World of Warcraft has a new expansion on the way, but even though this is the seventh major addition to Blizzard’s MMO, it still might be a good place for newbies to join. At Blizzcon 2017, we talked with WoW production director John Hight about that new player experience and what features will be introduced in the newly announced expansion.
You can read our full interview below, or catch up on some of the big Blizzcon news you might’ve missed right here. And in other big Warcraft announcements, we also have a feature focusing on some of the big questions raised by the legacy server World of Warcraft classic that was also announced at the show.
The transcript below has been edited for content and clarity.
I feel like the Horde and the Alliance have actually been getting closer and closer together, but Battle for Azeroth pushes the two sides apart again. It’s really focusing on that original faction experience. But what was the impetus to separate the two again?
John Hight: As they have been historically right? They’ll come together, they’ll fight a common foe, and then their rift will form. And this is a pretty big rift that occurred during Legion. It was kind of an uncomfortable alliance between the Alliance and Horde to defeat a common foe, the Legion. But now that the Legion is defeated–spoilers but I think everyone knows that at some point we’re going to end the expansion–things happen that left scars between the two sides. And then things happen in the opening of Battle for Azeroth that cement it. Some of the imagery that you’ll see is the scene is with Sylvanas standing in front Teldrassil on fire. Then with the opening cinematic, that event was right before the Alliance finally says, “Okay, we’ve had it” before they assault Lordaeron. So some pretty heavy stuff is going to happen between them. And we just felt like this would be a really cool time to go back into that age old battle between Alliance and Horde.
Having two new continents…are the cartographers in Azeroth just really, really bad at their job? How do these new landmasses keep popping up?
You know, it’s pretty rough out there. I mean we’ve only got seafaring ships and blimps. You can’t possibly see everything. [laughs] They’re pretty much crossing known channels.
Is it going to be something like Pandaria where it’s been hidden in the mists of time?
No. I mean this was talked about in some of the fiction, and it’s an area that we’ve avoided in the game itself. But it was in an area that’s completely unknown. The whole point of it is that both sides are reaching out and trying to pull together additional allies in this big battle. And the last thing they want to do is to have one of these new areas, and people that inhabit them, fall into the hands of the other side.
I’ve always been more of an Alliance player. But story-wise, I get a lot of flak from Horde friends who say their lore is better. The Horde has that fall from grace, which makes them feel a little bit more relatable in some ways, whereas the humans can kind of seem like the nice guys who end up being dicks.
You know that’s interesting. I play Horde more, but I try to play both sides so I have a max level character on each side. And I think I go back and forth on the story myself. I feel like … sometimes I feel like, “Ah! The Alliance is such a better story! The Horde should have this!”
It’s whatever resonates with you, I think. We don’t purposefully try to make the Alliance into…whatever you said [laughs]. I think that the characters are pretty powerful. Anduin, in this expansion, is really coming in to his own. He’s now stepping up to be the king, and there’s a rite of passage. Even in the cinematic that we showed, there’s this discovery on his part where he basically kills off a lot of Horde people around him. And then you realize, is that really his shtick or not. And he ends up doing this big mass heal, which is more what he’s about. So I think he’s incorporating a little bit of his father, the Alliance, and his own identity into this.
By the same token you’re gonna see a lot of the evolution of Sylvanas. We saw some of her in Legion. We told some of her story–she’s the chieftain of the Horde–but you’re gonna see a lot more of her in Battle for Azeroth. Obviously these stories are less about this one common foe as in Legion but more about the two sides.
In that way, it seems like it’s going to be a more personal story, because we’ve already done these kind of world ending, huge narratives.
Absolutely. It’s not a big giant monster or a titan like Sargeras. Now, it’s about the greatest enemy that you could possibly have. Well, it’s the other guy, the other faction.
In some ways, this feels like going back to the beginning, to the original conflict of orcs versus humans. Do you feel like this is gonna be a good place for new players to start?
I think yes, in terms of the story but also in terms of what we’re doing in the game itself. For a while, the level up experience hasn’t gotten as much love from us as other aspects of the game. So we’re going through and we’re actually using the technology that we developed for Legion where you can go in to any zone. You can be at 109, I could be at 100, and yet we could have a great play experience together. So we can essentially build our areas in such a way that it’s almost level independent, right?
What we’re doing is going back and deploying this scaling technology across all the existing areas in Azeroth. And you’ll actually be able to make choices too. For instance, as you’re leveling up from one to 110, and ultimately 120 in Battle for Azeroth, you’ll be able to make a decision: “Do I want to go up to Northrend and experience that content? Or do I want to go over to Burning Crusade?” There’s a lot of content to cover, but we want you to have a nice, smooth leveling experience. So we’re busily at that right now. We’re not getting rid of any of the old quest content, so you’re not gonna lose out on your favorite moments. They’ll still be there.
But we just want to make sure that it’s a smooth and cool experience. If you go in and play a dungeon, or if you go into quest content in a given area, you’re not gonna out level it.
For someone coming in cold, we’re still gonna have the beginning, one to 20 acclimation zones that get you used your spells, weapons, and abilities. And then around 20, that’s when you’re out in the world and you start making choices about where you want to go.
And then ally factions are gonna be really cool for both people that are new to the game and people that have played the game for a while. There are three new allied races for each side. You’re gonna go through some kind of unlock content, and then once you do that you can go and create, for instance–if you’re playing Horde side–you can create a Nightborn. And play from level 20 all the way up to 110. If you do that you unlock a pretty cool heritage armor set for your Nightborn.
If you don’t want to do that, if you say, “Hey. I’ve done the unlock but now I want to start playing as a Nightborn Warlock, whatever.” You can boost and go right to that, but we’re trying to give that little extra incentive to people that want to go through the level-up experience again.
Those aren’t entirely new races though, right?
Yeah. We call them allied races, they’re an elf, for instance, in the case of the Nightborn. They’re gonna have, for the most part, the same armor, the same talent tree as an elf, depending on what class you pick. There are gonna be some unique racials for those. So it’s largely cosmetic. Obviously some bragging rights if you level up from the beginning and get the heritage armor set, which you can trans-mog into any armor piece. And then the Racial Abilities go on with it.
Thinking about jumping into World of Warcraft now, in some ways it’s like a really long-running TV show. Like Doctor Who–you have people who are really into it, and they’ve been with it from the beginning. But that can be intimidating for someone to jump in from the beginning. Especially as you keep adding more and more content, that increases that barrier to entry. What is your answer to that type of person, who would be down for this kind of experience, but who feel there’s too much to catch up on?
Yeah, our expectation isn’t that everybody coming to the game new is gonna wanna go from the beginning. That was why we introduced the boost way back with Warlord of Draenor. It’s a way for you, if you’re new to the game but you wanna play with a friend but they’re already at max level, you can upgrade immediately and level together. So if that’s what you want to do, that’s cool.
We actually have a new boost experience. You saw a taste of it with Legion, and we’re gonna be updating it for Battle for Azeroth. Effectively what that does is, if you decide to boost, we are gonna run you through a scenario that teaches you about your class. But we do wanna prepare you so you aren’t just completely unaware on what you need to do.
I’d actually stepped away for a while before Legion. But while that tutorial was helpful, I felt like I still had to go online to read up on the best rotations, that I needed some outside help to get a real feel for the best build for my class. Will there be more of that kind of explanation in-game?
Well, there are people that want to be max and are looking for, “I gotta make sure I get the most DPS!” And I think that there’s always gonna be a large number of our fanbase that are out there doing an analysis and trying to figure out how can they can get the absolute most out of their class. But I don’t think anyone should feel like they have to do that. You can be very successful in our dungeons, in our raids, without having to get the absolute last drop of best-in-slot gear possible.
In terms of the way we make the game, we’re always cognoscent of new players coming in. We still have a substantial number of new players every time we roll out an expansion, which is kind of hard to believe. There’s people out there that haven’t played World of Warcraft! And so every time we roll out an expansion, every time we roll out a patch, we try to fine-tune it, make it a little bit easier for new folks coming in.
It’s always a trade off, because we don’t want to leave behind our experienced players, but we also don’t want to segregate our noobs to the point where they don’t get to enjoy the broader community. We are fine-tuning. You’ll see little traits and features here and there, but we do have an eye on them.
Thinking about all the changes, how do you approach all these new things that you’re adding with Battle for Azeroth balanced against the features and things you’ve added previously?
It’s fun! We always earmark a feature or two in an expansion as, I don’t want to call it experimental, but something that we’re willing to let go the next expansion. Like, we looked at Garrisons. People wanted some form of their own, customizable space. We learned a lot from that, and I think some of those features made their way forward into order halls and the missions and followers that we had in Legion. But the notion of being cooped up in your garrison and not being out in the world–we decided that’s not something we want to incorporate and make part of core WoW.
So that’s what’s fun about expansions. We can experiment; we keep evolving and making it better. And the stuff that was just okay but that doesn’t have enough legs for us to want to stick with it.