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World of Warcraft Shadowlands Improves Leveling but Destroys History

The ability to choose leveling expansions streamlines the game at the expense of context and history

Webster defines history as, a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes. Chronological is defined as, starting with the earliest and following the order in which they occurred. As players await the launch of the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands, new changes to the leveling process threaten to unravel the historical context of the world which has captivated so many for so long.

Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) has an expansive history dating back to 1994’s strategy game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and an in-game mythology extending to the beginnings of the universe. Blizzard has augmented players’ experience on the planet of Azeroth with seven expansions (including World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, due late 2020), over twenty novels, several comic books series, a three-volume historical chronicle, and one motion picture. All this dedication and knowledge combined to create a truly fantastic world which has maintained the loyalty of players, including myself, since World of Warcraft was released in 2004.

While having a fanatical fan base has sustained World of Warcraft as a profitable venture for Blizzard, it has also illustrated the challenges of maintaining a vast virtual world over time. With every expansion, Blizzard has enhanced graphics of the game world, from more natural water and shadow effects, to the customization options available to our characters, and all while keeping with that distinctive Warcraft look. The greatest enhancement occurred with the release of the third expansion, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm in 2010. The Shattering, the world-splitting initiating event of Cataclysm, not only devastated Azeroth, it began the fragmentation of its history as well.

Prior to Cataclysm, when a player created a character, they began their journey at level 1 and progressed to level 60 across the lands of Azeroth (World of Warcraft). Upon reaching level 60, they continued their adventures through the Dark Portal to the demon infested planet of Outland (World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade). At level 70, the budding hero rushed back to Azeroth to stop the undead armies of Arthas, the Lich King (World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King). This trio of titles provided a straight path of leveling and progression through Azeroth’s unfolding history.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm increased the maximum level from 80 to 85 and pitted players against Deathwing the Destroyer. Ten thousand years ago, the massive Deathwing was Neltharion the Earth-Warder, a dragon aspect dedicated to protecting Azeroth. However, corruption warped its mind to craving only Azeroth’s destruction. The Shattering resulted from Deathwing smashing through the elemental planes to re-emerge into our world. This calamity set regions ablaze, submerged beneath shifted seas, or fractured by great chasms.

Blizzard used Cataclysm as an opportunity to completely rebuild the game world as a 3D environment. When World of Warcraft originally launched in 2004, landscapes were built with 2D and 3D elements, based on what was most practical. However, the 2D surfaces needed to be replaced to support Blizzard’s plan to bring flying to Azeroth. Flying mounts were introduced in The Burning Crusade and were also available in Wrath of the Lich King. With Cataclysm, players were finally able to fly over the fields and hills they traversed as low level noobs, but updated now to display Deathwing’s devastation. Along with recreating the world, zone stories and quests were also adjusted, shifting the 1 to 60 leveling experience from 2004 to the present time of Cataclysm. This is where the chronological history of World of Warcraft was shattered as well.

Beginning with Cataclysm, a character leveled to 60 in a time period where the events of The Burning Crusade and Lich King were acknowledged as being in the past, with the exception of the starting zones of the Draenei and Blood Elves, two races introduced in The Burning Crusade. Their 1 to 20 leveling areas were instanced from the rest of Azeroth and remained in their own time bubble, separate from the Cataclysm update. Upon hitting levels 60 and 70, respectively, players effectively went back in time, to play through the Burning Crusade and Lich King expansions, until hitting level 80, when they returned to the Cataclysm time line. Yes, it was confusing. Updating the leveling experience may have been considered a necessity, but the way it was implemented disrupted the story telling continuity as well as the player’s immersion in the virtual world.

The next development occurred with the sixth and most recent expansion, World of Warcraft, Battle for Azeroth, released in 2018. In this instance, the time line was fragmented into different paths. Upon reaching level 60, a player can either continue to 80 by playing through The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King. They can even switch back and forth between the expansions, to play only the content which appealed to them. At level 80, they chose between playing Cataclysm or the following expansion, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, until reaching level 90, where they continued a linear progression through the Warlords of Draenor, Legion, and Battle for Azeroth expansions, up to level 120.

To soften the level increases which have accompanied each expansion, Blizzard is instituting a level squish in Shadowlands, converting max level back down to 60. This is only a numerical change. Players will not experience a decline in power or ability as a result, so game play will not be impacted. The next step, however, is the final destruction of Azeroth’s history.

In Shadowlands, a brand new player to World of Warcraft will level from 1 to 10 in a new leveling zone, Exile’s Reach, designed to introduce them to the games and its systems. They will then level 10-50 through Battle for Azeroth, and at level 50, enter the Shadowlands. Players that have characters at max level can either start on Exile’s Reach, or their racial starting zone. Upon reaching level 10, they will choose which of the six expansions to play through until 50. Once again, they can switch between expansions in the process, until entering Shadowlands, effectively transforming the grand history of Azeroth in a grouping of disconnected mini-games.

The irony of this alternation is its negative impact on Blizzard’s crafting of story arcs which stretch across expansions. Deathwing may have been the big bad of Cataclysm, but an equally significant plot was Thrall, Warchief of the Horde, handing leadership to the young Garrosh Hellscream, son of the legendary Grommash Hellscream. Garrosh was introduced in The Burning Crusade and featured in the Wrath of the Lich King, but in Cataclysm, he sets out to transform the Horde into his vision of a powerful, conquering force, invading Alliance lands and purging anyone who questions him. During Mists of Pandaria, Garrosh seeks to secure the newly discovered continent of Pandaria for the Horde, and in the process, embraces the ancient dark forces which inhabit the land in his bid for power. Eventually, a Horde rebellion overthrows him and Garrosh is captured. During his trial, he escapes to an alternate reality past of Draenor, the world of Outland before it was destroyed. In Warlords of Draenor, Garrosh prevents the enslavement of the orc tribes by The Burning Legion, and establishes a new Iron Horde, which he directs to conquer Draenor and eventually Azeroth. Garrosh meets his end in battle with Thrall on the meadows of Draenor. Does the rise and fall of Garrosh maintain its epic nature if only one expansion, or bits and pieces of them all, are experienced by the player? How can it?

I wonder what kind of game we would be playing if Blizzard followed the open world examples of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt or even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the World instead of apparently moving an increasingly linear, roller coaster ride to endgame. Perhaps these changes are due to a shift in player mentality from “the journey is the adventure” to the more rapid paced “the game doesn’t start until max level.”

When I was standing on line outside the Anaheim Convention Center, waiting for the doors to open to Blizzcon 2010, I was speaking with some fellow gamers about whether we would still be playing World of Warcraft in ten years. “Of course,” I said, “I’ve been working at my job for more than ten years. If anything, WoW is my reality and daily life is the game.” We were all in agreement.

It is ten years later and I am still logging into my characters to seek treasure and glory. I like to think I will be playing in 2030, albeit through the use of VR goggles and haptic gloves. Shadowlands illustrates Blizzard’s commitment to trying ways to improve the World of Warcraft, even if they cannot meet everyone’s expectations. This suggests the systems of today may someday be replaced and just maybe history will be restored.

Related: Will the World of Warcraft Change After Shadowlands?

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