World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth – “Afrasiabi designed this expansion like it would be the last”

By Natalie Clayton, Monday, 13 August 2018 09:08 GMT

How do you follow up on the end of the world?

World of Warcraft has had its fair share of ups and downs since launching back in 2004. Just under a decade and a half later, however, and the title’s still chugging along – as strong as it’s ever been, thanks to the breath of fresh air that came with Legion.

Braving the oppressive heat of the Firelands (*ahem*, London during heatwave), I caught up with principal level designer Gary Platner and creative development project director – let’s just say “cinematics guy” – Terran Gregory. We spoke on how Blizzard is returning the War to Warcraft; keeping development going in the public eye; and whether there’s any end in sight for the venerable MMORPG.

But before any of that, there was a pressing matter of Gnomes to attend to. Terran’s a notorious fan of the tiny tinkerers, so why have they been absent from those glossy, pre-launch cinematics for so long?

“Especially within the high-end cinematic pipeline, there are limitations to how many characters can be created – in fact, the siege of Lordaeron was already more characters than had ever been created for a Blizzard CGI film than ever before,” explained Gregory.

“I personally regret that gnomes did not ultimately get included in that, but we’re growing and stretching our capabilities. I have no doubt that we can reach a level where we can put more of the Alliance and Horde races in the spotlight”

Legion saw the end of some of the longest-running plot arcs in Warcraft, ending in the absolute melodramatic absurdity of a world-sized god plunging an equally humongous blade straight into the heart of Azeroth. That’s a hard high to scale back from, surely?

It’s just that question that Gregory and the team asked as Legion began wrapping up. “I’d spoken to [creative director] Alex Afrasiabi in the run-up to the Antorus finale and I said ‘dude, we are about to be in the most world-ending mind-shattering conceptually mega moment that World of Warcraft and possibly the genre has seen’. That has reached a level of conceptual hyperbole – how do we bring that back to terrestrial Azeroth?”

“That’s when our team proposed the Legion epilogues. Those were specifically created with the idea of being the breath between the two expansions. We called it the ‘return to the shire’ moment, and gave them this hint of turning in the middle – that something’s about to go wrong.”

“A single moment may have gotten really impassioned, to an element where we need to take care of our people, make sure they’re treated with the respect they deserve”

Warcraft has always had this conflict at its core, but it’s one the MMORPG has veered further and further away from over the years. The justification behind punching an orc in the skull has felt a little thin lately – and when moments like Mists of Pandaria brought it back into the spotlight, the game’s been quick to write it off as a rogue element, returning to the status quo.

So where do you take a story like that, after both sides collaborated to take down the green devil? And how do you get away from that eternal stalemate without alienating a solid 50 percent of the player base?

“It comes up a lot in the story room – how do we make sure we’re servicing everyone in the way that we should be”, explained Gregory. “It always comes back to the story. It is our mission here to tell the most compelling, most emotional story that we can.”

“You can’t set out with the goal of making everyone enjoy the story in the same way. That’s an unattainable goal.”

“Story is a part of everything we do,” adds Platner. “Zones are created to tell different stories, feelings, and then we bring everything together with cinematics. Hundreds of people are coming together to make this meal, and make sure everything’s paired just right. This expansion especially, everything’s worked out so well.”

Some fans have already shown discontent at the way the story’s headed, however. After revealing that the Horde’s resident mean girl Sylvanas Windrunner straight up performed genocide, red players were pissed. Gamers being gamers, a few took that anger and threw it at the team, with one extreme case of targeted harassment aimed at writer Christie Golden.

“We definitely admire the passion of the fanbase, and how much they live and breathe that passion – we feel that as well,” said Gregory. “Being an all-out war between the Alliance and Horde, we knew outright that this was going to mean bold decisions to make bold story points that are outside the realm of what we’ve seen.”

“We knew the reaction to the burning of Teldrassil was going to be very passionate. It did exceed our expectations. Afrasiabi was recently quoted as saying all those feelings mean we’re doing our job as storytellers, and that the community cares about what we’re doing.”

“While a single moment may have gotten really impassioned, to an element where we need to take care of our people, make sure they’re treated with the respect they deserve; at the same time we have so much admiration for how much this content means to our fans.”

Platner added: “I enjoy watching the reaction videos of people watching the cinematics. I feel as emotional as they do, double for me as it’s content we’ve worked hard to create. Good or bad, it’s emotion, and emotion comes from good storytelling. We’ve hit some places we’ve always hoped to achieve.”

“Storytelling is about highs and lows,” said Gregory. “Without the extremely impassioned response of the burning of Teldrassil, I don’t think Old Soldier would have resonated so well. It’s like a concert, ‘I see why I had to hear that to hear this’.”

We’re coming up on fifteen years of World of Warcraft – add ten years to that for the franchise as a whole, and you’ve got a hell of a lot of game. For people already well-invested, great – but that’s a lot of stuff for a new player to get through.

“We have a lot of work yet to do on that,” explained Gregory. “Systems get older, and we have to go ahead and revisit those things. It’s always on our mind and we hope to always be improving the new player experience.”

“All the tens of millions of players who’ve played World of Warcraft, they almost all played at different times. The landing pad coming back should be the best we can create.”

Platner continued: “It’s a living, breathing game. We’re always changing it, we’re always improving it. We can keep making those big changes, keep iterating – our job is to make new things. If some things doesn’t work, then we’ll come back and refine them.”

“It’s our goal to support this game for as long as the players continue to give us support,” chimed in Gregory.

Could World of Warcraft ever end? I asked the pair if, despite the intention of keeping work on the game going until they went old and grey, they could envision what an end-point would even look like for the aged MMORPG.

“We’ll ride this thing until we’re old and grey”

“Well, back in Vanilla WoW we did”, replied Platner. “We didn’t really know if people were even going to like the game at all.”

Gregory added: “Like a television show that only thinks it’s gonna run for one season – we have to to put everything in here!”

“From a story perspective, I’ve wandered off myself and can barely comprehend how absolutely mega an end would have to be. But from today’s perspective, absolutely not. This is an evergreen franchise that we’ve maintained like a carefully-tended bonsai tree.”

Platner continued: “I can’t do that, not that I ever decided to. You can’t lock yourself in. It’s creative work, and you’re always looking to make the next thing better. Not that I ever consciously decided to, but it just never occurred to me.”

Gregory closed out our meeting, to say: “Afrasiabi designed this expansion like it would be the last – don’t hold back, go for the mega, seize the day on design. Everyone on this team is absolutely committed to seeing that this thing is as powerful and relevant as long as we can.”

“We’ll ride this thing until we’re old and grey – if time permits, of course.”

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth releases today – check the exact time in your region.

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