They had me at 'pet battle system'. Casual WoW is back. At Blizzcon, Blizzard outlined their philosophy for what they're attempting to achieve with the next, and possibly most important, expansion pack ever. More activities. More entertainment. More time spent out in the overworld. More time competing with your guildmates and server friends. Less time spent in the cities waiting for your dungeon group or arena team to start.
The problem Blizzard face is that the World of Warcraft player population is ageing; and with it, their interest in spending hour upon hour raiding is drifting. The long-term playerbase began asking awkward questions like “what am I achieving?” and “why am I playing if I'm not having fun?” Blizzard's response: put some fun back in.
So now we have the star attraction – slovenly bears with giant paunches, living a life of beer and entertainment while cruising the seas on the back of a giant turtle. We have a new class, the Monk, complete with a combat model that does away with auto-attack entirely. They can punch, they can hit. They can also tank, heal and do damage. For those players who like to click a lot, the monk is for you.
There are new ways to develop your character. The talent system takes its cues from Modern Warfare's perks; rather than ploughing points into trees of statistical bonuses, at set intervals you'll be asked to make a choice from three competing abilities. It makes those cloned systems in competing games feel obsolete. There's a rebalance of combat abilities, a rethink of how players graduate to raiding (hello easy-mode raid finder), and six new zones.
There are new ways to play WoW, too; ways that don't involve raiding. There's the new dungeon challenges – asking you to beat bronze, silver and gold par times in groups of five – with leaderboards and rewards for the swiftest.
But... pet battles! This proves, yet again, that WoW is just a hole into which Blizzard are happy to throw whatever makes players happy. And what definitely makes players happy is Pokémon. You'll be able to train your non-combat pets and take them into battles against monsters and trainers across the overworld, or against players. There will be Pet Battle Masters, rare pets, seasonal pets, even pet talents. Expect it to develop into a complete subculture – one that can be levelled through without reaching max level.
In 2011 WoW began a steady decline in player numbers; 2012 is make or break. If Pandaria works, WoW will remain the dominant force in MMO gaming. If it doesn't, expect a free-to-play version to arrive sooner than expected; one that will probably involve buying pets.