Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a group interview with the Game Director for World of Warcraft, Ion Hazzikostas. This interview covered a range of topics and was overall really interesting. We even uncovered a couple of things that hadn’t been previously revealed. So let’s jump right in!
One of the consistent complaints about BfA has been that we are essentially doing a Garrosh 2.0 storyline with Sylvanas because there are some obvious parallels there. Hozzikostas was quick to point out that their stories have already diverged a fair bit. While Garrosh ended MoP captive then escaped to try and change the course of history, we never captured Sylvanas. Although she was essentially unmasked in front of everyone, her plan was successful. He also mentioned he’s very confident that as Shadowlands’ story unfolds, players will start to see how few similarities there are between the two characters.
This is an interesting observation because it points to the differences between their two motivations. Garrosh certainly did some terrible things, but he seemed to believe what he was doing was for the good of the Horde in the longterm, at least in the beginning. On the other hand, I’m not sure the same could be said about Sylvanas. At this point, it seems like all she wanted was to cause as much death as possible to power up the Jailer and herself. In the end, Garrosh seemed to have gone into full crazy “I’ll show them” mode, whereas Sylvanas is very much still in control and has been very calculating in everything she’s done since leaving the Horde.
He also mentioned that while BfA tried to tell a story with a ton of different characters, rivalries, and political intrigues, that’s not what the strength of the story in WoW is. In his words, “Shadowlands gets back a bit 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 things.” I hadn’t thought about this, but I have seen how they are going for this throughout the alpha and beta. Even something as simple as making it easier to tell what quests are main story quests and which are side quests allows players who only care about the main story to focus on it. Meanwhile, players who want to know even more about what’s going on and get into every character’s motivations and thoughts can do that both through side quests and the covenant campaign quests.
Speaking of the covenant campaigns, one thing I noticed playing on the beta is that all of the covenants feature sizable storylines for various characters, which are unique to those covenants. In some cases, these are very popular and well-known characters. I was curious how these storylines might be expressed to players who didn’t choose those covenants or if it would seem as those things never happened. Hazzikostas used the example of Uther, who, if you watched the Afterlives shorts, is tied to the Kyrian covenant. For players who don’t choose the Kyrian covenant, they won’t see all the storyline’s ins and outs, but they will see the results and effects his story has on everything. So it’s a little bit like the Class Hall storylines in Legion, though everything seems to be more interwoven than those were.
Many of us remember back at the beginning of Wrath when WoW moved towards the philosophy of “bring the player, not the class,” which brought a lot of the classes’ initial pruning. While this move was a good idea, it did seem to water down the classes’ differences a lot. Many abilities were streamlined, and some abilities which had only been available to a small select few classes became available to many others as well. With the recent un-pruning of class abilities for Shadowlands, it seemed to be an excellent time to ask if we would find ourselves back in a position of needing specific classes, or even covenants, for some encounters. His answer was interesting:
“Honestly, I’d like to formally repudiate the philosophy of bringing the player, not the class. I think that’s something that was articulated, like, a dozen years ago, you know, a very different time. The game has moved really, really far from the problems that statement was trying to address. That was phrased going into Wrath of the Lich King when a lot of buffs were made raid-wide, a lot of individual class buffs were made mutually exclusive, and it was trying to get away from a place where, I think, back in late Burning Crusade raiding if you were trying to put together a group for Sunwell, you needed very specific group compositions. It didn’t matter, you know you might have an amazing warrior who was like a fantastic player; if you didn’t have space for that warrior in a group with a shaman, that warrior wasn’t worth bringing to your group…”
Hazzikostas went on to explain it’s a good thing to want at least one of a class in a group, and it’s good to have every class and spec to feel like they bring something unique to the table. Generally, I don’t disagree with the sentiment he was expressing. Back in Vanilla, it wasn’t just specific classes you needed; sometimes, you needed a specific class and race combo, which honestly wasn’t awesome. Especially if the solution to that problem ended up being someone had to reroll and regear a new character when they would have preferred to keep playing their original character. He’s also entirely correct that they did go too far with making things more streamlined, and the difference between a lot of the classes started to feel like flavor more than anything substantial. However, some classes bring some things that might not technically be required but make a huge difference. For example, during BfA, there were a few points where we didn’t have a demon hunter or a monk, and missing their buffs did make a noticeable difference. So while it was good we wanted those, we were also hampered because we did not have them.
Another hot topic concerning Shadowlands has been players feeling as if they need to make certain covenant choices. Otherwise, they might not be able to find groups who will bring them to do various content, because the groups will prefer to bring someone who is completely optimized. His answer on this was correctly targeted, “Honestly, that is the dilemma of the meta in modern, internet-fueled, multiplayer gaming. That’s a problem that I don’t think anyone has entirely cracked… What we’ve tried to chase is having the answer to what’s best, as much as possible, it depends.” This is true. Once a community decides what the meta is, any variation outside of that is often shunned, especially in pick up groups. There’s been a lot of discussion about how the covenants are so multilayered and interwoven with the various systems relating to them. For every class and spec, which is best depends on what type of content you are most interested in, though situationally, there can even be variation in that.
He also mentioned that their goal for Shadowlands isn’t to keep adding new systems throughout the expansion but to keep expanding the ones we already have. As much as I liked essences and corruption was fun, once I finally got some gear with good corruptions, both systems had their drawbacks. Corruptions were wildly unbalanced and turned a lot of areas of WoW on its head for a while. Essences were cool, but they were also a band-aid fix to a problem that was present from the start of BfA. I’m sure there will be tons of balancing and tweaking the systems we already have for Shadowlands, but if we can get through this expansion without needing any band-aid fixes, that would be great. Plus, there’s already so much interconnecting of all the things in Shadowlands that adding something else on top of it all could seriously unbalance everything.
Hazzikostas also revealed that only the first three layers of Torghast would be available at launch, layers 4 – 6 will open up when Nathria opens, layers 7 & 8 will become available a week later alongside mythic Nathria. This response ties in nicely with his previous response about why they didn’t just delay raid release until after the beginning of the year. If the unlocking of Torghast is meant to be in lockstep with the raid, then postponing the raid would have meant keeping us to only the first three layers for over a month. If they had kept the Torghast schedule and still delayed the raid release, that would have also thrown off the balance of Torghast itself as the higher layers are balanced around players having higher gear levels. I honestly hadn’t considered that they would sequentially unlock the layers, but it makes sense. However, it seems even more likely that we’ll keep getting new layers with new content patches. Or maybe new wings that start at higher layer levels?
Flying in Shadowlands
There was one surprising tidbit regarding flying in Shadowlands I wasn’t expecting at all. It will still be earnable later in the expansion (he placed it as likely with the next major content patch after launch), similar to how it was done in Legion and BfA. However, they want to move away from using reputation as one of the requirements for unlocking flying. Instead, it’ll be tied to the covenant campaign and some of the successive chapters. As someone who absolutely hated cybergnome island, and the only real way to get rep was doing dailies that offered no rewards I wanted anyway, grinding out their rep to fly was terrible. I am far happier to hear it’ll be tied to something I’ll be doing anyway.
Delaying the Expansion Launch
One of the things Hazzikostas mentioned during the interview was having the extended time to see how classes and specs functioned without all the Shadowlands systems was a massive help of getting a good baseline of where everything is currently. One problem with beta is that it can be hard to find a good baseline because players are often playing in ways they wouldn’t on live. For example, some focus on finding bugs, so they do random things to see what happens. Others are trying to figure out timings on the boss to update addons or write guides, or, in general, engage in fights with the primary goal being something other than killing the boss. Getting to see how everything functions without all the new things was extremely useful.
He also mentioned that one of the other bonuses of the delay, aside from all the endgame system work they knew they needed to do, the teams who had their areas ready for the launch had extra time to go back and polish and iterate a bit more to get everything even better. They got to add some of the finer details they might not have had time to do before, or in some cases, added new things to events or zones, which helped everything work together better. This really shouldn’t be surprising. Devs on any game pretty much always can easily give a list of things they would have done if they had one more month to work on things. There’s always a balance between deadlines and making things precisely the way they want it to. I haven’t been through the leveling zones since early beta, so I’m particularly interested to see what has changed between then and now. It’s pretty exciting. This, of course, doesn’t mean everything will be perfect; I mean we all know we live in the real world after all.
I appreciated being able to delve into some of these topics with Ion Hazzikostas and get some clarity and insight into their plan. A lot of the goals for Shadowlands are fairly lofty, so it’ll be interesting to see how everything plays out.