The seventh expansion for World of Warcraft is just a week away and draws heavily from the franchise's history. A truce that has been tentative-at-best since the beginning of WoW is now shattered, with Horde and Alliance marching to war against each other.
We sat down with Battle for Azeroth's senior software engineer Darren P. Williams, and lead character artist Dusty Nolting to talk story, cinematics, new features, and more.
Q: Let's get the important question out of the way first: are you guys Horde or Alliance?
Williams: I've played Horde since shortly after the game launched with a Tauren Shaman, almost exclusively with my brother before I joined Blizzard. He stopped playing as much as I'd like so I rolled an Alliance character.
Nolting: chuckles I'm similar to Darren, I've had my Tauren Shaman since WoW launched, so I've been Horde for a while. But I did just recently make a Dwarf Priest in Legion, so I'm playing both sides these days... more than I used to.
Q: Over the weekend you guys dropped the 'Old Soldier' cinematic, which is incredible. How long does something like this take to put together?
Nolting: It depends on the scale of what we're trying to do. If you look at some of the initial Battle for Azeroth videos like the siege of Lordaeron; those can take a little bit longer.
'Old Soldier' is more of a focused story telling element and we leveraged some of the assets that were created before so this took a little less time, but it's still given all the love and care that we put into these cinematics and I think it shows.
It's a pretty awesome piece and it's making people emotional about what's going on with Saurfang and what's going on with the Horde, plus capping all the different stories that are coming together.
Q: How do you decide what gets the full cinematic treatment and what is told through the less-detailed animated shorts?
Williams: During the expansion we have a lot of stories we want to tell and we have a lot of different ways of telling them. Obviously pre-rendered cinematics are one of the most flashy and one of our most impressive styles, so expansion openers and big reveals tend to get that treatment.
We also have a lot of rendered in-engine cut scenes that we create as well and our design team works heavily with our cinematics team to explain the story they want to tell through the expansion and highlight the characters the want. Jaina is getting some awesome new rendered in-engine cutscenes that are yet to be revealed.
And then we have real time ones in-game also made by that department, with some from the quest team. So we have a real variety of different ways to do storytelling, pre-rendered obviously have the most impact, but they're also the most time consuming.
Nolting: Sometimes it also depends on what you're doing in the game. If you're about to go into a raid, we want to be able to reveal whatever that raid's story elements might be, or if a player's at the end of a quest line and there's a cool new NPC it's a better time to tell their story when they're in the game and fully immersed. So that also ties into what we choose whether to do in-game or cinematic.
Q: Battle for Azeroth's story brings us back to the classic 'Horde vs Alliance' storyline of the original Warcraft titles. What was behind the decision to make this expansion more of a faction battle?
Williams: When people think of Warcraft historically it's the classic 'Orcs vs Humans' and we see the amount of passion players have for their faction and we wanted to highlight that in the game. With Battle for Azeroth we want to reinforce those faction identities and differences. Player's can go out, explore something, and bring it back to your faction. As an example, the Horde can go to Zandalar and recruit the Zandalari as Horde... it's all designed to really emphasise a player's faction identity.
Q: Speaking of Allied Races, are there any limits to how many races you're planning to introduce?
Nolting: I wouldn't say we're looking at any kind of limit, we're simply adding them as we feel they're relevant to the story and when we feel it's the proper time. Going forward, we're really excited about the potential – even with the current races we've added. We'll see where those systems can take us, since it's something we know players are really excited about.
Future patches will see the Kul Tirans and the Zandalari added in all their glory, but we'll see where we go from there.
Williams: There's already the Allied Races that came out with patch 7.3.5 including the Lightforged Draenei and Highmountain Tauren. There's also the addition of the Mag'har Orcs and Dark Iron Dwarves on the release of BfA. These are some customisations that our players have been asking for for a long time and it makes sense in the story of building up your army for your faction.
Q: PvP got a big overhaul in Battle for Azeroth. Can you speak a little about the changes to World PvP and why they were implemented?
Williams: PvP is something a lot of the team are passionate about and while there were many reasons for this, the main one was to encourage people to PvP more who want to, and reducing the barrier to that was the main driving goal. All these features support that, but with Warmode... there's a lot of people on PvE servers that want to PvP more but couldn't get the engagement and now they can. Similarly, some people might regret their initial decision to be on a PvP server, or their faction was heavily over or under represented on that realm and now they can switch on Warmode whenever they want and engage in some fulfilling PvP combat.
We also have rewards to encourage people to participate. There's an XP bonus when you're in Warmode, which will really pay off when the new expansion releases; everyone that wants to can engage in PvP and get that boost for levelling. We also have a bounty feature for players that are very good at killing enemies, they'll be highlighted on the map and become a high value target – we've already seen some great examples of that. But as we get to the expansion and we have players on their respective continents and levelling up to 120, the other faction has a war campaign to visit through Warmode and that's when that feature should be very exciting.
Q: You talked about reducing the barrier-to-entry for PvP, but you haven't stopped there - both the game and previous expansions have been folded into the subscription fee, another change has seen professions split into tiers for each respective expansion.
First of all, thank you. That grind was painful. Can we expect this to continue, or were these some changes that had been on the dev's wishlist for some time?
Williams: When we add the Allied Races in 7.3.5 we really wanted people to create these races and level up through the game as well. So when we kicked that off we addressed the scaling tech where you could complete old zones fully and not out-level them so early. You could get through the story and then choose to go to the Burning Crusade or Lich King expansions. So it's been awesome to see people go back and explore those fully and I see that as something we've continued with 8.0.1 [the pre-expansion patch that went live two weeks ago] with revamping professions, we've built on the scaling stuff further, and I think we'll continue to do that where it makes sense.
We're really excited for people to play through the new content, but we love when people go back. Maybe that low barrier-to-entry is what makes a new player ask "what is the rest of this game?" and brings them to the new content in a manner that is much closer to what we originally intended.
Q: It's hard to imagine Blizzard catering to new players for a game that's 14 years old now. Is this still the case, or are there also elements that are designed around veterans that don't have as much time on their hands these days?
Williams: People on our team obviously play the game a lot, but we're all different kinds of players. There's hardcore raiders and casual players, so we like to build different types of content to cater for all those people which we hope appeals to new players on top of our existing player base.
For example, the World Quest system in Legion was really great and we're carrying that forward into Battle for Azeroth, I mentioned the War Campaign; that'll be a great way to go to and explore the other continent and do some quests in just a small amount of time. I think that's the way we address content for new players as well: we want different types of content to explore and different ways to play the game.
Q: The latest update to the world map is so fresh and sharp - and chance we'll see the same design roll out for older areas?
Williams: That's actually one of the systems I worked on for this expansion, we've been wanting to revisit the map for quite a while, not just to allow for high resolution maps like what you're seeing there. As the game developed we added dungeon maps and scenario maps... it just needed a refresh, so we focused on rebuilding the system and then refreshing all the art we were working on, including all the continents we're working on, all the new zones, and that resulted in the updated world map. It's a definitely a timely process to refresh existing art, but we'll do it where it makes sense.
Q: The events of BfA's pre-patch have caused a lot of concern, especially in regards to the character of Sylvanas Windrunner.
Nolting: We understand. We're telling this huge, fantastic, dynamic story where you're seeing a lot of our characters evolve and doing these grandiose things (like burning down Teldrassil), and as the expansion unfolds you'll be able to see people like what Saurfang and what Jaina are up to.
So we're trying to tell a lot of cool stories, but a surprise is a surprise so you're just going to have to see where all these stories end up. We're really excited to get to further explore these characters and we think our players are too.
World of Warcraft's next expansion releases next week on August 14. You can pre-order Battle for Azeroth now at Mighty Ape.
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