A critique of World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King


World of Warcraft (WoW) is a Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) Role Playing Game (RPG) first released by Blizzard Entertainment in November 2004. It is widely recognised as one of the most genre defining MMO games and boasts a user-base of over 12 million subscribers as of October 2010 with the arrival of the expansion Cataclysm (Ashton & Verbrugge 2011, p. 78). Since its initial release, Blizzard has published seven expansions, with an eighth originally slated to be released in the fall of 2020.

These include:

  • The Burning Crusade (Released January 2007)
  • Wrath of the Lich King (Released November 2008)
  • Cataclysm (Released December 2010)
  • Mists of Pandaria (Released September 2012)
  • Warlords of Draenor (Released November 2014)
  • Legion (Released in August 2016)
  • Battle for Azeroth (Released 2018)
  • Shadowlands (To be released 2020)

WoW is exclusively available online and requires a PC, the creation of an online profile and a monthly subscription to play. It has been estimated that at least 1,200 hours of gameplay are required to gain complete mastery of the game, however, different levels of complexity provide accessibility to even the casual gamer (Wolf 2012). This essay will focus on the Wrath of the Lich King (2008) expansion of WoW and will first provide an overview of the formal elements of the game, such as the theme and narrative, base mechanics, controls, and objectives. This will be followed by a discussion on how well these elements are integrated during gameplay and a critique of the overall design of the game.

Formal Elements

Setting, Themes & Narrative

The WoW franchise is set in a medieval-like fantasy world known as Azeroth, an extremely detailed 3D environment which draws inspiration from Authors such as J.R.R Tolkien (Ducheneaut et al. 2006, p. 283). The Wrath of the Lich King expansion takes players to a new continent within the original world called Northrend. This area is of great historical significance for the game as it reintroduces players of the original Warcraft games to the character of Arthas, also known as the Lich King. As the name suggests, the themes of this expansion are based around this character initially through the storyline and lore, until 13 months after the expansions release the Lich King finally becomes a boss that can be defeated in patch 3.3.0, entitled ‘The Fall of the Lich King’ (World of Warcraft n.d).

Player Roles, Goals & Base Mechanics

Players begin by selecting which faction (Horde or Alliance), race (human, dwarf, night elf, gnome, draenei, orc, undead, tauren, troll or blood elf), and class (warrior, paladin, hunter, rogue, priest, shaman, mage, warlock, druid or death knight) they wish to play. The initial choice of faction can significantly impact a player’s experience, with verbal communication between factions impossible and restricted to gestures typed through the chat window such as “/wave” or “/dance” (Ducheneaut et al. 2006, p. 283). Total character hours for the main character created for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion totalled close to 60 days’ worth of gameplay (c. 1,440 hours). It should be noted that this includes restarting the game and progressing through the levelling system.

For this expansion, characters can start at level 1 and gain experience by completing quests and defeating non-player characters in raids and dungeons. There is a progressive scaling system in which the first 70 levels require smaller amounts of experience to level up, however, as the player reached level 71 the same amount of experience was required to progress from level 1 to 70 plus 10%, meaning the leveling time of the game required a long period of gameplay dedication until the level cap of 80 was reached (Ashton & Verbrugge 2011, p. 78). There are many ways in which a player can enjoy and explore the world of WoW. Options include Player vs Environment, in which small communities of players join together to take on difficult content to further themselves and gain achievements and recognition or Player vs Player, in which players face off against other players in open world or dedicated arena like competitions. Further, lore and story driven content allows players to expand their understanding of the world they are playing in by undertaking questlines for either faction or backtrack to previous content from earlier expansions and work towards obtaining certain achievements that Blizzard have implemented.

The launch of the first major patch for WoW Wrath of the Lich King redesigned many of the classes in the game, with ability overhauls and the introduction of a new talent system in which new spells were added into the game. Along with a new playable class known as death knights, a new profession was added called Inscription. The professions system allowed players to add two primary skills that could be used to generate income in certain ways, or upgrades for weapons and armour.

Player Interface

During gameplay, the configuration of the player interface varies depending on the class chosen. The health and mana of the character is shown on the top left of the screen (Figure 1) and can be altered to show percentage amounts, actual total values, or coloured bars. An abilities bar (Figure 2) at the bottom of the screen can be configured to personal preferences and allows players to perform actions such as casting spells and activating special abilities. The number in the top right corner of an ability icon represents the keyboard hotkey that activates it.

Figure 1: Character, Health and Mana
Figure 2: Abilities Bar
Figure 3: Damage Types

Elements in Motion

Players in WoW have a great amount of control over what they want to do in the game with restrictions applied mainly to certain encounters or areas that do not allow for escape. For example, a player can pick up a quest and subsequently abandon it or even move to another continent entirely whilst retaining the quest within the log, but not fulfil the requirements to complete it. An issue that players may encounter with this however, is that the number of quests that can be active at any one time is limited to 25. This may result in stunted progression in a new area if the player has incomplete quests but it unwilling to abandon them.

At the time of release of Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard were renowned for being a company dedicated to releasing games as a finished project and quickly fixing minor bug issues with hotfixes as soon as any arose. The most common changes that occurred were class balances which permitted all classes to be versatile and useable for all types of content in the game. It is the small details such as this that allowed such an intuitive game experience for players of all abilities and is one of the reasons that many have classed the expansion as the best of the entire series (Peckham 2013). During the time of release of the 3.3.0 patch, blizzard released the first iteration of a testing server referred to as the Public Testing Realm (PTR) to the WoW community.

This PTR was used to test the 3.3.0 patch before release to the public, allowing players to test the content coming out for the next patch and report bugs and things that needed to be patched before release. A by-product of this is that it has allowed for a better relationship between Blizzard and the players as requests could be catered to.

Design Critique

The approach that Blizzard took towards game design was well executed and made appropriate choices regarding the user interface. An article by PCGamer (2016) discusses how the game was designed, detailing that the team from Blizzard drew inspiration from playing other MMOs such as Everquest (1999) and Ultima Online (1997) during the development of Wrath of the Lich King.

Unimpressed with the systems put in place in these games, the developers designed multiple ways of performing the same actions. The ability to use esc to open the menu or the in-game menu with a mouse or using keyboard shortcuts, along with implementing a clickable icon for the same shortcut are some of these design choices.

An ongoing issue that Blizzard experienced during the release of the expansion was the scaling of end game content. Currently, the world first race is a large event that is held by Blizzard which requires raid groups to clear the current patches raid as a team first. The bosses remain for almost two weeks with events often broadcast through streaming platforms, however, in Wrath of the Lich King, raids such as Ulduar and Icecrown Citidel took three and four months respectively to complete. The reasons for this can be attributed to two different game design flaws.

The first stemmed from the Ulduar raid. This raid required players to do certain things to activate hard mode, however, there was no in-game indication of when this had been achieved or in fact, what the tasks actually were. This meant that progress was difficult for players to track and made gameplay less intuitive regarding damage and healing. The second flaw was introduced with the Icecrown Citidel raid, which could be undertaken as a 10-man or 25-man raid, with two difficulty levels (normal and heroic) selected from the start. The issue with this design was that the heroic encounters had a hard cap of 50 attempts per week, meaning failure would halt group gameplay and progression until the raid reset the next week.


This essay has provided an insight into World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King and the game design decisions made for the release. Overall, it can be concluded that the expansion created an intuitive player experience that actively catered to the community and was accessible through many different styles of play. Although some limitations in design were identified, this statement is supported by the fact that Wrath of the Lich King drew the largest number of players to date and reimagined the genre of MMOs through initiatives such as the PTR system.


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