World of Warcraft’s latest expansion Battle for Azeroth may be approaching its end of days, but the content is far from slowing down. Blizzard’s latest patch, the 8.3 version update Visions of N’zoth, will drag Azeroth’s greatest heroes into the very depths of madness. I was privileged enough to ask some questions of both Senior Game Designer, Content, Jeremy Feasel, and Lead Game Designer, Morgan Day regarding what it takes to strip sanity away from a player – but in a fun way.
Many eyes. Maybe it’s supposed to be Visine for N’Zoth?
WellPlayed: We have seen so many legends and heroes within the Warcraft story become corrupted by different means – however this expansion sees the very players that shaped the battle for Azeroth ending up on the darker side of things. What thoughts go into designing a system that ‘corrupts’ players, without making them feel like they are becoming the bad guy?
Jeremy Feasel: We dipped our toes into this when we were working with the Eye of N’Zoth… where players got the choice to be able to keep this thing and continue to hear these crazy whispers and have a lot of fun with that. In this case, we’re also providing a choice. You can cleanse your gear if you want to and you’ll still get a nice high item level piece with good stats, or you can opt into this additional chunk of gameplay. We think that’s what the really fun part of this is. This sets this apart from things like Warforging, where now you’re opting into making the game more difficult for yourself to get crazy additional levels of power. That’s one of the fun things that we can do when you’re in a patch like Visions of N’Zoth, where we’re winding down the expansion. We can kind of let players go crazy and have some fun. It also gives us an opportunity, as designers, to play around with some brand-new mechanics where we wouldn’t have been able to give players these power levels or crazy detrimental effects during the very beginning of an expansion. Now players are used to their character and they have a lot of awesome Azerite powers and a lot of awesome Essences, so now they have a bunch of different ways of dealing with these mechanics. It gives them a very different way to gear up their character. We’re really looking forward to seeing what feedback we get on this too because it’s a brand-new system for us. Giving players the opportunity to choose to opt into it or not is definitely new to the World of Warcraft universe. We are looking forward to seeing what people think of it.
Morgan Day: Also like you mentioned, we’ve seen a lot of our heroes fall to this corruption before. We were talking a lot about N’Zoth and the fantasy behind these Old Gods, like: “What is it like to have an Old God attack your mind? How does that feel?” Could we explore that and express that with the Visions of N’Zoth update? Could we give the player the opportunity to see what it is like? Could we see what happens to other characters and show that this is why they’ve fallen to these attacks in the past? But on top of that, we have given players the ability to resist this attack on their mind with a legendary cloak they will be acquiring and upgrading in order to build their resistance to these attacks and this Corruption that players are engaged in through the itemisation system, like Jeremy mentioned. We want them to feel like: “I’m being assaulted by this Old God but I also have this ability to resist it because I’m an awesome, powerful player and because I’ve got this cloak and these items to help me grow resistance to it.
JF: I think one of the fun things you were talking is about is how it lets us – from an itemisation perspective – show what it feels like to have N’Zoth within your mind. And you start to think about other ways you can get that across. I’m not sure we’ve had an item that’s been actively detrimental since Corrupted Ashbringer back in the day. It’s very storyline-specific in the ways that items usually aren’t. That’s something that’s totally cool and really fun to design for.
WP: It’s been a while since we saw any real concept of ‘Resistances’ in WoW. Did it feel nostalgic when creating the idea of corruption resistance?
MD: Yes! It was awesome. When we were first talking about how we display this resistance, I was like – can we please use the old spot on my character sheet for resistance? Please! I think what we came up with was really awesome. It was close – it’s still on my character sheet – but it’s presented a bit differently, but that was absolutely something we discussed from an itemisation perspective. Corruption resistance! This is awesome! It goes back to the previous point of “How do you defend against these attacks against your mind?” Well, we’re awesome, so we can kind of resist naturally a bit of it and not fall completely to N’Zoth’s corruption, but secondly, we have things that we’re acquiring to help us along the way. Not only just the cloak that Wrathion helps us with, but there’s also a really cool tech tree that MOTHER helps you with as you progress through the Horrific Visions and in the patch. It’s one of our new features that’s really awesome. There’s a whole progression path and some of that also helps you fight against this resistance as you bring it to MOTHER. She’s all about that research, so as you bring things to her, she’s learning, she’s figuring stuff out and she’s also giving you these new upgrades that are helping you along your path and in these Horrific Visions.
JF: And I think that when it comes to resistance, one of the advancements of coming up with a brand-new resistance, in this case, is that we can make it obvious when you hit certain thresholds. Anyone in WoW Classic playing a Fire Mage in Molten Core is probably not having the best time. This a good example of where resistances can go wrong, where half of the things are immune and the other things do about 15% of the damage they would normally do. It’s an invisible value to players and that doesn’t tend to feel very good when compared with very punchy stuff when you hit certain Corruption levels. There are crazy creatures that are going to come out of the dark after you. It’s very visceral as opposed to just feeling like the numbers change. Like fighting against Chromaggus back in WoW Classic. I could hit that guy with a fireball and if he’s fire-resistant or not fire-resistant, you’d really feel it.
MD: You feel really smart as you game Corruption. You can say to yourself, “Alright I’ve got this much resistance, but it’s right at the line before I reach the next threshold, so I don’t want to start seeing pink elephants so I’m going to stay just short of that line.
Stormwind: new year, new me
WP: Were there any particularly noteworthy challenges that you faced when developing the new allied races, the Vulpera and Mechagnomes? Even the visual customisation of the Mechagnome race is unlike anything I have seen in WoW before!
JF: That was definitely one of the first big discussions. How are we going to make them noteworthy and different than gnomes and how far to go on the mechanisation threshold? Do you go all the way to mechanical? And the storyline enters a little of that. There is the coming together of the Rustbolt Resistance as well as the gnomes in terms of, I don’t want to spoil but in terms of what happens to various high-end gnome characters and the people that live inside of Mechagon itself. Not all of them wanted to follow King Mechagon into his ultimate plan of turning everything into robots. So, we took a look at some of the coolest customisation options there and what we could give players that allow them to stand out in a way that we’ve never really been able to do before. We haven’t been able to, for example, really change up what your arms and your legs and your eyes look like. We were able to do that here. It gave us a great opportunity also to start looking into what great advancements to character customisation we could start looking into and the technology involved there.
MD: …We have a broad plan for our Allied Races and the story as we unlock them, and especially with mechagnomes, we have seen that over the course of the entirety of Battle for Azeroth. Personally, I just wanted vulpera six months ago! That was the hardest part for me. As soon as I saw them, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in this boat, I wanted them now! Seeing them and knowing they are coming and not being able to give people what they want was excruciating! I’m super excited to get them in players hands. Personally, I love the idea of the vulpera creating a camp – they basically have a second bind point and a second hearthstone – and it’s been hilarious watching people finding funny ways and funny places to set up camp. I saw someone put a camp on top of a zeppelin, and they were like “Haha I’m going to have my hearthstone on the zeppelin” and it ended up putting them in Orgrimmar and not on the zeppelin. I’m so glad someone thought of that.
JF: I feel like designing the racial abilities was one of the more fun parts to designing all our Allied Races. It’s something we don’t get to do very often. We don’t add races every expansion, and this time, we added eight! We get to design eight whole brand-new abilities for them. And some of them came out awesome. I really like punching people in the face with my Kul Tiran. It feels very Kul Tiran.
MD: I always love that fun flavour and spice – it’s not combat abilities, but those extra ones that add a lot of character to the Allied Race and the ability tells you who they are. You could not have played through the quests, you could have just seen what they do with their flavour and racial abilities and kind of get a sense for exactly what those guys are about. I always love that goblins can summon a hobgoblin. I was like OK cool, you’ve got hobgoblin buddies. I get what you’re about.
Beep and/or Boop
WP: We’ve seen the prisons of Old Gods before, but Ny’alotha, The Waking City is a whole new beast. Was there any particular source of inspiration for this dark, brooding place? It’s amazing that with 16 years of content under your belt, the art team are still knocking out these incredible and unique locations for players to explore!
JF: Ny’alotha is bonkers, and the very first thing we did before we even started discussing Visions of N’Zoth in the beginning was that we went back to the Chronicle and we took a look at the picture that I’m sure everyone familiar with the Chronicle remembers. It was what the Black Empire looked like, the world that N’Zoth wants to bring to Azeroth. When you look at it there are these little tiny characters in there that are meant to be giant C’Thraxxi generals, who are being dwarfed by the towers and the molten pits around them…
MD: To Jeremy’s point, part of our process is that we always have our kick-off meetings where we discuss the new patch, the new story – and we discuss: “What are we doing, what’s the raid, who’s the big bad in the raid?” This was one of the easiest kick-offs ever. We just pulled up the picture and said: “We’re making that right? Yeah? Cool. Let’s go. We’re making that. Easy.” My favourite part too is that we always have ways in which we refer to things internally, and in that Black Empire picture, you can see N’Zoth off in the background and what we call “Eyeball Mountain”. When you see N’Zoth in that huge, epic image as you come through the main gates of Ny’altotha, it’s just super epic. It’s amazing what the art team has done in that raid and what they’ve been able to pull off because I’m really excited about Ny’alotha. It’s going to be one of the most epic raids we’ve ever done.
JF: It’s a new era for us in terms of these big glowing animated backgrounds they’ve got going on now, that just gives great depth to the world. I think the hardest part for us when developing this raid was figuring out how you were going to blast your way into Eyeball Mountain. We know we wanted to go inside Eyeball Mountain, but determining how was the challenge…
Holiday Destination 2020
WP: Was it fun returning to Uldum/The Vale of Blossoms to continue the story of those locations?
JF: It’s great being able to go back there and see some of our favourite characters from Pandaria. The Vale was a place that a lot of Mists of Pandaria players spent a lot of time doing the Golden Lotus dailies. We wanted to give it and Uldum a N’Zoth-y feel, so you’ve got a lot of structures from the Black Empire that are going to be showing up in a lot of different locations, and you’ve got a custom skybox. We’re trying to make things feel very different when N’Zoth assaults both locations. I think the quest team did a great job of expanding the lore of the different sub-groups that exist in both of the areas. For example, there is a group of the Tol’vir in Uldum who aren’t on N’Zoth’s side but they’re not on our side either. They are on the side of the planet of Azeroth. Their initial orders that they were given by the titans about what they are supposed to protect considers all of us as corruptions, but you can argue that especially when we are picking up corrupted gear, that we are going along that route. They have their own storyline, along with the Wastewanders, these thieves who live out in the desert sands that will have a story that plays out with other characters in the zone. So being able to go back to some of these old storylines and drive them forward into some new directions gives us some great opportunities to do very different things than other things you’ve seen in battle for Azeroth.
MD: We talk a lot about the world being the main character of World of Warcraft. Azeroth herself is the focal point in the player’s mind. It’s not often that we get to revisit some of these places that we’ve seen before and show an event like an Old God being released and rising, and demonstrate how that would impact the rest of the world. What would that do a place like Uldum or Vale? Can we show that to players and actually change those spaces so that players would think “I know what this place is supposed to look like and it’s not this.” It’s really cool to get to explore that aspect. We always love to create new spaces like Nazjatar in Rise of Azshara, but seeing something like that, something we are so familiar with and have so much affection for, and seeing how a place like Vale might be twisted by a huge event like an Old God rising – that was really exciting for us to explore and see what we could do.
JF: Anybody that has been following the lore and playing Island Expeditions might have seen that we seeded some of these ideas some time ago. We were able to pay-off some of our really early on seeded ideas now here, a whole year and a half later.
Dark and broody is the fashion nowadays
I think the hardest part for us when developing this raid was figuring out how you were going to blast your way into Eyeball Mountain. We know we wanted to go inside Eyeball Mountain, but determining how was the challenge…
– Jeremy Feasel, Sr. Game Designer
WP: World of Warcraft content patches have become truly epic in recent years. Is the WoW team starting to see a blurring line between expansions and content patches?
JF: For us, an expansion has a couple of core elements to it. One of them is getting to explore a brand-new space. This includes both on the system side of things, where we shake things up and give you new ways to play your character, but also in where you are exploring in terms of the world. I think that it was great fun going to Nazjatar and Mechagon and those all felt like very different space, and were tonnes of fun to design, but when you go into a new expansion, one of the core features there is the levelling experience. That keeps you grounded in terms of the lore of the space in a really awesome way that has a length to it and breadth to it that I think that we hold up as one of the cores of the WoW expansion.
WP: Horrific visions are a fantastic glimpse into the alternate realities that await our heroes should they fail. Is it fun coming up with ‘What If’ scenarios like these?
MD: …The first time I remember seeing this in World of Warcraft was back in Cataclysm, again with Deathwing and the End Time, where we went to Dragonblight and saw that alternate reality with Deathwing impaled on the top of Wyrmrest Temple. The first time I saw that I thought: “Wow! I want more of this!” This was an opportunity to explore that space of what if the Old Gods win, what would the world look like? What would happen to our heroes? That’s been something that’s been really exciting and fun to play with. Also, again, revisiting those spaces that players love and that players have such an emotional attachment to and saying “N’Zoth’s got it now, this is what it looks like, sorry!” That’s always fun to just revisit those spaces and have a different take on it and also give players something that feels new, but also they have an attachment to and want to cleanse. They want to see it returned to its original form. Horrific Visions have been really cool to be able to use Stormwind and Orgrimmar as those spaces that we’ve been exploring. It has its challenges too. Those cities weren’t built for gameplay spaces. They’re cities, you walk through them and go down and find your fruit vendor, for example. It wasn’t built as a dungeon, which is very much “Here is a hall where I will spawn these things in my perfectly round boss room.” It had its own challenges that we had to find solutions for, but it’s been a lot of fun to work in that space.
JF: It’s always fun to take a space that you’ve been running around in for the past six-plus years in the case of the revamped Orgrimmar – even longer for Stormwind – and figuring out what happens to those characters you’ve run by umpteen times when everyone goes crazy. Players have invested lore even just in their heads about what these characters do during the day based on running around for years and years and years. Being able to turn that on its head or change it in a very different way, here is that familiarity that you have turned on its head. It’s not familiar anymore and it’s weird and gives you that kind of cognitive dissonance that you want when you’re near N’Zoth.
Typical baddies doing bad things
WP: Was it difficult creating this specialised content that is designed to scale between 1-5 players? It’s pretty unique for WoW!
MD: Well that’s a good point. This is the first time… we’ve tried to design content that does scale from solo all the way up to the full dungeon party potentially. There were absolutely challenges there. One of the things relatively early on, were what does this look like if you do have a healer, or don’t have a healer? There were definitely some things that we explored, and honestly it’s one of those things we’d love your feedback on. How does it feel as a solo player versus when you go in there with your Mythic+ crew? Is it roughly as challenging? As we are playing around in Visions of N’zoth, we’re going to be looking making improvements on that as we go, and we will be looking to future Shadowlands features like Torghast, when we apply them there. That’s something we’re very excited to be getting into players’ hands and something that we think is awesome. We’re all huge fans of Diablo and we always want to run our Rifts by ourselves as well as with our buddies. There’s a lot of good lessons we’ve learned throughout the years even through other Blizzard titles. It’s been a challenge, but we are excited to see what people think of it.
WP: Thanks once again for this opportunity, the amount of hard work that has gone into Visions of N’Zoth is immediately apparent – I must extend a huge thank you to the entire team for what they have achieved. I will tear myself away from WoW: Classic on the 15th so I too can enjoy a casual spiral into madness!
Patch 8.3 will go live on January 14th, with the raid opening the following week on the 21st. Be sure to head over to the official site for more details, including in-depth patch notes covering every feature and change coming to Battle for Azeroth!