Make sure you don’t miss out on reading our preview for Eternity’s End, the next and final major update to the World of Warcraft: Shadowlands expansion. On call with us during the preview session was Steve Danuser, Lead Narrative Designer, and Morgan Day, Lead Game Designer. While you chew on the lore implications and the battles that await you, see what the duo had to answer to our various questions!
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you talk more about the design decisions/inspirations behind Automa, and the content in general?
Steve Danuser: We’ve been planning this story a long time. We knew we wanted the Shadowlands expansion and story to conclude in this place of wonder and mystery that is Zereth Mortis. When we delved into it, this was an opportunity for us to show a whole new level of Warcraft cosmology, about this mystical and ‘higher form of magic’ place that we hadn’t seen before. We really let our team loose to envision this place that was crafted by the beings that created the cosmos as we know it from Chronicle (ed. note: a currently 3 volume series of books that “explores the origins (and future) of the Warcraft Universe”), about the different cosmic forces in the Titans, the Pantheon of Death and so on.
It was a challenge to come up with something new… everything about the environment in Zereth Mortis – from the works-in-progress creatures inhabiting the workshop of the First Ones, where afterlives are created then sent into the Shadowlands… it was a cool opportunity for folks to explore things something above and beyond the Shadowlands we’ve seen before.
With new patches, there’s always an influx of new players coming back. For people who haven’t played in some time, is there going to be new catchup material for 9.2?
Morgan Day: One of our major focuses is this major philosophical shift that the team is undertaking for not just returning players… these new systems introduced in Shadowlands like Covenants, Sanctum, the breadth of the content that we’ve added… it’s also for when you want to make a new character as a new main, or for a new role.
We’ve been trying to take steps to remove barriers, anything that prevented you from getting to new content and experiencing the raids, etc. The changes to the renown system and anima lets you catch up more quickly. I don’t think there’s any new systemic things that we’re adding to Eternity’s End, but we always look at the main story quest and flow and continuously consider things. People always ask, “How much of our questing do I have to do to get into the new stuff?”
Steve Danuser: We do want to make it easy for returning players to jump into the story. With Chains of Domination, we made it so that you didn’t have to play through the whole Covenant campaign before you went to Korthia. Similarly, we’ll let you jump into the action of Eternity’s End to get to Zereth Mortis. There will be opportunities for you to get gear to get you to the baseline where you can feel successful playing through the Zereth Mortis story content.
We see that the environment is quite different this time. What is the idea behind the zone designs?
Steve Danuser: When we conceived the First Ones and started trickling their lore through Shadowlands and Chains of Domination, one of their themes was that their magic, as progenitors of the cosmos, is at such a high level that it’s like mathematics in a way – fractals, geometries, patterns and shapes – and it is these geometric patterns that influenced a lot of the features in Zereth Mortis, and the Sepulcher of the First Ones raid as well.
You’ll find spheres containing magical power, hexagonal shapes rising out of terrain to give the feeling of a place always in motion, and a workshop for wondrous things being made… there’ll be incomplete forms of life, prototypes, works in progress, and even Pantheon of Death members like the Archon, Winter Queen and the Primus. They’ll be in twists and new varieties in the raid. The patterns you see emerge are in fact part of the storyline; they delve into the language of the Automa which is the language of the First Ones, and the runic language you gradually get to know as you play through the system.
All of that ties together to tell the story with the art of the zone and the story themes themselves.
Morgan Day: The geometry being math magic and them throwing shapes at you… we knew this was a direction we wanted to go since the early development of Shadowlands. For example, if you look at Artificier Xy’Mox in Castle Nathria as the very first raid of the expansion, compare his magic against the progenitors’ and you’ll see some similarities. Those are the seeds we’ve been trying to plant for a while.
For some fun trivia, that I may be spoiling ahead of time, we were really working on foreshadowing the land of Zereth Mortis and what it may look like. In the Sanctum of Domination, you may have noticed the raid boss called the Guardian of the First Ones. The environment that he’s in looks kinda “pulled” into that raid space, so if you look around Zereth Mortis close enough, you might be able to find the place where the Jailer ripped it out from. We were definitely excited to explore this direction as we gave hints to players along the way.
Are the class tier sets available through raids? Are they similar to tier sets from the past? Will there be any new functionality to them?
Morgan Day: Tier sets have been something we wanted to revisit since like, 2 Blizzcons ago or so, and the community has also been asking for it. Artistically, we’ve taken a lot of the awesome aesthetics from the zone, creatures, and ecology of Zereth Mortis, and combine it with the class fantasy. Just having that armour is evocative of your class, and we’re excited to get them back into your hands.
Tier sets will be available through the raids, dropping like normal armour, but we did want to make sure it will be available to players who aren’t raiders. If you’re into PVP or Mythic+, you can get them from the Great Vault, but not from the chest at the end of a dungeon, or a Conquest vendor.However, we’ve made some major changes. Some time after Eternity’s End releases, you’ll unlock a “Forge of Creation” system, and earn a new currency. This currency, along with an item from PVP or dungeons, can be transformed into a tier set piece. This is supposed to work like a bad luck protection, or again, for people wanting to make new characters or as a catch-up method if you’ve started late.
We normally might have patched this in much later in the game, but we wanted to introduce these systems earlier to give players a clearer roadmap. We’re looking forward to getting feedback from players on the system, since it’s a much different way to get the tier sets this time round. The set bonuses themselves will be similar to the ones in the past, featuring fun and unique benefits for a certain playstyle, with the bonuses swapping if you decide to change. We tried to explore a little, to get rotations become more fresh and unique.
What kind of mechanics in the zones / raids / etc. that are you most excited for players to experience?
Steve Danuser: The Cypher of the First Ones was really exciting for us as it brought the whole team together to tell the story. We knew we wanted Zereth Mortis and its creatures, the Automa, to feel different and not just another batch of creatures that you see when entering a new zone. We wanted to show that they were part of this advanced culture, a rung above everything else that we’ve seen on the cosmic ladder.
The way that we thought about doing that was to change the way they speak, where it wasn’t just a normal language, but a runic pattern that we call the Cyphers. We wanted the players not learn it all at once and suddenly understand it, but have it be something that unfolds over time. There’ll be multiple phases to learning this complex, geometric-based language. You could learn a part of it to communicate, but when it comes to understanding consoles, or unlocking other benefits, you need to learn the rest.
This way, it gives you a lot of gameplay options to delve into the system as you unlock the side content for yourself. It really feels like it goes hand-in-hand with exploring Zereth Mortis as a whole. Our sound team was so excited to work on it; as we’ve talked about how the magic ties in with geometrics, shapes, etc., another thing is music, where it has intervals. We thought this a great alignment where you hear these tones to sense what the Automa were trying to communicate to you. The interactive process between sound and design came together as this overall presentation that feels magical, musical, and distinctive from the languages we’ve shown before.
Morgan Day: In terms of stuff in the raid, the Sepulcher of the First Ones in particular was coming from the perspective of taking a new look at how we approach the size and scale of a raid. When it’s raids like Sanctum of Domination, Castle Nathria, Torghast, they’re ‘physical’ locations. You move from one big room, down a hallway, to another big room, which players are all very familiar with.
As we were talking about the scope, scale and cosmic nature of the Sepulcher and Zereth Mortis, we felt that design didn’t fit the fantasy here. To my knowledge, we’ve never really done this before, but when you zone in after defeating the first boss in the Sepulcher, you actually need to take a flight path to the next boss in the instance. As you travel, you get to see all the epic scenery, huge structures in the raid, and really get the sense of scale and fantasy that we’re trying to convey.
In the wings themselves, there’s a lot of fun encounters. One of the names we gave one is like the “3D Printer Wing”. It’s constantly creating new things and prototyping these creatures, and one of the bosses in that wing actually is a prototype of the Pantheon of Death. You’ll see a ‘version 0.1’ of, say, the Archon, or Denathrius, a whole council of prototypes of those creatures… it’s just so much cool and unique things to explore within the Sepulcher.
How has the raid design evolved over the years? How did you approach designing it with new player behaviour in mind?
Morgan Day: With the Sepulcher raid, we’re doing something unique when it comes to accessing the encounter, viewing it from the story aspect. Anduin will be the end boss of the first week of the raid launching, and that comes with a lot of interesting story elements as to why that’s the case. We get to explore how he gets Dominated, and how we don’t get Dominated ourselves, for example. The following week, when Mythic would normally come out, is when the back half of the raid releases, with the Jailer as the final boss, to stop him from rewriting reality as it were.
When it comes to evolving philosophies, a lot of it comes down to progression and how player approach itemization in the raid. One of our goals with Sepulcher was to reintroduce tier sets, and the other, to make it more satisfying for players by giving them more agency in acquiring their tier sets. In Chains of Domination, many players told us how they still couldn’t get the shards or bonuses they want even after months of raiding.
Steve Danuser: Just to add about what’s new and different to this raid in particular, our two major goals: one being to free Anduin from the gasp of the Jailer or there would be no hope against the Domination magic he uses, and the second where we pursue the Jailer and stop him from achieving his goals… we have two separate story moments that each have their own focus.
In the past, the final boss often had so much weight put on them in terms of story, as everything had to be resolved after that one encounter. This way, because we have so much equity in characters – Anduin, Sylvanas – that they can have their own moments. Assuming we liberate Anduin, we get to put all the focus on bringing the fight to the Jailer. Stopping him, and what impact that has on the Shadowlands, then becomes its own story moment. That approach of telling the story within the raids is something we keep discussing, and maybe we’ll get to try new things in the future.
What do you have to say to fans who may be worried you’re “rushing’ the story?
Steve Danuser: So we can’t talk about what’s coming next, but what I can say is that when these events culminate in Eternity’s End and play out, they are meant to be a conclusion to a long series of building stories we’ve seen weaving their way through multiple expansions. The Warcraft story goes on, but we’re closing one book before another begins. As the future chapters of our storyline begin to play out, the players will get a sense of conclusion to some threads, before delving into new ones.
The story that unfolds will hopefully feel very organic. There are many facets of the Warcraft universe still waiting for us to explore in both the cosmic sense of Eternity’s End, and the more grounded events in Azeroth featuring characters we know and love, with many areas yet in Azeroth to be discovered. We’re really excited about the future of the story.
Morgan Day: I love PVP, and we had reintroduced Conquest in Shadowlands for players to buy their gear. As Conquest became more exciting for players and more wanted to get engaged in PVP, we often get a request about queueing for rated PVP solo.
That has many challenges, but we’re introducing a new PVP brawl with the Eternity’s End update as our take on what solo queue in World of Warcraft could look like. It’s called Solo Shuffle, and we want players to give us feedback and see if it’s a feature we can permanently add. The idea is that we take 6 players, throw them in a pool, and have them fight in 3v3 arena matches in every possible combination you could form among those 6 players. The one with the best rating at the end essentially wins.
We think that’s a unique solution instead of trying to come up with some matchmaking system that can understand meta group compositions. We think it’s going to be really fun and create opportunities for interesting social interactions, so yeah, we’re excited to get feedback on it!
Steve Danuser: Basically, I’m excited to see the threads coming together throughout Warcraft history, and I hope the conclusion will be satisfying. Things don’t simply end after defeating a raid boss. There’s the campaign, the story within the raid, the ‘epilogue’ after the end of the raid… there’s some pretty epic conclusions waiting for you which way you engage with the story.
That’s all the time we had with Steve Danuser and Morgan Day! Thanks for answering our questions, as well as Blizzard for giving us the opportunity. What do you think happens from here? Do you think we should head to the cosmos, or make sure things get better in Azeroth first? If this is only one book, truly one can only wonder what the future could hold.