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WoW's game director opens up about its current struggles and future plans

World of Warcraft
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

World of Warcraft's in the midst of one of its most challenging years in its history. Between the Activision Blizzard lawsuits, delays, and simmering frustration with the lack of communication from the development team over contentious design choices, I can't remember another time where the future of the MMO felt this uncertain. And in a surprisingly in-depth interview with VentureBeat, World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas talks about all of it.

A big chunk of the interview is focused on update 9.1.5, which was released today, and its ambivalent reception from the playerbase. The biggest part of 9.1.5 is a massive rework of Shadowlands' core systems that address many longstanding complaints that players have had since the expansion first entered early alpha. The Covenant System, for example, will now let players more freely switch between Covenants (they're like different undead street gangs) and access their different rewards without punishing them. Likewise, the Conduit System—a kind of moddable skill tree—will also remove restrictions on how often players can swap Conduit skills to change up their playstyle.

Those are all good changes, but many players are frustrated that it took Blizzard nearly a year after Shadowlands' launch to address them—especially given that it was the single biggest point of feedback from Shadowlands' beta and alpha tests. "We heard that from them and should have changed our minds there sooner," Hazzikostas said.

Patch 9.1.5 is just one part of the interview, however. Hazzikostas also weighs in on the changes that Blizzard has recently made to older quests and NPCs to remove offensive or insensitive jokes, like one particular questline that misgendered male blood elves as a bit about their "feminine" qualities. But what's most interesting is Hazzikostas' perspective on how the development team is changing and, more importantly, how old design philosophies are being retired. The changes coming in 9.1.5, Hazzikostas says, aren't just "one-off" but endemic to a big shift in how Blizzard thinks about the game. 

"It’s a reflection of us changing a lot of the underlying philosophies that have motivated our approach to designing WoW," he said. "A lot of these things, like I mentioned regarding conduit energy, are outgrowths of lessons that were taught to us by our predecessors, by the founders and the leaders of the team, about the importance of meaningful choice, the importance of preserving character investment, that may have led to us not being friendly to alt gameplay [the practice of playing multiple characters] and people’s ability to get caught up on their alts. The reality is, the way people play the game has evolved. What was the right answer for the WoW player base and for the game 15 years ago may not be today. There’s some stubbornness, but clinging to those old lessons, some things are hard to let go of when your training and your education as a designer and a developer on the team led to having these things instilled in you."

If you're a WoW player, the entire interview is worth a read because Hazzikostas dives into a lot of long-standing player issues with a frankness that is honestly refreshing. At the same time, it's also frustrating seeing that many of the major takeaways—like being better at listening to player feedback—have been the same lessons Hazzikostas has talked about needing to learn for years, dating back to Battle for Azeroth's launch in 2018.

Patch 9.1.5 is out today, you can read about the long list of changes it brings here. 

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.