What is a WoW patch?
Did you know we're playing version 5 of World of Warcraft right now? It's true: Version 1.1 was World of Warcraft's launch client and every expansion since has bumped the version number up a full number, while each patch release is a decimal place. The original game went up to patch 1.12 (the 1.1 launch client and 11 patches after), Burning Crusade (2.0) had a scant 4 patches, Wrath of the Lich King (3.0) had 3, Cataclysm (4.0) had 3, and Mists of Pandaria (5.0) is about to see the release of its 3rd patch, patch 5.3. These days, patches are coming more quickly than ever and we have no idea how many patches to expect before the next expansion arrives.
Unlike patches you might be familiar with from other software or other (non MMO) games, which might fix bugs or address problems, WoW's patches add content -- sometimes a lot of it! You might see new skills, new quests, new zones, and new dungeons rolled out in a patch. The patches are best compared to downloadable content (DLC) that you might find for other games you play. However, in WoW if you want to keep playing, you have to download and install the latest patch in order to connect to the World of Warcraft servers -- they aren't optional parts of the game experience.
What's the difference between an expansion and a patch?
Expansions are big: patches are small. A patch might add a new zone, but an expansion will probably add a new continent. Think of patches as what you're paying your subscription fees for: in addition to keeping the servers running and the lights on at Blizzard HQ, you're also paying Blizzard for new content. Expansions are much larger chunks of content which have their own, additional fee for purchase.
Why all the fuss over patches?
Blizzard's patches for WoW include can include lots of gameplay changes -- and not every player will agree that all of them are good. Before a patch rolls out, players are eager for news of how their class will fare in the coming patch: will they be buffed? Will they be nerfed? Blizzard makes calls like this based on overall game balance rather than a particular player's wants, so with each patch you'll find a lot of discussion, speculation, cheering, and complaining. And since WoW players love to chat about their favorite pastime, you won't always find this stopping once the patch comes out.
You've probably heard the term "PTR" tossed around in advance of a new WoW patch. The PTR is the Public Test Realm, where Blizzard releases early versions of patches for players to test out. How long content is on the PTR and when it arrives on the PTR is entirely up to Blizzard: when they have new content ready for players to see, they'll open the PTR and when the patch officially launches they'll close it again. Though a lot of pre-patch chatter is based off content on the PTR, nothing about a patch is for sure until Blizzard finalizes it for the live realms. The patch data up on the PTR can -- and usually does! -- change between its initial roll out on the PTR and its final release on the live servers.
For more on the PTR -- or if you want to do some play testing yourself -- check out Blizzard's PTR FAQ.
Just when is patch day?
Patches will always be applied during WoW's weekly maintenance, which is on Tuesday for North American and Australian realms and Wednesday for European realms. Smaller hotfixes, which fix bugs or other problems, are sometimes applied between patches and, if the problem the hotfix is addressing is serious enough, may go out at any time instead of waiting for maintenance.
Following Blizzard's philosophy of only releasing content when it's done, patches don't come out on any specific schedule. However, Blizzard usually gives a few days' warning before a new patch is expected to land. In the case of patch 5.3, they told us on Friday that the patch would be rolling out the following Tuesday and Wednesday.
When you fire up World of Warcraft's launcher, one of the things it does before letting you in to the game is check to see if there's any patch data to download. If there is, it will start downloading it immediately -- usually, it will start before the patch's official release, downloading anything Blizzard has finalized so you won't have a huge download on patch day.
However, there will still be downloading on patch day: when you fire up the client, it will prevent you from logging in until the patch is downloaded. There's a certain amount of essential data it has to download and install before you can play (the download bar will appear red while it downloads necessary components). Once it's grabbed essential data, the bar will turn yellow and you can log in while it finishes downloading in the background: though you may not have a flawless gameplay experience. When it's completely finished downloading, the bar will appear green and you're good to go without any problems.
We typically find the downloader to work perfectly, but if you're having problems, check out Blizzard's patch troubleshooting information.
Now you know all you need to know to celebrate this week's patch day holiday!
Just because you're a newbie doesn't mean you can't bring your A-game to World of Warcraft! Visit the WoW Rookie Guide for links to everything you need to get started as a new player, from the seven things every newbie ought to know to how to get started as a healer or as a tank.