World of Warcraft Shadowlands interview: Customization, progression, balance, and more with Ion Hazzikostas

WoW Shadowlands Bolvar
WoW Shadowlands Bolvar (Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Source: Blizzard Entertainment (Image credit: Source: Blizzard Entertainment)

We recently found out World of Warcraft Shadowlands' release date window, penned in for the Fall of 2020. While that still paints it a couple of months out, we already know a fair bit about the game. If you're unfamiliar with what's coming soon, here's everything you need to know about World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, so far.

In an age where digital shows and events are becoming ever more commonplace, we were among a few lucky guests at Blizzard's recent virtual World of Warcraft: Shadowlands summit. There, game director Ion Hazzikostas sat down with a group of writers from across the WoW fandom to field various questions about the game as it exists today, and what is coming in the future. Note, we adjusted some answers and questions for brevity, but the context remains unaltered.

Character customization

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Given that some of the new customization options in Shadowlands let us play as sub-races like Wildhammer Dwarves or Sandfury Trolls, will World of Warcraft: Shadowlands introduce any quests to explain their new presence among the Horde and Alliance?

There no specific plans around those lines in Shadowlands, though. I think we are planning on just broadly incorporating the range of character customization options for NPCs as well as players just across the world. I think in some ways, frankly, it's a bit of a retcon. Like we're not going to change existing named established characters and make them look different. But walking around Stormwind or around other parts of the world, you will see guards and random civilians that have these looks as if they've been there all along.

Frankly, I think we see this as correcting an oversight on our part over the years. And just trying to improve representation more broadly. And we are custodians of a fantasy universe and a world that we build. And we don't want to, you know, not do the right thing because we feel shackled to a decision that was made creatively in a different era 15 plus years ago. Now, as for, you know, details of troll clans and dwarf clans, we have opportunities to do things like racial heritage lines or other race-focused questlines. That's a fun opportunity to explore those areas, but we don't have any specific thoughts for Shadowlands.

I wanted to ask about the Glyph system. We've seen a ton of new customization options for races, but the Glyph system for customizing spells feels overly neglected. Are there any plans to push more content into it?

Yes, I think I mean, the glyph system is something that is almost infinitely expandable. It's just a question of ideas and the inevitable trade-offs we make of putting resources into one area versus another. For Shadowlands, in particular, we frankly had much less in the visual effects bandwidth department than other expansions. Having four different covenants with four very different visual aesthetic elements to them, different types of particles, the full range of 48 covenant abilities, the classes, a lot of sources in making just new spell visuals went into that area.

Just as you saw us take a large chunk of our character art bandwidth for Shadowlands, for example, to redo character customization, I think moving forward, permanent combat revamps, and also improving the diversity of glyphs is something we want to continue doing.

Source: Blizzard Entertainment (Image credit: Source: Blizzard Entertainment)

The response to the new customization has been overwhelmingly positive. Will that potentially bring forward more customization options as a priority and add more things to the table?

I think a lot of things on the table as a result of this. The first step that enabled all of this was a large engineering undertaking to rebuild how our characters are put together under the hood. So that adding more options isn't like literally an exponentially scaling, effort investment, which is how it would have been under the old system. That's what limited us to how we built character models and what options we could offer.

And so now that we've kind of cracked that open, yeah, all of that is on the table. We are still going down the list of the races that haven't been updated yet and getting those into alpha soon. But that's an effort that's going to continue after Shadowlands is out the door. And we're really excited about the passion the community has around it. Our artists love going through all those ideas and suggestions and seeing what people are hyped about and seeing what we can make real.

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We saw a lot of experimental content in Battle for Azeroth, with stuff like Warfronts and Island Expeditions, or even things like unlocking new customizations through story progression. What are some of the things you learned from the failures and successes of some of that content?

I think we are always learning from our experiments and our storytelling. The War Campaigns were, in some way, an evolution of class Hall Campaigns we had back in Legion, that were much more modest in scope. And I think Covenant Campaigns kind of take that even a step further in terms of the amount of content and the depth there, as well as there being four of them.

Island Expeditions were an experiment with an all-new type of gameplay. There's a lot that we wish we would do differently if we could go back a couple of years now. A lot of what we've learned about how to dynamically spawn an environment, how to create a static space that can feel different on subsequent visits, definitely translated into informing the design of the Torghast tower, and the more replayable dungeon crawl feel that that has.

For customizations – when you see something for the first time that's never been done before – sometimes it's we just thought of something new, other times, we just got the technical ability to give a type of reward that we'd never given before. And we started to dip our toes in the water of exploring, unlocking specific customizations or appearances through content. We're excited to continue to do where it makes sense. It's not something we want to turn into like a full-fledged collection system like transmog or mounts. But where it suits the story, I think it's a really cool way of delivering something in a special, meaningful way.

The way the new character customizations have been designed, it all feels very modular. Is that something you think you'll continue to add more to?

Yes, I think that we see this initiative as an ongoing one. It's a platform upon which we can continue to build and add. We've already heard tons of requests and feedback on existing customizations and things people would love to see. And while we, of course, can't get to everything in the limited time we have, that doesn't stop as soon as Shadowlands is out. It's a process that will continue. There are other races you want to give attention to, and then continue to revisit just the general space of letting people express themselves as their avatars with the greatest diversity possible in the game world.

Levelling and questing

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Can you talk a little bit about the creative thinking behind the revised sort of leveling journey for specifically for levels one to 10? And how you went about really designing those experiences?

So yeah, we have an all-new experience in Exiles Reach. And I think really, that was driven by a desire to put our best foot forward as a game as a franchise. I think if you played World of Warcraft, today, if you literally go and log into Battle for Azeroth, make a level one character you're by and large playing content that was made ten plus years ago and was a reflection of the way we built the game back then. It also wasn't even necessarily in many cases designed with a new player in mind. If you decide that goblins look cool, the first thing that you're doing is a vehicle quest literally because back then, we assumed that goblins were only being made by people who own multiple expansions and World of Warcraft veterans.

We wanted to create a modern introductory experience that really gives a sense of what playing World of Warcraft is like in 2020. That's interaction with the people around you. It's treasures. It's big, powerful, rare enemies that you can optionally tackle and even a mini-dungeon at the end of the experience. And then from there, we want to flow you into a much better-paced experience that tells a coherent story. And that's part of what's really exciting to us about new players going into Battle for Azeroth being able to play through it in its entirety, or also being able to pick an expansion of their choice, and so that they can experience these stories as they were meant to be told and in many cases, with pacing that hasn't been possible since those expansions literally came out for the first time years ago.

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Shadowlands seems to offer a more linear questing experience than some of the recent previous expansions. Is that because you feel like it makes it easier to tell a cohesive story? Is that something we'll see moving forward?

Honestly, in terms of moving forward, we'll see how it goes. We'll see what people think and how we all feel about it players and us developers alike. Once it's out there. I think one of the advantages certainly is that we can tell a broader progressive narrative when we know that you're going to encounter these zones in a specific order versus when you go to zone three first.

Now another piece that we're really excited about is the sense of gameplay power progression as well. I think that's something we lost when we moved to the Legion/Battle for Azeroth open world freeform model. We lost the feeling that when you went to a new zone, this is a dangerous place and you're barely holding your own here against these enemies, and maybe the wrong part of the zone. There's some really scary stuff there. But once you've gained a couple levels and you're on your way to move to the next zone, this place isn't so scary anymore. And you actually feel that sense of power progression relative to beginning and endpoint. If everything scales, we lose that.

So, letting us go back to a linear narrative replay through Bastion into Ardenweald and into Revendreth lets us clearly define Revendreth as the top of the pecking order. The place where you get crushed if you went there right away. Eventually, you earn your way to hold your own there.

Now we combine that with all that with our "new game plus" type mode, which we see that as the best of both worlds. You can have this progression experience and your main as you're exploring the Shadowlands for the first time. But then you know what, once you've done it all, you've seen the world. Let's give you as many options as possible when you're leveling your second, third or fourth character. If you want to go straight to Revendreth, we will make that work. Oh, and by the way, you can also be a member of your Covenant while you're doing it, and start earning renown and recovering Anima for them even as you level.

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As a 15 year World of Warcraft veteran, one of the oddest holdovers is the fact World of Warcraft remains region restricted. I can't go questing or raiding with US friends without getting a US account, I can't just use my EU account. Why is that? And will it change?

Ion Hazzikostas: I can't give you a full satisfying answer here. As some of the pressures from the details are outside of my area of personal expertise. I can say it's definitely not a design choice. It's not something that we feel is the best player experience. I think there's a lot of legacy infrastructure there that goes back 15 years. Working in technical perspective, but also details involving international exchange rates and corporate entities and where revenue goes and stuff like that. Obviously, you know, the more recent Blizzard games, especially those that are just box products, they are cross-region and that's a core part of how we want to build our ecosystems going forward.

I'd love to see a day where someone in the UK or anywhere can play with a friend of theirs anywhere in the world if they're both World of Warcraft players. There are a number of hurdles for us to clear before we can get to that point, but I share that desire and I share that goal.

Loot, progression, and balance

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Crafting legendaries is a big part of the end game in Shadowlands, but there are still things we don't know about it yet. It seems like players will want to focus on performance-related legendaries rather than any form of utility-related legendaries. Will there be anything to encourage greater variety of choices?

So I think the big difference is control over what you want to pursue. I think odds are good that most players, for the first legendary they seek to craft on a given character, they're not going to pick a purely utility-oriented one. That's fine. I think in some ways, a flaw of the Legion system was the fact that we had an item like a ring that makes your Corruption spell snare in the same bucket as something that was just a mathematical six to eight per cent DPS increase in all situations.

Now, there were many situations where the Corruption snare was invaluable. If you were doing the Aggramar encounter in Antorus, you wanted your warlocks to wear that because it was incredibly valuable to the raid. The same way that you often see players spec into talents that offer raid utility, or solutions to problems encountered at the expense of personal throughput. The ability to make multiple legendaries over the course of a given raid tier with the limit of only one that you can equip at any given time, create interesting decisions, but players have control over these decisions. And so we can make the utility legendaries powerful enough that when you're in the situational space where they're most useful, they are worth it.

So in Shadowlands, you can only wear one legendary?

Yes. So far, we haven't figured out the exact rate of acquisition. Some of it's going to depend on how much Torghast you're doing and how successful you are in Torghast. But the idea is, you know, faster, probably faster acquisition than the Legion legendaries were. Certainly faster than at the start of Legion. And so you will have a collection of them in a way you didn't in Legion except it's going to be a collection that you have decided how to build and in which order and then you can pick among them.

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World of Warcraft has always had this sort of struggle between people who just want to play and don't think too much about major choices, and others who want to play in the most optimized min-maxed way possible. With that in mind, how do you plan to cater to both groups when it comes to Covenants, which are more of a hard choice?

First off, by listening and trying to understand the range of concerns and trying to accommodate as many of them as possible. There's no question that players can feel obligated to make certain choices, and what can easily be dismissed as a concern for only like the top fraction of one percent has a way of trickling down through guides and player perception into the behavior of a broader range of players.

Those choices, in an RPG, are what define your character and let you carve out an identity

At the core of a lot of these concerns is the anxiety that someone is going to pick the Covenant that they think is coolest, and then get told that they're being declined for a Mythic+ group, because they're in the "wrong" Covenant. That's a very valid concern. And it's our job to minimize the likelihood of that happening.

For us, being free to change all of these things so much that they no longer become part of your character's identity, but are just yet another toggle or switch in your loadout that you transform as you respec, change your gear, all of this stuff from situation to situation – that's a last resort that we would only turn to if all else has failed. I'm not completely irrevocably closing the door to that option, but we see it as a last resort.

It's our job and our stated intention to make this a multi-faceted decision. That's not just a question "this is 10 percent damage and this is eight percent damage." Of course, ten is higher, but we want to make it a more nuanced decision, like a package of abilities including active Soulbinds, additional feature perks and all the rest against another package.

This should be the same way as if someone asks you which class is better: Mage or Hunter? You could ask people in the best raiding guilds in the world which is better. It's not 100 percent clear, it depends on a lot of things. Both are great, which is more fun, which do you enjoy playing more? That's actually a valid answer that can drive you and there's no wrong choice between those two. That's what we want Covenants to be.

I mean, this isn't the first time we've gone down this path. Think back to Legion. The artifact weapons and legendaries certainly made the choice of spec you wanted to play and what you wanted to commit to in many ways a lot more permanent than anything we're contemplating for Covenants. And, by and large, we feel that worked out in retrospect, I guess there's some tension associated with difficult choices. But those choices, in an RPG, are what define your character and let you carve out an identity that's different from every other player around you because they reflect your priorities. And that's something we really want to hold on to and defend as much as possible.

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How do you plan to make sure the end-game systems don't feel like an arbitrarily time-gated experience?

That's gonna be down to pacing. I think the goal here is for all of those to be accessible within your first week. It's not about gating so much is actually pacing. If all of those systems are unlocked, the second you first arrive in the covenant sanctum – it's frankly overwhelming. You have a bunch of different quests, you have a bunch of different systems that are available to you all at once.

Our goal is not to delay access to any of these things for a terribly long period of time. But rather to have more of a tutorialized structure, which isn't fully in place yet. It's actually mostly not at all in place. That's one of the last things we add. But that will unfold these systems as we introduce you to your brand new covenant, your sanctum, what these different resources are, why they matter where to get them, and more. But that should be a pretty accelerated process really limited only by how long it takes to be able to focus on and convey each of those pieces of information in turn.

With regards to Soulbinds and Conduits, could you comment a bit more on how they work? Will we be able to swap them around freely and so on?

They are relatively straightforward modifications to class abilities. They may do things like make your Healing Rain do way more healing when you have Healing Tide active, or increase the effectiveness of other abilities. They are simple modifications that should be powerful that you customize your class and spec abilities for certain situations. They're not going to be awarded or earned exactly like Legion relics were, they're not competing with other drops on loot tables.

They're bonus items on top of the helm or the shoulders you might get from defeating a dungeon boss or a raid boss. But they are kind of like gems in the sense you are physically putting this item into the Soulbind device in your Covenant sanctum. You can reroute the flow of Anima down one path or the other to freely spec your Soulbind. But if you want to replace that that conduit with a different one, or with a stronger one, it will destroy the one that was already in that slot.

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On the current Shadowlands beta build you can change your Soulbind pretty freely, is that how it's planned to always be?

To change your Soulbind, it's intended that players will be in their Covenant Sanctum. It's not something you just do in the field, though that might change based on feedback and iteration as we're playing around at max level.

Respeccing the Soulbind itself, that is to say, changing the path that the anima flows down to one branch or the other will be done for a very minimal anima cost, not something that escalates exponentially. For alpha and collecting data, we do have the Soulbind trees fully unlocked. Those will require increasing levels of renown in retail. Normally, you won't just have all of the tiers available the second you first join the Covenant.

Story and dungeons

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So over the last few expansions, the Horde has lost a lot of major characters, which you could say has tipped the power scales in favor of the Alliance. What are you going to do in regards to the Horde's thinning core of iconic characters?

I think the Horde is definitely in for a period of rebuilding. That's just been one blow after another. I think we saw in the conclusion they came to at the end of Battle for Azeroth that it's time for change in some of their traditions. The title of Warchief almost assumes a constant unending state of war and it's led the Horde down a perilous path is more than once, and so they have now turned to more of a council to guide the Horde as an institution.

I think the Horde is definitely in for a period of rebuilding.

Obviously, the Shadowlands and everything going on there is going to take the attention of Horde and Alliance alike. As far as the aftermath and how those relations will evolve after Shadowlands? I think that is we definitely have stories to tell there, but they're not going to be the focus of the events of Shadowlands. At least not at the outset. Right now. It's just about the need to save our world and that is an overriding imperative.

During the developer stream we were introduced to the new dungeon Theatre of Pain. I wondered if you could comment on some of the inspiration for building new dungeons.

We're trying to always come up with fresh ideas as we're making dungeons literally 15, 16 years into the game, that still feel true to the roots of World of Warcraft gameplay, but are a twist, interpreting it into a new setting.

Thinking about the fantasy of what Maldraxxus is all about and what this zone is all about, there are these rival houses/different branches of the military mind to the Shadowlands that are constantly effectively in a war in an ongoing rivalry. So we imagine something inspired by like think Hunger Games or The Running Man, like that type of vibe of an arena. You're not just going into a structure that's, you know, hall-room-hall-room with a boss at the end, but rather a dynamic environment where there are a bunch of competing enemy forces and you're choosing to work with one against the other initially and then switch sides to ultimately prevail on behalf of the forces that you're championing as a party of adventurers

It still has dungeon bosses and flow to it. But if you think back to a dungeon like Court of Stars in Legion, that's another example. It's not the same type of gameplay, but it's us trying to take traditional WoW gameplay and really put a twist on it to create a memorable dungeon experience.

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Shadowlands is the first expansion in a while where we're walking in knowing exactly who the antagonist and final boss will likely be in the form of the Jailor. What are the challenges involved with that, and how did you decide to go down that route?

Frankly, it's almost the opposite of a challenge. I think it's an easier way to tell a story and set up an expansion with very clear theming, harkening back to the wrath or our Cataclysm Deathwing days.

Part of why we didn't openly talk about who the end boss of some recent expansions was going to be, was that it wouldn't have made sense if we said it at the time. It would have given away story spoilers or twists and turns along the way. Starting out in Warlords of Draenor and being told, "hey, you're gonna fight Archimonde at the end of this one" would have been kind of a head-scratcher when it comes to understanding the theming of the expansion.

But here, there is a major, Titan-level antagonist that we are facing. And we have many steps in our journey to uncover the nature of the Jailor's plan, and put together the forces and support to even have a chance against him. And the story is going to wind its way through all the Shadowlands and our content updates until we ultimately do get a chance to confront the Jailor himself.

As players have gotten more powerful, we started out fighting creatures like Hogger and have since taken on major lore entities like Sargeras, who literally destroys worlds. When it comes to designing antagonists are you concerned about power creep and things like that?

That's always a little bit of a challenge. We've been coming up with the new villains for a long time. Before we had this existing encyclopedia of established lore villains to draw upon. All we had to say was, "you get to fight the Lich King." Say no more. You know where the Lich King is. You know why that's awesome. And he already has this built up or around him.

One of the challenges in creating Shadowlands is really introducing a villain and building up a villain for the very first time that we previously have known nothing about. A lot of what we're going to do, especially at max level in Shadowlands, is begin to unravel the origins of the Jailer and how he fits into the broader cosmology of the Warcraft universe.

We fought the Titan Argus, we have just defeated the Old God N'Zoth. First off, villains, in order to be credible adversaries at this point, needs to be at least at Titan power level, and that's kind of a big deal.

We want to tell a good story and want to go down a path that makes sense for gameplay. Gameplay is going to be our first guiding directive and you can't overthink too many of the comparative power levels when you start talking about player level, as you alluded to, at the start of your question. Technically a wolf that you're fighting in Kul'Tiras is technically stronger than Ragnaros in Molten Core, but canonically that's not how it plays out. It's just the product of how we're taking this broad narrative and fitting it to a linear RPG system.

Thanks to Ion for talking with us!

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is targeting a fall launch window if all goes to plan, and what we've experienced so far in the game's alpha builds has been incredibly promising. Whether or not all of the new systems and features are well-balanced remain to be seen, but thus far it feels like this is going to be one of the more meaty, feature-packed expansions to date. Here's to hoping.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!