What’s next for World of Warcraft after 20 years?

  • By Andrew Rogers
  • BBC Newsbeat

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, BlizzCon has been bringing World of Warcraft players together IRL since 2005

World of Warcraft is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but has just canceled its biggest party.

Fans of online gaming have gathered every year since 2005 in Anaheim, California, for BlizzCon.

The convention was a chance to meet other fans of the series, dress up in your best cosplay, and get your first taste of what’s to come in the massive fantasy world of Azeroth.

But game maker Activision Blizzard has announced the cancellation of the 2024 edition of this popular event.

He assured disappointed fans that the event would return in the future, but did not specify when and instead promised a series of smaller-scale events.

Among gamers, there has been speculation about what the Xbox owner could do with its new titles, which also include the well-known Call of Duty and Candy Crush franchises.

Most of the discussion has centered around whether Microsoft would bring some of its new titles to Game Pass – its Netflix-style subscription service seen as an increasingly important part of its gaming business.

These reportedly largely affected Activision Blizzard staff, and the developer also canceled work on a survival game project widely known as Odyssey.

But when BBC Newsbeat spoke to two of World of Warcraft’s top executives earlier this month – and ahead of the BlizzCon announcement – they insisted they weren’t expecting any major changes to franchise.

Vice president and executive producer Holly Longdale said that “so far” the developer has “the full support of Microsoft in doing everything we have to offer our audience.”

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, BlizzCon attracts a lot of people wearing costumes, essentially dressing up as a character from the game.

She said she saw the merger deal as a positive thing for gamers because it allowed the Warcraft team to exchange ideas with other Microsoft-owned studios.

Describing this as a “very rare special perk”, Holly said she has already had conversations with the teams behind Minecraft and RPG The Elder Scrolls to find out how they can learn from each other.

Asked if this could mean a crossover between the franchises in the future, she told Newsbeat: “I don’t have anything to announce at the moment. We’re all optimistic. Who knows? It’s the beginning”.

But she said some changes inspired by other studios have already found their way into Warcraft.

One example is a new setting that allows players with severe arachnophobia to remove eight-legged creatures – which are very present in the world – from the game.

Holly said this particular feature was carried over from games such as Grounded, a co-op survival adventure from Microsoft studio Obsidian.

The acquisition of Activision Blizzard also boosted Microsoft’s financial results. Released last week, its gaming division saw a sharp increase in revenue, mainly driven by purchasing.

But its sales of Xbox consoles fell 31% year-on-year.

Gaming boss Phil Spencer has insisted Microsoft is not turning its back on consoles, but the company has been expanding its cross-platform strategy by releasing previously exclusive games on other companies’ hardware.

Holly told Newsbeat that she thought World of Warcraft – which is currently not available on consoles – could play a role in this and wanted to broaden the game’s appeal.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand our audience,” she said.

“Ultimately, this challenge will never end because we want to share World of Warcraft with everyone in the world.”

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, World of Warcraft now faces a lot more competition in the online space, including from huge hits like Fortnite and Minecraft.

In recent years, the game has added new ways to play that appeal to more casual players who don’t want to spend hours leveling up their characters or who don’t want to compete against other players.

But one of the biggest obstacles to attracting new players is some online games’ reputation for toxic speech and behavior.

This isn’t unique to World of Warcraft, and Deputy Director of Game Design Maria Hamilton told Newsbeat that Blizzard is doing its best to fix this problem, but will likely never eliminate it completely.

“Any online experience carries the risk of encountering someone who is having a bad day,” she said.

“We have good reporting and good methods for monitoring problem gamblers, toxic gamblers.”

Blizzard’s vision of time

Representation is currently a big topic in the video game industry and World of Warcraft has previously been criticized for including characters considered by some players to be racist or misogynistic.

“I think the representation hasn’t always been the best,” Maria told Newsbeat.

“The image of some of our character races may not be entirely wonderful from today’s perspective.”

Maria said she wishes some of the more problematic examples could be erased from the game’s past, but she says the company is trying to avoid repeats by bringing in external diversity consultants.

Compared to when Warcraft launched 20 years ago, games are increasingly competing for not only our money, but also our time and attention.

Holly said she sees streaming services like Netflix as a major competitor in 2024.

Despite the challenges ahead, Holly and Maria say they are optimistic about the next 20 years of World of Warcraft.

“We have some pretty incredible ideas on the way,” Holly said.

“As part of Microsoft, we believe there is quite unlimited potential ahead.”

But this year, that won’t include the annual gaming convention.

Listen to Newsbeat live at 12:45 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. weekdays – or listen again here.

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