'It's time to rebuild some foundations': Shadowlands forced Blizzard to rethink World of Warcraft's oldest ideas to make it a better MMO, director says

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World of Warcraft's developers did an abrupt about-face after largely refusing to acknowledge player feedback during the Shadowlands expansion that nearly killed the game. With the MMO's 10th expansion, The War Within, on the horizon, game director Ion Hazzikostas told PC Gamer that Blizzard is more willing than ever to re-examine WoW's basic systems to stay in tune with what players want.

"The last few years really have been a time of introspection and reexamination of all of the building blocks, the design DNA, of WoW," he said. "Turning over every stone holding it up to the light and examining it and asking ourselves, 'This clearly served us well for a long time, is it still the right thing for our players in 2024?' 

"And in many cases the answer is yes, put the stone back and we continue. In other cases, it's time to rebuild some foundations."

A recent example proves the point: the radical overhaul of Mythic Plus.

Mythic Plus-difficulty dungeons have long followed an established pattern in WoW. Each week, different affixes add new challenges to existing dungeons, like one that increases a boss’ health and damage. Some of these mechanics can be more punishing for players of certain roles in the five-person groups that regularly run them. Some weeks tanks or healers would hate their lives, other weeks were seen as easier "push weeks" for climbing through the difficulty tiers, and sometimes they were so hard even top-end teams would limit their playtime.

When beta testing began for Mythic Plus dungeons for the upcoming expansion, The War Within, players responded immediately and harshly about the minor changes to the balance of affixes. In particular, high-end teams again expressed their frustration with the affix system in general and how they inhibit the fun of trying to push high-tier Mythic Plus dungeons.

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And Blizzard responded. No longer would affixes affect "push keys", or those at or above level 12 in the infinitely-scaling difficulty progression. Four existing unpopular affixes were removed altogether. Another four that were in testing were thrown out. Fortified (an affix that buffed the "trash mobs" in the dungeons) and Tyrannical (which buffed bosses) were effectively taken off the table by adding both affixes to all dungeons at or above level 10.

The goal was to keep the variety of affixes for players at lower levels to keep dungeons interesting, but allow hardcore push teams to work against raw difficulty alone, as they had been asking to do. It was a frankly wild set of changes, and we're only two months away from the launch of the expansion.

Out with the old

Hazzikostas' interview comments suggest there may be more of this radical listening to come.

It took Blizzard some time to fully realize the shift in WoW's audience, he said.

"I think it was beginning but definitely accelerated over the course of Shadowlands where, from a design perspective especially, we had a bit of a reckoning," Hazzikostas said. "We had built systems and leaned on what seemed like time-honored WoW principles like deep investment in your character and meaningful choices and differentiation."

That led to choices such as locking players and characters into alignment with particular in-game factions, unable to earn the rewards or cosmetics of the others.

"But what we were hearing from players was 'that's not what we want anymore. I did this one, why do I have to do it again? I don't want this power to be tied to a cosmetic choice, I want them to be separate,'" he said.

Blizzard's failure to respond to those issues caused a significant exodus of players during Shadowlands, according to a GDC presentation earlier this year from former Warcraft general manager John Hight. In the follow-up expansion, Dragonflight, Blizzard finally put in the work to acknowledge this growing problem and faced it head-on to great success.

"That kind of began that process of like [asking ourselves], 'These were lessons that were instilled in us by our forebears as designers on the team, as developers on the team, but are we going to blindly cling to them?" Hazzikostas said.

"Or are we going to face that reality that players have changed, the way people approach WoW has changed and it's our duty as caretakers of this world not just to stubbornly cling to our original vision but to evolve and meet them where they are and to ensure that Azeroth remains a place that they want it to be.'"

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Warbands are a great example of how WoW is evolving in the War Within. The rising problem of character-locked progression will disappear. Almost everything you earn or accomplish will be applied to every character you choose to enlist in your Warband, fundamentally changing how you interact with the MMO. Hazzikostas has described it in recent interviews as a system for the player behind the keyboard and not just their individual characters. It's the kind of feature that probably wouldn've have went over well 10 years ago.

But the overwhelmingly positive response to the Mythic plus changes–and others made along the way with this philosophy in mind–seems to suggest Blizzard might be on the right track.

The War Within, WoW's 10th expansion, will launch on August 26 (with early access for those who pre-order available three days before).

With contributions from