World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth promises to reignite the conflict between the Alliance and Horde in exciting new ways. As with any Warcraft expansion, there's a ton of new features and ideas to talk about, which is why you should read our story that lays out everything you need to know about Battle for Azeroth. During Blizzcon, we sat down with game director Ion Hazzikostas and creative director Alex Afrasiabi to learn more about what this expansion means for the future of Warcraft, how it all works, and what aspects of Legion players love (or hate) will be carrying over as we hit the high seas in search of new allies to join the war effort.
PC Gamer: For a long time the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde has been ignored in favor of dealing with external threats, like the Burning Legion. Why is now the right time to respark the animosity that started it all?
Alex Afrasiabi: We feel the Alliance-Horde divide is foundational and fundamental to World of Warcraft as a franchise and as a story, but we danced around it for a very long time. We've had run-ins, we've had close calls, but we've never been able to finish it—to have that resolution. We're coming out of this expansion, Legion, and the world is not in a great place—the players and the factions themselves are not in a great place because there is all of this old animosity that hasn't been resolved. It's time to resolve it.
In terms of a threat, one of the things we talk about is, in Warcraft, do you take part of what you kill and become it? When we look at WoW, we've done so much with so many big external threats. We've taken out Old Gods, Dragon Aspects, Elemental Lords, the Lich King, Illidan—at least once, and pretty soon maybe a Titan. So when we talk about what's the biggest threat in this world, is it the Titan or is it the Dwarf Paladin that put a hammer in that Titan's head? We've got tens of thousands of almost-living gods [players] now running amok on this planet with very different ideologies. That seems insane but that also seems awesome to me. And that's how this expansion was born.
As these battles begin to play out, what are the consequences for one side or the other?
Afrasiabi: The loser is deleted, they're just done [laughs]. It depends on the content type, right? Warfronts, for example, are a type of large group PVE, and maybe there's some things we can do in the Warfront maps that will reflect your side's victory or whatever. But in the world itself, we will absolutely see the outcome of the big kick-off events of this expansion. As we push forward more and more into where this expansion is going, we'll probably see more stuff happening around us as a result of this big faction war.
Ion Hazzikostas: We are willing to permanently change the world where it makes sense and where it helps push that story forward. Actions need to have consequences.
During Blizzcon, you revealed that the Undercity and Teldrassil are going to be attacked in the opening salvo of the expansion, are they permanently changed?
Hazzikostas: They're in very dire straits. If you're a level one player making a new [undead] or night elf character, you'll still see the unruined old version because the timeline hasn't gotten to that point yet. Once you play through that story to the point of entering the events of Battle for Azeroth, you'll see the results of that battle play out in the world. But yeah, once Teldrassil is burned, it's burned.
How does that change play out exactly?
Hazzikostas: I would expect it to be the intro event. The same way Broken Shore kicked off the Legion expansion, what you will do when entering Battle for Azeroth, the first place where that will begin will be, for example, playing through the events for the Battle for Lordaeron [The Undercity].
But after the almost world-ending events of Legion, won't the back-to-basics conflict of Battle for Azeroth feel less dramatic?
Hazzikostas: Uhh, did you see that intro cinematic? [laughs]. Honestly, this is war. What's even more terrifying than a single big bad is a vast army of world-destroying forces like Alex alluded to. The conflict between the Alliance and Horde is something that's really at the heart of the franchise and it's something that we're really excited to return to. We're also going to be exploring all new lands, meeting new friends and new enemies, discovering mysteries that we have to unravel, and who knows where those will lead us.
Changes to PVP
How will this conflict tie in with the major changes coming to PVP rules?
Hazzikostas: This provides a foundation upon which we can build all new world PVP content. One of the big things that we've run into very frequently in the past, when discussing and brainstorming these types of ideas, was what does that mean for people who play on PVE servers? Are we making all this content and millions of people who play on PVE servers can't experience it? That doesn't feel very fair, so we generally would back away from those ideas or restrict them heavily. But now for Battle for Azeroth, everyone can play the way they want to play. People who feel stuck on PVP servers can opt of that experience without having to leave their friends. People who want a more active world PVP experience can get it now more than ever before.
Imagine Horde players getting a quest to infiltrate Kul Tiras and assassinate key high-value targets. While on the other end, Alliance players have a quest to kill Horde players trying to do just that. And those quests might only be available if you're in the PVP version of the world, but they'd be accessible to everyone who wants them. In the old days, we wouldn't have done that because it would've been content that was just not available to people on PVE servers and that would've been wrong.
That still leaves open the problem of World PVP being unbalanced due to higher level players killing lower level players. Is that a concern at all?
Hazzikostas: The stuff I just mentioned would be a max level quest, for example. There's still a lot of questions to answer here, so some of this is speculation on my part and maybe even irresponsible speculation. But when we're talking about this shared world, if we wanted to, and I'm not saying we're going to do this, for leveling players, we could say that if you're in a PVP enabled version of Hellfire Peninsula in Outland, you're only actually going to see players in the 60 to 80 level range in that shard. You don't have to worry about a level 120 playing coming along and one-shotting you. If they're in a PVP-enabled version of Outland, they'll be in a playground with people their own size. Yes, there's something to it, but I don't think it's particularly fun for people on either end of the fight to one shot somebody. I don't think anyone is actively looking for that experience with open-world PVP.
Leveling and gear
So each Faction has their own continent to level on, and once you get to level 120 the other faction's continent opens up. Will you be completing the same quests or is there a whole new set of quests available specific to your faction?
Afrasiabi: There's one layer which is World Quests. World Quests will open up to everybody on both continents at max level. There's another layer with the War Campaign, which is something that [progresses] as you level up. And part of that is to continue to back up this faction war as well. But also the other part of it being, look, I'm a horde player who has their base in Zandalar. If I'm going to go to Kul Tiras at some point, I need to have a little bit of context as to what's going on as well. So, hey, why am I interested as the horde to be there? We'll have quest lines that will help with that.
And when you get to max level, you'll have some amount of context. That doesn't mean that we won't also have other questlines at max level that you can access. WoW is a game that has a lot of neutral factions as well, so you can expect to quest with some of those neutral factions on the other continents.
Warforging was a pretty contentious part of Legion's gear because of its random nature. Is that system present at all in Battle for Azeroth?
Hazzikostas: Yes. The gist of it is when an item drops, it has a chance to become a superior version of itself. There's two main things that we like about this system. The first is the possibility for moments of surprise and excitement and not always knowing what's going to happen when you set out into the world or defeat a boss. You can always be surprised. The second is keeping some sense of goals to pursue and motivation. In the past, once you defeated a boss and got the helmet it drops, you might come back to that boss with a friend to help them out and you'd be like, okay there's nothing here that can benefit me. I don't care about the rewards of doing this right now, I'm only doing it to help my friend.
Now, there's always a chance to continue progressing and continue making your character stronger. Obviously we're mindful of taking that too far and having it feel like all of your progression depends on the roll of the dice with this system. So we're going to continue to tweak the frequency of those events and how they play out. Also the new Azerite armor system we have, driven by the Heart of Azeroth, will not be able to Titanforge or Warforge. They have enough depth and complexity and choices to make within them that we're not looking to add additional wrinkles. When you get a powerful helmet from a heroic-difficulty boss, that should just strictly be better than the helmet you got from the normal-difficulty boss, with more powerful traits for you to customize and unlock.
Is leveling your Heart of Azeroth something that you intend to stretch out across the entire lifecycle of the expansion?
Hazzikostas: Yes. Similar in a lot of ways to leveling your Artifact Weapon in Legion. More powerful pieces of Azerite Armor require a more powerful amulet to unlock their powers. This is really building upon a lot of the lessons we learned from the Artifact system in Legion. There's a lot of value in a universal reward, a universal progression goal, whether you're questing, doing a dungeon, helping a friend out with something, feeling like no matter what you did you log off at the end of the night a little bit closer to some tangible goal rather than depending purely on some lucky drop.
Island Expeditions and Warfronts
You've been quick to emphasize the replayability and variability of Island Expeditions, the new three-player PVPVE mode. Why is dynamic and replayable content so crucial to this expansion and WoW in general?
Hazzikostas: It's one of the things that we're super excited about when it comes to that feature. We have a lot of content that is the same every time you fight it: A raid boss does what it's going to do, you learn the moves, you master it, and that's what that experience is about. But with Island Expeditions, we really wanted to capture this sense of exploration, and what exploration means is not knowing what's around the next corner until you get there. We learned lessons from content over the years, I think there were a lot of great aspects to Scenarios back in Mists of Pandaria, as three player role-agnostic content. But once players had done them a few times, they had seen what it was all about and it's not that exciting coming back for the fifth or the sixth time.
We're really excited with Island Expeditions to be able to really vary that experience up. We built a system from the ground up to keep it fun and exciting on your 10th visit, on your 20th visit and beyond. We want this to be a mainstay of the endgame experience in Battle for Azeroth and we're leveraging all of the lessons we've learned over the years to make that happen.
A big part of that variability, I expect, comes from the enemy AI. They're not just regular mobs, but think and strategize to undermine your own plans. That sounds like an extreme technical challenge making life-like enemies, no?
Hazzikostas: It's something that we've had a group of engineers focused on heavily since before Legion came out. I can't get into the very technical details, obviously, but it's more about creating frameworks for mobs to be smarter than they have been in the past.
A mob in World of Warcraft, at its basic roots, just wants to walk up to you and punch you in the face. Our designers can override that behavior and say, no, stay at a distance and cast a spell, but that's about it. We had to teach mobs to understand the lay of the land, to understand where objectives were and how to get from point A to point B. How to prioritize different possibilities. Do I stay here and defend this objective or do I go over there and pursue something else? Do I try and kill that player that is close to stealing something that I want? What maximizes the likelihood of securing all of the resources on the island and winning at the end of the day?
It's been a lot of fun. Everyone who has played it internally has come away pleased and surprised because you get lulled into thinking of mobs in WoW as one thing, and these are something very different. We can't wait to get this into players hands and it's going to be one of the most fun parts of our upcoming beta.
Is that a system that you might expand outward to enemy AI across the world?
Hazzikostas: Who knows? I don't think we want boars in the world acting this smart. We're focused really on Island Expeditions for now. As with a lot of different types of tech, we create it for a very specific purpose, refine it in that environment, and then by applying it, we learn and are maybe inspired to come up with other applications. But it's premature to really speculate.
What about the origins of Warfronts, the other new type of group content? With the Legion prelaunch and Demon Invasions, you've been been experimenting a lot with bringing RTS elements into WoW...
Hazzikostas: It's just us telling the story of large scale battles on the homefront. Island expeditions are small skirmishes in the new world. This is defending the homeland and it's a large 20 player raid experience, but you're not fighting a dragon, you're fighting an army, and what does an army fighting an army in Warcraft mean? Well, in a lot of ways it means the RTS roots, it means building up a base, training troops, and researching upgrades. We have this framework upon which to draw from both for systems and the fantasy of it. Our goal here is to put players right into the thick of battle. If you imagine what playing one of those RTS missions was like 15 years ago, what if that was translated into World of Warcraft? What if you were the hero, but instead of clicking around in Warcraft 3 to send them somewhere, you were doing it yourself, leading troops, destroying the enemy base, and living that out?
A lot of players expected the Old Gods would have a much more prominent role in this expansion thanks to teases in Legion, but the reveal seemed pretty light on information about them. Are they a threat we'll be facing?
Afrasiabi: [Laughs] The Old Gods are tricky. When we talk about Wrath of the Lich King, right, was anyone expecting Yogg Saron? You never expect the Old Gods, and that's when they strike. So the reality is, we have a lot of enemies in this world and we'll take them out one at a time, so who knows?