Catching up with a few key World of Warcraft developers in their workspace, on the same day they were unleashing their biggest patch to-date (with 7.2), you could feel the energy in the air. Not one borne from stress or overwork, but passion from a team bringing a huge dose of new content to a game that they all play daily. Which is literally what Game Designer Ryan Shwayder was doing prior to our late afternoon chat. "We have this drive toward quality," Ryan tells me. "The first thing I do when I get in is ask myself, what can I do to make this a little bit better? So really, my entire day today has been playing on my live character and saying, 'this would be slightly better if... Hey Travis, can I hotfix this?'."
The person Ryan is referring to is Travis Day, Senior Game Producer on World of Warcraft. “Patch days are fun because there are donuts in the morning to incentivise everybody to get here early,” That’s Travis explaining the allure of fried dough. “We start the patch process for North America, and at about 5:30-6:00 in the morning people start showing up and prepping the realms and getting everything ready to go. You would think that it’s this well-oiled machine but we're also constantly pushing [and] upgrading our infrastructure and doing a lot to improve both the quality of the service and the quality of the game.”
In addition to new content and zones to explore, 7.2 also introduces several visual updates to existing characters. Plus, several bug fixes.
Also joining me in the art-filled environment that is Blizzard’s HQ in Irvine, California is Morgan Day, Lead Encounter Designer, who among other things, primarily spends his time designing and fine-tuning dungeons and raids -- including the latest addition, Cathedral of Eternal Night. “A lot of my morning was actually logging into the live rooms and playing the new dungeon and making sure it's all going smoothly,” Morgan explains. “Lots of catching bugs and adjusting the numbers and tuning and things like that.”
When asked which of the three have it the easiest come patch day, they all chuckle and agree that it’s the players. A somewhat obvious conclusion to draw, but one that takes on a special meaning when playing the game is what you do when you’re not actively working on it.
The Burning Legion Can’t Be Tackled in a Day
In terms of patches, '7.2' may not sound all that impressive, or simply par for the course for a game that has lived online for well over a decade now. But in continuing the story laid out by last year’s impressive Legion expansion, it finally realises the promise of releasing substantial and timely content to the player-base -- and in the process earn the title The Tomb of Sargeras. “We had the broad strokes of the story that we wanted to tell throughout the patch cycle, I think, since February of 2016,” Travis recalls. “That’s when we really sat down and said, ‘okay, what are we going to start bucketing into the patches? How do we want the structure to look like, what do we want the cadence to look like?’. So then from there, by the time Legion launched on August 30th in the Americas, we had a full team underway for 7.1, 7.15 and 7.2.”
At this stage, over a decade after its initial debut, it’s clear that there’s no one way to experience World of Warcraft. Some come in solo, immerse themselves in the world, lore and story, whilst others simply play the role of a healer or tank and tackle dungeons or larger-scale raids in a group. Then there’s the PvP arena where competition thrives, crafting for those interested in creative expression, or even just wanting to catch up with friends and socialise. Trying to factor and include everyone into the equation for an update is no small feat. There’s a sense among the team, even after all these years, to create new things for all players. New locations for them to explore and quest in, and experiences for them to share.
“We have every type of player on the WoW team,” Ryan tells me. “We play as everyone does so we can give feedback saying, 'man, I wish I could do a dungeon with my pets’. Which we then respond, internally with, ‘okay, is that feasible?’ A lot of times we have big ideas, ones where we wonder both when and if we can do them.”
Staying on top of not only the creation of new content, but in keeping track of everyone’s ideas, and then managing how to move forward, falls onto the producer.
“One of my busiest days of the week is Monday,” Travis explains. “Not because it's, like, ‘oh Monday, the start of the week’, it's because everybody comes into work from the weekend, having just played tonnes of World of Warcraft. And they come in to say, ‘hey, I had this idea over the weekend’, or, ‘hey, I ran into this thing. Can we have somebody look at that and check it out?’ People on the team are just stoked to work on content, and it's really easy to find a place for someone to do that.”
Of Adventure and Dungeons
Personally, what’s always fascinated me with online role-playing and telling these huge sprawling epic stories, which has been WoW’s bread-and-butter for many years now, is how the team approaches the design of co-operative content. Where players team up to tackle a dungeon, or raid. From a pure statistical standpoint, their inclusion ticks a box, and in many cases, are included to fill a gap where narrative context might feel like an afterthought. In the case of World of Warcraft, the team is quick to remind me that underlying everything they do there’s a drive to continue telling the story of this world. “At the start of the expansion, we assaulted the Broken Shore, we kind of got pretty beat up,” Morgan says as his tone turns serious. “We lost some big heroes. We lost Varian, we lost Vol'jin, we lost Tirion. Big, big characters in World of Warcraft.”
The new dungeon introduced in 7.2, the Cathedral of Eternal Night exists as part of a larger story centred around resealing the Tomb of Sargeras. “It's that story and selling that idea of what this dungeon exists for, right,” Morgan continues. Which in turn translates to ensuring that what the players see and does, ties into the bigger narrative. “Creating really fun group content is obviously a goal too. But when we can service the story and really play with the idea of, 'what are we going in here for?" That's always a driving light for us. Especially with patch dungeons because you only get one dungeon to add. So, let's make the best of it.”
Unlike Legion, a large expansion that provides the breadth and scope of an entirely new game, a content patch is a more refined and specific thing. And so, when designing a single dungeon or zone to explore, there’s a sense that it shouldn’t only feel new, but essential. And move the story forward in a meaningful way.
“It's this holistic story we're telling of the Legion,” Ryan adds. “They're this huge, massive enemy. They're called the Legion because there's legions
of them. So that translates to what we're doing with the content. Yeah, their main foothold is The Broken Shore but it's spread throughout the Broken Isle. What we try to do is tell that story from a bunch of different angles, and once you've done all the different pieces, you get it.”
This philosophy of making each piece fit into the greater story being told drives all aspects of design, and is present from the earliest moments. When plans and ideas that are thrown around the room for new zones and environments and are just that -- plans.
“With a lot of zones, it starts with the overall; the big story we know we want to tell,” Ryan explains. “The themes; the setting. And once that's established it's diving deeper and deeper and deeper until we get to the smallest detail. You know, what type of head are we putting on this orc?”
Shifting the conversation back to 7.2, and the introduction of the Broken Shore, we once again touch on the importance of story, and letting players experience that next step in the battle against the Legion.
Being an online game, a traditional linear narrative only works to a point. For a veteran team working on one of the oldest and most popular online worlds, this means trying to find new ways, even now, of fermenting a perpetual state of surprise on the player. Or at the very least, a sense that there’s something new every day. For the Broken Shore, Legion, and the current state of World of Warcraft this process was described to me as trying to capture the “dynamic ebb and flow of the living world”. In other words, being able to go online and see a building that wasn’t there before, a new foe or boss making headway, or new quests to tackle that will move the story forward and shape the world.
What ends up in-game versus not is a ratio that makes the creative process for the team a hard one to wrangle. “We have so many people on the team who have interesting ideas when it comes to design,” Ryan tells me. “You almost have to look at all of them and then figure out, ‘okay, what's the best one? Which one works with everything else?’ It's a weird, hard, iterative process. To take, you know, how many ideas we didn’t implement versus the ones that we landed on. But for Broken Shore it was just the driving factor of the Armies of Legion Fall, all the classes working together and the living world idea. And of course, Legion. We knew they were demons. So how are we going to take the fight to them?”
The Big Fight
There were several reasons why last year’s Legion expansion felt fresh in the minds of new and returning WoW players. For one, the overall systems and mechanics were updated in such a way that players could get to the content that they liked most or wanted to experience -- as quick as possible. A somewhat natural progression for a decade-old game to take, and the antithesis to the grind that one normally associates with the online role-playing genre -- where the journey is often padded to the point where the destination loses all meaning. Legion also upped the ante in terms of storytelling and presentation, and by introducing the all-menacing threat that is the Burning Legion. This presented a situation where players of all factions would have to set aside their differences in a fight to save the world.
“The Burning Legion is the biggest threat to Azeroth that we've ever seen, so it just felt natural to ask: ‘look, we've got to get the Legion off Azeroth. How are we gonna do it?’,” Ryan says, laying out the stakes. “The answer is not to form little micro factions and try to fight them by yourself. You have to work together. And since I think it makes sense in the context of the game, it makes sense outside of the context of the game, too."
“It's always fun too, to play with that concept,” Morgan adds. “Within the game there are characters who don't agree. Or the fact that Jaina was, like, ‘nope, I'm out’. She wanted nothing to do with it. There's all these characters who have different reactions to the threat and I feel like the players are similar. One of my favourite things is to read their reactions to things that are happening in the game and see how passionate people get about the story.”
Since its debut in 2004 the way in which story has been presented to players in World of Warcraft has seen several improvements, with last year’s Legion expansion probably representing the most technically advanced version of the game to date. This is due to close collaboration between the Blizzard cinematic team and the WoW engine guys. As Legion saw several visual improvements made to the core game and its characters, this allowed the cinematic team -- renowned for its exceptional pre-rendered cinematic work over the years -- to create in-game sequences that were ambitious, dynamic and entertaining. “One of the best things about Blizzard is that we're not just this game team suffering and working alone in the void, trying to make this cool game,” Travis enthuses. “We have a cinematics team that sits across the street that works diligently on the game and they're just as passionate about WoW. And they have all these crazy ideas about the things they want to do, and they're always pushing themselves to get better.”
For the team, this collaboration with each other, and other departments, like the cinematic team, can be seen in the final product. Something as simple as designing a short-animated sequence for new class mounts, a process that the design team were able to cobble together but due to time constraints was more functional than something to show off. At that point, outside of any plan or agreement the cinematic team stepped in and turned them into what Ryan describes as “the coolest cut-scenes ever”.
“I was watching them get put together by designers and you look at that stuff, you're, like, ‘this is really cool man’,” Travis adds. “And then you see, after the cinematic guys come in and take a pass at it, wow. Even just simple things like a camera angle change, where you had no idea how big of a difference that would make.”
Changing of the Guard
By now you probably don’t need to be reminded about how long fans have been playing World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s online juggernaut that first launched in 2004. In fact, it’s something that has already been mentioned in this piece several times. WoW represents a huge online world, one that has continued to grow and expand from launch right up until the moment you’re reading this. Being around for over a decade not only speaks to the quality of the game, but its enduring legacy. What struck me as being a key part of that enduring success when speaking with the team, was the fact that several people there were fans of the game long before they became part of the development team.
That might sound strange, but for a persistent and massive online world that has been with us for more than 10 years, it makes sense. And for Blizzard, it reflects a company-wide feeling that this is a group of people that love what they do. Since its debut members from the original World of Warcraft team might have moved on internally to work on other projects like Overwatch and Diablo III, or somewhere else entirely. In game development, it’s normal for teams to change between sequels or instalments -- key figures who might have been there in the beginning are now working on something else. Although that might sound like a recipe for something to drastically change one way or another, in the case of WoW it paved the way for an equally passionate group to come in and put their mark on the game. People that were already playing for years.
“Warcraft for me was, like, it's just so cool,” Ryan recalls from his younger years clicking on Orcs just to hear a few jokes. “The world is awesome, the fantasy of it is awesome, the jokes are awesome. Being able to draw on that, and then seeing that realised in World of Warcraft after Warcraft 1, 2, 3... was such a shot in the arm of adrenaline. I already loved MMOs and was working on one when World of Warcraft came out. So I got to see the game develop over time, whilst trying to get over here to work on it. That's a truth for a lot of us, is that we played these games growing up or maybe we weren't all that young, when they came out. But playing them and then always wanting to work on them and always wanting to tell our own stories.”
Being a player first and foremost, also brings with it a sense of connection to the audience. “You start out as a passionate consumer yourself,” Morgan adds. “A passionate WoW player, a passionate StarCraft player, a passionate Overwatch player. And it started out that way for me as well, when I came into the team. And now it's just so inspiring to see the community’s reaction to things. How they're enjoying the stories that we're putting in front of them.”
“Growing up, I loved RTS and online games. They probably suffered from the fact that my parents got divorced super young and then they were always moving around and chasing the next job or the next thing,” Travis reveals. “So there was not a lot of stability or consistency in my life. Online gaming provided that for me and it provided a continuous group of friends and a continuous network with which I could talk to. Going through that has made games a very valuable part of my life. And something that I use still to this day too. I have friends that I see basically just in League of Legends or just in World of Warcraft or just in whatever game it is that we play together. And it's kind of our social experience.
“And so the ability to come to work every day and create a ritual like that, that allows for the thing that I benefited from and really brought a lot of meaning and stability in an unstable time of my life, is super gratifying,” he concludes. “And we get to tell badass stories and put hats on orcs, which is also cool.”