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Earlier this week, World of Warcraft announced its 9th expansion: Dragonflight. It has a lot of work to do if it wants to get WoW soaring again.
The MMO is coming off of an unpopular expansion, Shadowlands, which itself followed Battle for Azeroth and its tepid reception. Blizzard looks to correct course with a new game plan, one that focuses less on a reliance on expansion-specific endgame systems and grinding.
I was able to talk with World of Warcraft lead game designer Jeremy Feasel and UI designer Laura Sardinha about Dragonflight’s new features and how it hopes to lift WoW up for a stronger future.
GamesBeat: Does Dragonflight have a release window?
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Laura Sardinha: No dates yet. When ready, we’ll have a date. But not for now.
Jeremy Feasel: And that’s on purpose. We want to make sure Dragonflight’s released when it’s ready. There’s a lot of cool stuff we want to do here, a refresher for a lot of systems that will last for hopefully many years. We want to build a talent system that can last 10-plus years. We want to build an awesome UI that can last 10-plus years and that we can add to in the future. We want to do it right.
Sardinha: The old UI lasted 18 years, so hopefully the new one will go for 20.
GamesBeat: There’s a different tone with what we’ve seen of Dragonflight so far. We’re seeing features that can last beyond just this expansion. Is that intentional?
Feasel: I think Dragonflight represents a return to Azeroth for us in a number of different ways. We’re not only physically returning to Azeroth from the past. It’s also a great chance to tell some core WoW stories. The Dragonflight have been a part of WoW fantasy for many years, but we’ve never really gone in depth with them. A map for the Dragon Isles has existed since Classic. It’s been a part of our minds for a long time. There’s a ton of stories we want to tell here.
But it’s also a chance to look at core parts of WoW that feel like they need a refresher. Things we want to last many years into the future. Things like the talent system. We want to be thinking about feature extensibility in a way that Classic designers maybe weren’t thinking about back when they designed the original talent schemes. Same with the UI. Updates we’re doing to our season system and the mythic dungeon finder. Updates to the profession system. All of these things are core Warcraft elements that we want to design to be futureproof.
Sardinha: On the UI side, we’ve been focusing a lot on UIs for expansion-specific features. If you look at Shadowlands, soulbinds look so cool. The azerite UI, the look and feel is really awesome. But we never did anything, really, for the base UI itself. And then we have all this awesome stuff for features and animations, all high res. It looks really awesome. We thought it was time for the base UI to look awesome too. So here we go.
GamesBeat: It’s often talked about how this is an old game. Sometimes working with that code can prove difficult. Is that the case in redesigning UI elements that haven’t changed much since 2004?
Sardinha: Oh, yeah. That’s one of the biggest reasons as well. The technology has just changed so much. Not just the code itself, but whatever you use to play the game. Your mouse, keyboard, monitors, the resolutions. These are all just huge. The old UI, let’s call it, the pixels are very small. It was from 2004. It’s really tiny. And then if you think about high res’ing all those assets, it might look strange with what we have today. It might not fit the modern era we’re in now.
We really wanted to look at what we had, what was very iconic from that time. For example, the gryphons, the shapes, the colors. Let’s keep that. But let’s give a modern take to it. When you look at it, if you’re a veteran of WoW, you’re going to recognize that this is the WoW UI, but it just looks fresh and new. That’s what we’re looking for. That was one of the challenges as well with this.
And one good thing about the technology, too, is that we’ve developed a tech that, if you have a monitor that’s just a normal monitor, not 4K, the new UI is going to load normal assets with a size that’s good for that resolution. But if you change to 4K, the UI is going to automatically load higher resolution assets. It’s going to look really nice and crispy. With the old one, if you have a 4K monitor, it looks pixelated. You’ll see huge pixels everywhere. It’s just because it wasn’t built for that. The technology wasn’t there in the past.
You’ve got talent
GamesBeat: You talked a bit about the talent system revamp. We’re going away from the rows and back to trees. This is the second big talent revamp the game has had. What will make this talent system the best one?
Feasel: One of the big driving forces here is player customization. We especially heard this back when we started adding, interestingly, player character customization. There was this outcry for, add more off this, add more for me to show off what kind of player I want to be. I want to play in this particular way. I want to have these particular buttons. I want to have this particular hairstyle. All that started this awesome conversation, which really came down to, what are ways that we can unlock not only the player’s ability to customize themselves and the buttons that you have in your rotation, all the way to whether you want to focus more on healing or be more of a hybrid. But then also, what are ways that players can customize their gameplay? Whether you want to change up your rotation in a particular way. Getting away from the idea of cookie cutter builds and focusing more on, do you want to be really specialized for mythic or raiding or for PvP?
And then on the design side, it’s just fun and interesting from the standpoint of the ability to create gameplay. If there’s more branching decisions players can make, more optional abilities, we can create fun, different, interesting rotations that hit particular player styles in a way that the other system, with more limited choices, resulted in us not being able to do that. We can create hybrid specs that go really deep into being a hybrid and feeling like a hybrid. Or for the player who wants to play Warlock and just do all the dots, you can create a whole spec that’s just associated with doing all of the dots. It opens up our design space and it’s a lot of fun to design for.
Sardinha: On the UI side, we learned a lot over time. If you look at the transmog UI, you can save your favorite transmog. For the talents, you’re also going to be able to easily save — let’s call them loadouts. The loadouts that you like for your specs. If you switch a lot, it’s going to be very easy for you to have your favorite talents for, let’s say, PvP, or mythic plus, or something very specific. You have your arena buddy, your mage, and then you have talents just for that combo that you two want to do. We learned so much with other UIs we made, and we want to apply that for talents, and also for the UI revamp. You’re going to be able to also save when you go to edit mode and move stuff around. You’re also going to use that system. You’ll be able to save based on your spec, and then you can just load very easily.
GamesBeat: Talking about changing your specs and your talents, switching between these presets, is there any cost associated with that, or is it something you can do freely? Are there restrictions to when and where you can do that?
Sardinha: All free, like we have today. All good.
GamesBeat: Some of the past expansions, a lot of the new abilities have come from things like covenants, the legendary weapons, or azurite armor. Are all of the new abilities for classes in Dragonflight coming from this talent tree, from leveling up, or from some kind of outside source?
Feasel: They’ll be coming from the talent tree. This is where we’ll be spending a ton of our time adding additional fun aspects for players to be able to customize their gameplay. We want that to be a system that’s also extensible out into the future. We’re thinking about a talent system that we can keep adding to for expansion packs to come. We want it to be a system that everybody plays with and enjoys.
But in addition to that, we’ll be looking at other opportunities to add interesting gameplay-changing elements in similar ways to what we’ve done in previous expansion packs. You’ll be seeing the return of tier sets again. We thought that was great in 9.2, so we’ll be continuing that trend in 10.0. You’ll get a great primalist theme, the elementally-looking tier set from the primalist raid which ships with the expansion. That’s where we’ll be looking to add those extra changes to your gameplay. The core talent system should just have a ton of options and customization.
GamesBeat: Have you designed that talent system so it’s going to be easy to expand going forward? Do you see the trees branchings into new places as the game gets older?
Feasel: That’s the goal. It’s really TBD what form that’s going to take. We’re still in the very first iteration. We’re looking forward to the feedback from players to really put it down. But yeah, that’s the goal. You should look at a bunch of the talents and say, oh, I wish I could also get these additional five of them. That’s where you want to land.
Evoking new magic
GamesBeat: We’re getting a new race and a new class. Dracthyr can only be evokers and evokers can only be Dracthyr. Is there any worry that we’re just going to see like 95% of all players use Dracthyr evokers?
Feasel: It’s basically how we saw it with demon hunters, having a class with double jump and eye beam and all these crazy ideas. Dracthyr evoker has their similar, whoa, that’s really cool buttons. Whether that’s the deep breath button, where you take off and fly across the battlefield, getting into verticality. You can do a limited version of the momentum-based flying we have for dragon riding you can engage in, because you’re also a dragon. That’s their version of flying, a double jump and take off, and then they have momentum-based flight. That should feel very fast and fun and fluid and arcade-ey.
It’s like the synthesis of all the different Dragonflight colors. We get to play with flames that heal you, with dream abilities that create healing clouds and spores, and then of course when you give game designers the ability to play around with time-ey stuff–we’re going to see some timey-windy abilities that rewind and do other fun cool stuff like that. It’s a great opportunity for us to play around with various different gameplay mechanics there. They also have empowered spells, which is the ability to hold a button down and get additional effects. We have a special spell bar for this.
Sardinha: Yes, we’re going to have a press and hold cast bar, which is very unique, never done that before. With that, because we have to do that, we’re also going to revamp all the cast bars. They’re very old and tiny. Which also brings a lot of accessibility to it, because our cast bars, they just have that green color, or blue, or grey. Now we’re adding textures to the bars as well, so if you’re color blind and you can’t see the difference between the blue and the red or the green, we’re going to have a very slight texture on each one. You can see that difference in them. It’ll be very exciting and different doing the press and hold. We’ll have pips on the bar that call it out. How far are you holding that fire? Hopefully it’s going to be very easy to use, but of course we’re listening for feedback. If there’s anything we can do better there, it’ll be great to hear.
Feasel: They can’t be a tank, so you have to at least still bring tanks. They’re midrange, 25 yards, so your hunter is still going to be able to outrange them a bit. And they wear mail. If you want to make your raid leaders happy, don’t everybody reroll for Dracthyr evoker. Maybe just 50 percent of you.
GamesBeat: I like playing healer a lot in WoW, and you’ve talked about this a bit, but what is going to make this healer stand out from the ones that are already in the game?
Feasel: It’s slowing down time, speeding up time, putting a heal over time on somebody and being able to speed up the ticks of it. Being able to heal and then having supportive elements that work behind it that aren’t directly healing is the vibe of the class. Dracthyr also are super mobile. You’ll be able to soar, which allows you to take off and start flapping your wings. You’re a dragon. And then you can cast a lot of your things on the move when you’re in soaring mode, which makes you super mobile.
But of course there’s going to be drawbacks. You don’t have the strongest single target heals. You’re a very powerful and mobile AoE healer. There’s room for all the other healers. Also, it’s going to be super interesting to see, especially with some of our more hybrid healing classes, the different talent specs that people create for holy priests that gets into discipline, or restoration druid that focuses more on the hybrid druid aspects of crowd control, shifting to bear and cat form. We’ll be seeing some wildly different types of healers. At least that’s the goal of the talent spec revamp. It should be the wild west for a while, where people try out crazy combinations. This crazy OP single target healer is probably going to exist somewhere. There’ll probably be a hotfix for it at some point. But that’s the fun of revamping everything.
Sardinha: It feels like you can also use your tail, right, for knockbacks? There’s going to be a lot to use there, which is cool for a healer.
Feasel: Oh, yeah. We had to make it feel like a dragon. That was one of the first pieces of feedback we got. I want more dragon-ey things! You have azure claw, which is your kind of claw in the air, and then claw marks that are made out of blue magic come out of the creatures, sort of a distance, but it feels very melee. Two of your racial abilities are a wing buffet, which pushes enemies back, and a tail swipe. You have to have those things. We have cool animations associated with them. You’re sort of midrange, but we wanted it to feel like it had aspects of melee, because there are melee things that you need to feel draconic. You want to bite somebody every once in a while. You’re a dragon.
GamesBeat: That damage spec, this is the first ranged DPS class the game has gotten since launch. What were some of the challenges there, some of the gaps that the team saw in terms of what the current ranged specs were offering that could be filled by a new class?
Feasel: I think a big part of the discussion there is just making it fit the ability chain. The ranged DPS class for the Dracthyr is heavily associated with blue and red magic. Red magic is going to be all of that big explosive thing. The blue magic is going to be much more targeted things. The background and story of the Dracthyr is all about being these creations of Neltharion that have this intrinsic power. He created almost the perfect chromatic dragon, but you have so much power within yourself that you don’t know how to shape it. It’s less of the mage style of, I know how to deal with arcane forces and I’ve been studying this for a long time, and more of the, I have this chaotic power within me and I need to learn to shape it.
While you were granted that ability intrinsically, it’s going to be awakening within you as you level up your character as a Dracthyr. That’s the vibe we’re going for there. A lot of their abilities need to fit that vibe. You were mentioning earlier, the midrange thing. We thought it would be cool to have a midrange caster that’s super mobile, but exists not super far away from the battlefield, so you can choose whether you want to be in the melee crump or outside the melee crump, and then having some of those more melee-feeling abilities, or sort of a range, so it feels like you can be a dragon when you’re up close to things.
It’s a lot of fun developing a midrange class that also brings all the Dragonflight magics together. It got us thinking outside of the space of a simple fire ability. In your head, you know what fire is and it exists on the mage and the warlock. We got to think about, what would red magic actually be? It’s living flame. And then you can use it to heal, or use it to damage, or use it for hybrid abilities. What is blue magic? It’s all that searing and sundering magic, disintegrating. Maybe that could have additional effects on enemies. It was a lot of fun to think outside the box of what you would traditionally use for a frost spell, say.
GamesBeat: You talked about the press-and-hold mechanics a bit. Are we going to see those styles of spells or abilities brought to other classes, or is that an evoker specialty?
Feasel: Through Dragonflight they’re going to remain an evoker specialty. We’ll be playing around with, what’s the coolest version of these abilities? Do they fit the mold of a press-and-hold ability? Right now one of our main ones is the flame breath. That feels like a thing where you can continue to gather flame in your maw until you want to unleash it, and it can have an additional effect based on how long you hold the button. But we’ll see. It’s one of those cases where we’re looking forward to player feedback about how you like the system and where else you’d like to see it.
Sardinha: On the UI side, we’re building it in a way such that it can be used for other classes in the future. For sure, we have that in mind. But we need a lot of feedback to see how it feels so we can adapt more.
GamesBeat: You talked a bit about the evoker. Are there big changes coming to other classes?
Feasel: We’re not looking to make major core rotational changes for players that want to keep their rotation. One of the big goals of the talent system is that we wanted to increase your ability to customize what you want your rotation to be, what you want to specialize in. For players who like the gameplay of their current class, we want to maintain a lot of those, with the usual incremental improvements. But really we wanted to increase the breadth of choices you have there, different ways you could play your character.
Ride the dragon
GamesBeat: Dragon riding is being touted as a big feature. Does that mean we’ll get access to flying around the Dragon Isles earlier than we would in some of the past expansions?
Feasel: We definitely want this to be accessible early in your adventure in the Dragon Isles, for a couple of different reasons. Within the very first zone, you will get your first customizable drake. These drakes are ultra-customizable. They have more than 50 different customizations per drake, and you get four different drake models that can come in a variety of colors. You’ll get all four by the time you finish leveling up. Each of your different characters can have a different looking drake. Hopefully people create really cool and different feeling customizations. You can give them horns, give them fur, give them spikes. But we also designed all the zones with this in mind. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to get this in players’ hands really early, because it feels awesome to just be bounding along the landscape, hit double jump, push your wings back, soar into the air. You get a ton of height.
The mini-game becomes about how you’re spending your height. Do you want to spend it tilting your dragon down a bit to gain momentum and blasting past the usual maximum speed? Versus distance, getting to your ultimate goal. The way the system works, depending on how much you tilt your dragon’s nose down, you gain speed faster. If you tilt yourself down at a significantly steep angle, your wings are going to come in and you’ll gain speed really fast, up to a really high maximum. And then as you hit the ground level your wings will unfurl and you glide super fast along the landscape. Then you try not to hit any trees. That’s the goal. There’s a ton of mastery associated with the system.
All of our zones in Dragonflight are built with this idea in mind. Not only to support this system, but just to support dragon stuff. If you’re making an expansion with giant dragons going through the sky, you want to have big rolling hills where they can crash land and eat three sheep and take off, because that feels really dragon-ey. We have some of the biggest zones that exist in World of Warcraft. Four huge zones to explore. We were able to have the dragon flight system unlocked really early because the zones are so big, and it feels awesome to swoop and dive through them. We wanted players to be able to experience that right away.
GamesBeat: So, Super Mario 64-style flying is how I read that.
Feasel: It’s really arcade-ey, yeah. There’s a lot of gameplay associated with it. Because there’s mastery associated with how you use your swoops and dives, how often you press space bar, which gives you a big flap in the middle of flying, giving you additional height and momentum. We’re introducing dragon races as well. There’s going to be a number of different courses. This is a whole mini-game associated with improving your dragon riding, improving your time. There’s a bunch of courses scattered all around the landscape that you can do in order to level up your dragon riding.
And we’re also looking at multiplayer dragon races, dragon racing tournaments. You might be out there with a whole bunch of players and you get to race against each other to see who has the most mastery over the system. And then of course the winner gets announced at the end to everybody on the course and gets to feel cool.
New allies, potential foes
GamesBeat: In Shadowlands we had the covenant system. Now we have these different dragon aspects, which seem like they lend themselves to a similar idea. Is there anything like that covenant system in Dragonflight? Are we going to align with an aspect?
Sardinha: No. We actually are just going to go through quests to get to know them, know what’s going on with the campaigns and things like that. But no AP, no big things you have to grind. We’re actually going to have a more robust system, kind of like a renown system for reputations. All the rewards, the cosmetics and good things you get from them. You’ll get to know some of the tribes that have been living there, what they’re up to. It’s a lot of narrative stuff you can do. Again, the dragons you get, you’ll unlock everything at the end if you really work towards it.
Professions are the same thing. A system where you’re going to specialize yourself in something, but at some point you can get all the specializations from your professions. Everything you’re going to get, it just depends on how much effort you put into it. There’s nothing that’s based on AP or covenants that lock you into something, and then it’s just a lot of grind.
GamesBeat: What is the progression once you hit max level going to play like? There’s nothing like the big resource you have to get. Is it still going to be this checklist of activities to keep up with other players in terms of power? Or is it a more traditional system of just gathering loot, and that’s the whole power grind?
Sardinha: More traditional. Getting loot, focusing on your mount if you want to unlock more things for your flying early on. A lot of profession stuff, if you want to specialize in something very quickly. It depends on what you’re looking for. Getting to play with your talents, because you’ll be able to do so much with it depending on your gameplay. That’s going to be a lot of fun, to be able to explore and start up a bunch of specs you can do.
GamesBeat: How is the leveling process going to work before Dragonflight? Do you still go to Shadowlands at 50 and do that until 60, or is Shadowlands just another expansion you can play through from the beginning until you get to 60, and then you go to the new expansion?
Feasel: We want to keep you on Azeroth, because it makes for a bit of a weird right turn after you finish Battle for Azeroth to go do the Shadowlands. You’ll be able to level up through the Battle for Azeroth patch content, all the way up to the maximum level. That includes doing storylines like the war campaign, Nazjatar, Mechagon, and so on. Those are all going to scale so you can continue leveling up on Azeroth and go right from there into Dragonflight.
GamesBeat: There was this kind of larger threat that was teased at the end of Shadowlands. Is that something that will play a part in this story, or is that for future content?
Feasel: Not something we can reveal today. You shall see!
GamesBeat: So it’s not Murozond?
Feasel: [laughs, playfully shrugs]
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