Why I Play: Exploring World of Warcraft as a free-to-play game


A few weeks back, the Massively OP staff discussed, among other things, whether World of Warcraft‘s leveling revamp coupled with its continued endless free trial constitute a change to free to play. I’d lean toward the “yes” end of that discussion. Though the trial still only lets you get to level 20, the new world-scaling means that grants you access to a staggering amount of content — probably more than some full MMOs on the market.

But how much fun can you really have as a free player in WoW these days? I decided to find out.

First, let’s get a little backstory out of the way. As I’ve noted before, I am a lifelong Blizzard fanboy, and while I have many complaints with WoW as a game, the Warcraft universe has always been the studio franchise that most resonated with me. WoW was my first MMO, and I played it off and on (more on than off) for about 10 years.

I stopped playing near the end of Legion, though, and until now I hadn’t been back. I was deeply unhappy with the direction of the game and its story in Battle for Azeroth, and since the Burning Legion had always been the Big Bads of the Warcraft universe, defeating them kind of felt like the end of the story to me. (Yes, recent lore revelations arguably make the Void a bigger threat, but the Legion was what I grew up with.) With Metzen gone, it was easy to write off anything post-Legion as little more than sanctioned fan fiction. For me, the franchise ended in Antorus.

Shadowlands does look pretty cool, but at this point I fear it may be too little too late where I’m concerned. However, I do still miss the world of Azeroth from time to time. The old free mode was too restrictive to feel like a good option, but with level 20 now granting you access to such a huge portion of content, it became more appealing. I was still determined to avoid BFA, but I wanted to reconnect with some old content.

Thus, I reinstalled and made a new character, a virtual clone of my old Rogue main with a new hairstyle. Thanks to everything being account-wide these days, I was quickly able to get back my old mounts and outfits. Feels like I barely skipped a beat.

I decided to check out the new starting zone, Exile’s Reach. I was not quite as impressed with it as my MOP colleague Justin, who enjoyed it tremendously, calling it the most “streamlined and modern of any starting experience in the game right now.” I agree it’s very effective as a gameplay tutorial, but it has no soul. Warcraft is a rich and vibrant setting with lots of unique cultures and fascinating ideas, but absolutely none of that is on display in Exile’s Reach. You could transplant that zone into any other fantasy RPG made in the last 20 years, and no one would notice the difference.

Also, as much as having some tutorials on how to play your class is nice, I do have to wonder how well that’s going to gel with Blizzard’s obsession with major revamps. How helpful is learning to use Sinister Strike going to be when some dev gets bored and decides Rogues are a now boomerang-based class?

Upon my leaving the new starting experience, the game tried quite hard to send me into BFA content, but I proceeded to nope out of that with extreme prejudice. What follows is quite a journey, or it felt that way at the time. There’s a lot to like about the leveling revamp, and all in all I’d call it a win, but when it comes to the goal of making leveling easier to understand, Blizzard failed spectacularly.

I wanted to go to Pandaria, but there’s no direct route there until you complete the entry quests, and I couldn’t find any way to acquire them. I tried speaking to Chromie to access the new “Chromie Time” feature, which is supposed to help you experience older expansions, but she wouldn’t let me activate it. I’ve been told you need to complete at least some of BFA to unlock Chromie Time, but I’ve heard conflicting reports on exactly how much. At any rate, I didn’t want to go that route.

Full of stubborn determination, I declared, “You people have stood in my way long enough! I’m going to clown college Northrend!”

I hopped on the boat to the Borean Tundra. As it sailed out, I got a warning that I was leaving the tutorial. I clicked “okay” and wound up in Northrend as one would expect. All the quests there were available to me. Having a hunch, I headed straight back to Stormwind, and found that a bevy of quests had opened up to me. Chromie still wouldn’t give me the time of day, but the Heroes’ Call boards now offered quests for zones and expansions across the whole game. Confusingly, there are only three quests on the board at a time. Which quests seems to be randomized, and there’s no way to change the selection without accepting some.

Does your head hurt yet?

After accepting quests for several zones I didn’t want to go to, I at last got the quest for Pandaria, and before long I was off and adventuring in the Jade Forest.

Later, I hopped on a level 10 Allied Race character to see how things were different for her. This character predates the current patch, but I had never done anything with her. She had completed at most one or two quests, and never left Stormwind. She had Chromie time accessible immediately.

It was at this point I realized that Chromie Time only increases the level range for zones upward, not downward, so for a free account limited to level 20 it’s almost entirely useless. All it does is let you queue for your chosen expansion’s dungeons in the Dungeon Finder. My un-Chromie-ed Rogue can queue only for BFA dungeons.

How’s the head feeling now?

Honestly, I can’t for the life of me understand why Blizzard didn’t just go for a more traditional global scaling system. If the devs must keep their power creep, they could still have the current expansion at a higher level, but at least letting all the old stuff scale from 1-50 would be infinitely preferable to the current system, which appears to have been stitched together from the wailing nightmares of Rube Goldberg and M.C. Escher.

And yet, for all the confusion, this is still in many ways a very positive change in the game. The system is difficult to understand, but for the most part it’s very functional once you eventually wrap your head around it. The options for leveling are so much greater now.

And for a free player, it’s an incredible boon. The one downside is that you won’t be able to get to a high-enough level to complete most continents in their entirety, but we’re still looking at an absolutely insane amount of content, and the flexibility to go where you want is wonderful.

I’ve felt pretty negative about WoW and Blizzard lately, but upon getting back to Pandaria, seeing the beautiful sights, hearing the amazing music, and becoming reacquainted with the memorable characters, I remember why I’ve loved Warcraft so much for so long.

In terms of how the level squish worked out, it’s another case where Blizzard seems to have delivered a good experience despite largely failing in its stated goals. One of the main reasons given for the level squish was so you could once again count on earning something new and exciting every level-up, and… you don’t. “Dead” levels where you earn nothing are rarer, to be sure, but they’re still fairly common, and even when you do earn something, it may be just a minor upgrade to an existing ability similar to the underwhelming and largely forgotten “Draenor perks” of some years back.

On the plus side, however, Blizzard did do a really good job of making sure that you get all of your class’ core abilities early on. By level 20, my Rogue already had pretty much all the core tools her predecessor did at what was then max level. She’s only missing bells and whistles like damage cooldowns and niche utility skills. When questing, you don’t really miss them much.

All that’s to say that being limited to level 20 still provides you with a pretty complete and satisfying version of your class. My one complaint is that my energy regeneration is a bit sluggish, due to not unlocking all the boosts to it or having much haste on my gear. Otherwise, it feels great. As I’m someone who prefers limited action sets, the smaller pool of abilities available on a level 20 capped character is almost preferable.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how little Outlaw Rogue has changed since I played last. There are some differences I don’t like, but given Blizzard’s aforementioned love of massive revamps, I rather expected that I wouldn’t even recognize my favorite spec, but that wasn’t the case at all.

On a wider level, too, playing on a free account feels like, well… playing WoW. You can quest, PvP, run dungeons. There are some things you’re locked out of — you can’t use the auction house, nor level high enough to access flying mounts — but for the most part this is a complete game. (And considering the restrictions on flying are one of the main reasons I stopped playing WoW, the irony of my current shift toward a free account that can’t fly is not lost on me.)

So how much fun can you have as a free player in WoW these days? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. You need to be willing to deal with a fair degree of jank and confusion, but that is to be expected for a game this old. Once you navigate the draconian systems, there are good times to be had.

I think the people who benefit from this the most are people like me who still feel attached to the world and want the occasional hit of nostalgia without committing to a full sub. New players can also find lots to do here, though you may need to sub eventually to finish off many of the storylines. Obviously those who are focused on endgame will not find a free account satisfies them, but for anyone else I think free to play World of Warcraft can be a valid option.

There’s an MMO born every day, and every game is someone’s favorite. Why I Play is the column in which the Massively OP staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it’s the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.

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I’d love to see someone that’s experienced both give an F2P comparison between FFXIV and WoW. Since the FFXIV Free Trial was increased to level 60 and all of Heavensward shortly before this.

Joe Liker

Even if you disagree with the direction of the main story, there’s a lot to like in BfA. The smaller zone-based quests are very good, and the leveling experience overall is worthwhile. The dungeons are fun for the most part, and even world quests can be interesting, especially if you’re into lore. If you approach the expansion with a goal unrelated to the main story (e.g., pathfinder achievements, archaeology maven, unlocking allied races), it’s perfectly fine.

To ignore the entire mountain of content just because “Sylvanas be cray-cray” is a clear case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Durdanios Duskreaper

I agree that Exile’s Reach has no soul. My boyfriend and I ran it and it was completely generic, and the voice acting sounds a bit sub-par to the main content stuff. My boyfriend said he would’ve had like to have seen some existing characters in the tutorial that you will see later on in the game, and not new characters who are completely forgettable and abandoned right after the tutorial.

As for not being able to do Chromie time, I leveled a dwarf through Exile’s Reach and had the same issue. I did some research and discovered the issue.

If you complete Exile’s Reach and DECLINE the tour around the capital city, you can access Chromie Time right away. If you decide to go through with the the tour, it extends the tutorial and you can’t access Chromie Time until you do the introductory questline in Battle for Azeroth.

So I hope that helps someone who wants to avoid BFA at all costs!

Oleg Chebeneev

“It was at this point I realized that Chromie Time only increases the level range for zones upward, not downward, so for a free account limited to level 20 it’s almost entirely useless.”

Huh? I thought you can do all content in any expansion outside BFA on level 20 F2P character. I went to WoTLK and all mobs in different zones were scaled to 20. And you can definetly finish all zones in Azeroth as a free character now.

Bruno Brito

Huh? I thought you can do all content in any expansion outside BFA on level 20 F2P character

Here’s the content you can’t do as a F2P right now:

Shadowmoon Valley. Netherstorm. Icecrown. Storm Peaks. Cataclysm Zones. Dread Wastes. Valley of Eternal Blossoms. Nagrand ( WoD ). Spires of Alak. Tanaan Jungle. Suramar. Broken Shores. Everything besides Zuldazar and Tiragarde. Raids. Every BFA dungeon besides Atal’dazar and Freehold. Argus. Isle of Quel’danas. Netherstorm dungeons ( Botanica, Mechanaar, Arcatraz ). Argent Tournament. ICC Dungeons ( Forge of Souls, Pit of Saron, Halls of Reflection ). You can’t buy transmog sets because they’re locked behind a level wall ( 27 minimum ). Garrison only to level 2 because level 3 is beyond gold cap of 1k. Chromie Time locks you out of dungeons that are not BfA related. Can’t get allied races ( quest requires level 50 ). Can’t War Campaign ( quest requires level 50 ).

I’m sure there are more things that i’m forgetting right now.

And you can definetly finish all zones in Azeroth as a free character now.

That’s correct. Except for cata zones, everything is doable.


Chromie Time locks you out of dungeons that are not BfA related.

Not sure this is true.

I was just testing this expansion pre-patch out yesterday. I loaded up an old level 10 Pandaran Shaman, tracked down Chromie and entered WOTLK Chromie-time. She sent me to the Tundra to start questing and at the appropriate levels WOTLK dungeons all showed up in my group finder.

I agree with the article that the hand-off from the tutorial zone, or for a returning player to interacting with Chromie is janky. Unless I knew about Chromie-time and looked up on a wiki where she is physically located now the tutorial process never did funnel me to her. It would be confusing for many new players.

And agree the new tutorial zone is pretty lame. Really does a disservice to anyone wanting to enjoy the uniqueness of their race and their “origin story” so to speak. very non-RPG for a MMORPG.

Bruno Brito

All that’s to say that being limited to level 20 still provides you with a pretty complete and satisfying version of your class.

Debatable. Frost DKs feel ok, Blood is passable.

Unholy gets their permanent pet at 29, which means it stays a cooldown ( and half of your class mechanics with it ) until 29.

Rick Mills

If you would have just run 5 minutes into BFA (through the talk with the old sailor) you’re Chromie time would have worked exactly as expected.

Bruno Brito

If you’re linked and have a old account? Yes. New and full F2P cannot use Chromie Time.


I also tried the free weekend trial and tried making new characters as well as playing the old ones. Despite all the graphical improvements and new character customizations, I just couldn’t force myself to play for more than few minutes. I guess I finally reached a point where I completely outgrew the art style of this game, even though I remember playing it for over 10 hours/day back when it was released and coming back to it many times in the past.


“…it has no soul…”

That would describe all of the Retail game, I think.


My problem with Exile’s Reach was different – I agree, that for nubs, I think it’s fairly clear(?) – I found it LAGGGY AS SHIT.

Blizzard, I get it: you really love yourselves some phasing. But my understanding is that with your engine, the reason this (and, frex, the Worgen start zone) is laggy af is because every. layer. has. to. be. loaded. whether. invisible. or. not. OMFG.

I run on a pretty nice system. Remember how WoW used to run on a flippin’ toaster? It doesn’t any more! Your “intro” to wow is laggy, slow, occasionally nigh-unusable controls, lag for loot, lag for effects. (And I run retail wow at 100+ fps all the time.)

We tried this, and we too went to Pandaria (despite playing this game since 2004 we found the end of ER … a little baffling what we should do next?).
In Pandaland, we found tons of items “min lvl 30+” despite us being level 20ish by the Valley, including quest pickups (it GAVE us the quest, but the things we need to pick up for the quest are lvl 32 only, lol).
Professions are an even greater SNAFU, I took Panda tailoring and Enchanting, which gave me things (dusts, etc) I couldn’t really use to advance with. I can’t imagine how clusterfudged Engineering must be (my main’s an engy) with professions still (apparently) tiered across zones that are now no longer sequential and dependent on items that you should have learned to make “before” even though now “before” isn’t “before” any longer….

Bhagpuss Bhagpuss

The new levelling system is easily as confused and confusing as you describe – probably more so, if anything. For someone whose only going to go to level 20 and isn’t particularly bothered about what they do or where they do it, though, that really doesn’t matter much. It’s more of an issue to anyone who has specific plans, particularly because the reason you can’t access a particular piece of content is frequently not obvious.

If the goal was to simplify things then they couldn’t have missed it better. If it was to make things fun – chaotic, often incoprehensible fun but fun all the same – then they hit the mark quite squarely.

Shame you won’t engage with BfA though. I thought the storytelling there was the best I’d seen in WoW. I’m talking about the zone-level story not the metafictional wrapper, of course. I can barely tell the main players apart without a scorecard. AS a free player, though, the zone story is about all you’ll get to see, and not all of those, unless you play a lot of characters. Which I guess you could.