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World of Warcraft’s next patch tackles Battle for Azeroth’s biggest flaws

Polygon talks with Ion Hazzikostas about player agency, talents, and Rise of Azshara

World of Warcraft - A Dark Warden on the Darkshore Warfront Blizzard Entertainment
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The latest expansion from World of Warcraft has been nailing the high points players expect from the MMO: The raids are excellent, the cinematics and cutscenes are stunning, and the visuals and music set the scene perfectly. The problems players have with Battle for Azeroth are with the connective tissue of the game: character motivations, endgame rewards, content at level 120, the Azerite system, and technical issues.

In 2019, World of Warcraft is attempting the careful balancing act of maintaining a social space for players, single-player campaign content, dungeons and raids, and daily activities and progression. All of these activities tie into advancing the player’s character, growing stronger and unlocking new abilities. Patch 8.2, aka Rise of Azshara, is the largest content patch in World of Warcraft yet, and it’s meant to shore up the weaknesses of Battle for Azeroth.

Rise of Azshara will bring the player to Nazjatar and Mechagon, two new locations stuffed with fresh content. But many of the answers to the problems plaguing World of Warcraft don’t lie in the places players go, but the characters they use to go there.

Sylvanas Windrunner looks up at an escaping foe. Blizzard Entertainment

The heart of the expansion

When I ask World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas what he thinks the team will be most excited to show off in 8.2, he laughs. “Everything is the obvious answer,” he says. He eventually focuses on the Heart of Azeroth, the crystalline soul of the planet players have been carrying around throughout Battle for Azeroth. That’s been the primary way for endgame players to advance their character, beyond just grinding and equipping new gear, and it’s fallen short so far. Patch 8.2 will have a revamp and improvements to the Heart of Azeroth experience.

For one, Azerite traits and armors are no longer linked to the level of your Heart of Azeroth, so players can just focus on picking traits. There will be Legion-style artifact progression and upgrade systems. There will be active powers, like shields and buffs, that players activate from their Heart.

But one of the largest failures of the Heart of Azeroth so far is that players don’t care much about the special neck item.

“That’s one of the ways, in terms of comparing to Legion and how we’ve seen the expansion unfold, that we’ve fallen short,” says Hazzikostas. The team has looked back to the Legion artifacts, and how they figured into the player’s story start to finish.

With 8.2, what Hazzikostas calls the “B-plot” of Magni, Azeroth, and the dying Titan comes into the forefront. The Battle over Azeroth becomes a Battle for Azeroth, and the key item of the expansion is getting gameplay reworks to match this emotional importance in the story.

Blizzard Entertainment

Character growth and talents

Mechagon and Nazjatar will both be endgame experiences that draw on the best elements of previous endgame grinds: the Timeless Isle, Argus, Tanaan Jungle, and the Broken Shore. Azshara’s domain of Nazjatar will be a little more typical, while Mechagon will be “what you might expect from a gnomish paradise,” says Hazzikostas. He describes it as more sandbox-y, unpredictable, and akin to a playground. Both zones will have flying enabled.

The problem with Battle for Azeroth’s endgame is that a culling of abilities, the loss of Legion’s legendaries, and a lack of endgame talents means that hitting the max level doesn’t necessarily make your character more fun to play. Your character is a vehicle to explore new content, and it doesn’t matter how stunning the vista is if the core gameplay loop you’ll execute a few thousand times just isn’t fun.

“For the rest of Battle for Azeroth, we’ll be looking at talents from a tuning perspective and a diversity perspective,” says Hazzikostas. “Things that no one is picking may be designed and improved, but changes to talents as a whole will be something for a whole other expansion.”

World of Warcraft - a troll tangles with a Naga Blizzard Entertainment

Hazzikostas notes that in the ever-changing Ship of Theseus that is World of Warcraft, talents and level progression have been approached from many different angles. Talent points that allowed you to progressively add 1 percent to your Shadowbolt felt like filler, or certain talents were mandatory for a class to function. There were a couple of interesting choices — do I take the 21 point talent in Protection, or go for the 31 point talent in Holy?

“It wasn’t infinitely extensible,” says Hazzikostas of the talent point system. “We went down the road, adding what were then 61 point talents, where everyone had 80 talents to spend, and those trees were unwieldy, difficult to parse, and difficult to make decisions within.”

As for Battle for Azeroth’s lack of new 120 talents, Hazzikostas explains it as a tough scenario. If the designers come up with three new abilities for rogue or death knights, those classes may not necessarily need three new abilities. Those abilities may be filler, or they may shore up a weakness in the class design and remove counterplay. That being said, Hazzikostas does agree that “it’s possible we’ve gone too far.”

The team is looking at ways for characters to improve meaningfully and permanently at the endgame, and Nazjatar and Mechagon will be two new arenas for the team to try rewards that aren’t tied to core gameplay loops for each class.

Blizzard Entertainment

What role does the player ... play?

The story up until 8.2 has been focused nearly entirely on red versus blue — the battle between the Horde and Alliance. “There’s been a lot of strong opinions,” says Hazzikostas, “because there are a lot of strong connections to these characters, especially on the Horde side.” Saurfang and Sylvanas, the Battle of Dazar’Alor, and Jaina’s narrative arc are all stories that the team consider successful.

While the big NPCs of Battle for Azeroth have had plenty to do, the role of the player in the narrative is odder than ever. In the vanilla game, adventurers were faceless members of a larger army. We participated in great battles, but we were mostly there to shoot and loot. Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King elevated the player, having NPCs marvel at us and thank us for our service. Later, in Legion, I became the Highlord of the Silver Hand and worked side by side with the biggest characters in Warcraft lore. I’ve run a garrison, saved the world, and I now hang out with the High King of the Alliance constantly.

Battle for Azeroth has struggled to find a similar role for the player character. The Alliance has largely served as a foil for the Horde. The Horde, on the other hand, are dealing with a deep division. Horde players who do not agree with Sylvanas were given the option to choose a route of defying her ... but this comes after they were made complicit in genocide. It’s not the burning of Darnassus that motivated them, but the follow-up decisions by Sylvanas.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth - The World Tree of Darnassus burns Blizzard Entertainment

When I ask Hazzikostas about the developer’s intent on putting this on Horde players, and if they think it can go too far, he briefly hesitates.

“It’s a heavy responsibility, and it’s not one that anyone on the team takes lightly,” he says. “Our aim in storytelling is always to evoke emotion. If that goes too far, it can feel exploitative, it can feel like players are caught in a situation they don’t want to be in. We want people to stick around, to play with their friends, and to see the end of the story we’re telling.”

For players, they’ve spent months dealing with the burden of Darnassus. For characters like Tauren druids, or Blood Elf paladins, this can feel like an overwhelming loss of agency. Many Horde players are also concerned because a similar tale played out two expansions ago in Mists of Pandaria, with Garrosh Hellscream. For these players, the second corrupt Warchief in under five years might suggest that the Horde they have been playing under for a decade or more is broken, and not worth defending.

Hazzikostas is aware of the parallels to Garrosh’s story, and he says that the Horde is too.

“There are a couple of references here and there,” he says. “There are more coming. Members of the Horde leadership will remember going down dark paths before.”

World of Warcraft - Trojan art Image: Blizzard Entertainment

He also notes that Garrosh’s motives were different; they were an attempt to restore a lost vision of the Horde at the expense of everything else. Sylvanas’ goals are still unclear, but Hazzikostas notes, “There will not be a trial where she is in chains. Sylvanas is not a character who would find herself in that situation ... ever.”

As for player choice, more decisions will come in the future. “It won’t be something we do lightly,” he says. “We do it when the story makes sense, and we do it when there are real consequences and real follow through.”

The team intends to avoid “false” choices, or the illusion of a branching narrative. Hazzikostas also hints at an interesting possibility for the Alliance’s future narrative: “In this case, it felt right for the Horde. Alliance don’t have that same division in their ranks just yet, and there isn’t that same natural point of choice.”

We’ll be receiving more details on Patch 8.2, Rise of Azshara, once it hits the public test realm. The core issue that Blizzard will need to solve is restoring a sense of player agency. While the new patch seems chock full of endgame content and systems, it remains to be seen whether those help make players feel more powerful and in control. Azshara is one of the most intimidating villains remaining in World of Warcraft, and she may be able to restore a sense of agency and urgency to players as they prepare to raid her eternal palace.

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