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Behind the scenes of World of Warcraft’s biggest patch ever

Blizzard’s devs explain everything that went into the massive patch 7.2

Blizzard Entertainment

As Blizzard launched Legion, its sixth expansion pack for World of Warcraft, last year, the developer had one major goal in mind. It had to combat the flood of bitterness and disappointment among fans that had come to a head with the previous expansion, Warlords of Draenor. Its plan for doing so involved a renewed focus on content patches — the major updates that hit in the two years or so between new expansions, adding new things to do and keeping players engaged in the game.

This week, Blizzard released patch 7.2, the second of three announced major content patches for Legion. Warlords of Draenor only received two content patches in total, and put together they maybe barely add up to the size of the first Legion patch. For the second, titled “Tomb of Sargeras,” the developer has gone all out, building in new content on almost every front of the massive game and creating what it describes as the biggest patch in World of Warcraft’s history.

Polygon spoke with several key members of the Blizzard team working on World of Warcraft just before it released the patch this week to get details on everything that went into the patch, what problems the studio is hoping to address with it and what it might mean for the future.

Blizzard Entertainment

Polygon: Can you give me a quick rundown of the big additions in patch 7.2?

Ryan Shwayder, senior designer: First of all, it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest patches in the history of WoW. We’ve made a lot of things for you to do. One of the biggest ones is going back to Broken Shore. This is the place where at the beginning of the Legion expansion, actually in the pre-launch, the Horde and Alliance went at the same time but separately and had one of their greatest failures. Some of the most tragic deaths really in our history occurred there at that time.

But now we have the Pillars of Creation. We have our artifacts. We’ve powered up and got our class orders strong and unified. Now we’re going to be forming the Armies of Legionfall, the new faction for this patch. We’re taking the fight to the Legion on Broken Shore.

What that entails is a lot of features and content on Broken Shore as well as outside of Broken Shore. There’s world quests. There’s rare elites. There’s treasures. You’ll be contributing to region-wide buildings that can be built to confer different benefits and activate different kinds of content. They’ll be built for a few days, and then the Legion counterstrikes and blows them up. There’s the Cathedral of the Eternal Night dungeon, which is the top half of the Tomb of Sargeras.

Legion assaults will begin shortly after the patch comes out, where they kind of counterattack your counterattack. I’m not sure if that’s a riposte or what. [laughs] The assaults are a multi-stage, three stage battle where they assault multiple areas where you’re doing world quests. Then there’s a larger-scale defense of one of the important places within a zone. Then you go and do a traditional three-player scenario up in the command ship to cap it all off.

I’m certainly missing a bunch of things, because this is a giant patch.

Travis Day, senior producer: One of the important things to note out of what Ryan’s saying is that we are an MMO, and we have a commitment to a large, living, breathing world. That’s one of the unique experiences for WoW. So in all these things Ryan is talking about, the hope is that in different areas, at different times, events are happening, content is happening. With patch 7.2 being the biggest patch in WoW history, we really want to make sure that every day when you log in as a player — be it on day one, day four, day 45 — you have this sense of anticipation and wonder when you come in. What’s going to be up right now? Where should I go? What should I do? That sense of exploration in a living world is one of the cornerstones of what makes WoW such a great game.

Morgan Day, senior designer: For me, since I specialize in dungeon stuff, we have a lot of updates to mythic dungeon system. “Mythic season two” is what we call it internally. There’s also, like Ryan mentioned, the Cathedral of Eternal Night, where you go in to the Tomb of Sargeras and use the Aegis of Aggramar, which is one of the Pillars of Creation. You remember we added the Return to Karazhan dungeon in a previous patch. We’re adding that to mythic-plus as well as dungeon finder. So there’s lots and lots of content.

Blizzard Entertainment

Polygon: One of the focuses you had at BlizzCon last year was really pushing this idea that with Legion, you had changed your approach to new content creation in patches. You said you were really pushing on doing patches faster, doing more patches, getting more content out with an expansion than you have ever done before, or at least in the last few expansions.

I think at this point, particularly with 7.2, a lot of fans are really behind that now. A lot of people believe those promises. Internally, what has this meant for how you are structured? Have you had any changes to how you’re putting patches together? Are you keeping more people focused on Legion rather than jumping to the next expansion?

TD: I joined the World of Warcraft team about a year-and-a-half ago, and even since I joined, the team has grown. Over the last couple of years, this team has undergone a huge amount of growth. So I think one of the things you’re seeing is that growth and that experience in developing new hires is really coming to bear. It’s something we really wanted to commit to for the players. I think we’re doing a good job right now of delivering on it.

Something to keep in mind is that we started planning this patch cycle well before Legion shipped. This has kind of been on the radar, on the agenda for quite some time. It actually hasn’t necessitated any real structural changes, as far as how we break down animation or the art team or et cetera. What it has meant — and I think this is natural in game development — is we have the early stages of anything. In the early stages, you need a senior leadership team with skill and representation from every department. This really helps, because in the rundown of an expansion, like you’d see in any studio finishing a game, you end up ballooning up and you have everybody working on it, working on it, working on it, working on it.

And now you have the top leadership and members of the team moving on, splitting their time basically between being in charge of patches and pre-production work and concepting work and laying the foundation for what’s to come next. So you have people like Ryan; as a senior designer, he gets to be the content supervisor for patch 7.2 and lead that up alongside myself and Morgan. If you chart it out, it looks like a series of wavelets that overlap at different times as they move from one thing to the next.

Something that I’m proud of on the production side is that it’s set up in a really nice cadence where we’re able to roll the meat and potatoes of the team from thing to thing as it’s ready for them to be rolling onto it. Obviously, it’s been an ongoing thing that you try to improve on. Learning and growing and getting better is the goal, and I think so far we’re doing a great job of delivering on that.

Polygon: Is it normal for you guys to have team leads and producers and everything for individual patches that are separate from the leads for a full expansion?

TD: Yeah, it’s a standard thing. It’s something we’ve done on Legion for sure and had in Warlords of Draenor as well. There’s a lot of content, so you’ll have your team leads, your discipline leads, your functional leads — like a lead for the rewards team or the animation team. And then you’ll still have singular vision holders for each piece of content that we’re putting forward. Obviously, everything is a collaboration in game development. It’s also a great way to identify leaders within the team, grow leadership within the team and help build the overall strength of the team throughout the patch cycle.

Blizzard Entertainment

Polygon: One topic people who have been playing Legion since launch talk about a lot is the artifact power grind. As you continue to build on artifact weapons, how are you approaching that issue in patch 7.2? Are you doing anything to help that grind and help players achieve what they need to with artifact power, especially on alts?

MD: Artifacts are a new feature to Legion, and it’s something that we’re really happy with. With previous patches, we’ve had artifact knowledge. We’ve actually introduced things in patch 7.2 as well to make the catch-up for alts easier. We’re increasing artifact knowledge levels from 25 all the way up to 50 now. You’ll have ways to catch up your alts faster. We introduced a way to mail your alts knowledge previously. We’ll still have that. It’s a five-level gap, so you can mail your alts up to your main’s knowledge level minus five.

With this patch, we’re also including a lot of really cool new content for the artifacts. There’s new traits. All your traits that you had previously that could level up to three can now level up to four. And with the artifact knowledge we provide a way for players to stay within a certain band of each other. Really the main goal with it is to always feel like there’s some incremental progression that you’re making. When you go do that world quest, you think, “Cool, I see that bubble on my artifact fill up.” That’s the goal we’ve been striving to achieve; we feel that artifacts do a good job of that, and we’re expanding even more on it in patch 7.2.

Polygon: I’ve also seen a lot of talk from both players and developers on secondary stats, and wanting to make secondary stats more useful for various classes. I’m looking at this from the perspective of my main class and spec, which is fire mage. That’s one of those class archetypes that’s so reliant on just one stat — I just want crit no matter what. So how are you approaching trying to make secondary stats matter more? How are you going to make me, as a fire mage, care about anything other than seeing my crit go as high as possible?

TD: Lead game designer Matt Goss actually addressed this question really recently on a developer Q&A on Twitch. I have felt what you’re expressing there myself on my assassination rogue — mastery for life. There’s definitely a broad spectrum of different stats. You see the same kind of behavior in talents. This is the optimal talent path; this is the optimal legendary set for you; this is the optimal route for leveling up your artifact, et cetera.

One of our jobs, and one of the things we’re trying to do to make the choices more compelling, is to narrow the band between best-in-slot, best-in-category, best path, best everything and really create a diversity of choice. In talents, we want it to be that in different situations contextually you’ll choose different talents. In legendaries, you’ll contextually choose different legendaries.

Theoretically, in different builds, you would use different stats. That should, theoretically, work if we can bring them in close enough parity to one another. Then it’s just about player choice. So what do we do to make them more viable? We adjust the underlying mechanics to bring them closer together in power alignment.

Blizzard Entertainment

Polygon: As somebody who likes five-player dungeons more than raids, the mythic-plus system has been incredibly cool. It’s kept me more engaged with the game for longer than any time previously. Have you considered adding any bonuses or rewards for placing on the leaderboards for mythic-plus?

MD: I’m glad that you enjoy mythic-plus. I do too. I play it a ton. We’re really happy that the community enjoys the leaderboard aspect of it, like, “Aha! I beat your rank!” But there’s a lot of challenges involved in recognizing the world first race in a meaningful way on our end.

Our primary focus is just giving players like you or me an outlet for enjoying that content in a repeatable way. With patch 7.2, we’re adding new affixes and new dungeons. What we’re aiming to do, like Travis said earlier, is you can log in and say, “OK, cool, what is there to accomplish this week?” With the mythic-plus system, that exists.

Another challenge with the community’s PvE competition is EU versus U.S. and how we have a different release schedule for those. So U.S. get it before EU, so it’s kind of different sometimes to balance those two things against each other.

RS: It’s definitely something we talk about a lot. PvP competition is really great, and PvE competition seems really cool to us too. It’s just a matter of trying to find the right way to reward it. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t, but we definitely talk about it a lot.

Polygon: One of the big successes of Legion as a whole is how much you’ve built up the idea of class fantasy. It focuses in on what makes each class cool more than WoW has done probably since launch. Obviously you’re adding to that some in patch 7.2 with the new follower and class mounts and the continuation of the class campaign. But do you have any plans about how to consider building on that in the future?

RS: We can mostly just speak to 7.2. I’m not supposed to talk about too much beyond that. Obviously, classes have been a huge focus in Legion. Trying to fulfill that class fantasy and really nail the idea of “what is my class.” In 7.2, 7.1.5, 7.1, 7.0 — it was a major thing, and we wanted to carry that forward into 7.2.

We’ve done that a bunch of ways in this patch. If you have 35 traits in your spec, you’ll have a new quest line to unlock the final set of traits. A few weeks into the patch, you’ll have a quest line to get a new follower. And then eventually you’ll get a final quest line for your class mount.

We’re also doing a couple of other things. After you’ve unlocked your final follower, you’ll be able to do some class-specific world quests on Broken Shore. We’re really just trying to get as much interesting class stuff in as we can in 7.2. Where we go from here, we’ll wait and see.

Blizzard Entertainment

Polygon: Going back to Warlords of Draenor, it was an interview with Polygon where you guys originally announced your intention to not put flying into Warlords of Draenor. You reversed that decision after a lot of fan feedback. Obviously at this point you have decided to put flying back in again, and it seems like that was the intention from the start of Legion. Are you feeling good about this timeline of the expansion releasing with no flying available for six to nine months, and then unlocking the ability to fly from there?

TD: The entire idea behind flying has always been that it’s kind of a reward for mastering the outdoor world. Back in the early days, that meant getting up to max level. As we’ve evolved the outdoor content over time and are celebrating the player’s mastery and experience of going through that, it feels like the right time in the Legion cycle to bring out flying. At this point, players have thoroughly explored the Broken Isles. They will have thoroughly explored the Broken Shore. They have had a chance to see all this content for the first time.

There’s even an argument to be made that flying will be less impactful in Legion than it has been in prior expansions because of the introduction of things like the Flightmaster’s Whistle. We think it’s going to be interesting to see. If you world quest right now, you go out, you do a world quest, there’s a bunch of players at the point of interest. Then you hit the Flightmaster’s Whistle and meet up with everyone again at the flight point.

I’m actually curious to see. One of the things I liked about the pre-launch invasion was that feeling of everybody moving as a group. There’s a lot more social interaction when you’re flying and moving together. You’ll no longer have that interruption. You can kind of flow with your group more naturally, so I think it’s going to feel really good.

Obviously, we can’t speak to the future. We don’t even have specific plans for the flying rollout in future expansions or future patches. But this is definitely the right time for Legion. We’re all curious to see how it plays out and how it feels, because I think it will alter the play experience in a positive way.

Polygon: I know that you’re not reporting on specific subscriber numbers anymore, so I won’t try to get that out of you. But one of the things we saw with Warlords of Draenor was a huge subscriber bump when the expansion came out and then a big drop-off as patches released. With Legion, particularly since the patch releases have been so much faster, can you speak at all to whether the drop-off has been less? Has the number of players invested in the game since the bump when the expansion came out remained more consistent?

RS: We really can’t speak to a lot of specifics. As far as we’re concerned, especially as a couple of designers and a producer, we really focus a lot on players still having fun. And I think players are still having fun. Realistically, what we’ve seen, and anecdotally you’ve probably seen it as well, there’s still lots of players who are still enjoying themselves. There are lots of players still out there doing world quests and dungeons and raids and everything the expansion has to offer.

Unfortunately, we can’t really share any numbers or even anything that vague. We’ve announced things like having hit great concurrency numbers that we hadn’t seen in a long time.

TD: I’ll also say that engagement is incredibly high. That’s the metric that we’ve moved to, and that’s the most appropriate way to measure the health of the game. Subscriber count is neither reflective of the health of the game nor the health of the business. They’re very divorced things. One of the things we announced during our financial call is that we’ve had the highest engagement numbers for World of Warcraft that we’ve ever had during a non-launch quarter. That’s been really good for us. The engagement is strong. And all of this is coming after a business model change was made in China, so it’s even doubly so indicative of how strong our engagement from our player base is and the interest is in World of Warcraft.

RS: Having worked on WoW for almost five years now, this has really been the most humbling time to work on it. The Legion support from players has been tremendous. It’s been amazing. We all try to come in here day in, day out and pour our hearts and souls into this thing, and seeing such a positive reaction has been incredible.

TD: We’ve talked about the patch cycle and wanting to deliver a more steady stream of content. I think all of us, as gamers, we’ll go play the newest Uncharted or whatever, and it’s an amazing experience, and it’s awesome. Then when we’re done with the game, we’ve played through it as many times as we want to, we’ve got all the cool story bits, we kind of go back to our baseline. What is our game of choice? For me, that’s always been World of Warcraft. So it’s all about providing something where, when you come back, or even when you look at the game for the first time, you go, “What am I going to do today?” We want players excited to see what we’ve been building and what we’ve delivered on.

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