At the end of the last expansion, Cataclysm, Blizzard did need a new plan. Long ago, even before the game's first Burning Crusade expansion, word had leaked out that the development team had ideas for expansions about the world's Northrend continent (which eventually became the Wrath of the Lich King expansion), and the setting's elemental planes (which was reworked into Cataclysm). But Pandaria was never on that list, or any other lists that have reached the public's eyes before it was announced.
So Mists of Pandaria, then, does represent a new turn in the already long and still growing story of World of Warcraft. It represents not only a turn in the game's lore (which up until this point has been heavily based on the series' previous titles), but a turn in the game's direction, the first step in answering how (and even why) you keep a PC game this old and this unwieldy still profitable, fresh, and growing. It's hard to recommend Mists of Pandaria to someone who has never played World of Warcraft before, much less any MMO. For one thing, it's an expansion pack: While the core WoW game (up to level 20) is completely free to play, half of the Mists of Pandaria content is all the way up at levels 85-90, so it'll be hours and hours of gameplay before anyone who pays $40 today can see that part of the world themselves.
Not to mention that, after eight years of expansions and content updates, the game plays like a patchwork quilt, with various threads from different ages and development philosophies running this way and that. Story lines have been crissed and crossed so many times in the game's history that it can get absurd: Technically, the Lich King doesn't sit on the throne in Icecrown any more, but that doesn't keep players from spending a few zones fighting his influence with everything they've got.
At the same time, however, Blizzard has used its huge pool of both resources and game design expertise to keep things as fresh and involving as possible. The Cataclysm revamp of the lower level zones not only gave longtime players something new to see, but also helped to smooth out the experience for new players, making quests easier to understand and complete than they first were when developed in 2004.
In the past, WoW players might have complained that these changes made the game too easy, that Blizzard was nerfing things for casuals. But that's not what's happening here. Instead, Blizzard has smoothed things over so that it can add complexity underneath. Newbies to a class can simply read the in-game guide to see how to use their skills, but veterans and advanced players can time their abilities out just right for maximum damage. And even simplifications to cosmetic features like the pet collection interface have opened up Blizzard to take advantage of new complexity, like the enormously popular Pet Battle system, where players have had plenty of fun finding, fighting with, and leveling previously non-combat creatures.
The world of Pandaria is gorgeous, in a way that hearkens back to the first beautiful scenes of World of Warcraft.
Now, all of those changes are core to the game's code, so players won't even need to buy the expansion to experience those updates. But even when it comes to the new Pandaria content, Blizzard has elected to simplify in order to complicate. The world of Pandaria is gorgeous, in a way that hearkens back to the first beautiful scenes of World of Warcraft. The first two zones in particular, Jade Forest and The Valley of the Four Winds, are incredibly well-made, with Chinese-inspired towns and temples embedded in shaded green glens and peaceful fields of crops.
While the quests (and new mechanics like a full farming system and refined phasing techniques that allow for some really interesting storytelling moments) are very impressive, what's most interesting about the story of Pandaria isn't necessarily what's happening in the levels from 85 to 90. It's what's to come. As the players of the Horde and Alliance explore the land of Pandaria, which first seems pristine and then is more and more ravaged by war and Warcraft, you get the sense that there's a growing darkness here. The game's next patch brings even more war to the shores of Pandaria in a series of daily quests, and all indications are that things are going to get worse for the Pandaren and their land, not better.
Which brings us back to Metzen, and "the next couple of years" of the World of Warcraft. The story of the game so far has been about how the Horde and Alliance factions have dealt with external threats, how they've had to fight the Burning Crusade, the Lich King, and the legacies of all of the series' previous titles. But Mists of Pandaria feels different: As much as it is about this land of Pandaria, it also threatens to focus the spotlight on WoW's own players rather than the next big bad guy.
But Mists of Pandaria (especially with its digital success) represents the future of World of Warcraft, an experience where even war itself is just one of the many things you can do in between instance running and pet battling and farming and crafting and whatever else you find. The World of Warcraft has been running for almost eight years at this point, and yet Mists of Pandaria shows very clearly that the possibilities for Blizzard are still just getting started.