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Blizzard burned its biggest fans with World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

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The MMO’s disappointing fifth expansion had the least content added in patches despite costing more

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Warlords of Draenor, World of Warcraft’s fifth expansion pack, was met with buzz and approval of fans and critics alike when it released in November 2014. I was one of those critics, laying effusive praise (and an extremely high score to match) at the expansion’s feet in my review.

It wasn’t just player and critical feedback, either. That love for the expansion showed in subscriber numbers, which crested over 10 million once more for the first time in years.

But then something happened. I stopped playing three or four months after Warlords of Draenor released. And I was far from alone. In the summer of 2015, World of Warcraft’s subscriber numbers hit a nine-year low, dropping from over 10 million at Warlords of Draenor’s launch to under 6 million in a mere nine months.

World of Warcraft subscribers
[Source: MMO Champion]

I’m not here to apologize for my Warlords of Draenor review, because I don’t think it was wrong. At launch, this expansion was a brilliant addition to an already massive game, brimming with new ideas and dozens of potential directions to take things in the future. But following release, Blizzard dropped the ball in a way so spectacular that it’s still hard to believe.

I’ve returned to World of Warcraft in recent weeks in preparation for the upcoming sixth expansion, Legion, which means I’ve been looking back at how bad Blizzard screwed things up. What I’ve found astounds me.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

Looking at the data

It's important to look at the data to understand just how disastrous Warlords of Draenor has been. There isn’t just a vague feeling that the game is worse now than it used to be; there is objective evidence that this is the expansion with the least amount of additional content Blizzard has ever provided.

Since it usually takes around two years between each World of Warcraft expansion (give or take a few months), Blizzard keeps players entertained by what it calls "content patches." These bigger patches add exciting new things to do rather than just balance tweaks. A content patch could contain anything from a new dungeon to a new 25-person raid to a new zone — or often some combination of all of these.

Warlords of Draenor's two content patches were some of the most anemic and disappointing in the game’s history

Content patches are a key part of the World of Warcraft ecosystem — and, indeed, the ecosystem of any subscription-based massively multiplayer game. Players continue paying a monthly fee to access the game in part because they believe there will be a continued stream of fresh content for them to check out, aspire to conquer and be challenged by.

Every World of Warcraft expansion prior to Warlords of Draenor boasted either three or four content patches. Warlords settled for a mere two.

It gets worse. Those two content patches for Warlords of Draenor were some of the most anemic and disappointing in the game’s history.

To help illustrate this point, I’ve dug through every content patch for every expansion to World of Warcraft (as well as the base game). Here’s the collected info of what was added to the game via every content patch in every expansion. To be clear, this is about the content patches specifically, not what was added in the expansions themselves.

Here’s all that info (and more) of what’s available in each expansion broken down:

World of Warcraft base game (aka "Vanilla") - Nov. 23, 2004 to Jan. 15, 2007 (26 months)

  • 12 content patches
  • six five-player dungeons (I’m including each wing of multi-wing dungeons as its own instance)
  • six world raid bosses
  • two 40-player raids
  • one 20-player raid
  • two class epic quests
  • many holiday events
  • one world player-versus-player arena
  • the player-versus-player honor system
  • three player-versus-player battlegrounds
  • eight full class talent revamps
  • one fully overhauled zone with new quests
  • weather effects
  • many quality-of-life changes such as summoning stones for dungeons, battleground queuing and cross-realm battlegrounds

The Burning Crusade - Jan. 15, 2007 to Nov. 13, 2008 (22 months)

  • four content patches
  • one five-player dungeon
  • two 25-player raids
  • one 10-player raid
  • one player-versus-player arena
  • one zone with new quests
  • a bunch of new quests and quest hubs
  • many quality-of-life changes, such as interface improvements, druid flight form, guild banks and a revamp to leveling from levels 20 through 60

Wrath of the Lich King - Nov. 13, 2008 to Dec. 7, 2010 (25 months)

  • three content patches
  • four 10- or 25-player raid
  • one remade 10- or 25-player raid
  • four five-player dungeons
  • one player-versus-player battleground
  • one new quest hub
  • quality of life changes including dual talent specs and the equipment manager

Catacylsm - Dec. 7, 2010 to Sep. 25, 2012 (21 months)

  • three content patches
  • two old raids recreated as five-man dungeons
  • three five-player dungeons
  • two 10- or 25-player raids
  • one zone with new quests (plus the special event Darkmoon Faire Island zone)
  • quality of life changes such as new profession trainers, the dungeon journal, transmogrification, void storage and the raid finder

Mists of Pandaria - Sep. 25, 2012 to Nov. 13, 2014 (26 months)

  • four content patches
  • two 10- or 25-player raids
  • two world raid bosses
  • over a dozen small-group scenarios
  • the Brawler’s Guild and Proving Grounds features
  • one player-versus-player battleground
  • one player-versus-player arena
  • two zones with new quests
  • continuation and completion of the expansion’s legendary quest
  • quality of life changes such as flexible raid difficulty and tweaks to experience gain

Warlords of Draenor - Nov. 13, 2014 to Aug. 30, 2016 (21 months)

  • two content patches
  • one zone with new quests
  • one 10- or 25-player raid
  • the shipyard feature
  • continuation and completion of the expansion's legendary quest
  • quality of life changes such as new Blood Elf models and Twitter integration
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor cinematic

A subpar experience

The lack of patch content in Warlords of Draenor compared to every previous expansion is damning enough on its own. But I repeat: It gets worse.

As mentioned, Warlords was split into two patches, Patch 6.1 and 6.2. The first hit just three months after the expansion launched, and it was particularly paltry. Many in the World of Warcraft community consider it the tipping point that pushed away the millions of subscribers who had returned to the MMO to check out this expansion.

What was included in patch 6.1? A few minimal quality of life improvements, new Blood Elf models, the ability to tweet from the game and (tied to that) a new in-game item that allows your character to take selfies. In terms of fresh, repeatable content to keep players invested, there was virtually nothing.

Even Blizzard admits that patch 6.1 wasn’t enough

The expansion’s second raid, Blackrock Foundry, was released just before Patch 6.1. But, alongside the Highmaul raid, this was considered part of the core Warlords of Draenor content, not part of the content patch. It was also a smaller raid, the second half of the expansion’s first tier of raiding content. To put it more simply, it was not enough.

Even Blizzard admits that patch 6.1 was too little. In a Twitch Q&A (rounded up here by MMO Champion), World of Warcraft lead designer Ion Hazzikostas admitted that patch 6.1 should have been called patch 6.0.5, and should not have been marketed as a major content patch. Which means that Blizzard itself admits that Warlords was only technically a two-content-patch expansion — in actuality, it was only one content patch.

Patch 6.2 hit about six months after Warlords’ release and was a little bit better. It had a large, challenging new raid and a big zone, Tanaan Jungle. The problem? Tanaan Jungle suffers from a repetitive structure of daily quests that offer very little to actually do in that nice, new area.

Tanaan Jungle was the first place I went when I booted World of Warcraft back up a few weeks ago following a year-plus away from the game. After an evening of exploring, I felt like I had seen basically everything the new zone had to offer. All that was left was to repeat the same string of boring daily quests over and over, while waiting for a small handful of time-locked story quests to become available to me.

This is what Blizzard has expected players to keep busy with for over a year while waiting on the next expansion.

None of this is news. The group of players that have stuck with World of Warcraft during this rough patch — smaller in number, certainly, but still huge by most standards — has been suffering for a long time. World of Warcraft-focused content creators like Bellular Gaming have been beating the drum about the shortcomings of Warlords of Draenor for longer than I stuck with the expansion initially. Watch his video above from July of last year for a taste of how upset the community has been.

It’s not just the content itself, either. Warlords of Draenor has been marred by increasingly frustrating mixed messages to the community from Blizzard itself.

In May of last year, World of Warcraft lead designer Ion Hazzikostas told Polygon in an interview that Blizzard had made the difficult decision to not bring flying back to the game despite fans expecting it to return. A couple of weeks later, following a huge outcry, Blizzard reversed this decision.

In that same interview with Polygon, Hazzikostas heavily suggested that patch 6.2 would not be the final content patch of the expansion. A month later, Blizzard sang a different tune — Cory Stockton, another lead designer on the MMO, made it clear there would not be another major patch. It seemed like Blizzard could not give a straight answer.

There’s one more way in which it gets worse. On top of being demonstrably the lowest-content expansion in World of Warcraft’s history, Warlords of Draenor was actually also the most expensive expansion. Where previous expansions cost players $39.99 at launch, Warlords retail price started at $49.99. It was a small price hike, not enough to outrage many players when it happened. In retrospect, though, when looking at the amount of content the expansion provided, it’s a pretty shitty move.

Gallery Photo: WoW: Warlords of Draenor

So what now?

LegionWorld of Warcraft’s sixth expansion pack, goes live next week, but the damage from Warlords of Draenor has already been done. We’ve seen it in the disappointment of the game’s hardcore community and the plummeting subscriber numbers. Legion will have to answer many questions, including whether Blizzard can turn things around, and how long-lasting that damage is.

Legion sounds like an excellent addition to World of Warcraft, and Blizzard developers have been very upfront and honest about their failures with the last expansion. The studio has, if it’s to be believed, learned its lesson.

But it’s also easy for me to be forgiving. Because of the nature of my job as a critic and because of how little time I generally have to devote to MMOs outside of work, my experiences with World of Warcraft these days are as a tourist. I pop in when there’s a new expansion or an exciting new patch, I play for a few months, and then I leave again.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Back during Wrath of the Lich King, I was in a serious raiding guild and logged in almost every day for over two years. I can’t imagine playing the game that way nowadays. That’s not a knock on the raids of Warlords of Draenor; they’re arguably the most successful part of this expansion. But back in 2008 and 2009, there was so much more pulling me toward the game, so many other reasons to check in every day and not let myself get distracted by other games.

if World of Warcraft was my primary source of entertainment, I would feel betrayed by Warlords of Draenor

If I were still someone trying to play that way, if World of Warcraft was my primary source of entertainment and bonding with friends, I would feel betrayed by Warlords of Draenor and the last year of boring, grindy content. If I were still playing after that, I’d be ready to bounce at the first sign that Blizzard has let me down again.

If Blizzard wants to rebuild trust with those players, it’s going to take a lot of time. It’s also going to take some of the best content ever made for World of Warcraft. It’s going to take a renewed dedication to open and honest communication from Blizzard. It’s going to take real evidence that the developer cares about keeping content for the game consistent.

The first piece of evidence toward that last part may have already come. Despite the fact that Legion isn’t out yet, Blizzard has already announced this expansion’s first content update, patch 7.1. It sounds like a much better, much more content-filled first patch than Warlords of Draenor had.

It’s a start, but Blizzard and Legion both have a long way to go.