Ahead of the major World of Warcraft: Dragonflight update known as Embers of Neltharion we had the chance to interview Lead Quest Designer Maria Hamilton and Production Director Patrick Dawson (who has been with Blizzard for more than 17 years) about the new update and WoW in general.
This is not a 1:1 transcription of the entire interview, but extracts some of the most interesting parts and we had to cut some discussions about Furbolg language quests that were impressively well thought out.
Gamereactor: In general, can you explain, when you do these updates that aren't complete expansions but do expand on the narratives, are they planned ahead of the expansion, at the same time, or do you start developing after an expansion has been released?
Hamilton: I think there's aspects of all of those, sometimes we have things we know we want to do, and we know that it just seems like a good time after the expansion has come out. Sometimes while we're in the course of developing the expansion, we realise, here's a cool thing we could do. We don't have time to do it for the expansion, but let's get it in a patch soon after. We listen to the feedback of players. We do plan in advance and do keep track of what we'd like to do when and maybe we move it around a little bit if we had a chart of all of what we would do in each patch.
We start filling that out pretty early and then we just adjust as we see what players enjoy and what players didn't enjoy as much as we expected. In general, I would say that game design is iterative.
GR: Returning to a starting zone isn't the usual thing to do, is it because you thought of it initially or is this a case where you didn't want to create an entirely new area when you could just reuse the old one?
Dawson: Well, for Embers of Neltharion we actually do have a completely new area, which is Zaralek Caverns. For the next update, return to Forbidden Reach, we are going back to the Drakthir starting zone, that's for sure. We have done that in the past, so it's not unprecedented for us to revisit something that's a little familiar. But for Embers of Neltharion, Zaralek Caverns is really the shining pinnacle of a new place for us to all explore. It's an underground area with its vast and open cavern with lots of cool biomes in it that.
GR: In general and for this expansion in particular, do you think it has become easier or more difficult to design, especially relevant quests? Because the World of Warcraft universe has become quite expansive?
Hamilton: I think there's so many different ideas that we have. We are largely unlimited by what we can decide to do for a quest. When we're telling our high level story, obviously there are certain specific beats we want to hit. We're trying to tell a specific tale about some specific characters, and that's more constrained.
When we tell the story of new places like the Dragon Isles, where we haven't been before, and where there's areas where there's creatures that have lived in those places for a long time, that lets us do what I like to call local stories, and those are considerable, we're very free to think about what makes sense and what we'd like you to know about this area and these people that live in this place. It's super fun. You see a lot of diversity in them. You saw that with the Dragon Isles local stories where we had a number of them called out as, "wow, this was an amazing 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 sorts of things. And based on their life experiences and their own culture and the things they're into, we get a big variety, a lot of diversity in those stories.
So I would say that 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 want to really explore something in particular or you're really into 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 on all the small ones or is 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 we're talking with each other and collaborative when we're planning our storytelling. We have specific people that might be assigned to work on campaign chapters where they're doing that high level story, but they might also be making some local stories as part of their work in building the expansion or building an update. It is one team. We work closely with the narrative team and closely with the world building team because, of course, we want to make sure that the world is also reflecting the story. We want to make sure that it's all very combined. But it is one team making all of those things.
GR: Do you feel like it's very restrictive when you take a well-known faction and then it becomes the main focus of an entire expansion, or do you think it actually provides you more of a backbone in the storytelling and the world building?
Dawson: No, I think for me, the dragon flights, in particular, that's rooted in core Azerothian fantasy, this is the backbone of World of Warcraft - so getting to explore that lore and move it forward a bit is a great opportunity to really engage with some of what makes WoW so special. To me, it certainly is a big opportunity that we've already seen players and fans just enjoying revisiting dragons and what it's like to be around the aspects and to really focus on this part of the story and the lore. It's been really delightful to see.
Hamilton: I would say that we want to be very respectful of the lore that we've already established. You know, we want to make sure that we are considering the impact - we have a history here and we remember the history and we want to make sure that's something that we're thinking about. But at the same time, we have the opportunity to dig in a little further or find out more, so it's not a constraint as much as a guardrail. It's good to have some structure.
From there we can look at how do we expand or how do we provide more nuance or how do we help explain a different perspective on it. And that "stay awhile and listen" quest in particular, that's been called out a number of times, that's us attempting to show a different perspective than maybe has been seen previously, but we're making it very personal, and that's liberating. I don't know anybody who would say, oh no, don't let me expand on that and bring the feels in. So we did that a number of times and it went over really well with players. So it seems like something we would want to do again.
GR: Have you felt that players have felt differently about this expansion in contrary to some of the previous expansions that were a bit separated from the main world of Azeroth and where you had to basically go to completely new places where your actions didn't impact your home world and you still had a safe zone to go back to?
Dawson: I think players like different things. We've certainly been to different places and tried to explore different philosophies in the game. And I think there's something for everyone there.
I think for this expansion in particular, it was a perfect time for us to get to this part of the story. And I think the surrounding stuff that's existed as a result of that has all been really delightful as well. Dragon riding, I think is a great example of this. This is really revolutionised the way people interact with the world and travel around something that we've seen has been a pretty big positive for the game and players seem to love it too.
Hamilton: Plus I think dragons are just cool. Like that's the epic high fantasy thing, right? They're dragons like how could you not want to, you know, want to tell a dragon story. So I know, I know. I was very excited to, to do this because dragons.
GR: In terms of main bad guys, We are going from one to three, is it difficult to keep inventing not only the bad guy, him or herself, but the entire scenario?
Dawson: There's a couple aspects of what you want to do. If you look at popular media out there, TV, James Bond, whatever, there's sometimes a bad guy that exists just for that story. And sometimes there's bad guys that exist for a much longer period of time. And I think we're looking to build up both. This first release of Dragonflight had the short term villain. Great story, great understanding. You understood the motivations. You understood why this was bad and you had to stop her, and as a result of that, you're building up three new villains that you're going to undertake. And those villains may have a longer lifespan, a longer story.
Hamilton: As Pat said, some of our villains are complicated and when they're complicated, you know, we might not finish them off this expansion. We might pull them out later because we want to build them up and let them do their complicated things. We are actually chasing the Commander of the Sundered Flame, also a villain. We haven't spent a lot of time on that, and that's what Return to Forbidden Reach gives us the opportunity to do. So we try to mix it up and think about it and think about how, how and where we want each villain to get their due end.