World of Warcraft soars triumphantly into its 20th anniversary year in 2024, but just two years ago, that milestone was hardly guaranteed.
Blizzard’s modern MMO was on life support toward the end of the Shadowlands expansion. Players had dropped away in droves as complicated power systems, endless grinds for “fun” rewards, content droughts and unevenly interesting zones caused them to look elsewhere for entertainment.
World of Warcraft Classic’s players helped to keep the lights on. Census data suggested that at least at one point, players of the 18-year-old WoW outnumbered those in the modern version.
The Dragonflight expansion that launched just over a year ago was a Hail Mary pass, a long shot down the field that would either save the game or bury it. Packed with new stuff to do and new systems, it was an attempt to correct virtually everything that players said they hated about Shadowlands.
Fortunately for Blizzard, Dragonflight crushed it.
2023: an incredible year of WoW
We’re several patches into Dragonflight now, and I’ll say it: This is the best expansion the game has ever had, and the latest patch is one of the very best the game has ever seen. The flood of content this year has meant there’s always something to do. When something seemed to be running off course, it was often corrected, and surprisingly nimbly.
Dragonflight didn’t launch with any truly new types of encounters: Instead, it revamped almost everything from the existing game, from transportation to talents, and added a new race and class in the Dracthyr Evoker. In that way it strongly resembled Legion, previously WoW’s best expansion.
The high-speed kinetic fun of dragon riding was such an instant hit that the developers promised to expand it to all the other continents in the game—and will in January, earlier than expected.
Dragonflight’s pool of new dungeons was varied and interesting. The raids were consistent, came out at comfortable intervals, and improved over the course of the year. Even the open world activities were surprisingly engaging, and each new patch brought new types of open world challenges and storylines.
The most recent patches keep up the momentum
(Image credit: Blizzard)
Patch 10.2 brought us Amirdrassil, the Dream’s Hope, the best raid Warcraft has seen since Ulduar (more than a decade). I’ve cleared Normal, Heroic, and five of the nine Mythic difficulty encounters, and its boss mechanics are difficult without overly-relying on RNG. The difficulty ramps fairly smoothly until the last bosses become more of a check, as they should.
Mythic Plus dungeons in this patch brought back a best-of collection of previous expansions’ dungeons updated for current Mythic Plus trials, plus a reasonably well-balanced pair of dungeons split from the beautiful new Dawn of the Infinite megadungeon. It’s one of the best dungeon pools we’ve ever had. (I’ve gotten to 3100 rating thus far, and unlike with some previous patches, my group is still largely excited to progress.)
Some of it has been a process, the past couple of years, of letting our guard down
Director Ion Hazzikostas
In Classic, Blizzard took a cue from players using mods to set up their own Hardcore challenges and spun up Hardcore servers. They were instantly a hit.
Then came an amazing Season of Discovery that included mages who can heal, shamans/rogues/warlocks who can tank, a new raid made up of a revamped Blackfathom Deeps dungeon… it is a hilarious, wonderful experiment, an incredible amount of risk-taking in a 20-year-old game, and there are more phases to come.
Other than a few minor missteps—that cringe-worthy Avengers-esque cutscene between Alexstrasza and Fyrakk in retail, for example—it’s an amazing time to be playing any flavor of WoW.
A new era of transparency
Blizzard posted an ambitious content calendar at the beginning of 2023, promising new things to players roughly every six weeks. That pace and that level of transparency had never before been seen in Warcraft, yet the company stuck to it, hitting deadline after deadline. In late December Blizzard published a similar content calendar for both retail and Classic WoW for 2024.
“In the past, Blizzard wanted to pleasantly surprise,” John Hight, Blizzard senior vice president and general manager of the Warcraft franchise, told me at BlizzCon. “And I think that works okay, up to a point. But I think, especially now, people want to know. They’re subscribing. They’re showing a commitment to us. They need to know that we’re going to be committed to entertaining them.”
(Image credit: Heather Newman)
The calendar was a big risk for a company well-known for blowing its deadlines, where Soon™ always carries a sarcastic trademark symbol.
“It was scary for sure. Making any commitment is scary,” World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas told me at the show. “Some of it has been a process, the past couple of years, of letting our guard down in some ways.”
Players responded. Typically expansions are boom-and-bust, as players return to see what the fuss is about and then depart again. Dragonflight has kept more players, longer, than any recent modern WoW expansion. There are more players active now than there were at the expansion’s launch. Some of that was the continuous influx of new content; some of it was players flocking to Classic Hardcore.
The humble shift behind the turnaround
It was more than a year ago, during the last patches of Shadowlands, that Warcraft developers started talking to me about a change in the way they approached the game. They were focusing on what players were asking for instead of assuming the company knew best. And while they couldn’t give gamers everything they wanted, they were doing their best to hit most of those beats.
It was as if the company were taking a stand against the “fun detected” meme—the longstanding joke that if there were something enjoyable in WoW, developers would remove it. Instead, there were increasing examples of fun things being put back in the game. Much like Jaina in the incredible Warbringers short, developers claimed they were “listening now.”
(Image credit: Blizzard)
I’ll be honest: At the time, I thought it was a PR ploy to save a failing game. Former Blizzard president J. Allen Brack had once famously told players “You don’t want to do that—you think you do, but you don’t” when it came to Classic servers. It was perhaps the most-wrong a gaming executive has been in the past decade. Could the company that had so publicly taken a stand against giving players what they asked for really be prioritizing just that? After Blizzard’s “Me Too” scandal rocked the company and spurred deep internal changes, patch after patch proved that the WoW team really did appear to be listening.
“We have transformed,” Hight told me. “I’ve been at Blizzard a dozen years now. We have transformed from being product-centric to being more player-centric.”
Dragonflight is the evidence:
“It’s a focus on player agency, a respect for players’ time, allowing people to play the game their way and meeting them where they are,” Hazzikostas said. “It really was just us pivoting in Dragonflight, coming to the shared conclusion with our community that we’re headed in a much better direction, and then hitting the gas.”
Where is WoW headed in 2024?
At BlizzCon, veteran Blizzard storyteller Chris Metzen made a triumphant return to the stage in his new Executive Creative Director role, working the crowd and making the jaw-dropping announcement of the next THREE retail expansions. A little over a month later, the company dropped the content calendar for both retail and Classic. It was a bold move, and one that had some executives a little wide-eyed.
“Wait, we’re really showing all the logos? We’re going to tell them all of that? What do you mean, Chris?” Hazzikostas said with a laugh. “Speaking it out loud makes it real, and signals to players that we have a big ambitious plan for the future of this game… But it’s also the plan itself, and I think that clarity is tremendously helpful across the development team, from a creative perspective, knowing with certainty where we’re going.”
(Image credit: Blizzard)
In 2024, the calendar calls for a brisk pace of several updates and then The War Within expansion, which is scheduled for late summer/early fall. (Execs at BlizzCon told me that “fall” is later than they actually plan.)
One of those updates is 10.2.6, marked on the roadmap with a skull and crossbones. As recently as September, Blizzard President Mike Ybarra tweeted, “No pirates.” in response to a different question. But… pirates? Hight did have this bit of a tease:
“We have a strong commitment to make sure our players always have something to do,” he said, talking about the content leading up to The War Within. “At least one thing is going to be very experimental, and that’s cool.” (He confirmed that the experiment was related to gameplay.)
(Image credit: Blizzard)
On the Classic roadmap, we have:
More phases of Season of Discovery leading all the way up to level 60Self-found mode for Hardcore servers (where you’re limited to just what you make/find yourself)The launch of Cataclysm Classic, plus a couple patches thereafter
Blizzard still envisions a future for Warcraft beyond WoW
If the Blizzard executives sound a bit giddy about the franchise’s success, they have good reason to be. 2023 was a stellar year, and all signs point to a truly promising 2024. And perhaps the venerable PC MMOs—and Hearthstone/Warcraft Rumble, their accompanying mobile games—aren’t the end for this franchise.
(Image credit: Blizzard, Univerrsal)
“We want Warcraft to transcend platforms,” Hight said, pointing out that 240 million people have already played a Warcraft game of some kind. “It’s a great universe to set stories in. It’s a great universe to develop characters in, and that’s what our players really connect with. We want to be able to give them different games. We’re even interested, down the road, in exploring other forms of media.
“We want to transcend a specific genre. We want to transcend a specific demographic, whether globally or age or culturally. We really want to have a big universe.”