World of Warcraft’s new approach to leveling up for beginners in the coming Shadowlands expansion makes it much easier to get to maximum level, but at a cost: 14 years of WoW history.
The maximum level in Blizzard Entertainment’s popular massively multiplayer RPG is – currently – 120. Rather than extend that marathon even further for new players in Shadowlands, Blizzard has chosen to ‘squish’ it instead. New players will start with a level 1 to 10 experience in a new zone, Exile’s Reach, and then by default move to the current expansion, Battle for Azeroth, which takes them from 10 to 50. (Experienced players who have levelled up another character are given the option to choose any expansion content they like, and/or to skip Exile’s Reach altogether; but that is not the presentation brand-new accounts receive.)
Shadowlands finishes the job from 50 to 60, the new maximum level, and the same number of levels WoW originally launched with almost 16 years ago. Amusingly, this means that the pre-patch leading up to the expansion will squish current players down to a lower level than World of Warcraft: Classic players, as it’ll apply a cap of level 50.
The squish has its advantages. Blizzard estimates it should take about 30 percent less time to get to max level than it currently does in BfA. And since BfA is the game’s most recent expansion, new players will by default graduate from the charming Exile’s Reach into more modern content with better graphics – although nothing like some other modern games.
It’s likely not possible for Blizzard to completely revamp and modernise the level 1 to 120 experience, even in squished form. Skipping content from vanilla WoW and the six expansions before BfA means the company doesn’t have to attempt, and inevitably give short shrift to, a sweeping update. But that efficiency comes at a cost: for new players, Shadowlands erases 14 years of WoW’s history, lore, and stories.
Players following this leveling path will never confront Illidan perched atop Black Temple, holding Guldan’s skull, telling them “You are not prepared!” They will never hear one of the best speeches ever made in a videogame, at the Battle of Angrathar the Wrathgate, where an undead character takes revenge against the Scourge invasion and for the rejection of his race by all living creatures in Azeroth: “Did you think we had forgotten? Did you think we had forgiven? … Death to the Scourge! And death to the living!”
And those new players will only know Sylvanas Windrunner as a one-dimensional villain who will play a Big Bad in Shadowlands, instead of the complicated, conflicted leader who bitterly reminisced of lost times with her sisters. That is, if they get to know her at all.
As a new player, you arrive at your capital city, fresh from your standalone level 1 to 10 adventure, a brand-new recruit. Who are these leaders you meet that give you your first orders? You have almost no idea. You’re sent to Kul Tiras or Zandalar immediately, encountering characters you’ve never met before who tell you they’re glad to see you again.
You’re hailed as a conquering hero in every interaction, which doesn’t exactly seem deserved for killing a few zombies and ogres in the starting experience. You reach maximum level knowing hardly any of WoW’s enduring storylines, unable to interpret experienced players’ repertoire of inside jokes and memes. You are a stranger in a strange land.
It must at least feel a little odd for newcomers, because it’s downright jarring to watch as an experienced player who knows what they’re missing. So much of WoW’s story is lost in this new, abbreviated telling. It’s like being presented with a book where all but the last chapter has been ripped out. Even your connection with your race’s culture and lore is severed: Instead of each race’s particular starting cinematic, telling you about your origins and characteristics, Exile’s Reach is virtually the same for everyone. A couple of quests are tweaked for the class you play, but none for your race’s history.
It’s a risky move. WoW was far from the first MMORPG, but it emerged as the most successful because it took the genre, with its reputation for being inaccessible to new gamers, and made it simpler to play. It raked in enormous numbers of monthly subscribers – up to 12 million at a time, back when Blizzard reported those things. But Warcraft maintained its tight grip – at one point a near-monopoly in the Western MMO market – by using it to grow bigger and offer more (and frequently better) stories than its competitors.
The new leveling experience in Shadowlands from 1 to 50 takes that vast world, those thousands of stories big and small, those gigantic heroes and legendary villains – 14 years of adventures for players – and shrinks it down to a few tiny islands. It’s simpler. It’s svelter. It’s more modern. In many ways, it’s more fun. But it takes away one of WoW’s major advantages in the MMO marketplace.
Will it attract more brand-new players to the venerable franchise? Absolutely. The leveling experience for such a player now is convoluted and feels never-ending. Exile’s Reach in particular is a breath of fresh air. But will they stay? That’s far more doubtful. By jettisoning so much of its content, WoW is ceding ground to its competitors, stooping closer to equal footing with everyone else in the genre in terms of stories to tell. And because those other games aren’t running on nearly 16-year-old code, they’re going to look better, and in some cases behave better, than Warcraft.
Without the investment in Warcraft’s previous stories, which bolster the sweet rewards of meeting known characters again in the afterlife depicted in Shadowlands, Blizzard risks failing to engage those new players for the long haul. The company is effectively pressing reset on World of Warcraft, which might be necessary after so many years of expansion, but it also removes one potential answer to a question that’s only getting more urgent as WoW ages: why, if you were to start an MMO from square one today, would you pick World of Warcraft?