World of Warcraft lead designer talks patch 6.2 and flyable mounts

World of Warcraft flying mount

When Blizzard announced that flying mounts would never take to the skies in the World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor expansion, people were upset. No matter how rational the studio's position on the matter, a large portion of the WoW community complained that it should at least be an option. People like to fly, after all. Who doesn't like to fly?

Such was the outcry, that news of Draenor's massive 6.2 patch had started to fade into the background. As one of the game's biggest patches ever, 6.2 will introduce a whole new zone set in the Tanaan Jungle, a new 13 boss raid in the form of Hellfire Citadel, new difficulty settings and much more.

Then, earlier this week, lead game designer Ion Hazzikostas announced that the studio had reversed its position: flying mounts are in, but with a catch: a handful of achievements and milestones need to be reached before airborne mounts can be unlocked. After all, how else to ensure players properly explore your impeccably constructed world, when they can just fly over it?

I sat down with WoW lead game designer Ion Hazzikostas this morning to talk about the update and the mount controversy.

This is among the largest patches for WoW. Blizzard is usually generous with its content updates but why did you go all out this time?

6.2 is definitely huge. It has a lot of the standard hallmarks of a major WoW patch: a new Tanaan Jungle zone and the Hellfire Citadel raid with 13 bosses, but we’re also adding new features like the shipyards, which are an extension of garrisons, the Mythic dungeon difficulty and Timewalking, which allows players to visit previous expansions. There's also a bonus holiday structure and an adventure guide, which points people to the latest and greatest content appropriate to their character.

Ultimately, we know we need to deliver as much content as possible to fans that are just hungry for it. Draenor came out in a very strong fashion: players loved and devoured the level up quest content, got their garrison started and built that up, but they’re now at a place where they’re ready for something new, and we knew we had to deliver in a big way.

I’m interested in the Timewalking feature. WoW nostalgia was bound to happen as it’s a ten year old game, and there are whole subreddits dedicated to its history. How does it feel to be expanding on a world and universe that some players have been a part of for ten years?

It’s both amazing and humbling. It comes with a certain amount of responsibility and we knew that going into something like Timewalking, for some people this will be the first time they’re going to experience those old dungeons.

On the other hand, you risk tarnishing memories for those who were there the first time, and that’s one of the riskiest parts of the feature for people who have been with us for eight or nine years. You have people who struggled with friends or guild mates just to complete the dungeon once. The WoW class design and the game as a whole has changed a lot since then, so while these dungeons aren’t exactly a walk in the park they’re not going to capture that super-hardcore experience. For some that might be a disappointment, but at the same time there’s something nice about basking in that nostalgia and getting the chance to run through the Arcatraz or The Shattered Halls for the first time in years.

Mounts were originally ruled out for the Warlords of Draenor expansion, but you announced yesterday that they're being introduced. Was that a reluctant change of heart?

I wouldn’t describe it as reluctant. We definitely heard feedback from our community and continued a conversation. The decision had been a difficult one for us to begin with. We went back and forth on it internally and there were a lot of talking points within the team.

We thought at the time that we had the right answer, but what we heard from the community is that once the word ‘never’ was out there, it changed the conversation a little bit. There’s a certain terrible finality to the word ‘never’. Before, people might have accepted not being able to fly in Draenor, but when they started to realise that, "wow, I’ll never be able to use Invincible’s Reins or Mimiron’s Head" or some other prized possession that they’ve worked for, suddenly that sparked an emotional response.

So we reopened the conversation internally and I think we’re very happy with the final compromise. The solution was to preserve our original design goal of ensuring players are exploring the world and experiencing it from the ground, and getting to appreciate its scope and its size and engaging the gameplay aspects of exploration and mystery. Then, once they’ve done that, there’s no reason not to allow them to fly and navigate in all dimensions throughout the world, and also unlock that ability for their alts.

I was browsing the WoW forums and lots of people were ecstatic that you guys changed tack on mounts, but lots of people were angry about it too. The decision making at Blizzard must be a tense process.

There’s definitely a great amount of responsibility and we approach decisions like that with humility, because we know that we have the experience of millions of players in our hands, and these decisions aren’t made lightly. A large group of people from different disciplines talk these things through to find the best long term option for the game going forward. Almost our entire team are avid players of WoW, so we get a lot of the viewpoints internally, too. Certainly very strong and passionate ones. We know that when we’re dealing with a player base this diverse, decisions are always going to be inhospitable to some people. It’s impossible to please everyone, but our goal is to do what’s right by the game as a whole and the majority of players going forward.

How long do you think it would take a dedicated WoW player to actually unlock the mount features?

It depends on how much of the content they’ve done already: a lot of the requirements to unlock mounts are things players will already have completed over the course of 6.0 and 6.1: exploring the continent, completing the quest line etc. The new Tanaan continent in particular, it has three reptuations.

The fastest you could meet the requirements... I think it would take about three weeks? That’s being very dedicated and doing your daily quests every single day, I would expect that by a month and half or so, many people who are trying to earn this will have it and that it shouldn’t be too rigorous a grind, it’s more about exploring and participating in the content.

How big is Tanaan Jungle in geographical terms?

It’s certainly a large zone, and as large as other zones in Draenor – there’s quite a lot of ground to cover and space for players to explore, different environments ranging from tribal villages to lush jungles to completely corrupted rivers.

You told me last year that you expect WoW to stick around another ten years: has the feedback and engagement with Draenor reinforced that position for you?

Absolutely. I think we have an incredibly passionate player base and we're going to keep making content and worlds for them to explore and challenges for them to overcome and fantastical things to do for as long as they’re looking to play it. I think that’s going to be for a very long time to come.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.