World of Warcraft: Shadowlands will release on November 23, nearly a month after its initially announced October 27 release date. While fans have already been able to get a taste of the new story through the pre-expansion Scourge Invasion event, there's been plenty of anticipation about what lies in store when they travel to the realms of the dead.
We participated in a group interview last week with World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas, who shared some facets of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands that have yet to be publicly revealed. He also discussed the philosophy behind some of the game's newest mechanics and the challenges of having such a devoted fandom.
Some answers and questions have been adjusted for brevity and clarity.
Plot and lore
How do you plan to keep Sylvannas' arc in Shadowlands from feeling like a repeat of Garrosh's plot in Mists of Pandaria while also making sure the story satisfies both Horde and Alliance players?
World of Warcraft game director, Ion Hazzikostas: I think at this point their storylines have already diverged quite significantly. Whereas Garrosh ended Pandaria in chains and escaped to try to rally a resistance and change the course of time and change history to preserve the Horde that he imagined, Sylvannas very much departed on her own terms. She was certainly revealed in front of the Horde but she left in full control and set in motion a series of events that we have seen come to fruition now.
There's a lot of complexities and things that differ about their characters. It's hard to say anything about this substantively without giving away spoilers, but I'm pretty sure that as Shadowlands continues to unfold, talk of parallels between these two characters and their narratives will diminish steadily over time.
As you approach Shadowlands, what are the biggest lessons you've learned from Battle for Azeroth's development and player reaction to those things, especially when it comes to key characters and moving the metaplot of the universe forward?
On the storytelling front, one of the achievements of BfA, one of the things that we consciously did and we're happy with the way it worked out, is the integration of our cinematic storytelling and our gameplay storytelling, really trying to tell some bolder, more ambitious stories using more of those big cinematic beats as capstones to gameplay arcs.
That's something that we intend to continue through Shadowlands. There should be a whole bunch of really cool cutscenes and cinematics that the world will be seeing in the next two to three weeks. I think it's some of the cinematic team's coolest work yet. BfA was at times trying to tell stories with a lot of different characters, political dynamics, and rivalries. That's honestly not World of Warcraft's strength when it comes to our storytelling medium.
Shadowlands gets back towards larger epic narratives that are focused on existential threats, the efforts of heroes, villains, and ourselves operating alongside them to try to overcome those. There is all the nuance and characterization of storytelling out there in quests and external media. I think we're trying to make sure that we focus on the bigger, more digestible beats that our game can deliver better while having layers and layers of depth for the fans that really want to pick apart every character's motivations.
There are certain character-specific storylines that are told through the Covenant storylines. Will any of the events in those storylines be seen by players who pick other Covenants?
Everyone still shares a common reality. We intend for these stories to intertwine. The Shadowlands is still a cohesive story that's going to unfold over the course of the expansion.
Shadowlands is taking us to a whole new realm. How does the team balance keeping past content relevant to players while opening a door to this new massive place?
World of Warcraft's 16 years of content is a resource to draw on when it makes sense. In Battle for Azeroth, there was much tighter integration and there were key events happening in places like Stormwind and Lordaeron and the Dark Portal. We really crisscrossed the world.
In Shadowlands, we will be spending most of the time advancing the story in the Shadowlands. That's the nature of the planar separation and not dissimilar from how Warlords of Draenor was happening in an alternate timeline elsewhere and there was less direct connection. But if you're playing through the Night Fae campaign you'll be learning a lot about the origins of the Drust, who we saw in Drustvar, and there are some parts that will send players back to Drustvar.
The actions in one plane of existence impacts the other. As far as making use of the rest of the world, one of the things we're really excited about is having Timewalking Campaigns that really breathes renewed life into all of that content, even if we're not sending you back there for Shadowlands. Every new character, every alt that levels has the opportunity to experience the content in a way that hasn't been true in a long time.
Are there times where you put something in the game and are surprised by how people react to it?
We're certainly surprised. There are times that the community is looking for clues and reads things that weren't meant to be hints and suddenly there are all these fan theories. That's part of any fandom. It's an honor to work on a game, to develop a world that inspires such passion.
It also is a heavy responsibility. We know that particularly when navigating storylines involving beloved characters or hated characters, almost anything that we do, no matter which direction we take, we're going to piss a good chunk of people off and we're going to make others gratified and confirm that they were right all along.
We need to mindful of what is out there so we can be sensitive to this range of concerns. Even if we are going to disappoint people who are hoping for a certain outcome, we're trying to let them down as gently as possible. At the end of the day, we have these stories in many cases planned out well in advance, but nuances of them, as we're creating a cinematic, fiddling over specific animation or intonations, we are often mindful not to diminish this character or make this come across in a way that many people will take it because those are lessons we've learned from the past. It's this ongoing interplay. It's fun all around but it's definitely work as well.
Is the increased presence of Vol'jin a reaction to fans who felt disappointed with his brief tenure as Warchief?
As we are crafting Shadowlands, one of the first questions was who has unfinished stories? Who would we see here? Who's a natural fit in these places? I think Vol'jin ticked all of those boxes. It wasn't something that we did specifically to address the concerns of people who are big troll fans who felt shortchanged, but the fact that it does do that is a plus.
We hear feedback from the range of our players. We want to make sure that the stories that we tell and where we shine the spotlight of the content that we build is gratifying and giving succor to the wide range of players who have their preferences and their favorite characters and favorite pieces of Warcraft lore. We are its custodians and the fans of Warcraft are the true owners of this world. We're tying to do the best that we can for all of them. We can't do it all simultaneously but we try to take everyone's interests and desires to heart.
Talent and Covenant ability optimization
Shadowlands is introducing a lot of new systems with the Covenants and we had a lot of un-pruning of the classes where we got a lot of cool abilities back. With the addition of all of those things, do you expect it to affect the philosophy of "bring the player not the class"?
I'd like to formally repudiate the philosophy of "bring the player not the class." I think that was something that was articulated a dozen years ago in a very different time. The game itself has moved very far from the problems that statement was trying to address.
I'd like to formally repudiate the philosophy of "bring the player not the class."
That was phrased going into Wrath of the Lich King when a lot of buffs were being made raid wide, a lot of class buffs were made mutually exclusive. It was trying to get away from a place back in late Burning Crusade raiding where if you were trying to put together a group for Sunwell, you needed very specific group compositions. You might have an amazing Warrior, who was just a fantastic player, but if you didn't have space for that Warrior in a group with a Shaman, that Warrior wasn't worth bringing to your group. If you didn't have a Shadow Priest to fuel the Mage or the Warlock, they weren't worth fitting into your group.
We were trying to back away from that. But class should matter. You shouldn't have a raid that has 10 Warlocks or 10 Druids or 10 Hunters. If you're a pickup group leader trying to form a PUG (pick-up group), if you're looking down the list of classes that you have and you already have two warlocks but zero mages, you should be looking for a mage.
I think it's healthy to want a well-rounded group because we have a well-rounded player base that plays all these classes and there's a lot of value in everyone having a niche where it feels like their class brings something special, their spec brings something special. Obviously, there's the risk of taking this too far and going back to the extremes that we had a dozen years ago but I think we're pretty far from that.
We have a lot of flexibility with flexible raid structure. Things still are raid-wide but there is a deliberate desire to make people have reasons to say 'I'm really glad that I have a paladin in my dungeon group.' That's a more texturally deep place for the game to be than everyone brings the same everything and whoever can push their buttons harder is the best.
What steps is the team taking to encourage players to act in a more social way as opposed to an optimized way?
That is the dilemma of the meta in modern internet-fueled multiplayer gaming. That's a problem that I don't think anyone has really cracked. Even if it's players who are making these decisions for each other, if you're someone who's playing WoW and you want to run a Mythic dungeon and you spend an hour getting declined over and over again because of your spec or some choice that you made, that's other players doing that, but you're justified in blaming Blizzard and the developers for failing to provide a better experience for you.
What we've tried to chase is having that answer to 'What's best?' as much as possible be 'it depends. Situationally, this is better here, that's better there.' If you're coming to World of Warcraft or coming back to the game from a while away and you're trying to ask what character to make and you ask a group of competitive players, 'Should I play Hunter or should I play Mage?' honestly, there isn't a right answer to that question, no matter how min-maxy the people you're asking are. Both genuinely are very strong and have their pros and cons and can compete in a wide variety of content. It comes down to which do you enjoy more? Which are you better at? Which makes you happier?
There's no real silver bullet for this but trying to muddy the waters and remove clear-cut superiority expands the space of the meta.
We know that looking at a specific talent row or two abilities, there's always going to be one right answer. Part of what we've tried to do with Covenants as a whole is to make them a larger bucket, a collection of choices with different pros and cons so that even if in this one situation this Covenant or this class isn't optimal, they have their time to shine elsewhere and overall that makes them an accepted part of the meta.
I might be reading too much into player philosophy, but I think when people are forming their groups, they're often using the adherence to the meta for a shorthand for 'Are you a good player? Are you min-maxed? Do you know what you're doing?' If you play an unpopular spec, they infer from that a whole bunch of other things about you. You're more likely to stand in the fire, you probably don't know the routes in this dungeon, you probably don't know what abilities to interrupt because if you cared about those things you wouldn't be playing what you're playing.
That's an unfair judgement. With Covenants, when there are different pros and cons and it's valid and common in fact to see a top player of a given class in any of these Covenants, they all become accepted options and none of them become disqualifying. If someone's forming a literal MDI group they may hyper min-max but they'll do that with racials as well and no one really blacklists people from raids based on what race they are. There's no real silver bullet for this but trying to muddy the waters and remove clear-cut superiority expands the space of the meta and what is viable.
Dungeons and raiding
How many layers do you expect players to clear in Torghast on week one and will some better gear be required for the highest floors?
We're actually going to only have the first three layers of Torghast available at launch. Layers four through six will become available when Nathria opens and the season starts. Layers seven and eight will become available the following week alongside Mythic Nathria.
The intent is certainly that the higher layers will be tuned around higher gear levels. Of course, the very best players will be able to overcome those hurdles but there is a progression we're trying to build towards.
One of the things you seemed to moving away from in BfA is raid skips. Are you reevaluating raid skips going into this expansion?
Castle Nathria has a skip. In retrospect, we should have had one in Battle of Dazar'alor. It's generally been a case by case evaluation, a function of raid size and if there's a fork that feels like a staging ground that you can naturally skip ahead to but we're erring in favor of adding them more often than not having heard the feedback throughout BfA.
We're recognizing as people progress through difficulties, even if they are moving on to Mythic raiding, you may want to keep going back and clearing those last couple of bosses on Heroic. If you're raiding on a limited schedule that's a prohibitive time commitment without a skip involved so we're likely to do them wherever we can.
Will the endgame progression mechanics such as Soulbinds and Conduits continue to evolve over the course of Shadowlands the way that Corruption was added to Azerite gear in Battle for Azeroth?
Yes, they'll certainly continue to evolve. Our goal with Shadowlands, and I may regret these words — hopefully I don't — is to not need to add new systems but to expand the ones that we have. Will we see a new Soulbind added in the future? That seems likely. Things like that and new Legendary recipes that can be acquired and new Conduits.
We've laid an admittedly broad foundation with a bunch of systems. We want those systems to carry us through the entirety of Shadowlands. In some ways things like Essences and Corruption in Battle for Azeroth were solutions to problems. They were filling holes that became apparent after BfA launched.
We'd like to get back to a place where expansions bring big new systems, those systems evolve over the course of the expansion, and the next expansion is what brings other systems. By the end of BfA, I think players had a very justified criticism that it felt like too many things layered on top of each other and that's because the expansion hadn't been designed that was in the first place.
Is there a Flight Master's Whistle planned for Shadowlands and if not why?
There is not a Flight Master's Whistle planned because of the way that Shadowlands is laid out. We don't have emissaries anymore. Instead we have callings that will send you to a single zone. What spawned the Flight Whistle going back to Legion were things like the Wardens Emissary or Kirin Tor Emissary or War Campaign Emissary where the game was telling you to visit four zones and criss-cross thousands of yards in game in order to complete this single objective.
That just turned into an onerous amount of travel time. We're not asking players to do that this time around. On the topic of flight though, our plan for flying in Shadowlands is we would like to have flying earned, likely in our next major content patch after launch. We'd like to move away from using reputation and instead tying flight unlock to completion of the main Covenant campaign and its successive chapters.
Reputation has changed over time and for a lot of players it feels like unlocking flying is requiring them to do something overly repetitive they might not enjoy that they may not offer them other rewards for their gameplay mode whereas the core narrative arc offers essential rewards and is some of our best content so I think having that being the path to unlocking flying across and account is a better direction going forward.
The development process
After delaying the launch for a month, what has been changed, how is the product looking, and do you think it was all worth it?
There's no question that it was worth it. It's been a great month for the team. It's been incredibly gratifying as a development experience. It was kind of an agonizing decision to say 'We know we promised you that the game would be coming out in October. We know many of you are counting on that. We know some of you have taken time off from work just to play but it's not going to be up to the standards and the quality level that we demand and that the players expect and deserve.'
Every expansion's always coming in a bit hot, coming down to the wire. That's how game development goes. That's how Wrath of the Lich King was. That's how Legion was. We realized in the weeks approaching our final deadlines that it just wasn't there and the community was telling us that too. It was a relief when we announced the date change to see how understanding the community was and to see that they were willing to wait longer to make sure that what they got at the end of the day was great.
The time that we have spent, the focus was on the overall max level progression loop, your different activities, the anima and souls economy, upgrading your sanctum, the clarity of what you're supposed to do for what rewards over the course of the week, the tutorialization and explanation of the different systems as you first join your covenant, as you unlock your Soulbind, as you go into the Maw and discover its purpose as well as just the content variety in the Maw, moment to moment gameplay and the clarity of the system and rewards.
All of those things were areas we knew we needed to shore up before we could release Shadowlands. While we knew that a portion of the game just needed extra time to be ready, some teams were ready to go out when we originally intended. This extra time just turned into an opportunity to go back and polish, iterate further, to find ways to add bits of love and inspiration — whatever struck their fancy.
That's part of what was so gratifying about it. In making World of Warcraft, we're always on a deadline and that deadline is imposed by our community because it's a live service and we know that months have passed abd players are hungry for something new to do, for a new adventure. We're always trying to strike that balance between giving players new content in a timely manner and trying to live up to our own perfectionist standards and make that content as great as it can be.
It's a rare treat for a large chunk of the team to have open-ended time to just make stuff cooler. Add that little joke, add that vignette, add that homage, go back and add some cosmetic flavor to the background of this event. I think when players jump into Shadowlands, hopefully all of that comes across. It's been a game and a world that really was a labor of love for the team that made it and it's been a joy. It's been a stressful year with ups and downs to say the least, but seeing it all come together this past month has been incredible.
A taste of what's to come
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands releases on November 23 and we're excited to dive in and start exploring all the new systems and zones. Check back then for our full review and let us know if you have any questions you need answered.
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