Jeff Kaplan, a.k.a. Tigole, one of the most senior developers of WoW, is leaving the team to move to Blizzard's Mystery Fourth Project (an unannounced MMORPG that will be a new franchise).
The move makes a certain amount of sense. Starcraft II will probably make it out the door in 2009, we're likely to see a WoW expansion and DIII in 2010 (no way Blizzard gets 3 content patches and another WoW expansion out this year), and that would leave 2011 wide open for the Mystery Fourth Project. This is the window of time in which bringing their best people on board the MFP team can help it be ready to go in two years. However, I think there's more to this story than the farewell post lets on.
How will this impact WoW?
In terms of impact on WoW, based on the timing, I suspect that most of the big picture, ground level work that would actually land on Tigole's desk for the rest of the three planned patches of the Wrath era is done.
With all the information on patch 3.1 that's being released, it could hit the PTR's any minute now, so it's beyond the point where senior designers are messing around with it. While the debuggers and balance testers are hacking away at 3.1, the zone designers, coders, etc have presumably move on to building the stuff that was already outlined for patch 3.2. That means that Tigole has presumably been free to work on making the outline for 3.3. Having him move midway through that process would be unduly disruptive, and thus my theory that it's actually, for the most part, finished.
WoW is kind of at the end of a story arc. As Fedaykin and I were discussing in the comments yesterday, TBC and Wrath had villians that needed no introduction. Illidan and Arthas were marquis characters from Warcraft III and we didn't need a big buildup to prepare the community for trekking up to the frozen north to fight some guy who hasn't bothered us for four years. They showed up at our doorsteps one patch day and that was enough. Whatever we face going forward, it's going to be much less prominent in the WoW lore. (I'm now speculating that the mystery 3.2 patch, which Blizzard refused to discuss in detail, sets up the foe for the next expansion, perhaps somehow related to the war of the dragonflights.) This might be the kind of time for someone more senior like Tigole to step aside and let the new kids run the next major arc.
The business side of things
Though I'm sure that there is some country somewhere in the world where WoW has yet to launch that could add some new market share, I suspect that WoW's biggest potential market in the years ahead is among FORMER WoW players. When Blizzard launches the latest bi-annual megapatch, they want to be absolutely sure that there's something for everyone, with a special focus on features that would make former players think that things that used to annoy them have improved. To that end, we're seeing development focus more on features the fans want, like dual specs and ingame outfit switchers and swimming ground mounts.
Speaking of the patch cycle, we also have some unusually candid discussion of the game's development schedule. I've previously called this the "800 lb content gorilla" in the room that Blizzard previously hasn't liked to mention, so that represents a real shift. Blizzard appears to be officially saying that the small, relatively frequent (every month or two) patches of the game's early years were possible because they had stuff that they had started but not finished in time for launch. (Clearly, this didn't hurt them in the way that it has hurt more recent games, because they were still the best on the market at the time.) The six months per patch of the TBC era is, Blizzard claims, the rate at which they can generate completely new content.
Part of this may be a matter of deliberately trying to downplay/lower expectations in the face of a community that has been beginning to grumble about the (short) length of the current expansion. On the other hand, this whole process may also mark a shift to a more regimented patch/expansion cycle. Patch a total of three times, every 5-6 months, launch the next expansion at the end of the fourth window, rinse and repeat as long as people are willing to pay.
That's not necessarily a bad thing for players, or, for that matter, for competing games trying to figure out when to launch (hint: I wouldn't pick two months before the next WoW expansion if I were you). It does mean that players are going to either need to make their own fun in-game with their friends (e.g. guild social events) or be prepared to spend some of their gaming time in other games. The latter is fine by me - there are a fair number of other games on the market these days - and it's probably fine by Blizzard. They literally can't create content fast enough to retain everyone, and they're still going to make a fair chunk of cash off people who are subscribed for a few months after each content patch.
Looking back, this seemingly minor announcement may be a bigger milestone in the life of WoW than Blizzard would like to admit in public. If I'm right, well, it's probably bad news for those of you who would like the game to be something different than what it is today (such as something that it was in years past). For those of us who are happy with the game as it is, perhaps with the occasional vacation to other far-off lands of adventure, more of the same is not necessarily a bad thing.