Blizzard has made the next expansion in the World of Warcraft official as Mists of Pandaria, and after conquering other planets, the Lich King, and a big bad dragon, the Horde and Alliance are headed to ... China. Well, not China per se, but Pandaria, a long-rumored, Eastern mysticism-influenced realm, where panda-based humanoids roam, brew and drink beer, and offer players the next five levels in their continuing progression.
As is often the case with this game, many players have revolted. The Pandaren have long been used as a joke in the world of Warcraft, either referred to on April Fool's Day, or showing up in the company's parodic Christmas cards. But lead quest designer Dave Kosak says players who scoff at Pandaria should think twice. "Maybe people, because they've only been portrayed as cameos or only April Fool's jokes, people think that there's nothing to this race, and that's not it at all," Kozak says to us during BlizzCon last week. "I think the Pandaren are kind of fascinating -- they work hard, they play hard, they eat hard, they drink hard, and they don't do anything half way."
The Pandaren, in addition to some of the other announced features of the new expansion, point to the next long arc of the World of Warcraft game. In the first few expansions of the title, Blizzard has cashed in on the earlier origins of the series. But with Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard seems to be setting up the world's most popular MMO for years of content to come.
Gallery: World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (10/21/11) | 25 Photos
To be clear, while the demo at BlizzCon mostly focused on the Pandaren and their realm (along with the new Monk class), the story being told here isn't really about them. Yes, the pandas are quite well modeled, cute, and Pandaren itself is gorgeously rendered, making for some of the most picturesque vistas yet seen in Azeroth; the whole starting zone takes place on the back of a turtle, so you've got bamboo shacks set in front of beautiful green mountains, with clouds and sea in the background.
But Mists of Pandaria is actually about us -- the Alliance and the Horde. After an hour or so of questing around as a panda, working to bring some missing (and very playful) elemental spirits together and meeting two close Pandaren friends), a visit to the head of the sea turtle reveals that the turtle/island itself is sick, and a literal thorn in its side is causing problems. A little more exploration reveals that the thorn is something from the outside world: An Alliance ship, crash landed and fighting the Horde. That's the crux of this expansion, says Kozak.
The Pandaren are "a race that's pretty chill. They value inner peace and harmony, and they value that quiet solitude that helps keep that negative energy away," he says. "So you can imagine what's going to happen to this realm when up rolls the Alliance and the Horde with all of their baggage and their war, and they come rolling up on shore, how the Pandaren react."
The Pandaren don't start with a faction of their own -- players instead will be choosing a direction to go in and a faction to play. And the very mechanics of that choice are played out from the start. As you tour the island, your two Pandaren friends are slowly torn apart by the incoming war, and it's a good bet that in later content, that relationship will play out the larger battle. That's impressive -- it shows Blizzard is aiming to tell a long tale rather than a short one. The expansion itself will introduce us to Pandaria, but content after that will play out a much larger story.
"It's an experiment for us, but the boxed product itself is just the beginning of an arc," says Kozak. "In subsequent patches, while that's going on, boiling in the background is this world war that's beginning to erupt between the Alliance the Horde. In the absence of a global threat that they have to unite against, the Alliance and Horde just fall on each other. It's Warcraft 4, is about to break out. And so we have that building and it boils over and bubbles over in subsequent patches."
Yes, he did say Warcraft 4, though it seems unlikely that Blizzard will do all of this just to spin off yet another RTS franchise. Rather, it's more likely that they're aiming to turn World of Warcraft, a game that's essentially become a social network, into a platform in and of itself. That includes the idea Blizzard shared at BlizzCon called PVE Scenarios -- specialized instances in which one or a few people could quest around and actually change the world in a way not possible on the open server. For example, in an "Invasion of Goldshire" scenario, you could join an instance, do a collection quest and then fight through a few enemies up to an elite boss, all in the same area without disturbing anyone else in the world.
"You get to feel like you're doing something with a group even if you're not super skilled or super organized," says Kozak of the idea, though all he had to share were general descriptions of how it might work, rather than actual plans so far. Challenge dungeons are another idea Blizzard plans to implement, where players will be able to run the game's instances under new rules, perhaps setting times or specific stats on a leaderboard.
And then there's the much-lauded (and lamented) Pet Battle System. "Obviously we're big fans of Pokemon," says Kozar. Cosmetic pets have been in the game since the beginning, but this system will introduce lots more, and allow players to customize, level, and battle them together, much like Nintendo's very popular collect-em-all title. "What we're trying to do," says Kozar, "is find other ways to incorporate other playstyles into the game and give everybody something to do. The pet battle system is part of that. We have this big, giant, incredible world -- what else can you do in it?"
And in a game that's been live for six years and counting, that may be Blizzard's best decision yet. World of Warcraft started out as a game on its own, yet another MMO contender in a crowd of them. But now it's become an institution unto itself, and the reveal of Mists of Pandaria seems to be the first sign of where Blizzard wants to take it next. Yes, the Alliance and the Horde will always be at the core of the content -- that setting is what this game will always be about. But the mechanics will change over time, and if what we've heard about this expansion is any indication, Blizzard plans to update and supplement this increasingly aged (and still incredibly popular) title by putting entirely new games in it as they go.