How World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Will Change Leveling

We talk to World of Warcraft lead designer Kevin Martens about how the leveling experience is changing in Shadowlands.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands
Photo: Blizzard Entertainment

In late March, the World of Warcraft team at Blizzard responded to everyone being stuck indoors during the COVID-19 quarantine by giving players a 100 percent bonus to the character leveling experience. The XP boost was only supposed to last for one month but became so popular with players that it’s now been extended until the launch of the Shadowlands pre-patch later this year.

While the XP buff has been welcomed by many, it’s also served as a reminder of how broken the leveling experience in WoW has become for new players. From a timeline perspective, new characters start out on the 16-year-old game’s original continents of Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, but complete quests that were designed for the game’s third expansion, Cataclysm. Upon reaching level 60, players then technically go back in time to play through either The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King, but then jump into the future once they get to Mists of Pandaria and beyond. 

Regardless of which path they choose, most players see their level go up so fast (even before the recent buff) that they don’t have enough time to complete a leveling zone’s story before it’s time to move on. This problem is even worse for veteran players using heirloom gear, which gives an additional XP boost.

These are all issues that Blizzard is well aware of and the WoW devs have taken multiple stabs in the past at making the leveling process less confusing. The team’s latest and best attempt at completely overhauling the leveling system and new player experience will come with the release of Shadowlands

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In addition to a level squish from 120 to the eventual new cap of 60, Blizzard has big plans for brand new players in the form of a new starting experience called Exile’s Reach. Den of Geek recently spoke with World of Warcraft lead designer Kevin Martens about Exile’s Reach and the other leveling changes coming to the game later this year.

Making Leveling More Fun

Traditionally, in World of Warcraft, players begin their leveling journey spread out across multiple zones based on their starting race. Humans start in Elwynn Forest, Undead start in Tirisfal Glades, and so on.

Martens says that he understands that the racial starting zones hold a special place in the hearts of WoW veterans, but that it’s long past time for the game to get a modern update.

“Having the different racial, and in some cases, class starting zones, there’s a lot of comfort there,” Martens says. “We know people that met their significant other in the Undead starting area, or something like that. We wanted to maintain some of that legacy, but with something that was more consistent and full of people and more modern. We said, ‘alright, let’s make leveling more fun, let’s get more players together.'”

It should be noted that while new players will automatically be sent to Exile’s Reach upon logging in for the first time, veterans will be able to choose between the island or their race’s original starting zone. Those who want to play through Elwynn Forest for the 20th time will still be able to do so, but Blizzard hopes the new story of Exile’s Reach will entice longtime players to switch things up.

The Exile’s Reach experience for Alliance players is live on the Shadowlands Alpha and tells the story of what happens to the player’s character following a shipwreck on an undiscovered island. (The Horde experience is not live yet, but Martens said the storyline and overall arc will be very similar.) Players will aid injured soldiers, reassemble their team, and eventually take on the island’s ogres, who are trying to resurrect a dragon. Along the way, players will be taught the basics of WoW, and each class has a slightly different experience, including a quest that will teach their basic combat rotation.

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Martens says crafting a brand new original story and artwork for the level 1 to 10 experience provided the team with an opportunity to give players a more immersive and social start to their adventure than the racial starting zones offered. 

“If you happened to start in Northshire Abbey, with the current human experience, it’s some of our older art and it doesn’t show what the engine can do or what we can do. Adding a new zone, [we can] put some of our best elements of art and level design, all those things [we’ve] learned over the years that would get us that social experience, and show off a more modern look as well, rather than some of our oldest art.”

The team was also careful to pay homage to some of the things that are considered classic about the starting zones when selecting the various monsters players will encounter on Exile’s Reach. Players can fight Murlocs like in Elwynn Forest or Boars and Harpies like in Durotar.

“We also went through ‘What are our favorite monsters?’ The team as a whole did a brainstorm,” Martens explains. “It’s no coincidence that murlocs are one of the earliest creatures you fight. We picked something that feels very WoW to us, that we personally enjoy and that could make sense in the story we’re telling.”

That story will culminate by sending players through a starter dungeon that will teach them how to use the game’s dungeon finder tool and learn basic group combat and boss fight mechanics. After achieving victory there, players will fly from the island to their respective faction capital where they can join the rest of the WoW player base and set out on their next adventure.

Martens says Exile’s Reach accomplishes Blizzard’s goal of providing a better new player experience, and the lessons learned during its development will be useful to the team for a long time to come.

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“It was a really universal process of, let’s assess everything… let’s look at this process again without making any assumptions about what people know. I hope that we can do this on a regular basis, just keep making the game and smoothing the path up because WoW has ultimately proven over the years that it can be for anyone, including people who have never even played a game on a PC before.”

A Complete Experience

Blizzard has confirmed that brand new accounts will play through Battle for Azeroth from level 10 to 50 on their first character before moving on to Shadowlands. Veteran players will have the option to talk to Chromie to play through the expansion of their choice. Players will still be able to jump back and forth through different expansions if they want to, but the idea is that players will be able to go from 10 to 50 while getting a complete story from one expansion.

The team at Blizzard hopes this will finally fix the problem of players outleveling story content too quickly.

“You [can currently] wander all over the place and play a bunch of stories just partway through, maybe even only 10 to 15 percent of the way through. You aren’t having a complete experience from an RPG or a story point of view. You’re having a very sporadic experience on your way up.

“That’s basically what the goal was. Let’s get more complete stories. How do we make this better for new players? How do we capture some of those [old] stories again, even for [veteran] players who are making their 20th or 30th character?” 

“The Efficiency Recommendation of the Internet”

A speed leveler in the Shadowlands Alpha made headlines last month when he was able to level from 1 to 50 in under seven hours. But Martens says that length of time is subject to change, as Blizzard still has a lot of tuning to do with the leveling process before Shadowlands goes live.

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“It should be longer than seven hours, even if you know what you’re doing. Of course, experienced players can be more efficient than new players, [but] for neither do we want the experience to be super long anymore.”

Martens adds that he knows the team has its work cut out for it if Blizzard wants each expansion’s story to be tuned to take roughly the same amount of time.

“I do hope that [the different expansions] are at least roughly, if not a little more than roughly, equivalent,” he says. “Video game players tend to enjoy efficiency, and if one expansion is more efficient than the others, then that will be the official efficiency recommendation of the internet, ‘If you’re going to level, level in this expansion.'”

Martens acknowledges that more modern expansions like Battle for Azeroth or Legion might have a speed advantage due to better zone layout or questing paths compared to older expansions like The Burning Crusade.

The team must figure out a way to preserve the experience of the older expansions and allow players to see as much of those stories as possible, while still keeping the leveling time across different expansions as equivalent as they can, according to Martens.

“We’ve learned things since we made Burning Crusade. We would probably make it differently today. However, maintaining that legacy is important to the game. I think there’s going to be a lot of tuning in this thing, an unusually large amount of number crunching will have to go into that goal.”

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Martens notes that Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, in particular, may offer some unique challenges in this regard because the game’s original two continents have so many more zones than the continents that arrived with WoW‘s expansions.

“You cannot complete both continents on your way to level 50, not in a fun way, I don’t think,” Martens says. “People will be playing through the Cataclysm era versions of those zones, and we’ll use the system that we have right now where we have suggested storylines. We’ll give you the suggested storylines, and we’ll have you do X number of zones so you can get a bunch of good experiences and have some nice culmination of all that before [you get to] Shadowlands.”

Unlocking Former Hero Classes and Bolvar vs. Arthas

Martens also answered a few rapid-fire questions at the end of our chat, touching on a couple of topics that players in the WoW community have been talking about.

How will unlocking Demon Hunters and Death Knights work for new accounts in Shadowlands? In Battle for Azeroth, Demon Hunters start at level 98, but players must already have a level 70 character on the server before a Demon Hunter can be created. Death Knights currently start at level 55.

Martens notes that his answer is subject to change, but currently, the plan is that there will be no unlocking requirements for these two classes for veterans, and players on brand new accounts will simply have to complete the Exile’s Reach storyline one time on any other class before creating a Demon Hunter or Death Knight. Both Demon Hunters and Death Knights start at Level 8 in Shadowlands.

Finally, Den of Geek pointed out that a player that creates a Panderen or Allied Race Death Knight starts their adventure by talking to Bolvar Fordragon at the top of Icecrown Citadel, but creating a Death Knight using one of the original races will still send the player to meet the OG Lich King, Arthas Menethil. Martens confirms that those Wrath quests are staying in the game in Shadowlands.

“I recognize that the current story has surpassed the [Wrath] timeline, but the choice of actually redoing that with Bolvar and losing the Arthas angle is not something I’m comfortable doing right now,” Martens says. “I do want to maintain the legacy of that experience, and so the Allied Race has a nod towards the modern and the classic one is a nod towards the Wrath storyline. Getting to meet Arthas, is, I think, a nice thing to maintain in the game… especially if you choose to level up in Wrath afterward.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands releases on PC later this year.