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World of Warcraft’s next expansion, Legion, was initially unveiled just over a year ago at Gamescom 2015. Now, finally, the 11-year-old MMO’s sixth expansion is due out next week, and players are bracing for its host of sweeping changes.
Legion will introduce a brand new world-scaling leveling system exclusive to the new continent, Broken Isles, as well as a new means of story progression through Class Order Halls. It’ll also grants players uniquely powerful, class-specific Artifact Weapons and, perhaps most importantly, introduce Demon Hunters--a new class of fighters that function more like the hero of an action game than another avatar in an MMO.
Now that Legion’s nearly upon us, we sat down with lead game designer Luis Barriga, technical game designer Chad Nervig, and character designer Genevieve St-Michel to discuss the long-in-development expansion in greater detail, digging into some specifics surrounding Legion’s ambitious changes and exploring the team’s post-launch plans.
GameSpot: Just starting out, can you give us a quick overview of how Legion fits into the existing lore?
Barriga: The theme of the expansion is the third coming of the Burning Legion to Azeroth. These guys have tried to invade us twice, and we've beat them back before. That kind of leads us into the first big feature that I'm super excited about, which is Demon Hunters. The Special Forces branch of the elves, if you will, they were the Demon Hunters. The most elite. All they trained for was hunting down and defeating demons.
Unfortunately, some of their means were misunderstood by their brethren. They were outlawed and thrown into prison. You play as one of these disciples of Illidan. When the Legion comes back it's like, "Well, do we want to take our chances with these renegade Demon Hunters or do we want to just admit defeat?" The good guys decide to bite the bullet and let the so-called outlaws out, and that's where Demon Hunters come in.
When we talked about revisiting the idea of Demon Hunters, revisiting Illidan, what excited me was we get to tell the story that we weren't able to tell before. Maybe if you didn't completely sympathize with Illidan, you understood where he was coming from. We feel like we want to change the tone and change the direction 15-degrees, 20-degrees, but we also want it to be respectful of the characters that were brought up. Players will see the return of Alturus, Akama, Illidan, Maiev--all characters where we planted the seeds of those stories a long time ago, even before Burning Crusade.
How will the story be structured in Legion? Is there a single linear campaign, or is the story content broken up in some way?
Nervig: Each zone has a storyline of its own.
St-Michel: More of the overarching storyline is held within your Class Halls, so you don't miss any of [the overarching story]. In general it's a lot of fun for [people who play a lot of alts]. You can start in one zone on one character, and another zone on another, and you get to see all the individual stories that are contained within those zones. But your overarching story is still being told through the Class Order Halls.
Can you tell us more about what we can expect from these Class Order Halls?
St-Michel: They're kind of like the natural progression from Garrisons, except we've spent a ton of work to make them very impactful and integrated into the gameplay. [Class Order Halls are] kind of bringing it all back from the story of where the Horde and Alliance are up against the biggest threat ever, the Burning Legion. All the classes just decide to band together within themselves. You collect these very personal heroes that we all know from the lore and bring them under your wing to help you destroy the threat.
Nervig: We definitely learned a lot from Garrisons. For the first month or two in Warlords of Draenor, Garrisons were looking great. But as many people would attest, it got pretty lame just sitting alone in your Garrison for a whole lot of time. The Class Order Halls are not like that. The things you do there are related to stuff outside of the Order Hall, and they send you off to do other things.
Can other people enter your Class Order Hall?
Nervig: They're shared with your whole class. So all the monks will see each other, all the mages, et cetera.
St-Michel: Horde and Alliance are together also.
But opposing Horde and Alliance players won't be able to communicate with each other, obviously.
Nervig: Correct. Actually, on that note, Pandaren and Demon Hunters are able to communicate cross-faction now. When Demon Hunters metamorphosize, they speak Demonic. So two metamorphosized Demon Hunters can talk to each other. It was just an edge case where we were like, “Yeah, okay, that makes sense.” And Pandaren have always been an oddity. They know neutral Pandaren, and as soon as they choose Horde or Alliance, they forget the other one? So we were like, "Fine, we're letting that line be crossed. Let Pandaren all speak Pandaren."
From what we’ve seen so far, Demon Hunters seem way more mobile than any existing class. What was it like trying to build out those mechanics?
Barriga: Our game was never designed with any sort of movement ability system for player-based movements, so it's very conservative in that end. A lot of our engineers had to basically look at the game, the way our engine worked, and make it do what an action game would do: double jumps, glides, and all sorts of almost twitch-based gameplay. We didn't even know if it was going to work. There was a moment when an engineer said, "Well, I got everything you wanted except the ability for you to change direction mid-double jump." I was like, "Okay, well, I guess we can't win them all." Then I went in and played it and I'm like, "What are you talking about? It did work." It was almost supernatural that we got it all in there.
Will Legion update or alter the rest of the core gameplay in any way?
It was almost supernatural that we got it all in there.Luis Barriga, Lead Game Designer
Barriga: We have basically looked at every system in the game, and many of them that were showing their age have gotten upgrades. New PvP system, new profession system--one of the coolest things is the way that experience and leveling work in Legion. We have basically a world with five zones. Previously you would have to pick, “What are the two low level zones that I start the expansion with?” Now we have world-scaling, which basically allows us to say: If you go into Azuna at level 100, it'll be level 100 for you, but if you do Azuna last and your friend is level 108, you can group up together. It'll be 108 for him, 100 for you, and you will both contribute and you will both get appropriate awards.
It lets us leverage the whole world for the end game. Previously we'd do an expansion with a continent and a little bit of that continent was suitable for the end game. Now, with world quests, we have the entirety of the Broken Isles for players to do quests and get rewards. The rewards keep scaling and they stay pretty competitive with dungeons.
Nervig: There's a lot of under-the-hood magic that's going on so that it just works. You don't have to worry about it. You can just be a level 102 grouped with a level 107, and the game just handles that right.
So will the levels of the enemies appear differently to you than they would to your teammates?
Nervig: Yeah, if I'm level 102, I'll see the creatures and they'll look like level 102 to me. If [my teammate] is 107, they'll be 107 to her. Her fireball will do the right amount of damage, my backstab will do the right amount of damage and take the right amount of health off the mob. It all just magically works. And if [another teammate] is healing us, it works fine too.
And it works for multiple varying levels?
Nervig: Yes. [In] the pre-launch content that has invasions happening right now, you can be all the way down as low as level 15 and be grouped with a level 100 player and it works fine.
WoW's been around for so long. Why introduce this now? Was it a technical limitation?
Nervig: Pretty much a technical limitation. Doing that is a new concept to us. It's been considered and brought up before, but it's been like a neat dream. But how would we even make that work? But we finally looked at it and did the due diligence on it to figure out how it would work, what the implications would be, what impact it would have, and said,“Hey, we can do this.” So we did.
Can you explain more about Legion's follower system and how that works?
Nervig: Significant differences there from Garrison, which had many different followers. Class Order Hall followers are a small subset of major heroes that you have more interaction with. You can still send them on missions, but you'll also have a slot for one of them to be your combat ally. So when you're outdoors in Broken Isles, that one will be assisting you.
If you don't want anything in your way, you don't want that follower-type gameplay, you can pick one that just runs in and stuns everything, then runs out, and that's your only interaction with it. And that's a cool ability for you to effectively have. Or you can have one that goes to the full extent of being a tank for you.
So they function like a pet in a way.
Nervig: Yeah…kind of.
Are they around with you all the time, even when you're back in Azeroth?
Nervig: No, just in Broken Isles.
How do you gain new followers?
Nervig: The Class Order Hall storyline will introduce them to you. You can only get them through that storyline.
St-Michel: That's what makes it a lot more personal and related to your classes. You've definitely heard of this person before if you've played your character a lot and you're really into the lore of your class. You'll see them and they'll go out on actual quest lines with you too, in some instances.
Nervig: They are class-specific. I played a whole lot of Legion beta on a monk, and I had Li Li and Monkey King assisting me. There are major characters in the lore assisting you.
Are there Horde/Alliance-specific followers?
Nervig: No, they are neutral ones.
Have you learned any other lessons from previous expansions that changed the way you approached Legion?
Barriga: Our fans held our feet to the fire a little bit [because] there might not have been enough content for them to do in Warlords for their play style. There was a lot of raiding content, a lot of PvP stuff to do, but some people wanted a little bit more. We didn't support Warlords enough with updating the content that players had at their disposal, especially at the end game. Players ran out of stuff to do. I don't think that there was an aggressive enough patch schedule. That's what I want to promise our players: we will be very aggressive with making sure that there's content on the table, and we should not see a content drought like we saw before. Even as we're getting ready for players to play Legion, we're already working on stuff that's going to very rapidly get put in the content pipeline for them.
St-Michel: You also have the level 110 zones that open up. So hitting the level cap, you're not even close to the end. You have Suramar, which just opened up. You still have your artifact that you're levelling. There's a lot of content to just going past level 110.
Which actually brings us to the new Artifact Weapons--can you tell us a little bit about what those are and how they work?
Barriga: So players might be familiar with legendary quest lines from before where some classes got special quests to go and get a very special weapon unique to their class. For Legion, we did one quest line for every class spec. That means mages have three individual acquisition lines for each of their specs. Druids have four. Once again, one for each of their specs. A very, very hand-tailored story about how you get the weapon. Very specialized powers that come along with this weapon. Then as you grow in power, the weapon grows in power with you. It's basically the classes' version of Excalibur.
From what I understand, these weapons are not going to carry over into the next expansion, should one ever come. Can you comment on the thinking behind that decision?
Barriga: In a way, it gives us permission to make these weapons as awesome as we want them to be. If there's anything about the powers that we really like and feels like this should be core to the class, we have the ability to move that skill over to the main class. If right off the bat we said, “This is something we have to carry over,” you would see a much narrower field of design space [and] much more conservative powers. Some of the talents at the end of each branch of the tree are very powerful and they change the way that you play, so we want to treat them a little bit as experimental. In a way, it's a way for us to try new things without having that commitment of [being] married to this idea from here on out forever.
Like Garrisons, for example, was the first time we said, "Hey, we really want to try this feature, but we're not sure we want to try it out forever." I think that paid off because everything about them felt very integral to Warlords of Draenor, but by the time Warlords was done, we were kind of like, "Okay, Garrisons had their place, but we want to move on." Had we said garrisons are a feature of the game rather than the expansion, we would have a very cumbersome system to have to upkeep and facelift over and over again. This is a new model that we like better.
So will all Artifact Weapons disappear completely before the next expansion, even if players invest time in leveling them up?
Barriga: For players that did level up their Artifact Weapons and unlocked the special looks and all that, they earned those transmogs, so they can make future weapons almost like a badge of prestige. Say, "Hey, I was part of Legion, and I unlocked this prestige skin."
What was the rationale behind the decision to remove stat bonuses from gear when players enter PvP arenas?
Nervig: To ease the barrier of entry to PvP so you don't feel like you're way behind if you're not up to date on full PvP gear. We wanted to get more people PvP'ing. Also to be more fair, so that we could balance and tune classes based on the gear stats that we assigned them. For example, if [Warlock's] Destruction mastery is overpowered in PvP, we'll just give them less mastery on their PvP set of stats.
We will be very aggressive with making sure that there's content on the table, and we should not see a content drought like we saw before.Luis Barriga, Lead Game Designer
Now that Legion’s almost here, I wanted to ask about the long-term future of World of Warcraft. Do you think there's ever going to come a point where the team decides, "We're going to do one more expansion, we're going to wrap everything up in some way, and we're going to put an end cap on this as opposed to letting it fade out the way so many MMOs do"?
Barriga: It's a very hard question to answer. We have generations of players that will basically have grown up playing World of Warcraft. You imagine one of those kids gets to grow up and work on the game, bringing that fresh new take on things. I'm sure there will be a time when we pass the torch, but it's a game that instils such passion in people that, at least in the near future, I don't see that point of just calling it quits.In terms of momentum--and in terms of the energy that we and our community have for the game--this is the expansion I've been the most excited about. This is an expansion where we have gotten to do basically everything we wanted, from the new class to all the new features. We had systems before that we weren't happy with. We just said, "Our players deserve better." As long as we keep doing that, we hope that our players will continue to reward us with playing the game.
Update 9/3/2016: The original version of this article contained a misspelling of lead game designer Luis Barriga's name. The article has been updated with the correct spelling.