At BlizzCon this year, one of the biggest news stories was about the future of World of Warcraft. After two decades of being one of the biggest MMOs on the market, there’s been a lot discussion and feedback with every big expansion about where the series should go next. This weekend, we got a peek at it: the World Soul saga contains within it the next three World of Warcraft expansions, with an aim to seemingly redefine the player experience of a game that’s almost old enough to drink in most countries.
We spoke to Ion Hazzikostas, Game Director on World of Warcraft about the big changes coming to the historic MMO, particularly with the upcoming The War Within expansion.
Reworking The Endgame
One of the biggest strengths and weaknesses of MMOs is their inherently social nature. When you think of endgame MMOs you think of massive raids- groups of people coordinating to fight big bosses and avoiding things like danger bacons or debuff stacks. Good, essential loot is often locked behind these elements- meaning if you’re not the type to enjoy screaming with a crowd you’re probably not going to be very strong.
“Delves, we’re setting up as a pillar of endgame progression parallel to dungeons, raids and Pvp really targeted at deepening and extending the outdoor world gameplay experience”, Ion explains.
“If you’re a player who doesn’t do lots of organized group activity, you don’t do dungeons or raids for whatever reason, maybe you don’t have time, you don’t have a group of people that you enjoy running with at that scale, you have you play on your own, you play with one or two others”, he explains.
“But I think Delves will be completely transformative for you and probably the biggest most impactful WoW feature in many expansions because it offers a deep, varied, replayable progression experience as part of the end game”, Ion adds. “You can earn your way towards heroic level raid loot high like 10 mythic 10 to 15 dungeon loot from doing something that you can just do on your role or with a friend”.
That doesn’t mean raids and dungeons are gone altogether though- according to Ion, Delves are a parallel experience, and the highest of high-tier loot will still require you to go raiding.
“To some extent, I think you could say that’s the lesson learned from aspects of Torghast and Shadowlands, which was certainly “and then you had another 1 to 5 player scalable experience”, but it was set up as something that everyone had to do”, Ion explains. “We want this to be something that the people who want to do, do and pursue. And if you just love running dungeons and you just wanna play with your group of friends. We’re not looking to add another checklist of things, another activity to your checklist that you have to do to compete there”.
It’s not just about the new stuff, though- considering the massive wealth of content in World of Warcraft, Ion says he empathizes with players who might want to run older content that doesn’t have enough players for it. While he had no announcement to make regarding that, he did say the teams were looking into it:
“I think definitely we’ve realized with the style of open world events we’ve done more and more in Dragonflight, those rely on a critical mass. We don’t have that critical mass. It’s a problem”, he says.
“Something we’d like to do in the nearer term is start offering easy kind of the green eye automated matchmaking to pull people together across shards so they have critical mass to do this Content”
Ion says he’s aware how frustrating it can be- the content’s there, but since it was designed to interact with large groups of players, not having enough people can feel like a drag.
“We wanna make sure that if you’re going out, you wanna engage with the world content, regardless of whether it’s the current patch or not, you should feel like you’re able to do so”, he says.
Hero Talent Show
The other big takeaway from The War Within was the reveal of Hero Talents. While the previous expansions have previously relied on “borrowed power”- expansion-specific powers like the various Covenants in Shadowlands, The War Within is swinging for the fences with evergreen, tangible bonuses to your class.
“I don’t I think we’re viewing this as a system that is like narratively tied to The War Within”, Ion says. “It’s not like, oh, we’re going to Khaz Algar and the Earthen are teaching us this. It’s more just an evolution of each of our paths as champions. And a lot of inspiration is drawn from iconic Warcraft heroes from units back in the RTS days”.
“The examples given are things like Farseer and Dark Ranger not inherently ties the world within just the origins and inspirations for aspects of the Shaman class today or of course Sylvanas and her Elite Hunters Elite Rangers”.
Ion explained that while moving to something more committal like an evergreen system would might be scary, it’s something WoW sorely needed- these characters you level need to get meaningfully stronger,
“It was a little scary but honestly, I think it is an exciting new approach for players but it also manages complexity in the system itself”, Ion says. “We knew that coming into War Within we’re gonna give you 10 new levels means 10 new talent points and I think the default thing that we could have done would just be expand the class inspect trees add a couple new rows and give you 10 talent points. It’s what we did back in Burning Crusade, it’s what we did back in Wrath, but we also saw where that path leads that is to say it leads to a place where there’s too much just the multiplicative complexity of the tree makes it collapse under its own weight”.
“Carefully constructed choices in the trees today in Dragonflight that are working well would instantly be destroyed by adding 10 new points into the system that would let you simultaneously get all these things that you can’t simultaneously have today”, he says. “And so we started asking, like, is there a better way forward that we know isn’t going to lead us down a path that we’ve been down before that made us revamp the system”.
He also assured that players would have enough points to commit to a whole Hero Tree:
“I think hero talents are new, but also you’re going to get the entire tree. There are 10 nodes in each hero talent tree. After the baseline that you get by choosing it, you get 10 points while leveling up. So it’s kind of like Legion artifacts in that sense where you don’t have to worry about agonizing over making the wrong choice as you go. You’re going to have the entire tree for Colossus or Mountain Thane, let’s say, as a warrior” .
“So just like talents today can be choices between a option A or option B, the hero talent trees will also have those choices that are giving you an extra level of customization”, he says. “But at the end of the day, you don’t have to worry about exactly where each of those 10 points goes. You have this decision in addition to how do I wanna spec my class and spec trees which hero talent do I want active and then how do I want to toggle a few of those notes which I think is more approachable for players while still adding an extra meaningful layer of depth beyond just a couple of rows in the existing trees”.
“You’re not getting any more class respec points. Instead of class respec points, you will get hero talent points that you put into this tree, which you can then again swap nodes within or swap between the two different hero specs. Of course, we will continue to update the class repec trees, just inherently updating underused talents, just generally respond to player feedback to keep streamlining those”, Ion says.
Bringing The Warband Back Together
One unique aspect of World of Warcraft is the culture around characters. An MMO character is typically viewed as a huge time investment, being incredibly personal to the player making them. Given the fact that World of Warcraft locks content behind your choices, it’s created an interesting culture of alts- additional characters you might be running to get the most out of your time in Azeroth.
“If your primary play style involves jumping between multiple characters, trying to manage a stable of characters, well now we have a name for that stable of characters. It’s a Warband and much of your progression can be centralized through this foundation that we can build upon going forward”, Ion explains.
“In a lot of ways, 20 years ago World of Warcraft was about was a completely character based game, took hundreds of hours to level a single character and playing alts seriously was very uncommon even for pretty hardcore players. That’s obviously changed over the years to say the least but we’ve still kind of been swimming upstream a lot of the time trying to make more things alt friendly because the core foundations of the game were designed with character in mind”.
“Every character in your account is part of a war brand that includes across servers. It’s every character in your BattleNet account”, he explains.
The big changes with Warbands revolves around how you can accrue stuff- Warbands allows you to share items across characters with great ease, even having things like unlocked transmogs apply account-wide rather than to a specific character.
“It’s a foundation we can keep building our new systems upon so that again the time that you’re spending as a player is hopefully higher quality time and it’s not you’re still progressing in terms of gear in terms of power on an individual character”, Ion explains. “Everything else just about should be something that lives at the Warband level that you can choose to revisit if you want, but otherwise is there to just reinforce your player experience as you move forward throughout”.
Pimp Your Ride, But Not With Add-Ons
There’s also the changes coming to flying mounts. Dragon Riding in Dragonflight presented an interesting way to inject gameplay in getting from point A to B, offering players more in-depth control in the expansion. With the War Within, Ion says they used that system and want to apply it to the game as a whole.
“At the end of the day, it’s about just getting from point A to point B and feeling awesome”, he explains. “But also, and we wanna, as we introduce dynamic flight to new mounts, we wanna make sure that’s not coming at the expense of anything so that you’ll have the ability when you’re doing one mode to just toggle to the other. So you can toggle between if you’re on Ashes of Al’ar, Dynamic Flight or just old school Burning Crusade you’re applying depending on which you prefer”.
Ion also talked about the slightly controversial matter of Addons in World of Warcraft- basically, players will use these mods to have more information reported to them- not to mechanically affect the game but rather make better decisions.
That’s a great question and it’s something we talk about a lot and I think and the people complaining aren’t the ones it’s not they didn’t make the problem for themselves necessarily.
While Ion admitted that as a developer he wasn’t too keen on the existence of add-ons, he promised that encounters weren’t being balanced around the assumption that their use was widespread.
“Functionally just start peeling things back a little bit towards a place where it’s on players to react and coordinate and execute and we’re gonna give you more time to do it”, he says. “We’re not gonna tune things quite as tightly because we know an add ons not blaring an airhorn to letting you know that you have to do the thing. But hopefully it feels a bit more approachable as a result. I think we’d like to continue down that path”.
He looked back on the early days of WoW Modding that saw things like auto casting spells or canceling heals that would otherwise overheal- these were mods that he said the teams were less keen on.
“The development team in 2006, 2007 said like these are not really in line with the spirit of what add-ons should be doing and broke all of that. And players the time were like “The sky is falling. How can we possibly heal without this? The encounters are gonna be impossible” Lo and behold they weren’t”.
While mods aren’t at 100% saturation, he emphasized that it’s still important to acknowledge they’re a part of player experience. It’s why the general tone of his answer conveyed an unwillingness to blanket ban add-ons altogether.
“Now that enough time is passed, we need to may need to make sure that we’re not creating an experience for tons of players everywhere they log in and the games are suddenly feels alien. It feels like we’ve taken something away that they’ve come to rely on”, Ion explains.
“I want us to move in a direction where add ons are less mechanically important and continue to steadily move in that direction till hopefully we get to a place where they don’t seem essential and the game is more approachable as a result”, he says.
“You wanna customize the aesthetic of your experience? Go nuts. You want information accessible? Go nuts. You want things that are giving you a moment to moment gameplay advantage where they feel like they’re required to play your class best or do an encounter best. I don’t think that’s healthy for the game, but it’s gonna be a long road to pulling that back”.
The Future Of World of Warcraft
This past weekend had also raised some questions about the future of World of Warcraft. With Dragonflight stopping much sooner than anyone had anticipated and three expansions announced at once, it’s hard to not raise the concern that we might be getting less WoW in our expansions.
Instead, Ion reassured us that it wasn’t about cutting up content and selling it as multiple expansions, but instead about addressing “content lulls” in the game’s roadmap.
“I think Chris [Metzen] mentioned that we’re looking to certainly move a bit faster than we have been”, Ion says. “And I think the key there is we don’t want the story to take until 2030 to wrap up, but we wanna first and foremost make sure that we keep momentum going though we’re always giving players something to look forward to, something right around the corner and not repeating the long lulls, the long droughts and content we’ve had at times in the past”.
“But at the same time, the expansions that we’ve announced them that we’re committing to are full WoW expansions, right? We’re not trying to shrink what an expansion means in that sense. You know, War Within has four zones and eight dungeons and a raid and the things you’d expect. Midnight, we’ll have four zones and 8 dungeons at a raid. And so we just wanna make sure we can deliver those without gaps but it’s just making sure that as we’re kicking this off we’re letting players know the scope of the story that we’re telling”, he explains. “So I think for the first time we’re consciously setting out to tell a story that’s not going to be fully resolved in just one expansion important things will happen and you learn things that will transform your journey but we wanna set expectations from the outset that this one’s gonna is gonna take on a larger scale”.
He also clarified that the three-expansion plan didn’t mean they’d be reining in big ideas for fear of having to maintain some predetermined course for the three expansions.
“We still want to have big, bold, ambitious ideas. I think one thing features to be evergreen means is that we’re not going to add anything to world of Warcraft but in a big way that we plan to remove from world of Warcraft or no longer support a year later”, he says.
“There is so much that our players expect from us to so much we want to do for our players that really we frankly just don’t feel it’s a good use of the development team’s time to put thousands of developed hours into something that two years from now isn’t going to making WoW a better game anymore”, .
“I think that to some extent, we may reduce the scope of the things we do because we know we need to support them in the future, right?” Ion posits.
“Like Legion artifacts would have been a much smaller, simpler system if they were not going to be replaced the next expansion. But at the same time, losing your artifact felt terrible. And it’s kind of what began us learning a series of lessons about the downsides of these expansion specific systems”, he says. “It’s not to say we won’t ever do something that feels patch specific or expansion specific on any level if it makes thematic sense. But I think when we think of our major expansion features, we want those to be permanent improvements to the game”.
After being asked specifically about Void Elf Paladins, he did tease the focus of the next expansion, Midnight:
“That’s something we would love to allow one day. I think not and it’s not happening immediately, but I think I would say before the World Soul saga is over, I think it’s much more likely than not. I think in particular Midnight is an expansion that’s gonna focus a lot on Elves and the Void Elves in particular and the legacy with them and I think that would make an excellent time to expand the range of classes that are open to them”, Ion says.
For anyone who’d been concerned about the WoW formula getting old, it feels like the release of The War Within might be a good time to hop back in. As befitting of an expansion releasing so close to the game’s 20th anniversary, it looks like Blizzard is looking to give new players that same feeling of magic the first World of Warcraft players felt all the way back in 2004.
Even simple features like the account-wide Transmogs or Delves may not have been common sense back in the early days of WoW- so shifting to these are a good sign that as the playerbase for such a long-running MMO evolves, so too must the MMO itself.
Our thanks to Ion for the great chat about the future of World of Warcraft, as well as Blizzard Entertainment for the opportunity to talk about The War Within.