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Mists of Pandaria comes out next week: here's what you should know

As you might have noticed it's been a big year for the MMO, with high-profile launches like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2.

Now the undisputed heavyweight champ, World of Warcraft, is dropping their new expansion. We've covered Mists of Pandaria before, but we thought it might be useful to give a brief overview of what's new about the expansion before it launches next Tuesday, September 25th. If you've heard anything about Mists of Pandaria you've probably heard it's the Kung-Fu Panda expansion, and that's true to a certain extent.

The two most prominent new features are a new monk class with a lot of kung-fu inspired abilities and a new panda race called the Pandaren. Most people will be rolling Kung-Fu Pandas on day one (if they aren't rushing to the new level cap as fast as they can so if you're a regular WoW player who has weathered the past few expansions, this one probably won't feel any different. You'll be gaining an extra five levels and exploring new raids on a new continent with 9 or 24 of your closest friends.

Of course, that reductive summation ignores the many subtle changes (and, I think, advances) in how Mists of Pandaria will change the way WoW is played at max level. Blizzard has added a ton of new features for non-raiders, including a new scenario system that's more casual than 5-man dungeons, a player-run farming system we've discussed before, a ton of new factions with a redone system of daily quests to make max level reputations feel more like a story than a grind (or so they promise; your results may vary) and a new "challenge mode" for dungeons to let 5-man groups push their skills. Oh, and there's also a fairly complete Pokemon-esque pet battle system to satisfy your inner monster rancher.

Mists of Pandaria definitely feels like a course correction after the last expansion, Cataclysm, caused WoW subscription numbers drop by several million. While WoW players don't all agree Blizzard certainly seems to think that was from placing too much emphasis on challenging content for hardcore players which left more casual WoW fans frustrated. With all the daily quests at max level, scenarios for casual group quests and the LFR feature to let almost anyone at max level try out the latest raids, Blizzard is certainly making sure casual players have a lot to do. Meanwhile, with heroic raids and challenge mode dungeons they're hoping to have more difficult content to satisfy hardcore players without bothering casuals.

Will it work? It's hard to say. Blizzard certainly hasn't stumbled upon a magic formula that fixes the problems with massively-multiplayer online games. The launch of Guild Wars 2 has made it especially hard to go back to the hidebound "find the exclamation mark and kill 10 boars" style of questing. Still, I think Blizzard probably has the statistics and sales numbers to suggest that trying to help out more casual players is probably a smart choice financially and, as a player that's only raided off and on throughout WoW's history, I've certainly enjoyed all the new features. If WoW subscription numbers continue to fall after the debut of Mists of Pandaria I think it will say more about the industry than it does about this expansion. It's possible that the era of the subscription MMO is coming to a close (or at least the era of the WoW-like MMO). Time and time again we've seen the pattern of new MMOs bringing in huge early numbers with the rush of launch day enthusiasm only to see subscriber numbers quickly bottom back out, and it may be time for even the most popular MMO on the market to face that same problem.

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