World of Warcraft devs dive deep on why The Worldsoul Saga is a new era of WoW
Sitting in the Anaheim Convention Theatre while Blizzard discussed the future of World of Warcraft was a surreal experience for everyone involved. Chris Metzen took the stage after returning to the company from a seven-year hiatus, and the excitement was palpable. Ever the hype-man, he held the throngs of Blizzard fans in the palm of his hand, them hanging on his every word.
What followed was unheard of in the history of World of Warcraft. The studio didn’t just announce the next expansion for fans to look forward to, but the next three - spread over a whole new story arc dubbed “The Worldsoul Saga”. Metzen himself described this as the culmination of 20 years of storytelling, with it touted to pave the way for the following two decades.
Hyperbole or not, it’s a sentiment that seems to be shared by other senior developers at Blizzard. Morgan Day and George Velev, Associate Game Director and Game Producer on the game respectively, echoed similar thoughts, indicating that it’s not just World of Warcraft that’s approaching a new era, but Activision Blizzard, too.
Dawn of a new era for World of Warcraft
My biggest question when speaking to Day and Velev was what steered the team towards announcing three expansions at once as opposed to the usual prescription of one. From speaking with plenty of World of Warcraft players, both active and lapsed, I gather that the last few expansions have delivered in terms of quality content, but the game has certainly lacked an injection of energy to excite existing fans and encourage old ones to return.
“Reflecting on 20 years of World of Warcraft and what that means to us, this is an opportunity to do something really bold and exciting. That all starts with The War Within,” Day tells me, with The War Within being the first expansion in The Worldsouls Saga, launching towards the end of 2024. “It just felt like a great opportunity to really focus on the world of Azeroth and how far we’ve come.”
The War Within was revealed, as most WoW expansions are, with a gorgeous cinematic trailer. Not only did it trigger a ravenous round of applause at the BlizzCon Opening Ceremony, but it continued to do so as it played regularly across the show floor. Attendees may well have been able to recite the script word for word by the end of the weekend, but they almost certainly weren’t complaining.
What’s especially striking about The War Within trailer is that it features next to no ‘Warcraft’, so to speak. No winged dragons raining fire upon a battlefield as the legions of the Horde fight it out with the Alliance. Instead, we see two classic characters put aside their differences through a tearful, meaningful exchange, before banding together to address the apparent looming threat to Azeroth.
“One of the things I love about the game is its wide breadth of not only gameplay from all types of players but also the story,” Day explains as I ask him if this change of tone is indicative of WoW’s new direction. “You’ve got these heartfelt moments like we saw between Anduin and Thrall, and then there’s silly, whimsy things that happen all across the world as well.
“We would never want to lose that aspect of World of Warcraft where there’s the opportunity for whimsy and silliness. But that was something we thought would be a great way to kick off the saga of this human element of the characters that we’ve been following for so long,” he continues.
So, while the scale of The Worldsoul Saga may seem more grandiose than the expansions before it, the whimsy DNA of WoW is still very much present. “I think that’s telling of the character arc, the story, and the progression that we want to see these really grounded stories that happen in these small moments. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll change the way storytelling happens. It’s just the breadth of stories that we want to tell,” Day finishes.
Day and Velev also discussed plenty of the new gameplay features arriving with The War Within, which we’ve covered separately in our guide on how each of the three expansions will fit into The Worldsoul Saga.
WoW is no longer the only dominant MMO in this space
Something else to consider when looking at the MMO space at large is that World of Warcraft isn’t the only active player here any longer. While WoW most certainly popularised the genre, bringing it to the masses in 2004 and cementing itself in pop culture, recent years have seen other MMOs skyrocket in popularity - most notably Square Enix’s FFXIV.
Looking purely at the active player count of each game, World of Warcraft still averages no measly feat of 1.2 million daily players, but it’s certainly seen a downward trend over the last few years. On the contrary, FFXIV has seen a steady increase over the same period, now averaging around a similar number of 1.2 million players logging in every single day.
Most gamers only have so many hours in the day, so juggling multiple characters in one MMO is a feat in and of itself, never mind trying to break into a whole other world of opportunity. However, when asked whether there’s a sense of competition between WoW and FFXIV, both Velev and Day reckon that there’s space in the gaming world to co-exist.
“I play Final Fantasy XIV,” Velev tells me. “I can’t speak for the sense of competition, but I think it’s really exciting for me to have another role to play besides WoW. There are certain things that I think both games can learn from each other, and there are so many games out there to play that it’s hard to say that Final Fantasy's existing hurts WoW or the other way around.”
Day expresses the same sentiment, explaining that WoW remains the team’s passion, but there’s plenty FFXIV does that the team at Blizzard can admire: “I love how [Square Enix] leverages that older content that they have and really bring it to life, and that’s something that we’ve been exploring. We’re revisiting some of our legacy dungeons in our Mythic Plus season. That was something where we said ‘How do we bring this amazing content back to life?’, and we’ve definitely taken inspiration from that.”
A watershed moment, for both Blizzard and World of Warcraft
BlizzCon 2023 was the first in-person event after a four-year hiatus, following the pandemic that threw a spanner in the works of all global travel and in-person events. Now that’s mostly behind us, both Velev and Day expressed that coming back to BlizzCon “felt like coming home”, in a sense. “I didn’t realise how much I missed this in the last four years until you get a chance to walk around and feel all the energy of the people and see how excited everyone is,” Day elaborates.
While this was my first attendance at BlizzCon, I gather that the format of this event was a little different to the last few. Panels were all hosted in a singular theatre, leaving more space for the show floor to host experiential exhibits, with plenty of themed artwork, displays, shows, and even developer meet and greets. All the while, the panels were beamed live to screens situated around the entire convention centre, meaning no one would miss any of the action.
The changes don’t stop there, either. In the four-year gap since Blizzard's last self-titled convention, there have been public revelations as to what select Blizzard employees allegedly got up to after-hours at previous BlizzCons - namely, the Cosby Suite debacle. Throw in accusations of Blizzard threatening employees who dared to speak out about sexual harassment in the workplace, and allegations of spying on employees during a union drive, and the company has a lot of good grace to claw back in the eyes of its consumers.
While not confirmed to be a direct result of these allegations, BlizzCon 2023 was a completely dry event, meaning no alcohol was served inside the convention hall, nor was any allowed onto the premises at any time. According to the show’s strict code of conduct, consumption of alcohol or visible intoxication on the premises would result in immediate ejection from the event. This extended to all press and Blizzard employees attending BlizzCon 2023, too.
What’s more, there was a noticeable increase in the visibility of women in senior positions at Blizzard studios, both during the Opening Ceremony and in the panel shows that followed. It may not entirely speak to what could be going on internally at Blizzard currently, and it most certainly doesn’t make up for the years of alleged abuse that employees have spoken out about, but it’s a responsible step in the right direction.
This watershed moment for Blizzard is exemplified even further in the return of Metzen to the World of Warcraft team. Day explains how the team is really excited to see him return, saying “He has such an amazing vision for the Warcraft universe as the person that laid all the foundations of it.” It sounds as though if there’s anyone to lead the massive team of talented developers at Blizzard, they’re in the best hands they can be with Metzen.
There’s also the Microsoft acquisition of Blizzard to consider. While Day and Velev rather obviously couldn’t reveal any details on how that might affect World of Warcraft, and Blizzard more broadly, they did disclose that, “It was really cool to hear Phil [Spencer]’s vision, and I’m sure that there will be news coming in the not too distant future.”
This ‘new era’ of World of Warcraft is still a way off, with The War Within slated for launch in late 2024. Lots can happen between then, but one thing’s for certain - it feels good to be excited for something Blizzard-related once again.