In Part One of our deep dive into Shadowlands with Blizzard we discuss development in 2020, the new player experience, and why 120 levels of progression was too many.
Due for release sometime later this year, the eighth expansion for World of Warcraft shifts the focus from the goings on across Azeroth to the goings on in the place you end up if you somehow forgot to hit that respawn button; the afterlife. With the story kicking off after Sylvanas Windrunner opens the veil between the hereafter and now, via some Lich King-ery, players venturing into the Shadowlands will find themselves in a midst of a new threat, new conflict, and new set of challenges. Plus, all the rewards that come along with that.
From new zones to explore, each governed by one of four Covenants, players will also be faced with picking a side during the campaign’s closing moments. After that, as part of the endgame, they’ll be tasked with venturing out into WoW’s most dangerous landscape to date – the open-world sandbox simply called the Maw. The updates and new stuff coming with Shadowlands doesn’t stop with the stuff that is new, the expansion also sees the arrival of the long-awaited levelling overhaul that cuts the untenable 120-levels of the current cap down to a more manageable 60. And for new players there’s a brand-new starting zone being introduced called Exile's Reach.
Ahead of the current World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Beta, where players are succumbing to the allure of becoming a Necrolord of Maldraxxus, we had the chance to sit down with John Hight, Executive Producer on World of Warcraft to discuss all of the above and more.
Developing Shadowlands… From the Shadows
Like, what has it been like to transition from an in-office environment at Blizzard HQ to remote work. Especially as development ramped up after Shadowlands got its big debut at BlizzCon last year. “The big change is the obvious one, we can't be in the same room and just brainstorm,” John tells me. “A lot of our design areas and art areas are set up that way, a good portion of our content designers sit in one area and if one of them has an idea they can just throw it out at the room. Or, tell jokes. That's why we have a lot of puns in the game, the teams have their own little pun-fests.”
Since moving to remote work the World of Warcraft teams at Blizzard (which includes those working on the Shadowlands expansion and Classic) have looked to recreate the social side of working as a unit on an MMO by connecting, as we all have, via video platforms. But, not to run through the latest updates – but to simply, well, hangout. “Something like that lets us feel connected even though it's not the same thing as being in the same room with someone,” John adds. When it came to working on the actual game, it wasn’t until the team began seeing players dive into the Alpha that it felt energised, motivated, and in sync.
"Things were a little slower at first, but once we saw people playing the game and becoming excited about what we were doing as we started rolling out alpha updates, we got excited too.”
“Things were a little slower at first, but once we saw people playing the game and becoming excited about what we were doing as we started rolling out alpha updates, we got excited too,” John admits. “Influencers that in the past might've said critical things about the game, came out and were supportive of what we’re trying to do with Shadowlands. That was encouraging for the team and gave us all purpose.”
It’s a feeling that extends beyond simple feedback, seeing players experience things that the team has worked on for years. The current climate in which we all live, that weird place in time known as 2020, played its role. “I compare my experiences with my neighbours and my friends,” John continues. “And a lot of them are a bit listless, some were able to work from home and that's good, but there’s this feeling like ‘What I'm doing, does is it really matter right now?’ There are bigger things going on and you want to be part of it and help but don't necessarily know how.”
Seeing players jump into Shadowlands, connect, have fun, and share their experiences tapped into what made the game resonate all those years ago. “We have something that allows people to connect and feel like they're at least interacting with other people and experiencing a shared purpose.”
New Players Welcome
“We have taken to heart the notion that we're the caretakers of Azeroth, of WoW,” John says as we shift the discussion to new players, recent players, and future World of Warcraft adventurers. “It isn't always about building the next new feature or the next new zone but going back and looking at some of the systems that we have.”
“In terms of the new player experience, it was time,” John continues. “What we had originally to get you into the game was built over a decade ago. And a lot of assumptions were made at that time, because many people were playing MMOs and similar games. Things like mouse control, lots of buttons on screen, these weren’t all that daunting a prospect. As we're bringing in more people into the game, not everyone's comfortable with that and it's not intuitive right off the bat. We did a lot of user testing with people that had never played WoW before and people that hadn’t played any games before to see what was obvious, what wasn't obvious. And we found that for those that had never played a game like WoW, if they can get over the hump, they fall in love. And they stick with it.”
“It isn't always about building the next new feature or the next new zone but going back and looking at some of the systems that we have.”
Called Exile’s Reach, the design goal has been one that aims to recreate what makes playing World of Warcraft feel unlike anything else. Grouping up with friends, meeting and connecting with strangers, delving into the unknown, failing, learning, and growing to understand what it means to role-play. “I think a lot of it has to do that social aspect,” John explains. “We didn't want it to feel like a tutorial where we're spoon-feeding you mechanics, it was important to give you a taste of the social aspect right off the bat. Putting you in a group with other new players, you're all making the same mistakes and you’re learning from each other and laughing at each other. Hopefully, you end up grouping together, do a dungeon and make friendships that continue as you go through the rest of the game.”
Alongside creating the new player experience, the team at Blizzard were also figuring out what to do when it came to levelling up in World of Warcraft. With each new expansion introducing 10 more levels to progress through, hitting expansion number eight meant that for someone starting fresh or looking to create an alt, having to go through over 100 levels of progression – felt like things had grown a little out of control.
“I don't know exactly when things started in terms of the new levelling experience,” John tells me. “But I do recall a conversation that Ion [Ion Hazzikostas, Game Director on WoW] and I had after I had spent the weekend with a friend and he was levelling up a character and I wanted to level up with him. I love Lich King and I wanted to spend time there, so wouldn’t it be awesome if people didn't have to go through that whole big long thing to get there?”
“The design team really put their heads together, and like within a week or two, came back and said we have a really cool idea for this,” John continues. “We had all been concerned about how big the numbers were getting too, especially for those taking that first step into the game. It's like ‘I got to go 110, 120 levels?’. It’s a lot and that number scares people, many people appreciate having some period of time getting to know their character, really understand how it's played, having a better sense of what Azeroth is all about, experiencing some of the story.”
“We had all been concerned about how big the numbers were getting too, especially for those taking that first step into the game.”
The cool idea came not from condensing the levelling experience and making the journey a little more structured, but from allowing players to decide which content and which story they want to experience throughout that journey. “We all felt that a condensed levelling experience would be best,” John explains. “But we didn't want people that play alts to feel like we were forcing them to play the same expansion over and over. Shadowlands is expansion number eight and that’s great, but for a new character we'll give you a choice of how to get there.”
“Those two things, the new player experience and the new levelling experience, were happening at the same timem,” John adds, noting that it wasn’t a conscious decision for the team to tackle both and pack them into Shadowlands. “At some point it just made sense to merge them together. And that's going to be a more prevailing theme for us is as we move along, we want to make sure that we shore up things as we create new things.”
Thanks to Blizzard for taking the time to make this interview possible. Check out Part Two of our World of Warcraft: Shadowlands discussion where we discuss Covenants, making that decision, and what the endgame in the Maw will be like