Blizzard changes many things for each new expansion: raid structures, class spells and talents, game systems, UI elements -- few aspects of WoW survive an X.0 patch untouched.
It's time for Blizzard to change the one thing that has stayed the same since The Burning Crusade: the "event patch" release cycle. In WoW today, every patch is a big deal. We get previews. We get a trailer. We get fancy artwork with the X.X numbers. The patch release is an event.
Every patch has tons of content for nearly every aspect of the game. It's exciting -- there's almost too much to do. When a new patch releases, we're in WoW heaven.
Then months go by and that content grows stale. Blizzard doesn't give us new content at that point, but peeks at future content. We're starving for a delicious content meal, but we can only look at pictures of the food.
It's a feast and famine cycle that has to end. It creates this massive gap between the final content patch of one expansion and the release of the next. We must cross it once again in 2014. Players put up with it because we know Blizzard will deliver, eventually, a tremendously fun experience. But should we have to endure this, still, after the game has been around for almost ten years?
It's time for Blizzard to rethink the way they release content.
A monthly model
Mists of Pandaria offered a faster pace for patches than previous expansions. Releasing a raid tier every other patch, instead of waiting to release everything alongside a new raid, was a good evolution of the old paradigm. Blizzard should take this a step further and ditch the "event patch" model.
Instead of "saving" all the new content and releasing it all at once, they could give us something, anything, once a month. In this model, every patch release doesn't have to be relevant to all players. If you didn't get something that appeals to your play style this month, you can wait until next month. At least you'll know something is in the pipeline and you'll get it soon. Yes, that's an actual "soon" and not Soon™.
Here's an example of a full year of content:
December: Expansion release
January: New scenario, new battle pet content
February: New battleground, new world boss
March: New endgame quest line and new 5-player dungeon, both tied to a new reputation with new profession recipes
April: New raid tier with a legendary quest line
May: New arena, new PvP season, two new class-specific quest lines, including solo scenarios, that unlock cosmetic glyphs
June: A new endgame questing area like Quel'danas or Throne of Thunder, tied to a realm-wide event
July: New battleground, new 5-player dungeon, new battle pet content
August: New raid tier, continuation of legendary quest line
September: New endgame quest line with scenarios, new profession recipes, new world PvP content
October: New arena, new PvP season, new world boss
November: Two new 5-player dungeons
December: New raid tier, continuation of legendary quest line
And on it will go. Every patch would also include whatever class changes and other adjustments Blizzard needs to make. Any patch could include new pets, mounts, toys, transmog items, etc. The schedule is a bit idealistic, of course, but I don't think it's beyond Blizzard to pull this off.
Each patch won't be as individually exciting as a 3.1 or a 5.2, but we won't ever be desperate for a patch, either. I look at this way. A murloc who gorges one day and starves for the next two is miserable most of the time. A murloc with a steady supply of food is happy most of the time.
Why has Blizzard historically clumped everything together? They have some good reasons. Iteration and quality control take time. Releasing it all at once means you can spend more time on every aspect of a patch if you want to. Adding new content every month provides more opportunities for bugs to hit live realms, so more testing would have to be done. The logistics of releasing new content every month would be more difficult to manage.
But they could do it. Other companies do it, so we know it's possible. It would be harder for Blizzard's employees, but a monthly model would be better for players, and also likely better for the company's revenue. Far fewer people would dump their subscription during expansions if Blizzard released new content every four weeks.
Fixing the gap
In 2014, we're back to yet another massive content gap between expansions. I won't list the gap lengths. Let's just say Blizzard is 4 for 4 at this point. These long stretches without updates, stuck in the same raid tier, are murder on raiding guilds -- but they aren't great for anyone. The gaps have a big impact on subscriptions and constitute a direct hit on Blizzard's revenue.
We know Blizzard doesn't want these gaps, but the gaps happen anyway. I believe it's a result of their process. If they want to make a serious effort to avoid yet another gap after Warlords of Draenor, they have to make significant changes to the way they produce and release content.
Some say Blizzard should have released the 5.x patches at a slower rate, so we could have avoided this big gap at the end of Mists. I disagree that expanding the time between patches is the answer. That's just trading one big problem for a series of smaller ones, with more frequent periods of burnout.
If more content can't be made, then it should be spread more evenly over the calendar. Release an expansion's leveling, PvP, and dungeon content earlier. Release some endgame questing and raiding content later. Blizzard held back the Terrace of Endless Spring until almost two months after Mists launched. Even so, there was an overwhelming amount of new content when the expansion launched. I don't recall anyone complaining that TOES wasn't included at release. TOES proves that you don't have to push everything out all at once.
Yes, with this new release model, it will look like you're getting less when you spend $50 for an expansion. However, anyone who's played an MMO before knows you're paying for much more than what's written on the box at launch.
Throughout an expansion, Blizzard could spread out the pieces of the patches as the team finishes those pieces. Blizzard could also move away from previewing patches far in advance and just release whatever is ready each month.
Patches worked this way for most of vanilla. Blizzard released them, on average, every 7 weeks. That's a big reason why so many players look back on that era with such fondness.
When we hit the five-month wait for The Burning Crusade, it felt like an eternity then but that gap seems shockingly fast nowadays. From that point on, content has been feast or famine, especially between expansions. Changing that model is long overdue. I urge Blizzard to stop glorifying patch numbers and work toward a more frequent and consistent release schedule.