Dragonflight Pre-Launch Interview with Ion Hazzikostas
The Dracthyr have finally emerged. Dragonflight launches in less than two weeks and the hype is real. As we’re all getting ready to soar out to the Dragon Isles and take on the challenges ahead, we’re bringing some further insight into what the World of Warcraft team has in store!
Earlier today, we had the privilege to sit down with the Game Director of World of Warcraft, the WatcherDev himself, Ion Hazzikostas. Joined by TruVillainManny of the For Azeroth! Podcast, and Berzerker of the Unshackled Fury Podcast, we were given the opportunity to ask Ion about some of the decisions being made going into the new expansion. We discussed the Race to World First (RWF), Raid and Mythic+ design, and overall development processes and philosophies. We even asked about the possibility of a Global Raid Release. Read on to see Ion’s answers to these topics and so much more!
Be sure to check out the For Azeroth! and Unshackled Fury Podcasts for Manny and Berzerker’s reflections and perspectives on today’s interview, as well as some interesting info on the creation catalyst, possible Warrior improvements, etc.
Table of Contents
- Race to World First
1. Vault of the Incarnates 2. Simultaneous Raid Release 3. Server Reset Changes 4. Global Raid Release Plans?
- Raids and Raid Design
5. Fated Raids 6. Cross-Faction and HoF
7. Endgame Rewards 8. M+ Ceiling and Rewards 9. Additional M+ Incentives 10. Dungeon Pool Considerations
- Design and Development
11. Philosophies Behind Change 12. Incremental Change 13. New Talent System 14. “New Normal” of Game Dev 15. Encrypted Narrative Content 16. What Should Players Know about the Dev Process? 17. The New Era of WoW
Race to World First
“Our goal, with tuning Mythic in particular…is to make the raid just difficult enough that it allows the best guild in the world to distinguish themselves from the second best guild in the world.”
Q-1: The Sepulcher of the First Ones Race to World First was unique in recent memory in regards to its difficulty and length. Did this impact any design or other decisions regarding Vault of the Incarnates?
Ion Hazzikostas: It’s something we’ve definitely discussed. There’s been a lot of reflection looking back because we didn’t really serve everyone well with that experience. Our goal, with tuning Mythic in particular, especially at the start when it comes to the RWF, is to make the raid just difficult enough that it allows the best guild in the world to distinguish themselves from the second best guild in the world. It’s like building an obstacle course for Olympic gymnasts or something (pick your game show of choice); if everyone completes it, then we didn’t really learn who was better that cycle or season etc. Think back to Emerald Nightmare at the start of Legion; it was a little bit unsatisfying because it sort of felt like “who got there first” as opposed to who really played better in a sustained way. If it’s anything above and beyond that, it likely frustrates the top guilds (as we’ve heard), but it’s also creating an experience that’s more frustrating than fun across the board for everyone outside of the top echelon. That’s just unfortunate, and that’s never our intent or goal.
In Sepulcher, there were multiple wall bosses as we all know, and the instance was also more difficult than intended on other difficulties. There were plenty of guilds that struggled on Heroic despite having a past history of comfortably getting Ahead of the Curve and heading into Mythic. We made a lot of nerfs, etc. But anyway, that led to a lot of conversations internally about not only our tuning goals, but also our philosophies. For example, when is it okay to wipe the raid instantly for a mistake? Honestly, the answer should be “almost never” — at least when it’s more like a single person’s twitch reaction mistake of, “you fail if you do this mechanic incorrectly” or whatever. It’s totally reasonable on Mythic to kill the player for doing that; but to say the entire raid is over because someone was one yard out of position is not our aim. Yes that’s difficult, yes that will get us three-digit wipe counts and get the boss on the MMO Champion’s list of hardest bosses, but that’s not actually our goal as encounter designers. Our goal is to make a fun, challenging experience, so I think the design of Vault of the Incarnates and our raids going forward should be very directly the product of those lessons. We still want a stern test for the best guilds in the world, and we still want nerd screams and a real sense of accomplishment when someone gets the world first title with two or three other guilds hot on their tail. But also, we’d rather not have to nerf things 20 times for the rank 100 / rank 1,000 / rank 5,000 guilds to be able to blaze that same trail afterwards.
Q-2: What was the thought process behind the simultaneous release of all raid difficulties for Vault of the Incarnates and are there any concerns about how it will play out in action for both the Race to World First and the rest of the playerbase? Is this something being looked at for future Raid Tiers or is this a one-off due to the timing of the Raid Release?
Ion Hazzikostas: Great question. I think that, if it works well, (or close to well and that we can learn from it and build upon it), then I think this will be a good model going forward. It’s always been a little bit awkward that we have a situation where the season starts, but if you run a Mythic+ higher than a +7 or +8, then you’re not going to get better rewards for some reason. Then, if you’re a player that is doing that, it feels like:
“Oh because Mythic raid isn’t open!”
“Well I don’t do Mythic raid...but wait, who cares?”
“It doesn’t matter. Your rewards are capped because it would impact this other competitive scene that doesn’t involve you.”
That’s weird; there’s a lot of weird stuff that comes along with that territory that we’ve done to support that structure. It’s something that we’ve thought about and weighed the pros and cons around in the past. There’s no question that the calendar timing and the holiday season was sort of the impetus forcing us to grapple with some of these challenges and to see what we have to change in terms of our testing plans and how we use Beta to build confidence in tuning (and how the fights are actually going to go). Everyone knows that the game is coming out in a few weeks. We had settled on that release date a couple months ago, so this is where everything is tracking. We realized that, if we do our normal release plan, we want to give people a couple of weeks to level; we don’t want to rush people into the season. Compressing that would be annoying for not just top guilds but like everybody across the game who feel like they got left behind if they didn’t get to max level by the time their guild started raiding. There’s something really cool about those first few weeks in a new expansion before your weekly routine has started when you’re just doing Mythic 0s and doing outdoor stuff and getting alts ready, and you don’t yet have your raid schedule. We didn’t want to compress that at all, so if we hadn’t released the raids simultaneously, then our regular release schedule would have pushed right into the holidays. Then, delaying the entire thing until after the holidays didn’t feel like the right option for anyone, since that would have been a very very long time for everyone to wait. So that’s why we’re trying this out.
I think that a simultaneous raid release is a model that we can use going forward. Now, it’s going to change the dynamic in the first week — that’s for sure. I would not be surprised if we see very few guilds actually go into Mythic that first day — hardly anyone — but I’m sure there will be someone doing it to claim world first on a boss and forever get immortalized while the “Liquids” and “Echos” and “Methods” are out there gearing up. We saw similar things in Sepulcher with the last few bosses unlocking for the first time at the same time, and that was actually in some ways a little bit of a “proof of concept” of how this could work. I think it will be an interesting layer of strategy of balancing gearing vs. progression. Of course you want the best gear possible, but also you need time on the bosses. With the old structure, as we know, people had literally spent 168 hours (24 hrs x 7) trying to get the most possible gear and practice, figuring out how many splits they could do, and how many Mythic+ dungeons they could run. Then, at some point, (in some cases), it became a question of how players could practice Mythic strats on Heroic versions of the bosses. Well, all of that’s out the window this time because every minute that you’re wasting on Heroic is a minute that you could be spending pulling and learning the Mythic boss. It’ll be fun to see it all unfold.
Another piece of it, getting back to the tuning question in Sepulcher, is that it’s become increasingly challenging to tune bosses to be challenging enough for the world first competitors without being just unattainably difficult for “mere mortals” in other Mythic guilds due to how rationed out splits have gotten and all the other systems that guilds have in place to optimize their gear. The item level that Race to World First guilds such as Echo and Liquid had obtained when they were pulling some of those late Mythic bosses in Sepulcher was a number that ordinary Mythic guilds might not reach until maybe 6 or 7 weeks later. In that case, these guilds are not JUST more skilled because they’re the best players in the world — they’re also better geared, and that’s really messy. In contrast, without having that whole extra week, people won’t have access to the Great Vault during that first week, for example. Without all of that, we can tune things at a level that will challenge them while still letting gear growth happen. People will get their 2 piece and 4 piece set bonuses and obtain items from the Great Vault to bring those encounters within their reach more naturally without us having to go in and make heavy-handed nerfs down the line.
Q-3: Daily Reset, and thus Raid Launch, has been changed in the European Region to take place 3 hours earlier in Dragonflight. Did the Race to World First and the oft-heard cries for Global Release impact this decision, or was a different reason behind this change? Will any similar considerations be made for the Asian regions?
Ion Hazzikostas: It is actually completely unrelated. So, for a while, Europe has been the only region whose maintenance window is desynced from their weekly reset. For typical maintenance, when we have a Patch release or when something is going on, the North American servers might come down at like, 6:30 or 7:00 am PST; the servers will be down for a few hours, then the reset happens during that time, and then they come up. In contrast, Europe was routinely having their maintenance occur well before the reset happened, which actually led in a lot of cases to us having to extend the maintenance artificially for several hours. This is because it would create either an unsupported or abusable state if they had a few hours in the new patch with the new content before the weekly reset had occurred where they could jump in and kill the world boss, do a thing, etc. This way, we were often finishing our actual internal server maintenance and keeping servers down for an extra 3 or so hours for no reason other than to prevent potential game-breaking behavior.
With shifting the daily EU reset, we wanted to make it earlier so that maintenance windows can be shorter overall, and so that there can be more synchronicity. Obviously, this does have the side effect of reducing the number of hours before EU guilds can log in when a new raid release happens. There’s pros and cons there. We’ll see how it plays out. Otherwise, we have no plans to make any changes to Asian region maintenance because, again, that’s currently synced with their reset.
Q-4: The Raider.IO Community would never forgive us if we didn’t ask: Is there any chance of a Global Raid Release in Dragonflight?
Ion Hazzikostas: No. Almost certainly, no. It’s the same reasons that we’ve given in the past. At the end of the day, there are millions of people playing World of Warcraft and, while the hundreds of people who participate in the RWF would like that simultaneous release, it would inconvenience hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of players in some way to try and move things around. You’d have people logging in on Patch Day and asking whether they can raid tonight, being told no, and the answer being, “Because Blizzard is waiting for Europe to get the patch so that they can release the patch.” That’s not a fun experience for most people. Additionally, people might wonder why their raid is resetting in the middle of the evening for them, so there’s no good answer there that doesn’t inconvenience numerous people.
The RWF is not an objectively fair experience. It is a community event — not an esport. There’s a lot of different factors involved — there are schedules, and there are things that are offsetting the “fairness”. The people who get into the game a bit later have all the information from the first night’s streams that they can watch to see what everyone else did. Sometimes there are bugs, and sometimes there are tuning changes that are made that, as we all know, may waste time for one group that gets there first that others don’t have to deal with. If we do our job well in tuning the raid (and if it’s not over in just a couple days like Emerald Nightmare), the race shouldn’t come down to the reset or a few hours one way or the other. It should come down to who played and executed better overall and on those last couple of bosses, and whether you needed 250 attempts vs. 170 attempts on each boss. That’s the difference between who wins, so we have no plans to change anything major there.
Raids and Raid Design
“Fated Raids were not without flaws, but we feel it was successful in looking at how people were participating in it, the feedback we’ve gotten from across the community, and even our own personal experiences playing the content. I think it beats having had another 3 months of Sepulcher, which was the alternative.”
Q-5: We saw the introduction of Fated Raids in Season 4. Do you consider this to have been a success, and can we expect Fated Raids to return in Dragonflight?
Ion Hazzikostas: I definitely think the whole thing was a huge experiment. For example, what we were doing with the Mythic+ season was also us testing the waters for putting old dungeons into the rotation knowing that it was where we wanted to go in Dragonflight. We learned some things from the old dungeons such as the sorts of changes we might want to make, and so that was super helpful there. Overall, I think it was successful. Fated Raids were not without flaws, but we feel it was successful in looking at how people were participating in it, the feedback we’ve gotten from across the community, and even our own personal experiences playing the content. I think it beats having had another 3 months of Sepulcher, which was the alternative. So, in that sense, I think it’s something we’re going to return to in some form. I think it makes sense as a short season like it was — like an outro or an epilogue to the new expansion. It’s like, “Alright, the story’s over, the next thing is on the horizon” — let’s just do a little remix and recap of the greatest hits that the expansion had to offer.
The Fated concept in particular was very themed around the Progenitors. We probably wouldn’t reuse that exact term, concept, or framing for the raids in the future. However, bringing back an expansion’s first raid(s) that we haven’t done in a while in a relevant way (and with some relevant rewards) can be fun for players to revisit. For players who maybe didn’t get a chance to play that tier when it was current, it also gives them a chance to experience the content in a relevant way as well. It’s something that feels pretty good overall.
The one big missing piece we would want to improve upon and change for next time is something for outdoor-focused players. I think that, if you were a dungeon player, PvPer, or raider in Season 4, there was a lot for you to sink your teeth into and get some great rewards. If you didn’t do those things, I guess there was a world boss every week that gave something new, but that’s not enough. For us to be really happy with the final season of Dragonflight and for it to be successful, I think it should offer something equally robust for players that don’t do instanced group content.
Q-6: With the introduction of Cross-Faction Raiding, and the potential for Cross-Faction guilds in the future, are there any plans to make changes to how the Hall of Fame functions as a result?
Ion Hazzikostas: There are no current plans to make changes to how the Hall of Fame functions. It is a guild list, so you have to be a guild group to get the achievement that will get you into the Hall of Fame. It is conceivable that, if one of the World First guilds has 8 Alliance members along with their 12 Horde, they could have the community World First yet not be in the Hall of Fame because they wouldn’t have gotten the guild achievement. That’s the rules and that’s the structure we have set up. However, down the line when — I’m not even going to say if — when cross-faction guilds become a thing (because that’s something we do want to do), there are complexities to work through. At that point, we would shift to a single unified faction-agnostic Hall of Fame because it will truly not make sense to have that separation anymore.
“For Dragonflight we’ve tried, more than ever before, to ensure that the different endpoints are actually pretty close to one another, which allowed us to raise the ceiling of rewards in Mythic+.”
Q-7 (Manny): Historically, Mythic+ has been a way for players outside of the top echelon of Raiding to earn gear at levels that they would otherwise not be able to obtain, with many players feeling compelled to do Mythic+ to gain better gear for their raid progression. We’ve also seen multiple approaches to how the gearing process functions in both Mythic+ and Raid, including artificial capping. How is the Dev Team approaching the balancing of obtaining gear through Endgame content in Season 1 of Dragonflight?
Ion Hazzikostas: I think we definitely set these systems up as self-contained parallel progression tracks. We understand that there are plenty of players who only want to do dungeons / Mythic+ and don't want to feel like they have to raid to keep up, and vice versa. At the same time, we also recognize that people who choose to do all of those paths or multiple paths can progress faster initially. For Dragonflight we’ve tried, more than ever before, to ensure that the different endpoints are actually pretty close to one another, which allowed us to raise the ceiling of rewards in Mythic+. For example, now (for the first time), the people who are high-end key pushers that are doing +20s for the Great Vault rewards should be able to have every bit as much item-level (if not higher in some cases) 3-4 months into the season than someone who is full-clearing their Mythic Raid on a weekly basis. Mythic+ players can now do so without having to set foot in Vault of the Incarnates, because they will regularly be getting 421 item level gear from their Great Vault. A Mythic raider will instead have some items at item level 415, as they are the best pieces available on that slot but drop from some of the earlier bosses in the raid, while also being able to get a few high end Raszageth pieces as well, ending up at the same average item level as the Mythic+ player.
I will say straight up, that at the lower end it will be harder for a lot of players to get the same quality of gear that was accessible through Mythic+ in previous expansions. That is by design, as we are trying to keep a similar effort, reward and challenge ratio for dungeons and raids. You can certainly look at the Raider.IO statistics, and they line up with our internal statistics as well, and see that the percentage of players who are able to do Mythic +10s or Mythic +15s, and those who clear Normal and Heroic difficulty raids, is very different. There’s a clear skew there and it has been very common for raid groups who try to get ahead of the curve to also have a lot of people in their group who are doing Mythic+. These players aren’t getting a single upgrade from any of the raid content they do, they stopped getting upgrades a long time ago. That doesn’t feel great from a challenge vs reward perspective, where you’re wiping with your group to kill Anduin or beat Rygelon, and then you don’t actually get anything usable off the boss despite it being very challenging for you.
It also causes social pressure, where the folks who don’t have the time or aren’t interested in doing dungeons on the side can fall increasingly behind. Of course it isn’t our goal to make dungeons less rewarding, but we want to ensure that there aren’t a lot of players who, for example, play Normal difficulty raids which provide an appropriate level of challenge for them and where they actively work to overcome those bosses, when they could just go set foot in a Mythic+ dungeon and get showered with much better loot. We want to make sure that challenges and rewards are commensurate the whole way up the scale, including at the very top, which is something I think we haven’t done enough for Mythic+ players in the past, and we want to do better this time around.
Q-8: With the changes to the Great Vault loot obtainable via Mythic+, specifically that the highest rewards will now be available at Keystone level +20, are there any concerns about the attainability of these rewards? For example, in Season 1 of Shadowlands only 1.3% of characters that completed a Mythic+ dungeon did so on +20 or higher (increasing to 16.7% in Season 4). Are these loot breakpoints via the Great Vault something that may change over the course of Dragonflight?
Ion Hazzikostas: Everything is flexible; everything is subject to change. Obviously, if things are frustrating and we’re getting feedback that something isn’t working, it’s all flexible.
I guess a question is, what percentage of raiders killed Mythic Denathrius in that same timeframe? Spoilers: probably not 16%. Some of it is framing, and the psychology around rewards can be tricky. The way we’re framing it is that, now, you can get better rewards by pushing past 15. Before, yes there was a cap — we’re just raising the ceiling. A lot of players aren’t going to be able to do +20s. That’s okay. You’re still going to be able to get the rewards you could before and maybe some better ones. There’s always the next rung on the ladder that you can reach for — a new challenge, and for a new tier of rewards. For the vast majority of people who enter a raid zone for the very first time, they don’t expect that they’re going to beat Mythic Raszageth at the end of Vault of the Incarnates this season; and yet, they still have a satisfying progression and reward experience along the way. Most people who queue up for arena PvP don’t expect to get the Gladiator title, but they have a satisfying progression and experience along the way at all the different tiers appropriate to their skill levels.
I think what we’ve seen with Mythic+, because of the difficulty tuning (and also the relatively low ceiling on the rewards in the past), is that there was an increasing expectation of like, “Well yeah, of course I’m going to do 15s as soon as a new season starts — what key level do I have to do to maximize my reward?” It’s not a question of whether that is attainable, it was just, what do I have to do to get the thing, with reaching the ceiling being a foregone conclusion? That’s a mix of the ceiling being a bit too low, and some things along the way maybe being more rewarding than the other parallel systems were.
With this change, there will be people who are accustomed to maxing out their vault who will no longer be able to. I understand that’s going to be frustrating, and I understand we’re going to get some feedback around that. It might feel bad for those players, but if people look at the actual rewards they’re getting compared to what they used to be getting, and be mindful that there are now goals for them to strive for, I think this will be a healthier overall ecosystem for the World of Warcraft endgame.
Some of this touches on what I was talking about earlier in response to one of the prior questions, about the pressures on raiders and what dungeon loot does to other portions of the game where it overshadows the rewards and the progression experience that they’re offering. We’re trying to set up an equilibrium here that can work well for everyone. But, as always, it’s subject to change, it’s subject to iteration, and if we’re off the mark here, we’ll adjust it.
One last quick point would be, the stats you have on people who were doing +20s in Season 1 in Shadowlands —there was no reason to do +20s in Season 1 of Shadowlands; there weren’t even dungeon teleports at that time. The only reason to push that high was if you were trying to climb the Raider.IO leaderboards and you wanted to be able to say that you are one of the best groups on your server, or one of the best groups in your region. You were doing that purely for fun and a sense of achievement. With more motivation to push past 15s, I think we’ll see a lot more people have success at those levels.
Q-9: Are there any plans to expand the Mythic+ rewards system, similar to that of PvP, with exclusive transmogs, tabards, and more?
Ion Hazzikostas: We certainly want to expand cosmetic and utility rewards across the board where possible — that’s something we want to keep moving towards. Over the course of Shadowlands, adding things like dungeon teleports and the entire concept of the top 0.1% title for people to vye for (as an analog to the seasonal gladiator high-end PvP title or to Hall of Fame for raiding), that’s something we were excited to do. I think we want there to be a range of unique rewards so that, when you see someone on the corresponding mount to something they’ve earned, you can identify them as a great dungeon player, great raider, or great PvPer. That’s what we want to keep coming. There’s nothing specific to announce right now, but the goal is to keep evolving those structures. We know that this is where so many people spend their time, and we want to make sure that, once you move into new content and leave gear items behind, the cosmetic rewards that you get — the titles, the transmogs, whatever else — that those last forever.
Q-10: We have loved revisiting dungeons from older expansions in Mythic+ format, and we’re excited to see this trend continuing in Dragonflight. Can you tell us a little about the process required to take an old dungeon that was never designed with Mythic+ in mind, and add it to the dungeon pool, and the considerations that go into which dungeons get chosen?
Ion Hazzikostas: The answer shifts a little bit. As you get to older expansions, there’s more change required and it gets more complex. I think we’ve kind of unofficially drawn a line at Mists of Pandaria, internally, at least for now, in terms of how far back we would go. I think for pre-Mists, the visual fidelity is just in a very different place. Mists stuff still holds up. It’s obviously older, but it still holds up. As you start getting back to Cata and Wrath era dungeons, or certainly earlier, that just doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic of the modern game. Asking Dragonflight players to spend tons of time every week in environments that just feel very dated isn’t the greatest thing. The other key piece is that those older dungeons were designed with different goals in mind. There was no Mythic+ in Mists or Warlords, but there was Challenge Mode, where dungeons were designed with the concept of this added difficulty, of a timed run, and in some cases additional or changed mechanics. It added a level of complexity or a skill-test that we were looking for, and those can be carried forward into Mythic+. As we’ve seen though, looking back to some of the Mists dungeons, we may need to make changes to boss mechanics where needed. Some bosses had a lot of flash to them but not really a lot of challenge of substance, such as meaningful changes to Wise Mari in Temple of the Jade Serpent.
That’s something we’re open to doing, but at the end of the day, when looking at what dungeons to pick, we’re thinking both about nostalgia and fan favorites, but also overall length. If we look at the Season as a whole, the pool as a whole, we want there to be some variety. It’s fine if there’s some 5 boss dungeons, some 3 boss dungeons, some that are a bit longer or shorter. We’re kind of looking at what we have as our existing makeup and what complements that well. But we want to continue to rotate through dungeons from past expansions alongside new ones that we’ll continue to add, and we’ll evolve the structure going forward based on what we learn.
Design and Development
“I think Dragonflight was meant to be a breath of fresh air in its conception; it’s just open and joyous, it’s about exploration and about going to new lands. It’s positivity and uplifting all around after the time we spent in the realm of death. Let’s come back to Azeroth as new life comes to the world. It’s going to be an awesome journey, and we just can’t wait.”
Q-11 (Manny): World of Warcraft is a live game, and changes can be difficult to implement as a result. What is the principle used to determine when to address or improve parts of the game and has the team’s philosophy changed in this regard? Are big changes only expected to occur between patches or expansions?
Ion Hazzikostas: It depends on the sort of change we’re talking about. If there’s a bug that we learn about, we’ll often want to fix it right away. If something is frustrating people’s experience, let’s figure out why and get it fixed tomorrow. Class balance is an area I think we want to take a more active hand in. We understand that, the community perception is that a given spec is not viable in a certain area of content, that has an immediate negative impact on a ton of players, not just people personally feeling bummed that they watched a video and their spec was listed on the D tier of someone’s personal rankings. Instead, they applied for a bunch of groups and got declined from all of them because “sorry your spec is bad”. We’re not doing our community a good service if we let that situation persist for too long. There’s always going to be someone who is perceived as the best or the worst, but our job is to keep things dynamic and shifting, and address those issues as they emerge. We want to reassure folks that if it seems like you’re perceived to be on the bottom right now, don’t worry, we’re watching that too and we’re going to do something about it. No king rules forever, but also no one should be at the bottom forever.
Other changes when it comes to bigger things, such as philosophical shifts, those take more conversation. In some cases they just take longer to implement, like Cross-Faction guilds. We’ve been getting feedback and requests for them ever since we implemented Cross-Faction play, but it’s just a large undertaking because there are underpinnings of our guild system that were never designed around the idea of factions co-existing in the same guild. There’s just some things to unravel there, we can’t just push a button and make it happen.
Some of the biggest changes have helped pave the way for Dragonflight itself. As we were working on Patch 9.1.5, there was a lot of unrest in the community — a lot of justifiable unhappiness around the direction of the game and around the perception that we weren’t always respecting players’ time as much as we should. People weren’t able to play and enjoy the parts of the game that they love the most because it felt like we were asking them to do things they enjoyed less that got in the way of things like alt-friendliness, etc. That led to extensive philosophical discussion and reexamination of some of the underlying pillars of WoW going back to 2004 that our old bosses and predecessors instilled in us that these are things that are important to preserve. But we had to ask, are these really still true? Are they serving our players well in 2021, 2022, and beyond? This led to a ton of shifts that we began to see in Patch 9.1.5 that I think Zereth Mortis and Eternity’s End were built with in mind. But Dragonflight truly is the first expansion built from the ground up with ideals like promoting more stuff that’s account-wide and alt-friendly and is really us saying formally “you know what, it’s okay if you ignore large chunks of the game. We’re not going to make you do these things. We’re going to lay them out there for you and make them as appealing as we can, but we trust you to find your own path and your own fun. If that means that you ignore this chunk of content that a portion of our team spent a lot of time crafting, that’s fine. It’s not in anyone’s interest to make you do something that you’re not enjoying every day or week.”
Now, of course, if no one is enjoying the thing we spent time crafting, well then, why are we doing it? Let’s learn from that and do something else with our time in the future that’s going to better serve the playerbase. I think that’s the large shift and that wasn’t like fixing a bug or implementing a feature - that was the product of dozens of hours of deliberation and discussion among the team, among leadership, among all of the designers and developers who work on it, and then infusing those philosophies into all of the decisions we make. And that story is not over. The years ahead will chart hopefully a new direction that is more empowering for players and offers players more freedom and more agency than ever before.
Q-12 (Manny): What is the philosophy behind making incremental changes, where improvements can be made through a smaller change that is not quite the end goal? A recent example of this would be implementing Cross-Faction content, but not yet Cross-Faction guilds. Are you open to continuing to bring in smaller changes that can be implemented rather than waiting for one big rollout?
Ion Hazzikostas: Absolutely. In almost all cases, if we can make things better for players but not all the way, let’s do that now rather than wait until we can do the full measure. The only exception I think are things that conceptually require an all-or-nothing overhaul, such as the new talent system. That’s something we wanted to change and improve for years now - I think we had come to the conclusion about 4 years ago that the MoP style talents weren’t serving the long-term game as well as it could - but that’s not a thing we could do in a part-measure.
Or take our User Interface revamp recently…I think there’s a lot more to do there and we see it as a foundation that we want to build on. We focused on the heads-up display and things that are on your screen all the time, but there’s plenty more customization to offer with edit mode. But then drilling a layer deeper, we have ongoing improvements we want to make to things like the quest log, spell book, and so forth. However, we wanted to get as much of the change in players’ hands right away, give them a better upfront look and more flexibility, while still committing to continuing until the job is done in the months and years to come.
Q-13 (Berzerker): Going into Dragonflight, how will you and the team decide what constitutes the benchmark for success for the new Talent System?
Ion Hazzikostas: Mostly it’s subjective feedback. It’s tricky because we can often look at raw stats of how many people are doing something when it comes to content. People tell us one thing, but how often are they returning to this content? That can help gauge its overall success. The talent system, on the other hand, is something that is forced upon you whether you like it or not, so we can’t look at those stats. I think we’ll certainly be looking at how many people are using different builds and loadouts and how they’re switching among them to help understand what percentage of players are going deep into the system. I think we can probably infer from that if it’s working for them and they’re enjoying the customization, flexibility and depth that it has. Ultimately it’s really going to be the product of subjective feedback.
Certainly we’ll be looking at individual talents aside from the framework as a whole and the rules of how the system works. We’re going to continue to iterate on all 38 of these spec trees and all of these class trees. As we get into later patches, and see some talents are very unpopular that almost no one is taking, let’s change something about them. If there are talents that are so dominant that they stifle choice in the tree, then let’s do something about that too. In that sense, there is data that can guide us there, but so far it’s been really encouraging.
This was a scary change to make. It’s the underpinnings of the game, and every single person whether they like it or not was going to log into a completely transformed class and spec experience. That’s also part of why we put in the backstop of the default loadout, the starter build, for people who didn’t want to necessarily grapple with the complexity of it upfront, or even ever. They could just say “you know what, this isn’t the part of the game I enjoy…I don’t like tinkering and min-maxing, I don’t want to have to relearn how to play my spec, just give me something that works”. The flip side is hearing from different people who are making different builds and loadouts for different bosses, for dungeons versus raids, or just leveling new characters for the first time and feeling a deeper connection to their class or spec. Those are all tremendously encouraging and just heartening given our goals with this effort.
Q-14 (Berzerker): Shifting gears to talk about the human side of the game’s development, I wanted to ask about how the team has adapted over the last couple of years. Now that we’re in what could be referred to as the “New Normal” of life and business under Covid, are there any challenges or lessons from the development of Shadowlands that have impacted how you’ve approached the development of Dragonflight? Essentially, how have you as a company adapted to the way of the world today to bring us this brand new expansion?
Ion Hazzikostas: This is a great question, and something we’ve been grappling with for two and a half years continuously now. We basically made the entirety of Dragonflight in a hybrid - primarily remote - environment. We have a couple hundred folks back in the office any given day, with a lot of people coming in for 3 days and working from home Mondays and Fridays. There are others who are fully remote, and others who are a thousand miles away or in different timezones. That’s just how things work now. There’s an empowering flexibility to it, but also some challenges that we’ve had to overcome. We quickly realized that shifting to virtual meetings was actually superior for a number of reasons. Certainly large meetings that we used to worry about fitting everybody in a giant conference room, but also things like art reviews where you would have somebody in the back of the room squinting to see the projector. People can now do markups and paintovers on a shared screen, and everybody has a front-row seat to that collaboration. When we’re reviewing zone building or world building, things like that, we can all hop on a test server while we’re looking at it and run around the world navigating through what is being presented to us. That’s all far superior to just sitting around in a conference room somewhere, and we all quickly decided that even if we’re all back in the office tomorrow, we’re still going to run these meetings virtually.
There’s things that you lose, of course. There’s just the casual social interactions, the “hey let’s go have lunch together”, and the things that make work more inherently social, connected, and fun. We’re also missing some of the free-form collaboration and brainstorming. Through tools like Zoom and Slack, we still have great meetings and planned collaboration, but it’s been hard to recreate those moments where, for example, when someone swings by someone else’s desk to bounce an idea off them, and someone sitting 8 feet away overhears the conversation, has a spark of inspiration, and suddenly you’re off to the races in a totally different direction. That was not a planned interaction, and that person wouldn’t have been necessarily pulled into a meeting, but that’s how it happened to play out. That doesn’t work with pre-scheduled and planned interactions. We’ve worked to create hangout channels and encourage people to blast questions or throw suggestions out into those, so others who maybe aren’t the direct recipient of the message can chime in. It’s building a new process and building new muscle memory for how we do that. Overall, it’s new, it’s different, it’s exciting, and I don’t feel like we have been limited or held back by these circumstances, nor has the creativity that the team has been able to muster and unleash.
I couldn’t be more proud of Dragonflight and how it has all come together, and I can’t wait for millions of folks to jump in and experience what we’ve made in a couple of weeks from now.
Q-15 (Berzerker): Is there anything about Dragonflight that you personally feel most proud of that is either going unnoticed or under-reported that you feel deserves more attention?
Ion Hazzikostas: Not really. The community is really good at turning over stones and examining every nook and cranny of the stuff we build. I will say that there is an unprecedented amount of encrypted narrative content in Dragonflight that no one has ever seen, and it is going to blow some minds in the weeks to come! There are multiple endgame narrative chapters and endgame campaigns that are available at level 70 that were not available on Beta. We have dozens of cutscenes that you’ll be seeing, so look forward to all of that!
Q-16: What’s one thing you wished players understood about the development process of World of Warcraft?
Ion Hazzikostas: The most inaccurate thing I see said at times, and the most hurtful, is that we don’t care. This entire team cares passionately and we are deeply rewarded by the joy of our players, and we want to make everyone happy. If we’re unable to act on feedback, it’s often because we’re balancing the concerns and requests of a very very diverse player base that has different goals, different motivations, and often directly conflicting desires. Doing the thing that person A requests could make the game worse for person B and vice versa because they play the game in different ways and want to experience the game in different ways. That feedback is super valid, people should absolutely advocate for their personal playstyle. If you are someone who likes running dungeons and doesn’t have time for raiding, you should advocate - and are justified in doing so - that we cater to your playstyle and transform the game in ways that elevate the things that you like over the things that you don’t like. But, also recognize that there are counterparts and counterpoints and people who are advocating for and asking for the exact same things from other directions. We’re trying to balance all of that. Sometimes it’s impossible to do both, and sometimes we just make mistakes. Understand that the mistakes are always coming from a place of positive intentions and wanting to maximize the happiness, and the quality of everyone’s time in World of Warcraft. If we get it wrong, please be patient and let us know, and we will do our best to fix it. It all comes from a place of earnest good intent.
Q-17 (Berzerker): With recent comments about how this is considered the “third age” of WoW, and themes of returning, rebirth, and renewal, is this as meta as the community believes, where it’s not just the game’s characters but the development team as well that feels a sense of rejuvenation? As a follow-up, for you personally, are you feeling reinvigorated around everything you are responsible for, or is it just another day at the office for Ion?
Ion Hazzikostas: This is definitely not another day at the office… or another week at the office. This is an awesome month, and is a month that has been a long time in the making. The team is excited, full of passion and joy for what we’ve made together, and we can’t wait to share it with the world. It has been a tough couple of years on a lot of levels, but this one really is a labor of love. I know that phrase is thrown around a lot, but this one truly is. I think Dragonflight was meant to be a breath of fresh air in its conception; it’s just open and joyous, it’s about exploration and about going to new lands. It’s positivity and uplifting all around after the time we spent in the realm of death. Let’s come back to Azeroth as new life comes to the world. It’s going to be an awesome journey, and we just can’t wait. Across the team these days, something that has been really fun in this modern era of games that we didn’t get as developers in the past, is the ability to watch everyone playing our game via livestreams. It’s spreading, there’s just tons of geeking out among everyone; artists, engineers, class designers, encounter designers. Spending months or years making something and then getting to see people play and engage with your creation, reacting and laughing and getting excited by the thing you’ve made, it’s why we all do this. It’s all about bringing joy to the world and being able to see it directly is the most rewarding part of it all. When we do our jobs well, we are bringing people happiness.