Back in 2004, an MMO was made as a follow-up in the popular Warcraft series. Done with real-time strategy, Blizzard decided to expand the world they had created with World of Warcraft. It has been 17 years since then and to say that they found a gem would be an understatement.
World of Warcraft has survived multiple console generations, massive changes in technology and multiple attempts by others to replicate their formula. But nobody has been able to replicate the longevity of WoW. With Shadowlands Chains of Domination (also known as patch 9.1) releasing to the world at large on June 29, it is another part of one of the most impressive feats in gaming. A game that is still interesting after all this time and in a lot of ways feels fresh and new.
“Being in touch with the game, playing the game ourselves and listening closely to our community [are the keys to longevity],” Ion Hazzikostas, Game Director of World of Warcraft, said to UPROXX. “One of the challenges of continuing to evolve and update World of Warcraft is striking a balance between sort of catering to the desires for people who have been playing the game for 15 years in some cases and are still looking for something that is this mix of, you know, not too drastically different from what they’ve grown accustomed to, but fresh and new. And not just a retread of the same old, same old while still keeping the game accessible and bringing in new audiences where we can.”
This is a problem that more developers are going to come across as major games move in a more service-based direction. Focus too much on keeping the original adopters happy and it will eventually become too inclusive for new players, but those players are also your biggest fans. Ignore them for new players and they will eventually leave. The average lifespan of even the most popular games, however, is usually about the length of a console generation. WoW is a PC game that has been walking that line for four of them.
“I think one of the ways we’ve done that is to have our expansions and all of our updates to the game be a mix of sort of the evergreen, bread-and-butter foundations of World of Warcraft.” said Hazzikostas “Like our outdoor world, questing storytelling five-player cooperative is 10 to 30 player cooperative raids and player-versus-player content. But also have brand new features that are focused and restricted to a specific expansion such as the roguelike tour, or Tower of the Damned. That’s one of the centerpieces of Shadowlands.”
Shadowlands, and patch 9.1, has been one of the biggest updates WoW has ever seen. It took a 17-year-old game and made it more streamlined. It used to be that when a player entered into WoW they started in the exact same tutorial areas that players had been using since launch. They then had to play through essentially every expansion to try and reach endgame content and play with their friends. If they managed to get through all of that, then they could start playing the game the way it was intended to be. That became something developers saw as too inclusive, so they added level squishing: A way to help players level up faster and reach late-game content sooner. Basically, players can now experience more of WoW faster. It even featured a new tutorial area for players so they can get a better idea of what modern-day WoW is like.
“I think we realized that over time as we add new content to the game and new contents of the game at successive updates, that the pacing was starting to breakdown,” said Hazzikostas “We were having to rush players through all that content so they could get to their friends, so they could get to the current endgame in a way that made it feel really disjointed, and so the level squish wasn’t just about reducing the number of levels or making it faster, but allowing players to pick one of multiple expansion storylines to play through so that they could have a single cohesive storyline and a well-paced experience that would segue them into the current expansion.”
A game as massive as WoW needed something to bring in new players because there are always going to be people that want to try it after years of hearing good things. Even if it’s just to see what it’s like. A new tutorial area is a good place to start, but a lot of these changes also offered replay value for longtime players. Creating a new character in the past meant going through a decade-plus of expansions just to reach the same point as their current character. Now it’s way more feasible to make repeat playthroughs fun.
Of course, how veteran players choose to tackle WoW is another challenge that developers have to consider. This is not the same game that launched in 2004 where everyone got to the end, did some raids, and completed quests. Players have been mid-maxing their characters to their preferred way to play the game for over a decade now. Raids, PVP, Mythic+, collecting every kind of item, this is an MMO and at the end of the day the true fun in an MMO is what the player makes of it. Catering to so many different playstyles is a challenge that has to be considered in every update. Including patch 9.1.
“Over time our community figured out how they enjoyed spending their time in the game.” said Hazzikostas “Some of them were collectors. Some of them were completionists. Some of them wanted World PVP, some of them wanted more structured PVP. And I think we have over time continued to broaden the game to create this sort of metaverse of sorts where a ton of different people can come together and congregate.
“A lot of the time when we get feedback from our community they’re often frustrated that we’re not just paying attention to their preferred playstyle. If you’re all about PVP you wish we would spend all of our development resources on content for PVP and new Arena Maps and class improvements,” he continued. “But if we did that, that would come at the expense of the broader portion of the game and the same is true for raids, for dungeons and for everything else. But I think by trying to maintain and nurture a broad and diverse world, we’ve created an enduring community that kind of interconnect and have stood the test of time.”
The last major expansion to the game was when Shadowlands launched in November of 2020, and besides few smaller patches that was what most players had to work with for quite some time. For a game that is famous for consistent updates it, in a lot of ways, felt like a content gap. And while the wait was longer than players may be used to, devs are still excited for this new update.
“I think really the team as a whole has knocked it out of the park on this one.” said Hazzikostas “I am really excited about our mega-dungeon Tazavesh. It’s loosely inspired by something like the Gringotts Heist from Harry Potter. It’s a bit of a light-hearted diversion where we’re delving into this extra planar market, run by mysterious group known as the brokers, who are sort of, interdimensional collectors of curios and artifacts. And they have a couple of powerful things that we need to get ahold of, but it’s a range from awesome high fantasy to whimsy and the team had a ton of fun making it. I can’t wait to see players jump in there”
Shadowlands Chain of Domination launches on June 29.