World of Warcraft's director says the game is 'letting go of old stubbornness' after the fumbles of Shadowlands

(Image credit: Blizzard)

World of Warcraft feels like it's entering a new era—Microsoft acquisition aside, Dragonflight managed to take a bite out of the design choices responsible for Shadowland's historic low point for the game. 

Scuppering borrowed power, for one—and not having over 200 days pass between its release and its first major patch for another. Making bigger structural changes takes time, though, and we're just starting to see them come through in earnest.

There's a whole new approach to account-wide stuff with the warbands system, not to mention three expansions announced at once—a complete gear-shift from the throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to past expansion packs that led to a giant sword shoved into the planet. The gloves are off, and that's largely due to player feedback, says Game Director Ion Hazzikostas in a recent interview with prominent WoW YouTuber and streamer Preach.

"It really is letting go of old stubbornness … a mix of seeing reception to Shadowlands, [and] a mix of seeing how the modern playerbase played [WoW] Classic, over the course of like, 2019-2020, that made us rethink all of these assumptions about how WoW should be."

Hazzikostas seems pretty relaxed and open here, which—as plenty are noting in the video's comments—is a far cry from the lockjaw umming-and-ahhing of interviews and panels past. He remarks that a lot of WoW's previous design choices were "handed down" from the people who trained him up as game director. 

"Your job as game director is to 'safeguard this tradition: do it well.' Taking a step back and being like 'no, what if the tradition's wrong now?' … that can be a hard conclusion to come to, but we're there."

Preach asks whether knocking down one design domino led to others falling, too: "I think it [did], ultimately. It was asking the question of 'are these principles actually making our players happier? Who are they serving?' If we're honouring some vision [but] it's alienating our players, who is that good for? It's not us, and it's certainly not them."

Though this shift in priorities occurred a while back, during the Shadowlands expansion itself, popping open the hood and rewiring the whole game isn't easy. "We ran into a bunch of technical challenges. You could see the piecemeal movement in these directions, more things unlocking in vendors and being available to alts and so forth … but the actual solution required expansion-level work to deliver."

Hazzikostas says that it's not as simple as moving around a number in lines of code: "it's all the other places that reference the number. All the parts of our quest system, our player condition system, our vendors, etcetera." He also says there are just straight-up design challenges to be puzzled out, and that he doesn't want players doing the exact same grind on multiple alts just to get a leg up. "All of that needs to change as well."

WoW really is a good example of how hard it is to steer a game that big in different directions, especially with its size and age taken into account. Hazzikostas' timeline puts these realisations at around 2021, and we're only now starting to see SS Warcraft pull away from the coral reefs it'd been scraping over for years. 

Hazzikostas is talking a big game here, but WoW players are going to find out next year whether Blizzard can deliver—using the first of its upcoming trio of expansions, The War Within, to test run its new account-wide, "quality time" design philosophy. Dragonflight has taken the first tentative steps towards convincing badly-burnt fans that things have changed, but that won't matter unless they properly follow through.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.