For a good while now, Blizzard has been rolling out its World of Warcraft expansions in a much different fashion than the rest of the MMORPG field. It always comes in two parts — or more, if you consider the studio’s tendency to hold back content to “unlock” later. But the two basic parts are the pre-patch and the actual expansion launch.
The pre-patch debuts core system changes and class reworks. It officially puts to bed the old expansion, as the studio did last week to Battle for Azeroth, and ushers in the new expansion cycle. Often it contains some sort of event or quest chain to keep players occupied as they wait for the real event — the actual expansion launch with the new zones, quests, features, classes, races, etc.
I used to be quite put out by this approach, because I felt like Blizzard was milking it too much and even spoiling the new expansion a bit. I felt it was somewhat akin to opening a third of your Christmas presents before the actual day. But now I’ve come to appreciate this approach (although I don’t quite endorse it).
Obviously, one great advantage to this is that Blizzard can indeed maximize its publicity. The studio releases significant patches and expansions so slowly that it makes sense to draw them out so as to make it feel as large and momentous to the playerbase as possible. The pre-patch got as much coverage as any actual MMO expansion would, and we’re not even AT the expansion yet!
Beyond that, it’s helpful to get the pre-patch going for both players and developers to evaluate all of the class changes. As long as Blizzard’s going to keep doing this thing where it feels like it needs to reinvent the class wheel with every expansion, it can’t leave these changes until the day of the expansion. Players need time to adjust and acclimate, and the studio needs time to put its full attention on how they’re working out instead of being scattered all over the place.
For Shadowlands in particular, the pre-patch is useful in that it installs the new leveling paradigm to allow players to create alts and maybe get an extra character or two ready for the expansion. I remember when Burning Crusade launched and pretty much all of us felt torn between taking our established characters into Outland and rolling a Blood Elf or Draenei. In 2020, we don’t have to choose; we can do one and then the other.