World of Warcraft Shadowlands Interview: Blizzard talks delays, balance, bosses, and minority representation

By Elliot Gardner, Thursday, 19 November 2020 16:00 GMT

After a month’s delay World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, Shadowlands, is almost here.

On November 23 we’ll finally be able to pass beyond the veil and see what life is like for the dead of Azeroth and beyond, and hopefully spot a few familiar faces from WoW’s 16-year history.

We now have a much clearer view of how we’ll be spending our time in the afterlife, but whether you’re planning on joining the proud blue Kyrian of Bastion, the skeleton-clad Necrolords of Maldraxxus, the serene and fairy-like Night Fae of Aardenweald, or the bitey Venthyr of Revendreth, there’s a plethora of new content for us all to experience as we’re transported to the Shadowlands.

With Battle for Azeroth’s Heart of Azeroth, Azerite Armour and Corrupted gearsets all heading for the bin, players can finally get their hands on the new Covenant abilities and Soulbind trees.

We spoke to WoW’s Assistant Lead Quest Designer Johnny Cash and Art Director Ely Cannon about how the team has been spending its extra month on the game, representation in Warcraft, and what’s changing in the world beyond.

VG247: Obviously, Shadowlands was originally due to come out in October, but the deadline was pushed back to November 23. What was that extra time spent on? And why was the decision made?

Johnny Cash: We haven’t delayed an expansion since Burning Crusade, so it’s obviously not a decision that the team took lightly, not by any measure. But when we were getting closer to when we needed to lock, we weren’t quite happy with the polish and the balance. So that was really our impetus for asking for more time – just wanting to make sure that the game was ready, we felt like it simply wasn’t.

As far as how we actually spent that time, a considerable amount of it was truly just making sure that we add that additional polish that people expect from a WoW expansion, but one specific thing to touch on would be the Covenant systems. There was a lot of feedback both externally and internally about the balance of certain Covenant abilities and Soulbind traits, or anything kind of related to that power progression. So, there was a lot of tuning there. In the case of one of the Venthyr Rogue abilities, we rebuilt it entirely because it just wasn’t working.

A couple weeks ago there was a change to the Soulbind trees that was a result of a lot of feedback. It felt like some of the early traits you were getting weren’t quite as exciting. They didn’t feel as impactful as others, or they were a little bit more utilitarian. You didn’t get something that made you feel powerful right away.

One of the key things with the Covenant system is we want this to be a really interesting and exciting choice, and a difficult choice for people. So we reordered a lot of the trees so that one of the most impactful traits is actually the first trait you get, kind of similar to how artefacts worked in Legion.

VG247: I hate to mention it, but do you think this delay would have been the same if it weren’t for COVID?

Ely Cannon: I think we had a pretty smooth transition to working from home, even though it’s more difficult to communicate and there are certain complications that come along with that. But really the impetus for wanting to spend more time on this game was feedback from the community and feedback we were getting internally.

Honestly, we spent a lot of time working on this, we know our players really want an amazing game and we want to deliver it. We had support all the way up through the organisation to make sure we really put a good game out, of course taking into account all of the challenges of this year.

VG247: With Shadowlands there’s a ton of new lore coming to the game, as with any expansion, but playing through the land of death we’re also seeing the return of a lot of older characters – some of which, such as Uther the Lightbringer, we’ve never actually seen in-game in WoW. How much do you think players have to bone up on the lore behind the game to understand the storyline of Shadowlands? Is that accessible for new players?

Johnny Cash: On the storytelling side we take a lot of care when we’re doing the world building, especially for something like Shadowlands, to make sure that there’s a balance of things. We of course want to make sure we’re doing justice to that deeper lore, to the people that have known Uther for well over a decade at this point, pushing two, and the people that know Kel’thuzad and all these different characters that have a rich and deep history.

But for Shadowlands we really wanted to balance that to make sure newer players still understand what’s going on and can still enjoy all the same experiences. For one thing, that’s why you won’t see every character that’s ever passed away in WoW’s history in your journey, there’d just be too much going on to have the clarity that we want in the story.

We’ve tried to make sure that these stories are crafted in a way such that if you know the greater lore, you’re familiar with the characters, then there’s a lot of extra context that makes it especially interesting, but nothing is ever created in a way that is exclusionary to a newer player. If you don’t know who Uther is at all, the Bastion story still makes perfect sense.

That’s the reason why we have newer players start playing World of Warcraft in Battle for Azeroth after you do our new Exile’s Reach starting experience, to really get some of that shared narrative background, to make sure that when you’re stepping into Shadowlands at level 48 or 50, you know some of these characters from your experiences in BfA, you kind of know the context of how the expansion has been set up.

Ely Cannon: I think that we’ve done a really good job of building stories around these characters that are well-known Warcraft franchise characters in Shadowlands, making them believable and fun characters even for somebody that has really no knowledge going in.

We also have the Afterlives video series that supports that story. For Bastion and Uther specifically, that video does a really good job of giving a little bit more background on him, and we’ve done the same with some of the other zones and characters as well. But we also have comics and books and all these other things that really help to fill in the gaps for people that haven’t maybe played the entirety of the game or really experienced the entirety of the franchise over the years. There’s really a lot of opportunities and avenues to approach the lore of Warcraft.

It is very, very deep. There’s a lot of characters that maybe people haven’t been exposed to. But I think that the characters that we’ve brought into Shadowlands have been explained well, and they’re very central to the story. We picked ones that were really good jumping off points for the story we wanted to tell for people that haven’t experienced the game quite as much.

VG247: At the beginning of BfA we didn’t know who we would be fighting at the end of it. That was a move away from some past expansions, when the box art would be who would be facing in the final raid. Is the Jailer with Shadowlands a move towards having a big end-game boss we can set our sights on, or is it going to be more like N’zoth in BfA, where we don’t know until later in the game?

Ely Cannon: So, with all our storytelling in each new game that we release we’re going to make choices specific to the story we want to tell. That seemed like a really good choice with BfA, but it doesn’t necessarily set a tone for anything we’ll do in the future. In the case of N’zoth, that surprise ending was the right choice. Here in Shadowlands, we’re making this story as poignant and as fun to experience as possible.

Johnny Cash: The Jailer is absolutely one of the primary antagonists of the expansion. He is a significant person we’re going to have to deal with at some point, right. But as far as how that story all comes together, who’s X boss in Y raid, that’s something I don’t want to spoil because I think all the fun is getting there.

Ely Cannon: I don’t think we want to get too serialised in the way we tell stories either, right, we always want to tell the right story and tell it at the right times.

VG247: So… not necessarily the last raid boss of the expansion?

Johnny Cash: We make decisions depending on how things evolve. We have lots of ideas, but we also don’t want to set everything in stone one way or the other.

VG247: One of the big features that arrived alongside the pre-patch were the new character customisation options. Blizzard has stated that they wanted BAME players to be able to make a character that looks more like them. Now those customisation options are live, how have you seen that go down with different communities playing the game?

Ely Cannon: The response to this has been really, really positive, and I think specifically starting with the Humans in our game, trying to do as much as we could there as broadly as we could, was a really good start to try to meet that goal of creating a more diverse set of customisations that allow people to really try to represent themselves better in-game, and to have a character as an avatar that feels more like them.

That being said, we’ve gone beyond that and worked on a lot of our other races and added multiple customisations across the board. And we’ll continue to do that in the future because the response has been so positive. This is something that’s very, very important to us.

VG247: What came first – the decision to expand customisation for all races, or better representation for BAME individuals in Human characters?

Ely Cannon: So, the decision really was to make sure that we’re trying to create more diverse options for our player-base. When we started talking about where we can do that best, it really had to start with Humans. The reason being, of course, is that we live in a world of humans and the ones that we’re going to most align with as people are going to be the Humans in-game.

That’s also the place that made most sense fantasy-wise to represent the broadest amount of customisations as far as skin tones and hair types and facial features go, to represent all of the different ethnicities that we could get in. That being said, there were still other opportunities to be had with the other races, creating other skin tones and hair colours. But really starting with the humans was a very intentional choice, because that really gave us the broadest palette to work on, and the thing that most related to the real world.

Johnny Cash: Yeah, we knew if we could do Humans properly then we knew we could do everything else properly as well. There was a tonne of technological engineering work done to change how we build our characters in the game. We did a lot of work to make sure we can add things more easily in the future as well.

VG247: Is better representation of BAME groups, LGBTQ+ groups, other communities, something you’re striving for within the World of Warcraft? With the pre-patch we’ve seen a more racially diverse set of NPCs in Stormwind, and Pelagos in Bastion grabbed headlines earlier in the year as the first trans character in WoW.

Johnny Cash: Yeah, absolutely. Diversity inclusion has been a big topic for the team and a big topic in the community. We want to always improve and tell better stories, which also means more diverse stories, and more diverse characters. So it was a really natural progression from the character customisation efforts.

We already had this big effort underway to make Azeroth a more diverse place and that really inspired the team to ask what else we can do. Not only letting people create characters that feel like them, but also letting people meet characters that feel like representations of people in the real world themselves or otherwise.

Shadowlands has quite a few characters that fall into that space, LGBTQ+ or otherwise. I was the zone lead on Bastion, and for Pelagos that was a really fun journey to go on. It all started just as an idea among design of ‘hey, we’d really like to do a character that is kind of like a Shadowlands expression of trans,’ and asking what that looks like and we do that properly. As the character grew, we got feedback from the community, feedback from the voice actor, and I’m really happy with where we ended up.

I think Pelagos feels like a really genuine character. That’s really the hope, that we just continue to make characters that are interesting, and that feel like people you might meet in the real world, except maybe this one’s a sorcerer, or whatever right? Because it’s Azeroth. We’re super happy, but I would definitely see Shadowlands as a step on this journey, not a destination.

Ely Cannon: I mean the reality is our community is extremely diverse, and we want to create a game world that really makes people feel welcome. That’s really our goal.

VG247: Do you believe there are any difficulties around class fantasy and Covenant abilities? What if the best mobility solution for a Death Knight is to go for the Night Fae Covenant and their Soulshape ability to help you get around the battlefield, but you don’t want to be a Night Fae Death Knight – it doesn’t suit your fantasy of the class? Does that inherently limit your class?

Johnny Cash: I mean that’s really a lot of why Covenants are a wider system than just the two abilities you receive by joining them. Of course, we’re cognisant of those players that are min-maxers, who want to be as powerful as possible, that want to top the metres and down the hardest bosses – they’re going to seek points of efficiency, absolutely. Yes, the abilities are one part of that puzzle, but they’re certainly far from the only one.

We’re trying to give ourselves as many opportunities as possible to make sure that it’s not as simple as ‘is this ability better than that one?’. That’s why we have the Soulbind trees and all the Conduits you can slot inside of them. We’re trying to make sure that there are lots of ways that, say, a Death Knight might increase their power. Yes, the Night Fae might offer a strong mobility option in the form of Soulshape, which is cool and historically Death Knights aren’t as mobile as some other classes, but there are also other options that they might pursue.

Maybe mobility feels really good in one context, but in this other fight, where things aren’t as mobile, the Death Knight that has the Kyrian Phial of Serenity ability actually ends up being stronger, because they can absorb a blow that the Night Fae Death Knight couldn’t. There’s going to be lots of those sorts of situations, where the so-called most powerful choice is going to vary. It’s a complex puzzle, and it’s part of why we wanted to take extra time, to make sure that balance was where we wanted it. But we’re hopeful and we’re confident that at the end of the day, people will feel like whatever choice they made, they are the best in certain situations. I think that’s a really healthy place for the game to be.

VG247: Game Director Ian Hazzikostas stated that there’s been an acknowledgement within the dev team that the game has a ‘borrowed power’ issue. Going from expansion to expansion levelling up an artefact – like weapons in Legion, or the Heart of Azeroth in BfA – and then throwing it away at the end and feeling powerless again. Aren’t Covenant abilities, Conduits, Soulbinds, and crafted legendaries just more of the same?

Ely Cannon: I mean, there’s certainly a ‘power’ element that we’ve talked about, and that’s going to play a part in the gameplay of Shadowlands. But beyond Shadowlands, there’s quite a few things that you’ll take along with you. There are so many systems in so many parts of the game itself that are wrapped up in your Covenant choice, whether that’s cosmetics or mounts or pets – all these wonderful things you can collect and take beyond Shadowlands with you. I think there’s value beyond the expansion for that reason specifically.

Johnny Cash: Part of the reason for wanting to limit Covenants to Shadowlands, which players will be enjoying for many months, is that it lets us do a lot more with the system. The moment that something has to persist forever, we are much more limited in the amount of power we can offer players, the amount of utility we can offer, all those sorts of things.

Over the years, as we saw with the old talent tree system, it begins to stack up to something that becomes pretty unwieldy. So, letting us say ‘okay, Azerite items are now gone’, we have all this new space we can explore and do cool new things in, and not have to worry about those things confounding each other and fighting for players’ attention.

I think actually Torghast is a good example of kind of a microcosm of that, where the power you have only persists for the run you’re on. The power you gain in Torghast is extreme, and something we could never do even within the confines of a whole expansion normally.

But at the end of the day, I understand your point and as we have in the past with these systems, we’re of course open to the idea of letting things persist forward. No, you’re not going to bring your Soulbinds with you through adventures beyond the Shadowlands, but if you look at something like the Mage Phoenix ability from Legion from the Fire Mage artefact, that was something where the player response was really strong, with people saying, ‘we love this ability, the Fire Mage rotation would not feel correct without it, we can’t live without this ability,’ and we agreed and so it’s a talent now.

Those are always case-by-case discussions based on where the community is, and where we want a class to be. It’s not to say that nothing you see in Shadowlands will ever persist beyond it; we’re saying all of it isn’t going to. We want to make good choices for the health of the game. So, if there’s an ability that people are really passionate about, and a few years down the line, they’re like ‘oh, if I can’t be a Death Knight without Soulshape, I don’t even want to play anymore,’ we’ll have that conversation.

VG247: Due to the expansion delay, the first Mythic raid – Castle Nathria – kicks off a lot later this year, on December 15/16. That’s going to change how the whole ‘Race to World First’ scene operates around the holiday period. It isn’t a Blizzard event, but it is a huge part of the game’s appeal for many people, and brings in a lot of money for content creators, etc.

What was the thinking behind launching that raid cycle so close to the holiday period? Was it balancing more the needs of casual players than hardcore raiders? And what’s going to happen if the world first race ends up entering actual holiday time – Christmas Day, for example – would there be Blizzard staff on-hand to patch any technical issues with the raid that crop up?

Johnny Cash: Just like delaying the expansion itself, these are not easy decisions to make and they’re not ones that the team took lightly. November 23 is when Shadowlands launches, but the launch of any World of Warcraft expansion is in actuality really an extended event. It’s more like a month-long period of all these different things coming online, like raids, like Mythic+ dungeons, like rated PvP.

So, considering all the dates that have to line up, and balancing that with our promise that players would be able to enjoy Shadowlands by the end of this year, this felt like the right date to both give us time to bring those things home, but also still make sure that players can enjoy Shadowlands in a timely manner. That’s obviously always a balancing point.

As far as ongoing support of the game, making sure that we fix any bugs that crop up, that sort of thing, there are people that are taking time off for the holidays, which the team obviously absolutely supports, but there are other people that aren’t. This is a unique year, in many ways. There are those of us that are not travelling that might usually, so some of us are volunteering – I know I am – to help fix those sorts of issues. Because I’m around and I’m just gonna be playing Shadowlands like everyone else.

We release World of Warcraft to the entire world, simultaneously these days which is awesome, so there are those players in NA or EU that have that time off and are excited to be able to enjoy Shadowlands, but there are players in other parts of the world where it’s not necessarily a week that has anything significant going on outside of Shadowlands. It’s just trying to balance all those things, and make sure that everything has time to come out and we have time to support it. We wanted to make sure that the game is where it needed to be, so we felt like it was the right choice here. It was not an easy decision, but we’ll of course do absolutely everything we can to make sure it’s a smooth experience for everybody.

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