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Shaping Creation From Death – How The WoW Developers Crafted Eternity’s End

We had a chat to the designers behind creating the end of the beginning

As players step foot into the mysterious land of Zereth Mortis, we find answers to unasked questions – and new mysteries arising. What intention does the Jailer have for this forgotten nexus of power? How does death shape creation? It’s a deep place to ponder.

Thankfully, I had the chance to leverage the expansive knowledge of both Steve Danuser, Lead Narrative Designer and Morgan Day, Lead Game Designer, asking how you build a narrative from nothing and how DO you bring back a fan-favourite gearing system without making it feel stale?

I’m a long-time player, ever since sort of launch I have had a lot of fun with the game. I have a daughter named after a character in Warcraft Lore, so I can somewhat say that I am invested in the Warcraft story.

WellPlayed: To kick it off – obviously as we approach something like Zereth Mortis, we are peeling back another layer of the history of the conflict of orcs and humans, going back to creation of the world itself. How do you take on such a daunting task of effectively going back and explaining that this is sort of where it all begins? This is what creation ‘is’, intersecting other narratives of the world and the reality we know.

Steve Danuser: Yeah, well, it really comes down to kind of looking at these kinds of stories that we wanted to tell, like with the Shadowlands for example, delving into that rich history that we have established and saying OK, like how do we take what is familiar to people and put that extra depth and nuance on top of it that really takes this home? When we were talking about the Shadowlands and thinking through what it was, you know, there wasn’t a lot of established history or lore with it – people had mentioned the Shadowlands for a long time. You kind of dipped your toe into aspects of it during the Death Knight starter experience and things like that but it wasn’t expressed as a fully-fledged place that you could go to, so that was a great treat for us in kind of architecting the story of Shadowlands.

And then we knew that as we delved further, how do we do this? How does this the power of DEATH – with a capital D – work? Because we didn’t just want it to mean the end of existence, we wanted to show the beginning of a new eternity for the souls that went to the Shadowlands. Building that storyline out and delving into how this machinery of death allows these zones to work together and journey souls through this process, from entering the Shadowlands and being judged in Oribos before being dispatched elsewhere – how does that all work?

How did it break down when the Jailer started unleashing his menace on it? It made sense for us to go to that next level of place that Zereth Mortis represents in Eternity’s End, and so we wanted to deal with just a taste of these powerful beings – The ‘First Ones’, the progenitors of the cosmology of the universe.

While it was daunting, it was also a lot of fun to give our players a new kind of layer of that cosmology to explore, and to speculate about.

WP: That’s fantastic! Now, you did talk about other characters and I think one of my favourite things about Shadowlands as an expansion is that we do sort of get little snippets of insight from some other established lore characters that have come along on this journey with us, are they going to have much of a presence in Zereth Mortis? Like, say, will Jaina come along for the ride?

SD: Yeah! We are bringing some of those characters along with us! Part of that, obviously, is because Anduin Wrynn is still being held captive by the Jailer. We saw at the end of Chains of Domination that the Jailer took Anduin with him, as he has been trying to reach the Sepulchre of the First Ones.

When the expansion started, we didn’t have the context for what that meant, but we’ve been steadily building towards that. So now as players you see that everything that the Jailer has been doing in service of getting to Zereth Mortis, because that’s the place where he can carry out his plan to reconfigure reality with himself and domination magic at the centre of it.

So, there’s definitely some characters that we’ve met along the way, some who’ve come from Azeroth who will be joining us in Zereth Mortis. Jaina, who you mentioned, is one of those characters that comes along and it was really fun because when she makes her first footsteps into Zereth Mortis, she reacts to the power that’s present here. She’s kind of in awe – here is one of the greatest mages that has ever walked the soil of Azeroth coming into this place and being kind of awestruck at the power that she can sense that is present in this place and that again just talks to the power that’s at play.

World of Warcraft has these character stories that develop, no matter where you go, whether it’s a far-off place like Outland or this alternate Draenor that we saw in Warlords or Zereth Mortis that we see in Eternity’s End. It’s the characters that we know and care about that are coming into this place and they give us perspective, it helps ground us as players in that experience.

No matter how cosmic the themes are, it still feels like Warcraft because we’re with those characters who are so fundamental to this world that we love.

WP: Half the fun is rubbing shoulders with some of those iconic characters that we’ve seen over the years!

SD: Yeah, definitely. 

WP: Approaching this from a player power perspective, I suppose it’s worth just asking – a big part of the last expansion, Battle for Azeroth and now Shadowlands as well, was the absence of ‘set armour’ pieces. Players had a lot to say about missing them, and now one of the big-ticket items that a lot of people are paying a lot of attention to as we head into Zereth Mortis and its tier of Raid content is we’re going to start seeing armour sets coming back! After taking a bit of a break from armour sets, is it refreshing going back to it and do you have a lot of fresh ideas or was there concepts and ideas that you had sort of previously and shelved for later?

Is it comfortable? Is it like putting on an old pair of jeans?

Morgan Day: Yes to all of that. I mean, class armour sets are something that you know we did all the way back in Legion – I believe that was the last time we explored them, but yeah, something that we really wanted to do on both the artistic side as well as the design side was explore more.   

Class armour sets a lot of times would feel much more focused on the class rather than theme or the fantasy of the raid, or even the story that we’re telling – so with Eternity’s End and the re-introduction of class armour sets, we are trying a little bit of a hybrid approach where the sets look like they express the form of creation and a lot of the same shapes that you might see in Zereth Mortis – which almost looks like geometrical shapes.  

A lot of that same shaped language is expressed in the class armour sets, which is really, really awesome to see. It was actually super fun when we first, you know, kind of said, hey let’s do class armour sets again – one of the artists on our team did this really fun thing where they made ALL the armour sets and concept art, and just put him in a line-up and didn’t put any indication of what classes they actually were intended for.  

So, everyone on the team started to say, OH! OK, let me guess let me guess – OK, that’s Demon Hunter, that’s definitely Hunter, that’s DEFINITELY Mage. People were able to not only see that expression of class, but also the Progenitors and the Automa – some of the themes that you see in Zereth Mortis.  

That was really, really fun to explore just from an artistic perspective and then from the more combat system side of things, we actually went on quite a journey to really imagine what these set bonuses might look like. At one point I even want to say, you know, there’s this awesome legendary belt that you get from completing the campaign of Zereth Mortis. We were playing around with the idea of like ‘oh, what if that’s like actually the two-piece set bonus’ or something.  

We definitely explored lots of different design spaces there, but ultimately everyone just felt like the iconic ‘two-piece / four-piece for my spec’ was what people most wanted. 

WP: It’s really comforting to hear how excited you are to bring back such a requested part of World of Warcraft. I suppose to follow on from that, in regards to set-bonus armour pieces and how they can dramatically change the gameplay of a particular class, has thought been put into how this will impact players that have now spent an entire expansion playing their class in a very particular way? Is there concern that you might rock the boat of player fantasy by making class bonuses essential?

MD: I mean from a tuning perspective we’ve always had a good idea of what our goals were and we have really amazing tools to achieve those goals in terms of how transformational the set bonuses are.

Transformative is a strong word, but it should feel like it has an impact on your rotation – it should feel like OK, cool when I get my four-piece I’m starting to interact with some abilities in a different way than I have before – there’s some engagement there.

Because you know your rotation has looked pretty similar up until this point, so this is an opportunity for us to say hey, alright play with this for a little while – this should be fun.

WP: Personally, what’s always been my favourite is when set bonuses give you variety in what you’re usually doing – as opposed to sort of completely taking the bottom out of it and shoehorning a playstyle you may not engage with. So, I’m really excited to hear that.

WP: A question I have is obviously as we head towards Zereth Mortis, we are starting to see the book end of this particular expansion slowly coming towards us. Players understand that there’s going to be story beats that are starting to wrap up, wondering what can we expect from bread crumbs as we start heading towards where the chapter goes next.

Are we going to start seeing inklings of things?

SD: Well, yeah, I mean I can’t give spoilers as to what the conclusion is, but what we like to do for every content update we do, or new expansion that we do, there’s always mysteries that the players are carrying with them. Things that we’ve set up in previous content and we like to give some answers.

But then we also like to introduce new mysteries and new things to ponder. Zereth Mortis is tailor-made for giving our players lots of new things to ponder. Lots of things are referenced in little in-game writings and dialogue. Things that you’ll encounter there that are meant to be things to think about, whether we’ll be going to some of the places mentioned – it’s a big cosmology out there and we’re definitely dropping hints about things.

And if you take what you learned going through the Shadowlands and seeing how this realm of death operates there are some speculations that you might draw upon to think about how some of these other places might operate.

For the Shadowlands story, there’s a whole chapter of kind of epilogue that we didn’t put on the PTR, deliberately so that there would be something fun for the story-focused people to dig into at the very end of the campaign – so that’s going to be really fun!
It even deals with some of our major characters and sets up some future threads even beyond Eternity’s End. There will be a little more story to come before we move on to the next expansion, so there will be little things to whet the appetite for not only what’s next, but for what’s after that and what’s after that.

WP: I love the idea of seeing a lot of doors open and not knowing which one you’re going to take a step through!

WP: I’ve only really got one final question – The Cypher of the First Ones. For the first time in World of Warcraft, we are going to encounter a language that we do not immediately understand, but can progress through learning it.

What was it like approaching the idea of understanding a whole new language never seen before? Being able to drip feed players’ growth in being able to sort of see it, and eventually work towards finally fluently understanding what is being said.

SD: The Cypher of the First Ones is a great example of the whole team coming together and getting really excited about something that could tell a story not only through quests but through the systems that surround them.

We knew that we were going to a very different place, unlike any we’ve seen before with Zereth Mortis, and our sound designers were super excited to use that as a way to give a new kind of expression.

So, when you meet the Automa, these kind of caretakers that were left behind by the First Ones, you CANNOT understand what they’re saying. BUT! You hear these sounds and you can kind of infer whether they’re angry or they’re pleased or what their mood is by the sounds that they have.

And as you play through the cypher system, you progressively unlock these different facets of it – now those symbols that you see on screen start coming into focus and become things that you understand, but we still wanted to keep that sound, that kind of musical language, that the Automa are speaking. We wanted to keep that in place.

Even as you’re beginning to understand the words, it’s almost as if those melodies are taking hold in your mind and you’re beginning to understand what the song means.

It was a challenge for the UI team as well because we had to do some new things with the interface to allow those symbols to transition into words as you’re learning about this cypher system. It was just a great example of the whole team coming together and getting really excited to work together to tell a story that fits.

MD: Yeah, I love the almost song-like elements of it. That’s something that we talked a lot about as a team, not only just from the perspective of, you know, world building, but also for accessibility reasons.

You know, we want to make sure that people have multiple different channels to really understand and engage with this. That this new language, not just these awesome looking Cyphers themselves, but also the sounds and making sure we’re consistent with those meanings was something that the team spent a ton of time on.

It also afforded us some really great opportunities with some of the voice over in new raid encounters, some other raid bosses actually use this language in their voice over! Like sometimes a boss will go “RAWR, DIE!” But will be saying that in this other language which sounds more tonal and characterful – reminds me a lot of some famous characters in movies that make little sounds to communicate.

WP: Sounds unreal – Thanks guys!

With this chapter of WoW’s history drawing to a close, we find ourselves in a unique position where there are very few strands of fate left unchecked. What remains of Azeroth after our adventure in the realm of death?

You can start answering those questions now, with the Eternity’s End patch content available in retail World of Warcraft now.

Written By

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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