WoW Factor: Evaluating World of Warcraft’s 2023 progress and performance


So 2023 is not completely in the rear view yet, but at least in terms of major developments for World of Warcraft we can feel reasonably confident putting this particular year in the past tense. My guess about how WoW would look over the course of 2023 was in our overall roundup for our predictions, but I’m just going to reprint it here minus the comment that it was generally correct:

World of Warcraft follows up its routine of “we’re changing, really” throughout 2022 by… actually changing in 2023, in incremental but noteworthy ways. Cross-faction guilds are opened up during the year, for example, and cross-factional chat becomes a normal thing outside of War Mode. Players gain access to some useful deterministic gear options in patch 9.1, and the Trading Post is pretty well-received as a good way to encourage people to play more. While people still don’t trust Blizzard through the year and there’s grumblings and continued insistence that the game needs more, it really does feel like WoW is being run better than it has been in a long while.

On the one level, this is a pretty positive prediction for the game, especially when you consider that we were coming off of the horrid Shadowlands and the very “well, it’s all right” launch of Dragonflight. But I think there’s more to consider than just that. What does it really mean that the game has spent a year on incremental changes?

While I won’t pretend that all of those incremental changes are universally good, the ones that have been bad were marginal. There are definitely some disappointments in there, like how making Fyrakk the final villain kind of has undercut the original plot conceit of questioning whether the Titans were actually right. It just doesn’t work when the majority of the people holding that stance are cartoonish supervillains. (That doesn’t make him a bad villain; if anything, WoW works better when the villain is just a monster that needs to be taken down. It just doesn’t harmonize with earlier parts.)

But most of the other changes we’ve seen over the years? The upgrade system we have now is definitely a bit messy, but it is an improvement over where things were before. (Although as I have noted, being better than a bad system does not make your system good.) We’ve seen more erosion of faction lines and no attempt to make a last-minute swerve and put the factions back at one another’s throats. The new zones added did include at least one weird new humanoid race with a one-joke nature, but we’ve had worse.

Really, my biggest condemnation of 2023 is simply that we’re here now. In 2023. And none of this is new information.

Yay, sort of?

If you want to know when the faction war logically ended, it was when both factions teamed up to take out Garrosh Hellscream. That really was the narrative point where the Horde decided on its identity, and that was an identity that could engage with the Alliance as equals. But the writers and designers decided to keep it going through the next three expansions, writing another story about how we needed to let go of old sectarian grudges before saying “on second thought, no.”

And this is, as I’ve noted before, something that has been true about WoW more or less since launch. The game has always struggled to find a way to make both factions be flawed without being outright evil, and it’s debatable if it has ever been successful… but it definitely was not successful by the time we were fighting the actual Horde Warchief as a main arc villain. But we kept going.

So it is decidedly great that Dragonflight has kept incrementally moving the needle here. But it’s also all in moves that were patently obvious directions more than a decade ago. We didn’t need all of this time flailing to keep things from being too different even as everything about the way we play MMORPGs, the assumptions about the playerbase, and every other point of data made it clear that things weren’t the same any longer.

I stand by my evaluation that the game right now is being run better than it has been for ages. It seems to me that’s not a controversial statement even among those who have been slaving away in the fanboy mines for the past several years. But what does bother me on a deep level is that the game didn’t need to be run this badly before now. It just was, and damn it, one of the biggest successes of our genre should not have spent so much time basically going nowhere.

If we take a holistic view of the game, there’s definitely a narrative to be crafted about how the game reacted to its success post-Wrath, whom it decided to serve, and how it has been moving since then. But this isn’t the column for that; rather, it’s one about the year in review. And you know what? I think there’s also a bright side here.


While it’s not a good thing by any stretch of imagination that the game spent so much time ambling around without identity and buffeted by external forces, the reality is that WoW is very much a ship of Theseus at this point. Very little of the original game that launched back in 2004 remains intact, cut away and replaced piecemeal by expansion after expansion. And that can work to provide a new basis for a foundation.

Do I have a lot of faith in that foundation? No, because I was here when Legion explicitly redesigned every single spec specifically to provide a new foundation for further development, only for all of those specs to be wildly redesigned again not too much later. (Playing Enhancement Shaman is dizzying both in terms of keystrokes and how quickly your entire kit gets redesigned.) But 2023 wasn’t Blizzard’s developers telling us how they were setting up a new baseline; it was Blizzard just doing it, trying to improve on the prior works.

I may have mixed feelings about some of the executions, and it isn’t as if we haven’t discussed at length how the story and gameplay need to be addressed going into the next expansion. But at least thus far, this whole experience has not felt like a volatile mixture that’s going to go up like old dynamite at the first bump in the road. That feels like progress.

It’s progress that we shouldn’t be making with the game turning 20 next year because we should already be there. But it’s also where we actually are, so there’s not much we can do about it beyond shrugging and saying, “All right, you did better this year than the last few.” Doesn’t make up for how disgusting the company behind it is as an aggregate or the fact that the whole merger with Microsoft leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but one thing at a time.

And yes, I realize that there’s probably another column to unpack the whole idea of how WoW is itself now several parts of several different games that happened in vaguely consecutive order, but that’s another column. Only so much energy in the week, folks.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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