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Interview

The Drip Feed Of Dragonflight – Talking All Things Alpha With The Expansions Production Designer

We get a chance to soar on the wings of dragons

The Dragonflight alpha has been released, and with it a plethora of draconic details have met the web. We have seen Evokers in action, designed Dracthyr and wandered a smidge of the Dragon Isles – but thanks to a clever strategy from Blizzard, we have barely scratched the surface.

I got to spend some time with Patrick Dawson, the Production Director for Dragonflight – picking his brain on what makes dragons cool, and how the Dragonflight alpha test is taking player feedback in a new direction.

WellPlayed: When you’re making an expansion like Dragonflight with such a set theme, is there a mad rush in the pre-production to basically search for every dragon character in Warcraft history and stick them up on a whiteboard as potential narrative characters?

Do you get to hit CONTROL+F and just type in ‘Dragon’ on the character database and see what you can find?

Patrick Dawson: You know, actually when we develop an expansion, one of the first things we look at is the setting, not the characters. Where do we want to go? We start there and this will obviously hit some heartstrings for most of us, right? Like being able to go to the Dragon Isles, a place of wonder and exploration, especially coming from a place like Shadow lands, which was more otherworldly, to get back to the core Azerothian Fantasy was something we all were really excited about.

…But then very, very quickly after we choose the setting of course you need to choose characters, villains, heroes, et cetera, et cetera.
And you know the Dragons and World of Warcraft provide a rich lower background for all the different aspects and all the different actors and actresses that are part of that.

So yeah, we’ve had a lot of a lot of lore to pick through, and the ability to expand those stories going forward and Dragonflight now.

WP: I absolutely LOVE Dragons in fantasy, but I always feel like Warcraft Dragons are always quite different. In Dragonflight, you show off a more primal force of Dragons – these elemental Dragons.

How big of a role do they actually play in the expansion? Do they drive the main narrative or the encounters that players have?

PD: Yeah! The Primalist Dragons are a major core part of the narrative through the level up campaign, and actually throughout the first part of end game content, including the raid! There will be themes of the Primalist Dragons in there too!

We obviously don’t want to give everything away right away, so YOU might get to see it in the alpha, But one of the things we actually learned in developing the game is that you know there’s a lot of things that players would like to see that are kept as surprises, or left to be unexpected – something that they don’t necessarily get to see in testing.

So one of the approaches we’re taking with the alpha is to hold a little bit back from players – so they can have that moment of surprise and delight.

That said, it’s hard to avoid the fact that yes, the Primalist play a core role and the Primal Dragons are certainly part of it.

WP: The new customisable UI is such a huge improvement for World of Warcraft! What kind of knowledge on your end drove the changes? Did you take a look at what kind of add-ons players seemed to consider critical?

PD: There’s a whole bunch of inspiration we’re able to take from external sources, even internal sources!

We have a fantastic user interface team with very experienced user interface designers and user experience designers now too, and this was something we committed to doing internally over well over a year ago so. A lot of discussion about how to really perfect the UI and make it more modern.

So those customisable options like you mentioned – that’s really been a core part of how we’re doing this, so the updates that we’ve done so far that you’ve seen in alpha, there’s a lot of a lot more visual fidelity, a lot more cleanliness to the interface.

I know we have even have some fun options, like combining bags versus regular bags…

WP: You can have one BIG bag!

PD: Yeah! And one of my personal favourites is the updated cast bar options, with updated art – the new animations and visual effects that you get. Especially as it applies to things like the empowered spell casting!

A lot of really cool UI updates are already done, and there’s more to come throughout the alpha, but what you see so far is pretty good – demonstrative of over a year of effort on updating.

WP: One of the things I did notice was when I went swimming was that the breath bar had been updated – I was admiring it and then realised it was rapidly draining, oops.

PD: Yeah, I’m playing a Forsaken myself, I never actually get to see it drain.

WP: You can look at it longer – for ages even.

PD: Yeah, exactly!

WP: Early on it was mentioned that this is sort of the first step of the UI improvement project. So is it a case that we’re going to see a majority of updates made before, when Dragonflight launches? Or will the majority of changes be rolled out throughout the expansion’s life?

PD: For Dragonflight, we’re really focused on the HUD, the interface that you see in moment- to- moment gameplay. That’s really where we wanted to put our efforts.

The World of Warcraft user interface is enormous – all the different windows you can pull up, things like the queue system and all that other stuff and elements of that are being updated in Dragonflight as well, I know the Looking For Group tool, for example, has a new icon for the eye.

It’s not just the HUD, but the HUD is what we’re focusing on. But because the UI is so vast, we’re not actually going to be updating every little intricate portion of the menu for it. That’s a project that we will take on over time but for Dragonflight specifically, we are focused on the HUD.

WP: A lot of players are also really excited at how talent trees will actually give developers more room for tweaking class power. Moving forward, do you feel that the talent trees feel like a big investment for when you do need to deploy balance changes in future – having more screws to tighten moving forward?

PD: The talent tree is really an effort to get back to the core class fantasy, rather than expansion thematic class fantasy which we’ve seen in the prior few expansions. It’s getting away from things like, you know, covenants, or artifact power.

WP: SO safe to say the talent trees are not an ‘expansion’ feature – they are a World of Warcraft feature?

PD: Right, so this is more getting back to the evergreen World of Warcraft that you all have grown to love. Obviously with so many options and so many choices it will give us the ability to tune things on a much more surgical basis – that certainly is an opportunity for us, but I think really one thing I’m excited to see is just how players do engage with it, like what kind of crazy specs can they come up with to really show their creativity, their theory crafting, their ability to min-max something.

In fact, well, we’ll be providing default talent loadouts if min-maxing is not something that you want to do. Maybe you want to play a classic warlock without making tough decisions between talent A or B.

WP: OK, so people can actually have a ‘preset’ talent selection that best provides a core experience to a certain class fantasy?

PD: Yeah, like a ‘recommended’ set of talents.

And for those who do want to really engage at the depth that the talent system provides, we will be doing loadouts which will allow you to switch between talents, ’cause you know you might have a different loadout for PvP versus Mythic Plus Dungeons versus World Questing – rather than having to try to remember all that stuff you selected, you can just choose your loadout and go.

WP: Has there been any really big sort of ‘ah-ha’ moments with talent trees? Like maybe you got to reintroduce something that was sort of lost to time, like an old talent or an ability that might have existed long ago, or like an expansion-specific thing that is thrilling to get back in the player hands?

PD: One of the biggest takeaways we are seeing from the talent trees from a positive end is the notion that every level you become more powerful. Every level you get something. That’s something World of Warcraft had moved away from with recent iterations. With the talent system of old, you’d have these breakpoints every five levels, ten levels – fifteen levels, where you get to select something new or unlock something special for your character.

But for this one every single level now has a return to you. Getting that talent point you really get to customise the heck out of your character all the way through levelling up until end game, so that’s something that I see as a huge positive.

WP: When it came time to give the professions system some love, what profession was the most fun to spice up? And was it engineering?

PD: As a former engineer, I would say engineer. But really, they’re all pretty amazing. Geez, it’s really what speaks to your fantasy for me. I have been a tailor and enchanter since the beginning of time – I’ve been a master tailor, and I collect as many crafting patterns as I can. I think I’m only missing like one tailoring pattern in the game at this point – so tailoring has always spoken to me, so I’m really interested in engaging with that trade skill at a deeper level. Some of the visuals behind it too, we just got to see some art updates to the crafting tables recently, In terms of what the crafting stations look like and they’re absolutely gorgeous. BUT! What’s even cooler to me is I can iconically LOOK like a tailor or an enchanter. I don’t have to always look like my mage – I can get gear which allows me to craft things better, has benefits to allow me certain bonuses when I craft, and I will be dressed as the profession that I want to play.

On top of that you’ll be able to actually spec into specific things in the tradeskill system, so if you want to focus on a certain aspect of tailoring, you’ll become better at that at being able to do that.

WP: Allied races are awesome, they’re fantastic. Will we get Tuskarr eventually? I mean, they’re right there, they’re on the Dragon Isles.

PD: I mean we always kick around ideas for allied races – however there aren’t currently any plans in Dragonflight to have Tuskarr be an allied race.

A lot goes into that, a lot of people don’t necessarily understand how complicated it is to do. Like, because you see an NPC out there clearly it has a character model, right? It can walk, it can run, it can do things – so clearly it’s able to be an allied race. But the truth of it is there is a lot more that goes into a player character. Things like how each character has custom animations that aren’t NPC animations – for example the crafting animations, various casting animations – all these things need to go into making something an allied race, so it’s not THAT simple.

WP: It’s not just a check box that just says ‘ALLIED RACE EQUALS YES’?

PD: Yeah, I mean if it were that easy, we probably are looking at doing a few others! But, we do look at what makes sense thematically for the expansion and if it works out, we do try to add some over time.

While there aren’t really any allied races planned right now for Dragonflight, we do have internal discussions about that…

WP: Speaking of character animations and the like – one thing that I was really impressed with when it came to playing the Evoker class is that there seems to be a really, really clever bit of design put into what abilities actually force you to enter your dragon form.

I thought it was just going to be a flag of if you’re in combat or if you’re casting – but it actually turns out that there are quite a few spells and abilities you can use that keep you in humanoid/visage form.

PD: For combat, predominantly you will be in your dragon form and most of the reason there is because their combat and attacks revolve around being a dragon in some way, right? It could be a breath attack or a wing buffet, or a tail swipe or something.

If a spell doesn’t incorporate your dragon-self in some way, you don’t end up changing.

WP: Regarding ‘evergreen’ content, is there a chance that we’ll see more sort of like older Mythic Plus dungeons possibly getting some scaling work done so they can stay relevant in Dragonflight?

PD: So with Shadowlands Season Four, we’re doing an experiment with this. We’re bringing Grimrail Depot into the Mythic Plus rotation, which I believe was one dungeon that was never designed for Mythic Plus in the first place. So we’re going to see what that looks like and depending on how that goes, I think we look for other opportunities in the future where bringing back some old fan favourites might make some sense. I think we’re doing it with Karazhan as well – that’s another fun one!

So that’s going to be a good experiment to see how the community reacts, and if that’s something that is sustainable, then yeah, we’ll absolutely look at doing more stuff like that.

WP: So in regards to the alpha, is there any really exciting new things that haven’t received much spotlight that you can’t wait for players to discover?

PD: Actually, Dragon riding is probably the biggest. This alpha is kind of interesting – this is one of the first times I can remember where the alpha is the first look that players get at the build right? Typically there’s a BlizzCon build that people will have a sneak peek at or just something out there that we’ve let people play before now and this is a little bit different in that this will be the first time the players actually get to see this content.

Dragon riding is something that I think you need to play to really understand it, or at least see it and how other people are handling it with in the game, right? Like the soaring through the air, the physics behind it, the way you gain altitude and glide, there’s something visceral about that, that can’t really be communicated through text or speech, so that’s something that I am really excited to see how people go and how they react to it.

WP: As somebody who’s finally done Dragon riding, I can safely say that my first experience with it was just abysmal. I pretty much took off, tried to figure out what I was doing, and hit the ground with a thud shortly after. Took me a moment to see how I manage the resources of flight, and sustain speed – it’s all super dynamic!

A lot of people may have to go through the teething of learning to fly again, because they I think they’ve had it pretty easy for a long time, but now there’s a proper learning component to it.

PD: Well the alpha release probably makes it a little bit more streamlined for you right now. The very first thing we’re showcasing is the third zone, the Azure Span, and at that point of the expansion there’s some assumptions made that you will have experienced some elements of Dragon riding, BEFORE you get to that zone, so you’re kind of coming in without going through the earlier experiences of learning a little bit more how to how to ride the dragon.

WP: Oh good, that might explain why I was hitting trees and landing in a heap.

PD: You ARE getting thrown into the deep end of it.

WP: Big question then, Dragon riding is treated as a core progression throughout this expansion as well; it is central to deciding the places you can go, and what you can do.

Was that a really interesting design tenant?

PD: Yeah, the world was built with Dragon riding in mind, so there’s things that won’t be accessible through ways other than through Dragon riding. That was done intentionally, so you get to have those moments of discovery and exploration while soaring on the back of a dragon. That just seemed like a cool opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

WP: I did have a question, I’m not sure if it’s alpha-specific, but I did manage to sort of botch my way up a cliff and fly into a new zone thinking, oh I’ll check this out – then a big scary message said YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE and it kicked me out.
Is that an alpha thing or is that a dragon flying thing?

PD: Haha no, that is an alpha thing. One of the things you’ll see throughout the alpha is that we’re taking a slightly different approach. This time, it’s much more strategic and intentional than past alphas. We’d just put up the alpha and for a few months, we’d start adding this and that as it gets done and it would end up a little bit dishevelled.

But what we found is that we looked at some of our most effective testing practices and one that we really liked was the way we test raid bosses. We activate a specific raid boss for a specific period of time, everyone focuses on that and we get really good focus feedback testing for the duration of that.

So we asked ourselves, could we do this for the alpha as well? Therefore what you’ll see in the first experience is the Azure Span zone, you’re going to go through that and we’ll get very focused feedback on that. And then when we’re ready to do the next update, we’re actually going to turn off Azure Span and turn on the Forbidden Reach.

We’ll go through each zone one at a time and really get that focused feedback, just like we did with raids.

Another advantage to this is when we do those focused feedback tests, there’s still an amount of mystery we can preserve still. We saw this with one of our recent content updates around things like the Dark Ranger quest lines – this was stuff that was never on the PTR, so players got to see that for the first time on live.

So, part of our alpha strategy is also to hold some things back like that too, so we can have some surprises ready for launch day or launch week, moments of delight and surprise.

WP: Part of the living World of Warcraft has to have an element of surprise to it – players are smarter these days, there’s all kinds of data mining.

PD: Yeah, it’s it. It can be a tricky balance, right? Like you want to make sure that your players on day one are going to have a really positive experience – so testing their content makes a lot of sense, so we want to make sure we do publicly test the content to get people to play in different ways.

So the majority of the storyline will be testable, like the zones you’re going to engage with and their storylines. It’s more once you hit that end game and what happens next, we’re looking at opportunities to keep that a little bit more under wraps.

WP: Finally, what’s YOUR favourite Dragonflight group?

PD: They’re all cool. You know it’s interesting for me, I do think I choose BLUE – there’s two main reasons.

The first is historically I’ve played a magic user in the game, Mage has been my main forever. And you know, Blues, the one that’s been mostly associated with arcane magic, right? That to me speaks to my soul. So that’s a big positive. The other thing is I just like the colour blue, it’s a good colour, so you know, can’t go wrong with that.

But they’re all cool, I think. I’ve heard a lot of people on team bronze? Some green, the green storyline is just so good.

WP: They are very cool. I remember when I found out that Chromie was a dragon a long time ago – go team BRONZE!

Awesome, well that’s everything Patrick, thanks for that.

PD: Awesome, thank you!

With such a core focus on feedback, it paints a very promising picture of how the World of Warcraft development team are banking on this expansion succeeding. Throwing out the old rulebook, and embracing a new era of player-driven testing may be everything the game needs to invigorate a player base that’s becoming a little apathetic.

Or, perhaps dragons are cool enough to carry it alone.

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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