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WoWJan 21, 2021 10:00 am CT

Is World of Warcraft the MMO equivalent of binge television?

The takeaway I have from playing World of Warcraft and experiencing its story over the past decade — from Cataclysm to Mists and then the Warlords/Legion/Battle for Azeroth years, and finally exploring the content of Shadowlands — is that in many ways WoW feels to me much like a season of a streamed TV series like The Witcher or The Boys, not in terms of the story it is telling, but in how that story is told.

In many ways, not all ways. But there’s a tendency for players to blitz through content as soon as it drops, and this tendency has been around pretty much since the early days of WoW. It brings to mind the way people impatiently get online to debate every little aspect of a series like The Mandalorian or WandaVision as soon as they get a chance. In many ways, the closest correlative to the way MMOs like WoW deliver content is something like the modern serialized shows on streaming services, or their predecessors like Game of Thrones, where people would binge as much as they could as fast as they could, and then sit around digesting what they’d consumed and speculating on what it all means — and what’ll happen next.

Content as a trickle versus a firehose

Of course, I co-host a lore podcast which solicits listeners to email or hit up Discord with questions and comments, so I’m in a position where people are telling me their theories and asking my opinion pretty frequently regardless of how quickly Blizzard releases content. That said, watching the evolution of WoW storytelling over the years, the episodic binge periods of the game’s content drops around patches feels very much like a new “season” of a long-running series. Going back and looking at Battle for Azeroth, for example, there was a definite sense of that kind of episodic arc, as the story moved from Teldrassil and Lordaeron to the build-up episodes of players leveling through Kul Tiras and Zandalar that culminated in Uldir, only to hit the mid-season shock of Dazar’alor and Crucible of Storms, before the storyline veered into Azshara’s palace and the exploration of Mechagon and Nazjatar.

I’m very much reminded of Avatar The Last Airbender when I think of Azshara’s palace, of how that show built up to an invasion of the Fire Nation and then pulled the rug out from under the cast. Avatar wasn’t originally designed as binge TV, but there’s a reason it’s gained new popularity on Netflix, and that reason is that it works very well for that format. It’s hard to compare an MMO to other storytelling mediums — it’s not really like a movie, although you could make a case for a movie franchise like the Star Wars films or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I really feel that the way that WoW‘s narrative unfolds — and has unfolded since at least Cataclysm — bears striking similarities to how we digest our favorite shows on Disney+ or Amazon — people don’t wait for the next episodes, but instead digest it as fast as they can, and any delays in that consumption are put in place by the temporal limitations of the creators as much as anything else.

How content droughts stall the game’s forward momentum

In other words, people play the game until there’s nothing else to do and only wait when they’re forced to by the content not being out yet. We saw this back in Mists of Pandaria with the staggered content releases, and we saw that when the developers put Operation Shieldwall/Dominance Offensive on timers linked to player action that they would go into overdrive unlocking that content as fast as they possibly could.

There are pros and cons to this style, but I think it works fairly well for an MMORPG like World of Warcraft. Binge TV as a model for how expansions unfold — how patch content drives the narrative forward — really helps explain the peaks and valleys of the fandom’s reactions to story in the game. We go from wild speculations to discovery and exploration of the newest story moments, and that fuels more speculation and anticipation for the next story beat. It’s like waves battering on the hull, each new revelation generating interest on what’s to come next. Done right, without the extended troughs of no content like we saw at the end of Mists or Warlords, and players are just starting to get itchy for more when it arrives. I think the end of Mists of Pandaria with the extended doldrums, stuck in the Siege of Orgrimmar for months and months, illustrates both the advantages and disadvantages of the binge approach to content in the game.

Mists had great pacing in terms of its content delivery and new patches right up until Siege of Orgrimmar. Players were very motivated to see what was coming next, but the last patch of Mists came out in September of 2013, and the pre-expansion patch for Warlords of Draenor wasn’t until October of 2014. That’s thirteen months, and that isn’t a delay that binge storytelling can easily absorb. Frankly, players who have been primed to devour content as soon as it arrives, to binge on it in this fashion, are not going to patiently wait thirteen months for new stuff. This is the downside to storytelling that works in this rapid fire episodic manner — you’re riding a wave, and that wave crashes if people wait too long. It’s very reminiscent of how Game of Thrones lived and died by its huge, expansive cast of characters but also the hype of its fanbase, who would endlessly debate the storylines and wait impatiently for the next installment.

Binge storytelling requires just enough anticipation to pique interest

This is a lesson that Warlords itself made crystal clear by its relative lack of content, and the sheer amount of time we spent in the last patch exploring Tanaan Jungle in its fel corrupted state. Legion and Battle for Azeroth seems more at home in their groove and more comfortable making sure content kept landing to be consumed at just the right time to keep interest alive, and so I wonder if Shadowlands will be able to keep its binge delivery on track in that same way. I’m hopeful, because I think even if you had issues with the content in the last few expansions, you can agree that it came out with a solid tendency to land the next story beat just as players were in full anticipation of it, although nothing is perfect — I’m looking at you, Mechagon.

We’ll find out fairly soon, I expect, because I believe we’ll almost certainly hear about the next patch or two of Shadowlands at this year’s BlizzConline, which is a little more than a month away now. Will Shadowlands keep its momentum and remain solid binge gameplay, or will we see a delay, and if so, how long with it last? I just hope we never go a year between content again — the end of Mists and Warlords were two content droughts in a row and it really stalled the game. Those days I could do never seeing again.

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