BlizzCon pays testament to the enduring passion of the World of Warcraft community. Diablo and StarCraft fans are spoiled for panels and competitions at Blizzard’s semi-annual convention, but it’s the Warcraft fans who queue overnight to get the best seats for the opening ceremony, who take to their hotel balconies at the Anaheim Marriott to shout ‘For the Horde!’ at 4am, and who travel around the world to have answered a single, bafflingly technical question about the MMO’s inner workings. BlizzCon is fuelled Warcraft, and it’s easy to get swept up in the community’s energy and excitement.

Over the weekend, these loyal fans were rewarded with the announcement of a new expansion, Warlords of Draenor. This new expansion brings old Warcraft lore into the present timeline for players to experience and shape. The false Horde Warchief Garrosh Hellscream has been defeated and is awaiting trial, but before the verdict can be delivered he escapes and teams up with a powerful ally who has the power to bend time. Garrosh’s plan is to go back in time the orc homeworld of Draenor, before it became the Outland. There, he'll build a new confederacy of clans – one uncorrupted by the blood of Mannoroth and the taint of the demonic Burning Legion. At the head of this new Iron Horde, Garrosh can then return through the Dark Portal and conquer Azeroth.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview

Draenor has been built from the ground up, but will be immediately familiar to anyone who experienced Warcraft’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Rather than being shattered and corrupted, however, Draenor is whole. Crusade's Hellfire Peninsula is Warlords' verdant Tanaan Jungle, Zangarmarsh is now a sea that laps at the waterside city of Shattrath, and Shadowmoon Valley is overlooked by the draenei city of Karabor, known in Crusade as The Black Temple. It's enough to confuse Warcraft veterans, let alone any newcomers.

The clear challenge facing Warlords of Draenor is avoiding feeling like a retread. “We wanted to show people what Draenor was like prior to being destroyed,” says Chris Robinson, senior art director on World of Warcraft. “Take Shadowmoon Valley, which we currently know from The Burning Crusade as this demonic wasteland. And it always has been talked about previously as this beautiful, lush valley. We really knew we had to set out and do something so that when you saw it for the first time, your reaction was an emotional one – sadness, knowing what will happen to this place.”

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview

It’s also important that the expansion doesn’t repeat itself. Robinson describes going through the Dark Portal in The Burning Crusade and finding the Horde and the Alliance desperately fending off Magtheradon as a “punch in the face moment”.

“It’s not worth trying to outdo that as much as trying to give you a different look at it. I don’t think we would be successful if we tried to set a similar tone in a different environment.”

Unsurprisingly, the Horde and the Alliance have come to two very different conclusions as to how to deal with this new threat. The Alliance will arrive in Draenor, and must lift the Iron Horde siege on the draenei capital, Karabor. The Horde begin in Frostfire Ridge, home of Durotan’s Frostwolf clan. They must subdue the Thunderlord clan and evict ogres from Bladespire fortress, in order to make it their own.

The two factions aren’t the only ones able to set up camp in Draenor, however. Instead, this expansion will use phasing technology to allow players to set up their own fortified town, called a garrison, in any one zone in the expansion.

These are the Warcraft MMO’s answer to real-time strategy game bases. They will exist in the world and players can even invite others into their own garrison. Each will be composed of a collection of buildings the player has selected, purchased, and upgraded, and each can be laid out in a variety of ways. These phased player-towns will be garrisoned by NPCs that the player can recruit, customise, level-up, equip, and send on missions ranging from quests to dungeons and raids.

The player must also select which buildings to erect and where to place them within their garrison. Through these buildings, players can gain numerous benefits and specialisations, including access to professions they haven’t trained. At BlizzCon, the developer used the example of an Inn, which courted potential garrison followers and allowed players to court a particular archetype such as tanks or healers. It also provides Cooking services. The Infirmary, on the other hand, might reduce NPC downtime between missions, and at higher levels might even provide the player with one free resurrection per day. Different buildings will unlock new building types, and players will be able to display monuments and trophies that celebrate their achievements in the world.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview

It’s a compelling new system on paper. Player housing has been sorely missed in World of Warcraft, and a physical space within the game for players to call their own and direct as they see fit will no doubt prove popular. But it’s also interesting to speculate on what this might mean for shared spaces such as cities, and for the economy.

In recent expansions, Blizzard has clearly concerned itself with new player acquisitions. Cataclysm overhauled Azeroth and brought many of the improvements found in Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King back to the aging base game. Mists of Pandaria was a literal and figurative expansion to the East. Warlords of Draenor appears to concern itself more directly with addressing the interests of Warcraft’s high-level players.

That’s most immediately demonstrated by the fact that players will have 10 full levels to progress through rather than the five each that came with Mists and Cataclysm. Furthermore, a new boost to 90 will allow lapsed account holders interested in the new expansion to rejoin their friends without having to grind through legacy content.

Much of the expansion’s smartest thinking also appears to be concerned with Raiding, a prestige activity for the truly dedicated. The recently introduced Flex Raiding system – wherein 5.4’s Siege of Orgrimmar dynamically scales in difficulty depending on how many players between 10 and 25 are in the raid – will be rolled out for all future raids. However, hardcore progression raiders should have the most to celebrate, as at any time the latest top-tier “Heroic” content will only be available to 20-player raids taking on the new Mythic difficulty. Looking For Raid will continue to be available, but Blizzard is looking at ways to disincentivise the mode, and to greatly incentivise playing with friends and guilds, says lead systems designer Greg Street.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview

The expansion will launch with two raids, the introductory, ogre-themed Highmaul, and the more challenging Blackrock Foundry. There will also be seven dungeons, including a refurbished Upper Blackrock Spire. These will all be available in normal and Heroic modes, and the developer adds that more dungeons will be released over the course of the expansion’s lifecycle – something that fell out of practice in Mists of Pandaria.

Player versus Player has also been given some attention. A new world PvP zone, Ashran, has been designed to recall the classic Alterac Valley – a constant battleground that moves back and forward for days at a time. A new scoring system will also bring some cross-measurement rigour to Battlegrounds, finally allowing DPS and healers to compare their overall contributions against one another, for example. In addition, random Battleground rewards have been added in order to remove some of the predictability of PvP progression. At the end of any Battleground, players may be randomly assigned a bonus reward such as Bind on Equip gear, bonus Honor, and more. Trial of the Gladiator is a new competitive, arena-style system in which players will be able to purchase items and modifiers from a vendor, and then compete against others in a highly-balanced system. The window for ranked play is also going to be small and focused in order to avoid players gaming the system at odd hours.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor preview

Character models have been overhauled, given a new level of detail and more nuanced animation. The intention is to keep the “soul” of the design while pushing Warcraft’s aging engine to its limits, says lead content designer Cory Stockton. Each character’s face is now fully rigged so that they can now emote much better.

“We’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” adds Robinson. “We often hear from people on our forums who awesome new NPCs that look amazing, then see their own characters against it and it’s just obvious that they’re outdated.

“We did that Pandaren and basically pushed those guys until we broke the engine. We pushed them so far that if you populated any one major city with just Pandaren, it wouldn’t run! So we scaled that back, found the point where it could work and we were happy with it.

“There’s no one on the team that knows all the characters so well that they can look at our existing models and say, ‘I have to update this and change, and this is what’s important to people.’ So we created an atmosphere where there were a lot of different voices. We sat around with a team of people who were interested in it and get everyone’s opinion on these low-res textures and what they were looking at. It was my job to figure what we were going to execute on, then do a concept to inform that initial direction.

“We have a team of four really talented character artists all working on it at the same time. One would do an initial pass, we’d look at that, see what’s working an what isn’t, then give it to someone else. Typically, you want to say design by committee is the worst possible thing you could do – especially when it comes to art – but it has worked with the revamped characters.”

The new character models are significantly improved. In side-by-side comparisons, they also illustrate Warcraft’s venerable age. By the time Warlords of Draenor is released, the world’s most popular MMO will likely be celebrating its 10th anniversary. The game’s sustained success is already without precedent. It has helped to normalise geek and gaming culture in the mainstream, and despite a recent downturn in subscriber numbers, more than seven million gamers are still logging in to Azeroth. That's a huge number still far, far in excess of any come-lately, would-be pretender to the throne. The expansion’s work is cut out for it, but the apparent shift towards catering to existing players rather than securing new accounts is a different but altogether welcome change.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor is anticipated for release late next year.