Did you miss a session from GamesBeat Summit Next 2022? All sessions are now available for viewing in our on-demand library. Click here to start watching.

Blizzard Entertainment has announced the fourth World of Warcraft expansion, titled Mists of Pandaria.

Speaking today at the sold-out BlizzCon fan event in Anaheim, Calif., Blizzard’s vice president of creative development Chris Metzen revealed the upcoming expansion set to deafening applause. Each new expansion is financially a big deal for Blizzard, which generates a billion dollars a year in World of Warcraft revenues.

Whenever the company starts to lose subscribers, it pumps up the user base with a new expansion. In a recent earnings call, Blizzard said such changes would happen more frequently than in the past. It didn’t say why it would move faster, but presumably it is because it has to fend off competition from new rivals such as Trion Worlds’ Rift as well as a horde of new free-to-play games, where users play for free and pay real money for virtual goods. Blizzard responded earlier this year by making the first set of levels free in World of Warcraft, and now it is responding again with a new expansion.

As longtime Warcraft fans already know, the pandaren race of panda-like warriors originally began as an April Fool’s Joke inspired by Blizzard artist Samwise Didier’s fascination with drawing pandas, according to Metzen. Due to an impressive response from fans, a pandaren character appeared in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, technically making the “joke characters” part of the official Warcraft lore.

Long-rumored to be a playable race in World of Warcraft (and confirmed by Metzen as originally planned for the second expansion, The Burning Crusade), the pandaren now have an entire expansion set based around them.

The pandaren will be unique to World of Warcraft’s roster of playable races in that they are faction neutral, at first. Players will eventually be able to decide if their pandaren character will join the Horde or Alliance. The Mists of Pandaria expansion takes place in the lost continent of Pandaria, the pandaren’s mystical homeland.

Other notable features include a level cap increase to 90, a new Monk class, and a pet battle system that seems eerily reminiscent of Nintendo’s Pokemon.

From the official press release:

  • New Playable Race — Pandaren: Adventure through Azeroth as World of Warcraft’s first neutral race and decide whether to side with the Alliance or the Horde.
  • New Playable Class — Monk: Unlock the secrets of pandaren martial arts and do battle as a damage dealer, healer, or tank.
  • Level Cap Increased to 90: Learn potent new spells and abilities while exploring uncharted zones and taking on challenging new content.
  • New Zones: Explore the lush Jade Forest, treacherous Kun-Lai Summit, and other exotic areas of Pandaria designed for high-level characters, and uncover the mystery of the Wandering Isle.
  • Scenarios: Join up with some friends to achieve a common goal, such as mounting a defense against invading monsters, in a flexible new type of PvE challenge.
  • Dungeon “Challenge” Modes: Master the ultimate five-player time trial to earn prestige rewards in a new dungeon mode that will put your resolve and coordination to the test.
  • Pet Battles: Challenge other players’ companion pets with your own collection in a new tactical mini-game, and find out who’s king or queen of the pint-sized battlefield.
  • New Talent System: Customize your character to suit your play style with the newly overhauled and improved talent system.

The World of Warcraft Annual Pass was also announced, and includes a free copy of Diablo III for all subscribers.

It’s interesting to note that Mists of Pandaria is the first World of Warcraft expansion to not focus on a main antagonist. In fact, Deathwing the Destroyer, the primary villain responsible for the events of previous expansion, Cataclysm, has yet to be included as a boss character, though that opportunity will finally be included in the upcoming Patch 4.3.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is expected to be released during holiday 2012.

GamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.