Blizzcon is months away. We don't even have the usual patent telling us what the expansion's name is but that has never stopped good speculation anwyay. But we can all rest assured the fifth expansion is in development.
I don't wish to speculate about the setting, the 'where' of the expansion, I want to think about the 'what', the features and hooks Blizzard will use to advertise their products, the features that will reshape the game. Each expansion has done this.
With the Burning Crusade we got the promise of two new races (both of whom filled gaps in their respective sides), previously faction locked classes available to both factions, flying mounts, the new jewelcrafting profession and arenas.
With Wrath of the Lich King we gained a new class in the Death Knight, a new profession in Inscription, a new vehicle control system that has been deployed to great effect in the years since it's introduction. Note that two promised features, Path of the Titans and Dance Studio did not make the cut. Path of the Titans metamorphisesed into the glyph system Wrath deployed, and the Dance Studio remained elusive.
Come the Cataclysm, we had the entire old world overhauled and flying allowed in nearly all areas of Azeroth. There was a massive stat overhaul with the addition of mastery being the most significant, Archaeology was introduced as a secondary profession. Rated Battlegrounds were introduced as an alternative to Arenas.Two more new races, again each filling niches in their factions where introduced. The first revamp of the talent system was also implemented, a revamp that Blizzard ultimately judged wanting. Later patches introduced Transmogrification and Looking for Raid.
Finally we have MOP where blizzard deployed a New Race AND a New Class,the Pet Battle System, the new Talent system, the friendship reputation system, Scenarios, Challenge Mode Five Mans, AoE looting, our own personal farm and (like it or loathe it) Cross-Realm Zones.
So look back, and what emerges? Firstly, Blizzard likes to have SOME sort of hook for each expansion. A new playable race or a new playable class. Is that likely next time, regardless of setting?
Right now what artists Blizzard can spare are busy building brand new character models for the original races and the burning crusade races because, and let's face it, to stand an Orc or a Human next to a Pandaren is to make you almost want to cry. There's no getting around this, the old models are much too limited. Character Creation should be one of the most fun parts of any game and yet with WoW the options the older races have no longer cut the mustard. Everyone and their mother is prediciting that the new character models will form a part of patch 6.0 and I agree. I believe they will arrive free prior to the launch of the expansion rather than being activated as part of buying the expansion.
However I am 'speculating' that this may grow beyond a simple model update (although if it ends up being just that it would be fantastic). I'm hoping Blizzard treats this as an opportunity to improve their whole character creation process, allowing us to colour our hair or shade our with gradient sliders rather than from 9 or 10 pre-selected options. Maybe alter our height, our build or the shape of our faces. It would mean giving the Worgen, Goblins and Pandaren a little bit of an overhaul as well but not to improve or rebuild in any meaningful sense their models, but to make sure they are relevant in a character creation system I hope will be able to stand up to almost any modern MMO.
But with ALL that effort being spent on updating the old models, will there be any to build one or two new races completely from scratch? My gut says no.
So maybe it would be a new class? New classes are all well and good of course except in the end they affect a small proportion of the player base, specifically those guys who decide to level one whereas a lot of players will be busy playing their mains, and many won't have time for a lot of alts given Blizzard's new paradigm of providing plenty to do at max level for a toon. I'd say a new class will be likelier than new races though.
How about giving every class a fourth specialization,as Druids currently do? It would solve the problem of pures at least, imagine giving Hunters/Warlocks a tanking spec based on their pets. Mages could get a healing spec, maybe using their arcane powers to rewind time (so the damage never happened) or slow down it's applicaton. Rogues could get a healing spec too, maybe something to do with their knack for mixing poisons and potions. And Classes that have one utility role already, such as Death Knights with Tank, and then two dps specs, why not a third dps spec, maybe resurrecting the Necromancer class as one that wears the spell plate currently monopolised by Paladins. After all, the former pures would have three dps specs.
Of course, that runs into the problem that having 44 specs across 11 classes would be a nightmare to balance and runs the very real risk of class homogenization hitting all time highs.
Maybe some form of alternate advancement could be introduced?
Maybe another mini-game like Pet Battles?
Maybe they could bring back Dance Studios as a method of customising your characters casting/weapon skills animations?
The only feature I can be fairly sure about (the new models in 6.0 is a matter of good guesswork on the part of the community) is the big stat crunch to attack the game's gearflation, and given Blizzard doesn't like the fact our character's will feel weaker after it they may not want to trumpet this feature if they go with it even if it is for the good of the game.
It's a blank canvass really. But this time I feel whatever they add will have to have a big impact on our existing characters beyond cosmetics. I wonder what it will be.