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World of Warcraft is in the middle of extraordinary times. The MMO will be turning 17 years old this month, and while Blizzard prepares for the launch of a new patch, it is also looking within to fix its own culture under the backdrop of a state investigation into sexual harassments issues.

Last week, I had a chance to talk with World of Warcraft director Ion Hazzikostas. I asked him about what’s happening inside Blizzard and the World of Warcraft team since the investigation became public. We also talked about the changes that World of Warcraft is seeing in the upcoming 9.1.5 patch and beyond.

It’s a long and frank discussion, and you can read the edited transcript of the exchange below.

Changing the game

GamesBeat: The World of Warcraft team has been changing or removing some of the game’s emotes and art. What’s the thought process behind those changes?

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Ion Hazzikostas: As we said in, I think, a brief blog, a forum post, this has been a process that has been ongoing as a result of an internal period of self-reflection over the last few months. These are changes that are coming from the team as a whole. In the discussions we began internally in the aftermath of the lawsuit and everything surrounding that, on many levels, trying to understand how we as the current leadership of the team could do better — better for our team, better for our community. One thing that came up is that there are pieces of our game that, over the course of 17-plus years now, that were not necessarily the products of a diverse or inclusive range of voices, that did not necessarily reflect the perspective of the current team and of many of our players. There are things that people on our team were not proud to have in our game. These are many things that people, over the years, have pointed out in the community, but we didn’t necessarily listen in the way we should have at the time.

What we did was we just set up a process internally for folks across the team, as well as sourcing some feedback from the community as a whole, to flag pieces of the game for review, whether it’s old quests or specific lines. As a random example, there were a number of jokes and references made a dozen years ago about how feminine male blood elves were, mistaking male blood elves for women, just poking fun at that in a not necessarily good-spirited way. That doesn’t sit right in 2021. That’s the sort of thing that was reviewed by a broad group that reflects the diversity of our team today. We made decisions on whether to leave some things standing, because they’re borderline, but we’re not looking to reinvent everything, turn over every single stone and rewrite 17 years of WoW. It might be a little bit juvenile. It might be off-color. But this isn’t something that is really making our game feel less welcoming for people, which is what we’re aiming to change. Those things we left. Others were removed, others were rewritten or changed accordingly.

Because of the nature of the feedback loop in the community and the way we publish new builds during the public test realm cycle and fan sites data mining them, every one of these changes ends up getting a huge spotlight shone on it alongside class balance changes or new systems we’re adding. This is a massive patch, but this is not something that took the entire team offline. In the grand scheme of things these are small changes. Many of them would probably go unnoticed if not for that spotlight being shone on them. But they’re things that were important to the team, and we’ve heard from many in our community that they’re important to them. This isn’t necessarily something that we expect to do in every patch going forward, to have a bunch of changes along these lines in it, but we want to be more sensitive to how the content we make is received by our team, and by the global player base that calls Azeroth, World of Warcraft home.

GamesBeat: What’s the community reaction to these changes been like?

Hazzikostas: Mixed, right? Some of it is confusion. Changes started to be seen before we explained why we were doing what we were doing. There’s a range of folks. You have folks who see this as political or unwelcome. “Just focus on making a fun game. I don’t care about this stuff.” On the other end there are those who have expressed concern that we’re almost doing this as a smokescreen. Rather than actually tackling the hard issues, we’re just changing some words in a game. This isn’t an “or.” It’s an “and.” We understand that we’re not fixing systemic injustice by changing an emote in World of Warcraft. But why not do that while we’re also working on larger cultural unity and diversity and safety issues and more? As we’re improving our processes for evaluating managers, for sharing feedback with the team; as we’re improving our recruiting and hiring to build a more diverse team, let’s also turn that same eye on our game. That’s one thing that may be more visible in the short term. But in the long term we understand that what we’re going to be judged for as a team, as a company, and as a game is far beyond that. That work is still underway.

The Shadowlands can be a scary place.

Above: Shadowlands is WoW’s current expansion.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: You mentioned how some people say, “Why do this instead of that?” One thing they mention is tackling in-game toxicity. Can you talk about what Blizzard is doing to combat that inside the game?

Hazzikostas: For many people, their unpleasant, their painful WoW experiences aren’t the result of a line an NPC said, but something that was said to them in party chat or jokes they saw in general chat or otherwise. We’ve been working to improve our handling of this on all fronts. We’ve been consulting with the Overwatch team and our broader shared tech group to use machine learning to better catch a lot of these things in real time, as opposed to relying on a very manual reporting-driven process. That’s what WoW was built around 17 years ago, and that sort of process maybe works well with someone who’s spamming sales or whatever in Orgrimmar, but it doesn’t work so well when it’s a one-off hateful comment that’s just written to someone, or something said in party chat in a dungeon.

We have a lot to do here, but it’s a number one focus for our customer support, our tech groups, and everyone involved in the social side of WoW gameplay. We want WoW and Azeroth to be a positive place, an escape from the trials and tribulations of the world. We need to do a lot more to insulate players’ experience from others who are coming in there to actively cause harm. We want to identify those people, hopefully reform them, but if not, remove them from the community, and the game will be better off for it.

GamesBeat: You mentioned making the team more diverse. Can you talk more about that effort?

Hazzikostas: This is something that has been a goal of ours for years. We have a number of women leaders, people of color across the team. These are areas where we continue to look for a team that represents the players we want to play our game. Part of why diversity is so important is that I, and we as a team, firmly believe that it makes a better game, makes a better product. We’re trying to make a game that’s not for a niche audience. We’re making a game that’s played by millions of people around the world, of all genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, backgrounds in general. To better understand and have a connection with that range of perspectives, we want a team with that same range of perspectives.

Recognizing that the game industry has had certain skews — male-dominated is one obvious one, especially in design — we need to work harder to build and find the qualified candidates who are out there. We can’t just open up a position, take the first couple dozen resumes, look through them, and pick someone out of that pile, because we may just get a couple dozen white male resumes. And it’s not that we wouldn’t hire someone who’s qualified for the job. We will. But we’ll be limiting the range of perspectives that come to our team. Again, this is not about any preferential decisions in the hiring process itself. It’s about working harder to understand how our job descriptions, the way we’re sourcing candidates, the way referrals work, and all the rest are filtering out qualified candidates of other backgrounds before they even make it to us. And then once we’re interviewing people, we’re going to pick the best person for the job at the time, but doing that extra work up front, we have found and continue and find, leads to a more diverse team that is more reflective of the country that we’re in and the player base that plays our game globally.

GamesBeat: What kind of changes have you noticed inside of Blizzard in the past few months?

Hazzikostas: There are conversations happening at all levels. I can speak to what we’re doing on the WoW team. There are changes that have to happen at a Blizzard level or an Activision Blizzard King level depending on the structures that we’re talking about. A lot of what I just talked about is one of the things we can act on most directly, in terms of our hiring, our reviewing all the job descriptions we post, having a range of folks look at them, identifying language that may not be as inclusive as we like, or may subtly, almost subliminally be deterring candidates that we otherwise want to hear from. Opening up, as I mentioned, in terms of content review, more feedback channels for more people to feel comfortable and safe and actually encouraged to voice concern about things that are going into the game that they may not feel comfortable with, so they can be properly reviewed. Reviewing best practices in our leadership group for running meetings.

Lost in the shadow of specific incidents of harassment or criminal activity are countless little microaggressions and transgressions and people talking over others in meetings or people taking credit for others’ ideas or dismissing their accomplishments. A lot of what we heard in listening sessions and focus groups, talking to the team as a whole — and all the members of the team, especially the women in the team, in light of the allegations and events of recent months — has led us to an increased focus on that sensitivity and trying to build a culture where everyone is aligned in the sort of workplace that we want. We’re working together to build it. It’s okay and encouraged and fine to call someone out if they interrupted a colleague, or if they just talked over someone, talked past someone. The person receiving that feedback hopefully, and I’ve seen this happen on a number of occasions, just says thank you. “That wasn’t my intent. I didn’t realize I was doing that.” It’s assuming good intent, but working to educate, working to align around a positive culture. I have to say, I’ve been inspired. It’s been a challenge for a few months, but I’ve been incredibly inspired by the team as a whole. The energy and the passion they have brought to the table here, and the great work we’ve done in WoW itself, plus the work that we’ve done to build the team.

GamesBeat: What is morale like for the WoW team right now? Sometimes you guys take a bit of a beating anyways, but that’s been amplified lately. What is the feeling like inside the studio?

Hazzikostas: Ups and downs. I think that it’s been clearly a tough stretch. A lot of self-reflection. A lot of earnest conversations. Disappointment, anger, all of that. But at the end of the day, what the team, as we work on these issues, we’re also here to make a great game. That’s what brought everybody to Blizzard. That’s what brought everybody to the WoW team. While we work to improve and a lot of these conversations happen, we also know that we have millions of players who are waiting for the next update to WoW, who want to hear about what’s coming next. A lot of the efforts that led us to what went into 9.1.5 were actually really exciting, invigorating moments for the team. On top of our standard planned set of features for 9.1.5, like Legion Timewalking or other updates, let’s take some time and just almost have a little hackathon. Do whatever you want to do, that you think will make the game more fun. Pitch your ideas. Let’s go in and find areas that have been long-time pain points for the community, whether it’s old raids being frustrating to farm solo or whatever else, and let’s solve them. The team as a whole just fanned out, came back with ideas and pitches, and that’s what a lot of 9.1.5 was borne out of. That creative energy, that expression. We’re here to make a game for our community that’s going to bring joy, bring happiness to people around the world. As we reflect on the tough times and work to move past them, we also are driven by, and motivated by, that underlying purpose. If we do our jobs well, we’re a positive force in the world. We’re bringing fun to people. We’re bringing happiness. That’s what we want to do.

The Vulpera.

Above: The Vulpera in World of Warcraft.

Image Credit: Blizzard

The future of World of Warcraft

GamesBeat: There are a lot of quality of life improvements coming to 9.1.5, and a lot of people are excited about those things, but a lot of people have expressed some frustration that they didn’t happen sooner. Do you think there’s something in the feedback loop that Blizzard can improve?

Hazzikostas: Absolutely. We can always do better at listening to feedback. We can also do better at communicating that we’ve heard feedback, but aren’t necessarily acting on it for whatever reason, or taking it under advisement and keeping an eye on it. This is feedback that, as the community pointed out, we’ve heard on many fronts going back to beta. In some areas we were wrong. The community said, hey, we think that conduit energy is going to be this frustrating system and it’s not going to have the effects that you hope it has. Our intent was similar to classic WoW respec costs, that it would be a friction that made you take these choices more seriously, but not ultimately lock you in permanently. In practice it ended up just being something that players chafed against. We heard that from them and should have changed our minds there sooner.

In other areas it’s about watching the mainstream of the WoW player base, the broad range of the player base, evolve. Watching how they’re playing the game. What we hear from more than just folks who are content creators or high-end raiders or PvPers, who we know have a specific play style. But one of the challenges in designing WoW is that there’s a dozen different play styles. Many of them are not as vocally or prominently represented. So what we hear from people who are trying to do high-end raiding and also push with keystones, having to choose one covenant and not being able to use the two freely for these systems was frustrating. We understood that. It wasn’t surprising to us. We knew that if this was your orientation to the game, if you’re a min-max player, you’re going to want to always be optimal. But as we articulated, the goal of the design team was that the core RPG choice, that feeling of a weighty decision, of picking this path versus that path, and having a different story you experienced versus what your friends experienced, was going to provide a better experience for a majority of players. And over time, what we continued to hear was, even those who initially appreciated that choice, that diversity of experience, months into the game down the line, once they played through those stories, once they’d seen it, particularly on alts, they too just wanted ease of change. That led us to that place there.

But a lot of what goes into 9.1.5 isn’t a one-off. It’s a reflection of us changing a lot of the underlying philosophies that have motivated our approach to designing WoW. A lot of these things, like I mentioned regarding conduit energy, are outgrowths of lessons that were taught to us by our predecessors, by the founders and the leaders of the team, about the importance of meaningful choice, the importance of preserving character investment, that may have led to us not being friendly to alt gameplay and people’s ability to get caught up on their alts. The reality is, the way people play the game has evolved. What was the right answer for the WoW player base and for the game 15 years ago may not be today. There’s some stubbornness, but clinging to those old lessons, some things are hard to let go of when your training and your education as a designer and a developer on the team led to having these things instilled in you.

So 9.1.5 reflects a shift toward more alt accessibility, more catchup, more sensitivity and respect for players’ time, trying to look at what sorts of activities are going to be interesting once or twice, but maybe less interesting when you have to do them more than that. Let’s not make you do them more than that. Versus which activities are part of that core repeatable loop, like running dungeons or PvP at max level, things people want to get into without as many hurdles they have to clear on the way. That sort of approach is going to motivate how we approach our next patch in Shadowlands, which we’ll talk about in the not too distant future and expansions to follow.

GamesBeat: Talking about community requests and maybe stubbornness, is something like cross-faction raiding a bit more on the radar as a possibility these days?

Hazzikostas: I’d say that is a bit more on the radar, yes. That’s one of those areas where, a lot of things to solve, a lot of things to figure out to make it happen, but at the end of the day, if Jaina and Thrall are working alongside each other in the raid, why can’t Alliance and Horde players also work alongside each other in that raid, especially when we know it’s going to solve a lot of the social problems people are grappling with? Particularly trying to keep a high-end Alliance guild together in North America or a Horde one in Oceania.

GamesBeat: You talked about 9.2 a bit, but beyond that, should we expect a 2.5 or a .3 for this expansion cycle? Or will it be 9.2 and then looking toward the next thing? 

Hazzikostas: We’ll be talking a bit more about the conclusion to Shadowlands in more detail in the future. Yes, 9.2 is coming, you’ll be hearing about that more soon. We do have more planned after that. But it’s hard to say too much more without almost spoiling some of the story that’s going to come. We’ll have a lot of details on that soon, but we want to be able to explain it in the full context of what 9.2 is going to be.

GamesBeat: We’ve seen the story and setting for Warcraft get bigger and more cosmic. Some people like that and some people don’t. But I guess I wonder, is it possible to go back? Or is the genie out of the bottle as far as the size and scope of what we’re fighting?

Hazzikostas: I don’t think it is, no. That’s definitely feedback we hear as well. There are some who like that escalation. We’ve faced the Titans. What comes next? Let’s go through the whole cosmology. There are others who miss just being in an inn in Elwynn Forest, being an adventurer on a more humble scale. At this point the WoW protagonists are heroes. You’ve done a lot of stuff. You’ll probably never go back to being anonymous adventurers in the forest. But Azeroth is the heart of the WoW franchise, and it started with orcs and humans and dwarves and night elves and the rest. We want to get back to that too. There’s room to tell a big cosmic-scale story, and there’s also room for more traditional core fantasy. That’s not something we want to lose sight of. Even going all the way back, this isn’t necessarily something new. The first expansion for WoW was going to Outland. We had the draenei coming in effectively spaceships and landing on Azeroth. There was a lot of cosmic stuff there. But we want to cover the whole gamut. It’s something we think about when we’re planning expansions as well. We maybe alternate between something that’s more traditional and terrestrial, and then something that’s higher concept.

N'Zoth himself.

Above: World of Warcraft’s villains keep getting bigger.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: This patch is adding Legion Timewalking. We’re getting Mage Towers back. Is the team thinking more about ways to bring back old content?

Hazzikostas: It’s something that we’re slowly working our way toward. There’s a tremendous amount of content that needs to be, in many cases, manually retouched and updated to work in this way. Things that we’ve done over the years, like adding scaling to the old content, so that even now you can level from 10 to 50 in any of the expansions instead of having a fixed linear path where you have to level all of them piecemeal. Things like Timewalking. These are vehicles and steps that move us closer to a world where we can make better use of all of what we’ve built as it suits our story. We’re not quite there yet, but we want to keep expanding those efforts, pulling more raids into our Timewalking system. A lot of discussions about what outdoor world Timewalking might look like, and whether there are periods where there will be exciting stuff that will make you want to return to Pandaria or Draenor. As we’ve seen, when a specific storyline does tie into an old area, we will send you back to High Mountain or Val’sharah in Legion to play through a modern quest line set in the old area.

GamesBeat: You mentioned earlier that the game’s almost 17 years old now. Is there a point where it’s just too old, with too many story threads, too many systems, and a reboot becomes too enticing to ignore?

Hazzikostas: I don’t think so. We’re always thinking about what is the future of WoW, not just a year or two from now, but five or 10 years. Within this world there are plenty of stories we still have to tell, places to visit, and improvements to make. We want to learn lessons and keep building on these foundations. In a lot of ways, having that 17 years of content is a huge strength. It’s an incomparable strength. But we also need to be mindful of managing the overall bloat in our systems. That’s kind of what some of the efforts we did in Shadowlands, like squishing and streamlining leveling, so a new player coming aboard can play through a modern starting experience, play through Battle for Azeroth, and jump right into Shadowlands, rather than being overwhelmed by 120 levels and a whirlwind tour of 15 years worth of content, much of which is old. But even as we curate and maintain what that experience is, we have this wealth to draw upon. And our intent is to keep evolving upon those foundations. We’ll remove some parts that are old and crusty. We’ll add a lot of exciting new ones. But there are millions of folks who are excited to play WoW, and we’ll keep supporting it for as long as that’s the case.

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