There’s a predictable cycle to pop culture phenomenons: hyper popularity for a few years, followed by dismissal as something that’s “over,” followed eventually by nostalgia. World of Warcraft, once the online game everyone was playing, weathered that slump and is now well aware that the surge of players returning to the game with last summer’s Legion expansion are here for the nostalgia.
To be fair, WoW was never exactly dead – when Activision Blizzard stopped publicly reporting at the end of 2015, it only had half the subscribers it had at its peak, but that still left it with 5.5 million players. Much of that was thanks to the game finally catching on in China, where distribution and then censorship problems bogged it down until it was cooling off in the US and Europe. (This also helps explain why last year’s Warcraft movie was a blockbuster in China despite being a failure in North America.)
After last summer’s Legion expansion brought a flood of former players back to the game (your humble writer included), Blizzard seems clever enough to keep them there by tying in to and tying up old storylines and offering players familiar characters and settings – but just new enough to stay interesting.
The recent 7.2 content patch sends players to the Broken Shore to join some of those familiar heroes, among them popular faces like Illidan Stormrage and Archmage Khadgar, in fighting the Warcraft series’ oldest, greatest evil: the Burning Legion. It’s a conflict that needs no explanation to anyone who played the game in its earlier years (except for some specific details – like wasn’t Gul’dan dead?) and therefore it makes a great jumping-back-in point for players who have been away from Azeroth for a while.
Though there have been changes, the old world is still there, and Blizzard encourages you to go experience it again, even if it’s just to stomp through it one-shotting old raid bosses in your Nighthold gear. One way they’ve done this is through battle pets – formerly “vanity” pets and now used in a collectible Pokemon-style minigame – that have been added to old raids. Running through Wrath of the Lich King’s raids can now earn you a full 16 new pets, including your own teeny Lord Marrowgar, which will whirl around and yell a tiny “BONE STORM!”
Now 7.2 has introduced battle pet dungeons, the first of which takes you all the way back to Wailing Caverns, one of the first dungeons a newbie player encounters. This one, though, is designed for max-level players (and their max-level pets), so it’s no quick run.
For higher-level players looking for a challenge without pets, there are Timewalking events that scale you down to a certain expansion’s max level and send you back to those dungeons for gear that scales up to your level.
And there’s always the transmogrification system, which lets you change your armor to look like any other other piece of armor you’ve owned. Turn your Tier 19 into Tier 1* and pretend you’re back in Molten Core! (*Option not available for Death Knights, Monks, or Demon Hunters.)
The question now is whether Blizzard can keep putting out new content that will keep these returning players once the nostalgia has worn off.