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

A statue of a character from World of Warcraft with purple skin and pointy ears holding a bow and standing in front of a crowd in a big room with bright lights
BlizzCon has brought World of Warcraft players together IRL since 2005 [Getty Images]

World of Warcraft is celebrating its 20th birthday this year, but it's just cancelled its biggest party.

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

The convention was a place to meet fellow fans of the series, dress up in your best cosplay and get a first look at what was coming next in the huge fantasy world of Azeroth.

But game maker Activision Blizzard has announced it's called off the 2024 edition of the popular event.

It's assured disappointed fans that the event will return in future, but hasn't said when, and promised a series of smaller-scale events instead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some fans were quick to point the finger at Warcraft's new owners, Microsoft. The tech giant bought Activision Blizzard last year for $69bn (£56bn) in the biggest acquisition in gaming history.

Among gamers there's been speculation about what the Xbox owner might do with its newly owned titles, which also include household-name franchises Call of Duty and Candy Crush.

Most of the talk has centred 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.

The other major development since the buyout was the announcement that Microsoft had laid off 1,900 of its 22,000 workers in its gaming division.

These were reported to have largely affected Activision Blizzard staff, and the developer also cancelled work on a survival game project widely known as Odyssey.

But when BBC Newsbeat spoke to two of World of Warcraft's most senior bosses earlier this month - and before the BlizzCon announcement - they insisted they weren't expecting any major changes for the franchise.

Vice president and executive producer Holly Longdale said that "so far" the developer had Microsoft's "full support to do everything we've got to deliver for our audience".

A woman wears a wig and a costume from the game that looks like fantasy armour, while eating a carboard tray of french fries
BlizzCon attracts plenty of people wearing cosplay, essentially dressing up as character from the game [Getty Images]

She said she viewed the merger deal as a positive thing for players, because it allowed the Warcraft team to exchange ideas with other studios owned by Microsoft.

Describing this as a "very rare special benefit", Holly said she'd already had conversations with teams behind Minecraft and RPG The Elder Scrolls to find out how they can learn from each other.

When asked if this might mean a crossover between the franchises in the future, she told Newsbeat: "I have nothing to announce right now. We're all optimistic. Who knows? It's early days".

But she did say that 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 the eight-legged creatures - which feature heavily in the world - from the game.

Holly said that particular feature was brought over from games such as Grounded - a co-operative survival adventure from Microsoft studio Obsidian.

A quest for loot

Buying Activision Blizzard has also boosted Microsoft's financial results. Published last week, its gaming division saw a big increase in revenue which was mostly driven by the purchase.

But its Xbox console sales had dropped by 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 multi-platform strategy by releasing previously exclusive games on other companies' hardware.

Holly told Newsbeat she believes World of Warcraft - which is currently unavailable on consoles - could play a part in this and wants to broaden the appeal of the game.

"We're always looking to find ways where we can expand our audience," she said.

"Ultimately, that challenge will never end because we want to share World of Warcraft with everyone around the world."

The back of a man's head who's wearing headphones and playing World of Warcraft on a computer screen
World of Warcraft now faces much more competition in the online space including from huge hits like Fortnite and Minecraft [Getty Images]

In recent years the game has added new ways to play that appeal to more casual gamers who don't want to spend hours levelling up their characters or don't want to battle other players.

But one of the biggest barriers to attracting new players is the reputation some online games have for toxic speech and behaviour.

It's not unique to World of Warcraft and the game's associate design director, Maria Hamilton, told Newsbeat it was something Blizzard was trying their best to address but will probably never completely eliminate.

"Any online experience runs the risk of encountering someone who's having a bad day," she said.

"We have good reporting and good methods of watching for problematic players, toxic players."

Blizzard's Vision of Time

Representation is a big topic in the games industry at the moment and World of Warcraft has previously been criticised for including characters deemed by some players to be racist or misogynistic.

"I think representation wasn't always the best," Maria told Newsbeat.

"The image of some of our character races might not be entirely wonderful within the lens of today".

Maria said she wished 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 with Warcraft's launch 20 years ago, games are increasingly competing not just for our money, but for our time and attention too.

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

Despite the challenges ahead, both Holly and Maria said they're optimistic about World of Warcraft's next 20 years.

"We've got some pretty incredible ideas on the way," said Holly.

"As part of Microsoft, we feel there's some pretty boundless potential on the way".

For this year though, that won't include the game's annual convention.

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