World of Warcraft senior game designer Jeremy Feasel and technical director Frank Kowalkowski detail some of the big changes coming to Blizzard’s MMO.
The long-awaited BlizzConline finally took place last weekend. With the event postponed from its usual end-of-year calendar slot, we’ve had to wait a few more months to hear news about Blizzard’s ridiculous amount of hit titles. For World of Warcraft specifically it’s meant we’ve had to hold on even longer for an update on patch 9.1 and where we’re heading next in the Shadowlands.
Despite many of the big announcements being stumbled across by fans a few days early, there was still plenty of news for us to get stuck into as WoW’s latest patch, Chains of Domination, was formally revealed, alongside new zones, dungeons, mounts, pets, and maw (I’ll never get tired of that pun).
During the event we had time to chat with World of Warcraft senior game designer Jeremy Feasel and technical director Frank Kowalkowski to chat about some of the big changes heading our way, including the return to a PvE Valor Points gear system, a new Torghast meta-progression system, alt-friendly catch-up mechanics, suspiciously Arthas-shaped lore and those confusing mobile app rumours.
VG247: First things first, the big announcement prior to BlizzConline was the re-introduction of Valor Points back into the game, as a scaling PvE loot system. A lot of players were excited when it was announced, but as details emerged many feel the system doesn’t go as far as they wanted it to. Is this the final version?
Jeremy Feasel: I think there were certain expectations that were set by the name ‘Valor Points’, which were perhaps changed slightly in this particular iteration. It’s important to emphasise that we’re basing this off feedback we’ve gotten for things like Mythic+ and raid loot. This is our patch 9.05 iteration of Valor Points. It’s on the PTR now, so we’re looking forward to seeing player feedback. It’s a system that we would like to continue iterating on in the future, so expect to see reactive changes in Chains of Domination.
VG247: Blizzard has been praised recently for making fast hotfixes to things like Anima drops and Torghast requirements that traditionally players might have had to wait a whole patch for. Can we expect more of the same in the future? Is Shadowlands going to have a more fluid system of updates?
Jeremy Feasel: That’s our goal. We want to be as responsive as possible, but to be responsible in how we are responsive. We made hotfixes to those elements that you mentioned because they’re important issues right now and making those changes wasn’t disruptive to gameplay.
We’ve actually held off a little bit in making really large changes, to things like Covenant class powers, because a lot of us that are big RPG fans and stats nerds had decided exactly what our class-spec-Covenant combination was going to be way ahead of time, and throwing a bunch of wrenches into that process while you’re levelling up would just make you feel like you can’t make any firm decisions because Blizzard is just going to keep buffing and nerfing things around you.
We feel that larger patches, like Chains of Domination, are best when making the most substantive changes. But even small patches, like 9.05, are great because we can give players a lot more of a heads up about changes on the way. They also give us the opportunity to look at the cost of changes in those situations. Something we’re going to be looking very carefully at is if you are a max Renown player and we buff the Venthyr Covenant ability, and you’re Kyrian and feel you need to swap over, let’s make that as seamless a process as possible. We want you to feel like you can make that choice during those big patch changes.
Frank Kowalkowski: One of our team pillars is that feedback is a gift. Whether that comes from a forum, a social media post, or our own team, we do listen. When we do something like the Valor Point change, we can use a smaller patch like 9.05 because we know we’re going to have time on the PTR to let that soak in and provide people a chance to give us feedback before we roll it out to the entire community.
VG247: When Shadowlands launched, because of the lack of systems like Artefact Weapons or Azerite Powers, the expansion was more alt-friendly than we’ve seen in recent years. But when it comes to things like obtaining Legendary gear, it’s harder to get caught up. You mentioned there wanting to make it seamless to switch between different different Covenants. Will there’ll be catch up systems in place for alts?
Jeremy Feasel: Absolutely. It’s become a core of what we do for our large content updates. You saw very similar things, for example, in Nazjatar and Mechagon with things like the Benthic gearing system. One of the things that we’re actively looking at right now is if you are a new or returning player, what does your first week look like in Chains of Domination? We want you to be able to catch up to your friends relatively quickly, and there’s more than just Renown associated with that. There’s Anima, and Stygia, and Torghast powers and utility abilities to get across and around the Maw.
Going down into the Maw to do your first chapter of questlines in Chains of Domination will only require that you’ve done the first couple of quests for your Covenant, but then we’ll get you back down to the new zones on Covenant assaults almost right away.
As an alt player myself, I get really excited about doing big content updates like this because it means that every alt that I start up is going to be able to zip through a bunch of Renown levels, get a bunch of Anima, get a bunch of cool gear right away and start dungeoning right away, which is always a great feeling.
VG247: With Shadowlands, there’s a new way to level to max with the Threads of Fate system. But players realised pretty quickly that opting to do the story quest line actually levels you faster than the new system. Are there going to be tweaks as we head into 9.1 to help people get to where they need to be quicker?
Jeremy Feasel: Yeah, we’re going to continue to make some quality of life tweaks throughout the remainder of Shadowlands’ lifetime. We like the system as well as the new ‘Chromie time’ method of levelling. The level squish has made a very seamless levelling experience and we want to continue to improve on that system, so expect to see more from us about all those things in the future as we continue to add improvements.
VG247: Let’s talk a little about Torghast. By the end of patch 9.0, players are already regularly reaching their Soul Ash cap and even clearing Twisting Corridors. You’ve mentioned there’s going to be new floors in 9.1. Are we going to see an increase in difficulty? How about increased rewards? What are the actual functional changes there?
Jeremy Feasel: I think that’s the big question. As soon as we say, ‘hey, we’re doing a whole new wing, and it’s got new art, and it’s got new enemies,’ a lot of players that have finished Twisting Corridors and are done with their Soul Ash grind are probably saying, ‘okay, but what do I get out of that?’
I enjoy playing Torghast myself just for fun because I’m a bit of a roguelike player so I have the same question, and that’s something that is actively in discussion right now. We want to create a new meta progression system for Torghast that has something for both the players that have run out of Torghast stuff to do and the players that are having trouble and are feeling unrewarded. A system that can not only help you feel like you’re making progress, even if you’re not able to complete runs, but also has many more things for players to show off and obtain. We don’t have a huge amount to announce today, but it’s all in discussion right now.
VG247: With WoW having so many classes, specs and now Covenant powers, is it tough to create the level of diversity needed to emulate that roguelike feel? We generally see a lot of the same Anima powers crop up every time we go through a run. Is Torghast just a roguelike ‘light’?
Jeremy Feasel: One of the things that we’re looking into, both in 9.05 and then in a larger and more substantial way in Chains of Domination, is making the fact you know exactly what to choose in every run less of the status quo. We’re going to be buffing and changing a lot of those underused and underutilised powers and looking into whether everyone has at least a couple of those run-changing, gameplay-changing powers. That’s going to be a focus for the next couple of patches.
VG247: There’s currently only one way to obtain Legendaries. That leads to players who only want to PvP or only want to raid having to complete Torghast despite it not being the content they want to play. Is it fair to expect players to use a new system to stay competitive with the gameplay that they want to carry out?
Jeremy Feasel: Well, I think that something that we’re always looking at is how to best give players that consolidated gameplay experience while also hitting what makes narrative sense for the expansion. Ever since classic WoW, PvPers have been going into raids and then out into Silithyst to mine a whole bunch of Thorium in order to craft their gear. If you’re that top-end competitive player, you’re always going to be looking for that edge, so things like legendary quest lines are always going to be something you’re going to want to do. It’s up to us to make those as cool and as fun for as many players as possible.
VG247: Something that players and press stumbled across a few weeks ago was the Activision Quarterly Earnings report, mentioning that for Blizzard games – including World of Warcraft – there is going to be a mobile-based focus in the future. How much of a role will mobile play in the future of WoW?
Frank Kowalkowski: I’d refer you back to that statement. We don’t have a lot to talk about here. We’re here to talk about Chains of Domination. That’s where our team’s focus is right now.
Jeremy Feasel: That said, we’re pretty happy with the success of our mobile mission system. It’s seen an awesome evolution in the Shadowlands, and you will continue to see us support that system throughout Shadowlands’ development.
VG247: So we’re not going to be doing dailies on our phones anytime soon?
Jeremy Feasel: I think it’s more fun when you’re down there on the ground in Azeroth, blasting things with fireballs.
VG247: Speaking of Azeroth, I’d like to speak to you about the lore of Chains of Domination a little bit. We’ve seen a lot of characters so far in Shadowlands from Warcraft’s history, but considering the scope of the afterlife, there are still a lot of famous faces that we’ve not come across yet. Do you have any plans with 9.1 for any more familiar faces to crop up?
Jeremy Feasel: That was definitely one of the things that came up even very early in Shadowlands’ development. We created a really large list of different characters that everybody wanted to see in the Shadowlands, but you can only tell so many stories. It’s been fun from a development perspective watching these new articles come up periodically where somebody finds a character that is maybe under a different name, and is now a squirrel in the corner of Ardenweald or something, or ‘oh I found this character that’s mentioned once in this book’. That said, if you’re looking for major WoW lore characters and what torments they may be undergoing in the Jailor’s inner sanctum? Yeah, there’s going to be a couple of familiar faces in there.
VG247: Just off the top of my head in the Revendreth cinematic, Garrosh was definitely there but we’re yet to see his face. Are there any big names that we can expect front and centre in 9.1?
Jeremy Feasel: There are.
VG247: With the reveal cinematic, a lot of people were shocked to see Anduin take a turn towards the dark side. Bad-uin has already been trending.
Jeremy Feasel: There’s already fan art. It’s great.
VG247: There’s some very clear symmetry with Arthas there, even with the musical notes in the cinematic. It looks as though you’re making it apparent that Anduin isn’t responsible for his actions – does this mean Arthas wasn’t responsible for his in Warcraft 3 and Wrath of the Lich King?
Jeremy Feasel: There’s an element of Warcraft mythology that we may never go back and be super explicit with because it’s almost more interesting if it remains a mystery. When you were playing Arthas in Warcraft 3 was that you? Was that someone else? Was that the Jailor? We know now that the jailer at least had an influence there, but how much of that was inherent to who Arthas was?
We’ve built up a lot of the Arthas mythology in all the books and storytelling around him, and I think it would almost do a disservice to really define things too much there. A lot of people have their own Arthas story. I also think it’s important in terms of how it influences the Sylvanus and Anduin stories that we will be continuing in Chains of Domination in some really big ways.
VG247: You’ve said before that you plan storylines several expansions in advance, but how much do you change things up mid-expansion based on fan feedback? Especially for some of the more shocking scenes like Sylvanas burning Teldrassil back in Battle for Azeroth, have you ever changed story aspects based on adverse reactions, or has it always been set in motion?
Jeremy Feasel: On the narrative side of things, we start with a high-level plan of how we want all the big arcs to go, but then once we start getting on the ground and adding quest lines and additional characters and side quests, and breaking out all the more minor cinematics that you see in the different zones and in endgame questing in-between the big in-game cinematics and the full super high-res ones, those definitely have an influence on the future. So we may have a general arc, but exactly where characters go and how they work can often change during the course of development.
That said, at this point in our storyline for Shadowlands, we’re pretty solidly moving forward. We’re sort of in the middle chapter of that story – the villain section where we get to see what the bad guys are up to. For this arc in particular, we have a pretty good idea of where we want to go next, and you’ll see a little bit of that in the finale of the new raid once that gets unlocked. I think players will really jam with that.
VG247: Final question, then. What’s the biggest way our daily gameplay is set to change in Chains of Domination when it launches?
Frank Kowalkowski: It depends a lot on the type of player that you are, I think Chains of Domination has something that’s going to accommodate a lot of different playstyles. There’s going to be people who saw that Broker cat pet who are going to do everything they can to get that, but if you’re more into group content, you’re going to be hitting up the new megadungeon ‘Tazavesh’ and preparing to try the hard modes there and explore a little bit of that Broker lore. Obviously, if you’re a Mythic+ raider, we know what you’re going to be doing day one. I think your daily routine is going to really be dependent on what content you’re drawn to. And I think there’s a lot of different new content to serve whatever playstyle you have.