One of the major things about World of Warcraft, and any game in general as it ages, is the ability for new players to pick it up and run with it. If a game isn't newbie friendly, then there's less ability to attract growth. Throughout WoW's lifetime thus far there have been major changes in the gaming demeographic and expectations therein.
For instance, MMOs were once considered hard and somewhat unapproachable. WoW did a lot to change the opinion of that, and we're now seeing new MMOs pop out of the woodwork every few months. This isn't a bad thing either -- the bigger the marketplace, the better the competition and the better games we all get. But with that said, those other games are developing better ways for new players to get involved. That means that WoW constantly has to evolve in order for it to attract new players. And that's where the heart of the matter lies.
Has WoW evolved enough to attract the next generation of players?
Before we draw any conclusions, let's break it down into a few areas of concentration to help us figure out if WoW is still newbie friendly.
Area 1: The Systems
This is the easiest area to look at, it's just the systems of the game. What is the gameplay like? Is it challenging? Does it still have the paradigm of easy to learn, difficult to master? I think it does -- despite what a lot of the trolls say, Ghostcrawler and his team do a great job at making WoW's systems fun and engaging. This is even more apparent when you look at games that are not fun and engaging.
Area 2: The Encounters
Another key area that WoW needs to be successful in is the encounter design. Every boss cannot just be a tank and spank. If the only thing that changes is the model of the encounter then it's not a very memorable time. WoW used to suffer from this a lot -- many dungeon encounters were just repetition of the same few mechanics over and over. Around BC this changed, and uniqueness was really in full swing in Wrath.
But at the same time, there needs to be the tank and spank encounters too. Players need a good balance of mindless hack-and-slash as well as thoughtful death dealing. Without this balance we're not able to ride the highs and lows of the game, and would always need to be on our A-game non-stop (and that's how burnout happens).
Overall WoW is doing a good job of encounter design now, I think.
Area 3: The Graphics
WoW's art style, and Blizzard's art style in general, is never meant to be photo-realistic. It's meant to have large shoulders, slightly-off bodies, and a somewhat cartoonish look. That works, and by all accounts it's continuing to work.
What I don't think is working is the resolution and general quality of the graphic models compared to other games. Separate here the art style and the presentation quality -- the art style is good, the presentation is lacking. Take for instance the trees; in other games on the market right now the trees look like trees -- you can see individual leaves, branches, etc. In WoW, for the most part, the trees, when you get up close, look several generations behind current technology. There are countless other examples of this.
The lacking in presentation quality is to be expected from a game that's essentially a decade old. But that isn't really an excuse, in my mind, as much of a reason. If WoW wants to stay current, there is only one solution: a graphics refresh. Make all the trees looks like trees, all the stones look like stones. High resolution textures in everything and for everyone.
And new character models.
Area 4: The Community
There's two aspects to the community that we should look at when evaluating WoW as a newbie friendly game. The first is what Blizzard does with the Community Managers (Zarhym, Neth, Bashiok, etc...) -- and they do an amazing job. They're conversational, helpful, and always go above and beyond what a normal job would require. There's rarely a time when I don't see a CM on Twitter talking -- some of them for sixteen hours a day. It's not always about WoW stuff, but they're always there and willing to interact with the community. That's an amazing level of service. I can reach out to Zarhym and bug him day or night about something Warcraft related, and I almost always get a quick reply. A few years ago that never happened, but now WoW has set the gold standard for community management.
The other aspect to the community is the players. This is a very mixed bag. There are some amazing players and groups out there for people that are very welcoming and inclusive. Then there are groups that are some of the most exclusive in the entire gaming community. Depending on where players land initially in the player community, their view of it may be radically different. To Blizzard's credit however, they try to push new players to the friendlier environments.
The Overall Grade
Given the four areas above, it's possible to get a good picture of how newbie friendly WoW is. With good systems and encounters and a mixed bag community, WoW gets high marks for player integration and access. However with the lagging visuals and the need for a serious overall upgrade, the biggest detriment is actually attracting the new players and keeping them in when shinier options are around nearly every turn.
If WoW were to get a letter grade for newbie friendliness, I'd give it a solid B. With less-dated visuals it'd shoot up to an A, and with some of the stickier community problems going away it'd hit an A+.
Finally, remember why this matters for all of us: without new players any game will die. Newbies are the lifeblood of WoW, and it's a good thing to keep in mind as we talk about the details of the game.