WoW: Heart of Azeroth: We regret a lot - Interview with Ion Hazzikostas
WoW's Game Director Ion Hazzikostas answered our questions in an exclusive interview. We talked about the future of WoW (Patch 8.2, Nazjatar, Mechagon) Azshara's role in the faction conflict between Horde and Alliance, the relationship with the community, class balancing and much more.
Not everything went smoothly when WoW: Battle for Azeroth launched. The big main feature, the Heart of Azeroth, caused more problems than fun and dragged down the other two main features of the expansion: Island Expeditions and War Fronts.
In our exclusive interview with Ion Hazzikostas, the Game Director of WoW answers our questions about the upcoming Patch 8.2 - Rise of Azshara, the status of Classic, class balancing in BFA, the problems with the Heart of Azeroth, and the goal for the remainder of the expansion. We wish you lots of fun reading!
buffed: When can we expect the Classic servers or the test servers for Classic?
Ion Hazzikostas: As already mentioned, Classic will be released this summer. We should soon be able to say more about the release date and other Classic topics. As the Classic community has already noticed, we are working on the communication with the Classic community, give more and more information for the Classic fans, answer questions in the forums, add Classic info to our Q&As and much more.
The team is still working on the development of the Classic servers and the restoration of the technology of that time and is looking forward to sharing the results with the community soon.
buffed: Who will be the next allied races, will there be a completely new race again and if so, when?
Ion: There won‘t be a new allied race in every patch. For example, in Rise of Azshara, no new race will be implemented. Of course, if it makes sense regarding the story, we will gladly create an allied or a whole new race so players can get to know that race and its history. However, brand-new races like Goblins, Worgen or Draenei are more suitable for a new expansion.
buffed: Will Mechagon be more of a small area with a dungeon or will it be a bigger part of Patch 8.2?
Ion: As mentioned at BlizzCon, the patch will be largely about the two new areas. Nazjatar is more likely to deliver the gameplay experience already familiar to many players: a new, big zone with story quests that peak in the confrontation with Queen Azshara.
Mechagon will be smaller than Nazjatar and yet it will still provide plenty of game content. For example, Mechagon will be slightly larger than the Timeless Isle in Mists of Pandaria. The closer the patch draws, the more we can say about these two zones. However, it is certain that players will spend most of their time in these two areas in Patch 8.2.
buffed: Is there anything you can tell us about Azshara's role in the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance? Are we going to join forces again to fight the greater evil that threatens Azeroth?
Ion: Mhh, we will see. Azshara definitely has a plan. One example are the increasing numbers of Naga that appear on the coasts of Zandalar and Kul Tiras. The role of Azshara and her Naga will definitely play a major role in the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. Players will experience the impacts of Azshara‘s plans during the story quests of Patch 8.2. There will definitely be some unexpected events and twists for the players.
buffed: But will the Horde and the Alliance continue to be at war with one another?
Ion: In the foreseeable future, definitely. You must keep in mind that we just experienced the Battle of Dazar'alor right before Patch 8.2 starts: King Rastakhan is dead, Jaina has been defeated, the fleets of both factions have suffered heavy losses, Hightinker Mekkatorque is in a coma and so on. So, at the moment there is no reason to consider peace. The conflict is actually even more noticeable than before.
buffed: The Mythic Dungeon International (MDI) did not see much class diversity. Most groups played with two rogues, a heal druid, a warrior tank and another melee DPS (usually a Windwalker Monk). Was that to be expected and do the developers draw their conclusions with upcoming class changes in Patch 8.2 in mind?
Ion: First, the choice of classes for the MDI is not surprising. In Legion, most groups used a blood death knight because he endured the most. In BFA, where the survival of the tank is less important depending on the level of the keystone, MDI groups naturally choose the warrior because he simply deals the most damage in most situations. As for the rogue, it's a mix of the shroud of concealment, good cleave damage, and consistently high area damage which makes them the go-to class.
If you give the best players the possibility to equip a character with the best items through a vendor and let them compete in a given format like the MDI, those players will of course always choose exactly that one setup which will gain them a few more seconds here and there. Therefore, it is not surprising that almost every group competes with the same class composition.
There is of course much more variety if we look at the classes on the live servers that successfully complete +18 and +19 keystones. From this point of view balancing is fine. We don't see a problem if there is a class composition at the MDI that aims to finish a dungeon a little faster and with less time on the timer than with any other setup. If we were to realise there is a class on the live servers which would hardly be able to complete high keystones, we would address that problem.
The lesson we draw from this is that we would like to see more class diversity in high Mythic+ dungeons and especially with different affixes. When developing new affixes in the future, we will definitely pay more attention to some classes/specs for certain affixes.
buffed: The last PvP brawl, Comp Stomp, wasn't that much of a challenge, but it was very popular among players; also because of the short time you had to wait for it to start. Can we expect more battlegrounds like this (with intelligent bots) in the future?
Ion: Possibly, yes. We definitely would have the opportunity to do so. But if you are going to introduce modes like this in the long run, we must think about the rewards, the target audience for this content, and more.
Games against bots like in Heroes are interesting for players who are interested in the mechanics but don't want to play against real players. Games against bots are less stressful for these players and prompt them to sign up for Warsong Gulch, for example, rather than playing against real players. It would be nice if getting used to such game modes with bots would at some point result in the target group signing up for games against real players. But these are only intellectual games and Comp Stomp is only a funny Brawl-BG for the time being.
buffed: Recently, people in the WoW forums have again increasingly discussed allied classes and thus a fourth spec in addition to allied races. What does the WoW team think?
Ion: *smiles* That is an interesting topic. We are asked about things like this repeatedly. Players want even more variety to feel even more unique in WoW.
The reason why we won't be tackling a fourth specialization per class - which can be selected via the talent overview - any time soon, is because of the already existing 36 specs for the twelve classes and their dozens of abilities, which already represent a big challenge. But the real challenge are the players and not we as developers. There are so many things new players need to learn while playing in dungeon and raid groups and in PvP - especially in PvP: For example, what are the skills of rogues, warlocks, death knights, which are the cooldowns I have to look out for when it comes to these classes, what kind of talents could they possibly have picked, how should I react...
There are dozens of abilities and situations in this scenario (rogue, warlock and death knight) which I must consider and learn as a new player. Developing 36 specs to the extent that players can identify with their favourite specs, feel unique, and balance their strengths and weaknesses is frankly very difficult for us.
The following scenario is what many players experience: My area damage is actually pretty good but there are five other classes that can cause area damage and one of them does more AoE damage than me which in return lets my actual strength suddenly look very weak. However, that's hardly surprising with 36 specs.
In the future, we will rather try to diversify these specs a bit more, add new abilities to support this, and add more strengths but also weaknesses to existing specs. When we get to the point where all 36 feel meaningful and unique, we might think about the fourth spec as the next step.
buffed: Have you ever thought about a story line in which Azeroth is completely destroyed and our heroes have to find a new home? That would be an ideal start for something like WoW 2.0.
Ion: It would be hard for us to imagine a WoW 2.0 not taking place in Azeroth. However, that does not mean we cannot make drastic changes to the world in the future - be it a giant sword rammed into Silithus, Cataclysm, or the revamping of areas as we have seen in MoP. The idea of blowing up Azeroth and moving to another planet would destroy Warcraft‘s essence.
buffed: In our polls, BFA did worse in almost all areas than Legion did at that point in the expansion. Especially the new main features like the Azerite system, island expeditions and war fronts didn't come off very well. Are you surprised by these results, and if so, what does Blizzard learn from these mistakes for the upcoming expansion?
Ion: We listened carefully to the feedback on Battle for Azeroth, and we learned a lot. We have reflected on how we planned and implemented the expansion and the features. What we learned from this is that there was a big main feature in Legion and WoD that cooperated seamlessly with the other game content.
In Legion, it was the artifact weapon and the class halls which were directly tied to it: As a paladin, for example, you've experienced your story in connection with the artifact weapon and the class hall, you've upgraded your weapon and the class hall - that was the anchor of the expansion in which the team could put most of its resources into.
In BFA, we had many unrelated features (Heart of Azeroth, island expeditions, and war fronts). In retrospect, we should have focussed completely on one or two of those features instead of focussing on all three at the same time. One of the biggest problems with the three features was to reward players for them in a way that made sense and was individual at the same time. The feedback on island expeditions, for example, was that players didn't see a point in farming Azerite power because of the problems with the Heart of Azeroth. Thus, both features levered each other.
The Heart of Azeroth is definitely one thing we regret a lot about. We are working hard to learn our lessons from the feedback the community gave us. We tried to build on and improve the Legion artifact weapon system by creating the Heart of Azeroth. From the team's point of view, artifact weapons were a great success as a feature. As for the progress and customization of the artifact weapons, in the first two to three months, you could unlock more and more traits and special bonuses in the weapon. Over the remaining months, however, the system became less and less interesting, as new points in the weapon brought only minimal improvements, hardly changed the gameplay, and the player had no real choice.
In BFA, with the Heart of Azeroth, we tried to make this system interesting throughout the expansion. With every new piece of equipment, players should be able to unlock new, powerful bonuses instead of unlocking everything in one go, as it was the case with the artifact weapons. Getting new Azerite armour felt more like a loss rather than a gain, especially at the beginning. The player was faced with the choice of discarding a weaker piece of armour, which changed the way the game was played for the better, or choosing a better Azerite item, which provided fewer interesting bonuses.
We want to change that with Patch 8.2 in mind. The Heart of Azeroth is supposed to evolve in a way that is more like the artifact weapon system, but still promises goals and customization options for the rest of the expansion. With the launch of the PTR for Rise of Azshara, we will be able to say more about this feature. Just to make it clear once more; we are very focused on analysing, reflecting and understanding what we have created with BFA, and we are committed to turn the remainder of BFA into the best game possible. I think we created a fantastic world in BFA, told great stories and there are still players who have a lot of fun playing the game.
buffed: Many players accuse you of having lost touch with the community when it comes to new ideas. Have you ever thought about implementing a system like the CSM 13 from EVE Online?
Ion: The CSM system from CCP is definitely interesting and EVE is a cool game. A system like the one from EVE Online is definitely worth considering. We are in contact with well-known players from all branches of the game, be it high end raiders, high end mythic plus players, or even collectors, who give us constant feedback via forums or YouTube videos or when we meet them at events like BlizzCon.
The challenge with a system like the CSM system/a poll system are the many different directions and ways players play WoW: some just want to raid, others just play PvP, others would like to kick PvP out of WoW, others just want to level, and so on.
If players say we have lost touch with the community or we cannot put ourselves in the players' shoes, that's not the case. A big part of the team, including myself, reads almost everything that is written in the forums and spends several hours a day reading tweets, reddit posts, watching videos and so on - and we understand players' concerns about different issues.
But you also must keep in mind that there are a lot of players who are not in forums, on Twitter or other sites and who are silent about the WoW issues (at least online).
For example, if there is an outcry about Warforged and Titanforged, it usually only affects a very small number of players. We understand the problem with Warforging/Titanforging. The reason we do not change anything about this system immediately is that we have to consider a much larger audience than many think when it comes to changes to the game.
We often talk about solutions for Titanforging and other problems, but we do not always announce these thoughts until we find a solution that we are completely satisfied with. If we were to announce a thought about a change to begin with, but change it afterwards, we would disappoint many players. This “silence” often comes across as if we were ignoring the community, but that is not the case. A lot of what is discussed in the forums is discussed in the team - be it rewards, motivation or what is or should be fun in WoW. Our goal is to communicate this better to the players and to show that we are basically on the same side as them.
buffed: In the last Q&A, you considered the idea of a level squish, which would be a good idea especially for new players, who might be pretty discouraged by the hefty 120 levels. Have you ever thought about introducing a system like Guild Wars or Elder Scrolls Online which do not have real character levels?
Ion: We've been thinking about similar features before, and we've already made some adjustments to WoW in that respect. In Legion, for example, players could decide in which areas they would start leveling and scale the areas with the character's level. At the moment, however, we are still hesitant to implement systems like those in Guild Wars or Elder Scrolls Online.
A big part of an RPG, even an MMORPG like WoW, is the character progress and the feeling to become stronger with your character, to return to old areas or dungeons and be more powerful there. We do not want to deviate from this essential part of an RPG.
We are aware we have gone a bit too far in scaling the world and we had more than one look at leveling itself and the meaning of levels in WoW. For example, in Legion we levelled our artifact weapons, but our character didn't get anything new from level 100 to 110. Players did not get any new abilities, nor any new talents, and in BFA they even got weaker instead of stronger with every level increase.
Yes, a level squish would be interesting, especially for new players. But we rather want to get back to a point where we can say "every single level affects the character". Filling the XP bar, the glaring light effect during level-up, and the lettering for a newly learned skill are fun in WoW. We have moved further and further away from that over the years, so it is something we want to change.
buffed: Thank you very much for the interview.