After rumors about this possibility for the last several expansions, Blizzard has finally followed through on a level crunch. Whereas characters in the current Battle for Azeroth expansion cap out at level 120, the cap in Shadowlands will be 60—just as it was when the game first launched and just as it is in World of Warcraft Classic. Level-120 characters will be scaled down to level 50 when Shadowlands launches.
Blizzard's new solution in Shadowlands is to return the level cap to its original value of 60 and to make current content appropriate for levels 50 through 60. New players start at level one, and they all play through a new introductory zone built for Shadowlands based on the quest design lessons Blizzard has learned over the years. Once they play through that introductory experience, they can then level up to 50 to catch up with current content by playing through the previous expansion (Battle for Azeroth) right away (from around level 10).
That might seem odd or negative to those who aren't currently playing WoW, but it's actually something a great number of today's WoW players have been asking for. As the levels rose in this 15-year-old game that frankly wasn't designed with a 15-year plan in mind, Blizzard encountered all sorts of frustrating game design problems that players have been cranky about, too. The WoW team has already crunched player stats like health and mana down on multiple occasions as a way to postpone fully solving the problem, so this is the culmination of something that has been underway for a few years now.
The origins of the Shadowlands remain uncertain, but they have existed ever since mortal life first arose in the physical universe. They span all worlds, including Azeroth, on which Icecrown serves as an anchor to the Shadowlands. There are those who believe mortal souls are drawn into this dark place when they die, remaining there forever. Others hope their souls will go on to a brighter place rather than languish for eternity within the cold confines of the Shadowlands.
Blizzard hasn't talked about what it plans to do after Shadowlands. I speculate that the longterm solution would be to do this every expansion—so in the next expansion, Blizzard might move Battle for Azeroth into the multitude of choices for new character-leveling experiences and push level-cap characters back down to 50 to start whatever expansion comes after Shadowlands—an odd hybrid of traditional MMO and a seasonal model common in plenty of modern multiplayer games.
This skips all the content before the previous expansion to give players the most modern experience from a quest design POV (and to make sure the players are connected with the current storylines). It also ensures new players have a shorter leveling ramp—Blizzard says it will be as much as 70% shorter than it is currently to get from level one to the cap.
This section contains information that needs to be cleaned up. Reason: The death knight realm has already been confirmed to be the Shadowlands. Sylvanas committing suicide from ICC in EoN has already been connected to the Shadowlands. Reword still unclear things, move confirmed things to the main section of the page or remove them entirely if they are already incorporated there.
As always, though, Blizzard really delivered on the art front. Bastion is striking, with big, beautiful skies, banners realistically waving in the wind, and fascinating characters, like a humanoid, owl-like race that inhabits the zone. Blizzard artists told me that they plan to support RTX raytracing, as well as new kinds of real-time lighting, in the expansion. I'm surprised by how good modern WoW looks on a high-end PC these days, given that it originally came out in 2004, and it looks like that work will continue.
Keep raising the level cap but crunching how much experience is required per level as you do. This is the approach WoW has historically taken. But as this happens, levels start to seem meaningless. You gain them ultra-quickly, and only a smattering of them actually introduce new abilities or other perks. It also means that you blast through the leveling content at such a pace that you never finish individual zone stories; you only finish a small portion of an area before you have outleveled it and are ready to move on.
The experience curve is adjusted to make it faster than ever to prepare for the newest challenges, and each level along the way will provide more meaningful increases in progress and power. All expansion zones are getting more flexible, too; they'll be able* to scale to you and your friends while you level to 50, so it's easy to try a zone you've never played.