Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Will WoW ever patch faster?

Let's take a look at WoW's major content patch schedule over the past little while, shall we?

DateTime betweenPatchContent
2006/12/053.5mo2.0TBC Content: Karazhan, Mag, Gruuls, SSC, TK, MH
2007/9/254mo2.2Voice comm
2008/10/146.5mo3.0WotLK Content: Naxx, OS, EoE

It would probably be fair to remove patch 2.2, which didn't really add new content and count the full 5-and-a-half months from 2.1 until 2.3 as one wait period. It seems terribly quaint now to look back in vanilla WoW and remember people posting tickers on websites to show how long it had been since the last patch when we had to sometimes wait for ungodly amounts of time like THREE MONTHS. Blizzard seems to have pretty much settled into a pattern of 6 months between content patches.

WoW is a huge piece of software, and the code is terribly old as software goes, having been in development for something like 5 years before it shipped. The oldest portions of its codebase could have been written as long ago as 10 years. Old, huge software projects have a lot of things going against them:
  • Incredibly difficult to change something without inadvertently breaking something else
  • Impossible to maintain all the original coders for everything--people maintaining code have to really on documentation and deduction to understand the code
  • Some features simply can't be built without overhauling sections of old code that could not have anticipated future needs
  • Quality Assurance and deployment procedures take more time than the actual development (Don't think that this is what the PTRs are for, either. The PTR effort is a mere fraction of the total QA effort.)

MMOs are doubly difficult because the software is always live. You can never take it offline to do proper load testing or overhauls. You have to work on the fly, continually branching the code for each new feature so you don't accidentally push half-finished pieces of a new feature into the live code. All the branching and merging has to be done very carefully and it all takes an enormous amount of time.

Unlike most people, you will never hear me criticize Blizzard's ability to write and maintain software. Most of the habitual complainers really have no idea how difficult it is to maintain a piece of software the shape and size of WoW. The crap we have to put up with ourselves is but the tiniest tip of the iceberg of crap that gets filtered out by the devs and QA team. The simple fact of the matter is that WoW patches will get harder and harder to produce. Sure, I think Blizzard is telling the truth when they say they are improving their ability to patch faster. Like the Red Queen, they need to be getting faster and faster just in order to maintain the speed they were going during 2.x and keep patches coming out every 6 months.

They also said that they had a pretty good idea exactly what the patches would be for 3.x, that they did not like the long waits in 2.x and were going to spread the content out more evenly. This did not mean content would come faster, but just that they would pace it more evenly. In 2.x, 2-and-a-half entire tiers were 'ready' at launch, even though they required extensive fixing and balancing, and in one case (Solarian) a complete reworking in order to be really done. Then nearly a year-and-a-half elapsed with only 6 new progression bosses added. This time around, I'm pretty sure a great deal of the Ulduar dev work was complete by the time WotLK launched and it was deliberate held back for 3.1.

I think they decided that part of the problem with so few guilds getting to see Naxx 1.0 and Sunwell were that slower guilds were much slower than faster guilds. You could only clear content as fast as your raid was capable of going. And getting to the next tier relied on jumping through several incredibly ridiculous attunement hoops. There were no shortcuts. So guilds that approached it with extreme professionalism could get there much faster than your average "casual hardcore" raiding guild. By spacing out content patches and making them the only bottle-neck (any guild should be easily capable of being adequately geared for Ulduar by the time it arrives) then everyone that really wants to will be able to step into Icecrown and see the great Lich king Arthas. The guilds that mop up the content way before everyone else will be able to work on all the raid achievements while they wait for everyone else to catch up.

I see things probably shaking down about like this:

DateTime betweenPatchContent
2008/10/146.5mo3.0WotLK Content: Naxx, OS, EoE
2009/10/156mo3.2Some side content with maybe part of tier 9
2010/10/156mo4.0Next expansion

See you in 2010.

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