Back when World of Warcraft was first revealed, the pre-launch landscape Blizzard surveyed was largely empty. EverQuest - the dominant player in a tiny market - had something like 450,000 subscribers, and the entire MMO genre was considered a small, hardcore niche enjoyed exclusively by basement-dwelling shut-ins of whom even the nascent "gamer" counter-culture was embarrassed.
Time's a funny old thing, though, and in the intervening years (WoW itself turns 12 this November) things have changed. From a high of 12 million active subs in 2010, Blizzard's marquee online game had 5.5 million as of November last year - a number the company has decided to no longer update going forward.
Meanwhile, the genre itself is now significantly more crowded, and WoW's competitors are much more sophisticated. A simple version of the MMO experience can even be had for free thanks to the New Gaming Economy, which makes Blizzard's pay then subscribe to play model increasingly unusual.
It's against that backdrop that the game's next expansion, Legion, must be considered. Ultimately, Blizzard will be reacting to the subscriber situation and the complex 2016 MMO market with this content. The way in which it approaches these things is potentially an interesting insight into its long-term plans for the game.
The premise of the expansion is pretty simple. There's a new class (the Demon Hunter) to play, a new continent full of content to explore, and the de rigueur reassessment and rebalance of the existing classes in order to offset the bloat that otherwise might come to an old game with five previous expansions worth of material added to it.
There are also some significant engine improvements, new animations, a new weapon system, a revamp of the professions component, and many more tweaks and inclusions that are too numerous to mention.
The Demon Hunter, as I found out in a recent hands-on session, is a fascinating new character. MMOs typically rely on a series of calculations to determine the amount of damage inflicted by a given move. The slight distance this creates between a player's action and that action's effect tends to translate into a dissonance that has become a signature of the entire genre.
However, the Demon Hunter, while it's still very much constructed in typical MMO manner under the hood, manages to feel more visceral and action-oriented than any other character in the WoW stable. It dashes forward in a manner you might expect from the protagonist of an action title, and leaps around - even double-jumping - like the best of what you'd experience in an entirely different game type. You'll still end up waiting for cooldowns and the like, but on the whole, its play style is unique and distinct enough from other melee-oriented classes to feel worthwhile.
The starting Demon Hunter experience is well paced and entertaining. If you're familiar with recent World of Warcraft class introductions (the Death Knight being the most obvious comparison), you'll have a good idea of the structure to expect: a series of story quests that build up the character's background narrative while also introducing - then reinforcing - key class mechanics. It's masterfully done, a good length, and ejects you into the "real" world (of Warcraft) when you're ready to go. Yes, there will likely be some seriously bad tanks in levelling instances at the start of the expansion (just like when Death Knights joined the fray), but by the time players reach maximum level, things should return roughly to the status quo experienced in pick-up dungeons today (albeit with more winged Demon Hunters darting about).
The other key part of Legion I've experienced so far is taking my beloved Paladin for a run in his new guise. Paladins (like all classes, to a greater or lesser extent) have been significantly retooled, with a number of key mechanics being removed or reworked and a handful of new toys added to mix things up.
My main Paladin (I have several...) is a retribution-specced human, focusing on dealing damage with a mix of holy magic and mighty two-handed weaponry. One of the first things you do once the expansion starts is begin a story-centric, class-specific, scenario-heavy quest chain that results in you unlocking your choice of new "artifact" class weapon. This weapon, which levels with you as you go from 100 to 110, will be with you throughout the expansion. This is a marked departure from the preceding 12 years of the game, where weapons (like your armour and other items) were acquired through drops and dungeons.
Given the damage-focussed nature of my Paladin, I chose to unlock a weapon called the Ashbringer. This mighty sword is legendary in World of Warcraft, and something every retribution spec Paladin player has always secretly longed to wield. The way in which it is ultimately given to you, too, is - no spoilers here - suitably epic, feeling like a massive achievement even though you'll almost certainly get it (then upgrade it) in your first day or two of playing Legion.
From there, players can now choose which of the new continent's areas they'd like to begin their levelling journey in, with monsters in that zone effectively adjusted to suit the player's level. It's a neat idea in theory, and in practice it seems to work almost flawlessly, ensuring that the initial rush of players at the start of an expansion will at least be spread around the whole continent.
With my two test characters I chose to explore Azsuna and Stormheim, the latter of which feels a lot like the Wrath of the Lich King expansion's Howling Fjord Zone. Both had their own distinctively different characteristics, and a combination of familiar and new quest archetypes which helped keep things simultaneously fresh and familiar.
Checking the nooks and crannies (something helped by the Demon Hunter's ability to see certain things through walls) will reward players with extra treasures, most of which help increase the power of their artifact weapons, and generally I think it's fair to say Blizzard has hit its groove with levelling content now.
Obviously, it's too soon to draw any real conclusions about World of Warcraft: Legion, but I've seen enough to suggest that this expansion is by no means being phoned in by the legendary team at Blizzard.
There's a heap of content here - both refreshed and entirely new - and absorbing it all is going to take a serious chunk of time when the game hits servers in August. What's also fair to say is that the bits I've seen already have impressed, with a combination of improved animations and tweaked ability suites making for a much-needed boost in the mob-to-mob gameplay loop.
The long and the short of it is that World of Warcraft: Legion is shaping up to be a clear sign that Blizzard isn't walking away from the genre it basically created, or the game it created it with.
WoW is here to stay, and August is looking like an excellent time to book some leave.
* Alan Bell travelled to the US to preview WoW: Legion courtesy of Blizzard.