It only feels like yesterday that we got our hands on a new World of Warcraft Dragonflight patch, flying around the Forbidden Reach and delving into forbidden vaults. But already we’re heading into the depths of the earth, unlocking new secrets under the Dragon Isles in WoW 10.1 Embers of Neltharion.
Dragonflight’s patch cadence is a refreshing change of pace, especially after the barren wasteland of content updates in Shadowlands, and contributes to WoW feeling the best it has in years. But how is Blizzard keeping pace with all these updates, and is it sustainable? Check out our WoW Dragonflight review for a full rundown of the game’s latest expansion.
10.1 brings sweeping changes to Mythic+ and gearing, and introduces cross-faction guilds for the first time ever. PCGamesN spoke to WoW associate game director Morgan Day and lead UX designer Laura Sardinha about all the WoW 10.1 changes in Embers of Neltharion to find out more.
PCGamesN: Some big changes are coming to Mythic+ in Season 2. Tell us about why you’re removing seasonal affixes and fine-tuning the dungeon experience.
Morgan Day: Well, a big piece of feedback we got from Dragonflight Season 1 was not only were these dungeons – with the exception of Shadowmoon Burial Grounds – really challenging, but you could feel the difference between a Dragonflight dungeon and something like Court of Stars. The new dungeons just have so much stuff going on, and then the Thundering affix came from nowhere and made for some really scary pulls.
So for Season 2 we took a huge step back and really tried to focus the team’s efforts on the dungeons themselves, de-escalating affixes and moving the brackets where affixes start affecting dungeons to level seven and 14 rather than four and seven.
So with Season 2 we have a new rotation of dungeons: the remaining four Dragonflight dungeons, but a few from the past as well. Tell us more about the process of adapting these older dungeons for a more modern state-of-game.
MD: We definitely learned a lot from Season 1. Shadowmoon Burial Grounds was an outlier in terms of it being quite a bit easier than some of the more modern dungeons, so we really wanted to give ourselves time to focus on things like Vortex Pinnacle. Two of the dungeons coming in Season 2 are BFA dungeons, so they needed far fewer tweaks as they’re in the modern Mythic+ era of dungeons. Neltharion’s Lair did launch with Mythic+ in Legion, but it’s a couple of expansions old at this point so needed a little tweaking, with a focus on the bosses.
But Vortex Pinnacle has never been in the Mythic+ pool before, and needed a lot of time to make sure we were getting that right and aligning it with our current philosophies. The first step was just switching Mythic+ on and seeing how it ran, testing which trash mob sections and bosses felt good and which needed a lot of work and going from there. One thing we spent a lot of our time on with all the legacy dungeons was the visuals. There have been a lot of updates to the visual language of our spell effects and creature abilities over the years, so we placed a major focus on creature abilities, even adding new creatures. You might notice a few new Dragonflight elemental models in Vortex Pinnacle, for example.
Many players were surprised when cross-faction guilds were announced with patch 10.1. Why was this patch picked for the feature in particular? Was it just ready now?
Laura Sardinha: It wasn’t picked for any specific reason, it was just a matter of asking “do we have the tech to do this safely?”. We wanted to make sure that cross-faction guilds feel natural for players. We still have a lot of features like quests for example that are Alliance or Horde specific, so there are a lot of potential technical issues that we could encounter. We wanted to make sure that we had the time to test the feature and ensure the tech is good, while giving players enough time with it to get feedback on what’s next. We’ll keep updating cross-faction features wherever we can and whenever the tech allows us to… and when QA has the time to undergo the required very big passes. We know there are some very specific things regarding factions that can break, so we want to be safe.
What changes can we expect in the future? Right now you have to be invited to a cross-faction guild by a Battle.Net friend – why this restriction?
MD: Things like a cross-faction guild finder are on our radar, but we’re making small incremental steps towards allowing Horde and Alliance players to have more cooperation and collaboration when they do in-game activities. We’re just taking a very measured and metered approach. It’s one of those knobs that only turns one way, so we want to make sure that once it’s out there, it works. We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube for this one. I’m sure over time we’ll look to expand the feature set.
Gearing is radically different in Embers of Neltharion. Why have you decided on such a dramatic change, and is there a risk it might be overengineered compared to the pretty simple system in 10.1?
MD: Right now there are quite a few disparate upgrade systems. While they were simpler individually, they all worked in different ways. We felt that if we could bring all these systems together, then we could simplify upgrading gear across the game. We also wanted to address that buyer’s remorse feeling that comes from spending a bunch of Valor and then worrying you’ve wasted it if you find a better piece of gear in your great vault.
Essentially there are now two currencies. Flightstones are a bit more abundant, and are almost like experience you earn from, say, doing a dungeon or outdoor stuff. And then there are Shadowflame Crests. There are multiple versions of the crests that all signify a different level of difficulty.
So let’s say you finish a heroic raid and you get a Shadowflame Crest. With the new system what’s exciting for me is that I can with confidence upgrade, say, my set shoulder pads. The upgrade potential is almost slot-based. It’s not like I upgraded my shoulders and all that currency is gone, the crests are increasing my slot potential, not just a particular item’s potential.
The increased frequency of updates in Dragonflight and the rapid cadence of content is really refreshing for WoW. Is this putting any additional pressure on the team? Or are you just spreading out content more evenly over the expansion cycle?
MD: The goal is always to get content into players’ hands at a responsible and satisfying pace. We want to make sure players always have something fun right around the corner to look forward to, but there is definitely a philosophy shift with this expansion as well. For example, we have a Megadungeon on our expansion roadmap, and in the past that might have come out at the same time as Embers of Neltharion.
There’s a silly analogy I like: The thing about WoW patches is that they’ve traditionally been these big giant patches that we’ve thought of as boats leaving port every few months. If you miss the boat then it’s going to be months before your content will be with players, but in Dragonflight the new philosophy has been… What if we just have more boats? We’re looking at ways that we can build in a similar amount of, or potentially more, content, and looking at where we can put it in the patches. If a feature can’t get out in time for this patch, then the next update is right around the corner. It’s a big philosophy shift, but we feel it’s had awesome benefits for the player.
There are more UI changes coming to Edit Mode in 10.1. How do you continue to tweak the UI interface while keeping that signature WoW look, so that players don’t have to rely on various add-ons to customise their experience?
LS: In this update there’s a great example of something that had a ‘classic’ look that we’re revamping. All classes that have class-specific resources – Warlocks with their shards, Feral Druids with their combo points, Paladins, Arcane Mages, Death Knights, Rogues, Monks – we’re revamping the look of all of those. We’re looking at iconic colours and shapes that players know and remember about their classes, while enhancing them visually. Feral Druid is a great example – we’re creating a unique combo point style just for them. When you use a combo point, you can see a cat claw at it. It looks really fun. For Paladins we were inspired by Ashbringer’s holy runes, so their UI looks really nice and very ‘Paladin’. Previous versions were very small and hard to use with personal name plates, so now they’re much bigger with better visuals.
With Edit Mode, we keep watching what the community is asking for, and looking at what’s right and what doesn’t fit. In Dragonflight we made the minimap bigger thinking players would love it, but some players play on laptops, so the new minimap was too big for them, and some people use large 4k monitors and want an even bigger minimap, so we’re adding that to Edit Mode.
We’re also making changes to raid frames. If you’re a Restoration Druid, the default raid frame wasn’t showing all your buffs in raid, for example, so now you can make your raid frame wider and show up to seven buffs. We look at everything on a case-by-case basis and keep watching what the community is asking for. In the future we want to look at the quest user experience, adjusting things like font size, and the achievements panel is still super ‘classic’ so we might find an opportunity to look at that as well. It’s a long ongoing project, and there’s always something to revamp.