Expansion gaps are the most reviled of all content gaps. It's not just because they are the longest; it's because at the other end of the gap lies so much to look forward to. Expansions change WoW from top to bottom. They usher in brand new worlds to explore and bring us new ways to play the game. That's part of why it takes Blizzard so long to release them.
In the meantime, we wait, mired in the old, but excited about the new.
We are experiencing what is likely to be the longest expansion gap so far in WoW's 10-year history. But what about the expansion gaps of the past? How do they stack up? What did Blizzard offer and what were players' reactions to them?
Classic WoW to The Burning Crusade
Dates: August 22, 2006, to January 16, 2007
Duration: 4 months, 25 days
The first expansion gap was also the shortest. It felt like a long time to players back then, since classic WoW offered patches and content at a blistering pace for the first two years of the game. Players were impatient, yes. That never changes. But we knew WoW was a hit, and we were thrilled that the success of the game had made an expansion possible. We couldn't wait to roll a Blood Elf or a Draenei or take to the skies and fly for the first time. Plus, most raiding guilds hadn't conquered every boss (or even close), so they had plenty to keep them busy.
December 2006 brought patch 2.0.1 and a complete redesign of classic's flawed honor system. Then on January 9th, the Dark Portal opened, but only to let the Burning Legion through into Azeroth. Players had to stop the invasion before we could travel through it at the launch of the expansion.
The Burning Crusade to Wrath of the Lich King
Dates: March 25, 2008, to November 13, 2008
Duration: 7 months, 18 days
As amazing as WoW's first expansion was, we grew tired of Outland. We wanted Northrend and the ultimate confrontation with the Lich King -- a long-awaited reckoning in the WoW community.
Seven months was the longest content gap to date back then. The month before the expansion, however, was an eventful one. Almost exactly one month prior to Wrath's launch, patch 3.0.2 gave us achievements, inscription, and the much-requested barber shops. This patch also nerfed raid content, an unannounced change that took many on the PTR by surprise but later became an expansion-gap tradition. It provided an opportunity for many players to see the expansion's more difficult raid bosses for the first time.
Then the zombie invasion event began on October 23rd, causing widespread chaos across realms and continents, and the Scourge eventually attacked capital cities.
Players worried that the long delay meant problems with the expansion. But as usual, Blizzard came through with flying colors. It delivered both an excellent leveling experience and a fulfilling endgame.
Dates: June 22, 2010, to December 7, 2010
Duration: 5 months, 15 days
Subscriptions: Leveling off
Most veterans of this era would scoff at the idea that the wait was only five and a half months. The true number, they would say, is almost exactly one year: 364 days between patch 3.3 and the release of Cataclysm.
That is a bit of an exaggeration. After all, Icecrown Citadel had gated wings that unlocked over time. The final wing wasn't available until almost two months after 3.3, finally allowing players to confront the Lich King. However, most raiders were still working their way through ICC's earlier bosses at that point, so the last few unlocks didn't really register for anyone but the most hardcore.
Four months later, Blizzard released the Ruby Sanctum raid. The new area had a few minibosses but only one "real" boss that dropped loot. Most raiders considered it a brief distraction at best and a waste of time and effort at worst. Blizzard never tried to make a "filler" raid again.
In the end, Ruby Sanctum was a morsel when players were starving for a feast. Raiding guilds who managed to survive this gap continued to run ICC weekly. To them, by the time December rolled around, the content had not changed for an entire year -- $180 in subscription fees later.
Players began to sense a disturbing pattern: It was taking Blizzard longer and longer to produce expansions as the game got older. Shouldn't it go faster? players wondered. But what many didn't consider is that every class, race, profession, and system added to the game meant more work for each new expansion.
On top of that, Blizzard had taken on the largest expansion to date, with not just new max-level content but also the complete redesign of classic's zones. Many feel that it was too much, that the endgame content suffered because Blizzard had spread itself too thin.
We had a full three months of preview content prior to Cataclysm. Zalazane's Fall and Operation: Gnomeregan hit live realms on September 7th. Patch 4.0.1 on October 12th gave us reforging and the new talent trees. The elemental invasion event began in early November. The Shattering officially took place on November 23rd, with all of the new and revamped zones. Players had to wait until the expansion's release to roll a Goblin or a Worgen, however.
Once we hit the home stretch, Blizzard gave players just enough to keep us from all-out revolt. But we thought that surely, due to the scope of Cataclysm, we would never again have to face what was essentially a full year between expansions.
We were wrong.
Dates: November 29, 2011, to September 25, 2012
Duration: 10 months, 26 days
After the long wait for Cataclysm, Tom Chilton assured us that Blizzard wanted a "meaningful difference" in the speed of expansion releases. Players wanted to believe him. With BlizzCon canceled in 2012, we thought Blizzard was about to buckle down and get us to Pandaria. We anticipated a much shorter gap.
Blizzard, however, seemed to sense that the wait would be long. The studio offered an annual pass for the first and only time. By paying for a full year in advance, you received a mount, guaranteed Mists beta access, and a free copy of Diablo III. Blizzard hoped that with a full year to get the job done, it could bridge subscribers over the gap into Mists's launch.
Ultimately the gap claimed the lion's share of a year -- nearly 11 months, without even a Ruby Sanctum-esque mini-raid to tide us over. Even patch 4.3's triad of new dungeons and its large, challenging raid zone couldn't keep us satisfied for that long, and honestly, what ever could? It didn't help that many perceived these areas as "recycled" content, with many structures and boss models borrowed from other parts of the game.
In September, Blizzard released a pre-expansion event in the form of the Theramore's Fall scenario, but that was more of a sneak preview of Mists content than its own unique event. Patch 5.0.4 also brought the new talent trees, cross-realm zones, and account-wide achievements/pets/mounts. But it wasn't nearly enough.
The wait for Cataclysm ended with three months of events. At the time, it seemed paltry compared to what we were waiting for. In 2012, we would have given up a whole bank tab for something like the elemental invasion or faction events to keep us occupied.
Despite three expansions under their belt, Blizzard seemed to be getting worse at creating them rather than better. Players felt helpless, trapped in a cycle of feast and famine. Many players quit the game during this wait, refusing to pay a subscription fee for so many empty months yet again. Even though a million players bought the annual pass, WoW's subscription numbers slumped and never recovered.
Dates: September 10, 2013, to December 20, 2014?
Current duration: 9 months, 10 days
Expected duration: 14 months, 10 days
Mood: Utterly baffled
When you preorder Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard's site lists a date of December 20th, 2014, as the latest possible day for the release. When this date was revealed in March, the idea that it could take so long seemed comical. With Warlords not even in beta as of this writing, it's looking more and more likely that the December 20th date will be the actual release and not just a worst-case scenario. Summer is completely out at this point. The "Timeless" Isle is becoming more ironic by the day.
The mood among many players is disbelief; some even feel betrayed. Blizzard has spoken again and again about wanting to release expansions faster. Often when an expansion is revealed, studio reps sound optimistic about a quick development time, like Ghostcrawler did, what seems like ages ago, for Warlords.
That reality has never come to pass.
Many of us thought, since MoP's patches had released quicker than previous expansions, that Blizzard had gotten into a better development groove. That Warlords wouldn't make us wait nearly a year, like the past two expansions had, between raid tiers.
We were, once again, very wrong. I don't think players will be seduced by the optimistic talk anymore, and that's probably a good thing. We should expect expansion gaps of a year or longer until Blizzard proves otherwise.
What can be done?
Total expansion gap time: about 50 months
Total subscription fees: $750
Ignoring Ruby Sanctum and temporary event content, and assuming Warlords releases in December, we will have had about 50 months of gaps between expansions in total. That's more than four years of WoW's 10 since the game launched, about 40% of its total lifespan. Granted, for many of these months we were still exploring the final patch of the previous expansion or the systems patch for the next. But even so, players spent the vast majority of these months waiting and hoping for new content, not Soon™ but soon.
The long gaps would be aggravating even if the game were free- or buy-to-play. But they are particularly irksome because WoW is one of the few MMOs that still charges a monthly subscription fee while delivering content at the slowest pace of any major MMO.
Many players say the solution is to quit the game until the expansion, that doing so will send a message to Blizzard. That isn't feasible for some. If you're part of a raiding guild, now is the time when you are needed most. When too many raiders quit between expansions, guilds suffer. Players who quit sometimes return months or a year later, only to discover that their guild no longer exists. There is pressure on players to keep raiding and pressure on officers to replace those who quit. No one is happy.
Others (like yours truly) say that it's time for Blizzard to rethink its content release model. The company has rejected that idea. Yet I have to ask, is the current business model actually better, when it is practically guaranteed to make so many customers feel angry, disappointed, and taken advantage of every two years?
The reasons for the delays have been examined at length, and I won't do so again here. Only Blizzard knows all of them for certain. I just fervently hope that the smart and hardworking people there find a way, somehow, at some point, to make sure that a gap like the current one, or even like the previous two, never happens again.
Unfortunately, we've been burned by such hopes before. Will the next expansion after Warlords have an even longer gap? Sixteen months? Eighteen? Today, that seems impossible. A 14-month gap seemed impossible two years ago, but here we are, staring it in the face. Based on the history of WoW, longer and longer gaps are far more likely than shorter ones. From a player's perspective, there is nothing we can do about it but wait. And hope.
WoW Archivist is a column by WoW Insider's Scott Andrews; it runs on Massively by permission. Every other weekend, Scott explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?