WoW's game director responds to Battle for Azeroth's night elf genocide drama and rocky pre-patch

The last few weeks of World of Warcraft have been a rollercoaster for its players. First came the 8.0 pre-patch that temporarily broke early-level combat for most players, then Sylvanas, warchief of the Horde, went and burned down a giant tree full of thousands of innocent night elves. And here I thought the pre-patch event was going to be kind of dull. It ended up being an extremely divisive moment that immediately drew criticism from players angry over the implication that the Horde was, contrary to what people believed, pretty fucking evil.

The Warcraft subreddit and forums were ablaze with inflammatory posts decrying the whole event. And then Blizzard released the Old Soldier cinematic that changed everything. This stunning six-minute-long cutscene won the community back by quietly showcasing some wonderful character building that cast the Horde in a much more nuanced light. Players, myself included, were relieved.

It goes without saying that The War of The Thorns pre-patch event will go down in Warcraft history as one of the most dramatic. With only a few days until Battle for Azeroth properly launches, I talked to game director Ion Hazzikostas and production director John Hight to get their perspective on all the drama, fear, and frustrations.

PC Gamer: The pre-expansion event has been pretty explosive and divisive. When you first set out to craft The War of the Thorns and its story, did you ever imagine it being as controversial as it was?

We can absolutely trick you. If you think that we're doing something that's blatantly obvious and repeating itself, just stay tuned because we're probably setting you up for a surprise.

John Hight, production director

Ion Hazzikostas: We had some inkling that it would be. I think the Jaina Warbringers [cinematic], for example, is one of my favorite things our cinematics team has ever done. I was super excited to have the world experience that and that was received as we expected. Once we dug into the actual events around the Burning of Teldrassil—the attack and the response—there's a lot of emotional investment. It's one of the things that's powerful about World of Warcraft. There's attachment to one's faction—it matters, and people have different views of what it means to be a member of the Horde.

The Horde in particular is this patchwork collection of different races with very, very different motivations. The Forsaken versus the goblins versus the tauren versus orcs: They are fundamentally different in their ethos, their world outlook, and priorities. But they've banded together for strength and camaraderie to claim land for themselves and to eek out a place in this harsh world of Azeroth. And that is what has kept them bound together over the years, but those differences can and will emerge. It was very interesting to see the point and counterpoint unfold as we saw the pragmatic ruthlessness of Sylvanas on display countered by the focus on honor and justice, values embodied by Saurfang most of all. Both of those are still encapsulated within [that question of] "what is the Horde?"

That said, there was a massive difference in the response to these two cinematics. When Warbringers: Sylvanas came out, people seemed to lose their minds. They were so upset. A lot of people were criticizing it as bad writing. What was it like as creators of this story to be in that position and know that, very soon, the Old Soldier cinematic was going to release and provide the valuable context to Sylvanas' actions that players wanted?

John Hight: What was fun for us in a way was, this is a time where we're telling the story in the game and outside the game. We had choreographed it in such a way so that Warbringers and the [Old Soldier] movie could be shown separately. It was fun because we literally saw the reaction to the Sylvanas piece, the outrage, the Horde players feeling somewhat betrayed and the Alliance players being like, how could you do this? And behind the scenes we were like, "Wait for it, wait for it!" And then when [Old Soldier] landed and watching the reaction to that, it was awesome.

The team is so solid this time around. I think they honed the story in Legion and in [Battle for Azeroth] they set the stage for telling these emotional stories both in and outside of the game and pacing it in such a way that we're going to keep people pretty excited and engaged throughout this whole expansion.

Hazzikostas: I think a lot of the player reaction stems from that emotional investment in people's views of Sylvanas, a character that has been prominent in the Warcraft franchise going back years and years—at this point predating WoW itself—and then of the Horde as a whole. One of the big questions in players' minds was, "Well this act seems evil. Does this act define the Horde as a whole? Does this implicitly then define me as a player who is a member of the Horde?" I think the rejoinder to those concerns came just a couple of days later as a reminder that, no, the Horde is much greater than any one act and any one person. There's a lot more story left to tell as we continue to explore that dynamic as that unfolds.

Was it frustrating to have players criticize and take what happened and chalk up to bad writing before they've seen the whole picture?

Hazzikostas: It can be a bit frustrating, but it's also understandable and expected and natural. It's human. Emotions aren't rational. When you're feeling anger—or grief even—you lash out. Some people channeled those emotions in ways that are maybe more constructive in giving feedback than others, but I mean… think back to the internet the evening after the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones aired. How many people were like, "I'm done with this. I'm never watching this show again! I don't understand how they could do this?" It's because they just watched something they had an emotional investment in struck down before their eyes. That's part of good storytelling. Clearly you can't just alienate people and never let them back in, but there are ups and downs and those complement each other. They combine to make a coherent and effective narrative.

Hight: One of the fun things about WoW is that we really can tell episodic stories. It's not like we push out the game and people burn through it and the spoilers are available. We can absolutely trick you. If you think that we're doing something that's blatantly obvious and repeating itself, just stay tuned because we're probably setting you up for a surprise. 

Speaking of tricks, one thing I noticed is how many people felt like the Burning of Teldrassil was supposed to be this big mystery. People expected a twist and felt like Blizzard set it up that way. Going back and watching some older developer Q&As, though, I couldn't find much evidence of that. What happened there, from your perspective?

Hazzikostaks: On the internet, as this giant game of telephone to some extent, things can definitely take on a life of their own. At Blizzcon 2017, I remember Alex Afrasiabi teed up the question of who struck first: The Burning of [Teldrassil] or the assault on Lordaeron? But that was before alpha. That was at the very initial announcement of Battle for Azeroth. From the time the game was in alpha, beta, and beyond, the order of events was manifestly clear through the contents within the game.

At the same time, it ties back to a little bit of potential cognitive dissonance. People have an emotional attachment and you don't want to think the worst. You want to think there might be some other explanation than one that you find personally unappealing because it's uncomfortable. But sometimes storytelling is uncomfortable.

If we had our druthers, we wouldn't actually reveal any of the story before the game was launched.

Ion Hazzikostas, game director

If we had our druthers, we wouldn't actually reveal any of the story before the game was launched. Players would experience it all sequentially for the first time with twists and turns and surprises as they go. The reality is that the benefit we get to the overall quality of the experience from having a robust beta testing program and continuing to do that every expansion far outweighs the potential upside of the story being more of a surprise for those who care most. Where possible, we're trying to safeguard the most impactful moments. Those are often our cinematics and a few other things that we really keep under lock and key throughout the whole beta process. There is more stuff that players will see for the very first time in just a few days—some really big story beats that we cannot wait to share with the world.

That's exciting because I've been spending a ton of time in the beta. Are you essentially saying there's plenty more story that someone like me hasn't already seen?

Hazzikostas: If you've been playing beta, any time your screen goes black and nothing happens. There is a thing there that you don't have permission to decrypt yet.

Yeah I noticed a few of those moments. I'm curious, though, how has your approach to releasing expansions changed over the years?

Hazzikostas: From a story perspective, we've had pre-expansion events all the way back to late 2006 with the 2.0 pre-patch, killing demons and orcs in front of the Dark Portal to get a tabard—some sort of transition or event that offered a one-time reward to help people get ready for what was to come. But notably in the last five or six years, as our expansions have taken on a more consistent narrative thread that leads from one to the next, we also use those pre-patch periods to bridge those gaps and to tell that story in a way that players can relate with and interact with in the game world.

Whether that is the aftermath of Warlords and the events that Gul'dan set in motion and the Legion raining from the skies to bring chaos to our world, or as we're seeing now with the direct aftermath of Sargeras's strike to Azeroth and skirmishes over Azerite and the [Burning of Teldrassil and assault of Lordaeron]. Rather than just jumping from expansion to expansion which may have been the case back in the day where it was like, okay, we defeated Illidan and Kil'jaeden? Time for the Lich King. Now we want to make that feel, as much as possible, like a coherent and cohesive narrative and the pre-patch period offers a great opportunity to do that.

Does that impact your approach to designing all of this content? Instead of having these on and off periods of storytelling, now there's always something going on.

Hazzikostas: A bit. There's usually two pieces to how we think of the pre-patch content. There's a preview of something that's a part of the expansion, and so that was the Broken Shore or the Demon Hunter intro for Legion. And that is The Siege of Lordaeron for the Battle for Azeroth today. And then there's the fleeting piece, there's the "you have to be there" piece. It's a way for players to engage with the game anew and to get hyped and get their [alternate characters] caught up. That's what demon invasions were in Legion, that's what the Dark Shore repeatable world quests are in Battle for Azeroth. We approach that knowing that it's going to go away but if you were there during that window you have some memento, some keepsake to show for it.

Hight: I think the thing that's changed a lot for us is that we're investing a lot of time and people into a piece of content that is oftentimes fleeting. And we recognize that some people may come into the game weeks from now and missed some of this, but for the people that have stayed with us all along or the people who see the imminent release of an expansion as the rallying cry to come back and check out WoW, this is that awesome story moment. We've really doubled down on that. If you look back on the pre-patch content that we've had over the years, every time we've come up with a new expansion, we've made that deeper and richer and more memorable. It's our hope that you'll have these nostalgic conversations about [The Battle for Azeroth pre-expansion event] ten years from now. You'll be talking about Lordaeron and the two different viewpoints.

Well in this instance I can see the payoff being there. The Burning of Teldrassil feels like a moment similar to The Wrathgate—something people will want to reflect back on years later.

Hazzikostas: Yup, that's the hope. 

So The War of The Thorns wasn't the only thing in the 8.0 pre-patch. There was a bunch of under-the-hood updates too, like the stat squish. That really broke a lot of things for a bit there. What happened with that and where are things now?

Hazzikostas: This is the second time we've done one of these, the last was in the Warlords of Draenor pre-patch four years ago. [The stat squish] is re-normalizing, re-tuning the combat to bring the numbers back into sane, graspable ranges so we aren't all walking around with tens of millions of health points fighting bosses with tens of billions of health. 

Now the difference between what we did this time and last time was, we recognized that the need for ongoing power progression in our game, combined with a desire for the numbers to stay manageable, is going to suggest that we'll probably have to do something like this every two or three expansions. We wanted to give ourselves a more seamless, less error-prone way of doing this in the future. What that meant was actually going back and effectively refactoring literally 14 years worth of spells and creatures and other systems to work in a way that was, under the hood, scalable.

That's a huge efficiency gain going forward ... so we can better focus our efforts on making more content for players.

Ion Hazzikostas, game director

 So that if we wanted to say, okay we want to reduce the health of all creatures in the 60 to 70 level range by ten percent or we want to increase the damage their spells deal in this raid zone by five percent, we can change one value and make that happen. Whereas a few years ago, we would've had to hand-edit and do some sort of database process to touch hundreds if not thousands of individual records. That's a huge efficiency gain going forward that will improve our ability to tune the game and make it easier to do this sort of thing in the future so we can better focus our efforts on making more content for players.

But there was this one-time cost. And applying this massive infrastructure change to 14 years of data, there were some things that weren't re-tuned or converted over in the correct way. We caught a lot of those in the course of our beta and PTR testing from quality assurance and feedback from players. But, particularly in the level-up experience, there weren't a ton of people necessarily scouring every bit of content on the beta and some things got missed. Of course, we have millions of players going through and doing that on the live servers and those issues will add up quickly and it can seem like, wow, there are dozens of different bugs that are being fixed. 

I think, with a lot of hard work over the course of those first couple of weeks since the patch went out, we have a very good handle on all of those. At this point, the game is in a very stable state and we're excited and looking forward to the Battle for Azeroth launch in just a few days.

That sounds like a lot of pain and effort for something so necessary but also nothing that directly benefits players aside from the numbers being smaller. When this was first blowing up and you responded to it, Ion, you said the team was investigating the issue and would release an immediate fix in the interim. What's the status of that investigation? Are these underlying issues now solved?

Hazzikostas: We think the whole thing is solved. The fix that we applied—it wasn't just this blanket reduction. It was actually hand-tuned and selected values going up to 24 percent reduction in the 60 to 80 level range and tapering off above and below that. It wasn't a code bug. It's all just a lot of math. Doing the squish, we were accounting for changes to base player stats, player abilities, the gear itself becoming weaker but also the removal of the artifact weapons at the high end and trying to tune and balance players against each other in the absence of all those things. In particular, we had underestimated the impact that the artifact weapons had. So when we made changes to offset its removal, we basically undershot those changes leaving players weaker than they had been before globally.

We just wanted to understand which one of these dozens of calculations we missed something in rather than just going in and blindly fixing it and then who knows what the underlying problem was? But we feel pretty good about the state of things going forward. The pacing of combat is, based on all of our metrics at this point, pretty much identical to what it was in 7.3.5 [the previous patch before 8.0]. And we've actually made some separate adjustments to just generally speed up leveling in the 60 to 80 level range because, in the course of these investigations, we noticed that this range was taking longer than intended. That had been the case since 7.3.5 as well but it was something that freshly came to light as we were digging into all of this data.

So it's been a rocky couple of weeks in terms of people being worried about the narrative and where it's headed on top of these systemic changes. It feels like things have now settled down, hopefully this means Battle for Azeroth will have a smooth launch?

Hight: We're tracking really well. Interestingly enough, in terms of overall number of issues that we've had leading into the launch, we're very close to where we were with Legion. All of our statistics are pointing towards, yeah, this will be a pretty stable launch. We tend to get a lot of our pain out of the way during beta and then some of it during pre-patch. This one is going to be interesting to us because this is the first time we're doing a global simultaneous launch. We've always tended to go out in one region and then subsequent regions, but we felt like that was a bit unfair. People were watching others playing when they didn't get to. But we've doubled down on the infrastructure side, the backend side, to make sure that we're ready to take on that load. 

We have a lot of technologies today that were not available to us back in Warlords of Draenor that allow us to dynamically shard and place people in a realm where they won't be overcrowded. Things that were a problem for us in the past, like chokepoints, we don't have those issues anymore thanks to the technology that we have. But hey, I don't want to tempt Murphy. There's always the possibility of something that we haven't foreseen. One thing I'm proud of is that we have a team that is incredibly fast at not only spotting issues but fixing issues. You talk about the rocky time we had with pre-patch and I think about how fast we were able to respond to issues that were caught or reported on forums and within hours we'd have the issue fixed.

It doesn't excuse having an issue in the first place, but in game as complex as WoW where you have millions of lines of code and hundreds of thousands of lines of quests and material in the game that have grown over 14 years, and a game that we expect people to play from beginning to end every time we release an expansion, we've had to double down on our ability to very quickly address issues as they pop up. But we think it's going to be an exciting time, in a good way. We hope that you're out there with us playing on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning depending on what territory you're happen to be in.

Hazziostas: That's part of the point of pre-patch also. It's something that we've done throughout the years of World of Warcraft. You and every other player have the full code and every other data associated with Battle for Azeroth on your computer already. We're just going to flip a switch—there's no downtime associated with this moment. So all of that pain that John alluded to and all the work that's happened in the past few weeks has gone toward ensuring that Monday and Tuesday are going to be as smooth as possible for all of our players as Battle for Azeroth begins.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth launches on August 13 in North America and August 14 in Europe.