Shadowlands is taking World of Warcraft‘s players to the afterlife, but it’ll also be a journey to the past when it comes to game design.

Blizzard Entertainment is rethinking many of the gameplay tenants that served as the foundation of WoW during its current expansion, Battle for Azeroth. This includes a focus on character specializations (specs) rather than their broader classes, systems designed to make leveling new characters inconvenient, and the pruning of abilities in an attempt to not overwhelm players with too many buttons to press. Battle for Azeroth came out in 2018, and many fans criticized the expansion for these same reasons.

Shadowlands reverses course on many of these philosophies. At BlizzCon 2019 in Anaheim, California earlier this month, I interviewed Shadowlands senior game producer Shani Edwards and lead game designer Morgan Day about World of Warcraft’s eighth expansion and all the ways it stands apart from its predecessor.

Planning for death

GamesBeat: Was Shadowlands planned before Battle for Azeroth launched?

Shani Edwards: When we’re doing these things, we definitely plan in advance, because we have that narrative arc. The things Sylvanas is doing, we’ve been planting those seeds for a while. I don’t want to go into specifics about how far ahead, but it’s definitely planned pretty far in advance.

Morgan Day: We always like to think of our stories as almost like long chapters. One should feel natural as it rolls into the next. That’s one of those things that — I don’t want to say this is the culmination of a story, but this is something we’ve been building toward. We’ve seen a lot of the emotions of Sylvanas, and a lot of people have asked questions. Why would she do this? With this expansion, we’re going to get to learn a lot about — okay, now we’re going to get into why she did some of these things and where all this new power is coming from.

Edwards: Why is she able to kick Bolvar’s ass so easily? Where did those chains come from? That’s not really part of her kit. That’s new. You’ll get to learn a lot about that.

Above: World of Warcraft devs Shani Edwards (left) and Morgan Day.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: What makes Death Knights so important to the expansion?

Edwards: We are going to allow all Allied Races and Pandaren to be Death Knights going forward. That will come in the Visions of N’Zoth update. Bolvar is kind of bolstering his forces and adding Death Knights to his ranks because he knows that Sylvanas has unleashed undeath. Having that crown on was what was holding back the undead. He’s kind of bolstering his ranks now, adding Death Knights to them.

Day: One of the four areas that we’re going to explore, Maldraxxus, I call it the most metal zone. It has spikes and bones and axes and — it’s where a lot of the undead and Scourge and a lot of the power of Death Knights stems from. There’s a lot of cool story there, where if you just love to be metal, you’ll be able to learn about that stuff, but also, if you’re a Death Knight and that’s something interesting to you — tell me more about my origins. The covenant in Maldraxxus, the Necrolords, is something you might be interested in joining and learning more about — almost your heritage.

GamesBeat: You want it to be dark and dreary, but you probably don’t want every zone to be death, death, death. It is difficult designing different, distinct zones set in the afterlife?

Edwards: With the Shadowlands you do typically think of the dark and dreary, but that’s not necessarily what all of the Shadowlands is about. It’s supposed to be an afterlife, not necessarily something that’s dark all the time. Bastion, for example, has a very heavenly aspect to it. There’s a lot of gold colors and blue colors. It’s actually where the Valkyr came from. You’ll see a proto-version, the Kyrian, which are winged, angelic beings. And then also Ardenweald is kind of a magical fairy forest. The trees there are celestial. It has a really druidic vibe to it. Ardenweald is where nature spirits and those of wild gods go to be tended to until they’re ready to be rebirthed into the world of the beginning. It’s kind of the fall and winter cycle, compared to spring and summer.

Day: We think of the Shadowlands as having — this is all the different afterlives of Azeroth. These are just the four we’ll be able to explore. There’s a lot. If you think about all the different tales of what the afterlife looks like from all the different areas and cultures, this is all space that we think is fun to explore.

Above: Artwork for the new zone, Bastion.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Is level-scaling coming back for these zones?

Day: Yeah. Like she mentioned, there’s a new starter experience for — the level cap will be level 50 in Shadowlands. You’ll level from 50 to 60 in Shadowlands. We’re doing something that we haven’t been able to do in a while. I’ll get to one of the reasons we want to do this, but we’ll actually have a linear story flow through the Shadowlands. You’ll start in Bastion. You’ll move to Maldraxxus. Then you go to Ardenweald, and you finish and get to max level in Revendreth. One of the main reasons we’re doing this is we have a very specific story about how the machine of death is broken. Sylvanas just threw everything out of whack. What’s going on in the Shadowlands? Who are these covenants? What’s their role in the machine of death?

We want to make sure that we have the opportunity to almost tutorialize these covenants and the characters that you’re going to meet there, as well as — you’ll get to play with the abilities that they grant you as you level up, so that at max level you can choose your covenant. One of the things we’re excited about is because we have this really succinct story we want to tell and flow you through the expansion with. One of the main problems we used to have with that — she’s level 56 and I’m level 51. She’s in Ardenweald and I’m in Bastion. We couldn’t play together. That’s one of the main things we feel passionate about in World of Warcraft. We want you to play with your friends.

With the introduction of party syncing in update 8.2.5, now we can sync with each other and always be playing together no matter what zone. That’s really exciting for us. It presented an opportunity to do this again. But with that said, for a player who’s already reached max level in Shadowlands and chosen their covenant and unlocked world quests, if you make a new character, you’ll be able to level through the zone in whatever order you want.

With alt characters, one of the main benefits we’ve gotten out of non-linear leveling is it really gave you a lot of agency as you were leveling up your alts. I did 100%of Tiragarde Sound, so this time I’ll go do a whole bunch of Drustvar. Not only will you be able to level through the zones in any order with your alts if you have a max level, but you’ll also choose your covenant right at the start. As you’re progressing through the zones you’ll make progress with your covenant, even as you level up.

Edwards: You’ll also be gaining that endgame currency right off as well on your alts.

Backing away from Battle for Azeroth

GamesBeat: One of the player complaints about Battle for Azeroth was that it wasn’t alt-friendly. Will Shadowlands make it easier for players to level new characters?

Edwards: Definitely. We heard a lot of player feedback about alts in Battle for Azeroth. We’re purposefully trying to make your level-up experience meaningful for your alt. World quests will unlock right away for your alt. You’ll choose your covenant right away. You’ll be able to start making progress right away. On top of that, we’re revamping the leveling system. Getting to max level will be significantly faster than it was before. You’ll start from 1-10 and you’ll go through the normal starting experience you would do, and then from 10-50 you’ll be able to choose any expansion to go to and start leveling. You should be able to get through that entire storyline up to level 50. If you choose Wrath of the Lich King, you can level the entire time in Wrath. You won’t have to just do the first zone and then everything’s gravy. You’ll have to go to the next one. Once you hit level 50, you’ll go directly to Shadowlands.

Day: You asked about the Death Knight starting area. We actually do have a — I forget the name of it.

Edwards: Yeah, we have the new 1-10 experience, Exile’s Reach. New players will go there instead of going to the normal starting areas. It’s a way for them to experience what WoW is about and learn the mechanics. It’ll help you further along to understand.

GamesBeat: The last expansions took away abilities from many classes. What is changing for classes this time?

Day: I can speak a little bit about that. As we mentioned, as you’re leveling through Shadowlands, you’ll get to see what a covenant has to offer. With the Kyrian, one of the first things they do is teach you a new class ability. It’s not a spec ability. If you’re a Warrior, no matter if you’re Fury or Prot, you’ll get the Spear of Bastion, which is a cool ability where you throw this huge spear into the ground. It does a bunch of impact damage, and then it tethers people to the spear so they can’t get away. As a Warrior, if you have Bladestorm, you can throw your spear and then Bladestorm. Or if you’re a Prot Warrior, a tank, you can tether them to that area, so if someone pulls aggro it’s not a problem.

The philosophy is to get back to class design, versus where, like you mentioned, in Legion and the previous expansion, it felt like the focus was moving a lot toward specific specs. With Shadowlands we will, with this opportunity of revisiting what a level means, we’re also taking that as an opportunity to look at some of our old favorites and see if they make sense given the philosophy of focusing on class versus spec. One of the examples is we’re bringing back the concept of curses for Warlocks. Things like Curse of Tongues. We might see the return of those. And not only are the curses important, but also the mechanics that go with them. Curses are interesting, but they’re especially interesting because there’s that choice. You can only have one on the target. Do you want to put Tongues on it, or do you want to put some other utility option on it? You can’t just load them up. That’s speaking to our philosophy on that.

Edwards: In addition to bringing back abilities, we’re going to be evaluating abilities that were maybe spec specific and bringing them back to all classes. As a Frost Mage, I’ll be getting Fireblast back. I’ll be getting Fireball back. I don’t only have Frost spells now.

World of Warcraft Classic launches in August.

Above: World of Warcraft Classic launched in August.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: A lot of this sounds like a return to how things used to work in the game. Has the launch of Classic inspired the regular WoW team?

Edwards: We’re definitely looking at feedback from Classic. And of course it has an impact on what we’re doing. But we do want both of those to stand independently. We want Classic to be its own thing, and we want Shadowlands to be its own thing. We don’t want to go all the way back to Classic, because we’ve done a lot of cool things to recent expansions that we think are really cool.

Day: Certainly we all love Classic. I think all of us have played it a bunch. I played it 15 years ago, really hardcore. Honestly, not only has that — I don’t want to say it’s the reason, but it certainly is something that’s exciting to see. For me, as someone who’s working on some of the designs of the max level progression — the example I always use as something that really got this idea into our head again was when we were developing the Azerite system for Battle for Azeroth. We were trying to focus on some powers that were class-specific.

My go-to example here is, Shamans have their utility power, and it makes it so that while you’re in Ghost Wolf form, you regenerate health. That was one of the few class-wide powers that Shamans had. When we went to say, let’s make a cool power for Shamans and make it so it’s usable across all the specs, we said, well, crap, there’s only like two buttons we can modify. That actually caused us some — that made our design space very small, whereas if we had something like Healing Stream totem, we could have said, cool, Healing Stream totem, everyone has that, let’s make that heal for a lot more, and we wouldn’t have run into some of the things and feedback that we heard, where if you PvP a bunch and you play against a shaman that has a bunch of that Azerite power, they’re really hard to kill. Versus in PvE you get feedback where it’s like, that power, I don’t understand the value of that. Well, if you PvP’d you would. Developing these systems for max level progression really put a new lens on that and made us evaluate that in a different way.

GamesBeat: Will Frost Death Knights be able to use two-handed weapons again?

Day: I want to say that’s on the “would like to do” list. I can’t promise anything, but I know that’s something we’ve heard a lot of feedback on. People are excited about it. That’s a great example of something where we’re taking this as an opportunity to reevaluate those things.

A tenuous pact

GamesBeat: With the end of Battle for Azeroth, it seems like the war between the Horde and Alliance is over. How will that be reflected in the game? Are you loosening any of the faction restrictions? Can a Horde player do a raid with an Alliance group?

Edwards: There are no plans to change that currently. We’ll still have the Alliance and the Horde. That’s an integral part of Warcraft.

Above: Sylvanas has been a central character in WoW for years.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Is it fair to say that those two sides are at peace with each other and working together in Shadowlands, or is there still tension there?

Edwards: I can’t really speak to that. I don’t think there’s tension? I think they’re more at peace. But obviously there’s going to be members of both sides that are still very into PvP and World PvP and they’ll still take it to the other side.

GamesBeat: How is Tyrande doing? Last we saw her in Battle for Azeroth, she was pretty upset about, you know, the genocide against her people.

Edwards: Tyrande is obviously very upset about what happened to her people. She is still seeking answers, and that’s going to lead her to Ardenweald. She’s going to learn some things there. I don’t want to spoil anything, but you’ll see more of Tyrande in the Shadowlands.

GamesBeat: Obviously, anybody who’s dead could be in the Shadowlands. What sorts of famous or known characters will we be seeing?

Edwards: Bastion, one of the people that you’ll meet along the way is Uther. His soul ended up in Bastion, so there will be some Uther there. Ardenweald, Ursoc, his soul ended up there. Revendreth —

Day: My personal favorite. Revendreth — I don’t know that we got into the specifics of the different zones and the covenants, but like she said, Uther ends up in Bastion. They’re all about loyalty and honor and duty. Ardenweald is more about the cycle of life and death, especially with those more druidic people. Maldraxxus, someone that would end up in Maldraxxus is someone like Draka, who was all about battle and fighting, basically. I always say that Maldraxxus is the most metal of the zones. They’re just all about fighting and dueling. They’re kind of the military force of the Shadowlands. And then Revendreth is like your last stop before you’re hopeless. This is where the “really bad people, but they can still be salvaged” go. This is where you have to shed a lot of your sins. Kael’thas, after a few setbacks, made it to Revendreth. He’s one of those characters that, if you decide to join the Revendreth covenant, you’ll learn a lot more about him and what they’re all about.

Edwards: You didn’t mention the last zone, though, which is the Maw. That’s where the souls that are irredeemable go. That’s where they go to be tormented for the rest of eternity by the Jailer.

GamesBeat: Is there a capital city for Shadowlands? Is it for both factions this time?

Edwards: We have a capital city. It’s called Oribos. A figure called the Arbiter in Oribos, and she’s responsible for judging every soul that comes into the Shadowlands. She’ll see all of your sins and your vices and everything good that you’ve done.

Day: She’s like the sorting hat. [Laughs]

Edwards: She’ll see all of that in a fraction of a second and then she’ll sort you to the proper afterlife.

The Demon Hunter.

Above: The Demon Hunter was the last new class Blizzard added to WoW

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: Did you think about adding a new class for Shadowlands?

Day: It’s not something that we’re considering for Shadowlands. It’s really one of those things that — the setting and the theme and the story of the expansion really drives that. With Shadowlands, our focus has been on these covenants. We think that there’s really cool things to explore in what it would mean to be — what’s different between a Venthyr paladin? Would that guy feel almost like a blood knight, where he has the Venthyr going on, versus a Kyrian paladin, who’s more like Uther, a more traditional paladin with those holy elements? What would be the difference between those two? That’s not a new class, but we feel like there’s a lot of cool stuff to explore there. That’s what felt the most appropriate thing to pursue and explore with Shadowlands.

GamesBeat: How do players, lore-wise, go to the Shadowlands and come back?

Edwards: When your player dies in Azeroth and you see the Spirit Healer, that’s actually a Kyrian from the Shadowlands. She’s nudging you back to life because you’re still tethered to Azeroth and you still have unfinished business. That’s why you get tethered back to life. In the Shadowlands, the sky, when Sylvanas shattered that, that was actually opening a portal to the Shadowlands. That’s how you’ll be getting into the Shadowlands. When you die in the Shadowlands, mechanically it’ll be the same. You’ll still do your corpse run. But you’re still alive. You’re still tethered to life for your reasons, so you need to go back to your corpse and become alive again. You’re actually the only thing alive that the Shadowlands has ever seen. They don’t see that. You are unique and special.

Day: It’s a thing that they’re not used to. Everyone who comes here — it’s the afterlife. You don’t belong here. What the heck are you doing here? There’s actually a new — instead of a Spirit Healer, when you die in the Shadowlands, there’s a new object that you’ll see. You’ll get to learn and explore where that thing came from, what it is. But there’s no graveyards.

Edwards: There’s no need for graveyards.

Day: There’s no graveyard in the Shadowlands with the Spirit Healer there. There’s an object you’ll see throughout the zones. If you go play the demo and die I think it’s set up and you’ll see what we’re talking about. It’s pretty cool. Just run off the edge. It’s fine.

GamesBeat: This gives you a chance to bring back a lot of characters who have died. Is it hard to restrain yourselves

Day: Yes, yes, yes. [Laughs]

GamesBeat: Are certain characters off-limits? Do you feel like this maybe cheapens death?

Edwards: Yeah, I think it’s just about what stories we want to tell. We’ve all thrown out ideas. Wouldn’t it be cool if this person came back, or that person? But ultimately it’s what relates to the story we want to tell for Shadowlands. You’ll definitely see other people besides the ones we’ve mentioned, but that gets into more spoiler territory, because it’s big story stuff. There will definitely be more.

Day: Also, this is just four of the realms of the Shadowlands. This is four of the afterlives that we’ll explore. There’s potentially a bunch more that we won’t see, or that other people might have been sent to. These are just the ones that we’ll be exploring in the Shadowlands, and we’ll see who might have been to these locations.