was all about releasing expansions faster. Annually, even! But now, Blizzard has shifted in a different direction. Still, it's tough to have faith that things will go off entirely without a hitch.
"I'm not gonna say we have our whole process so locked in that we're not gonna make mistakes," said Hazzikostas. "We're always gonna overestimate or underestimate."However, he added that the WoW team now has somewhere between 250 and 275 members, and everybody's got an expansion under their belts. They're in a strong place to keep up a healthy pace. Now, I suppose, we wait and see.