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Warcraft Will Have "Steady Stream of Content" But Not Yearly Expansions

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Blizzard's game director sheds light on the plan for the long-running MMO going forward.

Even though the Legion expansion has already launched, Blizzcon 2016 saw lots of new announcements for Blizzard's flagship MMO. Upcoming patches will include epic class mounts and micro holidays, and you can get a look at the new legendary artifacts coming to the game right here. To get more details about what lies ahead, we talked with Warcraft's game director Ion Hazzikostas about the recent changes.

The micro-holidays you announced sound really interesting. Is that going to be a regular, new thing every month? How long is it going to last?

Ion Hazzikostas: I think all the ones that we've talked about are annual. When we say this is Ahn’Qiraj Remembrance Day, that will literally be January 22nd on every calendar year thereafter. I'm not sure exactly when Boat Day or the Hatching of the Hippogryphs will fall, but those will just be things peppered throughout the calendar. It's something that we need to flesh out and fill in in subsequent patches so that there's just that variety and texture for the world.

Where are you pulling ideas from? Is it just stuff like that seemed like a good idea but maybe not big enough for a whole week of content?

Basically that. A lot of our in-world holidays are very loosely veiled parallels, obviously, to major real-world holidays. Winter Veil, this is a secret, don't tell anyone--It's Christmas. [laughs] Lunar Festival is Chinese New Year, et cetera. We covered most of those big ones. I think we've seen some success with little things like the Day of the Dead that we had just a couple days ago in game, and wanted to do more of those on a smaller scale.

I think as we approached the idea of the 7.15 patch, philosophically we wanted it to be about the evergreen bits of content. Things that were very scalable, separable, because we wanted to make sure to get the patch out in a good amount of time. We could aim to make nine micro-holidays. If we only make six, no problem. We have six. No big deal, this is not a problem. We'll get the other 3 in the next patch.

The creative geniuses that are working on that patch, one of the things they dreamed up was, "What if we do all these wacky little events?" They ran the pitch by the rest of the team. We loved it. We said, "Hey, let's just start building this."

Ion Hazzikostas
Ion Hazzikostas

For patches, one thing that the team has gone back and forth on is whether we get consistent expansions or consistent patches. I guess, where does that stand now? Are you now aiming more for: "We want to have regular patches going out, and we're not going to try to promise an expansion every year."

We're not going to try to promise an expansion every year because we're not going to do it. I think what we've learned is that we can't make a worthy WoW expansion in that time frame. It's not worth sacrificing patch content to try to make it happen, especially if it's not quality. I think our focus is on just doing the right thing for our players, and making sure that if you have a WoW subscription there is new content in your hands or around the corner for you to look forward to most of the time. That means a steady stream of content playing out the stories in the worlds that we're building in our expansions and then when the appropriate time comes moving on to the new expansion. If that means a new setting, a new villain, a new cast of characters, new environments, then that's welcome. Rushing people through that doesn't necessarily benefit anybody.

In retrospect there was a lot more we could've done with Warlords of Draenor in terms of stories that we didn't finish up. We set up subplots and other villains that weren't fully resolved. We showed the plight of the Draenei, Shattrath City, in the heart of Draenor, and then really moved on to the final complication of the villain. Leaving that unresolved. We are trying to not do that in Legion. I think it's about striking a balance. It's a ton of stories, fleshing out the world, getting content. And then when the next expansion is ready, and people are ready for it, it's moving onto that.

The other balance you have to strike is around players who are at max level and 100% invested in new content as it comes out, and the players who are leisurely, casual, and coming at it in their own time. How are you approaching that?

It's tricky because, as the truism says, you can't please everybody all the time. But that is our job, to try to do that. I think it is through sheer variety and diversity of content, and approaches to the game. I think in Legion we really tried to cover the widest possible range of play styles, from the student who has tons of free time and wants to be the best in the world at raiding, or arena, to the person who is a lot more casual, likes solo gameplay, questing, and exploration. A person that used to be hardcore 10 years ago, but now has a family and is trying to squeeze in a little bit of play time after the kids go to bed, might want challenging content, but not challenging long time-commitment content.

We have really tried to check all of those boxes. I think the response from players in Legion so far has indicated that we succeeded in those goals. We have a world quest system for the solo-oriented player. We have made dungeons a thing that can scale open-endedly in terms of content difficulty and rewards so that if you like small group content that is for you. We have our standard high-end raid and PVP game. We have a new PVP system that is more accessible and fewer players. Spend time to earn rewards even if you're not going to be the very best in the world, they can just enjoy doing it as an activity. Once we have laid all of those things out in our patches, we want to keep building on each of those foundations, and so continue adding to all those playstyles throughout the expansion.

There have been so many quality of life improvements, have you seen a big influx of new and returning players compared to other expansions?

I mean I am not sure if I can put exact ratios on new versus returning. But it's no question: tons of people are playing Legion right now, and enjoying it. We were matching concurrency highs around the launch. Anecdotally, I have seen a lot of familiar faces, guild mates, from six, eight years ago popping up in guild chat that I haven't seen in a long time. It is a fun time to play WoW.

One of the most telling things about WoW's success is that it's still a pay-to-play MMO. Almost no other company has been able to do that, especially with the years of consistency. Although what is it that has kept World of Warcraft able to not only maintain that model, but be successful with it?

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I think we offer a great deal, and great value for that monthly subscription in terms of the number of hours of entertainment, varied content, and social experiences you can get out of it. It is way better than a movie ticket in terms of bang for your buck. And I think it's just a phenomenal development team. It's easy to pat ourselves on the back. So many people have been on the team since day one. There are people who are ten-, 12-, 15-year veterans that were building out the game in the alpha stages, and we have learned from experience. We have tried to improve our efficiencies where possible, and we do everything we can to get the best quality content to players' hands.

Recently I started playing again from the very beginning. Level 1 to 100, and it's really fast now.

Maybe too fast [laughs].

It does fly by quickly in comparison to when I played back in Vanilla. But my criticism there, and especially for new players, or people like me who are re-experiencing the classic areas, there's an even more stark contrast between the really cool, fun quests, and quests where you're just running around in circles. And you have to pick and choose your quests, because you end up abandoning a lot when you move on to the next zone. Have you thought about making that a more streamlined experience--something where you guide players along storylines that will build up the lore and your experiences in the game on the way to level 100?

I think that is an area that we have a lot of work to do, and a lot of improvements. Over the years as we got into our fourth expansion, our fifth expansion, it started to increasingly feel like this rich world, all these levels, were also serving as a barrier to entry. Someone who saw an advertisement for Mists of Pandaria on television and thought it sounded cool, wanted to check it out, but the last time they played was 2009, might log in to a level 71 character and realize, wow I have got a lot of work to do before I can even see this new stuff, or if you are trying to get your friend into the game, they'll say, "Wait, I have to go through how many levels before I can play with you?"

In response to that we tend to just speed things up, and speed things up, and speed things up. Now I think the free boost that comes with every new expansion really solves that problem of the barrier to entry, and in a sense overs-solves, and double-solves the problem--if you want to play through the old content to experience it you should be able to do so. I think the likely path forward lies in some of the tech that we got for Legion itself, where we have scaling levels with scaling rewards in our level up zones in the Broken Isles. We would love to, and it's a large undertaking, but we would love to start chipping away at this.

We would love to go back and apply that tech to the old world so that if you are really enjoying a quest line and a zone, then we want you to play through the whole quest line. Play through the zone. You might get 15 levels doing that zone, and that can be okay, but it is going to be a reasonably paced experience. The challenge will remain what it is supposed to be. The rewards will remain relevant as opposed to constantly just bouncing around, and having this disjointed experience that is not conveying a world or story.

Of course that leads into my next questions, an experience that a lot of people ask for is that original, vanilla experience. It sounded like they made some headway with you guys, but where did that end up? And where does it stand now?

I think we made a statement, ahead of Blizzcon, on our forums acknowledging that that is an ongoing discussion. We don't have any major new update to share at Blizzcon. It is something we are talking about. We met with the developers on one of the largest private servers out there this past summer to learn from their experience and get their viewpoint, their perspective, what they thought that community was looking for. But it's for us to approach that sort of project at Blizzard scale, and at a Blizzard level of quality it would be a very large undertaking. It's something that requires a lot of internal discussion and deliberation, but it's something we are talking about. It's something we are taking seriously, but I just don't have any updates right now.

Another interesting addition with Legion is how it ties into the mobile app. It gives you another way to take care of things on the side and also to engage with the game when you are not just sitting at your computer playing it. Is that something you guys want to explore more--giving more options to players to interact with that type of mobile experience?

Definitely. We are really happy with how the Legion companion app has played out. It's a great way just to stay engaged with the game to keep in touch with your character. You can go home, have your reward waiting for you, jump right off into questing, and it is something we definitely want to keep building on in the future.

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But what we are trying to do in terms of our mobile strategy isn't having the game itself be playable in that format. It isn't that we're trying to compete with the in-game gameplay, it is more just convenience. It is wherever we can streamline things. Between meetings, if you're curious and you want to pull up the armory and check whether your auctions were sold, or if you want to see how many guildmates have signed up for your raid tonight, or if you want to send off a champion on a mission. That is a great thing to be able to do. We want to keep building on that.

Thinking about other ways to interact with World of Warcraft, does the team ever think about a console iteration? Final Fantasy 14 is the big, successful one in that space, but is that something you ever think about exploring, or do you feel the sentiment is, "No, this is a PC-only experience"?

It's something I am sure we have idly discussed at times. I think at its core, interface-wise, control-wise, WoW is a PC experience. I think Final Fantasy 11 and 14 were obviously jointly developed on PC and console, and very much console driven in a lot of ways. There were choices that were made where you go one direction, or you go the other, and we have gone in the PC direction enough times that trying to reign that back in would be uncertain in its merits.

Thinking about some of the changes coming to Legion soon. We are going to get to flying. Why is now the time to bring flying to Legion?

Well I think...it's not quite now.

Well, soon, anyway. [laughs]

Soon. Well once, at the end of the Broken Shore, and after players have played through 7.2'ss content, if they have also done the 7.0 part of the achievement, at that point they will have explored and mastered the outdoor world content of the Broken Isles. And that is in keeping with the general philosophy that experiencing the game thoroughly the first time through from the ground conveys a richer sense of world in gameplay. But it's kind of like unlocking cheat codes or something after you beat the game once. It's like, "You've done this all, now on your second or third character through, you can take some shortcuts. You can feel like you're breaking the rules." Since we are going to Argus after this, it felt like that was the time that the Broken Isles and this area of the world will have been thoroughly explored.

What have been the biggest takeaways that you and the team have learned from the content you've introduced in Legion?

Overall the perception has been incredibly positive, so there isn't actually this laundry list of huge complaints. It is amazing from our perspective. This is the first expansion I have participated in where, if I could have a magic time machine and go back four months, there aren't a ton of things I would have done drastically differently. I think things like rewards pacing, the perception of randomness, and how that plays out...

Legendary items probably could have been a bit more common. I think now we are starting to see them a lot more, and those who are playing regularly are starting to get their first if they haven't seen one. But there is a period of time before hearing about this new system, people are saying, "I guess they are out there, but I don't have any. My friends don't have any. What is the deal?" We were probably too conservative. We wanted to be careful we didn't overshoot the mark and flood the system with these new items, but that is an area worth listening to our players.

Class design is another one. We've had a lot of class changes coming into Legion, and a lot of those were aimed at re-focusing, streamlining our classes and specializations around their core fantasies. As I mentioned at the panel yesterday, there were a few places where we probably got too focused on the specialization fantasy, on "What does being a beast master hunter mean?" Or, "What does being a subtlety rogue mean? And we lost, "What does being a rogue mean?" And, "What does being a hunter mean?" We have heard from a lot of players coming back, especially after a long time away, that key portions of their class, things that they had an emotional resonance with feel like they are missing. That is something we are working to address in upcoming patches.

And experiences like Kharazhan, is that kind of idea something you are wanting to revisit more as well? Going back to these classic experiences?

Yeah. It's something we have done periodically throughout WoW's expansions. We have updated classic dungeons like Scholomance or Scarlet Monastery in past expansions. Karazhan was one that we often discussed doing that to, but there were two challenges. One, it was so large it was hard to see how it would fit clearly into our progression systems as they used to stand. And two, what would the story connection be? I think Legion solved both of those problems for us. There is a very natural connection to the guardian Medivh, and the story that we saw in the Warcraft movie. The Tower of Kharazhan and the Legion's invasion. And with a more robust dungeon itemization and progression system you can actually fit this massive dungeon into the game's structure in a way that made sense, felt rewarding, and belonged.

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