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World of Warcraft is gearing up for its next expansion, Shadowlands. After a lukewarm response from many players toward Battle for Azeroth, Shadowlands is looking to rebuild some goodwill between Blizzard Entertainment and its community.

Part of this involves looking at what exactly it is that so many disliked about Battle for Azeroth, which included complaints about unpolished experiences like Island Expeditions and Warfronts, a restrictive and annoying system of acquiring abilities through gear, and the difficulty of playing as more than one character for endgame content.

Earlier this month, I played the alpha test of Shadowlands and talked with the game’s technical director, Frank Kowalkowski. I wanted to know how Shadowlands is looking to stand out from the last few World of Warcraft expansions, and ask about new features like Torghast, a roguelike-inspired experience which has players exploring an unending tower.

This is an edited transcript of our interview.

After the battle

GamesBeat: What lessons did Blizzard learn from the last expansion, Battle for Azeroth (BfA)?

Frank Kowalkowski: There’s quite a few of them. One of them we’re undergoing right now, which is making sure that — we’re going to beta next week, and we feel like we have a first pass on all of our endgame systems ready to go and to show to players on the beta and our own development team, and we can begin receiving feedback. We feel like maybe in BfA, some of that played out well in the beta, with Azerite abilities and the neckpiece. We’re trying to get a bit of a head start on some of that to get feedback as soon as possible so we can continue to tune up until we release Shadowlands. The second one, which is again based a lot on feedback throughout BfA and based on the positive reception we got for both the Queen Azshara content drop and the Lost Visions of N’Zoth, was player choice, player agency. We’re doubling down on that. The covenant is the obvious example of that, but you’ll also get to choose crafting your legendary. We’re also going to give you more mains to be able to populate your weekly chest than we did in BfA as well.

GamesBeat: Covenants are a major feature in Shadowlands. You pick one of four, and that determines certain abilities and other features that you unlock. Are players going to be able to pick a covenant they want because it’s their favorite? Or will players be forced to pick certain ones because they are the strongest for their class.

Kowalkowski: We’re going to do a lot of tuning to make sure that we don’t have a, yeah, if you’re a demon hunter you have to pick this covenant. The covenant is about more than just the signature ability and the one power for your class. There are soulbinds that factor into the covenants, and other systems like Torghast that you’re going to be able to leverage to customize your character. It’s more than just the ability. That’s the one that’s up front because it’s the first thing players will see and experience, but there’s a lot of depth to the covenant system. We think it’s going to be up to each player to decide how they pick a covenant. You can pick it based on your play style, the types of things you want to do, but we also want to give you the option to pick a covenant for aesthetic or personal choice reasons. You identify with — I play a death knight, so maybe I identify with the Necrolords. I should be able to make that choice and not feel bad for doing that. There should be rewards and tuning such that I feel good about my choice.

A screenshot of the sky in the Maw in Warcraft: Shadowlands

Above: A player gazes at the sky in the Maw zone in Warcraft: Shadowlands.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

GamesBeat: For the last few expansions, players have earned new spells and abilities outside of traditional sources, like leveling and the talents system. Why is Blizzard so set on tying new features to unlocking abilities.

Kowalkowski: Again, choice. If I’m a death knight and I get an ability that’s cool because I hit level 60, that helps me a bit with my class, but if I’m looking at wanting to customize my character, you don’t necessarily get that if we just hand it to you. We want to give you abilities that are centralized around the theme and the fantasy of your class. What we have with essences or with what we’re doing in Shadowlands with the covenant abilities or your legendaries, we’re giving you the option to craft your character. That’s where we feel we gain a lot of ability for players to determine their own path and feel responsible for how they want to craft their character. It’s another choice, just like picking your race was. That gave you a few different abilities. Just as much as — choice is scattered throughout WoW. It starts the first time you log into the character select screen and pick Horde or Alliance. It’s about making sure that we’re giving that to players.

GamesBeat: One criticism of BfA was it wasn’t very alt-friendly. It was difficult to keep up with more than one character. Is Shadowlands going to be more accommodating of this?

Kowalkowski: That’s our goal. When you look, again — we learned a lot of lessons throughout BfA. We’ve put some of them into the current content that’s out there, the catch-up mechanisms. Making catch-up mechanisms is something we want to carry forward. When you make an alt in Shadowlands, for instance, you can pick a covenant right away if you want to begin developing that covenant. You don’t have to wait until maximum level. A lot of the renown building and things like that will have catch-up mechanisms built in, so you don’t necessarily have to follow the same progression path as your main character.

GamesBeat: There are some systems that have been in place since the Warlords of Draenor expansion, like the mission table. How are some of these older, more familiar endgame systems being shaken up in Shadowlands?

Kowalkowski: We created those as evergreen systems. If it’s been around for more than a couple of expansions and players expect it moving forward, we think of that as something we need to look at and refresh and do something different with. With world quests we wanted to incorporate them more into the covenant system. We did that through a system called callings, where a calling may send you out to do some activities in a zone, and if you choose to do world quests in that zone, that’s something you can do. World quests will still be out there and around, but they won’t be feeding necessarily into the emissary system, where you log into the game, hit the end key, and decide what you’ll go out and do that day, if the reward is worth it. We’re packaging that with the covenant system. The followers table is something where we’ve looked at it over the years. In BfA it felt very much like it was just match the symbol to the symbol. There was no strategy to it. Do I have those symbols available to do the thing, and if so, hit the button. Or keep adding people until I get to 100 percent. We wanted to rethink that, to give players the ability to have a bit more fun with it, and be able to try something different with the ability to put your own followers and troops and things into more of an interactive style of combat. When we talk about — we feel like that’s the next evolution in the follower system, rather than just trying to do the same thing we did before.

Above: Bastion is one of the new zones in Shadowlands.

Image Credit: Blizzard

Dead men tell tales

GamesBeat: How long ago did you decide to make an expansion about the afterlife? 

Kowalkowski: It really revolves around how we think about the future of World of Warcraft. We do plan fairly far ahead. History shows us that World of Warcraft has been around for a while, and will hopefully still be around for a while, and we should plan for that. Knowing we were going to the Shadowlands, we’ve known that for many years, before we ever began developing levels for it. If you want to talk exact years, it’s probably been … a while. A decade, at least.

GamesBeat: One of the things that struck me the most from playing a bit of the alpha is the new selection screen for making a character. Why was now the time to rework some of these basic elements?

Kowalkowski: Almost every expansion, we look at the player’s connection with their character. The ability for players to express themselves through their character. Sometimes it’s like Warlords, where we uprezzed all the character models. Sometimes it can be a new class, like Legion. Sometimes it can be the allied race option we took with Battle for Azeroth. Giving players new ways to build something in the world that they can connect with. It has to fit thematically as well. This time we looked at character customization. Can we be more — can we give players better options to build an avatar that’s more along the lines of something that they can connect with? We haven’t done that in many years. While we provided new races, we haven’t given the existing races a lot of means to be able to change or to craft themselves to be more representative of what players want to play. When we think about wanting to do these big endeavors, we take every expansion with that theme. In Shadowlands this is where we wanted to focus our efforts.

GamesBeat: You have Torghast in Shadowlands. In the past the big pillars of content have been PvP, raiding, dungeons. Is Torghast its own pillar in Shadowlands?

Kowalkowski: Certainly in Shadowlands players are going to want to run Torghast. First and foremost because it’s fun. Every time I’ve run Torghast it’s a different experience. I can take the same character, same spec through and have a different experience many times in a row. It’s not just because the hallways and the creatures look different. It has to do with the anima powers that I’m earning. The first few anima powers may decide the next few I’m going to take. It’s a diverse system that stands on its own. It’s very fun, but it’s also going to be a primary mechanism for crafting your legendary. Players are going to want to do that. In terms of being its own pillar, players are going to want to do this content. They’re going to be — there’s a lot of reasons to do it. For the duration of Shadowlands, Torghast is going to be part of the player’s experience.

GamesBeat: Renown is something that’s important for endgame progression. Can you explain how that works?

Kowalkowski: Azurite power was something that you could — again, I mentioned checking the world quests. There are times when I would look at all the Azerite power ones and go out there and do that, because I wanted to fill that bar and then immediately fill the bar again. Renown is going to be something that you go earn in a fixed amount each week. It’s not necessarily something that you’re going to be trying to min-max because there’s a set amount that you’re able to accomplish unless you’re on catch-up mode. That’s one difference. Similarly, we didn’t want to bind your covenant advancement or your sanctum advancement to reputation, for similar reasons.

GamesBeat: You’ve been working on the classes quite a lot during the alpha. You’ve made some big changes to some already during testing. Are there a few specs right now that are still on the radar as you’re in this beta period?

Kowalkowski: Certainly we have the capacity to keep an eye out and hear player feedback, and also look at the data to understand and make sure that — if we see something that’s an anomaly, like death knight’s blood boil is insta-killing things, we have the capability to track those. Even if we’re not hearing it directly from player feedback. We’ll continue to tune all the way up until we’re ready to release the game.

A screenshot of the sky in the Maw in Warcraft: Shadowlands

Above: A player gazes at the sky in the Maw zone in Shadowlands.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Shadows rise

GamesBeat: Shadowlands is set for this fall. Is there a reason you don’t have a concrete release date yet?

Kowalkowski: We know in our heads what the date is. We’re building toward that and we feel confident about that. But we also want to make sure that we don’t release the date because the date’s there. We want to make sure that the date we release is because we feel the game is good and the experience is going to be good for everyone. We want to give ourselves the flexibility, if we need an extra week on either side of the date we have in our heads, we have that. We want to make sure that we land when we think the game is good.

GamesBeat: This is the first expansion coming out while Classic is available at the same time. Has that changed the design philosophy at all, or the mechanics of when you’re releasing content? 

Kowalkowski: We have two flavors of WoW, and it’s awesome. We have one flavor for the players that embrace the classic philosophy, and we also have the main line game that’s been — that came from Classic, but has evolved and incorporated and adapted to the community of players over the last 16 years. We do view them as two separate ecosystems. That’s why your characters don’t move between the two. We do feel like we’re supporting two games. It’s awesome, quite frankly.

GamesBeat: Is implementing the level squish difficult? The max level is changing from 120 to 60. Was that more difficult to do than the item level squish?

Kowalkowski: Absolutely. So many things in the game revolve around level. World of Warcraft, from a technical standpoint, one of the reasons I love being an engineer on this game is that there’s a never-ending — we are facing challenges that nobody else faces in gaming. This was one of them. We’ve had this game around for 16 years and 120 levels. We needed to take a look at that and think, if we’re going to continue to keep doing World of Warcraft, and we will continue making World of Warcraft, it’s more daunting the more levels we add. Levels become less and less meaningful. How can we make levels meaningful again? We wanted to do this level squish. You can imagine that without having planned that from day one, a lot of data in the game has levels sitting there. It’s a hard coded value. We had very talented engineers and designers attack the problem and figure out how we could do something similar to what we did with item squish to levels so that this doesn’t become a persistent issue every time we might want to think about doing it. It’s been a fun technical challenge, but it’s probably an order of magnitude more difficult than item was, because that just affected items. This affects creatures, zones, quests, you name it.

GamesBeat: Is it especially difficult to develop for World of Warcraft because it is a 16-year-old game? 

Kowalkowski: We keep the game fairly well updated from a technology standpoint. We’re very proud of the technology that we’ve been able to develop over the years. There’s very little code that’s survived from day one of World of Warcraft, because we constantly — we’re evolving it. It’s not just game features that are evolving. Technology is evolving. We’ve rewritten huge aspects of the game’s rendering code and gameplay code. On the server side we’ve addressed a lot of things that — World of Warcraft was a single-server closed ecosystem back in the day, and now we’re this more regional game where players are able to come together across servers a lot more easily. We continue to evolve the technology on this game. It’s an amazing challenge, and it’s one where we solve problems that very few other people in gaming have to tackle. It’s fun. It’s awesome. I’m very thankful that I have a team of very smart people to do this.

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