With the sun about to set on the Era of the Burning Crusade, I figured it was a good time to write up a little retrospective. Many thanks to the patch page at WoWWiki, which I'm trusting for launch dates cause my memory isn't quite that good.
August 22nd, 2006: Drums of War, a.k.a. patch 1.12, the last major patch of the pre-TBC era. (Patch focused on PVP balance, the last real content was added in the Shadow of the Necropolis patch on June 20th.)
December 5th, 2006 (105 days later): Patch 2.0.1. Not wanting to leave players with nothing to do over the holidays, Blizzard pushed the TBC talents and honor system live. (This pretty much gutted 40-man raiding.)
January 16th, 2007 (42 days later): TBC is actually available in stores.
May 22nd, 2007 (126 days later): Patch 2.1 goes live. The patch added Nether Drakes, Daily Quests, and Illidan's Black Temple raid. (Kael'thas, the final boss of TK, and the entire Hyjal raid were technically in for the TBC launch, but they weren't doable due to bugs, so one might argue that these were added in this patch as well.)
September 25th, 2007 (another 126 days): Patch 2.2, the "content patch" with almost no content. The patch included an overhaul to the sound engine that no one asked for, a VOIP feature that no one uses, and lots of bugs in the above features that delayed testing of the patch people were actually waiting for, 2.3. They did kind of add holiday content, in the form of the original version of Brewfest a week later, mostly because the holiday in question had to start on that date.
November 17th, 2007 (175 days from patch 2.1, or 49 days from 2.2): Patch 2.3, the first of the recruitment patches. Added the 10-man ZA raid, an overhaul to the level 20-60 leveling curve, epic-quality arena gear via the PVP honor system, and guild banks. Anecdotally, this patch brought many former players back to the game.
March 25th, 2008 (133 days from patch 2.3): Patch 2.4, the self-proclaimed final content patch of the TBC era. Added a little something for everyone - a 25 man raid, a 5-man dungeon, and a ton of daily quests.
October 13th, 2008 (a whopping 202 days from patch 2.4): If nothing goes wrong, we're getting a content patch tomorrow that contains accelerated leveling from 60-70, another round of talent revamps, the achievement system, and Wrath's new profession, Inscription. For consistency, we'll call this the dawn of the Wrath era.
Total Time Lapsed: 678 days, from Dec 5, 2006 through October 13, 2008. Four content patches, one of which did not contain much in the way of content. Even including patch 2.2, that's an average of over five and a half MONTHS between each content patch.
Why did it take so long?
I've long maintained that the major growth demographic for WoW at this point in the game's lifespan, at least amongst Western markets that actually pay the full monthly fee, is FORMER WoW players. The best way to catch the attention of former players is with mega patches that contain something for everyone and get the front pages of all the gaming news sites. Sure enough, Blizzard chose to go with huge, impact patches, even if the cost was six months per patch.
What went in the patches?
Realistically, patch 2.1 was the last patch of the TBC beta, rounding out key features that were promised for the expansion but not delivered in January. Anecdotally, the patch 2.0 era was not kind to less-dedicated raiders. Tigole famously coined the phrase "Equally interesting yet non-epic-dropping non-bosses (or “Trash” as the community likes to call it)" to justify two hour trash respawn timers. The pacing argument sounded convincing unless your guild preferred three hour raids over two hours (too short to get anything done) or four hours (hard to schedule if your guild spanned too many time zones). If you weren't willing to meet the bar, your only real choice was to quit. Again, anecdotally, people did, and I'm guessing that the subscription numbers behind closed doors in Irvine backed that up.
Patches 2.3 and 2.4 introduced substantial gear inflation to help players through content that had been in the game for 6+ months but that had proven too hard for players. They also added much much more in the way of non-raid alternatives. Judging from the fact that these approaches are included in the expansion, and from Blizzard's Blizzcon statements that they don't intend to do a raid as hard as Sunwell again, I'm guessing that Blizzard likes what they're seeing in the subscriber numbers.
What can we predict about the Wrath era?
Well, as I said in my review, Blizzard seems to have done a much better job planning out the progression for the current expansion. They've even gone so far as to announce the contents of the three planned Wrath content patches, and they spent far more time than I expected at Blizzcon talking about patch 3.1 (which they say is almost done).
Overall, it looks like Blizzard really is planning to take the lessons learned from the last two patches of TBC and deliver more of the same in the Wrath era: a mega-patch with something for everyone and a partial raid gear reset every 5-6 months, and a new expansion hopefully in early-mid 2010. Not the most ambitious plan, but I guess they don't see the need to tinker with success.