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World of Warcraft‘s new big patch, 9.2 — Shadows of Eternity, launched today. This is the last chapter for the Shadowlands expansion, and it represents something of a crossroads (or maybe bridge) for Blizzard.

The MMO and its team have been through hectic times. Accusations of workplace problems and investigations into those issues surfaced last year. In January, Microsoft shocked the world by announcing its plan to purchase World of Warcraft’s parent company, Activision Blizzard.

Even outside all of that madness, World of Warcraft has been dealing with an increasingly discontent fanbase. Many players disliked Shadowlands’ story and its over-reliance on convoluted progression systems. Blizzard has been taking steps to win fans back, including making plans to finally allow players from the two games opposing factions — Alliance and Horde — to play together.

I had a chance to talk with World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas and senior level designer Sara Wons. We discussed what’s new in today’s update, as well as what’s coming in the MMO’s future.

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What’s new in 9.2

GamesBeat: Aside from the typical adding a lot of new content, what are some of the biggest design goals with 9.2?

Ion Hazzikostas: First off, we’re adding a ton of new content. But in a lot of ways it’s carrying forward the philosophies that we pivoted to, in many cases, in 9.1.5 in response to player feedback over the course of Shadowlands. Building a whole new ecosystem, a whole new piece of content from the ground up with those in mind. As players are experiencing the thrilling conclusion to Shadowlands, as we’re going to this mysterious amazing high concept land of Zereth Mortis, and taking the fight to the Jailer, going through the raid and the dungeons, throughout that process we’ve asked ourselves on the system side, what are the things, traditionally, that are going to be pain points two or three months down the line?

We’re bringing back class sets. How will players feel two months into the patch when they want to switch characters or their friends are coming back and they feel like they’re behind with no way to catch up on getting their set pieces? Okay, let’s add a system, the sort of thing we previously patched in down the line, from the start. We have this creation catalyst that players will be able to unlock using currency a couple months in to target and specifically accelerate their acquisition of set pieces, build their own sets in a deterministic, non-RNG way. We’ve made most of our unlocks account-wide, whether it’s flying in the zone or access to content. In general, just trying to get ahead of what we have been hearing from players in recent years and taking those lessons to heart and building them into the content from the ground up.

Fans have been asking for class-based tier sets to return for years, and 9.2 brings them back.

GamesBeat: These big patches usually introduce a new zone. This time we get Zereth Mortis. How does this one differentiate itself from some of the other Shadowlands zones, or other patch zones we’ve seen before?

Sara Wons: Zereth Mortis is an opportunity for us to dig even deeper into the crazy universe that we’ve already seen with Shadowlands, but then really take it to the next level. We were intrigued by the idea of keeping this place mysterious, while also giving some breadcrumbs and things for players to figure out. We dove into, who were the Progenitors? How would they have functioned? How would they have built anything here? We ended up focusing on the building blocks of the universe and sacred geometry. You’ll see that woven into the landscape here, in the denizens, in the creatures. That’s one thing that we focused in on, that recurring theme of this sacred geometry, as well as mystery and things to explore.

GamesBeat: There’s this progression system here with the Cypher of the First Ones, but this one seems like it’s not corresponding to player power as much as we’ve seen with similar systems in the past. Does that represent another core change in design philosophy?

Hazzikostas: I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a core change. It’s more trying to support parallel paths of progression and different play styles, recognizing that there are a bunch of folks who love outdoor world gameplay. That’s what they do, their entire endgame. We hadn’t necessarily served them as well as dungeon players or competitive PvP players or raiders in the past. We wanted to take steps toward changing that. We set up a system that has a lot of depth, a lot of deep understanding of the zone, thoroughly integrated into the zone’s mechanics, as something for those explorers to really delve into.

But we understand, and we certainly heard loud and clear from the community, that if we put power that will increase your damage in a dungeon or damage in a raid behind a system, it now becomes mandatory, whether that’s gameplay you enjoy or not. And so having this as something that is, for hardcore power gamers, optional, but still deep in something they can take at their own pace, it’s something we’re trying to do to offer a range of options without pressuring people to play the game in a way they’d rather not.

GamesBeat: As vocal as the community can be about some things, the raids have already been popular, and people are looking forward to the new one, Sepulcher of the First Ones. What are going to be some of the highlights, maybe some of the most exciting bosses you think players will enjoy from this raid?

Hazzikostas: This raid is a doozy. We had a ton of fun with its conception and making the whole thing from top to bottom. Something that’s really fun that we haven’t had a chance to do in quite a while is the final three bosses of the raid have never been seen in the public test realm. They’ve been thoroughly tested internally, but in this zone, full of secrets and mysteries, we wanted to try to preserve some of that sense of mystery that’s been so lacking in this age of data mining and broad knowledge. When players go into the last section of the raid on the third week of the patch, they’re not going to know what awaits them. They’ll figure it out. People will write their guides. There will be YouTube videos. That’s inevitable. But on those first couple of days, it’s going to be a truly novel experience. That’s not something that WoW has seen in a long time.

Beyond that, there are amazing encounters. I think Anduin could be an end boss in most other raid zones, but in this one he’s just a major boss two-thirds of the way through. The team has gone above and beyond with environmental integration on a lot of these encounters. The Jailer fight in particular makes impressive use of very unique gameplay space and elements in the room. But anything more I could say would be a spoiler.

Players will fighting a corrupted Anduin in the new raid.

GamesBeat: What are some of the other highlights that players can look forward to in 9.2?

Wons: One of the really cool things we have this time around is the Cypher of the First Ones, and that also ties into the mystery and the breadcrumbs for players to uncover. We like the idea that this place is so foreign that you can’t even speak the language. When you arrive you see these glyphs in your chat coming from the automa there, who were left behind to keep the place running. You will work with one of the Enlightened, Firim, and he’ll help you figure out how to decipher this mysterious language. Through that, through the Cypher of the First Ones, you also unlock dailies and quests and rewards and all kinds of fun things. You also get this amazing little construct named Pocopoc, who I would die for. There’s just a lot of fun, awesome things built into the system that I’m excited for players to experience.

Communication and expectations

GamesBeat: You brought up some things being tied more to accounts than characters. What’s the current Blizzard philosophy on alts? Is it more important for progression to be tied to accounts or characters?

Hazzikostas: That’s something we’ve definitely been talking about a lot. The core character base progression is power progression. It’s getting gear, just getting stronger, that central RPG experience that’s part of what we think players are often looking for when they make a new character. They’ve reached a plateau. They’re done with their goals on one character. They want to experience the journey again with another. If you’re not feeling rewarded by running dungeons and getting item upgrades because you already have it all, that feels like it takes out a big piece of that repeat experience.

On the other hand, access to content and convenience and travel and things like that are things that you experience as a player. If you have to do some content to unlock quests in this area or unlock access to this dungeon or unlock the ability to fly, re-earning those things doesn’t feel like a reward when we ask you to do it the second or third time. It just feels like a penalty we inflict, and that’s not what rewards should feel like. In a middle ground are pieces of content that really are just best the first time through. We want them to be optional if you want to go back and do them again, but they lose a lot of impact because they weren’t designed for maximum replayability.

Core narrative content is a big example of this. You have big epic quest lines that go all the way through Zereth Mortis and lead to the conclusion of many of the events in Shadowlands, the fate of the Jailer, the fate of the Shadowlands as a whole. Awesome quests. Once you’ve done them, you the player have done them. We don’t want to make every character, every alt go through those experiences unless they want to replay them. That’s something where we make sure the major unlocks there are account-wide.

GamesBeat: For a long time it seems like there was a battle between this sort of min-max mentality. You wanted players to understand that they don’t have to max out their characters, but it always felt like, no, people want to max, and if they don’t, they feel like they’re missing out. Is that the conclusion you also came to?

Hazzikostas: That’s one of the big lessons learned over the course of Shadowlands. It’s a trend that’s present across gaming in general. The metagaming, figuring out what the meta game is. A new game comes out and people want to know about the tier list for classes or characters. Heaven forbid you pick the wrong one. In Shadowlands we set out initially having some options, some rewards that we imagined would be just for hardcore min-maxers, completionists. If you want to chase adding a socket to your gear for a fraction of a percent of damage, or upgrading this conduit for a fraction of a percent of damage, we wanted to give that to people who wanted to go deep on their characters, rather than going broad and playing lots of alts, something to work for, some reason to do it.

We often hear feedback that people are upset when they run out of goals and lack the motivation to do anything. But what we found, to our initial dismay and horror to some extent, is that a much broader range of players than we expected saw this .4% power increase that was behind something they didn’t necessarily enjoy doing as absolutely mandatory. And that’s not the outcome we wanted. The game needs to be fun. You need to log in and look forward to the adventures you’re going to have, the things you’ll do with your friends, the stuff you’re going to explore, the goals you’re going to chase, and not feel like you have a set of chores you have to accomplish before you can play the game the way you want to. As much as possible, we’re pivoting away from that and trying to offer true options without power dictating gameplay.

Zereth Mortis is a new land players can explore in Eternity’s End.

GamesBeat: You talked about the data mining aspect. Is it frustrating seeing players reacting sometimes to dialogue mined out of a patch before it even launches? There’s not a lot of context there, but the wheels start going.

Hazzikostas: It’s double-edged. On the one hand, it honestly reflects enthusiasm and curiosity, and we’re always grateful for that. We’re grateful that so many players out there want to know what happens next. That’s a natural outgrowth of that. At the same time, it can be frustrating at times, when it spoils pieces of the story or leads to conclusions because something is taken wildly out of context. At times you might be looking forward to the next episode of your favorite show, but when you get the script leak, but it’s not the script, just lines all out of order, and people are trying to piece together how it all fits together and what it means. Sometimes we can’t rebut assumptions that are being made without spoiling the game ourselves.

We’ve tried to pursue measures in the last couple of years to make it a bit easier to keep things like text of dialogue or quest from being data mined until they’re seen in context. Often they’ll be seen in context in PTR, but at least it’s someone playing through the content for testing purposes as intended, rather than just seeing a line out of context and inferring. But in the end it’s driven by curiosity. We understand that and appreciate it.

Cross-faction is happening

GamesBeat: The last time I talked with you, Ion, I asked if cross-faction raiding would be on the horizon. You surprised me a little when you opened the door for that, and now here we are. It’s coming. How difficult was this feature to finally implement for the game?

Hazzikostas: Difficult enough that it can’t be done for 9.2. It’ll come in a patch shortly after. When we last spoke, I knew it was something we were working on, thus the opening the door to this, not quite ready to announce it, but I had a feeling we might be more open to it than before. A lot of this came out of discussions we had as a team about listening more closely to player feedback, being more willing to challenge some closely held beliefs that we saw as foundational pillars of World of Warcraft. One of those was cross-faction gameplay.

Back then, early fall, we decided we wanted to do this thing. Certainly there was no way to do it for 9.1.5, but we set about figuring out what we’d have to change in our code, in our UI, in pieces of content to allow Alliance and Horde to opt in, to choose to make that same decision that Jaina, Thrall, and others have made to reach across the divide and play with each other against common foes if they want to, or stay apart if they want to.

GamesBeat: I know that you’ve been maybe a little worried that people would react negatively to this, maybe not want these factions working together. What has that reaction from players been like?

Hazzikostas: Overall it’s been pleasing and a relief. We hoped this was how it would be taken. We knew that many people wanted this and had been asking for it for years. We knew they’d be excited. Part of the concern was, again, as voiced in the blog, there’s some unease about tearing down this barrier that’s been such a defining part of the franchise for so long. Positioning as something that’s opt-in, where if you want to be a proud member of the Horde and not associate with elves or whoever else, we’re not going to change that.

We’re not going to force this experience on you. Many players are on RP servers and take this seriously. Even when examining faction, one of the burdens on us–there’s people with Horde and Alliance tattoos all over the place. What are we doing to these closely held, cherished ideas for people? We’re very happy to see how it’s all been received, and even more excited to see it in people’s hands and start getting feedback on it.

GamesBeat: Do you think this will be the limit? Are cross-faction guilds a possibility? Or do we need to wait and see how people react to this first wave?

Hazzikostas: There’s certainly a possibility. We know better than to close the door definitively on almost anything. But we want to be guided by feedback. We’ll stay conservative in this space, because it really is a one-way process. If we loosen restrictions and allow the formation of social bonds, there’s no way we can ever roll that back. We can’t tell a group that’s been playing together for some number of months, sorry, we decided this was a mistake, you can’t do that anymore. We’ll proceed cautiously, and as always, we’ll be informed and guided by our players.

GamesBeat: There are some raids that have so much faction-exclusive content that they won’t be supported for this feature right away. Is that something you think will be eventually added in, or is it not the highest priority right now?

Hazzikostas: Frankly both, I would say. Eventually we want to commit to adding all of those and having full support for all of them. At the release of the feature the overwhelming majority of dungeons and raids, including all the legacy content for 17 years, will support cross-faction gameplay. It’s just that short list, like Battle of Dazar’alor, raids that just from the ground up were meant to have an Alliance and a Horde separate experience. We just need to figure out how to handle that and make it work. We’ll get it done, but it’s not worth holding up the entire feature for that handful of dungeons.

Looks inviting.

The future

GamesBeat: 9.2 is the finale for Shadowlands. Were there ever plans for a 9.3? Is it a similar situation to Warlords where later we find out about some stuff that never made it to patch content? Or is this more or less the plan?

Hazzikostas: This was completely the plan. I’ve seen all the speculation from content creators and others that originally Anduin was going to be the final boss of 9.2, and then there was going to be a separate 9.3. But no. It was always a story in three parts. The plan was always the four zones of the Shadowlands, delving into the Maw, the power of domination there, and then going to this land of the Progenitors, Zereth Mortis. We were planning out the city of Oribos before Shadowlands was even released. There’s this major gateway, mysterious gateway, in the Arbiter’s chamber that we always knew would eventually lead to Zereth Mortis. The pace, the structure of stories is something where there isn’t necessarily a specific formula.

At times in the past we’ve had a mid-tier patch that felt like a digression, where it’s like, all right, now we’ll go deal with Lei Shen and the Mogu in the middle of Pandaria, and then go back to proceeding with the Garrosh storyline or whatever else. Here, in the Shadowlands, in the realm of the afterlife, the Jailer was front and center, and pursuit of the Jailer felt like the only thing that we would really focus on. The story has played out as we intended, and I can’t wait for players to witness the conclusion in just a few weeks.

GamesBeat: I know how much you probably love talking about something beyond the big patch that you’re promoting here, but without going into specifics, should players expect a longer than normal wait for the next content drop after this one? Normally we’d probably hear about the next expansion around the time of the last major patch, but there’s no BlizzCon. How long a wait are we in for, and how will players learn about what’s coming next?

Hazzikostas: Right now we’re definitely focused on getting Eternity’s End out into folks’ hands. We want everyone to see and experience the end of Shadowlands, and then we’ll have more exciting news following that. Stay tuned for news about when and where to learn more, but nothing specific to add right now.

GamesBeat: You probably heard, but there’s an exciting big acquisition. I’m sure players are wondering, is that going to mean any changes to World of Warcraft at all?

Hazzikostas: World of Warcraft is continuing as everyone knows and loves it. Beyond that, for legal reasons, I can’t comment on the acquisition itself.

GamesBeat: On the last earnings call they did mention some kind of new Warcraft mobile game. Does that have any connection to World of Warcraft?

Hazzikostas: Again, I’m here to speak for the World of Warcraft team. Not my place to share other product news.

One of the patch’s new mounts.

GamesBeat: Shadowlands, Legion, and Battle for Azeroth … we had three expansions with similar systems. What do you think were some of the best things that worked with the philosophy we saw in this wave of expansions, and what were some things where you think it’s maybe time to move on from?

Hazzikostas: We’ll be talking about this a lot more in the future as we talk about moving on to the next expansion and big picture lessons learned there. Quick reflections, the term “borrowed power” is one that’s certainly been thrown around the community a lot. Often in a disparaging sense. Oh, you’re getting this power, but it’s not really yours, and you have to give it back. On some level, that’s a double-edged sword. From the artifact system onward, the fact that things were temporary enabled the team to pull out all the stops with them and make them more immediately impactful, deeper, transformative of your gameplay than they ever would have been if they needed to last forever, if they were all going to be these additive things for your character. Imagine having all your talents, plus your full artifact weapon, plus Azurite powers, plus covenants. At some point it would just be complete nonsense. We wouldn’t have even gone a fraction of that way.

At the same time, we recognize that part of an RPG, part of progression is the feeling of growth, of moving forward, of gaining power, and the knowledge that you’re going to leave most or all of what you’re earning behind, it does diminish the sense of accomplishment and growth. These expansions often start with a feeling of loss, which isn’t ideal. Rather than getting something new and exciting, you’re working to replace the old exciting thing you just lost. That’s all stuff we’re heatedly discussing. We have tons of thoughts about it across the team. We’re excited to address and learn from that going forward. Part of what we’ve done with Shadowlands was a direct reflection of lessons learned from Legion and BfA. This gets back to some of our discussion earlier about power gaming and the motivations of min-maxing. Both of those artifact power systems in past expansions were designed as diminishing returns systems, where there was no hard cap on progression, and players could figure out for themselves when it stopped being worth their time to keep pushing further. We did that in the name of freedom, but what we actually found was that for many players, any power was required, and that caused a lot of burnout.

We approached Shadowlands systems in a much more structured way that didn’t have open-ended grinds to them, but still allowed for meaningful additional choice and gameplay depth. Looking back and continuing to look at covenant abilities and the way they’ve transformed gameplay, those have been tremendously successful. We’re already hearing players saying, hey, I hope I can keep invoking spirits forever, because I can’t imagine playing a druid without this ability. That’s a sign of success.

GamesBeat: I imagine we’ll see some of those abilities being reworked into the standard class toolkit that we’ve seen with the legendary weapon abilities and some of those things before?

Hazzikostas: More on that in the future.

GamesBeat: Last time I asked about morale at the studio. Things seem to have progressed since then. The tone has maybe softened a bit from some players. Some even see the acquisition as sort of moving on point. I guess I just wonder, how is that morale now, and how has it changed from, say, six months ago?

Wons: Honestly, the team has really come together in such an awesome show of support for each other. That’s been incredible to see. I feel like I’m closer to my teammates now than I have been even in the past. It’s been inspiring to see everyone support each other. For the first time in my career I feel like I have a voice, and I’m being encouraged to use it. It’s encouraging. It’s awesome to see.

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