After 15 years and seven expansions, World of Warcraft has become the content equivalent of a foot-tall (not -long) sandwich constructed by an overly ambitious stoner. At this point, it’s teetering under the weight of pieces that, in hindsight, don’t really fit. That’s why the World of Warcraft team has decided to cut the leveling experience down to size.
The game’s eighth expansion, Shadowlands, will introduce what developer Blizzard is calling a “level squish.” The current maximum level of 120 will be reduced to 50, and at the same time, the game will receive a new starting experience that lets players hit the ground running in an all-new area and learn the basics alongside other neophytes. Then, once they hit level ten, they’ll be set loose in WoW’s current most recent expansion, Battle For Azeroth, to level up to 50 and learn the story so far. Immediately after hitting 50, they’ll dive straight into Shadowlands.
This is a big change from the previous progression, which saw players wind their way through multiple expansions, some of which have not aged well. More recently, the WoW team introduced level scaling to older zones, which allows players to vary up the order in which they time-warp through the game’s increasingly distant past. But it was still a lot to ask new players to grapple with, so that’s why it’s changing.
“Through countless playtests and also hearing from our own friends, it can be a little daunting for someone to come into WoW for the first time,” executive producer John Hight told Kotaku at BlizzCon. “Asking players to traverse through all of our many expansions and especially trying to have an even level experience [is a tall order]. So if you’ve never played WoW, or maybe it’s been many, many years since you played WoW, you start a level one character, we’re going to put you in a carefully crafted experience not just by yourself, but with fellow newbs... You’ll naturally hopefully form a lot of good friendships and connections in that. You won’t be subject to high-level players ganking you when you should be learning the basics.”
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This new approach, Hight and company hope, will not only be simpler, but also more satisfying. 120 is a lot of levels, and currently, cool abilities and other unlocks are spread pretty thinly between them. The new 1-50 progression, on the other hand, should give players something to look forward to every time they level up.
“We want to make sure that, when you level, you get something cool,” said Hight. “An ability. It isn’t just ‘ding’ and a light goes off. You’re gonna have something new to do as a result of it. You’re chasing something.”
For those of you who love big numbers and wear them as badges of pride, this might be a bit distressing. Fifty, after all, is a much smaller number than 120. At this point, though, it’s largely an aesthetic difference. “You’ll have the same power,” said Hight. “Your power versus the things you were battling the moment before will be the same.”
The new system will also, the team expects, feel faster and less grind-y. Basically, instead of climbing a winding staircase up to new expansion content, you’ll be riding an escalator.
“That was some of the feedback we were getting as we started the scaling efforts back in Legion, is that scaling is good and offers more flexibility, but overall it feels too slow,” said senior game designer Johnny Cash. Leveling to 50, he noted, will be “overall faster” than the steep trudge to 120.
If you’re not a new player, you’ll also have the option to pick which expansion you go through to level up to 50. Maybe you prefer Wrath of the Lich King’s story or Legion’s environments, for example. Regardless, every expansion should take roughly the same amount of time to complete.
“It’s not gonna be a grind,” said Hight. “Our goal is to have it be a fun experience and about the same time duration no matter which expansion you choose.”
This approach could divide the game’s player base, but Hight isn’t too worried about that potential consequence of overhauling things so significantly.
“We have the technology to bring people together,” he said. “You can play cross-realm. So hopefully [under-population] won’t be an issue. But if you’re playing an alt, you should have some established social groups. And if you’re a brand new player, that’s one of the reasons we’re directing all players to the same Battle For Azeroth experience.”
Ultimately, the goal is to make the whole process a fun ride instead of a dull grind. “You’re always getting something, whether it’s a content unlock or a buff to an ability,” said Cash. “So between those things, it should be a more satisfying experience reach max level.”