World of Warcraft is once again trying to make good and win back those who have left the game recently. The last expansion, Shadowlands, had another vastly-shortened content cycle, similar to the struggles experienced during Warlords of Draenor. The preceding expansion, Battle for Azeroth, was likewise maligned by the community for not delivering the type of endgame they hoped for. While WoW was tanking, competitors like Final Fantasy XIV were moving from strength to strength.
None of that touches on the wider issues at Activision Blizzard. The company is embroiled in allegations of workplace harassment and discrimination, with a culture of heinous actions stretching up to the executive level. The company reached a settlement between itself and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in late March, but it’s still dealing with further allegations that California Governor Gavin Newsom stepped into to meddle with that state’s legal case against the company.
A game thrives on trust. There’s a bond between the developer and the community. As a game alone, World of Warcraft has broken that trust repeatedly. As a company, Activision Blizzard has likewise shattered any faith that some might’ve had in a corporate entity. With the trust gone on both ends, it’s no wonder that WoW is struggling.
It’s into this reality that Activision Blizzard is trying to launch the next World of Warcraft expansion, Dragonflight. Features for the expansion include the new race/class combo, the Dracthyr Evoker, and the new five-zone Dragon Isles region. It also marks a return to straight-up high fantasy, with the new dragon flying mechanics recalling Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern or Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon.
In a group interview — attended by ourselves, LaptopMag, The Verge, and PCGamer — with WoW director Ion Hazzikostas, we talked about some of the philosophies behind the new expansion and how the team intends to re-establish trust on its end, as the wider company remains stuck in controversy.
Welcome to the Dragon Isles
The Years Drag On, and Players Change
World of Warcraft is nearly 18 years old. Whole genres have risen and fallen in the industry; Elden Ring is currently racking up sales, but the Souls games actually started in 2009, after WoW launched. Games have changed, players have changed, and it falls to WoW to shift to meet those players, while still holding onto the experience that made some fall in love with it in the first place.
One change is a move away from WoW characters as distinct entities. Instead, players these days lean heavily on alternate characters and want their actions on one character spread to others. FFXIV gets around this by allowing you to play multiple jobs on one character, but WoW has to find that flexibility within alts. Hazzikostas admits that the team is coming around to this type of thinking.
“Increasingly what we’ve heard from our players, particularly as they play more alts: ‘No, it’s me, the player behind the keyboard. It’s my journey and I’ve already done this thing once. I enjoyed it the first time and don’t want to do it a second.’ Taking a step back and re-examining a lot of what we do and through that lens has led to allowing skips, opening up options, and turning things that are mandatory on your first character into things that you can choose whether or not you want to do on subsequent characters,” he explains. “We want to carry all of that forward into building Dragonflight from the ground up. So things like access to content and cosmetics and utility, all of that feels like it should be account-wide. Linear narrative arcs are best experienced the first time, if you want to replay them on other characters, great, but we don’t want to force you to do that in order to access content or other key rewards or systems.”
Gear progression is going to remain character-specific, but for the rest, Hazzikostas says the team is thinking of making things account-wide. Repeating narrative content on a different character isn’t satisfying, and Blizzard is finally starting to understand that.
Over the years, WoW’s rough edges have been sanded off, with the addition of systems like Group Finder, reworked talent trees, and catch-up mechanics. The launch of retail WoW‘s sister MMO, WoW Classic, has highlighted that some things that the previous iteration did well came from the friction of play. The harder it was to do certain things like running a raid or dungeon, the more likely you were to make stronger community connections. For the current WoW, the team has to find out where to add that friction back into the experience, without alienating new, modern players.
A mock-up of the revamped talent trees
One of those areas is the talent system. Dragonflight is reintroducing the more complex talent tree that went away back in 2011’s Mists of Pandaria.
“I think when we create the talent system, having seen how a whole new generation of players played through our 2004 Classic talents or 2007 Burning Crusade talents, we understand that this isn’t really about the expectation that you’re going to figure out how to play your class and come up with your own unique playstyle,” says Hazzikostas. “Some people will enjoy that, but they’re frankly a minority. What we want to still make sure there’s room for is customization and most importantly flexibility in switching between different gameplay modes. I think in the past, World of Warcraft very often relied on friction to lock people into choices — or maybe not firmly lock, but discourage people from switching because there was a cost you would pay.”
Hazzikostas notes that when Blizzard looked at modern players in WoW Classic, they found that things like talent respec costs weren’t really barriers for players. Instead of picking a hybrid talent specialization that would work in PVP and dungeons, these players would pay the costs to switch between two specs. They’d simply farm up the gold needed to respec in order to remain optimum in certain content.
“What was meant to dissuade activity, just became this really annoying hurdle that you had to spend extra [and] often unenjoyable time to clear, and so recognizing that that’s how players are going to approach those hurdles, they’re not going to turn away from them, they’re going to do whatever it takes to go over them even if it makes the game less fun, well maybe we should build fewer of them,” he explains. “So our Dragonflight talent system will have multiple loadouts that you can customize and lock-in in town. You can have your Mythic+ build, your PVP build, your Raid DPS build and just swap them on the fly when you’re out in the field, obviously not while in the middle of combat but otherwise without restriction, without an escalating cost. Play the game you want to play, the way you want to play it.”
WoW Classic has been one of the helpful barometers for current WoW. The throwback MMO helps Blizzard see how players interact with older systems and mechanics, in comparison to how they play the modern game.
“In a sense, a lot of the time we would wonder pre-Classic, how much have players changed and how much of it is we changed this aspect of a game and should we turn back the clock. This helped answer some of those questions. I think hopefully, where that leads us is trying to pull in the best of all of these elements,” he adds. “That’s the sort of thing that Classic has helped us inspire.”
Not Getting Locked In
One of the bigger complaints about World of Warcraft in recent years is the idea of ‘borrowed power.’ Every expansion introduces a new system for leveling and progression, only to completely discard that system when the next expansion releases. Legion had the Artifact Weapon, Battle for Azeroth had Azerite Armor, and Shadowlands had the Covenants. After years of this type of transition, players started to resent having to put effort into leveling something that would be gone in two years.
There is seemingly nothing like this in Dragonflight. Instead, part of the expansion is an overhaul of general WoW foundations, as the studio plans for the future. More complex talent trees, a new user interface, and a stronger focus on crafting and gathering professions. The question is, what replaces those borrowed power systems, which acted as the endgame for their respective expansions?
“At its core, gear. Customizing that gear, upgrading that gear,” says Hazzikostas. “Players have goals to work towards and I think in terms of novelty, there’s going to be a whole lot to play with just from the Talent system and the fundamental changes that brings. As we move on, I think we have hooks in place in our Talent system to potentially explore other avenues once we’re really kinda happy with the foundation that we’ve built. For example, we could conceivably have some additional talent points that could be earned post max level within the expansion. That’s not something we’re going to do right at launch, but in later patches it certainly is an option.”
He points to alternative abilities within the talent trees or gear that adds ranks to existing talents as other ways to provide meaningful progression at endgame. The talent trees are being built to provide that kind of expansion and Hazzikostas says that older, removed abilities could make a return in the reworked trees. There are no further details on that system, however, as Dragonflight still has to go through a beta testing phase.
A more open, more flexible WoW is a great idea, but one major addition in Dragonflight seems to run counter to that idea. The new race, the Dracthyr, will be locked to a single class when Dragonflight launches. If you want to be a Dracthyr, you’re gonna be an Evoker, and vice versa. Hazzikostas didn’t shut the door on other class combinations for the race.
“It’s definitely possible down the line,” he says, when asked about Dracthyr becoming other classes in the future. “I think it’s exceedingly unlikely that any race other than Dracthyr could ever be an Evoker because you need wings, you need the ability to literally breathe Draconic energy to perform any of the abilities. Now as they emerge in Azeroth and integrate with the Alliance and Horde over time, could they learn to pick up an axe and be a great Warrior? Quite possibly, but that’s not where their story is starting in Dragonflight.”
A lot of other ideas are on the table for Dragonflight and beyond. Given WoW‘s current fortunes, Blizzard is more open to listening to the community about what it wants. During Shadowlands, the company started up the Community Council, a mix of veteran and neophyte players who provide feedback directly to Blizzard developers. That directly led to changes in how flying in new regions is rewarded to players — you won’t need to unlock it in Dragonflight — and how the second Covenant Legendary was earned.
Listening closely to the community also means that certain wishlist features like player housing, or the return of old favorites, like Garrisons, might be at least on the WoW team’s future whiteboards.
“The ones we laid out today are our major focus, but I think there’s a piece of Garrisons that scratched a little bit of that itch that players have in mind when they think about Player Housing. There’s a range of general spaces that we’re eager to explore in the future, but we’ve learned over the years that it’s better to do a few things well then to do a lot of things in kind of an incomplete manner,” says Hazzikostas. “We’re always going to be listening when it comes to pieces of the game that people would like us to revisit or should come to World of Warcraft in the future.”
WoW faces an uncertain future.
Will all this be enough though? Is this new face on World of Warcraft enough to guide the game and its developer through the mire it’s currently trapped in? The allegations have harmed Activision Blizzard internally and externally in major ways; you can’t retain creative talent if that talent is afraid of workplace harassment. And all that is before you get to the loss of faith that the community has within the WoW team itself, and the greener pastures presented by games like FFXIV and Lost Ark.
I’ve written about these sentiments before, right after Warlords of Draenor and Battle for Azeroth, but the situation overall has never been this dire. Dragonflight certainly won’t right the ship immediately, instead potentially standing as the foundation for WoW‘s future. A future that also hopefully includes a different Activision-Blizzard once the Microsoft acquisition is closed and perhaps the company embraces unionization in its workforce.
For right now, Hazzikostas and the WoW team are saying the right things. But the team needs to overperform expectations to right the ship.