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World of Warcraft is in the midst of an era of good feelings with its Dragonflight expansion, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for Blizzard.
The studio faced a good amount of player dissatisfaction during the two proceeding expansions, Shadowlands and Battle for Azeroth. But Dragonflight’s focus on a lighter, more traditional fantasy story and aesthetic has won over many players.
Now, Blizzard is preparing the expansion’s biggest update patch yet with 10.1, Embers of Neltharion. As is usual for these big patches, it will add a new zone for players to quest and explore in. It’ll also bring a new raid tier and season for Mythic+ dungeons. But the patch also includes some surprises, like cross-faction guilds and, um (checks notes) … snail racing.
I recently had a chance to talk with World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas and executive producer Holly Longdale about the state of World of Warcraft, the success of the Dragonflight expansion and the new content in Embers of Neltharion.
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But before that, I did want to ask about reports that Activision Blizzard is forcing employees back to offices. Below is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: There have been reports about Activision Blizzard employees going back to work at the office. How is that going to impact the WoW team?
Ion Hazzikostas: It’s an extension of a conversation that’s really happening across the entire industry. It’s not just Blizzard, or even just gaming companies or major companies in the tech sphere. We’re all collectively figuring out what the future of work is going to look like. Understandably, people have their perspectives on those conversations. As leaders on WoW, our focus is, as we apply company policy, to make sure we’re listening to our team’s concerns, meeting them where they are, and trying to navigate this transition as we move forward, doing so with the best interests of our team and our players at heart.
GamesBeat: Dragonflight has enjoyed a positive reception. World of Warcraft doesn’t always enjoy that much positivity from its community. How does it feel having this more positive atmosphere around the game?
Hazzikostas: It’s great. It’s energizing. We all do what we do to bring people joy. I think there are few things that are more gratifying as a developer than being able to hop on Twitch and watch someone play through and enjoy content you crafted, or read Reddit threads and forum threads speculating about what’s coming next in a plotline you’re working on, or reacting to a cool piece of art you put in the game. All of that is energizing.
But also, frankly, being able to focus on what we want to add and where we want to go next, as opposed to which problems we want to fix, is also great in terms of our ability to make more exciting things for our players. We can focus on the future, on moving forward, on telling stories and going to new places. It’s an exciting place to be all around.
Holly Longdale: I haven’t been at Blizzard all that long. Just over a couple of years. But to be able to see this trajectory, I refer to it as art imitating life, where COVID and all kinds of things in our history over the past few years that were great challenges for the team, the team itself was yearning for hope and aspiration and lightness. To be able to see that expressed in Dragonflight, it was a bit of a love letter from them to our players. But also a process for themselves, a yearning to be better and hopeful and deliver something really magical and grounded for the community itself. Seeing them revel in good feedback has been remarkable. They are moved wholly by the community and their reaction to what they do. It’s been wonderful for them.
GamesBeat: Cross-faction guilds are coming. What hurdles did you have to cross to make this a reality?
Hazzikostas: This is a small, still conservative step toward cross-faction collaboration. Just letting people play with their friends while still upholding the Alliance and the Horde as central pillars of what Warcraft is. When we rolled out cross-faction instances last year, people immediately jumped in and enjoyed this new experience. Many switched factions to play the faction or the race they’d always hoped to be able to play while still playing with their friends.
But then they quickly found out that if they had to leave their guild to do it, now they weren’t in guild chat anymore. They couldn’t make use of the guild bank or other shared conveniences. That became a frequent point of feedback, a point of friction as part of this new system. We see the ability to join opposite faction guilds that were working towards Embers of Naltharion as addressing that. We still want to make this an opt-in feature of the game. It’s not going to suggest opposite faction guilds to you. But if you have friends who play with the opposite faction, we want to remove those barriers as much as possible.
GamesBeat: Will this impact the game’s story in the future? We’ve seen Horde and Alliance switch between being enemies and friends before. Does it put pressure on you to keep things peaceful for as long as possible?
Hazzikostas: I don’t know that it necessarily ties our hands. We’ve been living in that world for a long time. In some ways it’s the mechanics and the system catching up to the stories we’ve been telling, for the most part. Battle for Azeroth is the sole exception. Acknowledging when, time and time again, we see Alliance and Horde coming together, whether it’s Thrall and Jaina working together, or Tyrande and an army of night elves fighting alongside the Horde at the Siege of Orgrimmar. And yet we can’t make those choices as players? There are still elements of both factions that are very hard in their enmity toward the other faction. They’re not going to forget what happened to Teldrassil. Genn Greymane is not going to embrace the Horde any time soon. The Forsaken are not going to reach out to the Alliance any time soon. But broadly we want to give players freedom to make those choices for themselves, just as our characters do.
GamesBeat: These big patches often come with a big new zone. This time we have the Zaralek Cavern. What makes this one different than some of the other patch zones we’ve seen in the past?
Hazzikostas: For starters, it’s underground, and yet vast and expansive, and seamlessly connected to the surface zones of the Dragon Isles. Unlike some other underground zones, like Deepholm back in the day, you’re not going through a portal and looking at a load screen to get here. There are just multiple points of entry scattered around the Dragon Isles. Go down the sinkhole and you are beneath the Dragon Isles in this newly discovered zone that’s home to Naltharion’s legacy and a wide range of other friends and foes alike. It was built from the ground up for dragonriding. Even though it’s underground, it’s vast and expansive. It’s meant to be a playground that people will soar through and explore from the very start. Just a cool place, and thematically really important in terms of where our story is going next in Dragonflight.
GamesBeat: What are you doing to keep those original Dragonflight zones relevant in the new patch?
Hazzikostas: A couple of different things. As part of the story, we have Fyrakk, one of the newly freed primal incarnates, the incarnate of flame, who will be taking to the skies above the Dragon Isles and attacking different locations, along with his forces. We’ll rally to their defense. That’s a new type of combat-oriented public event that we’ll be seeing. We’re also updating some of the rewards for public events across the initial four zones. We want to make sure that stuff still stays relevant as catch-up and really make sure that we’re expanding the effective size of the expansion. We’re not replacing four original zones with one new zone where you’ll spend all your time. We’re growing four zones to five.
GamesBeat: You mentioned dragonriding. That’s been one of the big successes of the expansion. It seems like just about everyone has been enjoying it. What’s going to be new for that feature in the patch?
Hazzikostas: As with any new location that we visit, there are dragon glyphs to collect. There are traits to acquire. In this case, given the theming of the location, the traits give you perks when you’re skimming near the ground. If you’ve watched any of those proximity flying wingsuit videos on YouTube, if you want to do that with your dragon, you get a bunch of bonuses as long as you don’t crash. And it’s just one of those things we want to continue to expand and extend as Dragonflight continues.
It’s one of the really exciting aspects of the approach we’re taking to content delivery. It’s not just Embers of Naltharion. We have our 10.0.7 update coming up in a few weeks, Return to Forbidden Reach, which also has new dragon riding glyphs, another new dragonriding trait that can be unlocked, and as we continue to expand the world, it’s not just these singular big patches, but lots of different small, medium, large, telling stories, delivering content and just changing things up as we go.
Longdale: One other thing we’re leaning into as well as we increase this unprecedented pace of content updates is spreading the wealth, for lack of a better term, into different play styles. We’re really delivering a lot more across the board for how you like to play. That’s been important to us, to make sure we’re serving as many players as possible and the way they want to play. You’ll see it in 10.07 and certainly 10.1. We’re putting some real focus there. We’re excited to see how it plays out with the community.
GamesBeat: Of course a large part of that community loves the raids. We have Shadowed Crucible coming as part of 10.1 with nine new bosses. Any hints of some exciting or unique encounters or mechanics we can expect to see there?
Hazzikostas: Let’s see. The final boss of the raid is Sarkareth, a dracthyr. We’re not fighting Fyrrak or one of the incarnates. Here we’re really following through on the dracthyr’s search for their origins and pursuing their legacy. Sarkareth is the leader of this breakaway faction of dracthy, the Sundered Flame. But in this fight, at the heart of Naltharion’s inner sanctum, we are likely to see a bit of the dark power that turned Naltharion into Deathwing. We get to retrace his steps in a sense. We’ll learn a lot about dragonkind more broadly, about Deathwing himself and the power that made him what he is. It’s one of the exciting inspirations for this raid as a whole. In some ways it’s like a throwback to Blackwing Lair, Blackwing Descent from a dozen years ago. That was Nefarian. He was just following in his father’s footsteps, a pale shadow of what we’re going to see now.
GamesBeat: During Shadowlands, patches came out at slower-than-usual pace. How do you feel about the trajectory you’re on now with releasing these updates?
Longdale: I couldn’t be more excited. Upon reflection and learning and listening to the community throughout Shadowlands, that’s the commitment. We really took stock and thought about, what does it mean to have a subscription game now? What are the expectations? For us it’s about how we make the world feel alive, so that every month something feels meaningful to our players. We’ve been leaning into that. One of the beautiful things about it is that these updates are going to continue to deliver story. We’ll keep these threads moving throughout the life of Dragonflight. And with that, of course, there will be content for players to get involved in that tracks along with these storylines. We’re excited to see how it plays out.
It’s an evolution of who we’ve been. And again, this is about listening. We understood from the community in Shadowlands that they wanted more. Less of a gap between our content updates. We’re giving this a whirl to see how it plays out, but we’re really excited. The team has been committed and focused on what it means to have our game in Azeroth feel more alive on a month by month basis.
GamesBeat: Shadowlands only made it to 9.2. I know there’s already a road map to have a 10.2 later this year. Is a 10.3 in the cards for this expansion?
Hazzikostas: We have our content cadence, our road map, a number of patches, size of patches that fits the story we’re trying to tell. That’s one of those where we’ll see when we get there. Unlike Shadowlands, we’re having these .7s pop up. People are starting to see what 10.0.7 looks like and is bringing. It’s a different shape and size of patch with some major narrative beats, some meaningful new gameplay and rewards. We’re looking forward to continuing that through the rest of the year and beyond. Ultimately we look to tell a continuous story that excites players with what’s going to come next, what’s going to be around the corner, and focus more on what fits that story, what fits the progression of our systems and different settings, more than any specific number or framing for a given patch.
Longdale: This cadence affords us a wonderful opportunity to look at what players are really enjoying and be able to track that for something that we’re working on in the future. That’s another part of the commitment, really listening and reacting where we can to what players are enjoying. A faster patch cadence, or more of our content updates, affords us that opportunity. We’re excited to see what we can do there as well.
GamesBeat: I know that class tuning is always an ongoing process, but what are some of the biggest changes or adjustments that we can expect to see in these upcoming patches?
Hazzikostas: Ret Paladins are getting quite a bit of love in this small update coming up in a couple of weeks. Ultimately we’re taking a much more active hand in just ongoing tuning. More so than we ever have before. One of the great things is that’s not tied to needing to patch content onto your computer or have a specific update. Just ongoing balancing, looking at how all the different specs are varying in dungeons, raids, PvP. Making sure that people feel like if they’re falling behind, there’s help on the way. If people are looking at something that seems overpowered and feeling like they should reroll to not get left behind, well, let’s bring that down a notch or too so people can still feel like they’re good playing the thing they enjoy most.
GamesBeat: So, what are snail races?
Hazzikostas: They’re very slow. [laughs] No, everyone loves races. If you want to get there quickly, get on your dragon. If you’re up for a dragon riding race, go nuts. But if you’re a member of the Drogbar in Zaralek, sometimes you just want to place bets on which snail will cross the line last. It’s just fun flavor. If you want to race-race, stick with dragon riding. But world building comes in many forms.
Longdale: Are snails going to get stuck in trees like I do?
Hazzikostas: That would take skill.
GamesBeat: I don’t want any info on specific plot points, but I imagine it’s fun to have a patch based around the black dragonflight and Naltharion. There’s a lot of lore there to dig into.
Hazzikostas: It’s a whole lot. In a lot of ways, some of this goes back to the animated pieces we released in the runup to Dragonflight, showing the origins of the dracthyr and Naltharion’s role there. Naltharion/Deathwing has really been at the center of all of this. The aspect’s betrayal and his downfall, but also theirs, in a sense. His ultimate defeat of the incarnates and helping seal them away, which is why they’re now seeking revenge. And of course the creation of the dracthyr, who are now pursuing their legacy. I think a fun aspect of the plotline there, with both factions of dracthyr, as Emberthal and Sarkareth and players as well go to Naltharion’s lab to learn about their origins. It reminds me of some loose Blade Runner vibes, creations searching for their purpose and their creator. That’s where the dracthyr’s journey is going to lead them.
GamesBeat: Are you Team Wrathion or Team Sabellian?
GamesBeat: Wow. I wasn’t expecting cowardly answers, but that’s okay. I’ll allow it. [laughs] Speaking of the black dragonflight, I’m curious about the process for picking dungeons for the new Mythic+ rotation. Although I imagine Naltharion’s Lair is a pretty obvious choice this time around.
Hazzikostas: Yeah, some of it is thematic. It’s looking at expansions. The team looks at the Dragonflight dungeons that are the core of the pool. We knew which four they were going to be. Then we were looking at what complements those in terms of setting, in terms of theme, in terms of actual layout, linear versus branching, large versus small. The team was super excited to try a real throwback dungeon, to go all the way back to Cataclysm for Vortex Pinnacle. Just a change of pace. As we feel out this new format, it’s cool to really see the range of dungeon experiences we have to offer. We were deliberately looking for a more linear dungeon to complement the other ones we have. Despite being a series of floating platforms in Skywall, Throne of the Four Winds back in the day, that is a linear dungeon. It’s a fun addition to the rotation, and we look forward to seeing how it plays out in mythic plus form.
GamesBeat: What is it like, at this point of development, when you’re in that middle area of an expansion? You don’t have to worry so much about promoting the next thing. Is this an ideal place for you? Do you miss being involved in the hype cycle?
Longdale: I would love if that’s how our world was. We’re working well into the future. We’ve grown our team to support these additional content updates. We have people focused and dedicated to those while also working well ahead into the future to make sure we deliver for the players, and we keep going, keep these commitments. We’re planning on delivering more for the community. We needed to shore up our team to do that. But there’s no rest for us. For the most part, we’re not asking for it. We’re really energized by the opportunity we have to deliver this additional content in these updates, and still build a meaningful future for the community. I don’t want to say it’s going to be amazing, but, you know, we always hope. The future is looking good for us. As I said, we’re working on it. We’re well into it.
GamesBeat: I know we don’t get subscriber numbers anymore, but what is the state of the game now? How healthy is it? How does it compare to where it was around this time in Shadowlands?
Hazzikostas: I think the community is in a great place. There’s a ton of positivity around the game, which is refreshing, frankly, as a developer. It’s nice being able to just be energized by the things people are enjoying, and have a really healthy dialogue around, not “the sky is falling,” but “which ways do people want to see the game improve?” What do they want to see more of? What do they want to see less of? Really being able to engage and help shape our plans for the rest of the year and beyond in a way where we have a high degree of confidence it’s going to meet the community where they’re at, because we hear what they’re saying. We’re having a great dialogue and we want to carry it forward.
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