“One of the things we do when we're crafting a new world for players to explore is ask, what we can we only do here?” Johnny Cash V, Senior Game Designer on World of Warcraft expansion Shadowlands tells me. With the setting for Shadowlands being the afterlife it’s a proposition that feels endless. A timeless space, various zones, roaming souls, unfinished business. Energies from Azeroth and beyond converging. But also, a place of structure.
With one of the afterlife realms, Bastion, presenting an almost Elysium approach to what might happen if there was no such thing as being able to respawn. Home to angelic like beings called the Kyrian, it’s a beautiful location and one steeped in history, order, and rich narrative potential.
For Johnny and the team at Blizzard, it’s a challenge taken head on. “When we're looking at a zone like Bastion, a zone based on flying, angelic beings, and with this unique kind of Greco-Roman architecture and all these themes about duty and service and selflessness, there's a lot to unpack. But that’s something the team dove into right away, creating stories that really tap into those themes.”
One example of a quest that you could only find in the afterlife is discovered early on in Bastion. A story that draws on past exploits and adventures told through the many World of Warcraft expansions. Where your character’s journey, and who you helped along the way, enters the picture.
“The Kyrian will want to look at who you helped in life,” Johnny explains. “They are people based around service. They want to see what service you have provided. You’ll fight the enemies of various groups you helped on your individual character. Those groups are actually determined by your character's specific reputation, so your past actions in previous expansions influence the sort of enemies you fight during these quests.”
From Concept to Screen
Shadowlands is poised to feature stories and new adventures that will take the setting into account. But, before the team begins to shape individual tales based on an afterlife they can walk around and explore, the development journey begins at the concept stage. Concept art for Bastion showcases its many influences, and the strange blend between the beautiful and the functional and the ethereal.
“Those groups are actually determined by your character's specific reputation, so your past actions in previous expansions influence the sort of enemies you fight during these quests.”
“We're incredibly fortunate to have such talented people on our team,” says Johnny. “When we're developing a zone, we're very much of the opinion that we're one Blizzard and that good ideas can come from anywhere and inspire people. [Early on] Bastion art had a lot of cool ideas for this glorious, floating, heavenly-like zone.”
“They just started creating concept pieces and creating some initial models,” Johnny continues. “We were super inspired by the stuff they were making. So, we continued to go back and forth together and collaborate, and one thing led to another and that's how Bastion came to be. It's just this constant dialogue between the team and everybody just putting in good ideas and seeing what really resonates with people.”
Past and Present
Although time behaves differently in the afterlife, Bastion is also a place like many that you’d find within the mortal realms – in that it has a history. A “time” one could call the glory days, a version that existed before the current turmoil. For the team at Blizzard it’s not only about the story behind a building or statue or artifact you can see within an environment, it’s also about recent scarring, new occupants, and the current climate.
“When we're developing a zone, we're very much of the opinion that we're one Blizzard and that good ideas can come from anywhere and inspire people.”
“With every space we're building, we're absolutely considering, ‘Hey, before all these problems started happening, what did this place do?’, Johnny confirms. “And you're going to see that reflected in the art and the creatures that are living there or what they're doing. But just as important is how the recent threats in the Shadowlands, the forsworn uprising in Bastion and other threats, how have those manifested themselves.”
In Shadowlands there’s a current Anima drought, think of it as a lifeforce or magical essence that powers growth, constructs, and other technology. Throughout the Shadowlands campaign players will see the effects of the drought firsthand.
“You'll see some spaces that are perhaps less impacted,” Johnny tells me. “Early on in Bastion, you'll see some spaces that, Anima drought aside, are mostly doing what they used to do, what they've always done. You'll see some spaces that are drastically altered by the events that have happened. We think that texture across the world makes things interesting. Once you see both, some of the past and some of the present, you're going to work through both as you journey throughout Bastion.”
Of Angels and Necrolords
For the teams at Blizzard, artists and designers drew from their own experiences, the real world, and other places to create the Shadowlands. As with all things Warcraft, the blend of the familiar and fantastical led to something new and unique. For Bastion, which presents a vastly different afterlife compared to, say, a place for the Scourge to call home, the team saw it as a location to bring a new dimension to Warcraft lore. And World of Warcraft at large.
"Just as important is how the recent threats in the Shadowlands, the forsworn uprising in Bastion and other threats, how have those manifested themselves.”
Plus, it also had to fit within that lore - which, last time we checked, has been operating in the encyclopaedic realm for well-over a decade. The contrast between the Kyrian and Necrolords though, gives a taste of an afterlife as rich and complex as the politics and goings on within Azeroth proper.
“The Necrolords are the great defenders of the Shadowlands,” Johnny explains. “They are this endless army that keeps the Shadowlands safe from external threats. The Kyrian, on the other hand, are the ones that are getting souls from across the cosmos and bringing them to the Shadowlands. They're supplying that infinite army with the souls in it among many other functions. Then, there's what they value. Maldraxxus is a zone that values triumph and fighting and people that live by the sword. Bastion values the people that lived a life of service. There can sometimes be overlap there, which is why the Arbiter exists, just to send people to the correct afterlife, but the Kyrian really value people that serve things greater than themselves, that are willing to sacrifice things to make the world around them a better place.”
Dense and impressive in scope, the story and setting of Shadowlands builds on Warcraft’s own delicate balance between races and conflict and ideologies, in addition to those that we might find in Greek myth or real-world history. Shadowlands isn’t simply a collection of various heavens existing in their own bubbles, but an intricate world where factions exist.
That players will get to choose from.
“The hope there is that when you're making that pivotal choice to join one of the Covenants,” Johnny says. “That one of them is going to call to you, maybe a little bit more than the others. You might like what they're all about. You might like the power that they give you. You might like the transmog that they give you. And you might even just resonate with the characters and want to learn more about them.”
Raiders of the Lost Covenant
For a game that has sustained itself for well over a decade and has seen success with new expansions – not to mention the recent release of World of Warcraft: Classic - the core WoW experience is driven by gameplay. For those visiting the Shadowlands, one of the big pillars will be siding with a Coventant – a decision that will have shape both the narrative and the progression path of your character. In Shadowlands the Covenants are presented via four groups: the Kyrian, Necrolords, Night Fae, and Venthyr. Siding with one will ultimately shape the campaign but also lead to specific rewards in the form of Covenant abilities and more.
For those visiting the Shadowlands, one of the big pillars will be siding with a Coventant – a decision that will have shape both the narrative and the progression path of your character.
“We have a whole team that focuses on making things balanced and making things mechanically interesting, so there are definitely experts in that field,” Johnny tells me. “When we're building the Covenants our goal [the design team] is to make each one as cool as we possibly can. We just really tried to make every single element as epic as possible. That goes from the different Covenant Sanctums where you'll be spending a lot of your time. Elysian Hold in Bastion is this really, really cool, floating temple-like structure with all these different wings to it that I think really feels like the ultimate expression of who the Kyrian are.”
“That was really one of the guiding principles as we put the zones together,” Johnny continues. “Ultimately, give players a sense of each Covenant and who they are and what powers they are going to bring you. Some people will make that choice based on what they think is mechanically most useful, and some people will make that choice based on the story of their character or even what fits the aesthetic of their character. I think that those different players having different reasons for making that important choice is what makes our community so great, because you have players from across the spectrum coming at it from different angles. I'm excited to see what sorts of people pick which Covenant and why.”
The Afterlife World of Warcraft
With Shadowlands, World of Warcraft is poised to receive its eight expansion later this year – another step in the continuing journey through Azeroth and beyond. For a game that first released in 2004, WoW has seen many changes and evolutionary steps from story through to how underlying mechanics function. And at every step of the way the team is continuously looking at the community and the many passionate players. Those that have been there from the very beginning and those that joined the adventure more recently.
"We're learning from reception to things that players are engaging with right now. We're learning from our own lessons along the way and how things came together and the ways that we can make those processes better.”
“We're always developing World of Warcraft, right?” Johnny confirms. “Whether it's working on patches for our current expansion, working on future expansions, and everything in between. Along the way, we're also constantly learning. We're learning from reception to things that players are engaging with right now. We're learning from our own lessons along the way and how things came together and the ways that we can make those processes better.”
“I think, in many ways, Shadowlands is just taking those lessons forward,” Johnny concludes. “Continuing to improve the things that we do, continuing to put epic content out for our players, and continually looking at things across the game that we can fine-tune or tweak or improve in some way. So, it's just this endless effort around the teams to never be satisfied with where we are and to instead always look at what can be better. I think Shadowlands is another step in that journey.”