WoW Factor: What World of Warcraft needs to accomplish in 2024


On October 12th, 2023, the YouTuber SuperEyepatchWolf put out a video running just over one hour nine minutes titled “The Simpsons Is Good Again.” This was not his first video about the show; he’d done two prior videos, one of which examined how the show sank into the era that it has now existed within for most of its runtime and the other examining the strange modern fan reality of the show. This video watched and analyzed two recent seasons, concluding that the show is definitely not what it was during the golden age, but it also concluded that even if all of the same writers had stayed with the show the whole time, it wouldn’t really be the same. The show has evolved, and while the two seasons he reviews are not the best the show has ever been, they do make for a show that has developed a new identity forged along a new path, and it’s a path that has the potential to be very, very interesting.

This is a column about World of Warcraft. And yes, I am very explicitly stealing a technique he uses in that video because it’s a good technique and I like it. Also, on the off chance he reads this… hey, dude, nice videos. I like them. Now, to WoW.

I’ve already done two columns about things that WoW really needs to address moving into The War Within expansion, but this isn’t really about that; those columns are still true, but they’re much more granular. No, this is about confronting the reality that WoW is, in its own way, dealing with the same problem as The Simpsons. And you can see it very clearly in how there was a big selling point about Wrath of the Lich King’s classic release lacking the dungeon finder… until the developers realized whoops and slapped it back in there.

That is hilarious on one level, but it also speaks to something that I think is far more important. So let’s hypothetically imagine that in The War Within, the game just rolls everything back to Wrath of the Lich King. Class design is rolled back to that era. Talents go back to that era. The game embraces the gearing model of two tiers of badges for different tiers of raid gear and all that. The endgame is exactly like it was after Icecrown Citadel was released, and it’s even tuned to the same difficulty. No more Mythic+ whatsoever. Just a straight callback.

And as someone who has long said that this was the best era of the game, I’d say that version of the expansion pack is awful. It’s garbage. No good, throw it out.

But... but we even got cold again for you.

Both numbers and player sentiment paint a clear picture of when WoW was at its height, but a lot of things have changed since those days. The MMO landscape has changed. What players expect from a game have changed. Hardware has changed. That’s not to say that there’s no fun to be found in the older version of the game, but rather to say that the game cannot evolve by going backwards. No one can grow by moving back.

I have seen a lot of well-meaning people whom I believe really do love the game who often advocate that the best thing the game can do is to double down on having fewer optional sidequests… in other words, to make the game much more like one of its rivals. I’ve suggested a lot of gearing options over the years that improve deterministic options without just being “earn currency, buy gear” because the game has done that and moved away from that. And it’s tempting to roll back the clock and wish for a do-over, but people already learned from that – and more importantly implemented that system in a more consistent fashion.

This means that as the game enters its 20th year, it needs to answer a question that is unique among the big games in the MMORPG space because most games already know the answer. It needs to figure out what it is.

This ties into things I’ve already written about how the game having a plan is a big deal, but it goes beyond that as well. There has always been a tension at the heart of WoW from launch, where the designers intended for it to be the most efficient raiding game possible and players embraced the fact that it was both simple to get into and simple to do a lot without grouping. That disconnect has pulled the game back and forth over the years a lot, to the point that no matter what you prefer, people insist the game is really meant to be for their camp but the other camp just isn’t recognizing what they have.

It’s clear now that “this is a game of elitist progression” has not actually worked out very well for the developers. But what is it? You cannot assemble an identity simply by saying what you aren’t. You need some definitive. You need to be something, you can’t just be “not this thing.”

And it has, over the years, been a lot of different things.

What was I made for?

Some of the disconnect in player perception is, honestly, because that answer has changed a lot over 20 years. More than it has in most games that have lasted that long, even. If you believe WoW is a casual game with a lot of non-group content and a relaxing leveling curve, there are definitely times when that has been the case. If you believe it’s a game with a lot of unstructured experiences you can roam around and engage with, there are times when that’s been true. If it’s meant to be a high-difficulty progression contest, that has been true. All of these things have been true, and more besides.

But 20 years out, the game is no longer the huge, titanic force that it once was. And some of that is the same hyper-focus on progression gameplay that I’ve noted many times (which is not a good thing, let’s not mince words), but another part of it is that the game doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it should be. What is this game? When your fans can find dozens of different answers, you have to do a lot of work to really give an answer.

Also, the clownbirds fluttering into the comments with a definition that involves the most gatekeep-y version of WoW Classic properly can just flutter back off. You are wrong. It’s been 20 years. Grow up.

In some ways, I feel like The War Within is actually well-embodied by having Anduin Wrynn as its poster child. Anduin Wrynn was a child when the game first launched. According to lore, he was 10 when the game launched… and if you were 10 in 2004, you’re going to be 30 next year. He’s gone from being a little boy who wanted to be a Priest to being a grown man clad in armor and wielding a sword, still somehow referred to as a Priest for unclear reasons, and while it might seem like a little thing to fixate on, I feel it’s emblematic of so many things that have happened within the game.

Anduin Wrynn is a mess. He’s a mess because over two decades his life has been pulled in so many different directions, had so many ideas layered over him, and now he’s just tired beyond his years and wants to be done. He’s a man standing in front of a new challenge that he’s not sure he’s able to deal with, but at the same time aware that no one else is coming. And just like the game, he has to find an answer to the question of who he is that is something solid and relatable.

Will it happen? I don’t know. Ask me at the end of 2024. All I know for sure is that if the developers can’t find an identity for the game beyond “whatever makes us popular,” it’s going to keep struggling to decide what makes it good in the first place.

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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