World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview: remembering where you came from

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Written by Kat Bailey

In an industry known for tightly controlling what is said to the press, World of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi is refreshingly candid about some of his regrets.

"Over the years, we've kind of overlooked the Draeni," Afrasiabi admits, referring to the race that was added, along with the Blood Elves, back in 2007’s The Burning Crusade expansion. First mentioned in lore by way of a Warcraft II manual mention, the Draeni haven't exactly gotten the attention afforded the Night Elves or Tauren, and Afrasiabi partly blames himself.

"I think we didn't understand the Draeni," he says. "Things that are more high-concept are harder to wrap your minds around. As designers, we're no different. And when you don't understand the guy, you start to ask, 'How do I write this guy?' These are hurdles I think we've all figured out, but they came sequentially, and over years. All the lore that has accumulated over the years didn't exist so we were kind of flying blind."

All this time later, Afrasiabi is in the interesting position to address some of those long-time regrets with Warlords of Draenor—the latest WoW expansion, due out this year. Also on his bucket list: player housing; a new sandbox PvP zone featuring bases, vehicles, and quests, and much-improved character models. It's the sort of feature list meant to satisfy the game’s long-standing, hardcore base. You won't find any major features along the lines of Mists of Pandaria's pet battling in Warlords of Draenor, but each minor feature will hopefully add up to improved player experiences.

The basic premise alone screams "hardcore." In Warlords of Draenor, Garrosh Hellscream—the primary antagonist of Mists of Pandaria—escapes and teams up with a time-traveling ally to go back in time to the period before the destruction of Draenor, which for Afrasiabi is an opportunity to bring back old-school Warcraft.

"We felt like it was a crime that the [warlords from Warcraft and Warcraft II] aren't well-known. They were some badass characters," he says. "So we thought: what if we got these guys back together? How much of a threat would that be? What would it be like biggest, baddest orc war chiefs working together under one banner?"

Hence the return of names such as Orgrim Doomhammer or Kilrogg Deadeye—classic characters who for various reasons failed to live long enough to make a big impact on WoW. In the process, Warlords will also answer various questions that may or may not have popped into the heads of players as they've explored Outland over the years. What was Draenor like when it had in ocean? Where are the Frost Wolves from? What's Draeni civilization like outside of the various temples?

For the long-time Warcraft fans out there—and there are still a fair few—it ought to be a nice little treat. For those who still remember the series' real-time strategy days, it'll bring about pangs of nostalgia. Either way, it's a premise developed specifically with hardcore fans in mind; and at this point in World of Warcraft's life cycle, it's the right approach. Having been around for close to a decade now, World of WarCraft’s subscriber base has been steadily declining, dropping from a peak of around 12 million users in 2010 to around 7.8 million users at the end of 2013. As the userbase declines, the players that remain will naturally be hardcore players; and in that light, it’s best to keep them happy.

Of course, Blizzard can’t address every item on the hardcore Warcraft fan's wishlist. Despite the inclusion of Draenor, Outland will not be getting a makeover in the style of Cataclysm. And while the Draeni will feature rather heavily in Warlords of Draenor's storyline, they aren't getting a fresh start where it counts—their starting zone.

"I'd love to update the Draeni starting zone. I have crazy ideas I've been mulling over. I don't think it's on the table for the shipping part of this expansion. There's a lot of stuff to do," Afrasiabi admits. "We might be able to get a couple wink-wink elements into the starting area, but I'm not sure the bang for the buck is quite high enough for this expansion."

The most significant addition in Warlords isn’t related to the lore at all, but to the metagame: Blizzard will offer either a one-time instant upgrade to level 90 for one character or a free level 90 alt. Some among the community have expressed concern that the game will suddenly be flooded with level 90 newbies who have no idea how to play the game, but Afrasiabi is ready. "We've weighed the pros and cons, but the pro of being able to play the expansion immediately is so massive,” he says. “WoW is a social game. The ability to play with your friends is integral.”

Oddly enough, that one change may make Warlords of Draenor the most accessible World of WarCraft expansion to date, despite being mostly geared toward long-time players. It’s a clever gambit that gives veterans the opportunity to evangelize the game to their friends without having to roll a new character and start anew. In the meantime, hardcore fans will be getting the sort of additions that ought to keep them happy—a new zone, better graphics, lots of mechanical improvements. It's not a complete refresh by any means, but it’ll be enough to keep the fans happy for a little while along. And after nine years, that might be just what World of Warcraft needs.