WoW Factor: The strange excitement split for World of Warcraft’s The War Within


There’s an interesting aspect I’ve observed about World of Warcraft as we slowly creep toward the release of The War Within. No one who has an interest in this game is excited about the expansion… but at the same time, everyone is. And no, this isn’t a matter of just looking at two opposing community narratives; this is looking at the same community narratives from the same people.

While Dragonflight is not a loathed expansion, the general consensus about it being one of the most expansions of all time is fairly well settled. It’s season 15 of The Simpsons: It’s not actively bad, and at times it still shows the spark that made the work memorable and likable, but you get the sense that everyone just sort of showed up to do exactly the job required and then knocked off early. So players are not exactly eager to see it replaced, but they’re also not not eager for that next expansion. But no one is excited for the expansion, even as they’re excited for basically all the individual features.

What’s going on here? I think there’s an interesting answer in that.

Before I go into that, the first thing to do is understand my bias – you know, that thing I do constantly but is particularly relevant here. Based on every preview that we’ve been shown of The War Within, all of the details of the systems and concepts going on here, I naturally have an opinion about the direction the game is heading. And it is, to nobody’s surprise, broadly positive!

The new hero talents look like a nice twist on the idea, and while they’re not exactly a slam-dunk, they are at least approaching the goal with a solid plan – not to mention that offering a new set of mini-talents where you get a couple choices is just a fun added bit of flavor to begin with. Warbands look like a stellar feature for the game. Delves have lots of potential. There’s very little that’s so far struck me as even value-neutral. Most of it looks really darn good!

So why aren’t I more excited? And not just me, either. I see this narrative repeated over and over, and it goes beyond being tired and annoyed about Blizzard’s other decisions or the awful pre-order early access structure. There is a remarkably consistent throughline of being excited but not.

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It’s hard to be sure, but I think it’s a combination of two issues, and the first of those reasons is simple yet disappointing: We’re all kind of waiting for the “and” in the sentence.

Let me use Warbands as an obvious example: There’s nothing in the previews that makes the concept not sound great. All of these changes are good things. And they were also good things all the long, long while that people have been asking for them, literal years, yet they’ve been approached so slowly and so tepidly that now, when we’re finally getting them, there’s a sense of exhaustion. Hooray, after 20 years of gameplay, we’ve concluded that a game which suggests you play a lot of alts might not want to make you re-grind reputation on every single alt. We know. We knew.

And then? What’s next? Do you have, like… something more to say, or is that non-revelation just… the full extent of it?

Sure, the idea of having quests that offer a one-time reputation reward for account-wide reputations makes perfect sense, but does that also mean that all of my alts are going to need to do the same lengthy questline for lesser rewards? Because that’s not stated outright, but it is possible. And it doesn’t sound fun! Oh, sure, it seems to be counter to what we’ve already seen, but it’s shot through with this sense of “how could this good change turn out to be unpleasant?”

Now, to be clear, I am not predicting that this will turn out to be a remotely bad change or speaking evil into the world. Rather, I’m trying to explain the reason for the reaction. When you get used to something always having a catch, you start to expect it even before it’s announced, and that’s going to taint any excitement. You’re not getting charged up; you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Blizzard has trained players to expect it, so we do.

And that ties directly into the other reason for this oddly muted excitement. If you’re not already fully sold on the WoW content ecosystem, this offers you very few reasons to get invested… and if you already are, it offers you very little to actually excite you beyond that point.

Once again, there is a fine line to cut here. Any long-running game is going to have its own particular content cadence and style of gameplay, and you’re either into that or you’re not. At a certain point, most expansions are just paying for the next couple of years of relevant content, and you’re going to do that because it’s just… what you do. Why would you not? It doesn’t have to excite you; you’re still going to buy it.

A short-term advantage, you say?

But this kind of ties into the same problem Dragonflight had beforehand. It’s not as if The War Within isn’t promising to deliver the content you are already enjoying for another couple of years, but that in and of itself isn’t necessarily exciting. The maps don’t necessarily feel novel or like something the game has never featured, the story is building on such a mess of narrative cul-de-sacs that it’s hard to be invested in any sort of payoff, and none of these features makes you feel as if you’re entering a new era of engaging with WoW in a different fashion.

Look at those Warband features again. Good features? Yes. But they’re good features that just reduce the annoyance at how you already play the game. It isn’t reinventing the idea that your alts all have a bank of shared items as they need, a concept almost as old as MMORPGs; it’s just implementing an easier way to handle that than shuffling all of your reagents back and forth as it comes up. That is pleasant, that is good, but it is not exciting.

This may change as people start getting to experience the new content via testing, and I get a sense that Blizzard is at least partially banking on that, in no small part through its recent attempts to reclaim the narrative about being excited for this expansion instead of anything else launching this summer including WoW’s own content – an initiative that doesn’t appear to be working too well, which is unsurprising as there’s still no actual launch date. But right now it’s still kind of stuck in limbo.

People are looking forward to the expansion, but so far what we’re looking forward to is an atomized set of features that as of yet don’t fit into anything resembling a cohesive whole. There’s time and space for that to change. But that takes a conscious effort, and right now it seems as if it’s just not there. So no one is excited for this expansion, but everyone is excited for it at the same time.

Heck, maybe we’d all feel really different if we just got some kind of confirmed testing date. That might be enough to start the ball rolling.

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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