'We know that we have a lot of work to do on new player acquisition,' Blizzard discusses the World of Warcraft new player experience, and plans to improve it

 The War Within World of Warcraft.
The War Within World of Warcraft.

What you need to know

  • World of Warcraft is one of the industry's biggest success stories, with non-stop operation for very almost 20 years.

  • Now owned by Microsoft, World of Warcraft has recently had a successful run with its Dragonflight expansion, alongside World of Warcraft: Classic modes.

  • The next expansion, The War Within, just hit alpha testing ahead of an expected Q3 2024 launch.

  • Recently, we attended an event in London to discuss The War Within with Executive Producer Holly Longdale and Associate Game Director Maria Hamilton.

  • Holly acknowledged that the new-player experience is less than ideal, and said that improving it will be a big focus in the future.

  • Maria Hamilton noted that the Horde vs. Alliance faction tension still has potential to flare up again, despite the current truce — but allowing individual players to play together cross-faction will remain in place, even if there was a wider faction conflict some day again.

World of Warcraft enters its 20th year in 2024, marking an incredible run for one of the industry's biggest success stories. Yet, Blizzard is still not done.

Launching later this year, expected around Q3 2024, Blizzard is launching The War Within. The latest expansion for World of Warcraft also kickstarts a new Worldsoul Saga, with expansions Midnight and The Last Titan also already revealed.

Recently, we had an opportunity to play The War Within's early alpha version, and go hands-on with the games new Delve mini-dungeons, flavor-rich Hero Talents, and new Warbands feature. We also enjoyed the privilege to speak to Vice President and Executive Producer Holly Longdale, and Associate Game Director Maria Hamilton about World of Warcraft's past, present, and future.

For this first piece of content we have coming on World of Warcraft: The War Within, we asked about World of Warcraft's new player experience, which has arguably been lacking in recent years. What are the big problems with WoW's onboarding process, and is Blizzard planning to address it? Here's what Blizzard had to say on the topic.

The state of World of Warcraft's new player experience, and general immersion

The War Within World of Warcraft
The War Within World of Warcraft

Top recommendations

- Best PC gaming headsets
Best gaming laptops
Best gaming keyboards
Best gaming mice

I've recently been trying to figure out what the fourth character in my 4-man Warband would be. Warbands let you pool all achievements, progression, transmog unlocks, and other systems into a single "Warband," made up of your four main characters. Right now I have Blood Death Knight, Discipline Priest, and Demonology Warlock in my stable, and I need something else suitably emo to complete my band. While deciding between Subtlety Rogue or Havoc Demon Hunter, I embarked upon WoW's current "new player" experience, which leads players through a tutorial island called Exile's Reach, and then punts them into the Battle for Azeroth expansion, which is several years old at this point.

Exile's Reach is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it gives you little to no context of your place within the "World" of Warcraft. There's no real introduction to your race, class, or lands that make up Azeroth. Previously, each race had its own unique starting area, complete with an introductory cutscene, and several quest zones dedicated to your race's flavor and backstory. If you were Forsaken, you resurrected in a crypt and traversed several plague-ridden desolate forests before emerging into the wider world. If you were an orc, you braved the Valley of Trials before embarking into sun-blasted savannahs surrounding the infamous Crossroads. Elves discovered their own enchanted forests, and humans defended their lands from encroaching threats from the southern jungles, and treacherous volcanic mountains to the north. Exile's Reach delivers none of that fantasy, and none of that flavor, and Blizzard tends to agree.

Holly Longdale acknowledged that over the years, Blizzard's focus has revolved around retaining existing players, and catering to the endgame. "Content gaps are not great," Holly admitted, discussing previous expansions like Shadowlands. "We were also getting data showing how different player segments were being served. We looked at new players coming into [World of Warcraft], right? And then, how were they bouncing out. We know that we have a lot of work to do on new player acquisition, but we hadn't been focusing there, we were focused on retention."

Holly elaborated that "casual" players come in to enjoy the story campaign, but typically don't stick around after the fact, which is where features like Delves come in. Delves are mini-dungeons that players can complete solo, and earn powerful rewards on a weekly basis via the gear vault, previously exclusively tied to Mythic+, PvP, and raid group content. Blizzard also worked hard on building new events across WoW Classic, and experiments like the recent battle royale "Plunderstorm," which Holly says helped them boost overall player retention.

The War Within World of Warcraft
The War Within World of Warcraft

"We set goals for ourselves, actual metrics on what "retention" would mean. And we beat those. So thanks, players, that's great! But user acquisition is a weakness." Holly conceded, "We do get players that come in. And then there's a part of the onboarding experience where we lose them. And so — very important to us — that's one of the pillars that we're going to be chasing the future."

"There's a bunch of challenges. How do we tell 20 years of story? So players get a really good healthy intro. I do think this idea of the player fantasy with the race you choose ... I loved logging in, and still do, as a night elf, going through Teldrassil, and doing all this stuff. Without that, for me, personally — I'm not as bonded to my race, and I don't feel that purpose as much. So, I think we're going to explore that more. There is work to do there. And that's something that we want to aim for in the future."

I made the point to Associate Director Maria Hamilton that, with World of Warcraft's iconic Horde and Alliance factions now in a "truce" period to allow players from either side to play together, the game feels like it has lost some of its identity as a result. It stems a bit into the general World of Warcraft new player experience and feeling bonded, rather than disoriented when entering the world for the first time. Maria teased that things might not always stay peachy between the Horde and Alliance, even if the philosophy is allowing players to play together primarily.

"I don't think we want to get rid of that faction identity at all," Maria emphasized, "I think that that's important. And I know that things that happen later in The War Within — we'll delve into some of that. But at the heart of it, the philosophy is more about friends being able to play with each other."

"We want to make sure the stories do still show that tension [between Horde and Alliance], and there is certainly more potential for that tension, right? We've seen some some with the Forsaken andnd with the Gilneans recently. They don't love each other. The the factions have cooperated in times where they needed to, by necessity — not because they loved each other. They unite, and then they always fall out. I think that's a safe bet that you're not going to stay friendly. You know, individuals may stay friendly, but maybe not factionally."

So, how could Blizzard fix it?

The War Within World of Warcraft
The War Within World of Warcraft

Maria Hamilton noted that in The War Within, new players will be pointed to the Exile's Reach tutorial island, and then emerge in Dragonflight, rather than Battle for Azeroth. Dragonflight's self-contained story and more modern content should provide a better experience for players than Battle for Azeroth did in yesteryear, given the fact Battle for Azeroth takes place right in the middle of a major storyline saga. Dragonflight essentially kicks off a new one after a short time skip, and should serve as a better onboarding point.

However, I personally still don't think it's good enough.

The classic World of Warcraft experience of cultural areas like Mulgore, Teldrassil, Gilneas, or even Kezan provide a much better and far more immersive introduction to the game. The Cataclysm revamped levelling experience through the old Azeroth zones also provides a far bigger, more epic "adventure" than what is offered even in Dragonflight. That RPG feeling of essentially as a trainee soldier in the Horde or Alliance army, and gradually growing into your power, eventually working alongside major characters — is totally absent for new players in modern WoW. It's this lack of RPG feel that makes it so hard to get new players into the game these days, and also I think why WoW Classic has been so popular for players wanting a deeper RPG experience.

It's easy in my view how Blizzard could prepare World of Warcraft for the new generation. Another Cataclysm-style revamp of the old Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms lands, including a revamp for the new player starting areas, with new low-stakes characters and enemies that could serve as evergreen context, would be absolutely ideal. Right now it makes no sense to see Sylvanas or Garrosh in the Cataclysm levelling experience from a timeline perspective, and the "Chromie Time" time-travelling explanation feels like a band-aid over a much bigger, much more confusing problem.

The War Within World of Warcraft
The War Within World of Warcraft

I would make a set of characters whose sole job is to basically stay within those old lands. Smaller low-stakes enemies that exist only in those areas, and are essentially defeated when players beat them in the game's various, forgotten classic dungeons. Those zones don't need major characters or high-stakes cutscenes and things of this nature. And if you did want to sprinkle in a cameo from a faction leader here and there, make it so that they'd be easily replaceable to keep those areas feeling "evergreen." There will always be new quillboar threats in the Barrens. There will always be the odd demon making their way down from Felwood. Duskwood will always have its cursed creatures, and so on. The old world still has vast potential, even without a major graphics pass — although that would be nice too, time permitting.

Exile's Reach and Dragonflight cannot, and will not, be able to replace that feeling of traversing Silverpine or Duskwood the first time. Hopefully, Blizzard will re-tread these lands in the future, with a more "future-proofed" mentality than Cataclysm's previous revamp had.

The War Within is shaping up nicely, regardless

World of Warcraft: The War Within has no fixed launch date, but most expect it to launch somewhere in the Autumn if the usual alpha development timelines line up. The major features include mini dungeons in the form of Delves, a new major raid, a ton of new dungeons, four large new areas, Earthen playable race on both Horde and Alliance, and much more.

It's looking like another win for the World of Warcraft team, after the generally well-received Dragonflight expansion, which re-focused the game's philosophy on evergreen upgrades to the experience rather than transitory, expansion-only features.

Where the aging MMO goes from here is anyone's guess, but there's clearly still tons of potential left to find here. An Xbox version? A hit Warcraft TV show like Fallout on Prime? Will I finally get playable ogres?! Only time will tell.

One thing is for certain: I'll be playing until the servers are eventually turned off.