15 years into its lifespan, and World of Warcraft has an aging demographic problem. That's not to say that its player base is literally getting too old to log in every day. Far from it, I'll forever be grateful to all the septuagenarian shamans who have saved my bacon more times than I can count during Mythic dungeon runs over the years.
Rather, the release of every new expansion has often focused on what's next for the hardcore WoW community, and that's come at the expense of attracting fresh audiences. World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, the eighth expansion for the long-running MMORPG scheduled to launch later in 2020, is looking to change all that.
The much talked about "level squish" is a key component of the plan, reducing the level cap back down to 60 (just as it was when the game launched, and as it is today in World of Warcraft Classic), and represents just one way in which Blizzard is attempting to rebalance the playing field in everyone's favour.
Part of that squish is Blizzard's decision to offer a fresh, uniform starting experience for new players (or old players creating new characters), one that offers a more streamlined, didactic introduction to the world of Azeroth. It's a much needed change, as the uneven miscellany of race and class-based openings that currently make up the tapestry of WoW's welcome mat are somewhat outdated to say the least.
"Say you want to try out World of Warcraft right now," explains Shadowlands director Ion Hazzikostas. "If you literally go and log into Battle for Azeroth to make a level one character, you're by and large playing content that was made over ten years ago, and was a reflection of the game we were making back then."
"In many cases, it also wasn't necessarily designed with new players in mind. If you decided to make a Goblin because you thought they looked cool, for example, the first thing that you're doing is a vehicle quest, because back then we assumed that Goblins were only being made by people who owned multiple expansions and were World of Warcraft veterans."
Trouble in paradise
Exile's Reach is Blizzard's attempt to rectify that issue. Drawing from the classic video game trope of island starter zones, the tutorial will see newly recruited members of the Horde and Alliance travel to a mysterious archipelago to participate in a microcosmic storyline that will guide you all the way through to level ten.
Not only does Exile's Reach tell a much better story than its more dated counterparts, elevated by a well-rounded cadre of fully voiced characters to care about, it does a great job of teaching players the fundamentals. The two hour long sequence organically weaves in lessons on class-specific combat, boss fights, raiding, and even emotes, with a final mini dungeon using AI party members to demonstrate how class roles work on the battlefield.
"I think Exile's Reach was really driven by a desire to put our best foot forward as a game and as a franchise," says Hazzikostas. "We wanted to create a modern introductory experience that actually gives you a sense of what playing World of Warcraft is like in 2020; it's interaction with people around you, it's powerful rare enemies that you can optionally tackle, and exhilarating dungeons that climax long-running storylines."
But the overhauled starting experience doesn't end at Exile's Reach. Blizzard wants to make sure that new players aren't suddenly inundated with World of Warcraft's reams of older content upon leaving the island, but instead hopes to gently guide you along a coherent narrative experience leading up to the Shadowlands saga. The finale of Exile's Reach will thus naturally segue into the beginning of the critical path for World of Warcraft's last expansion, Battle for Azeroth, which itself will take players all the way up level 50, before they're ready to take on the Shadowlands for themselves.
This is a radically different system to the one that currently exists, where you must progress back and forth through the game's older expansions in jumbled order, often leaving you in a state of canonical whiplash. Shadowlands will still present the option for players to take on any expansion's content in the order they wish (this is still a fantasy role-playing game where the world is your oyster, after all), but the new path laid out by Shadowlands presents a seamless experience that is specifically designed to help players – regardless of your experience with the game – gradually submerge themselves into Azeroth's wealth of adventures.
"That's part of what's really exciting for us about new players going into Battle for Azeroth and being able to play it in its entirety, or being able to pick an expansion of their choice. They can experience these stories as they were meant to be told, and in many cases with pacing that hasn't been possible since those expansions came out for the first time years ago," Hazzikostas explains.
A new journey begins
But this shake-up shouldn't just be exciting for the studio and anyone who potentially discovers World of Warcraft for the first time as a result; it's exciting for lapsed players such as myself, too. For years, I've toyed with the idea of diving full-time back into the MMO that dominated my teens, but felt somewhat turned off by its sprawling complex of endgame systems and mechanisms that were non-existent during my time with the game in its simpler days. There's a reason why World of Warcraft Classic remains so popular, after all.
But with Shadowlands, Blizzard is offering a tasty proposal; one where players can create a character, enjoy a bitesize adventure that catches them up to speed with the MMO's basics, and breeze through a whirlwind tour of World of Warcraft's freshest content before ending up at its all new expansion.
It sounds like the ideal fastrack course into this still titanic MMO, shedding the grind-filled timesink in favour of a more coherent adventure that represents a much healthier alternative to paying your way to max level. Whether Shadowlands itself is any good is another question entirely, but the fact that the journey towards it already looks like a huge improvement is surely a good sign.
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