Ahead of the big World of Warcraft: Dragonflight update known as Embers of Neltharion, we had the chance to chat with Lead Quest Designer Maria Hamilton and Production Director Patrick Dawson (who has been with Blizzard for over 17 years) about the new update and WoW in general.
This is not a 1:1 transcription of the entire interview, but pulls out some of the most interesting parts and we had to cut some discussions about Furbolg language missions that were impressively well thought out.
Gamereactor: Can you explain in general, when you do these updates that are not full expansions, but do expand the stories, are they planned prior to the expansion, at the same time, or do you start developing after an expansion is released?
Hamilton: I think there are aspects of, sometimes we have things we know we want to do, and we know it just seems like a good time after the expansion comes out. Sometimes, while we’re developing the expansion, we realize this is a cool thing we could do. We don’t have time to do it before the expansion, but let’s get it in a patch soon after. We listen to player feedback. We plan in advance and keep track of what we would like to do when and maybe move it around a little bit if we had a chart of everything we would do in each patch.
We start filling that in pretty early and then we just adjust as we see what players like and what players didn’t like as much as we expected. In general, I would say that game design is iterative.
GR: Returning to a starting zone is not the usual thing, is it because you thought of it in the first place or is this a case where you didn’t want to create a whole new area when you could just reuse the old one?
Dawson: Well, for Embers of Neltharion, we actually have a completely new area, which is Zaralek Caverns. For the next update, back to Forbidden Reach, we’re going back to the Drakthir starting zone, that’s for sure. We’ve done that in the past, so it’s not unprecedented for us to revisit something that’s somewhat familiar. But for Embers of Neltharion, Zaralek Caverns is really the shining highlight of a new place for all of us to explore. It is an underground area with its vast and open cave with many cool biomes in it.
GR: In general and for this expansion in particular, do you think it has become easier or harder to design, especially relevant quests? Because the World of Warcraft universe has become quite vast?
Hamilton: I think there are so many different ideas that we have. We’re largely limitless by what we can decide to do for a quest. When we tell our story at a high level, of course there are certain specific beats that we want to hit. We’re trying to tell a specific story about some specific characters, and that’s more limited.
When we tell the story of new places like the Dragon Isles, where we haven’t been before, and where there are areas where there are creatures that have lived in those places for a very long time, that lets us do what I like to call local stories, and those are significant, we’re very free to think about what makes sense and what we want you to know about this area and these people who live in this place. It’s super fun. You see a lot of diversity in it. You saw that with the Dragon Isles local stories where we had some of them exclaimed like, “wow, this was a great story. I didn’t expect that” and that’s because we let our quest designers and our narrative designers sit down and think of all kinds of things. And based on their life experiences and their own culture and the things they love, we get a lot of variety, a lot of diversity in those stories.
So I would say as quest designers, it’s really fun to work on quests for World of Warcraft. There are so many different ways you can go. It’s such a big fantasy world, lots of little nooks and crannies. If you really want to explore something in particular or if you really love something – there’s room for that in our local stories.
GR: Do you have one team working on the main story and then one team working on all the small ones or is it all done as one team?
Hamilton: We’re all one team. In the quest design team, when we sit down and figure out who’s going to work on what, we try to make sure that we’re very transparent and that we talk to each other and collaborate when we’re planning our stories. We have specific people who can be assigned to work on campaign chapters where they do that high-level story, but they can also create some local stories as part of their work in building the expansion or building an update. It’s one team. We work closely with the storytelling team and closely with the world building team because, of course, we want to make sure that the world also reflects the story. We want to make sure it’s all very well combined. But it’s one team making all those things.
GR: Do you feel it is very limiting if you take a known faction and then it becomes the main focus of an entire expansion, or do you think it actually gives you more of a backbone in the story and world-building?
Dawson: No, I think for me, particularly the dragon flights, which are rooted in the core of Azerothian fantasy, this is the backbone of World of Warcraft – so to explore that lore and move it forward a little bit is a great opportunity to really engage with what makes WoW so special. For me, it’s definitely a great opportunity that we’ve already seen players and fans enjoy revisiting dragons and what it’s like to be around the aspects and really focus on this part of the story and lore. It was really wonderful to see.
Hamilton: I would say we want to be very respectful of the lore that we’ve already established. You know, we want to make sure that we consider the impact – we have a history here and we remember the history and we want to make sure that that’s something that we consider. But at the same time, we have the opportunity to dig in a little further or learn more, so it’s not so much a limitation as it is a guardrail. It’s good to have some structure.
From there we can see how we expand or how we add more nuance or how we help explain a different perspective on it. And that “stay a while and listen” search in particular, that’s been called out a number of times, which is that we try to show a different perspective than maybe has been seen before, but we make it very personal, and that’s liberating. I don’t know anybody who would say, oh no, let me not go into that and bring in the feeling. So we did that a number of times and it went very well with players. So it seems like something we would like to do again.
GR: Do you feel like players have thought differently about this expansion as opposed to some of the previous expansions that were kind of separated from the main world of Azeroth and where you basically had to go to completely new places where your actions didn’t affect your home world and you still had a safe zone to go back to?
Dawson: I think players like different things. We definitely went to different places and tried to explore different philosophies in the game. And I think there’s something for everyone.
I think particularly for this expansion, it was a perfect time for us to get to this part of the story. And I think the surrounding things that have existed because of that have all been very delightful as well. Dragon riding I think is a great example of that. This has really revolutionized the way people interact with the world and traveling around, something that we’ve seen, has been a pretty big positive for the game and players seem to love it as well.
Hamilton: Plus I just think dragons are cool. Like that’s the epic high fantasy thing, right? It’s dragons like how can you not want to, you know, want to tell a dragon story. So I know, I know. I was really excited to do this, because dragons.
GR: In terms of main bad guys, we go from one to three, is it hard to keep inventing not just the bad guy, himself, but the whole scenario?
Dawson: There are some aspects of what you want to do. If you look at popular media out there, TV, James Bond, whatever, sometimes there’s a bad guy that only exists for that story. And sometimes there are bad guys that exist for a much longer period of time. I think we want to build both. This first release of Dragonflight had the short-term villain. Great story, a lot of understanding. You understood the motivations. You understood why this was bad and you had to stop her, and as a result you build three new villains that you’re going to undertake. And those villains might have a longer lifespan, a longer story.
Hamilton: As Pat said, some of our villains are complicated and if they’re complicated, you know, we might not finish them with this expansion. We may take them out later because we want to build them up and let them do their complicated things. We’re actually behind the Commander of the Sundered Flame, also a villain. We haven’t spent much time on that, and that’s what Return to Forbidden Reach allows us to do. So we’re trying to mix it up and think about it and think about how, how and where we want each villain to get his deserved end.