Blizzard: There are 'things to learn' from the mistakes of Battle for Azeroth

Since its release back in August 2018, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth has been mired in issues with its core progression, class design, and other smaller controversies. Players took issue with everything from the way its Horde versus Alliance story was told to small changes introduced in each patch that felt unnecessary. Coupled with Activision-Blizzard unexpectedly laying off eight percent of its employees, it's been a rocky year for World of Warcraft.

But there's still plenty of reasons to be excited. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down game director Ion Hazzikostas to discuss the current state of WoW, what Blizzard got wrong and how it's fixing that, and what the next 8.2 major update looks like.

PC Gamer: So the next major patch is 8.2, Rise of Azshara. What can you tell me about that?

Ion Hazzikostas: Not too long after this, we're going to have a large info dump for the community and the [public test realm] for Rise of Azshara will start and that's when we'll pull back the curtains fully. We'll have a lot more to talk about in the coming weeks of April through May. I think, high level, a lot of what we talked about at Blizzcon and have talked about since, it's a very large content update. We're taking players to Nazjatar and we're taking players to the lost land of Mechagon. It's two separate outdoor zones to adventure in with reputations and progression unto themselves, a large multi-boss mega-dungeon kind of like Karazhan but set in Mechagon, and, of course, Azshara's Palace raid as well as improvements to the Heart of Azeroth and many other supporting features. 

That all sounds great. How will these zones compare to Argus from Legion patch 7.3? Will there be new progression systems to play with, like upgrading the Vindicaar and further augmenting your Legion Artifact weapon?

Yes, definitely. When we create endgame spaces at this point, we're looking to draw upon lessons learned from many expansions worth of building that content. Whether it's daily quests from back in the day or Timeless Isle, or what we've done more recently in places like Argus and the Broken Shore, and taking the best of those, carrying that forward, but also trying some all new things. We want it to feel not just like a familiar formula applied to a new set of terrain textures and creatures to fight, but actually meaningfully different game experience than what you've been doing in Kul Tiras and Zandalar over the past few months.

What about the Heart of Azeroth, though? You said you're making some changes in 8.2, can you elaborate what those are? 

There will be a progression path within the Heart of Azeroth itself, so as you level up your Heart you'll be able to earn access to and choose among a variety of new active and passive powers.

Ion Hazzikostas

I don't want to fully spoil all the details, since Rise of Azshara is so close to being on the PTR. But there's a lot of fun customization in armor pieces for the Azerite System, but having to re-earn access to those traits whenever you get to a new tier of gear, that's something that we've heard a lot of negative feedback about from players and it's something that we want to move completely away from.

Going forward, we're going to keep making new Azerite traits that are unique to Azshara's raid or to Mechagon that complement the existing pool of traits, but armor will just have those traits fully unlocked and players can choose what they want most for their playstyle. Instead, there will be a progression path within the Heart of Azeroth itself, so as you level up your Heart you'll be able to earn access to and choose among a variety of new active and passive powers. And when I say active that includes being able to select an active ability that's a key-bind kind of like your Artifact active that really will meaningfully change your combat rotation immediately. That was something that was missed from what Artifacts offered in Legion that we wanted to reintroduce.

So the Azerite system in general has been a huge point of contention for players this expansion. It must be really frustrating to have launched Battle for Azeroth and have people not like a major system, and then spend all this time just playing catch-up to fix it. Are you happy with how long it took to respond to that feedback and implement changes? Is there more you wish you could've done quicker?

I'll let you know in a few weeks once we see how the next round of changes are received. But overall I'm very proud of the work the team has done. We've been listening from the start and acting where we could. Identifying the early round of problems based on feedback and our own experiences playing the game and seeing how things were unfolding. We made a bunch of targeted improvements in Tides of Vengeance, which was our first opportunity that we had to do things like adding a second ring of Azerite traits that made getting individual traits much more accessible, adding customization ... so that people can mix and match. We've seen a lot more depth and engagement of the system and good feedback about the mechanics of having the armor itself as a result of that. 

Now, addressing the core concern that I alluded to of having armor for the delivery system for these traits and then having new tiers of more powerful gear feel like a step backwards, forcing you to re-earn the things you once had, that was beyond the scope of Tides of Vengeance for a solution. This is something that we've been working on that we knew we'd be working on for months now but Rise of Azshara is going to be our first chance to deliver that. But it's been a journey that began in the weeks immediately after Battle for Azeroth's launch, and we look forward to seeing through to its conclusion in the very near future.

How is this experience going to affect the next expansion when you're looking at remixing and playing up the gear progression again?

A big failing of the way we approached designing Battle for Azeroth and testing it was we waited too long in the process to get the Azerite armor and the Azerite traits fully stood up in the beta.

Ion Hazzikostas

It gives us a lot to think about, for sure. There's some design philosophy lessons learned in terms of the importance of player agency, what types of progression do and don't feel good, permanent versus temporary power. In some ways, we designed the Azerite armor system to respond to what we saw as a failing in Legion Artifacts in a lot of ways. Legion Artifacts had fantastic choice and customization but it was very frontloaded. It was one of those areas that players didn't complain about, but we saw a lot and perceived as designers. For the first two months you were making tons of choices as you were speccing out your Ashbringer or your Doomhammer or whatever else, but then for the rest of the expansion, once you unlocked those gold border traits, you were just putting Artifact Power into a linear progression that was giving you small incremental upgrades for the next year and a half. You weren't making any big choices and you were like every other [Retribution] paladin because you all had the same fully unlocked Ashbringer. That felt like a missed opportunity for us.

We wanted to find a way to have that alternate advancement at max level, where you'd be presented with a stream of continual, interesting choices for new pieces of armor that you would get would offer opportunities and possibilities and things to unlock and goals to work towards. That all sounded great on paper, obviously, and we've seen a lot of the negative feedback of the execution of that idea.

Procedurally, there are definitely some things for us to learn. A big failing of the way we approached designing Battle for Azeroth and testing it was we waited too long in the process to get the Azerite armor and the Azerite traits fully stood up in the beta. We were playtesting them internally and making sure they felt good to have, but we didn't leave ourselves enough time in beta to get a good feel for how we or players are going to play through the game organically at max level. Hitting 120, doing dungeons over the course of weeks, upgrading your gear, getting your artifact power up.

We missed some important data there that would have been essential to catch this earlier that might've led to us making improvements before the system was live. So I think with our major progression systems, anything that we do going forward, it's going to be an even higher priority for us to get those into players hands from some of the earlier stages of our alpha tests and early beta rather than further along the line. We can take our best guesses and we can play test, but there's no substitute for throwing hundreds of thousands of players at an endgame system and seeing exactly what they're going to do with it and how it's going to feel.

You recently removed and consolidated a lot of portals to various zones found in the main cities. The feedback was pretty negative, but I also can't count the amount of times I've heard people complain about flying mounts ruining the sense of scale in Azeroth. Some people feel like WoW is too convenient and others want that convenience. It seems like there's two different types of people play WoW who want very different things. How do you meet those disparate needs without just making both sides unhappy?

When you have two groups that often want literally diametrically opposite things, the answer is either go to one extreme and please one group but alienate maybe the majority of the rest of the playerbase—because the reality is there are more than just two groups, there are a dozen different groups and playstyles and facets to almost every issue. Or we can find some middle ground that isn't going to be perfect for everybody... That's where we landed with flying. We started off with saying okay you get flying for some gold at max level. Then we went to the other end of the pendulum and went nevermind, no flying ever. Where we've settled now, where it's something you can count on unlocking and look forward to earning... we think that feels good over all. Of course people still give us feedback that flying should be unlocked right away, but as compromises go that feels like a good one.

On the portals… We wanted to consolidate that into something that was more intuitive and made more sense and also showcased some more of our city art better. On the other hand, we also didn't want to be in a long term world where three years from now, players picking up WoW were learning that the best place to set your hearthstone is Legion Dalaran because that's actually the place that has portals to all these different places in the world including these current capital cities. That's a very strange place for the game to be in in the long term, which is why we've been doing this progressively.

The overall intent wasn't to reduce inconvenience in some massive way, we added new portals in certain locations, consolidated them, removed the old portals, and then of course heard a round of feedback that led to us reintroducing a Caverns of Time portal because that seemed like the main outlier pain point in this new world we had set up.

Poring over the feedback, I saw one comment that stuck out to me in particular. This person said that even though there was a precedent to removing portals, the reality is that taking stuff away from players never feels good. At this point, how do you add stuff without just pissing people off down the road when you need to scale it back or take it out entirely (like Artifact weapons)?

This touches on your earlier question about things we learned from BFA and the feedback to it. There's no question, we're in the almost unique position given the game's longevity and the longer-term aspirations of balancing long and short term.

We need to be more willing than we have been in the last couple of years and expansions to make permanent additions to the game.

Ion Hazzikostas

A lot of the times, players react to a decision and they're bewildered by it and no one could understand why we would do something that makes the game clearly less fun today, but it's because we've been burned in the past and we're worried about some consequence three years down the line.

Taken to their ultimate conclusion, what do Artifact weapons mean [if we keep them forever?] Do they mean you literally never get a weapon upgrade again in World of Warcraft… that eight years from now you're still wielding your Ashbringer? And then, at the same time, if we signed up for those indefinite costs and we committed to never taking things out, we might have never made an Artifact system in the first place, and we were freer with it and did cooler things because we had a sense from the start that this was going to be an expansion-specific feature, so let's pull out all the stops and not worry about how do we leave room in this system for progression for the next three, five years down the road once this expansion is over.

At the same time, I think we've likely been leaning a bit too far in that direction. We've been burned, without question, by adding systems and feeling the burden of layered systems that need to be maintained going forward in terms of complexity and balance, and just in terms of what goes into making the game. But that doesn't mean that players don't still want cool new things as they increase their character's level, as they go into new worlds, as they enter new expansions. We need to be more willing than we have been in the last couple of years and expansions to make permanent additions to the game and accept that, yes, there will be some untidiness down the road but it'll be worth it because it's exciting for players. People want that out of an MMO, they want an RPG as you're adventuring and progressing and gaining new things.

Yeah, that makes sense. Well I appreciate you making time to chat!

Anytime.

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.