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Interview

No, We Can’t Play As The Spider People – Exploring The War Within With The WoW Expansion Devs

There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of the newest WoW expansion

World of Warcraft: The War Within is a massive first step on a new path for the veteran MMO’s storytelling style. Hailed and described clearly as the first chapter of a much larger narrative, it must be a daunting task for the people working on it.

Thankfully, I got to spend some time with the right kind of folk to tell me all about it – the ever lovely and enthusiastic Tina Wang, Associate Art Director and Dani Merrithew, Lead Quest Designer, who were both very open to sharing what lies beneath the surface of Azeroth.

They also broke my heart with some grim news about playing as the Nerubians.

WellPlayed: I’ve got a question straight out the gate that I’m hoping we can talk about, but just after jumping in and playing it for myself, I do need to ask, did we just crash the flying city of Dalaran to start an expansion?

Tina Wang: …You know, that is an experience in itself. We’re really excited for everyone to fully see how that goes.

WP: Ah, so there’s a lot more story to that than just somebody falling asleep at the wheel?

Dani Merrithew: Yes!

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WP: A big question I have is what’s it like working on an expansion that can be so openly described as the first step on a larger narrative? Obviously BlizzCon pointed out not one, but three expansions that are going to tell a much bigger story. Is it a very different process from telling stories in the past when you got such a defined future that’s sort of away from this particular chapter?

DM: Yeah, it actually is different. Well, I know that we always want to thread things forward, so there’s always things that we can refer back to in future expansions. But for this one, we really do need to be so focused, thinking about how those threads can last through the next three expansions. So yeah, definitely processes have changed. 

And, you know, we do have Chris Metzen back now, too. So there’s a whole different kind of way that we’ve been working with him and with the narrative people that we work with as well to put together this experience. We’re thinking so far ahead at this point. It’s a lot to keep track of, we’re always kind of in the past because we’re thinking about all the lore that we’ve laid out, we’re thinking about the present of everything that we’re working on right now and we’re thinking very far into the future. So definitely so many things to keep track of with that. 

WP: And having Chris Metzen back, is he quite involved with the storytelling process? Is he sort of hovering over everyone’s shoulder like an excited lorekeeper or librarian, making sure it’s all going according to plan?

DM: Yeah! He definitely is very involved with us, but he gives us a lot of agency as well. It’s a very collaborative process working with him. It’s been an awesome experience, honestly. He really does meet with us quite frequently, he is very much looking at this from a high level perspective and we’re filling in the details for him and he’s going through and approving that and whatnot. It’s been good working with him.

TW: He definitely has that energy, right? He’s coming with that enthusiasm for Warcraft. He’s like, “Oh, I remember when we did X thing at a certain time, we should totally, you know, bring back this guy” and it’s been so good.

WP: The Isle of Dorn is a unique place that predates Dwarven Lore – What comes into play when you’re trying to tell stories that lead into bigger things that people might already be used to? How do you start telling the story of the Earthen and what they’re doing now and what they were doing before?

TW: I’ll catch on the art perspective. A lot of the pre-production process really relies on the visuals, So a lot of it was, hey, what do we like about Dwarves? What key aspects can we take and link it back to as ‘the precursors’, right? So Dornogal, the city, we wanted to create something that seemed like it was reminiscent of Ironforge, but grander – closer to the Titans. And also the rural buildings out in the countryside, we wanted to create a bit of that homey feel, but yet, find ways to make them unique to themselves – or also maybe throwing back a bit to the Wildhammer dwarves.

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DM: And from the narrative side, our approach when it comes to quest content in general is that we want to make sure that things are very appealing to new players, but also to our legacy players. With this expansion we were able to do a lot of really cool throwbacks to really old content. It’s really interesting, these little story threads that we can pull from – like characters that we can bring forward. Like Moira has a pretty big presence in this expansion, which is super cool to see her come back. You see Magni again. You see Moira’s son, Dagran, which is super cool. And there’s lots of other cool people that you meet along the way as well.

It’s just really fun how we can kind of pull all that together. And I love as well how we’re exploring other themes and cultures that we haven’t really been able to dive into too much, like the Nerubians and even the Kobolds. There’s just a lot of really cool things that we’ve done with this expansion to kind of make our veteran players interested, but also be able to retell those stories for new players. We also have a lot of really neat little lore tidbits that are around the world that you’ll be able to find as well that will give you some back stories.

WP: Now, talking about these little narrative elements that you can sort of discover throughout the world, I have to mention one of the coolest things that I’m excited for is definitely Delves. Is there a lot of lore that happens in them? What went into designing Delves as a feature?

DM: From our side we did really want these to be micro, ‘bite-sized’ experiences. We really wanted to have a different way to do storytelling, especially being able to loop this into the campaign. It’s very fascinating. The thing that’s the most compelling about Delves is the different mechanics – we really think of this area as a place to experiment. And these are interesting mechanics that maybe we bring forward to other parts of the game.

TW: Yeah, I’d say that in general, it’s not ‘mainline’ story that goes through Delves. It’s a lot of supplemental adventures and ways that connect in.

WP: Is there an idea of how many Delves someone should expect in a zone? If somebody’s really enjoying them, should they have a rough idea of how many they should seek out before they move on to make sure they’re not missing out on any cool little adventures? Does the campaign log track the number of Delves in a place?

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DM: Not all of the Delves are going to be in the campaign. There’s some that you will explore on your own. We’re going to be having 12 available on launch and they’re sprinkled around those zones in various different ways. I don’t actually know the exact amount that are in each zone, but in general, you can kind of expect there to be 12 different experiences – and they do have different tiers of difficulty as well. So there’s many different ways to play through it. And with Brann (Bronzebeard) accompanying you, you can level him up very differently. There’s two different versions of Brann that you can play with. You can specialise him to use a healing talent tree, and the other one is more of a damage and DPS tree. It’s really interesting because the way that Brann works, the abilities he uses are different from playing with a player. If he wants to heal you, he throws stuff on the ground. You have to walk over top of them to heal – and when he’s in his DPS version, there is a skill shot that you actually have to aim. It’s really cool, honestly.

TW: And within the Delves, there will be a variety of experiences in them as well. So same location, but you might encounter a different story there.

WP: Oh, so if I do a Delve and a friend of mine does it as well, we could have different unique experiences?

TW: It rotates universally.

WP: There was mention that Delves can change over time – it’s something that rotates weekly? So it’s the same Delve, but not the way that you remember it possibly last week?

TW: Yup.

WP: You can either do a Delve by yourself or you can go in with friends. Is there anything missed by playing alone? No multi-person puzzles that may be missed by playing alone?

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DM: No, I don’t think so. We’ve playtested it a lot internally with both multiplayer and singleplayer and the experience does feel pretty similar, which is good. I think it’s just that enemies scale up depending if you’re in a group or not.

WP: So we’re not quite at the step of having full team based Escape Rooms within World of Warcraft?

DM: Not yet! Not yet. But this is the start of that.

WP: A quick question about Hero Talents, Was it really exciting to plumb the depths of Warcraft history and come up with really cool player archetypes to create those class based identities? For example, the Mountain Thane for Warriors seems to be such a massive nod to the Mountain King Hero Unit from Warcraft III.

TW: Absolutely. With Hero Talents we asked what are the different types of fantasies of this particular class and how can we put them in. Some of them were clear winners. And on the art side, something that’s kind of interesting that we’re starting to do with our tier sets is that you’ll notice that this season we’re also going with more universal evergreen class themes with our tier sets. So with some of those, we are taking inspiration from the hero talent specs as well.

WP: Obviously a really big sort of hook of The War Within is the fact that we’re going to have these absolutely enormous, cavernous internal spaces that are designed in such a way that they do not feel internal. The last real experience we had like that might have been Deepholme all the way back in Cataclysm – Has there been some really big technological changes to how the game works that lets you create such amazing internal spaces?

TW: Over the years, we’ve definitely been able to increase draw distances due to people’s computers getting better. We have things like fogging and depth, because fogging changes, right? One of the big pieces of making spaces feel cavernous and open is fog colour and sense of atmosphere. And so we have things now too where we’re able to change that colour of the fog over distance to help you get that greater sense of depth than we would have back in the Deepholme days. Then in Hallowfall, the giant crystalline ceiling – and how the crystal shifts from light to dark, that was something that also relied on some new technology to make it really work and look the way that it does.

WP: Another signature feature of The War Within is Warbands, which seems designed to uplift and empower players who love having alt characters. What are the most exciting features of Warbands from your perspectives?

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DM: So the Warband system is actually going to help make questing so much smoother for alts which is amazing. We’re really refining on how you can actually skip content that you’ve played before on your other characters. Warbands is honestly one of those just game changers for a lot of different things– One of the really cool things I actually don’t think I’ve had a chance to talk is that when you have five characters in your Warband you get an extra bonus experience to any other characters that you bring in, which is super cool. That’s going to help you level up faster.

From the questing side there have been a lot of decisions that we’ve had to make internally in regards to progress, does it make sense to have progress saved per quest or per chapter or per zone? We think the best path going forward is having it per chapter. So you can finish a chapter on one character, then hop on to another one and you’ll be right there. You can pick up from that point when you’re that level and you can move forward in the campaign which is super awesome.

WP: If I was to ask both of you personally, what’s your favourite feature coming out of Warbands that you’re looking forward to seeing in the game?

DM: I think for me as someone who does play a lot of alts – having flight points unlocked per account is huge to me. That’s definitely a game changer right there. But I also love that transmog is shared across account now. There’s just so many cool little quality of life things that just make the players experience better. And we’ll be able to add more to this across future expansions as well.

TW: I’m excited that you’ll be able to craft out of your Warband bank. So that’ll be amazing. And with alt gear, I’m excited about like how you’ll be able to get Warband loot – so even if you’re not getting the top tier of what can drop, okay, maybe you’ll bring this item back to you know, your warrior and maybe play it after with a headstart of an awesome weapon.

DM: Oh, I can’t forget about the best thing out of Warbands is that your bank is shared! So there’s no more having to mail gold back to other characters – which is SO nice.

WP: So, regarding the new expansion landmass. Is it as big as Dragonflight? Smaller? Or about the same?

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TW: It is not as expansive in terms of scale as Dragonflight was. That was really one where ‘the land of dragons’ needed a lot of space.

WP: Nerubians have been such a massive part of Warcraft history. Do we get to play as Nerubians at some point?

DM: We don’t get to play with Nerubians in this expansion. No. And there’s no plans right now. From what I understand, playing as a Nerubian would be a tough thing to kind of animate because they have so many limbs and whatnot.

TW: There’s some complications there. Definitely.

WP: You are also implementing an ‘Arachnophobia Setting’ which is very, very cool. Was this difficult to implement considering there’s many, many years of many, many spiders in World of Warcraft?

TW: You know, surprisingly it was not as difficult as one might expect. We have some incredible designers who help put together and gather all the data and we’re able to make these model swaps — to crabs!

Luckily we happen to already have many different coloured crabs to choose from the history of World of Warcraft. We even already have crab mounts. You already have crab pets. They tested very well in our research.

WP: Thank so much – I’ll wrap up by saying it has been fantastic speaking to you both.

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TW: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure getting to chat with you. I love it.

DM: Thank you. And thank you for supporting us and loving our game!

While the concept of The War Within is a neat one – there is a real draw to the amount of player-focused uplifts that are being applied to the game. Bite-sized adventures? A focus on removing pain points and wrapping up the new feature in a system as cool as Warbands? There is so much to unpack here – and for an expansion that deals with delving beneath the earth, it sure is fun to only be scratching the surface.

Keep an ever watchful eye on further announcements and news as it comes.

Written By Ash Wayling

Known throughout the interwebs simply as M0D3Rn, Ash is bad at video games. An old guard gamer who suffers from being generally opinionated, it comes as no surprise that he is both brutally loyal and yet, fiercely whimsical about all things electronic. On occasion will make a youtube video that actually gets views. Follow him on YouTube @Bad at Video Games

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