World of Warcraft: Shadowlands could get ray tracing support for eye-popping graphics

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
Imagine this, but with ray tracing (Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Blizzard recently announced World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, the eighth expansion to the venerable World of Warcraft. But, the game might be evolving in more than just its content. 

World of Warcraft has consistently added new technology to the engine as time has moved on, mostly to make sure it plays nice with the latest PC hardware (and, of course, to make it look better). And, with Shadowlands, we could see ray tracing make its way into the game according to an interview with WoW developers Michael Bybee and Patrick Magruder on MMO-Champion.

Again, this wouldn't be the first time that Blizzard has updated the WoW engine for more modern hardware. In fact, with its latest expansion, Battle For Azeroth, Blizzard integrated DirectX 12 API support – even for folks still using Windows 7. This saw performance soar for anyone with powerful multi-core processors like the Ryzen 9 3900X, while still supporting strong single-core performance on older APIs.

According to the interview, "the engine team is working on taking advantage of RTX". Now, we obviously don't know what ray tracing might look like in World of Warcraft, but looking at what developers have been able to do with the technology in games like Quake II and Minecraft, we're sure it'll be jaw-dropping either way. 

And, if you're looking at this worried that your old machine will finally be aged out from playing your favorite MMO, you can rest easy. World of Warcraft will continue to run well on all kinds of systems, as the developers "believe that the more machines that can run WoW, the better". So, you don't have to worry about upgrading your old clunker of a gaming PCnot yet at least. 

What will ray tracing even look like in WoW?

Now, because the expansion is so far out, we won't know what ray tracing will look like in the MMO. In fact, we're not even sure ray tracing will actually make it into the final build. Still, we can take a look at past improvements to get an idea of what future graphical improvements will look like.

Way back in 2010's Cataclysm expansion, Blizzard completely revamped water textures in the game, which drastically transformed the way the game looks. Water looked real. Then, in Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard introduced SSAO which revolutionized the way lighting looked in the game, which was 11 years old at that point. 

Now this is pure speculation on our part, but we would think Blizzard would add ray traced shadows to World of Warcraft, much like Activision has done with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. This wouldn't be as transformative as, say, full path tracing in Minecraft or global illumination in Metro Exodus, but remember, accessibility is the name of the game here. 

Ray traced shadows would significantly change how the game looks, but wouldn't be as much of a performance hog. Keep in mind that World of Warcraft is a bigger open world than pretty much any other game out there. You have access to entire continents without loading screens between areas. Whichever flavor of ray tracing Blizzard goes with, it would have to be light enough to play nice with that world design. We might even see Blizzard implement Deep Learning Super Sampling (or DLSS) to help lighten that load.  

Either way, no matter how much boundless speculation we indulge ourselves in, we won't know what ray tracing in World of Warcraft will look like until it shows up in the PTR. Shadowlands is going to be launching in 2020, so we just have to wait a little bit longer to see Azeroth ray traced. We just hope that folks with an RTX 2060 can handle the game at 1080p with ray tracing. 

Bill Thomas

Bill Thomas (Twitter) is TechRadar's computing editor. They are fat, queer and extremely online. Computers are the devil, but they just happen to be a satanist. If you need to know anything about computing components, PC gaming or the best laptop on the market, don't be afraid to drop them a line on Twitter or through email.