'Battle of Azeroth': 'World of Warcraft' Game Director Discusses Expansions

A chat with WoW game director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas

An orc attacks an unlucky human during the cinematic for the new World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for Azeroth. Credit: World of Warcraft

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Blizzard Entertainment announced this morning at its BlizzCon fan event that the latest expansion to the popular massively multiplayer RPG World of Warcraft will be 'Battle for Azeroth.'

This is an all-out fight between the Alliance and the Horde, Warcraft’s two factions, which grudgingly cooperated during the previous expansion: Legion.

We recently spoke with WoW game director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas about the pain and process of developing a new expansion for a 13-year-old game with seven previous chapters.

What’s changed about the way one expansion leads to the next?
We have increasingly in recent years tried to link those stories together into a larger meta-narrative in a way I don’t think the game was able to do as successfully in its earlier years. Expansions like 'Burning Crusade' versus 'Wrath of the Lich King' versus 'Cataclysm' felt very disjointed; they stood alone. It was dealing with this villain, this threat to the world, and then a totally new threat arises. In recent years, we’ve tried to weave threads that tied one expansion into the next, whether it was the fall of Garrosh at the end of 'Mists of Pandaria' that led to his escape to Draenor that set those events in motion, or Gul’dan escaping to our world and doing the bidding of the Legion, or who knows what we’ll see at the end of 'Legion'.

What was WoW like when the game launched?
I think early on, World of Warcraft was at its core a simple game. It was open ended, it was questing, it was dungeons, there were some raids at the end of the day. There was a PvP structure that came into place after launch. There weren’t that many ways to play the game. Everyone had to level up, and that was a long journey. It took a long time to get to max level. The very best gear was available to the raiders and the raiders alone, and then there were other types of gameplay available for those who wanted to dabble.

How has that changed over previous expansions?
In many ways, players drove and influenced the development of the game from that point onward. Gameplay styles emerged. Increasingly, we are thinking of those groups of players and their motivations when we craft any new piece of content, whether it’s a patch or an expansion. We’re thinking about the person who is a serial altaholic, we’re thinking about the person who is the collector, we’re thinking about the person who primarily cares about lore and the story, and wants to experience that in all of its detail. And of course, the high end hardcore raider, the competitive pvper, and so forth.

There are now dozens of ways to play World of Warcraft. Different areas of interest among those players are often in direct opposition to each other. Weaving this tapestry that tries to make all the people happy all the time even when they sometimes want directly opposing things is a great challenge.

So how do you craft an expansion with those different playstyles in mind?
I think it’s recognizing that we want to give something to everybody. We want there to be content for all playstyles. It’s not realistic for a production perspective to say, if you brought one cookie, you have to bring enough for the whole class. Not everyone can get everything for us to release something.

At the same time, it’s also not always the best thing for players in terms of pacing of that content. We’ve done a lot more than ever before to stagger and release different updates and different pieces of content even aside from patches at a rate that best suits the audience for that content, rather than clumping it all together.

I think it’s just about breaking up, trying to add depth to the game in all these different areas, whether it’s microholidays, whether it’s collection goals, whether it’s dungeons, raids, PvP, world quests, lore, etc., to make sure we’re really ticking off all those boxes and building a cohesive world and a cohesive experience, but releasing the content at a rate that keeps it a steady stream and keeps it in players’ hands as they’re ready for it.

Do you worry that the move to more content over time will reduce the impact of a boxed expansion?
It's hard to say for sure. There are some players who approach this like a single player game, and they’re going to come and go, and that’s not going to change. But it’s hard to see how it can’t be better for the bulk of the player base to have more to do, to be more connected, to be more entertained by the world, to have more goals, more updates, and to let us flesh out the world that we’re building each expansion with more depth and more breadth.

That really is what marks a new expansion, as much as a new level cap and a very clear catch-up moment. It’s a huge change of scenery. It’s beginning an entire new arc, going to new places, meeting new allies, new enemies, new races, new foes. All of those things. I don’t think that excitement is undermined by the fact that we’re doing more with the Legion story than we might have had the chance to with the Warlords [of Draenor] story.

When we go someplace new, that’s still going to be just as exciting, and hopefully maybe there’s a bit less cynicism along the way, because players who are engaged in Legion feel like we’ve been upholding our end of the bargain of our agreement with players to deliver a quality experience and an ongoing stream of content for them.

Are there elements of Legion that you plan to carry over into the next expansion?
Yup – it’s evergreen systems. The mythic keystone system [for increasing difficulty in dungeons] has been very successful. It really has truly added this whole new branch to our end game that didn’t exist before. I think world quests are the most successful iteration of outdoor content that we’ve had. We’ve gone through a bunch of different approaches – daily quests, variants on those – and that’s something that I would expect to see continue.

So is the next expansion going to be more about the story than major changes to gameplay?
Yes, though it’s not necessarily the same groups solving those problems. The storytellers are not the ones crafting the systems or vice versa. But in general, yes. A lot of these new systems come from problems, come from us looking at our end game or looking at a portion of our game and realizing or feeling that something is falling flat and we’re not doing our players the service they deserve.

Mythic dungeon systems were something we actually introduced in patch 6.2.3 – initially just mythic dungeons, the idea of what if we have non-random-match-made, more challenging dungeons as a little bit of a trial run. And also in those dungeons, we had the concept of what if the warforged items could [increase in power] to multiple different levels, and see how that feels as a reward structure. But that was the product of looking at a Warlords of Draenor end game where dungeon participation did kind of fall off a cliff. There wasn’t that much of a reason to do them once you got to that initial tier of raid gear.

We had a lot of cool [five-player] dungeons we’d made; there were people who loved dungeon gameplay, and they didn’t have anything relevant to their interests and their progression to pursue. That was a huge problem to fix. We’re not usually looking at overhauling systems for the sake of overhauling them. I would expect more iteration, less drastic overhaul. I’d expect more building on top of foundations and less tearing things down and rebuilding them from the ground up.

We’re very satisfied with most of the systems we have in place in Legion.

After so many expansions, does launching a new one become routine? How do you build on past success?
We make countless mistakes and learn lessons and iterate and revise. We have the collective benefit of, as scary as this is, over a millennium of experience on the team making

The fact that we’ve had success in the past doesn’t guarantee anything about the future. Every single one is hard work. Every single one is a process of intense creative iteration.

At the core of World of Warcraft is the world and the stories we’re telling in it and the stories the players form with each other. That’s something we’re always hard at work on, even as players are working through the current narrative. There’s something else on the horizon, something around the corner.