The last weeks of World of Warcraft has been a rollercoaster for its players. First, 8.0 pre-patch as a temporary broke early level match for most players, when Sylvanas, Heartbeard, broke down a giant tree full of thousands of innocent night elves. And here I thought the pre-patch event would be a bit boring . It ended up being an extremely splintering moment that immediately criticized players who were angry with Horde's implication, contrary to what people thought was quite damn evil.
The Warcraft subreddit and forums were burning with inflammatory posts desrying the entire event. And then Blizzard released the old soldier movie that changed everything. This amazing six-minute cutscene won the community by setting out a beautiful character building that threw Horde into a much more nuanced light. Players, including myself, were relieved.
It is obvious that the pre-patch event in War of the Thorns will go down in Warcraft history as one of the most dramatic. With just a few days to battle for Azeroth properly launched, I talked with game director Ion Hazzikostas and Production Director John Hight to get their perspective on all drama, fear and frustration.
PC player: expansion event has been quite explosive and divisive. When you first set up to make The Thorns War and its story, did you ever imagine that it was as controversial as it was?
Ion Hazzikostas: We had some inkling as it would be. I think that Jaina Warbringers [cinematic] for example, is one of my favorite things our Kinematics team has ever done. I was very excited to make the world experience it and it was received as we expected. When we digged into the actual events around Burning of Teldrassil ̵
Horde is especially this patchwork collection of different races with very different motivations. The Forsaken versus the Goblins versus Tauren versus Orcs: They are fundamentally different in their ethos, their worldview and priorities. But they have the band together for strength and companionship to claim land for themselves and to eek out somewhere in this harsh world of Azeroth. And that's what has kept them tied together over the years, but these differences can and will appear. It was very interesting to see the point and the opposite point unfold as we saw the pragmatic ruthlessness of Sylvanas on the screen counteracted by the focus on honor and justice, values that are characterized by Saurfang most of all. Both of these are still encapsulated within [that question of] "What is Horde?"
That said, there was a huge difference in the answer to these two kinematics. When Warbringers: Sylvanas came out, people seemed to lose their mind. They were so upset. Many criticized it as bad writing. What was the creator of this story to be in that position and know that soon the old soldier movie would go out and give the valuable context of Sylvana's actions that the players wanted?
] John Hight: What was fun for us in a way was, this is a time when we tell the story in the game and outside the game. We had choreographed it in such a way that Warbringers and the [Old Soldier] movie could be shown separately. It was fun because we literally saw the reaction to the Sylvanas play, eradicate, the Horde players felt a bit betrayed and the alliance players were like how could you do this? And behind the scenes we were like: "Wait for it, wait for it!" And then [Old Soldier] landed and looked at the reaction to it, it was amazing.
The team is so solid this time. I think they beat the legion story and in [Battle for Azeroth] they set the scene to tell these emotional stories both inside and outside the game and paced it in such a way that we will keep people quite excited and engaged in this entire expansion.
Hazzikostas: I think that a lot of players' reaction stems from the emotional investment in people's view of Sylvanas, a sign that has been prominent in the Warcraft franchise, returns year and year. This point predicts WoW itself – and so by Horde as a whole. One of the major issues in the minds of the players was: "Well, this action seems evil. Defining this action Horde as a whole? Does this implicitly define me as a player who is a member of Horde?" I think that rejoicing came just a few days later as a reminder that no, Horde is much bigger than any act and a person. There is much more history left to tell as we continue to explore the dynamic it unfolds.
Was it frustrating to get the players to criticize and take what happened and criticize for bad writing before they've seen the whole picture
Hazzikostas: It can be a little frustrating , but it is also understandable and expected and natural. It's human. Emotions are not rational. When you feel anger or grief, you turn out. Some people channeled these feelings in ways that are perhaps more constructive to give feedback than others, but I mean … think back to the internet in the evening after the Red Wedding episode of the Game of Thrones aired. How many people were, "I'm done with this. I never see this show again! I do not understand how they can do this?" That's because they just looked at something they had an emotional investment in down their eyes. It is part of good storytelling. Clearly, you can not only alienate people and never let them come back, but it's up and down and they complement each other. They combine to create a coherent and effective story.
Height: One of the fun things about WoW is that we can really tell episodic stories. It's not like we push out the game and people burn through it and spoilers are available. We can certainly trick you. If you think we are doing something that is obviously obvious and repeating, just stay tuned because we are likely to put you in a surprise.
Talk about tricks, one thing I noticed is how many people felt that Burning of Teldrassil should be this great mystery. People waited a twist and felt Blizzard put it up that way. To go back and look at some older developer Q & As, though, I could not find much evidence of it. What happened, from your perspective?
Hazzikostaker: On the net, like this giant game of phone to some extent, things can definitely kill themselves. At Blizzcon 2017 I remember that Alex Afrasiabi ate the question of who first hit: Burning of [Teldrassil] or the attack on Lordaeron? But it was before alpha. It was at the first initial announcement of Battle for Azeroth. From the time the game was in alpha, beta and beyond, the event word was clearly clear through the content of the game.
At the same time, it binds back to a small potential cognitive dissonance. People have an emotional attachment and you will not think the worst. You will think that it may be a different explanation than one that you find personally uncomfortable because it is uncomfortable.
If we had our druthers, we would not. I do not reveal any of the history before the game was launched. Players will experience everything in order for the first time with twists and turns when they go. The reality is that the benefits we get to the overall quality of the experience from having a robust beta testing program and continuing to make each extension far outweigh the potential upside of the story which is a surprise to those who care the most. When possible, we try to protect the most effective moments. There are often our cinemas and some other things that we really hold under lock and key throughout the beta process. There are several things that players will see for the first time in just a few days – something really great story strikes we can not wait to share with the world.
It's exciting because I've spent a lot of time in the beta. Is it essentially saying that there is much more story that someone like me has not seen?
Hazzikostas: If you have played beta, your screen will be black and nothing will happen at any time. There is something where you do not have permission to decrypt yet.
Yes, I noticed some of those moments. I'm curious how has your approach to freeing extensions changed over the years?
Hazzikostas: From a historical perspective, we have had pre-expansion events right back to the end of 2006 with 2.0 pre-patch, killing demons and orcs in front of Dark Portal to get a taboo kind of transition or event offered a one-time reward to help people get ready for what should come. But especially in the last five or six years, when our extensions have taken on a more consistent narrative thread that leads from one to the other, we also use these pre-update periods to bridge these holes and tell that story on a The way players can relate to and interact with the game world.
Whether it's the aftermath of the warlords and events that Gul started and the legion is raining from heaven to bring chaos to our world or as we "see now the direct follow-up of Sargera's strike to Azeroth and shirmishes over Azerite and [Burning of Teldrassil and assault of Lordaeron]. Rather than jumping from expansion to expansion, which might have been the case back in the day where it was, ok, we defeated Illidan and Kil "yes" time for Lich King. Now we want to get that feeling as much as possible as a coherent and consistent story, and the pre-patch period provides a great opportunity to do it.
Does it influence your approach to designing all this content? Instead To have these on and off periods of storytelling, there is always something going on.
Hazzikostas: Little. There are usually two things to how we think of the content before the update. a preview g of something that is part of the expansion, and it was also Broken Shore or the Demon Hunter intro for Legion. And that's The Siege of Lordaeron for the struggle for Azeroth today. And then it's the volatile piece, it's "you must be there" piece. There is a way for players to re-engage with the game and to get hyped and get their [alternate characters] caught up. That's what demon invasions were in the Legion, it's the Dark Shore-repeatable world missions in Battle for Azeroth. We are approaching that we know it's going to go away, but if you were there in that window, you have something memorable, something memorable to show for it.
Height: I think that has changed a lot because We are investing a lot of time and people into a content area that is often volatile. And we realize that some people can get into the game weeks from now and missed some of this, but for those people who have stayed with us all the time or the people who see the imminent release of an extension that the rally cry to come back and check out WoW, this is the amazing story moment. We have really doubled on it. Looking back on the pre-update content that we've had over the years, we've made it deeper and richer and more memorable each time we've come up with a new extension. It is our hope that you want these nostalgic conversations about [The Battle for Azeroth pre-expansion event] ten years from now. You are talking about Lordaeron and the two different views.
Well in this case, I can see that the payment is there. The burden of Teldrassil feels like a moment resembling The Wrathgate – some people will reflect back many years later.
Hazzikostas: Yup, that's hope.
So The War of the Thorns was not the only one in 8.0 pre-patch. There was a bunch of under-the-hood updates too, like the state squish. It broke many things for a little bit there. What happened to it and where are things now?
Hazzikostas: This is the second time we have done one of these, the last one in Warlords of Draenor pre-patch four years ago. [The stat squish] re-normalizes, re-tuning the fight to bring the numbers back in sensible understandable areas so that we do not all go around tens of millions of health points that fight bosses with tens of billions of healthcare professionals.
Now the difference between what we did this time and last time, we realized that the need for continuous power development in our game, coupled with a wish that the numbers will be ready, will suggest that we will probably do something like this each two or three extensions. We wanted to give us a more seamless, less wrong way to do this in the future. What meant was actually going back and effectively refactoring literally 14 years worth of spells and creatures and other systems to function in a manner that was under the hood, scalable.
So if we wanted to say ok we want to reduce the health of all creatures in 60 to 70 levels by ten percent or we want to increase the damage their spells in this raid zone by five percent, we can change a value and make it happen. While some years ago we would have to edit and do some sort of database process to affect hundreds, if not thousands of individual records. There is a great efficiency gain ahead that will improve our ability to set the game and make it easier to do such things in the future so that we can better focus our efforts to make more content for players.
But it was this one-time price. And by using this massive infrastructure change to 14 years of data, there were some things that were not redesigned or corrected. We caught many of them during our beta and PTR tests from quality assurance and feedback from players. But especially in the level-up experience, there were not many people who necessarily scoured every bit of content on the beta and some things were missed. Of course, we have millions of players going through and doing it on the live servers, and these issues will pop up quickly and it may seem like wow, there are dozens of different errors that are being solved.
I think, with a lot of hard work during the first couple of weeks since the patch went out, we have a very good handle on all of these. At this point, the game is in a very stable state and we are happy looking forward to the Battle for Azeroth launch in just a few days.
It sounds like a lot of pain and effort for something so necessary but also nothing that directly distributes players except that the numbers are smaller. When this was first blown up and you responded to it, I said that the team was investigated the problem and will resolve an immediate solution in the meantime. What is the status of the survey? Are these underlying issues now resolved?
Hazzikostas: We believe that everything is solved. The fixation we applied for – it was not just this thinning reduction. It was actually hand-adjusted and selected values went up to 24 percent reduction in the 60-80 level range and decreasing above and below it. It was not a code error. It's all just a lot of math. By making the tricks we counted on changes in basic player statistics, player characteristics, the equipment itself became weaker, but also the removal of artifact weapons at the high end and trying to balance and balance players in the absence of all those things. In particular, we had underestimated the impact of the artifact weapon. So when we made changes to compensate for the removal, we basically lowered the changes that left the players weaker than they had been before globally.
We just wanted to understand which of these dozens of calculations we missed instead of just going in and blinded it and who knows what the underlying problem was? But we feel good about the state of things going forward. The combat simulation is based on all our calculations at this time, largely identical to what was in 7.3.5 [the previous patch before 8.0]. And we've actually made some separate adjustments to only generally faster smoothing in the 60-80 level range because in these surveys we noticed that this area took longer than calculated. It had been the case since 7.3.5 as well, but it was something that recently came to light as we dig into all of these data.
So it's been a rocky couple of weeks when it comes to people who are worried about the story and where it's on top of these systemic changes. It feels like things have now settled, hopefully this means that Battle for Azeroth wants a smooth launch?
Height: We are tracking very well. Interestingly, when it comes to the total number of issues we've had in the launch, we are very close to where we were with Legion. All our statistics point to, yes, this will be a fairly stable launch. We tend to get much of our pain out of the way during beta and then some of it during pre-patch. This is going to be interesting for us because this is the first time we do a global simultaneous launch. We have always had a tendency to go out in a region and then to subsequent regions, but we felt it was a little unfair. People looked at others who played when they did not come. But we have doubled down on the infrastructure side, backwards, to make sure we're ready to take on that load.
We have many technologies today that were not available to us back in the Warlords of Draenor, which allows us to dynamically cut and place people in a realm where they will not be crowded. Things that were a problem for us before, like chokepoints, we do not have these problems thanks to the technology we have. But hey, I do not want to tempt Murphy. There is always the possibility of something that we have not foreseen. One thing I'm proud of is that we have a team that is incredibly fast not only to spell trouble but also to solve problems. You are talking about the rocky time we had with pre-patch, and I think about how fast we were able to answer problems that were caught or reported in forums and within a few hours we had the problem.
Sorry to have a problem initially but in the game as complicated as WoW where you have millions of code lines and hundreds of thousands of lines of quests and material in the game that has grown over 14 years and a game that we expect people to play from beginning to end every time we release an expansion, we must double our ability to quickly solve problems when they come up. But we think it will be an exciting time, in a good way. We hope that you are out with us on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, depending on the territory in which you are.
Hazziostas: It is part of the pre-patch point as well. That's something we've done over the years of World of Warcraft. You and all other players have the full code and all other data related to Battle for Azeroth on your computer already. We will only turn a switch – there is no downtime attached to this moment. So all the pain that John pointed out and all the work that took place in recent weeks has gone against ensuring that Monday and Tuesday are as smooth as possible for all our players like Battle for Azeroth begins.
World of Warcraft: The Battle of Azeroth launches August 13 in North America and August 14 in Europe.