[October 2011 Update: And now we know! The Pandaren and their culture will be the central theme of WoW's fourth expansion. So when it will be released? 4th quarter of 2012 would be a safe bet. Internally, Blizzard is probably thinking 2nd or 3rd quarter, but let's face it... they always take a bit longer than they originally planned.]
[August 2011 Update: Obviously with the recent announcement that Blizzard has trademarked "Mists of Pandaria", it looks like the next expansion will be the Maelstrom/Lost Isles expansion we've all been waiting for, and it will indeed include the Pandaren. Having read up on everything, here's my speculation:
The Pandaren will be the first race that is available to both the Horde and the Alliance. This will be accomplished in one of two ways: Either the Pandaren will be a hero class, or they'll simply be a race both factions can click on when they create a character. If it is a hero class, then it seems obvious that what it will officially be is a, "Pandaren Brewmaster". If it is just a race though, then that leaves us with another question, "What about Brewmasters?" Could the Lost Isles expansion have both a new race *and* a new class? That's possible. Will Brewmaster then be that class? Not necessarily.
Don't forget that "Brewmaster" could also be a branch within a new class. Personally, I think that's the safer bet. Why? Because Pandaren also have Wardancers, Shodo-pans, and other schools of training. The final question we're really left with then is, "What would you call a class that includes, Brewmasters, Wardancers, Shodo-pans?" The lore points to "Geomancer" but that just strikes me as misleading. "Martial Artist" seems closer to the matter, but it lacks zazz. We'll just have to wait and see.]
[April 2011 Update: As we all found out, the expansion involving "The Maelstrom" ended up not dealing with the Island Kingdoms such as Kul Tiras. I'm betting those will be dealt with in the next expansion (after Cataclysm), which will be where we see the Pandaren.]
It’s one of the most burning questions in WoW, so let’s just jump right to the meat of this. When will World of Warcraft have Pandaren?
The answer is, The Maelstrom Expansion.
So… How do we know this? Themes. Look at what Blizzard Entertainment has done so far.
The Burning Crusade introduced Blood Elves and the Draenei. The Blood Elves, at the time, were desperate to reach Outland, and the Draenei were actually from Outland. The theme of The Burning Crusade was the re-opening of the Dark Portal and Outland, and both of those new races fit that theme.
Now, with Wrath of the Lich King, we have been given the Death Knights. Once again, Blizzard is following a theme: Northrend, the Lich King, the Scourge.
Do you see where I’m going here? Blizzard’s designers don’t just hap-hazardly throw things into the expansions. I see people constantly ask, “Why didn’t TBC or WOTLK have Pandaren?” Why? Because what the heck do the Pandaren have to do with Outland or Northrend?
So then where do they fit in? The Pandaren are an island race. Island. That screams Maelstrom. Aside from the Goblins and the Naga, you could not have a more fitting race.
Then the real question becomes, “Will they be a playable race?” For that, your guess is as good as anyone else’s. There are a ridiculous number of rumors floating around about the Pandaren pushing and pulling in both directions. But there are two that stand out.
The Chinese did not like the first iteration of the Pandaren, because they were a race of Chinese bears dressed in Japanese armor. If you don’t understand the full impact of that, then look at it this way: Imagine if the Chinese came out with a game featuring bald eagles dressed as Nazis. Yes, it’s not a perfect comparison, and some of us would admittedly find that funny, but you get the idea. Anyway, since the Pandaren have now been corrected, that rumor is moot and should be ignored.
The second rumor is the Chinese dislike the idea of a Panda Bear being killed in a video game. Heck knows if that’s true, but the Chinese do have some unusual censorship rules regarding death in video games. Namely, you’re not supposed to show bones. (So yes, if you play WoW in China the Forsaken do not show any bones, and when you die and res you leave a grave behind instead of a skeleton.)
If I had to make a guess, I’d say the Pandaren are going to be NPC’s.
If they ARE playable, however, then the next question is, “Which faction?” Lore-wise right now it’s really a tie. The Pandaren share the Dwarves’ celebratory love for ale, but they also share the Horde’s central belief in Shamanism. My hope is if the Pandaren are a playable race, then they will be WoW’s first race available to both factions.
…Couple that with the Demon Hunter hero class we’ll get in the Emerald Dream expansion and I’ll be good to go.