Why Shadowlands makes now a great time to get into World of Warcraft

There aren't many games around that remain as popular 16 years after their launch as Blizzard's World of Warcraft is.

The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) is still played by millions of people around the planet and one of the main reasons is the way it's updated with significant expansions.

Shadowlands, the latest expansion, was released this week and for the first time will allow players to pass beyond the veil and see what life is like after death for the game's characters.

But expansions aren't the only thing that keep so many people playing World of Warcraft (WoW) a decade and a half after it launched.

"WoW remains popular after all these years first and foremost because of the community," lead designer Kevin Martens tells Newshub.

"For some people, it's like a second home for them - it's part of their lifestyle, part of what they do all the time. They have their friends there. It's the Cheers bar of videogames."

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands screenshot.
Photo credit: Blizzard

A community can't be stagnant and always needs new members, especially as other members leave it.

Martens says making Shadowlands a great way to get into WoW for the first time was one of the main goals, so they completely revamped the new player experience.

Part of that meant drastically cutting down the slog newbies have to go through to get up to speed.

"There was a time not long ago when you started off as a new player kind of alone. You'd be like 130 hours of playtime away from joining the bulk of the community as you'd have to go through all the old expansions," says Martens. 

"That's the biggest change we've made for people - now you're about 12 - 20 hours away from joining the bulk of the community.

"We've taken all of our previous expansions, made them all into individual experiences you can choose to level up in. Brand new players are sent to the most recent expansion first, after that when they make alternate characters of any class or race they can choose any of the previous expansions to level up in. 

"At the end of that when people reach the new lowered top level of 50, they can go off to the Shadowlands with players of any experience - whether you've been playing constantly for 16 years, or you've just started, you're only a few hours away from joining each other."

Reducing the level cap from 120 down to 50 might sound like it'd be infuriating for experienced players who have put in all those hours to get to the maximum level.

But on WoW message boards and chat groups, there doesn't appear to be a lot of negativity about the move.

"That's because everybody benefits," says Martens. 

"We wanted to make levelling fun again. We've made a grand world with so much to see and do, but it's really hard to make 120 levels mean something. To have something really satisfying in every single level, that was hard to do.

"All of the existing players understand what we're trying to accomplish. If you had a character at level 120 we've artificially lowered that to 50, but we've made everything matter more so each of those levels is more meaningful."

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands screenshot.
Photo credit: Blizzard

Shadowlands Lead Environment Artist Tina Wang agrees the team put "tonnes of work" into the new player experience.

"The pre-launch patch has a great intro experience that teaches you how to play the character," she says.

"It's like a sample platter of all the key elements of WoW, like how to play your class, questing, gives you a taste of agency and navigating the open world, then at the end there's a dungeon experience. You get a full feel of what it's like to play WoW from this intro."

If you have a friend who has been playing WoW for a while, them acting as a guide is probably the best way to get into a game that's as enormous as this one.

But not everyone has a friend like that and not every experienced player knows someone new to the game.

Blizzard has built a system to bring those people together.

"We have a guide system where experienced players volunteer to help new players," says Martens.

"As a brand new player, you're sent to an island called Exile's Reach. There's people of all classes and races there, as well as experienced players in the chat channel waiting to answer your questions and help get you to new locations. This has really improved the overall game."

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands screenshot.
Photo credit: Blizzard

In the years since WoW was launched, the fantasy genre has boomed. Game of Thrones became the biggest TV show in the world and other MMORPGs like The Elder Scrolls Online have popped up and thrived alongside WoW.

"That pushes us to try and create something truly unique. Going to the Shadowlands really gave us a chance to invent," says Wang.

"While we've made fantastical spaces in the past, with Shadowlands we had to think about doing it in a way that made you feel as though you're in a completely different realm of existence.

"One of those key things in Shadowlands is this resource called anima, which a lot of the expansion revolves around. The visual representation of it is these strings, inspired by the threads of fate."

Players are able to experience all of those new, creative ways Blizzard is trying to keep WoW unique this week as Shadowlands has just been released.