clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Blizzard Entertainment

Filed under:

Battle for Azeroth: World of Warcraft returns to its roots

The biggest MMO in the world prepares for its seventh expansion pack

There’s a tradition in the World of Warcraft fan community that might seem a little strange to outsiders.

If you’ve ever been to BlizzCon or watched a BlizzCon opening ceremony broadcast, you’ve surely seen it before. To help build up hype from the crowd in attendance, the speaker — often Blizzard president Mike Morhaime or now-retired senior vice president Chris Metzen — will scream out, “FOR THE HORDE!”

“FOR THE HORDE!” echoes the response from anyone in the audience whose main character in World of Warcraft is on the Horde side.

“FOR THE ALLIANCE!” bellows the man on stage.

“FOR THE ALLIANCE!” another section of the crowd yells back, attempting to be louder and more energetic than their Horde counterparts.

This series of shouts repeats back and forth a number of times before the opening ceremony continues. For the next two days, as thousands of Blizzard fans gather in the Anaheim Convention Center, it’s not rare for random groups to let out shouts of “FOR THE HORDE!” or “FOR THE ALLIANCE!” as they pass each other by.

At this point, over a decade into World of Warcraft’s life, the Horde and the Alliance exist as something greater than simply opposing forces in an endless war. For players who have been exploring Azeroth for 10-plus years, these two factions have grown into a sense of identity. When a group of 20-somethings cosplaying as orcs lets out a boisterous “FOR THE HORDE!” it is not just to express that orcs are better than the puny humans of the Alliance — though, certainly, they are — but rather, it’s a scream of solidarity, of fraternity with other members of their faction of choice.

Now those screams mean something even more. They embody the spirit behind World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, the MMO’s newly announced seventh expansion pack. After many expansions where the focus fell away from how these two factions were different in favor of what could force them to work together, that solidarity within the factions is the feeling that Blizzard hopes to return to.

How did we get here

When Blizzard launched its sixth World of Warcraft expansion, Legion, in August 2016, the fantasy realm of Azeroth was facing down two oversized foes.

Players found themselves going toe-to-toe with the Burning Legion, a race of interstellar demons that has been one of the primary antagonists of the Warcraft franchise for most of its 20-some years. The aptly named Legion saw the demons staging yet another invasion of the world of Azeroth. Players had to come together to stop them, drive them from their planet and eventually take the fight to the demon homeworld of Argus.

And then there was the second enemy, an opponent even more intimidating than this long-time cosmic foe, something that can best be summed up with one word: expectations. World of Warcraft’s previous expansion, Warlords of Draenor, was the biggest disappointment the massive game had experienced thus far. It launched to a rave reception in late 2014, but a startling lack of continued support left many of the game’s biggest fans disheartened, bored or, worst of all, absent entirely.

Warlords of Draenor was such a disaster that the game went from 10 million subscribers to 6 million within a year of its launch. That was when Blizzard decided to stop publicly sharing subscriber numbers altogether.

Legion was an opportunity for Blizzard to win back player trust. The developer had to prove that its decade-old game was still worthy of attention. And it had to demonstrate that it could produce a steady stream of engaging content over the course of an expansion’s lifespan, not just one big burst of stuff to do when the expansion launched, followed by almost nothing for 12 to 18 months.

“We are an MMO, and we have a commitment to a large, living, breathing world,” Blizzard senior producer Travis Day told Polygon in March, as the developer prepared to launch what it was calling “the biggest patch in World of Warcraft history.” With the pacing and size of patches for Legion, players didn’t have a hard time believing. Blizzard nailed it. Legion was a success.

Now, having conquered some of their greatest enemies, both World of Warcraft’s players and its developers are preparing for expansion number seven. The question: Will it be a victory lap? And what does being a great expansion mean in a world where Blizzard has so strongly perfected the core of the World of Warcraft formula?

Blizzard’s answer is World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, an expansion that promises to take the game back to the core conflict it was founded on: the Alliance versus the Horde.

Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas
Blizzard Entertainment

A solid foundation

“One advantage that we have this time around is we’re actually pretty satisfied with a lot of the systems that we have in Legion,” says World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas. “We’re not looking at an end game that feels broken in the way that we looked at Warlords of Draenor’s end game.”

Speaking to us just days before Blizzard is set to announce World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth during the opening ceremony of BlizzCon 2017, Hazzikostas doesn’t shy away from looking back at the two previous expansion sets while discussing the game’s future. In addition to a general lack of updates, one of Warlords of Draenor’s biggest problems was an inability to produce a wide swath of end game content to keep players of all stripes engaged.

With Legion, Blizzard took massive strides toward solving this concern. The company debuted the mythic keystone system for dungeons, which allowed max-level players to put modifiers on five-person dungeons to increase their difficulty — and increase the power of potential rewards for completing them. It also introduced world quests, a brilliant new system that encouraged players to keep doing a variety of content out in the world even once they hit the level cap. Both of these systems were massively successful and are still viewed positively by the community, even a year on from Legion’s launch. And, as such, Blizzard doesn’t have a lot of big plans to change them with the next expansion.

“When it comes to things like world quests and dungeons, honestly, we just kind of say, ‘OK, let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing,’” Hazzikostas says. “Instead we’re focusing some of those creative energies into crafting new systems that are going to really help the story and flesh out the world that we’re building for this new expansion.”

There are two particularly noteworthy new types of content being introduced in Battle for Azeroth — warfronts and islands — and they both represent a sort of expansion of what’s possible at end game. They are something new to keep players busy in addition to five-person dungeons, huge raids and player-versus-player matches, rather than replacing them.

Islands, for example, are all about fast, repeatable chunks of content that change each time you play them. Hazzikostas compares them to the small-party scenarios that were seen in 2012’s Mists of Pandaria expansion. Like scenarios, players will team up in groups of three to tackle islands, and they’re role-agnostic — no need to worry about making sure you have a tank or a healer, as any party of three should be able to handle an island if they know what they’re doing.

Where islands separate themselves from scenarios, however, is in their replayability. Each time you enter an island, even though the environment may be the same, significantly different events can take place.

“The island might be currently overcome and occupied by a bunch of hostile trolls,” Hazzikostas suggests. “Or there could be an ancient curse on the island and undead are rising from the ground. Or maybe a band of Mogu have arrived from Pandaria recently, killed the inhabitants and set up shop themselves. All of these will pose different challenges to you and provide different events that you might interact with as you explore the island.”

An orc clashes with a human in a callback to Warcraft’s roots.
Blizzard Entertainment

Whatever threat you face on any given island, your party won’t be entirely alone. Horde players will encounter computer-controlled Alliance players and vice versa who will be competing with your group to complete the same objectives. Though these are still primarily player-versus-environment (PvE) challenges rather than player-versus-player (PvP), Hazzikostas says Blizzard has worked on some extremely advanced artificial intelligence for the opposing parties in islands.

“We’ve developed the potential for non-player characters to really act strategically and tactically,” Hazzikostas says. “They do much more than any mob you’ve ever seen in World of Warcraft before. They’re scouring the island. They’re completing objectives, potentially splitting off and ambushing you. You’re effectively racing to complete these PvE objectives against intelligent opposition.”

If you think it sounds strange to limit these scenarios to PvE when they’re specifically set up as Alliance-versus-Horde conflicts, don’t worry: Hazzikostas promises that a PvP mode will be available as well. He describes this spin on islands as “this new type of PvPvE gameplay,” something totally fresh to the game where players of opposing factions are pitted against each other but encouraged to slow the other team down rather than just kill them outright.

Hazzikostas also promises a variety of different islands for players to explore, each with their own unique events.

“It’s a number of handcrafted spaces ranging from tropical islands to frozen tundra to an abandoned Gilnean manor,” he says. “It’s whatever our level designers can think of, and then very heavily varied spawning patterns and events. It’s inspired by some of the lessons we learned from world quests and mythic keystone dungeons – ways of taking a piece of content and turning it into a new adventure for players to explore on multiple visits.”

For his part, World of Warcraft lead game designer Matt Goss says islands are far and away the single piece of content he’s most excited for in Battle for Azeroth. He looks at them as a way to keep players — including himself — engaged for a lot longer.

“One of the challenges with building World of Warcraft is that we build these cool continents and cool places, and then the exploration just kind of ends because you know everywhere,” he says. “With islands, we’re building a system where it’s nearly infinite exploration all the time. Something’s new, something changes each time. It gets me excited, getting that feeling all the time when I’m playing instead of just the first few months of exploring these new spots.”

Horde warchief Sylvanas surveys the battlefield as the Alliance attempts to invade her home city.
Blizzard Entertainment

Hints of legacy

Battle for Azeroth will also see Blizzard finding use for older landmasses in the form of the other new type of content, warfronts. Once again, warfronts are a PvE take on what might be seen as a traditionally PvP setup: A group of 20 players team up and work together to establish a base at important strategic points in the world. Players will go up against advanced AI and will need to build up a base, send out troops and even expand a tech tree. It’s basically a miniature version of what old-school gamers might remember from the original Warcraft strategy games.

“We want to give you that kind of overhead, real-time strategy feel, but from an individual perspective,” says World of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi. “It’s still early for us in developing warfronts, but as we go through and iterate on the feature, it’s starting to feel really fun.”

The concept of warfronts seems at first to lend itself more to PvP, but Afrasiabi is adamant that this mode will stick to PvE.

“PvE is such a tremendous aspect to World of Warcraft that we want to make sure that we’re servicing PvE first and foremost,” he says. “Warfronts are designed as a PvE feature, and there’s all kinds of reasons for that. One reason is that we can really sell and script out those heroic moments. With PvE content, it allows us to push forth the story. I’m not talking down on PvP experiences, but if you know PvP, the meta-game takes over and things don’t always go according to plan.”

The first warfront in the expansion will take place in the Arathi Highlands, a relatively minor zone in World of Warcraft’s Eastern Kingdoms that has been part of the game since its launch in 2004. That may seem like an inauspicious battleground, but Hazzikostas notes that it has great tactical importance to the warring factions.

“It has coastal access, and it’s a great jumping-off point,” he says. “If the Horde can secure it, they can push back to try to reclaim the Undercity.”

There’s mention of a massive change for longtime World of Warcraft players: The Horde has lost the undead capital Undercity, and that’s not the only escalation of tension at the forefront of this latest clash.

World of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi
Blizzard Entertainment

Reignited rivalry

Battle for Azeroth is the conflict at the heart of the franchise of Warcraft,” says Afrasiabi. “We’ve had all these starts and stops. We’ve had all these moments in the history of Warcraft. We’ve had betrayals and intrigue and every single time, one of these moments has come up. There’s this pivotal moment between the Alliance and Horde of ‘are they going to clash or not,’ and then an enemy makes itself known, and we turn our attention toward that enemy.”

Afrasiabi is not just speaking to the history of Warcraft lore here, but also to the very structure that underpins most of World of Warcraft’s expansions. Each add-on to the game is defined by the big bad guy players are working toward facing down. The Burning Crusade had the demon-corrupted Illidan; Wrath of the Lich King built up to a climactic confrontation with the titular undead overlord; Cataclysm was all about stopping the out-of-control dragon Deathwing. Even some of the looser more recent expansions like Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor eventually built toward a single primary villain.

But after the events of Legion, wherein players journeyed to the demon homeworld of Argus and faced down Sargeras, the leader of the Burning Legion, Blizzard didn’t feel like it made sense to have “just another” big bad guy.

“Sargeras and the Burning Legion are some of the biggest enemies in the Warcraft universe,” Hazzikostas says. “Where do you go from there? It felt like trying to follow up the Burning Legion with another ‘super villain threatening to destroy the world’ kind of expansion was going to be challenging. We thought, well, what if we turn within? What if that’s where the conflict lies, and it’s finally time to settle that score?”

Throughout the history of Warcraft, the Alliance and Horde have always been at each other’s throats, but tensions have escalated after two major shifts at the start of Battle for Azeroth. First, as mentioned above, the Alliance has captured the Undercity, which was once the human capital of Lordaeron. The Undead leader and current warchief of the Horde, Sylvanas, is understandably displeased by this turn of events.

But the Horde has made its own advances on enemy territory. The great tree of Teldrassil, home of the night elves, has been burned to the ground. These two moves have essentially solidified a direct split in the geography of Azeroth: the Eastern Kingdoms are now more or less entirely controlled by the Alliance, while the western continent of Kalimdor is entirely under the Horde’s sway.

Hazzikostas notes that the classic versions of zones like Undercity and Teldrassil will still exist for new players. But as they level up and eventually enter Battle for Azeroth content, the world will shift toward its new form.

While Battle for Azeroth will have a major impact on the old world that players know and love, it will also, of course, introduce new zones. As part of the renewed war effort, both the Alliance and Horde find themselves looking for new allies, which leads them to parts of the world players have never explored before: specifically, the islands of Zandalar and Kul Tiras.

“The factions are actually going to largely level up separately,” Hazzikostas says of the two new landmasses. “They have their own separate sections of the world as they seek out these new allies. But then at max level, the entire world opens up for everybody. So from a player’s perspective, the amount of outward space that you have for content will effectively double when you hit max level.”

Serving as the home of a notorious tribe of trolls, Zandalar is a lush jungle setting with a “rich, Mesoamerican vibe” according to Hazzikostas. The three zones of Zandalar will include dinosaurs, swamplands and even a massive desert.

Kul Tiras, on the other hand, is a human kingdom featuring mountains, valleys and a more chilly environment generally. Its three zones will also feature a large city, somewhat similar to Legion’s Suramar in design.

Beyond simply questing through these regions, players will be working to unlock another new feature of Battle for Azeroth: allied races. Blizzard is finally fulfilling a long-time request from players by giving them the opportunity to play as what the community sometimes describes as “sub-races.” These include dark iron dwarves, highmountain tauren, void elves and several other variations on currently existing World of Warcraft races.

“It felt like the perfect time to make allied races a reality because of the underlying story of Battle for Azeroth,” says Hazzikostas. “It’s all about a world at war and a world that’s hard to control, and both factions are trying to get every advantage they can. They’re motivated to reach out to old allies, to people that they’ve worked with to try to win this their way.”

Blizzard isn’t yet going into detail on the precise method of unlocking allied races, but once players unlock them, Hazzikostas says you’ll be able to start a character of that allied race and level them all the way up to the new level cap of 120.

Afrasiabi calls them “absolutely new races, for all intents and purposes.” As such, they will come with their own unique racial abilities as well. For example, void elves will have a short-range teleport, while highmountain tauren will have a charge ability in place of the war stomp that regular tauren use.

The Burning of Teldrassil - Battle for Azeorth
The great tree of Teldrassil, one of the Alliance’s few strongholds on the continent of Kalimdor, burns.
Blizzard Entertainment

“We want allied race abilities to be cool and flavorful,” Hazzikostas says. “The point isn’t who’s the best or who’s the most powerful. I’m sure we will hear a wide range of feedback from our players when the racial abilities for allied races are unveiled. Maybe we’ll tone down the power levels of a few of them or make tweaks to make sure no one feels like they have to change their character to whatever, because that’s not what this is supposed to be about. It’s more about the ultimate cosmetic expression.”

Of course, even though Battle for Azeroth is all about the Horde and Alliance clashing, it also remains a heavily PvE-focused experience. There’ll still be some forces in Kul Tiras and Zandalar that both factions are interested in fighting in raids. But Blizzard still wants to make those raiding experiences feel different depending on which side you’re on.

“We’re thinking about how to bring that faction conflict element into our dungeon and raid gameplay as well,” Hazzikostas says. “We want that to be a part of our storytelling, because that’s kind of what Warcraft is about.”

He points to Mists of Pandaria’s Siege of Orgrimmar raid as an example that started pushing in this direction by turning the Horde capital of Orgrimmar into the location of the expansion’s final raid. But in that example, the Alliance and Horde were still on the same side in the raid, still going after the same big bad guy. Hazzikostas claims that may not always be the case with raids in Battle for Azeroth.

“We’re not starting in the initial raids of the expansion with, like, the Alliance fighting a different boss than the Horde,” he says. “But that’s definitely a phase we’d like to explore later on in the expansion.”

For Hazzikostas, all of these elements — the focus on faction conflict, the warfronts, the allied races — are about a return to the things that are most important for World of Warcraft.

“That core conflict between Horde and Alliance is the thing that’s the beating heart of the Warcraft franchise,” Hazzikostas says. “Through all our other journeys, the villains we’ve fought, the deeds we’ve accomplished in World of Warcraft so far, we’ve done these things in the name of our factions, viewed through that lens. And there’s always been an underlying tension there.

Battle for Azeroth actually has two levels of meaning. Horde and Alliance forces are fighting over Azeroth, for control of it. But also, our world is direly wounded in the aftermath of the Legion’s onslaught, and the world is, in fact, dying beneath our feet. It needs champions to fight for it. We need to fight on behalf of Azeroth, to defend it against threats from within and without. Those two threads wind their way through this expansion.”

Genn Greymane, the king of Gilneas, and Anduin Wrynn, the king of Stormwind and head of the Alliance, lead their forces into battle.
Blizzard Entertainment

Lessons learned

While Battle for Azeroth is keeping things the same when it comes to dungeons and raids, it’s also tweaking and expanding on some of Legion’s most popular systems — most notably, the artifact weapon system.

Throughout most of World of Warcraft’s history, players replaced and upgraded their weapons as much as any other piece of gear. With Legion, however, each hero went on a quest to uncover a number of super powerful artifact weapons, the kinds that had been wielded in the past by some of Azeroth’s greatest heroes. Once recovered, players stuck with their artifact weapon of choice (or two or three, if they wanted to focus on multiple specs), slowly powering the weapon up through a smart new system that allowed for continued progression even after hitting the level cap.

When Battle for Azeroth begins, artifact weapons will be going away, although Hazzikostas isn’t saying how yet.

“I don’t want to spoil specifically what’s going to happen, but yes, your artifact weapon will not continue on in its current form,” he says. “We know that they need to go out with a bang, so to speak. These are some of the most powerful, iconic weapons in the world, and we can’t just have you replace them with a random plank with a nail in it.”

Hazzikostas says that some of the powers players earned from their artifact weapons will be melded into the core of those classes, either as base abilities or talents. Others, he says, “will simply fade away as set bonuses and trinkets and all sorts of other perks have in the past.”

But even if artifact weapons themselves are disappearing, the spirit of that system will carry on in something new: a system Blizzard is calling “the Heart of Azeroth.” Taking the form of a legendary necklace, the Heart of Azeroth will allow players to use a new resource called Azerite to imbue their armor with new powers and traits. It takes the end-game progression that artifact weapons provided but expands it to many pieces of armor rather than just a few dozen weapons.

“The Heart of Azeroth shares a lot of that sense of end-game progression, of an extra set of goals to strive for other than just getting a better pair of boots or a better pair of gloves,” Hazzikostas explains. “It’s also customization. You’ll be making choices between abilities that enhance your character within some of these armor slots.”

Hazzikostas is eager to point out one major change upgrade from the artifact weapon system to the Heart of Azeroth: it no longer requires separate progression for different specializations of your one class. All of the upgrading will go through the Heart of Azeroth necklace, so you can share progression across different specs and, in theory, different pieces of gear.

The little we’ve heard about this system so far sounds like a potentially huge change for World of Warcraft, but there’s still much to be learned. We still don’t know how exactly players will earn Azerite and what the process for choosing talents will look like. Blizzard plans to share more details during BlizzCon panels this weekend.

World of Warcraft lead game designer Matt Goss
Blizzard Entertainment

A sense of belonging

In the opening cinematic for World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, which was revealed during the BlizzCon opening ceremony this morning, Sylvanas calls the never-ending conflict between the Horde and the Alliance a “cycle of hatred.”

By focusing once more on the struggle between these two sides, Blizzard is falling back on a deep history of intrigue, years of plot twists and character development that could lead the most all-consuming war that Azeroth has yet seen.

“We know where we’re going and what our trajectory is,” says Afrasiabi. “We’re paying off this thing that’s been there forever, just building and building. When Varian [Wrynn, previous leader of the Alliance] dies in Legion, was that Sylvanas’ fault? Was that the Horde’s fault? Are they ever going to pay for the Battle of the Wrathgate in Wrath of the Lich King? Is either side ever going to pay for all of these betrayals and back and forth? That, to me, is the key element, the underpinnings of this entire expansion.”

Afrasiabi promises a story that will explore the ideological differences of the Horde and the Alliance, and their different approaches to how they believe the world should be run. As tends to be the case with the Warcraft franchise, it will not come down to a simple matter of a good side versus an evil side, but rather two strong forces that have both made major mistakes and have seemingly irreconcilable differences.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
Blizzard Entertainment

The Battle for Azeroth cinematic builds toward a surprising but familiar climax. As the massive Alliance and Horde forces clash on the steps of Lordaeron, Sylvanas rallies her forces with a shout of — you guessed it — “FOR THE HORDE!” Then, after his troops are overcome by the newly riled Horde warriors, young Alliance leader Anduin Wrynn does the same for his side.

What’s telling here is Sylvanas’ reaction: She is not upset, concerned or enraged by Anduin’s rallying cry of “FOR THE ALLIANCE!” Though her enemies were on the verge of defeat and are now, suddenly, back in action, her reaction is a sly grin. This is not war, after all, it’s Warcraft. Even a “cycle of hatred” is all just part of the game — the very part that gives these two factions their reason to exist.

Afrasiabi is one of the true veterans of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft team, someone who’s been working on the game more or less since it launched in 2004. Even now, as the game seeks a return to its core values, he’s not bored by it.

“Designing, building, creating Warcraft stories and content is kind of an emotional and personal thing for me,” says Afrasiabi. “I pull a lot from my own life, my own experiences, and infuse that into the game and the world. It’s exciting to me to get those emotions out there, and I think people get it when your heart’s in it. That’s what’s kind of amazing about this universe. It allows us to put our hearts into this game, our hearts and our minds and souls and whatever else you want to call it.

“And everyone’s allowed to participate.”