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World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is about to drop its last major update of the expansion. Visions of N’Zoth (aka patch 8.3) releases on January 14.

This update is adding a lot, such as the new Ny’alotha raid. This has players teaming up to battle the Old God N’Zoth and bring an end to the story of Battle for Azeroth. It also introduces two new allied races, the fox-like Vulpera and half-machine Mechagnomes. On top of all that, players can battle through corrupted versions of the major cities Stormwind and Orgrimmar in the new Horrific Visions, which support one to five players.

Visions of N’Zoth presents a tempting update for bringing back WoW fans who have been spending most of their time in Classic. World of Warcraft Classic launched back in August, enabling folks to revisit the MMORPG’s earlier days. But 8.3 is all about the future, and I chatted with senior game producer Mike Bybee and lead narrative designer Steve Danuser about this massive update.

Back from the past

GamesBeat: For someone who’s been playing WoW Classic since launch — like me — what’s your pitch to come back and check out Visions of N’Zoth when it launches?

Mike Bybee: For me personally, I would say that one of the things modern WoW has that’s fun and exciting is a lot of compelling story tied in with systems that are very specific. For example, the Visions of N’Zoth update has a great narrative arc that you can play right from the get-go when you log into the patch as a max level character. There’s a bunch of great gameplay systems that tie into N’Zoth and the corruption of the old gods, including items that are corrupted, and corrupted scenarios that you can run by yourself or with your friends, or dungeons that have been corrupted by N’Zoth. All of these things tie together in a really interesting way that makes the entire update feel fresh and new.

Steve Danuser: As you explore Classic, a lot of the dungeons in Classic were actually themed around stuff that was under the influence of the Old Gods. Things like Ahn’Qiraj. The Old Gods were one of the big threats from that original world. We’ve addressed that throughout the years. Things like Ulduar during Wrath of the Lich King. But this is the chance to really face off against the last of those four original Old Gods that threatened the world. In a way, Visions of N’Zoth pulls in threats where we laid the first foundation during the timeline of Classic. It’s cool to pay off a lot of those storylines with this big villain that’s threatening the world.

Azeroth becomes corrupted by the Old Gods.

Above: Azeroth becomes corrupted by the Old Gods.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: N’Zoth is a big villain. Why not make the expansion a straight up N’Zoth expansion, instead of only teasing him early on?

Bybee: One of the interesting things about working on WoW is that we get to play with the long stories. Battle for Azeroth was more than just the N’Zoth expansion. There was a ton of narrative about the Horde and the Alliance sides, tons of great stories that we got to share with players, that people were really excited about. And also it’s an old gods expansion. It was fun to be able to — instead of just one and done, here’s the story, we could stretch that over time and bring people along with us and get people excited and wondering and engaged. Hopefully, they’re now very satisfied with the end of that story.

Danuser: We discussed different ways and different ideas about how to tell the N’Zoth story, but one of the things we really feel that — for a villain like N’Zoth, this update feels like a horror story, in a way. There’s a monster theme to it. Sometimes monsters are scariest when you get them in small, concentrated doses, rather than a storyline that drags out over a much longer experience. In this way, we feel like giving you a full on version of N’Zoth, where you see his influence, his tendrils, literally and figuratively weaving through the world and changing places that mean a lot to our heroes, that’s a great and compelling way to tell his story and make it feel like the stakes are very high.

When you do finally get to Ny’alotha and see what madness lurks within him and what he wants to change the world to be, that’s a powerful thing to see. That might not have been as cool and awesome if it were diluted over a longer experience. We feel this is a great way to tell his story.

GamesBeat: Now that the war campaign is over, are we going to see the two factions cooperate with each other more?

Danuser: The Battle for Azeroth was about these two sides fighting over the fate of the world and really shaping what its future would be. Even though we’ve seen them have together to take on Azshara’s threat, in Rise of Azshara, and now the Visions of N’Zoth manifesting and threatening Azeroth as a whole — out of necessity they’ve had to put that truce on the table and set the fighting aside. But a lot of those things that have played out over the last couple of years, and in the years before, in terms of the conflict between the Horde and Alliance, those won’t just go away.

War is something that affects cultures deeply. We’ll see the themes and the repercussions of what happened in Battle for Azeroth play out on both a character level, through these legendary characters that inhabit our world, and the cultures and regions and factions that inhabit it. There’s going to be a lot of long term dealing with the events that happened in Battle for Azeroth and some of the choices that were made. It’s not going to be an easy road for a lot of these characters.

GamesBeat: One of the more interesting criticisms of the story that I’ve seen is that the Horde is getting off a little too easy for some of the atrocities they’ve committed, especially earlier in the war. Is there going to be more of a reckoning down the road?

Danuser: I don’t want to go into too much spoiler territory, but you will see, in the later stages of Visions of N’Zoth, later in the storyline for it — you’ll see the perspectives of the leaders of the world and how they’re coming together. At first it may seem like the Horde under Sylvanas’s leadership did some very terrible things, and why aren’t they being held accountable now? Well, you’ll see some different perspectives on that from the Alliance side. You might see Anduin, someone who’s strived for peace throughout his life, have one view on that, whereas someone like Tyrande, whose culture was ravaged by what Sylvanas did, she’s going to have a much harder time accepting some of these things. That’s definitely — those differences in how the various Alliance leaders, and some of the Horde leaders, view what happened, is going to be key to some of the storylines going forward.

Above: Sylvannas has been a major focus of World of Warcraft’s story for years.

GamesBeat: What’s the bigger goal for this patch? Is it about ending a story, or is it about transitioning the narrative into Shadowlands? 

Bybee: I think there’s a lot of goals with this content update. In terms of the old gods story, there is definitely — we’re bringing everything happened in the war campaign behind the scenes, giving players what we hope is a really satisfying conclusion to that element, while always looking toward the future. One of the great things about this game is that the story continues on. There are new characters that you see impacted, but we’re always trying to make sure players understand that the world is bigger than one moment or one person. There’s always stuff that continues on beyond that.

Danuser: One thing we’ve tried to do is evolve our storytelling with WoW. The earlier expansions were very much self-contained experiences. Burning Crusade started and concluded. It felt like we closed that book and then we opened the next one for Wrath of the Lich King. In more recent expansions, we’ve deliberately laid threads that carry through. Events in Pandaria led to Warlords of Draenor. Warlords very much led into Legion. That’s a trend we want to continue.

While Visions of N’Zoth does bring to a close a lot of the major themes from Battle for Azeroth, there’s still many threads we’re carrying out from this expansion that will lead forward. We feel that’s a compelling way to tell the story of this living, breathing world that has these very relatable characters that so many players have come to love and care about. This is a great opportunity to tell their story and share their perspectives on the world of Azeroth and the realms beyond it.

New allies

GamesBeat: We’re getting the Vulpera as an allied race, which is a new kind of character race that you guys introduced before Battle for Azeroth launched. Did you plan for them to be one all along?

Bybee: I think the best way to describe it is an ongoing conversation. As we went into Battle for Azeroth, we knew we wanted to do the concept of allied races, and we talked a lot about the different races that made sense. As we built one allied race after another, we learned things that worked well and didn’t work well. We also started to get feedback from players about what they wanted to see. It was a combination of all those factors as we were putting these together. I can tell you that the Vulpera as an allied race was something that the team really wanted very early on, and were very passionate about. We’re super excited to see it out in the wild. Personally, I’m very excited to play vulpera. I’ve been playing Alliance mostly recently, but I’ve been trying to convince my friends to switch to Horde so I can play vulpera. I haven’t succeeded yet, but that’s the plan.

Danuser: To see the way that fans latched on to the Vulpera so early on — there was a lot of love for them and their caravans and alpacas and all that stuff. The aesthetic of the Vulpera was something that people loved from day one. To be able to bring that to them as a playable option is something that the team is super excited about. So many of them wanted this as an option, and we figured this is a great time to do that.

The Vulpera.

Above: The Vulpera.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: A lot of the other allied races are variants on an existing race we’re familiar with, like Dark Iron Dwarves, Void Elves, stuff like that. Was it more challenging to create a more unique race?

Bybee: There are definitely some challenges. Maybe a minor issue, but the boots, for example — did you know that we have to fit every single pair of boots that has ever been made to make sure they fit on all the Vulpera feet? With the quads and the way their feet work, we had to make sure that worked for all of them, and that was a little challenging. But again, that’s part of the things we learned how to do better as we went through all of these allied races. There were some challenges, and there were some things that we did that weren’t as challenging as we maybe had thought.

Danuser: We also considered when was the right time to introduce some of these races. When you had something like the Mag’har Orcs, for example, they’re a warrior race. The Horde was looking to bolster its numbers for this war, so it made sense to go and get them early on and make them a core part of — hey, we need bodies out there on the front lines, and these folks would make awesome soldiers, so let’s do that. Whereas something the Vulpera wouldn’t have made as much sense to do early on, because as awesome as they are, they probably aren’t what you’d think of first when you think of front line soldiers for this effort.

But in the wake of a world that’s changed and seen the repercussions of war and is bringing something new to the table, the Visions of N’Zoth update made a lot of sense to introduce them at this time. The Mechagnomes are a similar thing. They weren’t core to the battle part of BfA, but they really stood out in Mechagon, and people loved their storyline and their look and feel. It was a great twist on gnome culture and allowed us to explore that more fully. It was a great time to make them a playable option as an allied race.

GamesBeat: Before this expansion, you’d see players complain about certain racial leaders not being a prominent enough part of the story. With all these allied races, you’ve just about doubled the amount of leaders and races that need to be represented in the story. Is that daunting?

Danuser: The way we look at it, we like to give each of these races and characters the right moment to shine. We don’t like to shoehorn them into storylines if they don’t feel like they should be part of it. We like to give stories that feel like we play to these characters’ strengths. One of the great joys of working on WoW is that we have this huge palette, this huge roster of characters and cultures to draw upon to tell stories with. Some of those stories, it makes sense to use the big brutish races, or to tell stories related to the elves and their many descendants. It’s really about picking the right time and the right situation to use each of these heroes and these cultures and make that a part of the world. The Vulpera, the Mechagnomes, they just give us more tools to play with and more opportunities to tell different kinds of stories than we might have been able to in the past.

The Mechagnomes.

Above: The Mechagnomes.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: The Vulpera get a lot of attention, but what would you say are some of the more interesting things about the Mechagnomes?

Bybee: The Mechagnomes are fun. Just straight out, the way they look, the story, their background, their interest in modifying their bodies but still maintaining the core of who they are, I think they’re super interesting. One thing in terms of the way they look that’s just different, when you put on armor as a Mechagnome, there are certain parts of the armor that aren’t going to display, because you’ve still go the mechanical parts that it’s going to work around, and that changes the way the character looks compared to any other character out there. That’s interesting. For people who like the quirky sense of fun that the Mechagnomes bring to the table, it’s a great option.

Danuser: They stand on their own really well and have their own look and feel, but they’re also tied into some of the core storylines that have been in WoW for a long time. Their background ties into the curse of flesh, which is something that’s relevant to the Old Gods storyline, certainly. But it’s something that changed a lot of the cultures on Azeroth and altered its history in many tangible ways. To see that storyline brought into this very local father and son struggle against each other — this idea of, what does perfecting oneself mean? How can that be interpreted, in good ways and bad ways? That’s a cool fundamental story to tell, and to be able to do it through this new culture that’s been brought in has been a lot of fun. It gives us a perspective where, if we had tackled it through a different race, an existing one, it wouldn’t have come out the same way. It might not have been as much fun.

Raiding the Old God

GamesBeat: The 8.3 update will have the new raid with Ny’Alotha. Is it challenging to design the last raid of an expansion?

Bybee: It’s definitely different. I was involved a bit in the raid development for the last raid in Legion, and then I also worked on this one with Ny’Alotha. What I can tell you is that the team really cares a lot about delivering on the promise of the expansion. A lot of times, when people get together to talk about these end of expansion raids, the words I hear are — this has to be the most epic. It has deliver on everything we’ve been telling. It has to deliver on the story. I’m blown away again and again by how well these guys do at everything from the art to the bosses to the design of the actual encounters. Ny’Alotha has this amazing skybox of the rest of the Black Empire off in the distance, with tentacles and ziggurats and all sorts of ominous things. You really feel like you’re off in another world. And then the boss fights themselves are just absolutely incredible. They’re super fun to play and the art is great. The team does a phenomenal job. Yes, it’s a challenge, and I’m impressed by how we’ll it’s come together.

Danuser: Every raid is special for us. We choose those locations. We debate them. We talk about the bosses. The number of hours spent talking through these things and planning them and iterating on the art and the experience and what the fights are going to be, we couldn’t calculate that number for you. It’s a tremendous amount of caring and passion that goes into each and every one of them. But it’s true that the end of expansion raid tends to tie a lot of threads together and close out a lot of the stories that have built up over time. That was certainly true of Legion, and it’s very true of Battle for Azeroth.

People have been waiting a long time to see what Ny’Alotha is and what N’Zoth really wants and what threat he represents. To be able to pull it all together in this amazing place that looks so phenomenal — it looks like the chronicle book opened that’s sprang to life all around you and just sucked you into that. It’s truly amazing, what our artists have been able to pull off here. To see that come to life and see how much passion everyone has poured into it across the team is just something that energizes us. We can’t wait for fans to be able to play it.

GamesBeat: What’s something that makes this raid stand out from some of the other raids?

Bybee: There are a few things generally. One thing is the structure of the raid. We’ve gone back to the option where you can choose different paths. Another thing is the themes of the raid having to do with people who have been your allies, who have been corrupted. That’s an interesting thing that we haven’t been able to explore as much in past raids. And then I think the finale of the raid hearkens back to Cataclysm and the fight with Deathwing, where you actually fight N’Zoth twice, in a very real way, because he’s too big, too threatening, too ominous to be something you can just punch in the face a few times and defeat. There are many dimensions to that encounter, and I love that we were able to explore that in different ways. So there’s actually two different disparate encounters with N’Zoth in the raid. And honestly, to hit it again, I think the art is phenomenal. Every person I’ve seen walk into that raid the first time, the first thing they say is, wow. It just looks great.

Danuser: A lot of times with our bad guys, for these raids, we’re infiltrating their lair. We’ve figured out where they are and we’re trying to take out their base of power or whatever it is. Ny’Alotha is a very different kind of concept. N’Zoth is pretty much inviting us in. He wants to show us what he thinks is a better future for our world, a better structure to build on, a better pattern by which we, the champions of Azeroth, should be carrying forward. It’s not like a typical bad guy who’s trying to drive us out. Everything about this is us proving our value to N’Zoth as this maniacal entity who wants to reshape reality. Instead of the players being an impediment to that, they’re actually a part of his scheme. To see that play out in this really trippy, mind warping way, it’s something that makes it stand out from other raids that have come before.

Players will have to fight the monsters of Ny'alotha.

Above: Players will have to fight the monsters of Ny’alotha.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: There are a lot of other features in this expansion. Outside of what we talked about, can you tell me about the one new thing you’re most excited about?

Bybee: I’ll just say, the Horrific Visions, it’s so interesting what we’ve done with it. I’ve been able to watch this come together. They’ve been working on it for a long time, and it’s really just gotten to a point where it feels very refined, very polished, very fun. It’s one of these pieces of content — a lot of elements of WoW are things you do on a regular basis. You do world quests. You do dungeons on a regular basis. One thing that’s interesting about horrific visions is you can do it yourself, or you can do it with friends. You can do it with five or two or three of you. It allows you to have that flexibility, so you’re not stuck in a specific group size. At the same time, every time you do it, it changes. You can go further. You can unlock different abilities. You can even get to a point where you can put on masks and make the experience even harder, for better rewards. It’s been built from the ground up as a repeatable piece of content. More than anything else in this update, I’m super excited to run through the horrific visions and do them again and again and have a lot of fun with my friends.

Danuser: Finally seeing Ny’Alotha come to life is a huge part of it for me. That’s something that I’ve thought about and written about and planted seeds around for a very long time. In a lot of ways, these content updates are about seeing things come to fruition, things we’ve hinted at or planned or envisioned. Seeing them come to life as something players can experience is super rewarding. That’s a lot of fun. Just seeing N’Zoth as a character, he’s been such a memorable influence on our world for such a long time. To see him manifest through these familiar places to threaten the Stormlands and Orgrimmar and the Vale and all this influence reshaping this world and what that could mean, and the impact that him boring into the minds of these characters we care about and want to fight for — seeing what the repercussions are of all that, it’s going to be a lot of fun from a story perspective. Whatever the outcome for Visions of N’Zoth itself, the threads are going to carry forward for a long time. It gives us some great stories to tell in the future.

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