With all the things happening around the Warcraft brand this year, it can be easy to forget World of Warcraft is still chugging along. World of Warcraft Classic is coming this August and Warcraft 3 Reforged is slated to release this year. After a solid start, Battle for Azeroth has settled into a bit of a mire, as Blizzard Entertainment seemed a bit lost as to where to take the MMO mechanically.
The studio has already detailed the update that's supposed to fix many of these issues. Patch 8.2, entitled Rise of Azshara, is offering a number of new features, including two new regions, a new raid, and an additional system surrounding the Heart of Azeroth necklace. At a recent Warcraft 25th anniversary event, I had a chance to sit down with World of Warcraft senior game producer Shani Edwards and lead encounter designer Morgan Day to talk about the intent behind many of the new additions.
One of the most controversial aspects of Battle for Azeroth involves the War Campaign, the narrative that's detailing the ongoing conflict between the Alliance and Horde. Current Horde Warchief Sylvanas Windrunner is falling to the darkside, becoming more draconian in her desire to triumph over the Alliance. She has gassed her own troops at the Battle for Lordaeron, burned down the Night Elf home of Teldrassil, and recently taken Tauren leader Baine Bloodhoof captive.
Sylvanas' fall is clearly reminiscent of another Warchief, Garrosh Hellscream, who began his fall in Cataclysm before diving into outright villainy in Mists of Pandaria. Many complaints revolve around the feeling that the Horde is repeating the fallen leader storyline, while the Alliance has never really felt the same problem. And given that fan-favorite character Saurfang left the faction at the beginning of the expansion, some players have felt like outcasts within the Horde.
Blizzard wasn't surprised by the response to Sylvanas' fall at all. "No, I think we expected that, because we ourselves are passionate about these characters too. There's lots of people within the team that had the same reactions that our players are having," says senior game producer Shani Edwards. Instead, the studio has been pleased about how fans have rallied around either Sylvanas or Saurfang.
"I think we knew it would be divisive, especially if you're a Horde player," adds lead encounter designer Morgan Day. "People have very stark differences in terms of, 'Are you with Sylvanas? are you with Saurfang? Who do you side with right now?' I remember, one of the most awesome things to see in game was everyone's reaction to the [Old Soldier cinematic]. Saurfang took his shoulderpads off, and in-game there was this movement of people transmogging their shoulderpads off. 'No Shoulders for Saurfang!' We just started something pretty serious."
The Old Soldier cinematic is only part of Saurfang's story in Battle for Azeroth, with part of the action taking place in-game. Saurfang was also the focus of Lost Honor, highlighting the moment where he firmly decided to leave the Horde. Since then, free agent Saurfang has been pursued by Sylvanas herself; retirement isn't enough, the old soldier has another battle to fight for the soul of the Horde.
That brings us to a new cinematic Blizzard showed off at the Warcraft event. "Safe Haven" brings Saurfang back into the orbit of Thrall, the Orc hero of Warcraft 3 and the Horde Warchief when World of Warcraft first launched. Thrall handed down the reins of the Horde to Garrosh after Wrath of the Lich King, and retired, only returning briefly to handle the elements in Cataclysm and take down Garrosh after his fall. Safe Haven sees Saurfang bringing Thrall back into the fight: you can't stay retired forever.
It's a great moment, done with visual panache and real emotion by Blizzard. (Seriously, just make your own movie, Blizzard.) And it opens up the inter-Horde conflict even more. With the capture of Baine, many Horde leaders are beginning to turn on Sylvanas, and either Thrall or Saurfang could be the true Warchief they rally behind. The War Campaign isn't over, but Safe Haven provides a tantalizing glimpse at the future.
The Heart of Azeroth Revamped
There's no future if people aren't playing the game though, so many of the changes in Battle for Azeroth are addressing the gameplay side of things. Battle for Azeroth introduced the Heart of Azeroth, a necklace that fed into the new Azerite armor system. As you played the expansion, the Heart would feed on Azerite, unlocking new abilities one each piece of armor.
There were two problems though. The first is that the Heart itself wasn't particularly interesting; it was just another meter to fill. And Azerite armor was completely random. You might get a piece of armor that didn't have the right unlockable Traits, meaning you'd have to wait. And traits didn't move from armor to armor, so you'd get a new piece and essentially have to start anew.
The new mechanic underpinning the Heart of Azeroth is the Essence system. You'll collect Essences by doing a variety of tasks. Equipping an Essence in a major slot gives you a powerful active ability and the passive minor ability, while equipping it in a minor slot just gives you the passive. You can mix Essences to change your playstyle, and they aren't random. The Essence system feels like a direct response to issues with the original Azerite system, and Edwards agrees that's part of it.
"It's a mix of both. We had plans to do something with the Heart of Azeroth, but the feedback that we got from players was loud and clear," she replies. "I think the thing that we've done here is we've made it easy for you to get the traits that you want. Your normal Azerite armor pieces, you have to hope and pray that the piece that you want drops to get the powers that you want. With the Essence system, we heard players feedback: 'We don't like that randomization. We want to be able to chase what we want.' Now, with these Essences, you can actually pick the Essence you want and then go do that content. While we did have plans to do updates to the system, we definitely are always listening and reacting to player feedback."
"The Heart of Azeroth itself-it's the heart of Titan, the heart of our planet, and it's around our neck. With Battle for Azeroth, it added a bunch of stats, but it itself didn't feel major and impactful. We had to really play up this fantasy," adds Day.
New Places to Explore
Patch 8.2 also features two entirely new zones. The first is Nazjatar, the formerly-underwater home of the Naga. This is the primary story focus of the update, where players will face Queen Aszhara herself in the Eternal Palace raid. Your aim is to help the local resistance-the Unshackled for the Horde, and the Ankuran for the Alliance-establish a strong beachhead to fight back. Once you've done that, you have to gain control of Javelins of Suramar to break down the doors of Azshara's palace.
"We have such a broad audience and so many types of players. Some people really love the sandbox-y stuff. They want to go out and explore. They want to find new secrets and get lost in the landscape. Then other people really like traditional story content. In Nazjatar, they're going to go through Zin-Azshari with more traditional questing. If you saw the [Azshara Warbringer cinematic], that location is an area that you get to go explore. We had to tell that story," says Day.
The second region is Mechagon Island, the lost home of the gnomes, where King Mechagon is seeking to replace the weak flesh of his populace with strong mechanical bodies. While Nazjatar is a bit more traditional in terms of questing and exploration, Mechagon is a bit more free form.
"Another piece of feedback we had been hearing was some people really loved World Quests, but other people wanted something different and more dynamic. That's where Mechagon was born. It's more a sandbox experience, where you can explore. There's treasures, there are mini-secrets, you can build your own trinket, and there's hidden toys. There's all this sandbox-type questing experience, compared to Nazjatar, which is there to offer something to the people who like the traditional World Quests. We put something in for both of those players," says Edwards.
The layout and general nature of Mechagon, offering a bit less directed narrative and more exploration, combat, and rewards, harkens back to the Timeless Isle. The Isle was an addition to Mists of Pandaria, and one of the more successful features to come out of that expansion. There, players could venture out to fight rare creatures and dangerous world bosses, or solve complex puzzles. It was more open-world in quest design than World of Warcraft's more directed hub quests.
"I think it was the exploratory nature of the Timeless Isle," says Edwards, tackling the continuing love for content that's six years old at this point. "There were rare spawns everywhere, and I think before Timeless Isles, you didn't see them that often. The loot on them really drove players. There was the opportunity for lots of mounts, pets, transmogs, gear upgrades. Anything you wanted to get reward-based, I think you could get in the Timeless Isle. We've heard feedback that the Timeless Isles from Mists of Pandaria was something that players really enjoyed. We wanted to revisit that and see what that would be like in Battle for Azeroth. That's where Mechagon was born."
Blizzard is hiding more concepts in the fringes of Mechagon questing. Edwards details one tiny secret that surrounds one quest: you get this sap from a druid that's used on various plants around the island to make them grow. If you use the sap in other locations though, you may find that it has unique effects, leading to new quests or rewards.
"There's all kinds of little secrets," says Edwards. "That's what we tried to bring to Mechagon. The secret-finding community has been a big impact of WoW right now. People really like that aspect of discovering something that isn't necessarily written on Wowhead."
Trying to Bring New Life to Repeating Content
As an MMO, part of World of Warcraft is finding a way to get players to log in on a regular basis. Sometimes that's dungeon runs, progression raiding, or the reputation grinds needed to unlock the new Allied Races. In Legion, Blizzard introduced World Quests, repeatable regional quest that would randomly spawn each day. There were enough world quest that you weren't always just heading back to the same location and doing the same thing, but months in, the repetition can still wear on you.
With Rise of Azshara, Blizzard is attempting to evolve the world quest, layering additional mechanics on top of it to provide a more dynamic experience. Again, Nazjatar and Mechagon provide different gameplay philosophies to switch up world quests. The former is more of a shifting battleground, where Azshara directs her troops to different locations, changing the overall flow of a region and what types of enemies spawn there.
"With World Quests, we introduced them in Legion, and we've been trying to think about what's the next step or evolution," explains Day. "In Nazjatar, we're trying multi-stage events that will happen on a point of interest. Azshara sends out her forces. There might be a point of interest that the Ankuran told me was safe, but Azshara knows that, so she sends her forces to infiltrate there. Now that area will spawn differently. There's even an opportunity to spawn a Heroic version of the event."
Standard world quests currently don't scale either. If two players are trying to complete the same world quest, it becomes quicker to complete it. With Nazjatar, Blizzard is experimenting with world quests that actually scale in complexity and difficulty if there are more players tackling the same quest. There may even be Heroic versions of events, if a certain player threshold is reached.
Over in Mechagon, the changes to world quest come in what you'll be doing each time. The world quests will progress through different stages as you complete them, so you're not doing the same thing twice. There's also the new Visitor system, with three visitors coming to hub town of Rustbolt each day. Players can help these visitors with their unique daily quests for new rewards; the point is to provide a bit of flavor and variety to daily quests on Mechagon.
"There's [world quest] where you have to find clues, and each time you have to find a different clue. And once you find all the clues, you can put them together and get a reward at the end," says Edwards. "There's another one where you're helping Boom Laboratories create different kinds of guns. The first time you do the quest, you make one gun. The next time, you'll build a different kind of gun. Then when the construction project for the weapon rack is up, those guns that you've built will appear on the weapon rack. There's little things we're trying to do to make the quests different each time you get them."
Blizzard can't fully hide that you're doing the same thing each day or week, but perhaps with these changes, it can provide the illusion of change for just a little longer.
The Mega-Dungeon Gets Its Second Shot
While Nazjatar features an all-new raid, Mechagon is offering something that Blizzard calls a Mega-Dungeon. Dungeons in World of Warcraft are five-man content that spans across different difficulty settings: Normal, Heroic, Mythic, and Mythic+. The first mega-dungeon was Return to Karazhan, a recontextualized version of the original Karazhan 10-man raid introduced in Burning Crusade. Return to Karazhan was still a five-man dungeon, but it was tuned for Mythic difficulty only. It was longer than a normal dungeon, but somewhat shorter than a raid. With the following patch after it's release, Blizzard split the mega-dungeon into two separate dungeons-Upper and Lower Karazhan-each available in Heroic, Mythic, or Mythic+.
Mechagon will launch with the Operation: Mechagon mega-dungeon, with players seeking to gain access to King Mechagon's palace. According to Day, the story prominence of King Mechagon is part of what pushed for the mega-dungeon treatment.
"We did Return to Karazhan in Legion, and that was the first time we had really gone back to revisit what a Mythic-only dungeon looks like. It honestly feels like a mini-raid. We look for opportunities to do that when it makes sense in the story," he tells me. "With Mechagon, this is a new faction, a new race. These Mechagnomes have been here for a long time. They would've built a huge space to explore. Without going back to the winged dungeons, which we haven't done in a while-that could be fun too-this is an area where we felt we had a cool opportunity. With Operation: Mechagon, there's both an exterior and interior space."
Blizzard is playing around with Mechagon the mega-dungeon as much as it is with Mechagon Island. There's a lot of verticality to the space, and players are sneaking into the exterior part of the dungeon at night, avoiding guards that could make encounters much harder.
"There's this big flying hunter-killer machine that patrolling around the zone," says Day. "He'll hang out above different boss areas, and if you go fight the boss while he's there, he'll join in on the fight. That makes it much harder, so you want to try to skirt around where he is. We're looking to make really cool experiences. There are people who loved going and getting lost in a dungeon, and we want to try to provide opportunities for those people to have content."
He also confirms that Blizzard is looking into potentially splitting Operation: Mechagon into two different instances after its launch patch. This wasn't confirmed, but it's on their minds.
Patch 8.2 is looking like a staggering addition to World of Warcraft, something that's sorely needed at the moment. The previous patch, Tides of Vengeance, came in December, meaning we're about five months between bigger patches. WoW competitor Final Fantasy 14 has its major patches down to a consistent 3-4 month release schedule, something Blizzard needs. At the very least, Rise of Azshara looks to put Battle for Azeroth on stronger footing overall, and once that's in place, perhaps more consistent patches are the next step.
If you're still stuck on World of Warcraft, you can also check out our interview about the upcoming World of Warcraft Classic and our retrospective interview with senior art director Samwise Didier for the 25th anniversary of Warcraft as a whole.