WoW Factor: A wild theory for World of Warcraft’s Shadowlands

What if we're loading the bases for something way bigger than Covenants?

All over again.

I don’t have quite as much as I would have expected to say about Shadowlands so close to its launch. Part of that is, of course, timing; the surprise delay sort of disrupted my normal expected cadence. But another part of that is just that I haven’t been in the beta and thus I’m going to be seeing this all at the same time as everyone else. Go ahead, World of Warcraft, hit me with some content. You made a low bar for yourself to clear after the last expansion.

But that’s also only part of the story here, and it’s in the spirit of that wherein I put forth today’s column. As part of my regular daily Thinking About WoW routine, I had a thought about at least one potential new development tied to the future of WoW and what may happen in the future. Something that would put paid to the rather unnecessary bit of disappointment about this expansion and would help justify the borrowed power of Covenants at least a little.

So let’s speculate about a major ending to WoW, shall we?

First and foremost, let me make something clear: This does tie directly into my column last week in which I asked whether or not the developers knew any longer what they want WoW to be. While it’s definitely plausible that no one knows because there’s no firm plan, it’s also plausible that the actual answer is closer to “we’re marking time.”

See, here’s something that occurred to me about Covenants. In many ways, Covenants are finally an answer to how you can define characters in WoW outside of faction identity, and they’re the sort of thing that could really set up a farewell to factions in a way that reasonably tracks past the end of this expansion. Or at least, offers the opportunity to further redefine moving onward.

Shoulder touch.

As we celebrate 16 years of the game, we face two indisputable facts. The first is that this game is struggling now under the weight of history. Not in a sense that it’s inevitably broken or bleeding, but the fact of the matter is that the game from top to bottom has been patched and upgraded and improved to the point that there’s a huge backlog of stuff for developers to deal with. It has to be straining under the weight of a long development tail.

The other fact is that Shadowlands also represents yet another big long-running lore bomb being detonated. We’ve had teases about what Sylvanas is planning to do in the game since Cataclysm was launched, and while I don’t wholly believe that this was always the plan, the fact of the matter is that we’re moving even further beyond the extant state of the story.

Shadowlands also primes us for a shakeup because in the eponymous region, the factions don’t exist. Different ones do. And while we were told that the faction split is a foundational aspect of WoW, especially in light of the comments about the future in the latest earning call for Activision-Blizzard… I find myself wondering about that answer.

The faction split may be a fundamental aspect of WoW. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fundamental aspect of the universe. And it seems possible, maybe even probable, that at some point it has been accepted that the development team cannot simply continue upgrading this game that has now been running for more than a decade. At a certain point, you have to start planning for the future.

So what if Shadowlands is meant not simply to have us travel to the realm of the dead but as testing the waters for what happens when factions are self-selected? What if this is the beginning of the end before we move on to something new, fulfilling the promise of the future of the franchise?

You might be pointing out that in the past I specifically shot down speculation that this expansion would lead to that, but I’m not expecting that our next expansion is a sequel MMO. Rather, I’m thinking this expansion is a test for changing how we think of factions, and that any sequel wouldn’t be announced until we were well through Shadowlands. Nor would we just be carrying our characters forward.

Moreover, the important part here is that we are specifically dealing with a test balloon working through the murky waters of a major change. Are people going to identify with Covenant identity as well as factional identity? Because the faction war is over now. We’re done with that.

Not riding a dinosaur.

If you look at the expansions moving forward from Draenor, each one of them has involved at least one major dangling thread being wrapped up. Legion wrapped up the Burning Legion, Battle for Azeroth wrapped up the faction war and the Old Gods pretty decisively, Shadowlands is wrapping up the Scourge and Sylvanas. There’s enough stuff to make another expansion of final showdowns, but it sure does feel like we’re moving into a new space overall. And it’s an escalating series of cosmic clashes; it’s hard to scale up from where we’re at now without just having the next expansion pit us against the Void itself.

What if that’s the point?

The thing is that this doesn’t inherently fix the problem with borrowed power. It’s still there and still unwelcome and complex, and I still don’t like it very much. But it does at least offer some explanation for why these things are introduced and then jettisoned so quickly. There’s a desire to hit all the big notes over time without necessarily wanting to make a total balance mess.

And even if we’re not talking a full-on sequel, it still feels like offering us a new choice of four different factions really is testing the waters about how players would react to breaking down factions across the game. If there’s a lot of negative feedback about it? Hey, that’s just for this expansion. If, on the other hand, people are annoyed that they can’t pair up with Horde members of the same Covenant on their Alliance characters? Look forward to Blizzard triumphantly announcing that they’ve heard feedback and now you can group together.

That would be a major shake-up to the status quo, and it would ensure that wherever we go from here feels new and fresh. It’s a chance to revitalize a game that soon will have been running for two decades, and a big new flashy launch could really draw in some new people. And that alone makes me speculate that there’s some room to start getting people excited about a potential sequel.

Do I think all of this is likely? Not exactly. But I do think you can broadly split WoW’s history up into eras. The first, from launch through the end of Wrath of the Lich King, was very much about paying off threads from Warcraft III. The second from Cataclysm through Warlords of Draenor focused on the broader lore, and Legion onward has thus far focused on being bigger and trying out new systems that rewrite the core of the game.

And if you told me that the past few expansions have been trying out systems and gathering feedback ahead of a big shakeup moving forward? It sure does fit a nice narrative. Even if I may well be giving the team too much credit, I also wouldn’t be shocked if this is where we’re heading.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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I don’t think the WoW dev team needs any credit. Their 16 year old game will most likely be a top 10 played pc game again post Shadowlands launch.

ante b

More of the same albeit renamed and reskinned.

Sarah Cushaway

My wild theory:
It’s going to suck as much (if not more) than BFA with all the gating and grinding. Again.

Lucky Jinx

Pretty wild yeah. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m smelling a sleeper hit like Pandaria or Legion, just so they can screw it all up again in the next expansion.

Adam Russell

roll credits…

Dug From The Earth

Here is the thing with borrowed power.

Blizzard is convinced (or at least 1 or 2 people in lead design positions are) that players need the game to feel like a NEW game to a certain degree, with each expansion. Players DO crave that new game feeling… but here is the thing.. they crave it from NEW games. Not existing ones. They dont want WoW to feel like WoW 2. They want WoW 2 to feel like WoW 2.

Players want existing games to basically do a few things:

1. Keep giving them stuff to do within the mechanics and standards they are familiar, skilled, and comfortable with, in a way that can be reliable and not suddenly change on them. This can be raid content, story content, crafting content, pvp content. etc.

2. Expand upon EXISTING core systems already in the game. Taking something that already exists, and making it better. IE: The improvements they did with the Auction house, and the character creation.

3. Add new things that are PERMANENT enhancements to core foundations of the game. Good example here: The Arena system. It added to the core pvp element of the game and has remained Permanent. Adding Housing would be another example (which they still havent done yet)

And thats about it.

NOTHING added to the game is going to take the place of giving players a brand NEW game to play (IE: WoW 2). That shouldnt be a goal of the design/dev team.

As long as these few lead people at blizzard continue to think “our way is best” not only will it cause players to stumble, but it will continue to cause developers to stumble as well as proven by the SL delay. A huge reason it got delayed is they couldnt get their “it feels like a new game system” to 1. be free of bugs, and 2. be balanced properly for release. SOOOO much extra dev time was being spent on trying to get that right, that it pushed other bug fixes and issues behind schedule as well.


It’s not uncommon to have narrative conflicts end in fictional universes opening paths to newer conflicts. Take Transformers for example in the 1990s Simon Furman ended the Autobot vs Decepticon conflict in order to have them face off against an off shoot of the Decepticons called the Cybertronian Empire; later on in the IDW universe the Autobot vs Decepticon war was ended formally there as well with plenty of narrative to push through to major story line paths in two different books.

Look at the X Men in Marvel now, all the heroes and villains are living together in a Mutant Nation called Krakoa with classic villains in positions of leadership and intrigue on the Quiet Council such as Magneto, Apocalypse, Mr Sinister, and Sebastian Shaw. Now they’re facing off of an ancient line of mutants related to Apocalypse from the Bronze Age.

My point is theres always something, and I’m sure most people that PVP don’t give a damn about lore in the first place.

Bruno Brito

and I’m sure most people that PVP don’t give a damn about lore in the first place.

Sure, but they’re also the minority.


I know a lot of people want the end of the horde vs alliance factions, but I seriously hope they never do that. Conflict between races/species is the crux of the entire Warcraft franchise since before World of Warcraft even existed. It shouldn’t be removed for convenience reasons because people keep shouting for it. In my opinion, it would be a mistake there is no coming back from (like flying mounts).

Sarah Cushaway

Its outdated and almost no one enjoys it, especially since some servers have a faction imbalance so bad now, you either better suck up for a transfer if you even hope to do any end game stuff on your dead faction, or you have to roll on the other faction that you may not like for any number of reasons, giving up all your effort, money, goods, etc on the faction you had to leave behind.

No one gives a fuck about the faction war at this point. Every expansion that centers around it has been garbage. Let it go. It works well in an RTS game or hardcore PVP game, it does not work well in a PVE-centric MMORPG.


…almost no one enjoys it…


No one gives a fuck about the faction war at this point.

And you determined this using what metric?

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I agree that it would be great if they split faction from race, and it would open up lots of new possibilities for the future, but I honestly don’t understand why people get SO uptight about it.


Faction choice at character creation would make many players happy and something I could easily see become a reality.


I’ve said it before: let WoW ‘evolve’ into the future, where highways connect Orgrimar and Crossroads, and you can take the 0930 passenger jet from Booty Bay to Pandaria or a spaceliner to one of the moons of Azeroth or another planet entirely.

Granted, this is SORT of the niche Wildstar tried to take, but Blizzard has the entire Starcraft IP/oeuvre to exploit, not to mention space adventures, the unending money sink of personal or guild spaceships (100t Scout/Courier – 27.63 million credits for a new one, a down payment of MCr5.53 would be made, with monthly payments of Cr132,600 for 480 months following, or 15-18 million for a used one, cash up front). Steal adventure ideas from SWTOR and any other space game (let’s remember and not be shamed that WoW was *born* from stealing/perfecting others’ ideas), and then can freely add additional worlds with WHATEVER borrowed power bs or completely changed rulesets they want to employ.
Low G world, where you can make giant bounds but knockback and control are issues?
Toxic atmo world where you have to have a Heart of Azeroth, xxxx er “Special spacesuit” that you wear over your gear for that expansion?
Unlockable Zerg or Protoss races?

Let’s go man.

Rick Mills

Great speculation, Eliot – nothing sacred stuff is always fun to think about.