World of Warcraft has existed for 13 years, and the franchise’s story has moved past the rivalry between orcs and humans that drove the original real-time strategy game. In World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, the MMO’s latest expansion, Blizzard will return to that conflict with a deeper, more focused story that revolves around Azeroth’s never-ending war, and the characters driving it.
We spoke with Blizzard senior game designer Jeremy Feasel at Blizzcon 2017 to find out more about the big ideas behind the next chapter in gaming’s longest running saga.
Digital Trends: The conflict between Horde and Alliance is core to Warcraft’s lore, but from a gameplay perspective, it hasn’t played into World of Warcraft significantly in the last several years. What drove the designers to return to it?
Feasel: In WoW’s current arc, we are currently on another planet fighting gods with a pantheon at our back, with an awesome raid coming in Antorus. I feel like when you’re telling a story, you get up to this point where you have this cataclysmic finale of a particular story arc, which we’ve just hit with Illidan and the Burning Legion, and it’s important at that point to reset things a little bit. [We need to] come back to the core of why we’re heroes, who we’re fighting for, and what this world is.
Way back in the day, when you started your adventure in World of Warcraft, you were saving Princess the Boar for a farmer in Elwynn, and passing love letters between one kid on a farm and another. You were helping out an orc farmer by kicking some peons off in Durotar. These are the people that make up the world of Azeroth. These are stories about the people who live there. They make those people important to us. They make it matter when we lose them.
When we’re way off on other planets fighting gods, I think it’s easy to lose sight of all those awesome characters and how much they mean to us. It’s really worthwhile to get back to that every once in awhile, and remember that there are people back in Stormwind who would really, really, really care if Sylvanas came in there and had her way with the entire city. It’s our chance to build up those people, to build up their leaders, and build up the awesome political intrigue between Anduin, and Sylvanas, and Thrall, and even Vol’jin (he’s not gone completely! He’s coming back!). Going back to those characters ultimately allows us to tell awesome stories on into the future. They make those things significant and more real.
It’s really worthwhile to remember that there are people back in Stormwind.
Also, this is the core story of the World of Warcraft. It’s the core of the Warcraft franchise. It was originally Alliance vs. Horde. It’s not something we’ve significantly touched on since classic WoW. We went there a little bit with Pandaria, but ultimately that was about the Panderan people. We haven’t really had an expansion since Classic, which focused purely on the politics of these two warring armies, and all the people impacted by their choices.
Warfronts, a new type of mission in Battle for Azeroth that pits Alliance versus the Horde, is going to be Player-versus-Enemy (Co-op fighting A.I.), rather than player-versus-player. Can you talk about why you decided to focus on a purely team-based mode, rather than something more competitive?
Feasel: There’s a large portion of our population that enjoys PvP content. There’s a large portion of the population that enjoys PvE content. We don’t necessarily want to conflate the two in every single instance. In “Islands,” in particular, we wanted to do both. We have three different difficulty settings, we have a brand-new group of A.I. that plays much closer to players, rather than regular WoW mobs. They make strategic decisions, they can decide to go offensive or defensive, they can come and gank you if you’re playing against a particularly good A.I., without necessarily needing to play off against players.
Really, the goal here is to characterize the other faction, and that’s not always players. That is often characters, like trolls seeking justice for Vol’jin, and it’s important that we tell their story to build up the Horde and the Alliance. This expansion is one of those opportunities; not necessarily to purely focus on player-versus-player, but to focus on faction-versus-faction, and the members that make up those factions. And making each of those factions, and all of the allied races within them, even the existing ones — even the dwarves and Tauren and the trolls — to rebuild them as three-dimensional characters with their own desires and influences.
We wanted to have that PvP element in Islands … but for Warfronts, we wanted to have both factions in the same area, because building up your based, and choosing your technologies, are so specific to the group that you’re with. In order to have all those decisions be meaningful and interesting, it needed to be something that you could come together with as a group, and then ride out and feel awesome. Often, that’s a very difficult thing to get across in a PvP environment, where both sides need to feel the same level of building up and coming at each other. With a PvE opponent, we can control the difficulty of things being thrown at you and make it always a fun experience.
Do Warfronts position players in specific roles within a conflict?
Feasel: You can do whatever you want when you enter a Warfront. If you want to be the dude that takes territory and you want to do more combat, you can do that. If our playtesting so far, we’ve had people who just chose to go chop wood, because that’s how they wanted to contribute to their particular environment. Honestly, it’s pretty cathartic. You go off, you feel like a peon in Warcraft III, you’re chopping some wood. Your wood bar is going up. Then you go back to the base, you turn in your wood, and you get a big chunk towards building one of those buildngs. You feel like you’ve solidly contributed to the warfront.
You can do whatever you want when you enter a Warfront.
We want to offer a variety of ways you can play in this particular instance, whether you want to be the support guy, or the front-line guy, or even if you want to join the waves of forces that are exiting your base to help them push forward, you can be that guy. You can be the guy that yells to everybody and says, “Hey! We’ve got enough forces now! Now is the time! Everybody join me at the lumber mill [and] we’re gonna go kill this other faction!”
You’ve talked a lot about character development: Is your goal with Battle for Azeroth to build up larger characters?
Feasel: Sure. I think you saw that in Alex [Afrasiabi]’s presentation [on what’s next for World of Warcraft] yesterday. We have five different main characters that we want to follow during the course of the expansion. You’ve seen a little bit of Anduin’s expansion over time, you’ve seen some of Jaina [Proudmoore]’s expansion over time, but really, for the first time ever, we’re able to focus huge story arcs on these characters, to build them forward as characters and tell the next chapters in their stories. It’s an awesome opportunity for us to continue building these characters, and then see where that takes the storyline afterwards now that they’re front and center.
You focused heavily on one character in Legion, now you’re focusing on five. You’re moving a lot of stories forward. Does this signal a paradigm shift in World of Warcraft tells stories?
Feasel: I think it’s a continuation or an evolution of the endgame storytelling we did in Legion, where we took Illidan’s arc all the way through to the end. We thought that was an awesome story, and we felt that was an awesome arc to take throughout the course of the expansion. It told a great story, gave us an awesome finale, and when you see what Illidan’s eventual fate is you’re going to say, “great. That’s cool. That’s an awesome finale for this particular character.” This is the opportunity to apply those same learnings to a lot of our other big characters in World of Warcraft, where we have an expansion pack that makes sense.
Blizzard has not set a release date for ‘World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth’, which is currently in development. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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