Given that Battle for Azeroth is the seventh World of Warcraft expansion you can be forgiven for thinking that Blizzard would launch it without a hiccup. But Battle for Azeroth was the first of the MMO’s expansions to unlock at the same time for every player around the world. That’s a big challenge to get right, so it’s impressive that the Battle for Azeroth launch has gone smoothly, for the most part – at least, that’s how it looked from the outside.
But it raises the question: what does it take to launch content of this scale attached to a game that is starting to show its age? The old world still holds up, but if the pre-patch disaster of 8.0.0 taught us anything, it’s that World of Warcraft’s 14-year-old code is probably starting to fray at the edges.
With the expansion launching just before Gamescom, we had a unique opportunity to talk to members of the development team about the experience from their perspective. World of Warcraft’s senior game producer Michael Bybee and lead environment artist Ely Cannon open up on what it takes to launch an expansion with the magnitude of Battle for Azeroth, and how the team prepares for and tackles any issues that come up along the way. It should give you a new appreciation for the work that’s put into a World of Warcraft expansion.
PCGN: How did the Battle for Azeroth launch go when compared to expansion launches you’ve worked on in the past?
Ely Cannon: Every launch is different, but we do think this launch went very well. It’s the first time we launched in all regions simultaneously, which actually went very smoothly.
What gave you the confidence to launch globally this time around?
Michael Bybee: It was a couple of things. For one, the Legion launch was actually very strong for us. We added in some new technology in Legion to make launches go a little smoother that ended up working very well. And then, secondly, we spoke to all the teams around the world – they’ve been asking for this in the past.
We’re always balancing server stability against gameplay, and this time we thought we could achieve it. And it honestly worked out very well.
The servers held up better – bar a few wobbles – than most players were expecting. Was the team preparing for the worst, or did you trust everything would be ok?
MB: For every launch, we do everything we possibly can to eliminate any possible issues that we’re aware of, and we test extensively to dig into what could go wrong. But every time we’re surprised by things we didn’t expect.
In this particular case, we’d done a lot of work in advance so we were fairly confident, but we were watching very carefully, and we did again have some surprises. There was, unfortunately, a very small number of players who didn’t have the best launch experience, but we turned it around quickly and fixed it as soon as we could.
But the voices of people that do have problems are usually the ones that shout loudest, right?
MB: I think we do a good job of listening. As problems were cropping up we were posting on the forums, talking to people on Twitter, speaking with the community about those issues, so they knew that we were listening and that we really were concerned. I think that is the best way we’ve found to combat that negativity. We really do care. We’re trying really hard.
Thinking back to the troubles with the pre-patch – what was the cause? Is it troublesome working with old code?
MB: We can’t really go into the specifics of what caused the problems, but I will say that one of the reasons we did the pre-patch in that way is because every time we release a new expansion there’s a ton of new code that we add to the game. And while we do a lot of testing internally, again there are surprises and things we’re not sure about. Sometimes those things work out in very unexpected ways. The pre-patch gives us the opportunity to address those issues quickly and get them out of the way to smooth out the launch experience.
Our technical director, Pat Dawson, has spoken about the challenges of dealing with old code. It’s an issue we take forward with every expansion. We have to focus as much of our time and energy on the new stuff, while also trying to eliminate as much code from the past that we can. But we have to do it in a smart way because, at the end of the day, what players want is to get their hands on the new content, but that content is built on to the core game. Building World of Warcraft is like juggling a whole bunch of balls, and we’re just trying to make sure we catch the right ones, and we think we did a really great job with it, honestly.
So it’s tough to maintain the structural integrity of content from older expansions while focusing on the new stuff?
MB: Most of our team has been working on this game for a long while, and those who haven’t have at least been playing for a long while, so a lot of that older content is honestly very near and dear to our hearts.
The struggle is that working on that – making changes and fixing any problems that we bump into with the older content – takes away from the time that those specific people can work on the newer stuff. So, again, it’s a juggling act, but I think the team is more than happy to go back and revisit and make sure it’s still a fun experience.
One of the reasons we updated the scaling of the old content was we felt that, if you were a new player going back through that content now, it wasn’t the same experience that many of us had. You’d level super fast, you’d out-level a zone and wouldn’t interact with the stories. Yes, working with that content takes time, but it‘s definitely something we love doing.
What lessons has Battle for Azeroth taught you that past expansions didn’t?
MB: One of the things we’re continuing to look at in terms of these launch experiences is giving players new stuff to dig into, while at the same time giving them options about where to go and experience that content in-game.
For Battle for Azeroth specifically, we had the Teldrassil content that was exclusively part of the pre-patch, but we let players also play the Battle for Lordaeron as part of the pre-launch content too, which is actually part of the new expansion. That allowed some players to get a little bit ahead of others so that, when we launched, there were some people doing Lordaeron, and some players already starting questing. That really helped us spread the community around different parts of the game, which also really helped the server load.
I think it was also overall a better experience, as people who were excited about the game got to experience some of the content ahead of time. It helped with both server integrity and also the hype around the game.
Can the same problems that you run into at launch still cause issues with patches?
MB: It’s definitely worse with expansions purely because there are just more changes, But it’s interesting… I was the primary point producer for Patch 7.3, and there was a tremendous amount of work that went into making sure that was all stable. Then we went into this new expansion and it was like that, but times ten. There were so many people inside the Blizzard development team trying to support it, just to make sure that it was a really solid experience. 7.3.5 with the level scaling was a lot of work, but compare that to the expansion and Battle for Azeroth was just so much bigger.
What are the current priorities for the team, and what can we expect going forward?
MB: We have many, many plans in place, but we’re not ready to talk about all of those right now. What I will say is that a lot of players were upset about what happened with Sylvanas and Teldrassil, and a lot of players really liked the Old Soldier cinematic with Saurfang. Those are just the first two beats in a pretty awesome story that we have planned out.
When we think about these stories, we have to think about the journey we’re going to be taking players on. We knew players were not going to be happy with what happened with Teldrassil, but we ourselves were excited about where we’re planning on taking that story – and there’s a lot more coming.
EC: We’re right out of launch at the minute, and we have a lot of content to come, but right now our priorities have to stay with the new content.
Was the fan reaction truly anticipated with the Sylvanas storyline?
MB: Oh yeah, we knew for sure that people were not going to be happy about it. I don’t think we expected it to be quite that vociferous, but it was not at all surprising.
EC: If we constantly tell the story that players want to hear, it’s not really going to be as interesting. We’re telling a story that has a real emotional impact, and a story like this is obviously going to have some strong reactions given how people feel very strongly connected to the game and the characters.
How do you deal with those strong reactions? You already had to intervene and state that Sylvanas wouldn’t go the way of Garrosh.
MB: We hear a lot of questions from the players and there are a lot of ways we try and manage that. Some of it is talking to the community constantly and making posts online, but some of it is letting people know in interviews that there’s a lot more coming, and I hope that’s the message players are taking from this – that, yes, you might be upset about what’s happening here, but this is just the beginning.
I also noticed that once content comes out, the players start to get an understanding of that for themselves. So when the Old Soldier cinematic came out, then when Lordaeron came out, then when the expansion launched and players started to see that there was more story there, it changed the conversation, and I haven’t really heard as many people talking about the Sylvanas thing since then.
This isn’t the first time Sylvanas has done something like this – just look at Gilneas. Is it tricky to remind players of the history and traits of characters in-game?
MB: I’ll tell you what’s tricky – the thing about the Warcraft franchise in general is that there’s just so much story and narrative. It’s tricky to get all of that into World of Warcraft in a nuanced way so that players can understand the subtle variations and story elements.
One of the things that happened in this particular case is that we told some of the story in-game, some of it in the cinematic, then some of it was in the novel Before the Storm, and some of it was in a series of paired Alliance and Horde short stories just before release.
I actually felt the best justification for what happened with Sylvanas, which explained that this was not her plan-A, was in the short stories that we released in advance. But a lot of players didn’t read those short stories. So the trickiness lies in trying to get that story across to players in-game in a way that they’ll see and understand. It’s something that we’ll continue to try and get better at.
What do players have to look forward to now plenty of them are reaching level 120?
MB: It’s pretty tricky to talk about new content so close to launch, but the next big revelation will be very soon, and we’ll know a lot more about everything as we get closer to BlizzCon.
Where did the idea of the Warfronts feature come from?
MB: I was the point producer on the Warfront feature. I don’t think players have seen anything like this in World of Warcraft before. When we started building it, it was intended to be this homage to Warcraft 3 – you collect resources, you build up your base, you hire troops that have your name on them, and then you go and besiege the enemy base. But what we ended up with is actually something I’ve never seen in WoW, and I’ve been playing since the beginning.
I love how when you hire troops they follow you into battle. You really feel like a commander. And when you’re besieging an enemy base, with your siege engines firing, and there’s combat all around you, you really feel like you’re in the middle of this epic battle.
There’s still some of those feelings of Warcraft 3, sure, but one thing that’s different is that in that game you were this omnipotent commander overlooking the whole thing, and you would summon heroes onto the field with the Altar of Storms or the Altar of Kings. In World of Warcraft, you’re the hero, so when you carry out these activities, you’re actually buffing yourself. We’re trying to do it in a way that evokes those Warcraft 3 feelings, but also makes players understand that this is about you – you’re the hero here.
EC: And it gets back to that classic fantasy at the end of the day – orcs versus humans. It’s where it all started.
Is it tough to ensure each of the races has an individual identity now there’s so many of them?
EC: I don’t think so, actually. Each of our races has such a clear identity of their own, they each have a story. And with ‘Allied Races’, we’re even providing heritage armour sets, which bring even more of that.
MB: The design team has a lot of fun working on Allied Races. Working through the problems like ‘how does this Allied Race specifically identify with the Horde?’, and building all of that story around them. The Mag’har orc story specifically is crazy and awesome, and when the designer told me what he was planning, my eyes went wide and I said ‘really!?’, but I really think it works out.
With the introduction of the light and the void it seems you’ve been challenging ideas of duality lately – the shallowness of good and bad. Is that accurate?
MB: I think it’s actually one of the best parts of working on a franchise that’s been around for as long as this one has. Perhaps in the beginning it had to be good and bad, one side against another, but now we can explore the complexities underneath that, where there’s a lot of grey. It’s not all black and white.
Perhaps the light isn’t all good. I actually thought it was incredibly fun when we were exploring that element, and then on the other side with the void, saying ‘ok, perhaps on the surface this looks bad, but maybe there’s a lot more depth to it’.