In a little over a month from now, World of Warcraft's fifth expansion will be released. Titled Warlords of Draenor, the new expansion raises the level cap to 100, introduces a new garrison system to give players a permanent sense of place in the world, and ushers in the usual feast of new dungeons, raids and player-versus-player content.
As with previous expansions, there'll also be a teaser patch before the bulk of this new content arrives. Fan-favourite dungeon Upper Blackrock Spire has been re-imagined for Level 100 - complete with the corpse of WOW's most famous player, Leeroy Jenkins - but Level 90 players will be able to tackle an appropriately re-tuned version of it before the expansion's November release. A world event heralding the start of the new storyline will also see swarms of the Iron Horde invading the world through the Burning Crusade's Dark Portal.
The bulk of the changes detailed in the patch notes have little to do with new adventures though, and a good deal more to do with the systems that purr away beneath the bonnet: the normalisation of a decade's worth of rapidly inflating stats, for example, not to mention the de-cluttering of character skill sets which have slowly bloated over the course of four expansions.
At the end of last week, we had a chance to speak with lead designer Ion Hazzikostas, and ask whether this pruning of content - viewed alongside the historical simplification of systems like character talent trees - justifies community concerns that the game is being simplified just a little too much.
"Yeah this is something I see and hear - the dumbing down complaints. The reality is that I think there's more depth to playing WOW - and to excelling in WOW - than ever before," he says. "If the game was dumbed down, you wouldn't see the best arena players in the world standing so consistently above even the people who are above the top one per cent. You wouldn't see the same handful of guilds consistently crushing their competition in the top 100. There's tremendous room to be skilful - to customise your character and engage in these systems.
"The thing we need to be mindful of as we add these systems over the years, is that at some point it becomes a simply unwieldy amount of information to process and manage. There isn't always value being derived from all those choices. In particular, the talent trees that we re-did in Mists of Pandaria - we reached a point where we had dozens and dozens of different talents.
"The reality is that most of them were considered mandatory, some were considered terrible, and the choice and variety actually lay in that small space in the middle. Most people would go to a website that would tell you which build to use - oh, and by the way you'll have these five points left over. You can decide where to put them.
"And so we said actually this isn't an interesting choice. It's just a trap for the unwary player, and minimal gameplay for the person who is more savvy. Let's get rid of the things that are terrible and that no-one should take, and really focus in and expand on the remaining choices. Things where there's no clear right answer, and there's room for customisation and differentiation.
"With ability pruning, over the years we've increased the level cap and said everyone's getting three new abilities in the expansion. Some classes really needed those abilities, other classes we'd sit around scratching our heads, thinking: "What do they really need?" Well, we have to give them three abilities. Many expansions later, the action bar's full, and even if we want to give them something really cool and new, there's no room."
Until now, WOW's Reforging system has allowed players to take a piece of equipment that they've crafted, purchased or looted, and then change a select few stats into something more useful for their specialisation. In Warlords of Draenor, the Reforging system is being removed altogether. Why wasn't this system merely simplified, alongside the reining in of stat inflation, and the pruning of less useful abilities?
"The issue with Reforging is that there's generally a right answer, but that answer isn't readily knowable," he explains. "You have to use some tool, or an add-on, or a website that tells you how to reforge your gear. It becomes an extra step you have to do, in a long line of steps before equipping a new item. One of our biggest goals in Warlords is to get you as close as possible to the point where you're in a raid or a dungeon, you kill a boss, an item drops for your spec that is a higher iLevel than what you're currently wearing, and you pick it up and equip it on the spot."
Another system getting a makeover is WOW's Dungeon Finder. The existing grouping tool is effective at bringing strangers together to complete all kinds of multiplayer content, but it's a system that's as cold as it is efficient. Five-man dungeons often fly by without so much as a murmur in party chat, while trickier raid content is often endured within a toxic atmosphere, one where newcomers clash with those who have more experience with the challenge at hand.
While the random dungeon queuing system introduced in 2009 made getting a party together considerably easier than in the old days, where players had to proactively hunt out fellow dungeoneers, it also had a blunt impact on a server's sense of community. Has the game lost some of its essential social essence in exchange for efficiency?
"The pre-made group finder we're introducing in Warlords is very much trying to take a step back in the direction of World of Warcraft being a place where you can actually meet new people. The Looking For Group systems are important as they serve a core portion of the playerbase that really couldn't otherwise experience the content.
"They have unpredictable schedules, they don't necessarily have a large circle [of friends] in the game. They're just looking to be able to hop on during their lunch break, get in a dungeon, finish the dungeon and then leave and log off. The ability to meet in these groups - that's irreplaceable. There's no question though that it does erode social time to some extent. It's not a social experience when you join a group of people then go off and never speak again.
"The [expansion] group-finder is more about creating a framework and providing tools for players to actually reach out and connect with other people who are looking to do the exact same thing as they are, and tackle perhaps slightly more challenging content than what you can do just in the dungeon finder."
"There's something about the act of having to send someone a tell [message], or actually manually invite someone to a group. Even if you just end up with a group of people you've never met before and go and do a dungeon, people actually end up talking a lot more. You suddenly have this reminder that these are real people, these aren't just faceless automatons that you were lumped in with through the dungeon finder."
"It's about creating a world where players can find like-minded others to adventure with, but also a way you can talk to them. You add them to your friend list, maybe you meet a great tank that you invite to your raid at the weekend. Next thing you know, maybe three or four weeks later, this is a recurring thing that happens, and maybe they join your guild. We're just trying to lay that groundwork with this system."
Beyond the usual bells and whistles of a WOW expansion, Blizzard's philosophy for Warlords of Draenor seems to be one of clarity and cohesion. An entire expansion's worth of fresh content may not be enough to get the most jaded WOW players idly tapping their credit cards, but the possibility of a returning sense of community would be a powerful draw indeed.
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