“When we start thinking about the beginning of any expansion, we delve into the Warcraft lore and history,” Jeremy Feasel, Lead Game Designer on World of Warcraft: Dragonflight says. “What cool threads have yet to be unravelled? What stories and areas of the world have we yet to explore and conquer? One of the areas we've consistently gone back to is the backstory of the dragonflights [dragons].”
“There's a huge amount that we don't know,” Jeremy adds. “The backstory of what happened in the post Galakrond era, where the dragons met with the Titans, what happened between them and the dragons protecting the planet. The future following that is something that we’ve never really delved into. So there's a lot of really cool story threads there to chase after.”
Dragons, it’s where World of Warcraft is headed next. More specifically, the Dragon Isles, a new and expansive location made up of five new zones - one of which will be the starting area for a brand-new class. With Blizzard lifting the lid on World of Warcraft: Dragonflight, the next major expansion for WoW, the long-running online role-player is leaving the cataclysmic events of the afterlife behind, and massive threats for that matter, for a more classically grounded tale. Albeit one that will let you take flight and ride a dragon.
Because of course, creating a new expansion with a dragon theme means the ability to ride one. Ahead of the big reveal we had the chance to sit down with Blizzard to talk about the new expansion, the arrival of a brand-new class (and race) with the Dracthyr Evoker, and how this is a return to the classic storytelling and exploration of old.
From the Afterlife to the Dragon Isles
“We've just gone to the afterlife, where there’s this huge, crazy cosmic story in Zereth Mortis that deals with the Jailer and the First Ones,” Jeremy Feasel says. “This is an opportunity for us to head back to Azeroth and into a very grounded space that feels like classic World of Warcraft. One of main focuses with this expansion is going to a place that's not necessarily about a world ending threat. It's about history. It's about characters. It's about exploration. That's the name of the game. From the get go, you're heading off on an exploration-based adventure, the groups that you set out with aren't even military groups.”
“This is an opportunity for us to head back to Azeroth and into a very grounded space that feels like classic World of Warcraft. One of main focuses with this expansion is going to a place that's not necessarily about a world ending threat..."
Setting off to the new locale, the ancient Dragon Isles, will see you share a passage with the thinkers and explorers of Azeroth. The Artisans, the historians, the Reliquary, the Explorers’ League. It’s all about discovery and rediscovery, why are the dragonflights back and what is their purpose. “That kicks off everything,” Jeremy Feasal explains. “This vibe of going into an untamed, unknown space full of mysteries that we all have to uncover.”
A New Zone and a New Way to Explore… Dragonriding
“With Dragonflight we wanted to create zones that feel like they hit that level of vastness that you want from a place where dragons would exist,” Jeremy Feasal says. “Almost everything has to be a little bit bigger, a little bit wider. You want to have those giant rolling planes where a dragon can swoop down and munch up a whole bunch of primal sheep.” With dragons in the mix the team at Blizzard actively set out to create larger zones that players have seen in recent expansions, places that the team now calls “a little cramped”.
“With Dragonflight we wanted to create zones that feel like they hit that level of vastness that you want from a place where dragons would exist...”
“We wanted to try to spread back out again, get some of that classic Stranglethorn Vale feel,” Jeremy Feasal continues. “Huge expanses of trees in between spaces where we can have wildlife and really cool POIs. Characters that might be lost out there, little vignettes to discover.” With the desire to create huge expansive zones, this sat alongside the desire to create a new type of mount, as Dragonflight puts you in direct control of a dragon. Arcade-style controls, “do a barrel roll”, that sort of thing. With four distinct dragons, each with over 50 different customisations, it’s the most customisable and tactile mount in World of Warcraft history.
“[Dragonriding] is very fast and fluid, it's arcadey,” Jeremy explains. “You press the spacebar and you do a giant takeoff. And then the whole mini-game is that you've got height and speed and you have to try to figure out how to get as far as possible before you land again. And it should feel like you're swooping and diving through these landscapes. With giant zones the two ended up working really well together. You're gonna move really fast when dragonriding too, much faster than existing mount speeds.”
The idea of fully controllable dragons to mount and then explore the Dragon Isles with was something that came together pretty quickly for the team. Having there be a mastery to it but also an arcade-like accessibility was on the table so to speak right from the outset. Plus, a keen focus on making it look as grand as dragonriding should. “Taking off there should be a giant gust of wind and a big flap of your wings,” Jeremy adds. “We're going to look for player feedback as soon as we hit Alpha and Beta, to fine tune all the little details, those little moments where we're finding where we need to add another animation somewhere because it doesn't feel quite right.”
When creating the dragonriding aspect for the new expansion the team at Blizzard quickly discovered that elements of the gameworld needed to change or be heightened to really sell that sense of speed. “If you don't have elements in the game world like clouds and little particles it's hard to tell exactly how fast you're going,” Jeremy says. “Our environment team is doing a great job incorporating things like more cloud layers so that you can fly through clouds and get that feeling of moving really fast. And then as you start to speed up and go faster and faster you'll see particles fly off your wings. And eventually that turns into contrails.”
“[Dragonriding] is very fast and fluid, it's arcadey,” Jeremy explains. “You press the spacebar and you do a giant takeoff. And then the whole mini-game is that you've got height and speed and you have to try to figure out how to get as far as possible before you land again...”
“A big push was to make the experience of moving around the world feel more three dimensional,” Jeremy continues. “That idea of conservation of momentum, of caring about when you stop, because you don't want to stop, you want to keep going fast. How do I get from A to B as fast as possible? Finding those different spires to jump off of becomes an interesting thing to look for as you're traversing the world.”
Introducing the Dracthyr Evoker… A Brand New Playable Race and Class
“We knew we were making a dragon expansion and that we wanted to let you play as a dragon,” Graham Berger, Senior Game Designer on World of Warcraft: Dragonflight says. With the new playable race being exactly that, dragonkin. “That was the guiding light, but we can't let you be Alexstrasza, you can't be 40-feet tall, that wouldn't work. The team did an incredible job making this draconic humanoid model, the Dracthyr. Getting to that humanoid size and then doing everything we could to merge physical and innate magical capabilities with the class design and the combat design was the goal. The Dracthyr and Evoker are kind of one-thing tied together. It's not just casting spells, it's using the internal power of a dragon.”
As a ranged and mobile class the Evoker is intrinsically tied to the Dracthyr. This means the ability to use your wings to glide around the battlefield and cast spells. Even though it’s not a giant screen-filling dragon, it’s all about delivering on the fantasy of being a dragon whilst fighting. Warcraft dragons. Dracthyr abilities and spells draw on draconic magic as realised by the dragonflights, these being red magic, black magic and so forth. Evokers, though, can draw on all five styles. Red dragon magic and blue dragon magic make up the more ranged-DPS focused specialisation, offering up faster, explosive, area of effect attacks. Green and Bronze focus on healing.
For the DPS side it also led to the creation of a new type of spell called Empower. One of the earliest spells learned in the new starting zone is a red dragon spell called Fire Breath, an Empower spell that essentially means the longer you charge up the ol’ flaming lungs the bigger the flame and the more damage it will do. As Evokers level-up and delve into various talents they’ll gain access to more and more Empower-style abilities. Due to the complexity of adding both a new race and class as part of the new expansion a core team began work on this side of Dragonflight very early on.
“We knew we were making a dragon expansion and that we wanted to let you play as a dragon. That was the guiding light, but we can't let you be Alexstrasza, you can't be 40-feet tall, that wouldn't work...”
“The Dracthyr are going to be able to participate in the dragonriding system and mechanics too,” Graham confirms. “Dracthyr have wings so they get to fly and they use the same style of momentum and gravity that dragonriding drakes do. During their starter experience, you get introduced to the new mechanics with tutorials and all that stuff. Heading into building the expansion, knowing that we wanted to create this feature, we had to set up the environment to match. I've only gotten to see it myself recently and it shocked me how much it brought me into the world. Being engaged in the act of moving around while flying is very different for WoW, and made me see the environment in a new way.”
And with that it’s worth noting that dragonriding is limited to the Dragon Isles. “We made these giant expansive zones so that it would work as a gameplay mechanic and for people on a variety of different hardware,” Jeremy Feasal says. “We don't want to have you fly into a bunch of creatures and then have them pop up around you. We're designing the whole outdoor game world with dragonriding in mind. Also, we don't want to invalidate all of the many hundreds of mounts that our players have collected up until now.”
Revamping Old Systems and Bringing the WoW UI Into 2022
In recent months we’ve seen the WoW team at Blizzard provide community-focused updates and changes to the experience. From Quality of Life updates that addressed specific feedback through to the recent revelation that Horde and Alliance players, playing together, was finally a thing. With World of Warcraft: Dragonflight representing Version 10.0 of WoW, hitting that nice big version number means more than new stories to dig into, new dungeons to master, new zones to explore. It means a continued focus on taking a broader look at World of Warcraft and making meaningful changes.
“A large part of that started from the community-centric Patch 9.1.5, looking at different quality of life features we could add to the game that players have been asking for,” Jeremy says. “Not necessarily at the same time, but sort of in parallel with that we were thinking about how we’re coming back to Azeroth and that classic Warcraft fantasy. So, what are some elements that maybe we haven't touched in a really long time? The talent tree was one that hadn’t been touched in a number of expansion releases, and the UI has existed since the origination of WoW. That was taking everything and making it feel like “2022”. Whether that's making the map a little bit smaller, more contained, but also having a larger visible area. Allowing you to move around just about everything on your screen. Just making everything feel new and fresh and refreshed for a new expansion.”
As opposed to modernising the talent tree, this revamp came about due to the resurgence and popularity of World of Warcraft Classic. “We knew heading in that we wanted to revisit the talent system, because we've been using the same one since Mists of Pandaria,” Graham Berger explains. “It does a lot of things that we like, but did lose some things from older versions of WoW. Very early on we held a sort of internal summit for the designers to just pitch all kinds of wild ideas. If you could have any talent system, and there’s no production cost, what would you do? Some really wild stuff was thrown out, but it was cool to go through that process and see what aspects everyone kind of touched on. Common threads that we all kept coming back to.
“We knew heading in that we wanted to revisit the talent system, because we've been using the same one since Mists of Pandaria. It does a lot of things that we like, but did lose some things from older versions of WoW..."
“For the new talent system, it’s definitely inspired by [WoW] Classic, but that separation of core class and specialisation gives us a lot of control and ability to tune different portions of it,” Graham adds. “It’s giving players the control to diversify their builds across different content without losing any of the flexibility and conveniences that we've built up over the years. You can still change your talents in town, you don't have to go pay gold like in Classic. If you want to try out something new, awesome. If you want to save different builds for different types of content, great. We have loadouts, so you can save your Mythic Plus build, your Raid build, your Arena build. That thing of figuring out what works for you and then creating a library having it all ready to go.”
Looking back extends to recent history too, taking elements from an expansion like Shadowlands and reimagining them for the return to Azeroth. “You're going to be seeing an advancement to the renowned system that we used in Covenants [Shadowlands], which we think is a really cool way to set up a reputation in a way that feels fresh for World of Warcraft,” Jeremy Feasal says. “Our four main reputations each have their own different set of renowned levels and that lets us reward you often. It lets us show you what you're getting during the course of unlocking various different things, whether that's cool cosmetics associated with those reputations or getting additional quest lines associated with them or additional gameplay.”
“We wanted to go really deep with all of these different aspects,” Jeremy adds. “The new version of daily quests is going to be transferring over to a very activity-centric system that feels like you're always making progress. And unlike Covenants, you don't have to pick one of these different reputations to gain renown. You can do all of them. We’re looking at how we can incorporate alt friendliness in the same way that we did in 9.1.5 too, so it’s all a big refresh to the outdoor world.”
Story Hints as the Wait for Dragonflight Begins
With both an Alpha preview and Beta events planned, Blizzard isn’t quite ready to reveal the release date for World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. That said, with the return to Azeroth and the return to a more grounded story that wasn't about some immediate cataclysmic event, we were curious about what it meant to visit the Dragon Isles. What would players discover, what stories would be told?
“With the dragonflights, if they couldn't be defenders of Azeroth anymore, what is their future? That's really what we're going to be exploring, and we’ll be getting into their stories as you land on the Dragon Isles..."
“With the dragonflights, if they couldn't be defenders of Azeroth anymore, what is their future?” Jeremy ponders. “That's really what we're going to be exploring, and we’ll be getting into their stories as you land on the Dragon Isles. You're going to be meeting with dragonspawn and dragonkin, some of our ancient friends from Blackwing Lair (up-resed for the new generation), learning about their purpose in dragon society. We're going to find the life pools of the red dragonflight, where their sacred oath to the Titans was put forth. Helping them regain some of their power.”
“Visiting all of the different dragonflights is a little bit similar to what we did in Wrath of the Lich King,” Jeremy concludes. “But these are fully fledged areas and many of them have dungeons associated with them. Helping the black dragonflight take back their defensive Citadel, helping the green dragonflight secure their Grove. The main dragonflights aren't all of the dragons in World of Warcraft either, we’ve met a bunch of other dragons. Stone dragons, thunder dragons. Here we’re meeting another group of dragons called the primalists. They follow a group of primal incarnates, followers of Galakrond, ancient huge proto dragons that choose not to side with the Titans. They believe that everyone should be subservient to dragon kind because they're big and powerful. Facing off against dragons, dragon versus dragon, it's gonna be a lot of fun.”
World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is the next major expansion for World of Warcraft, release date TBC