We recently had the chance to sit down for half an hour with Ion "Watcher" Hazzikostas, the celebrated Game Director for World of Warcraft.
We spoke mostly of the upcoming Patch 8.3: Visions of N'Zoth, which wraps up the story of the Battle for Azeroth expansion.
Since the next expansion, Shadowlands, is on everyone's mind, it was also a great opportunity to touch upon some of the key talking points on everyone's minds.
After all the cataclysms suffered by Azeroth, is it difficult to make players realize the power of N’Zoth in-game without wiping out an entire planet?
There’s no question that we’ve seen a wide range of threats to Azeroth, culminating recently in Sargeras literally plunging a sword into the planet.
One of the things we’ve tried to set up with N’Zoth from the trailer for Visions of N’Zoth, through the way that the content of his power manifests in-game, the threat N’Zoth poses is a little bit different. He’s not going to blow up our planet; he’s actually going to subvert the minds and the wills of all the living creatures on the planet. He’s going to transform Azeroth into Ny’alotha, into this nightmarish, alternate future if we don’t stop it.
So, that’s the way OId Gods strike at us — they’re not giant, powerful beings wielding a sword that are going to kill us directly; they’re going to attack the world around us and our minds. That’s the way the content plays out through Visions of N’Zoth and the Horrific Visions that players are venturing into, and of course the raid Ny’alotha itself.
Let’s talk about Ny’alotha. In the process of creating a raid, how do you decide the number of bosses players will face, and what elements influence these numbers?
I think there are a couple of considerations. Some of it is how many cool ideas do we have, what are some of the characters we’ve set up in the past that we’d like to revisit?
When it comes to what is the final raid before an expansion, that may last a little bit longer than some of the others, so we try to have more bosses in those raids. Antorus at the end of Legion was one of the largest raids there; going back to Hellfire Citadel and the Siege of Orgrimmar, those were the largest raids of those expansions.
Coming into Ny’alotha, we knew we wanted to have it be a larger raid than Eternal Palace, Uldir, or Battle for Dazar’alor. Then the encounter team gets together and starts to brainstorm — what would be some really fun things to play; what are some inventive mechanics that we could present to players that we haven’t seen before? Then we assign the bosses out and go from there.
What happens if a creature dies in Ny’alotha, including N’Zoth? Does this change anything, compared to the battles against Yogg-Saron and C’Thun?
Yes, certainly. Ny’alotha is not even an imaginary location — it’s real, it’s an alternate reality in some ways that is almost merging with ours if we don’t prevent it.
So, when we go in there and we are defeating minions of the Old Gods, then it’s fair to assume and expect that we are destroying them pretty heavily. If we are victorious against N’Zoth, that should be the last that we hear from him — but we’ll see!
Certainly, if we perish ourselves, then that’s permanent as well. The stakes are very high, and it’s an exciting adventure we can’t wait for players to experience.
So, if we can definitively kill an Old God, what impact would this have on the world? For example, would their tendrils still corrupt the land, if they are dead?
I think that’s a thing that remains to be seen. Certainly, the direct manifestations of N’Zoth’s power would presumably shrivel and wither away.
Of course, given the repeatable nature of content, we want to make sure you still have things to do, so even after you’ve beaten N’Zoth in the raid you’ll still be able to go out and do your Horrific Visions and continue to play the rest of the game!
But in terms of canon, in terms of how the storyline moves on, I think that corrupting power will no longer be present.
As with all things in Azeroth and the Warcraft universe, there are these forces in balance with each other — opposing forces, in the Old Gods and the Titans on the planet for a long time, and much more.
When you remove one of these great powers from the picture, it may throw some other things out of balance, so the consequences of that will be something we may explore farther down the line with the future of World of Warcraft.
Account-bound Essences have been one of the most-requested features for a while now. Can we expect them to be released later, such as in 8.3.5 or 9.0, or will that definitely not happen?
Our current plan is more or less what players have seen on the PTR for Visions of N’Zoth. We have reduced the requirements for obtaining many of the older Essences that came from Rise of Azshara, that come from reputation requirements, and making some of the reputation tokens account-bound so they can be mailed between characters.
At its core, when it comes to the question of what is account-bound versus what is character-specific, the line that we’ve always drawn is that access to content is something that we had to unlock across an entire account.
When you unlock access to world quests, islands, Siege of Boralus as a dungeon — that’s something that all your characters can jump in and do. We don’t want to force you, the player, to have to go through the same process of unlocking access to content.
But power, and Essences at the end of the day — when you’re getting them by defeating a raid boss, clearing a Mythic+, buying them off a vendor after earning the currency to obtain them — they’re not that different to trinkets, items, or things like the Legendary ring or cloak we’ve had in the past. They’re core player power.
While we’re easing barriers to entry, there’s a line that we are frankly unwilling to cross there in terms of what is tied to your character and your character’s progression, and what is tied to your account.
Now, without question we’ve heard player feedback and concerns about the way this system has played out, and that it can feel like a barrier to playing alts for many, and we agree — there’s some inconsistency there, some dissonance between how quickly you can get geared up and feel like you have the items required to go do some endgame content, and how long it can take you get some of the Essences.
So, that’s something we’re looking at — acquisition rates overall, and tuning there — and certainly the lessons learned from this are going to inform how we design any such system in the future. But account-wide Essences are not on the table for Visions of N’Zoth.
The fact that we can get Corrupted gear from Ny’alatha in Mythic+ chests is a very interesting feature, can we expect that in Shadowlands or later each game style will have its own gear system.
For example, allowing Mythic+ players to get special Mythic+ items with specific stats that boost them in Mythic+?
Corruption is a system specific to Visions of N’Zoth, and there’s a couple of reasons why we’ve gone with Corruption in this update.
One is that we’ve wanted to move away from Warforging and Titanforging for a while. We’ve heard a lot of player feedback in the last couple of years, and we’ve agreed with a lot of it, about the feeling of randomness and the way that it can undermine the value of item level.
One of the big questions for us was what do we replace it with? Now, in the case of Visions of N’Zoth, we’re always excited when we can find a way of marrying our systems to the world we’re building and the story we’re telling, and as we’re telling the story of the Old God power corrupting some of the sources of Titan power, it felt like a great place to kind of twist Titanforging a little bit.
But it’s not a system we’re planning on carrying forward directly into Shadowlands, no.
We’re going to learn a lot from how this plays out, in terms of a world without Warforging and Titanforging, and I can say that those systems won’t be returning as players are accustomed to them in Shadowlands.
We’re definitely excited to explore more variety in gear sources — to make sure that players who PvP have ways of obtaining gear that’s going to be good for PvP, that players who do Mythic+ have ways of obtaining gear that’s good for that playstyle — while ultimately keeping something unique and special about each of those paths.
So, those are things we’re discussing very actively as a team, with a lot more information to share on itemization and rewards in Shadowlands — but I can say it won’t be Warforging and Titanforging, and it won’t be Corruption.
Aren’t you afraid that Corrupted gear could be even more RNG than Warforged and Titanforged items?
We don’t think so, no.
There’s effectively a limit on how many Corrupted pieces you can wear, because of the nature of the Corruption stat itself — unlike Warforging and Titanforging where it affected ultimately every single piece of gear you were wearing except for your Azerite Armor.
We expect most players to wear only a small handful of Corrupted items, and there are going to be a number of regular sources of Corrupted gear, including the weekly Mythic+ chest.
We’d like to get back to a place where when you kill a Mythic raid boss and you get a piece of Mythic raid gear, you can feel confident that that is as good as that piece could be, in terms of its raw power.
It might have avoidance or some extra stat on it, but beyond that the item level is the item level, so by and large, players should have much more control over the fates of their characters and how things play out over the course of the expansion.
You’ll see many more Corrupted items than you can use, which gives you the ability to choose which combination you want to wear at a given time.
The Awakening Affix looks very interesting. Are the obelisk locations meant to change each week, or will they remain the same for the whole patch?
I’m not 100% sure on this but I believe there are a couple of different locations, and the bosses associated with the obelisks go through a small rotation, similar to how the Beguiling Affix worked in Season 3, with their slightly different Emissary locations from week to week.
The rules of how the system works are always the same, but we want to have a little bit of variety because we know the players are coming back to the dungeons for many weeks over the course of the season, and we want there to be some variety and new challenges to look forward to.
Returning to the lore, does the Emerald Nightmare have a hold on the Shadowlands? We know the Drust have gone through to the Shadowlands, but also that the realm where we saw them last, Thros, belonged to the Nightmare.
Looking at the Shadowlands, I think it’s very likely that we’re going to see a continuation of some of the storylines from the Emerald Dream and Emerald Nightmare, that we saw back in Val’sharah, as we go into the zone of Ardenweald in particular.
Those two realms are very connected, and beings of nature that went through the Nightmare, were affected by the Old Gods there, may well find themselves in Ardenweald.
Horrific Visions remind us of Torghast from Shadowlands in the way it has been described, but only a few rewards have been introduced on the PTR so far. Are more rewards planned for release, even in a hypothetical 8.3.5?
First of all, just to get it out of the way, we currently don’t have any 8.3.5 plans — there may be some small systems tweaks or updates for stability between now and Shadowlands, but Visions of N’Zoth is really the concluding chapter of Battle for Azeroth, and we’re excited to focus our attention on Shadowlands and the upcoming beta for Shadowlands that’ll be opening up over the course of the year.
With regard to Horrific Visions, there are definitely some elements that have parallels with Torghast, but Horrific Visions aren’t designed to be the same sort of roguelite or having a dynamic experience.
It’s more of a predictable challenge that players will go into multiple times and master over the course of that trip — something more similar to, let’s say, Wither Training in Suramar, except with much more complexity and layers of progression to it.
We have two different ones in Orgrimmar and Stormwind, and deepen the progression by enabling Faceless Masks to increase the challenge. Players will be able to ratchet up the difficulty to suit their abilities, and also to yield greater rewards.
Players should expect what they’re going to find going in. We’ve structured it where the goal is more trying to get to that next boss, or trying to do it on a slightly higher difficulty than last time, and less about not knowing what you’re going to find when you go in.
Torghast is going to have much more variety and replayability in that sense, but Horrific Visions are more about structure or having challenges.
With regards to the PTR, are you satisfied with player feedback regarding patch content and balancing so far?
Yes, it’s been invaluable. Due to the holiday break we had a slightly longer PTR than we generally have for our updates, but that has meant we’ve had a lot more feedback on things like specific Ny’alotha encounters, and on the relative balance of Corruption, Affixes and drawbacks.
It’s been incredibly useful getting feedback and bug reports throughout the PTR, and we’ve made a ton of changes — even just in the last few weeks — that we’re excited to see hit the live servers next week.
There are still complaints about grinding in game for some players. You have already said this is going to be reduced in the future, but how do you determine the right amount of grind for players?
Grind is always one of those potentially loaded terms. We have a wide range of rewards and goals, and there are different paths to obtain different goals as we set them up. Some can be earned very quickly, if your skill is high enough.
If you’re a raider in Method, you can get the items from the Mythic raid end boss two weeks into the patch. For somebody else, that’s going to be something they can never overcome, or for other guilds that’s going to be something they work towards for months and months with a lot of skill and coordination.
There are other rewards that are obtainable by anyone — from a vendor, for getting reputation — they don’t require skill, but they require a bit more time because there are some players who have more time to spend, or who are looking to spend more time in the pursuit of rewards, but they’re not necessarily the hardcore competitive player who’s going to min-max everything and get together a group to overcome a challenge.
Generally, the more skill something requires, perhaps the less time it may require, and we’re trying to balance those things out to give a wide range of rewards to a wide range of playstyles.
Whether you’re someone who loves PvP, or someone who loves just exploring the world and doing quests and who wants to get together and raid boss with your friends and your guildmates, there should be a path for you to follow.
Obviously, sometimes we get the numbers wrong, and a reward may feel mandatory for someone who doesn’t enjoy the type of content that’s required to obtain it.
That’s something where we’re always trying to listen to that feedback and adjust, but one of the great challenges is balancing all these systems for an incredibly wide variety of players, playstyles, skill levels, and amounts of time they have available across World of Warcraft.
Last question — the heat always reminds me of Teldrassil, so I’d like to book a Greek cruise for mid-July. However, as the last two expansions have arrived at the end of summer, I’m questioning that call. What’s your advice?
I mean, I’ve heard Greece is lovely in the summer! Growing up we’d go visit family there often, I recommend it highly.
Certainly, with regard to releasing Shadowlands, we’ll have a lot more information there later in the year, as we get into Beta — but I really can’t recommend Greece highly enough!
World of Warcraft: Visions of N'Zoth goes live on January 14, 2020.
Discover "Shadowlands", the new expansion of World of Warcraft announced during the 2019 Blizzcon Opening Ceremony!
All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.