There’s finally new hope for World of Warcraft

After several missteps, Blizzard finally seems to be building the right foundations for World of Warcraft's future.
World of Warcraft The World Within

BlizzCon 2023 was an event full of ups and downs for fans of Blizzard Entertainment’s games. A far lower profile for esports than at the last live event in 2019 left the future of Overwatch 2 with several question marks. And StarCraft? Not a whisper. But at the other extreme, World of Warcraft enthusiasts were in heaven.

If the rockstar-like return of the game’s original and beloved creative leader, Chris Metzen, wasn’t enough, he took to the stage and with all the fanfare of a veteran circus master, announced “The Worldsoul Saga.” For the first time ever, World of Warcraft (WoW) was revealing not just one expansion, but the next three expansions, with an interconnected storyline set at the literal heart of franchise lore. 

The promise? On the game’s 20th anniversary in 2024, Blizzard will initiate a storyline that will play out Warcraft’s most fundamental battle between Chaos and Order, Shadow and Light, Old Gods and Titans. As story beats go, it’s as big as it gets for Warcraft. And unlike some of Blizzard’s missteps in recent years, this one feels closer to something you can argue that the company has earned.

world of warcraf expansions future
Chris Metzen at BlizzCon 2023. (Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment)

Renew and refocus

Even leaving aside the company’s toxic work culture controversy, WoW had a rough pandemic era. After a mixed response to its Battle For Azeroth expansion in 2018-2019, Shadowlands launched in 2020 and its story was seen as a significant failure. Taking players into the realms of the afterlife, they were fighting the forces of The Jailer – a mysterious never-before-seen villain who, game leadership assured us, was secretly behind many of the stories we’d already played through in the past. For real. Please believe us.

Players, and the lore nerds in particular, did not buy it.

Thankfully, when Dragonflight arrived in 2022, its themes of renewal were a fitting experience for a company moving back into the light. But it maintained this cycle of ‘whole new expansion, whole new story’, with a jarring shift from one story to the next. Connective tissue always seemed to be an afterthought, with each ending always alluding to something ‘bigger badder’ lurking somewhere but no real flow or continuity to the game’s fundamental lore. Never a real sense of closure when you defeat the final boss.

In Dragonflight’s case, the game was drawing a big line to put some distance between Shadowlands and our journey to the Dragon Isles. In the lore, they even inserted a five-year time skip to make the new expansion a clear departure from the one before. And knowing what we know now, players can see we’re in the beginnings of the story that will become The Worldsoul Saga when its first phase, The War Within, launches next year.

The War Within. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Earning your Moments

The Worldsoul Saga speaks to the biggest question in creative storytelling. What does it mean to really earn your big moments? Throughout the history of Warcraft – since its origins as a strategy game in 1994 – there has always been a through line. The world, its environments, its leading heroes, and its forces of darkness have all been developed and evolved with a sense of continuity. Books and comics have fleshed out key moments along the way. And a series of Chronicles volumes offered a deep dive into the history of the universe itself.

(Side note: When I mention Chronicles, I know there will be some readers ready to say “Umm, actually… they have now said that the Chronicles are a history only from the Titan perspective and not a true history of–” and I hear you, though I’m pretty sure that only serves to make my point.)

The deep story lore is right there, but expansions consistently dance around the fundamentals. In Legion (a fan-favourite expansion), we got close. Players battled one of the all-time great threats to the universe, the Burning Legion. They wielded the greatest weapons from throughout the history of the game’s lore. At its conclusion, the fallen titan Sargeras slams a giant sword into Azeroth. And after giving it some attention in the expansion that followed, we’ve spent the next two ignoring this planet-sized sword sticking out of our world like it’s just some fancy garden feature.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Meanwhile, when WoW introduced The Jailer and was playing out its Shadowlands storyline, Final Fantasy XIV was delivering Endwalker. Unlike Warcraft, FFXIV had been building something year over year since launch, and Endwalker brought this story to a solid conclusion. MMO fans rightly praised this ten-year journey for giving devotees a payoff worthy of their thousands of hours of commitment.

It’s hard not to believe that the story leadership at WoW felt a little envious of what was happening at FFXIV. As mentioned, they worked a little too hard to tell fans that The Jailer was secretly behind many of the biggest moments in all of Warcraft history. But it just didn’t land. Where was the evidence? Where were the clues? It felt like pure retcon, upending player expectations instead of fulfilling them. You just can’t demand players accept an entirely new villain as the resolution of 15 years of storylines.

And that’s the trick. To earn your story moments, fans need to feel the weight of plotting and scheming and carefully planted seeds that we can look back to after the fact, and feel a clear connection with. To earn your story moments, you need to nurture them over an extended period of time and demonstrate you knew what you were doing all along (or at least fake it really, really well). The ten years of cinema that led to Avengers: Endgame is why Endgame worked so well.

Titanic conclusions

“What sword?”

This phrase became quite the meme when the WoW Game Director was asked about why we’d been ignoring that gargantuan thing for so many years. At Blizzcon, with The Worldsoul Saga announcement, it even became a t-shirt.

The announcement included a teaser video, featuring two venerable heroes of Azeroth discussing the past, and the future, and eventually, we see they were looking at That Sword. Finally, we were going to deal with the why of that thing being jammed into our planet in the first place.

As Metzen detailed the storylines to come, there was – for the first time in Warcraft history – a real sense of how the game’s history would be gathered into one epic scenario for lifelong fans to enjoy. Not many video games get to play with a history longer than some of its adult players have been alive.

According to the lore, the Titans set order to the world of Azeroth, and this order was corrupted by the Old Gods. And Azeroth itself is more than just a planet. It has a soul that may one day be born to become a Titan. Perhaps The Last Titan (the name of the third expansion in the saga). That’s been part of the underlying myth for a very long time. Thus, The Worldsoul Saga sets players on a course toward that final confrontation between Titans and Old Gods for what Azeroth will become.

In a classic diagram of the Warcraft pantheon, Order and The Void are the first and ultimate forces in this universe. When Metzen said “we are playing for all the marbles,” it signalled the game is heading to a finale with real stakes in the lore of the world fans have called home for two decades. By the conclusion, three expansions deep, it will be right around World of Warcraft’s 25-year milestone.

BlizzCon 2023. Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Of course, that leads to other big questions. What lies beyond the Titans and the Old Gods? How can you resolve these underlying forces of the universe and continue your MMO beyond them? Marvel is certainly struggling in its post-Thanos era. But FFXIV is thriving as it explores new ideas, weaving another fresh saga for its players to enjoy.

Great writing lies in tackling the big stories, weaving threads together into satisfying narratives and, if things go well, epic conclusions. Offering World of Warcraft fans a clear vision for the future of the game gives everyone something to look forward to. And, hopefully, giving its writers the task of delivering a conclusion to one era in a way that opens the door to new horizons beyond is a challenge that everyone can feel inspired by.

As the Activision Blizzard era ends and Blizzard becomes a Microsoft company, it feels like the perfect time for the Warcraft team to reset the company’s take on what it means to be an MMO.

Seamus Byrne is a human content machine covering tech, digital cultures, and the future of everything. He first dabbled in games writing in ye olde print publishing era for titles like Hyper, PC Powerplay, and Atomic, before turning digital to work with sites like Gizmodo, Kotaku, and CNET. You'll bump into his voice on ABC radio, find his other writing at Byteside, or follow him on Threads, Mastodon, and BlueSky.