If anything can bring back lapsed WoW players, it's probably dragons

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(Image credit: Blizzard)

To be a bit cynical about it, World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is exactly the kind of expansion you'd expect from an MMO whose popularity is in decline. It's like a DJ spinning up Party Rock Anthem after their moody Chicago house tracks failed to move the dancefloor. A desperation play? Maybe. But you know you want to party rock just a little. 

Everyone likes dragons, and Dragonflight not only adds dragon riding, it also adds a playable dragon race. Dragons riding dragons! There's no pretense of moderation here. After 18 years, though, I think Blizzard and WoW fans have earned a little dragon expansion, as a treat. It's not as if WoW exclusively picks low-hanging fruit. A decade ago, the big reveal was a race of panda-people. Cataclysm added goblins. I like pandas and goblins, but it's not "Dungeons & Pandas" and Bruce Lee didn't famously star in "Enter The Goblin." Dragons are mythological A-listers.

Not everyone on the WoW subreddit thinks the new playable Dracthyr race looks cool. I've seen them described as "jarring," "awkward," "ugly," and "horrendous." However, a number of fans seem to be at least cautiously optimistic that Blizzard can succeed with Dragonflight by refocusing on the fundamentals: It's a dragon expansion that includes a dragon race, a dragon class, a dragon area, and dragon riding, plus a UI revamp after 18 years, and a professions overhaul.

"We obviously don't know the details, so what they create may still suck, but I take it as a good sign that there's recognition that some foundational (if unsexy) changes need to happen," said one commenter.

One detail I like is that dragon riding actually involves flying drakes around the Dragon Isles, like you're controlling a plane. I was reminded of Larian's under-appreciated Divinity: Dragon Commander, not because WoW's dragon riding looks particularly similar, but because there are only so many dragon-flying games. There's Panzer Dragoon, and you can fly drakes in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Skyrim: Dragonborn, and a handful of other games, but it's not as if anyone's burnt out on it, even though you'd think something as cool as dragon riding would be everywhere.

Funnily, WoW's designers prefer to say that players will "move through the air" on their drakes and not "fly," because flying in WoW already refers to use of a flying mount, and the drakes are a special feature of the Dragon Isles. Squeezing new dragon stuff into an 18-year-old game is tricky.

Another more contentious distinction is that the Dracthyr race will be limited to a special new class made just for the Dracthyr. The explanation is that there wasn't a good way to knit together the Dracthyr's unique physical abilities—having wings, mainly—with the existing class types, so they'll have to use the new Evoker class. Game director Ion Hazzikostas says the Evoker class combines the Dracthyr's magic abilities with their physical ability to strafe battlefields and flap their wings for a knockback gust, as two examples.

It's a little disappointing that you can't play a Dracthyr rogue or a Dracthyr monk, as you could if you were a Dragonborn in D&D, where racial traits and class traits coexist. On the other hand, if the alternative was that WoW's Dracthyr just played like scaly humans, then maybe setting boundaries that emphasize their draconic nature is the right choice, even if it limits their long-term appeal. It is one of the most disliked aspects of the announcement so far, though. Some wonder why Blizzard won't let Dracthyr pick other classes so long as they stay in their humanoid forms.

On that note, I think Dragonflight's best feature—or at least, most likely to be popular—might be that the Dracthyr have a humanoid "visage" form and a draconic form. Both are customizable, so you basically get to create two characters: a horned humanoid and a big naked dragon. I've been on the internet long enough to know that there's desire to embody both ends of that spectrum. And shapeshifting is always fun; there's no way I'm playing through Divinity: Original Sin 2 without picking up the Mask of the Shapeshifter.

The way the Dracthyr look is another big topic of complaints, though. Some absolutely hate the dragon bodies, and even among those who don't outright reject Blizzard's idea of what nude, winged lizards should look like, I've seen complaints that they're too slender. Perhaps a downside of focusing on creatures as popular as dragons is that there are a lot of pre-existing opinions about what they ought to be like. It's like trying to tell my nieces, the world's foremost authorities on mermaids, something about mermaids. I'm invariably wrong.

To me, the Dracthyr look like what you'd expect dragon people to look like in World of Warcraft, where orcs are green dudes with underbites: somewhat generic and cartooney and fine. 

I wonder if a more common response will turn out to be that of lapsed WoW player and CCG pro Brian Kibler, who joked on Twitter that he might consider returning to WoW just to play as a dragon. It feels like a good sign that, although I've only really dabbled in WoW over the years, the expansion is straightforward enough for even me to understand. It's about dragons: riding them and being them, because everyone likes them. If there's an expansion theme better suited to bring back lapsed WoW players, I don't know what it is. Hopefully it delivers.

World of Warcraft: Dragonflight doesn't have a release date yet, but there'll be an alpha sometime soon. We've collected all the details here.

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Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.