It’s no secret that World Of Warcraft: Shadowlands is gunning for one of the most ambitious WoW expansions yet. The game introduces a whole new map, four distinct Covenants to align your character with, as well as a plot in the arc of one of the most morally out-there characters, Sylvanas Windrunner.
Ahead of the expansion’s launch next week, we spoke with John Hight, Executive Producer on World of Warcraft and Morgan Day, Lead Game Designer about some of what makes Shadowlands one of the big features to look out for.
Keeping The Fantasy Alive
After 15 years of the iconic MMO, the team says they’ve never lost sight of the game’s Fantasy roots. Even now, the game is drawing a lot of its design choices from a sense of fantasy and wonder.
“Often the theme and fantasy and story we’re trying to tell really inspires everything we do, from a lot of our systems design to what are we doing at max level what’s the cool new content there and what’s the new raid content,” says Morgan.
According to Morgan, they wanted to make sure Dungeons were a big part of the game’s story, and clearing the Dungeon would be a big part of capping off big storylines. He also says that it was important to think about just what kind of creatures would live in that dungeon. He gave us an example with the Mist of Tirna Scithe, a dungeon found in the new Ardenweald zone:
“There are these faerie like creatures that are kind of tricky and playful and when we were developing the dungeon, we were talking about the theme of that creature, you know ‘well they’re kind of like tricksters’. So something that was really fun to explore was almost like a puzzle-like element in the dungeon” he explains.
“So in the Mist of Tirna Scithe one of the first sections in the dungeon that you engage with is this huge like foggy mazelike section where you’re pursuing the faerie into their portion of the dungeon, and you’re solving these little puzzles as you go through that experience. And then when you do engage the boss itself you kinda learn or use that information and use what you learned while solving those puzzles against the boss or to defeat one of the specific boss mechanics. It’s all very informed by the story of each expansion so because of that progression through the World of Warcraft story there’s always something there to chase”.
Speaking of dungeons, Morgan says that they didn’t want players to miss out on Dungeon content just because they couldn’t get a group, or because they had reservations about playing with strangers. To Morgan, the idea of dungeons was an integral part of the WoW experience, and he’d come up with a way to make even the most shy adventurers be able to enjoy this content.
“It wouldn’t to me feel like a World of Warcraft Experience if at the end of that story that we’re telling there wasn’t the Big Bad up in the scary castle on the hill,” he explains. “So we created a dungeon that we can actually, we introduced the looking for dungeon tool to the player, and you can queue into the dungeon with other players”,
However, making dungeons a mandatory experience runs into other problems, particularly to do with progression being tied to the availability of other players. Morgan says the team came up with a good way to strike the balance between flavorful for lore and accessible for players without parties.
“So we actually created NPC characters that will progress through the dungeon with you, and will even fill some roles for you. Is your player a tank? Healer? So what are they doing, what do they wanna do in terms of objectives in the dungeon. We tried to make sure no matter who you were you’d complete the dungeon with other players, but you could also do it by yourself if there weren’t people around”.
Getting New Players On Board
This is just one of the new features aimed at bringing in more new players to WoW. Admittedly, MMOs have a bit of a stigma for being massive timesinks. With Shadowlands, John and Morgan say they want to make sure players are feeling rewarded every step of the way through the game.
“We did put a lot of effort into creating a whole new experience for players. We have a new method for leveling, we did the leveling squish, which made it easier for people to get to max level. But we also want to make sure that when you first come into the game, you learn the basics on how to play WoW”, John says.
“It’s the best opportunity to try WoW if you haven’t given it a shot before”, says Morgan. “Between the leveling flow and the level and experience be a lot quicker, so it doesn’t have that time investment to reach max level where all your friends are waiting for you”.
Those worried about needing to start from Wrath of The Lich King to get the whole story can rest easy though, as Morgan says the new Exile’s Reach will be sure to get players started at the necessary point to understand the context of Shadowlands.
“We also took it as an option to take players from Exile’s Reach, which is a brand new starting experience that has a lot more robust tutorials on how WoW works with all the combat and systems. But as a player, that leads you directly into Battle for Azeroth, which is still extremely hype and full of questing content, and is the story that leads us directly into Shadowlands. So we feel that is something that really helps the new players understand what is going on in the next expansion with all the context that they need.”
As Shadowlands takes place in Azeroth’s after life, naturally there’s a lot of questions to be answered. According to the team the Shadowlands has no real pre-existing lore, so the team had to work from scratch in figuring out how the land of the dead would work in an MMO.
“The most challenging thing was that there’s nothing for us to really look to from the past to tell us what Shadowlands really was”, John says. “It was both fun and intimidating in a way to have to create these whole new Covenants, the way the Shadowlands works and functions, describing the afterlife itself. And it’s funny, we would get into conversations about you know, ‘well, what happens if you die in the Shadowlands? You’re already dead’. So, there’s all these logical problems. Let’s not overcomplicate thing. Players are used to this, if they get killed in the Shadowlands, their soul still kind of pops up and still needs to go find its being.
“And after all, you are a Maw Walker,so you’re kind of a special thing in the first place. And you’ve already broken some of the rules by getting in there, and move freely from going the maw onto some of the other zones. We certainly had a lot of interesting logic conversations before we settled on what the ‘rules’ are behind the Shadowlands and how it works”.
Working Beyond Factions
While Battle For Azeroth had its branching story depending on whether players were Horde or Alliance. As World of Warcraft: Shadowlands revolves more around its Covenants, John explains that the branched story just wasn’t necessary.
“For Battle of Azeroth we really wanted to have two storylines, one unique to the Alliance and one unique to the Horde that would have these different points where from different points of view you’d be seeing some of the same events”, says John. “We even took that all the way into the raid with Battle For Dazar’Olor where you’d start from different sides of the raid”.
“In the case of Shadowlands we’re introducing you to a place that we’ve heard very little about in any world of Warcraft lore. There’s a map and a little mention of it in our Chronicles book but there’s very little else is known so we wanted to make sure we introduced you to the pantheon of the Shadowlands and take you through each of the covenants”, he continues.
“Because a very important part of the game is after you’ve met all the covenant leaders, you’re going to have to make a decision about which covenant do you wanna join. And we wanna make sure that you understood and appreciated the culture and values of each of the covenants and decided which one was really the best fit for you. So that’s why we chose to take a linear story through it”.
Azeroth’s Most Wanted
One of the benefits of this linear story is that all players would get to witness the latest chapter in Warcraft’s most contentious character, Sylvanas Windrunner. The Banshee-turned-Warchief has had a prolific run in the past few expansions, leading both Horde and Alliance players uneasy about the character.
However John insists the team isn’t making this up as they go, and that these stories are planned out much further in advance than fans would think.
“We are usually planning our story arcs a few expansions in advance. So in planning out the story arc for Sylvanas, this has been going on now for a couple expansions, in Shadowlands we’re finally going to offer an explanation for a lot of her actions in both Legion and Battle for Azeroth”, John says.
” In Battle for Azeroth she did some things that really had folks upset, and that was by design”. he explains. “We wanted to have some controversy, and we wanted people to misunderstand her, because she has deeper motivations.
“And now that we enter into the Shadowlands, we get to discover what that’s all about. Her connection to the Jailer and the machinery of the Shadowlands being broken are all tied together, and she’s essentially created a pathway for us” he continues.
“We’ve now got to go in and be part of fixing the Shadowlands, and along the way will finally understand why she did what she did. And I’ll leave it to you to be the judges, on whether you believe her, her motivations to be good or evil, or in the best interests of Azeroth” he ends.
Story aside, the team had made a lot of work in handling the PvP side of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, too. According to Morgan, the team had to sit down and address a lot of fan feedback, adding and removing features based on community response.
“So PvP in particular, we’re doing a lot of cool stuff in the Shadowlands, not the least of which is something that’s really driven by Player sentiment and community feedback was the reintroduction in the Shadowlands of PvP Vendors”, Morgan says.
“So there’s going to be an Honor Vendor as well as a Conquest Vendor again in the Shadowlands where you can earn these currencies as you participate in PvP activities and eventually purchase and upgrade your gear and specific gear you really want using that currency”.
“Additionally there is a new feature that we’re really excited about called The Great Vault which is something that is an evolution of something we introduced in Battle For Azeroth,”. In Battle for Azeroth, participating in PvP activities would get you access to a free chest every week, with items for players.
“Something that we heard from our community was that it was pretty common to get an item out of that chest that you didn’t need or was a duplicate or something you weren’t that excited about. And we wanted that moment that ‘you worked really hard, you got your conquest’, we wanted that to feel rewarding.
“So with the Great Vault we’ve added the ability to actually select an item out of there out of a potential choice of items where you can choose one. The more that you engage with certain activities, like PVP for instance, Mythic Quests or raids will actually increase the choices you have in the Great Vault and you still get to choose one. So that’s something we heard a lot of feedback about and made changes based on that”.
Of course, sometimes the features you want just don’t pan out with the community. One of the features the team tried to introduce in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands was PvP scaling, which made it so that level difference wasn’t as big a deal in PvP.
“One of the changes we’d do was just to make sure that we were preventing really degenerate gameplay, like someone who was way higher level could just come along and just one shot you. So we were just trying to avoid situations like that”, Morgan says.
While a noble cause on paper, the community ended up taking things the wrong way. Ultimately, PvP Scaling has been turned off, because the feedback was that better gear just wasn’t feeling better anymore. Rather than despair over the loss of the feature, Morgan says the team are being quite optimistic about it.
“One of the feedback we got was players were feeling that their gear just wasn’t as impactful as they wanted it to be, so we’ve made major changes to that in Shadowlands as well”, he says.
“You know, that’s one of the joys of working in World of Warcraft as it’s a constantly evolving, developing game . We have a wonderful community that will always give us fantastic feedback and let us know how they’re feeling. It’s up to us to let them know we’re making the best changes we can based off of that”.
Working With The Community
Some developers may take offense to fan pushback on a feature, especially when it was made to help them. It’s easy for a developer to say ‘no, this is helping someone’ and keep an unpopular feature in. Morgan says the WoW team was a lot more collaborative, and interested in working with the community to make the game the best it can be.
“We always try to communicate what our goals are with the community so that we can make sure that we’re aligned with the community on a new feature that we’re making, and they can agree like “yeah we totally agree with you”.
“Then we can continue to iterate on the feature or the changes until we hit the mark with the players and community are happy with where we’ve landed,” he continues.
Rather than stick to outdated concepts believing he’s upholding WoW’s ‘Legacy’, Morgan believes making changes is good for games like World of Warcraft.
“WoW has been around for a long time. We’ve learned a lot over the years,” Morgan says. “One of the amazing things is being able to make changes with updates to address feedback or maybe even potentially add all new systems to help resolve some of the feedback with some of the problems our playerbase may have identified”.
As one of the longest running MMOs, it’s great to see the team on World of Warcraft still looking for new ways to welcome players into an incredibly niche genre of gaming.
While this content may move the Horde-Alliance conflict into the backseat, fans on both sides of the aisle will have plenty to talk about when World of Warcraft: Shadowlands drops on November 24th, 2020.
Thanks again to John and Morgan for sitting down and taking the time to talk to us, and Blizzard for setting up the interview.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of our World of Warcraft coverage, including deep dives into the zones of the Shadowlands.