How WoW's "craziest world event" borrows from Blizzard’s RTS past

This fall is going to be a make-or-break moment for World of Warcraft in a number of ways. Following the rather bitter aftertaste of Warlords of Draenor, which started out great and then led into an almost two year drought of things to do, many are wondering if WoW's golden years are behind it. Next week on August 9, Warcraft's pre-launch event begins when the Burning Legion launches its full-scale assault on Azeroth, and Blizzard seems to be going big or going home. I caught up with senior game designers Jeremy Feasel and Jonathan LeCraft to talk about how Blizzard is leveraging every resource—even its history with RTSes and failure in Warlords of Draenor—to prove that World of Warcraft can still evolve and move forward.

PC Gamer: So on August 9th, Demon Hunters are finally playable for those who have preordered, but just as exciting is the demon invasion of Azeroth pre-launch event that everyone can play. It sounds spooky, what's that all about?

Jeremy Feasel

Jeremy Feasel: Demon Invasions were our first real attempt to put our 'scenario tech' into the outdoor world. This gave us the opportunity to do something really cool that you do kind of inherently without noticing it in scenarios and instances. You all contribute to the same level of progression—we all get to see a big progress bar go up and it feels like we're coming together to fight against the Legion. Putting that together was cool and it gave us the opportunity for players to feel like we're defending our homeworld together. We're excited at the ability to do large multiplayer, outdoor, everybody contributes quests. 

...Another thing that we're really excited about [in] Legion invasions is the scaling—it scales from level 10 to 100. So anybody that's in that zone that's even just leveling up can participate and can get loot from it that is potentially a loot upgrade that scales down to their level. That level scaling tech was another thing that we're very proud of. And that will not only allow anybody to participate and get upgrades from demon invasions that are appropriate to their character and immediately useable, but also anybody in the endgame zones and anybody in the leveling zones can also contribute. If you and a friend are leveling in different zones and you want to go hop over to their zone, the fact that you're two levels higher than them isn't going to matter, you can still play together. We really kind of bring players together in a way that we're really happy with.

All those things together contributed to, OK, this is a pretty cool event, but way back at the beginning when we were making Legion invasions, I would go so far as to say they weren't cool enough at that point. We had these crystals that spawned up and they had imps around them and a small variety of different things you would do to them. And then we thought, well, what if we could also spawn giant demon structures and we thought about this more, like what if the demons were bringing an RTS army to our world—like they're the Protoss, right? How would they invade our world, what buildings and structures would they bring? How would those structures operate? How would they be powered? Would they build a farm? 

Jonathan LeCraft: No, no, no farms.

Feasel: [laughs] But you know, what are their footmen, what's their riflemen, what's their knights? If you were looking at this from very high top-down, and this was Warcraft 4, what would the demon RTS mission look like? And we took a look at the tech we had at the time for that, and it turned out that the garrison buildings were kind of our saviour on that one. One of the pieces of technology that allowed garrison buildings to work was our ability to swap entire huge structures into the world whenever we felt like it—we didn't have that ability before and we had to do crazy terrain phasing and things like that that you've seen in the past and took a lot of production time.

So just on a whim we decided to spawn a whole bunch of giant scourge ziggurats all around Elwynn Forest just to see if we could and if it would break the game.

So just on a whim we decided to spawn a whole bunch of giant scourge ziggurats all around Elwynn Forest just to see if we could and if it would break the game. It didn't break anything. It actually worked and the creatures pathed correctly and it looked awesome and that was the impetus for, "Holy crap, we can make giant demon structures grow up out of nothing in these zones and then take over a huge chunk of space and have demons come pouring out of them." It really feels like an evolution of a pre-launch event and felt like something we should totally do. 

That sounds pretty epic. But you also have a pretty long tradition of world events, how do demon invasions size up to previous events in terms of scope?

Feasel: I think this is the craziest world event we've ever done. We've had designers working on it for over a year. We're taking over six entire zones and that includes four-stage events with probably close to a hundred demon bosses that can spawn that are all fully [voice acted]. There's a dozen—I shouldn't give you an exact number—there's a bunch of different weapon [skins] you can get. There are four different armor sets, there's a pet, there's multiple achievements. There are dread infiltrators—dreadlords—that are invading Stormwind and Orgrimmar that are kind of our zombie plague from Wrath of the Lich King version two where they turn you into mini-vampires and you get to go around turning other people into vampires, and eventually you get to turn into a dreadlord world boss in the middle of the city and kill other players if you feel like it. We have Varian and Sylvanas and all the leaders of the Horde and the Alliance heading to the Broken Shore to stop Gul'dan. And every player, even those who haven't preordered Legion, will be able to go and contribute to that and see what the aftermath to that is. It's probably one of the craziest pre-launch aftermaths that we've ever done. It's very Game of Thrones.

That's really interesting because that's such a shift from Warlords of Draenor, which was heavily criticized for isolating players inside of their own garrison. How much of that feedback from Warlords fueled your decisions regarding Legion?

Feasel: There were a huge number of lessons we learned from Warlords. Not the least of which being that we didn't spend enough time there and we didn't make good enough use of our assets and the amount of buildup that we had done of that lore and story of your garrison—of everything. Getting out of that space really quickly really wasn't the right decision. That's one of the reasons why we're considering a little bit longer of an expansion pack process with more patches, so that we can tell a better story and we can create this crazy story arc with Illidan. You wouldn't want Illidan's story arc to end with one patch, right? That would go out like a wet balloon—like a fart noise. You want that arc to be either one of a crazy redemption story or corruption story or somewhere in between, wherever we're taking Illidan—and we're taking him to a very cool place and I'm excited for players to see that. But even from a top level storyline-telling perspective, we felt like this needed to be a really solid expansion for us.

...I think that a lot of the fan comments at the end of Warlords of Draenor were exactly what we were thinking.

One of the things that we as a team feel in general is that we've evolved a huge number different portions in WoW that we saw didn't evolve enough in Warlords of Draenor. For example, the [Mists of Pandaria] daily quest system was awesome, had great structure, told great stories, but was maybe a little bit boring on a day-to-day basis when you kept having to do the same quests over and over again and each had its own individual downsides. But to go to Warlords where the quests were very not story-oriented and you kind of just did a 'bar' objective for apexis [a type of currency for endgame] also felt like it was very much the wrong decision. I would also say that it was the last two expansions together have taught us where we need to spend our time and our bucks in terms of evolving WoW. And I think that a lot of the fan comments at the end of Warlords of Draenor were exactly what we were thinking. Where, wow, we need to evolve our endgame system into something new and different and unique. We need to evolve into world quests, essentially. We need to evolve professions. We need to evolve the five-man game, and let's blow that out a little bit more into why don't we evolve all of itemization and allow players to play their own way and do whatever is the most challenging or most interesting or most difficult for your character … Everything should contribute to World of Warcraft feeling like a massively multiplayer online game down to the base rules of the game, that players should be able to fight [together] in the outdoor world and both get quest credit.

Jonathan LeCraft

And how do Demon Hunters fit into this new vision? Players have been wanting to play them for ages and it feels like you've held off. Aside from the obvious thematic connection, why make them available now? 

Feasel: Well you know, whenever we discuss what an expansion is going to be about—where do we start from? We start from very high level themes, and this expansion's theme is, of course, telling the next portion of Gul'dan's story, the return of the Burning Legion. We felt like it was the right time to bring [the Burning Legion] back, but to show what their full power and capability is, and to tell the rest of Illidan's story and his destiny … As soon as we had that general theme, that big enemy, and that awesome story arc going, it was only really natural, I think, that Demon Hunters came out of it.

LeCraft: Oh absolutely. And again, we had been looking for an opportunity to add them to the game for a long time, and not quite getting them into the Burning Crusade because we weren't really ready to add a class to the game at that point yet. We kinda had to wait a few expansions until that opportunity came around again.

Feasel: You know what is really great about adding them right now, though? We had the time to really focus on the tech that we needed to make moving around in combat and zipping around like a magical fire-shooting ninja feel awesome in World of Warcraft which we didn't have the ability to do before. It took quite a number of major bug-fixes in order for the Demon Hunters to really feel like they're zipping around and it feels incredibly responsive. I'm actually glad that we held them off until this point.

Everything about the demon invasions and the Demon Hunters sounds very ambitious. Not that I want to look too far ahead, but assuming you pull all of this off, how are you ever going to top this for the next expansion? I mean, The Burning Legion is one of the bigger threats Azeroth has ever seen.

Feasel: If you think the Burning Legion is the biggest threat to Azeroth you should read the Chronicle again. [laughs]

LeCraft: Oooo! 

Oh, damn. That's awkward.

LeCraft: Yeah. [laughs]

What a way to end an interview.

World of Warcraft: Legion's prelaunch events kick off next week on August 9 with the start of the demon invasion into Azeroth and, for those who have preordered, access to the Demon Hunter class.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.