World of Warcraft's eighth anniversary arrives after a rough year for the franchise. Cataclysm, the expansion that redesigned much of the old world and trumpeted the return of archvillain Deathwing, also saw subscriber numbers drop from their highest point, reached during the Wrath of the Lich King years. Players expressed discontent over the empty zones and the lack of anything to do save run endless heroic dungeons or chain battlegrounds.
It's said that humans often prepare to fight the next war by devising tactics to deal with the last war, and World of Warcraft's newest expansion, Mists of Pandaria, is definitely a reaction to player complaints about the previous one. The past year saw the game transition from one with two separate, segregated endgames to a game with a great deal more variety for players who've reached max level. Whether you loved or hated Cataclysm, you can't deny that the past year has seen more change than the entire expansion dedicated to changing the game ever provided.
After eight years, the World of Warcraft talent system originally derived from the Diablo II trees was completely removed and replaced. Instead of redesigning the world, the new expansion redesigned the game to a great degree; it adjusted how the combat table worked, introduced the Monk class, and changed how almost every single class played (certain classes like Warlocks were heavily redesigned, and Druids now have four possible specializations).
Before the Raid Finder, less than 10% of WoW's subscribers ever saw Illidan, Kil'Jaeden, Arthas, and other big names raid bosses when they were relevant.
The introduction of the Raid Finder during the waning days of Cataclysm also changed how some people saw raiding content. It was the first sign of an increased emphasis on accessibility that would become the hallmark of the new expansion; players who didn't have the time to dedicate to a scheduled raiding experience could still get to see the fights. Previously, less than 10% of the people subscribed tothe game ever saw Illidan, Kil'Jaeden, Arthas, and other big names, at least not while they were relevant. The Raid Finder meant that you could be a sometimes-player and still say you'd seen the Deathwing fight.
When Mists of Pandaria itself arrived, it brought several further developments in accessibility. Scenarios, essentially an adaption of the public questing found in other MMOs, made use of the already-existing looking-for-group interface to allow three players to run content designed to be harder than soloing but less rigid than dungeons. No tanks or healers are necessary for scenarios, greatly reducing queue times and allowing fresh level 90s to have immediate access to Valor Points for purchasing gear. It's also fair to say that the lessons of Cataclysm's difficult launch heroics was learned, as running a heroic dungeon at level 90 is a far friendlier experience.
These are the games you play while playing the game
World of Warcraft also added its first full-fledged minigame this year. While previous years saw quests that approached minigame status (such as the Plants vs. Zombies-inspired Peacebloom vs. Ghouls), this time around the Pet Battle system debuted to tremendous player interest. Before this year, the many non-combat pets players could collect were merely cosmetic, vanity items to have out while standing around in Orgrimmar or Stormwind. But now, those pets can be leveled up, used to battle other players, and collected via combat with wild critters. Players can devote hours to basically playing Pokemon. So far, it's been a tremendous hit.
Also added this expansion was a radical change in how daily questing works. There are still factions, as there have been in every game, but some of them (the Tillers and the Anglers) effectively make fishing and farming into minigames of their own not unlike Animal Crossing. With the greatly expanded daily quests, scenarios, dungeons, pet battles, raid finder, and the addition of Challenge Mode dungeons, your ability to customize your gameplay is probably heftier than it has been in the entire history of World of Warcraft. If you wish to focus your character entirely on excelling in five-man dungeons, you can do so; the gear is all normalized in these dungeons, so they reward smart play rather than gear.
PvP saw the fewest changes. New battlegrounds were presented, but there was no new kind of PvP, but rather the maintenance of Arenas and Battlegrounds. The soon to be implemented Patch 5.1 promises a return to a focus on world PvP with its introduction of new Horde and Alliance world PvP hubs in the Krasarang Wilds, however.
While zones like Uldum and Deepholm look fantastic, they didn't fit together as well as we'd have liked. In the planning phases, we didn't think that having scattered end game zones would be a big deal. It turned out to feel a lot weirder than expected. Players ended up teleporting to nearly every destination, and it gave Cataclysm a disjointed feeling, detracting from that feeling of exploration and discovery. We learned that giving players a land to explore, a sense of place, is valuable. Ultimately, the scattered zones and the portals both served to kind of shrink the world, when we want to make the world a place you want to go out and be in. We're definitely looking forward to getting back to a continent in Mists. We underestimated how important that was.
This is not a mistake Mists of Pandaria repeated. The past year has seen the debut of Pandaria, a lost continent shielded behind impenetrable mists for 10,000 years and (from the players' perspective) a whole new world of unknown lands to explore. The sense of place in Pandaria is ever-present, informing every experience players have, and it is absolutely one of the greatest strengths of the new expansion. It feels alive and inhabited, and the wise decision to again disallow flying from 85-90 in Pandaria keeps the new land from feeling small since players can't simply hop into the air to avoid inconvenient monsters along their path.
The creation of Pandaria has also allowed the game to change its visual tone as well. Pandaria looks completely new. Without repeating the alien landscapes of The Burning Crusade, it departs from anything that has appeared in the game to date, giving the visuals the chance to surprise players used to the aesthetic of previous expansions. But what really gives this expansion a sense of discovery is how well the new zones integrate people and places, making the continent feel lived-in. It's not just a place to go and kill monsters; it's a lost land that had its own way of life long before you showed up.
I'd be remiss not to address the Pandaren race, which makes its in-game debut in this expansion after having been around the edges of the Warcraft franchise since Warcraft III. Whether you sneer at them as bait for furries and make Kung Fu Panda jokes or embrace them wholeheartedly, there's no denying that the Pandaren as a race stretch the limits of what's possible in character design with the World of Warcraft engine. This is a game that went into alpha before 2002. The amount of physical expressiveness capable in the Pandaren models' faces is nothing short of astonishing, and it kind of makes my human character look dilapidated by comparison.
Where do we go from here?
During the declining days of Cataclysm, subscriber numbers dropped to 9.1 million, their lowest point in years. If nothing else, Mists of Pandaria brought players back, sending subs back up above the 10 million mark. It's too early to tell whether it will keep those numbers (and I think it's unlikely that we'll see the 12 million or so of the Wrath of the Lich King era), but there's no doubt that Mists of Pandaria is a significant departure from the game we had before it.
We'll see whether Blizzard can keep to its stated goal of releasing more content more often and shrinking the time between expansions. As it stands, it's been a year of significant changes and additions to the game that's still the biggest dog in the MMO pound.
Many thanks to WoW Insider's Matthew Rossi for penning this special anniversary article for the Massively readers. And happy birthday to World of Warcraft!