The World of Warcraft is going back to its roots: war. Blizzard Entertainment announced earlier this month at BlizzCon that its next expansion, Battle for Azeroth, is coming out in 2018.

The massively multiplayer online role-playing game’s seventh expansion focuses on the war between its two player factions: the Alliance and the Horde. But it’s also adding new features, like unlockable Allied Races and a new cooperative (and slightly pirate-y) experience with Island Expeditions.

World of Warcraft’s last expansion, Legion, introduced several new features that were popular with players. Level-scaling zones gave you more freedom when deciding where you wanted to adventure, and Mythic Keystones made the five-player dungeons a more challenging and rewarding experience. Both of these are returning in Battle for Azeroth.

At BlizzCon, we got to interview senior game designer Jeremy Feasel and executive producer J. Allen Brack. We asked about this transition from Legion to Battle for Azeroth.

GamesBeat: Battle for Azeroth doesn’t have a new class. The allied races aren’t as distinct as the new ones you’ve added in the past expansions. Does that make an expansion harder to promote?

J. Allen Brack: I don’t think so? I think we’ve had expansions that have had new races, expansions that have had new classes, expansions that have had both. We’re adding six new allied races to the system this time around. We’re thinking about the overall hit of the expansion, in terms of the setting and story and how everything is going to come together as a good package for people.

GamesBeat: The tensions between the Horde and Alliance started in Legion. Was this expansion’s story something you were planning back when you were creating Legion?

Jeremy Feasel: The B plotline was something we started — to give some more context to that, the B plotline is the underlying storyline that’s going on with the major story of the expansion. But it was always about the tension between the Alliance and the Horde. Everything from the beginning expansion and the supposed betrayal of the Alliance by Sylvanas and her forces, the death of both of the heads of the factions, the Warden Towers, where you were fighting members of the other faction — that’s always been an underlying kindling that’s been going on during the course of Legion.

Now that we’ve stopped the major threat in the world, it felt like it was time to get back to the roots of World of Warcraft, that Alliance versus Horde feeling. Even more so than that, when we go to a fantastical far-off land like Argus and fight powerful creatures like a World-soul, sometimes we lose sight of the families we’re leaving behind on Azeroth. Way back in the day, when you were first leveling through Azeroth, you were saving Princess the boar or one of the other farmers. Then you were passing notes between these two young lovers on each of the farmsteads.

Everything about the beginning of World of Warcraft was about families that lived in Azeroth that were so far removed from us. It was an awesome opportunity to get back to that sense of belonging in a city, in a town, with people that mattered. Ultimately that lets up build up some awesome relationships and characters, so as we go into the future, every loss we feel is significantly more poignant.

Above: Humans vs. Orcs. How nostalgic.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Legion focused more on player’s class identity, making the factions less of a focus. Is it difficult to get players back into that Alliance vs. Horde mindset?

Brack: I don’t think so. The story themes and the big beats we’re laying out for this expansion are things, like Jeremy talked about, that have been there, that we’ve seeded in the previous expansion. The things about this expansion — the Alliance isn’t going to forget the betrayal of the Horde. We’re ready to set aside the big villain, Sargeras. I think there would actually be a weird discontinuity in the players’ minds — oh, now there’s this other big bad guy as well. It’s hard to fight one of the chief bad guys of Warcraft lore and then say, “Okay, next up we have this other big bad guy for you to fight.” We’re taking a break from that entire thrust of the story, where you need to rally together to do this one thing, and getting back to our roots of red versus blue.

Feasel: I think every player that saw the cinematic yesterday, that saw the burning of Teldrassil, that saw Anduin reach out for the light and Sylvanas go full banshee mode — immediately you identify with one of those factions. It’s such a core part of playing World of Warcraft, even alongside our classes, which we have a lot of experience with. Being a champion of a faction is something that we decided first, before you even started playing.

GamesBeat: You’re introducing level-scaling to the original zones. But will the quests still be those introduced in the Cataclysm revamp back in 2010?

Brack: They are. Our plan is to rebalance and retune the zones. We’re also doing an itemization squish throughout the process, to bring the numbers back into more sane ranges. It’ll still be the same content, but it’ll play better, flow better, be a better experience.

Feasel: The goal is that you can put on a full set of heirlooms if you want to and then jam through the entire Silver Pine story, all the way up to the end where Sylvanas gets a shotgun to the head from Godfrey, and then you get to go into Shadowfang Keep and take him down. You feel like you can finish off that story without leveling up.

GamesBeat: Was another Cataclysm-like revamp ever on the table?

Feasel: We feel like the quests from those zones hold up pretty well. They’re pretty cool. We’re looking forward to player feedback. We assume a lot of people will take advantage of this, especially with the allied races and the heritage armor sets that you get only from leveling up all the way from 20 to max level. We’re going to be getting a lot of feedback from players about how the leveling experience is playing out.

Above: Nothing suspicious happening here.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: One of the allied races is the Dark Iron Dwarf. If I want to make one, do I choose Dark Iron Dwarf as my class, or do I move a slider when I’m making a regular Dwarf?

Feasel: You’ll be choosing your own race with its completely different icon. You’ll have a whole set of customization options. The dark iron dwarves have special beard and hair options where they have little embers flecking out from them, so they really feel like dark iron dwarves.

GamesBeat: Allied races start at level 20. What is the advantage of that? Is this just so that you don’t have to make new starting areas for them?

Feasel: Couple of major advantages to that. One is that you can mount, which feels awesome. None of the allied races are necessarily groups that are starting as brand new adventurers in the world. Dark Iron Dwarves have been around for a while. The braves of Highmountain have been fighting harpies for years. VoidEelves are a new thing with Alleria and are off fighting demons on Argus. These aren’t brand new guys that are just starting out in their leathers with their dagger. We didn’t feel like that was the right choice for them to start off.

However, their starting experience is effectively realized in the finale experience of your main character bringing them into the fold. As soon as you get up to the requirements in order to unlock that allied race, you’ll be going through a personalized experience for your character, where your character brings that allied race into your faction. That takes the place of the starting experience as far as telling the story of how that allied race got to where it is. Then it makes more sense to start you as a seasoned character after that.

Above: The Zandalari Trolls and Dark Iron Dwarves.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: How are Island Expeditions different from other cooperative modes, like Dungeons?

Feasel: There’s a ton of different changes, major tech changes we’ve put into the game, to support this particular feature. I’m really excited about it. My jam is roguelikes. I love procedural generation, where all of your decisions really matter. I’m one of the few people who love permadeath, because there’s such consequence to it. Islands don’t have permadeath, though. Don’t worry. When we were approaching the design philosophy of it, one thing we wanted do was make sure that every time you entered the space, there were new and different tactical decisions you can make.

Sometimes you’re going to have a very powerful boss up in a corner with a ton of azurite near it, and you may not be able to take it on right away. Maybe you’ll be able to grab some of the island consumables or buffs before you take it on. And then adding the AI into that helps make all those choices really meaningful. You’re going to have to decide, where is the AI going? How are they playing through the island? How fast are they getting through it? Do we need to take those risks right now, or not? Adding all of that great tension into this is I think going to make it feel like something you’ve never played in World of Warcraft before.

You’ve never played against an advanced NPC group that can sometimes choose to attack you when it feels like you’re getting too far ahead. All that lends itself to this awesome level of unpredictability. It feels like an uncharted island that you’ve never been to before.

Above: A parrot’s life for me.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: The artifact weapon system was a big focus in Legion. You had this one weapon that you kept the entire expansion and empowered as you went along. Battle for Azeroth has something similar with the Heart of Azeroth. What did you learn from that?

Brack: The thing we really liked about the artifact system – I was a huge fan – we really liked the player agency and the player choice during the early months of the expansion. You’re deciding, I want to go after this power, I want to go after this ability. You’re making choices that matter to you as a player. But once you get most of the abilities unlocked, you’re just making your artifact more powerful at that point. There’s not as much choice.

The big lesson from that, or the big innovation in the Heart of Azeroth, is going to be the player agency we think will exist throughout the entire expansion. You’ll be getting new helmets. You’ll be leveling up your Heart of Azeroth through the entire expansion. It’ll allow you to have new choices every time you get a piece of gear, every time you level up your Heart of Azeroth.

Feasel: It also gives us an awesome opportunity to change up how your gameplay works, during the course of progressing your character or even off into the endgame. You might find for example that you pick up a helm in your new raid that has an awesome synergy with your shoulders. Maybe your shoulders increase the second lightning bolt you cast, and the helm causes your third lightning bolt — I’m making this up, so don’t plan on this being in the game. But maybe it’s a red lightning bolt that does double damage.

You can imagine that every one of those azurite-infused armor pieces you pick up could potentially change your rotation, change your gameplay. We have a huge amount of freedom on the design size to put cool stuff on there and allow you to evolve your character over the course of the expansion, rather than feeling like you finished all your choices and you’re just getting buffs at that point.

GamesBeat: Blizzard is getting rid of player-vs.-player (PvP) servers, instead making world PvP an individual player choice. World of Warcraft has always tried a lot of different things for PvP. Is it fair to say it’s been one of the game’s biggest challenges?

Brack: A lot of different things, yeah. This is the big thing that — we’ll continue to have little PvP gameplay elements within the zones. We’ll still have those forcing functions for things. But in terms of getting rid of the PvP distinctions and letting players decide, “Hey, I’m in a capital city, I want to go on a PvP adventure, I want to open myself up to world PvP and get those extra rewards,” that’s what we’re excited about.

Feasel: We still plan on having some PvP elements. PvP world quests will be making a return in Battle for Azeroth. We’re not quite ready to nail down exactly what those are. Don’t expect it to be a completely PvE world all over the place. Certain areas in Legion were FFA arenas and we thought those were a lot of fun.

Above: One of the new dungeons.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: A lot of features are coming back from Legion, like the level-scaling and the Mythic Keystones for dungeons. Do you think Legion has been one of your more successful expansions?

Brack: I love it, honestly. I say that as a person who’s played a great deal of it, but also helped make it. The level scaling was a great feature. It worked out really well. The Mythic-plus dungeon system was a highlight for me. World of Warcraft is really good at five-player group content. The point of that system was to make the rewards and the experience of dungeons relevant from beginning to end. You didn’t just play dungeons for the first couple of months and then not worry about them anymore. It’s been very successful in that regard. Our legendary system has had some good things, but also some strong criticism. It’s not going to move forward into Battle for Azeroth, but we’ll take lessons from it as well.

Feasel: When you look back at an expansion, one of the key determinations as far as how strong it was is how many of those elements continue moving forward in the future with people still really excited about them. We heard a huge amount of excitement about the return of world quests, mythic plus, about the cadence and how often content was distributed to players. All of those things were a slam dunk. I’m happy with how all of that worked out.

Brack: We talked about, from the very beginning, how you artifact would be for this expansion only. Your artifact is going to be retired in some fashion at the end of Legion. A lot of people were sad about that. I see that as a positive. We’ve done a good job having a lot of accomplishment and achievement wrapped up in that artifact.

GamesBeat: Is this a difficult time for World of Warcraft to keep players engaged? You’re at the tail end of an expansion. There’s still stuff coming out, but you have this announcement for the next expansion. Do players tend to look ahead?

Brack: It’s like every other time. BlizzCon is a great forum for us to announce an expansion. There’s only a couple of forums around the year where it makes sense for us to announce an expansion, and this is one of them. Where are we in the life cycle of the previous expansion? How far along are on developing the next expansion? Part of the reason for the announcement is we want to go into open testing at some point in the near future. It’s interesting, for sure. We do have the awkwardness of, “Hey, here’s the next expansion, but don’t forget about Sargeras.”

Feasel: It’s a good point. We have a bunch of content still left to go in Legion. We have Antorus coming. You’re going to take it to the World-soul. You’re going to get to fight with the Pantheon behind you. That’s crazy. We’ve never done anything like that before. I can’t wait for you guys to see the cinematic that comes out of that. It’s bonkers. So many answers will come out of it. And so many more questions too. 7.3.5 has Ulduar timewalking. We have the scaling of the Old World. That’s a nice chunk of content for players in the interim.

We have a bunch of holiday updates coming. World of Warcraft’s 13th anniversary is coming at the end of this month. You’ll see the re-emergence of some of the old world bosses from classic World of Warcraft. We’re dropping some ancient trans mods, as well as timewalking goods. You’ll be able to go and fight on a daily basis during that period. We still have a lot of awesome content planned during that time frame.

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