Shadowlands won't raise the World of Warcraft level cap like the seven previous World of Warcraft expansions have - it will cut the level cap in half.
It's one of the craziest things Blizzard has done to World of Warcraft in the 15 years the game has been alive. It means everyone - everyone - who's currently level 120 will be chopped to 50 for Shadowlands, where they'll grow to 60. For a brief moment, then, they'll be lower level than even the people playing World of Warcraft: Classic!
Of course, there's method behind the madness. The numbers were getting ridiculous and with so many abilities it was a bit of a mess. What's more, the breadth of numbers meant people out-levelled legacy content in the blink of an eye, making it quickly redundant. Shadowlands will address all of that. Think of it less as bolted-on expansion content and more like a full-on overhaul.
But what will happen to the abilities we have now - will we lose them, will they change? There's a lot to wrap your head around. Producer Michael Bybee and lead engineer Patrick Magruder talked me through it.
How does the new levelling work? Are everyone's levels going to be squashed?
Patrick Magruder: Yes, the maximum levels will be changing to 60.
120 will be no more - everybody who is currently 120 will become level 50.
What a demotion!
Patrick Magruder: No - your power will remain the same. In fact, you'll actually have probably more abilities because of the other changes we're doing.
What will happen is a new player will start off in a new starting area, or they can choose to go to one of the old ones, but the new starting area, Exile's Reach, is custom crafted for levels one to 10, and it will teach them some basics on how to do World of Warcraft, ending in a mini-dungeon-like experience to get a taste of all of the things WoW has to offer.
A new player will go to Battle for Azeroth. Experienced players can choose another story. And they'll choose Classic or they can choose an expansion.
They can choose stuff from as far back as they like?
Patrick Magruder: Yes and you'll level from 10 to 50. We call it Chromie Time by the way.
Chromie is like your assistant?
Patrick Magruder: She's like our time-travelling [guide]. Outdoor time-walking is another phrase. Basically you travel back in time and see the world as it once was. You can play through the Cataclysm from 10 to 50, or a new player can play through Battle for Azeroth from 10 to 50.
One of the key goals is 'every level matters'. You'll get a new ability or we'll improve an ability, or you'll unlock a new piece of content. Something. You will always feel like every level is a really awesome, engaging experience - that's why we chose those numbers.
There's actually going to be a funny moment where players in modern WoW will actually be lower level than players in Classic WoW. That'll only last about a month because that's just the pre-patch!
Michael Bybee: I've been going around talking to people about this, and most people I've talked to are actually really excited to get back to a point where the number of your level makes sense, because once you get up to 110, 120, it might as well be 1000.
And you get to a point where players become like gods. But you're not taking away power are you?
Patrick Magruder: Not at all.
You're just repackaging.
Patrick Magruder: We're repackaging, re-scaling and putting it together in a more cohesive package that makes more sense.
So players retain all of their talents and skills?
Michael Bybee: So, separately, we are making adjustments to the classes. This one isn't a big class revamp like we did for Legion but, instead, refocusing around the core fantasy of those classes.
So a talent revamp?
Michael Bybee: There will probably be updates to talents. We're still working through all of those particulars - we don't have a lot of the details to talk about here. But the key piece is: if I log on to the new expansion, day one, after I was playing Battle for Azeroth, I will still be able to do all of the same content, all of the same raid content. I'll still be able to go back and farm old raids for transmogs. I'll be able to do the same stuff.
But the builds may change a little bit.
Michael Bybee: Maybe a little bit.
Patrick Magruder: The buttons might change. As Michael Mentioned, we're specifically focusing on the class fantasy. It's more likely you're going to have some new buttons to play with. It'll be a lot of returning classics. Paladins are going to have auras again and shamans are going to have more totems to play with. Those are just some examples. Things might be pulled back out of the talent tree and put back into the mainline for the class, and then new talents may appear.
The talent system itself is not being changed but the contents [are].
When you say 'every level matters', is it going to take longer to level now it's been squished - is it all more condensed?
Patrick Magruder: Actually, it will take significantly less time to level. Somewhere between 60 to 70 per cent I think was the number - 60 to 70 per cent less time to go from level one to level 50.
But if you're getting a lot of new things every level, as you said, isn't that going to be a bit of a barrage of new stuff?
Patrick Magruder: That's why there are fewer levels. It's not like you're doing 120 levels in 60 to 70 per cent of the time - you're doing 50 levels. It will be a good pace but long enough for you to feel the level, to experience the new thing, whatever it is - a new ability or new dungeon or whatever. Time to breathe before ding, new level, yay - what did I get?
It's all about the pacing. That's really what our focus is - making it feel good to play and level-up a character, because right now it's kind of draggy and we get quests and they go grey and you have to go somewhere else, and that's not fun.
We love the old stories like Pandaria. You can't experience the story of Pandaria - it's a beautiful story spanning multiple zones - if you want to level because you completely out-level the content one-and-a-half zones in, and in order to get the story of Pandaria you really need to do four zones.
Michael Bybee: One thing I will add is: Pat mentioned levelling will be faster - players will be getting to the new max-level much faster than they ever did before - but what that means, actually, is more people will be in the endgame content together, or the new expansion together, so there'll be this critical mass of players. And one of the magical things about World of Warcraft is it's a massively-multiplayer game, and when you have tons of players in the current content playing together, it makes it so much more fun.
It's one of the reasons why people playing Classic have been so excited because everyone's there together - the party is right here and I get to be a part of it, rather than seeing the parade down the street but you're not there.
So all of the legacy content - Pandaria and the like - that's being scaled somehow?
Patrick Magruder: It'll be scaled from 10 to 50.
Actually, to be clear, it'll be scaled from 10 to 50 while you're levelling. However, that's where Chromie comes in - Chromie Time. As you're doing it from 10 to 50, it's Chromie time, it's scaled. Once you hit 50, Chromie will show up again and say, 'Hey, it looks like you're done, cool - let's bring you back to the main timeline,' and then you'll be 50 and Pandaria will have been scaled down to around, I'm going to guess, 35-ish in the new scheme.
Michael Bybee: The point there is if you want to run a Pandaria raid because you really like the transmog, you can still do that because those creatures will be lower level than you once you've left Chromie Time and you're no longer levelling up.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is due next year, probably in the late summer or early autumn. It will take us to the Shadowlands, the realm of the dead, and open five new zones, and it will give us the choice to align ourselves with one of four Covenants and earn abilities from them.
What's more, Shadowlands will introduce a brand new kind of dungeon, one where you get one try to see how far you get, and will change each time you play. It's an inventive package!