World of Warcraft - Our Big Interview with Game Director Ion Hazzikostas
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 06:13pm 25/06/21 | Comments
We sat down with Ion to chat at length about the big changes coming with the 9.1 ‘Chains of Domination’ update, developing Shadowlands, community feedback, the differences between Modern and Classic, and what’s in store for Sylvanas Windrunner.
The first major content drop for World of Warcraft Shadowlands is called Chains of Domination and sees the Covenants come together to strike back at the Jailer and take the fight right into The Maw. Launching next week on June 30 (for us in Australia that is), the 9.1 update also brings with it a suite of changes.
From an overhaul to the rogue-light Torghast mode to the introduction of new progression tiers and a brand new end game quest zone called Korthia. Plus, a few little wish-list items like the ability to mix and match shoulder transmogs. And fly. Chains of Domination also sees players finally go up against Sylvanas in the new ‘Sanctum of Domination’ Raid. An event that has been years in the making.
And it’s there where our conversation with World of Warcraft Game Director Ion Hazzikostas began. A lengthy chat where we talked about the challenges of developing WoW during the ongoing pandemic, what goes into the smaller changes that come alongside major content drops, and the philosophy behind the mysterious new zone Korthia.
The Sylvanas Showdown
“It’s a heavy burden on the shoulders of our narrative team, of our encounter designers, to deliver something that's been years and years and multiple expansions in the making,” World of Warcraft Game Director Ion Hazzikostas says. “Getting the chance to face off against a figure of her stature, people are going in expecting a lot.”
“The encounter that has been crafted at the end of the Raid - I think it's epic. It’s on a scale that exceeds the vast majority of what we've ever tried to pull off in past Raids."
Sylvanas is one of those rare World of Warcraft characters whose history goes all the way back to the real-time strategy series, where she was first introduced in Warcraft III. Sylvanas has gone through so many changes and been involved in so many major and sometimes shocking moments that her motivations and fate have become the thing of long and drawn out discussion amongst the WoW community.
“The encounter that has been crafted at the end of the Raid - I think it's epic,” Ion continues. “It’s on a scale that exceeds the vast majority of what we've ever tried to pull off in past Raids. And there is a combination that I can't spoil, but I am looking forward to seeing the community discuss and dissect as they try to figure out what's next for her. And what's next for the Shadowlands as a whole.”
Having Sylvanas show up as the final boss in 9.1’s big Raid is something born from the nature of World of Warcraft’s biggest confrontations. “When we're contending with these major figures, characters who are at a power level such that no single adventurer could ever hope to stand against them, it's going to require the combined might of a Raid to push the narrative forward,” Ion says. “And through them, as it were.”
Of course the Shadowlands story and the continued tale that plays out in Chains of Domination is one that happens amongst the various Covenants, and outdoors in the new quest zone Korthia. It is a new chapter covering all aspects of WoW.
“We understand that people are hungry to see where the story is going to go,” Ion says. “It's a balancing act of making sure that there are compelling and satisfying conclusions to some story arcs going on. But also, planting seeds for things that hopefully people will look back on a couple of years from now and say, “wait a minute”. That's the game we play and it's a lot of fun. We're all looking forward to having a new round of conversation with the community over the next few weeks.”
Putting Together the Chains
“One of the unique challenges of Chains of Domination is that it has been the first major piece of content that has been almost entirely conceived from our homes, from our new hybrid work set up,” Ion explains. For the release of the Shadowlands expansion, that was something that was already well underway prior to the pandemic. 2020 saw the team at Blizzard rally together (whilst apart) to bring that to players. A monumental task for an always live game, and one that it pulled off whilst maintaining a level of quality and polish expected by the community.
“We understand that people are hungry to see where the story is going to go. It's a balancing act of making sure that there are compelling and satisfying conclusions to some story arcs going on. But also, planting seeds for things that hopefully people will look back on a couple of years from now and say, “wait a minute”."
As seen with previous expansions, the x.1 and x.2 updates not only serve as major content drops that bring balance changes, new mechanics, and other features to the table, but they also push the narrative forward and lay the groundwork for what’s to come. Chains of Domination continues the story of the Covenants, but now as a united front ready to take the fight to the Jailer. For the team at Blizzard there’s always a plan in place, but you might be surprised to learn just how much is flexible. And changes, seemingly on-the-fly.
“We had the sense that players would be contending with Sylvanas for a while now, that they would be delving into and learning more about the nature of the Maw, and the Jailer’s power in this first major content update,” Ion says. “But, the specific details of the twists and turns the story is going to take, who the bosses in the Raid are, even some of the major narrative moments that we're going to see play out in the coming weeks are things that came together at the end of last year, and the beginning of this year.”
“Some of it is seeing how the stories resonated with the community, with our players, as they were delving into it,” Ion adds. “One of the great things about working on a live game like this and this iterative content cycle is that we can see what players are excited about, they're confused about, want to learn more about, what preconceptions or ideas they have about the way things are going, and pivot to make sure that what we're doing is going to hit the mark.”
This is perhaps best summed up in the complete overhaul that Torghast is getting, an instanced rogue-light Tower of the Damned that was designed as this challenging and dynamic new mode to tackle for the launch of Shadowlands. On paper it sounded great, and even during the Shadowlands PTR phase feedback was generally positive. That all changed late last year.
“One of the great things about working on a live game like this and this iterative content cycle is that we can see what players are excited about, they're confused about, want to learn more about, what preconceptions or ideas they have about the way things are going, and pivot to make sure that what we're doing is going to hit the mark.”
“The system we had in place where you had a certain number of deaths, and if you exceeded that count, your run basically came to a complete stop, was viscerally upsetting to a lot of players,” Ion tells me. “It was a source of a lot of frustration. It was a very binary success or failure mechanic. You don't get to try again. You spent an hour here and have nothing to show for it.”
As to why this wasn’t picked up on during the Beta, well, that comes down to PTR (Public Test Realm) motivations. There players were simply checking out Torghast, playing with its mechanics and structure. In the Live environment players went in with specific goals to upgrade this or that before the week came to a close. “That led to us significantly reducing the difficulty, making it so that it was accessible and all players could go in and succeed,” Ion says of the band-aid approach taken at the time. “But then, that made the experience feel flat for those who enjoyed it. And so, from that we’ve really overhauled the progression and scoring and definition of success or failure in Torghast in Chains of Domination.”
In 9.1 the binary success or fail mechanism is gone, in its place a score-like approach where once a boss is defeated you get that progress no matter how long it takes. And from there, based on performance, the next layer may not even unlock. Or, players won't get access to some of the better Torghast specific rewards. “We wanted to make sure that we had a more accessible baseline, but also restore some of the challenge,” Ion says. “And this has been informed by countless iterations over the course of the Chains of Domination PTR, and we're really excited about where it landed and can't wait to see players jump in next week.”
Korthia - The New Zone
The Maw as found in Shadowlands, was the dominion of The Jailer, a place players could venture into - but wouldn’t stay for long on the account of the challenges that come with being stuck behind enemy lines. Korthia’s addition is very different in the sense that the Chains of Domination are pretty much literally that.
“Korthia is not just another piece of The Maw,” Ion tells me. “The Maw in Shadowlands, in 9.0, was this utterly inhospitable and desolate place. That was the sole domain of the Jailer, and the mechanics were designed to reinforce that setting of going into a place where you do not belong.”
“Korthia is a piece of the Shadowlands that has been pulled into The Maw by a giant chain extended across the cosmos as the Jailer because his agents are seeking something,” Ion adds. “And so, it's full of relics and mysteries that hint at the origins of the Shadowlands and the origins of everything that we've seen. What is that mysterious way-stone that we use to escape The Maw, where did Oribos come from? These are things that we're going to continue to learn more about, and Korthia is the key to beginning to unravel those secrets.”
Described as a more traditional end game quest zone, than an extension of The Maw gameplay found in Shadowlands, it’s here where the major story beats will unfold. Where players and the Covenant alike are, as Ion puts it, “going in guns blazing”. “We're daring him to stop us because we have the might of the Covenants at our back. And that involves disabling mechanics, like the Eye of the Jailer, being able to use your mount, but also carving out the nature of Korthia itself. It’s much more traditional.”
It’s The Little Things
“Our wish-list grows faster than we can,” Ion tells me as the discussion shifts to the smaller things that come alongside the release of a very major content drop. “We continue to expand the team and get as many resources as possible, but there's tonnes of things we can always be doing. Every patch, every major update, has the major pieces of content and systems that are going to be the anchor. And then, yeah, we're looking at what else we think we could get done off that wish-list.”
“We continue to expand the team and get as many resources as possible, but there's tonnes of things we can always be doing.”
Alongside flying mounts for the Shadowlands one of the cool cosmetic updates coming is the ability for players to mix and match the transmogs of each individual shoulder piece. It’s a seemingly minor thing but it all goes back to the Saurfang cinematic for Battle for Azeroth - where the Orc was sporting just a single pad.
“It was a distinctive look, so everyone wanted to be able to also do that,” Ion says. “So, we're like, okay, we can make that happen. And what came back for that request was, this is the size of the task to hide a shoulder, and this is the size of the task (I'm holding my hands wider) to let you mix and match. So, let's get hiding in first and let's slate mixing and matching for a later milestone. And this is where it landed.”
“We're always looking to get cooler things into the game, improve the basic functionality, and give players more ways to customise themselves. And that's something we want to continue doing whenever possible.”
Burning Crusade Classic and The Two WoWs
Blizzard’s World of Warcraft has been a mainstay since its debut back in 2004, where over the years it has basically become the MMO. Since that time both the tools used by the team and the technology that drives the live environment has evolved and changed alongside the narrative. To the point where ‘Modern WoW’ has become a very different thing to ‘Classic WoW’. A fact that led to the recent release of World of Warcraft Classic and a remaster of the very first expansion with Burning Crusade Classic.
So, from a development perspective, with the two WoWs out there - can one inform the other?
“A lot of the comparisons are a question of trade-offs, it's becoming better, more accessible in one sense, but losing something in the process,” Ion says. “That closer look at the community in Classic and Burning Crusade informs some of our thinking about the modern game and how to recapture some of what may have been lost along the way, while retaining the upside. A lot of what drives our conversations internally, as we think about the evolution of the social side of Shadowlands and beyond, is how we can reinforce and reintroduce the mechanisms that lead to the formation of new friendships and new connections and rely on the importance of those.”
“We talk about the importance of social connections, of needing to manually form groups back in Burning Crusade, or Realm Communities where you could recognise the same names around town or the crafter who made your sword,” Ion continues. “What that era and Classic and Burning Crusade lacked was interconnectivity and accessibility in a different sense, where if you have an hour and you want to play world of Warcraft you run a dungeon. Or, if you’re talking to a real-life friend and you discover that you both play World of Warcraft.”
“A lot of the comparisons are a question of trade-offs, it's becoming better, more accessible in one sense, but losing something in the process. That closer look at the community in Classic and Burning Crusade informs some of our thinking about the modern game and how to recapture some of what may have been lost along the way.”
And then realising that you both play on different servers. “And so, the conversation ends there. I'm not going to reroll just to play with my friend. In the modern game, yeah, let's run a dungeon together. Let's cue for Arena together. We can do all those things. It's a larger interconnected community and that's something we want to keep.”
It’s a difficult challenge, but one like we saw with the change in environment that 2020 brought, the team is serious about. “We have pieces of it, things like our PVP ecosystem or Mythic Plus, a place where people add people to their friends list because they had a good experience running with them,” Ion says. “They do it again, do it repeatedly. And before you know it, this is a new friend.
“We don't want to close a door to the millions of people who enjoy that accessible WoW experience they can have on their own terms. And that broad interconnected community. But we also want to offer rewards and incentives for delving in deeper and forming those stronger bonds and banding together to take on a great challenge. It's not one or the other, we want to do it all,” Ion concludes. “We're always asking ourselves how we can make WoW better. What's a new thing we could try to push Warcraft forward.”
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands 9.1 ‘Chains of Domination’ launches June 29.