Over the 13 years it’s been active, Blizzard have taken the players of World of Warcraft to places far from the series’ classical fantasy roots. They’ve wandered the shattered barrens of Outland, the frozen wastes of Northrend, the whimsical Jade Isles and even traveled back in time and rewritten the series’ history in Warlords of Draenor.
By comparison, the upcoming World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth looks to be taking the game back to its core conflicts. At a glance, it all sounds very back-to-basics for the series. However, that’s not to say that Blizzard aren’t taking the chance to rework some of the game’s core leveling experience with the new expansion.
We caught up with Senior Game Designer Paul Kubit and Producer Shani Edwards to talk about Battle for Azeroth's new Allied Races and scaled leveling experience.
New races are one of those things you expect out of any sort of World of Warcraft expansion. Why go with this new concept of Allied Races, rather than a regular race or new hero class?
Shani: “So we felt like Allied Races were a good fit for Battle for Azeroth because of the whole message for Battle for Azeroth is Alliance versus Horde, and you fought alongside these four that we'll be introducing on the 30th [*31st AEST]: the Nightborne, Highmountain Tauren, the Lightforged [Draenei], and Void Elf.”
“You've fought [alongside] those in Legion and they felt like a good fit for races that you'd want to recruit to your side when you” know that there's some impending battle coming between the Horde and the Alliance.
I've heard some players describe the Allied Races as sort of a equivalent of hero classes for the game's existing race system. Would you say that, that's accurate?
Shani: No, I wouldn't say it's accurate. They're more of a prestigious thing, because you can't just jump in and play an Allied Race. You have to earn their trust, you have to complete their campaign questline, and you have to complete their recruitment questline before you can actually play them. So, it's more something that shows, "Hey I played in Legion, I accomplished these things, and I recruited these Allied Races to my faction."
With the Allied Races you've announced, what kind of gaps do they fill thematically, or aesthetically, or mechanically in the Horde and Alliance factions?
Shani: “Well, one great thing about them is they're all new customizations. The Void Elves, for example, they have some of the most elaborate hairs that we've ever done on any player character race. They have Void Tendrils at the end of them, they have a special mechanic that changes their color when they hit procs in in combat.
“All the Allied Races have their own unique mounts, their own unique heritage armor sets. And the other cool thing is the Nightborne allow the Horde to play something that is similar to the Night Elf, and the Void Elves allow the Alliance to play something that's similar to a Blood Elf. So, that's kind of a, swapping of the factions where you get to experience the other factions.”
Of the announced Allied Races, none of them offer the Death Knight class. Is there a specific reason for this?
Paul: "When we were going through the Allied Races and, kind of, choosing what made the most sense for those races, we went through a number of considerations - first and foremost story considerations."
“Although we have in the past we have done some retconning - well, not retconning but, I would say fiddling with the story to make sure that Death Knights work. Here, we wanted to make sure that Allied Races were focused on the core fantasy that those Allied Races were, and so Death Knights didn't end up on any of those particular Allied Races.
Are Allied Races something that you've discussed internally for previous expansions in the past, or is it a new idea that emerged with this expansion?
Paul: “So, this is something we've thought about a lot of times in the past. Every time we come to a new expansion, or a new patch or anything, we consider lots of ideas, and to have something like the Allied Races, is always something that has come up and we decided did not fit and right now, with 7.3.5, the patch, that's coming so close to the release of Battle for Azeroth now seemed like the right time to start getting into these Allied Races because of the thematic tie-in with the upcoming battle between Red versus Blue, Horde versus Alliance.”
“Each side really needed to get as many bodies on their side of the conflict as they could. And so, they're looking around the world of Azeroth, seeing who they could recruit. The Highmountain Tauren seems good to the Horde. The Lightforged Draenei seemed good the Alliance, and so on. So, this was the time we really decided to pull the trigger on that.”
Can you tell me about any potential Allied Races, which you discussed but didn't end up making the cut as a playable faction?
Shani: "Pretty much anything with two legs we discussed being an Allied Race - but these were the four that stuck because thematically, you played alongside them in Legion and they just made the most sense for the story."
Is the current lineup of Allied Races something you envision being expanded down the line?
Shani : "It's definitely something that we've talked about and we might do in the future, but no current plans to go with that right now."
Revamping older content and giving players a reason to revisit it is something you've experimented with a little bit in Cataclysm, can you talk to me about how what you did there informed this big change?
Paul: "Yeah. So we made a lot of changes in Cataclysm for sure, and the goal for this time was really to make sure that we were focusing on making sure that the leveling system felt up-to-date and up to our current standards and also gave you opportunities to not only play through entire storylines of zones that you choose but also choose which zones you want to play with greater freedom [and] choose which expansions you want to focus your attention on with greater freedom.”
“[You can] pair up with your friends and play with people who are different levels than you, with greater freedom. This is something we tried in Legion, with the release of the Legion expansion, because the zones there (Highmountain, Stormheim, etc) all scaled with your level and for the most part, that worked.”
“The goal here was really just to take that existing system and apply it to the rest of the world, with a couple tweaks here to update the rest of the game. For example, we updated all our zone achievements, so that they're a little bit more modern feeling - more focused on the story and less focused on how many quests you can complete in each area.”
“The focus here was making sure we were able to update the entire game, and also make it work hand-in-hand with the Allied Races, since so many people are going to be playing those Allied Races to earn their Heritage Armor Set.”
Would you say this is the most significant reworking of old content you've done since Cataclysm?
Paul: “For sure. Yeah. This is a huge change to the leveling system, so yeah.”
Is there any content that won't really be subject to this new scaling system?
Paul: It's most everything. There's a couple zones here and there, that it didn't make sense to do scaling for because either there isn't really any content there. That's really it. Things like the area around Karazhan, some of the PVP zones in Cataclysm and so on. Other things that weren't scaled: Heroic Dungeons as well as Raids. Those we decided, were things that we wanted to keep at the end of their expansions and focused on a specific skill and gear level as opposed to having them scale to you.
Was there any internal resistance to this big change?
Paul: I wouldn’t say there was resistance. This was something that we progressed towards with a plan where we scaled the Legion zones first. That worked well enough that we decided this was something that we would like to try, so, I wouldn't say resistance, I'd say there's a lot of iteration. There's a lot of different things we tried before we got to the system we liked here.
What was something you tried that didn't pan out?
Paul: Sure. An example might be, right now, the way the game works is, you can a number of different expansions, choose, which expansion you want to focus on. For example, both Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions scale from level 60 to 80. For the most part, the experience will work out enough that I can do that entire experience in the Burning Crusade expansion or in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.”
“In earlier iterations, that wasn't true, the expansions leap-frogged one another.”
“So you could maybe start Burning Crusade at level 50, and then, Lich King at level 60, and then Cataclysm at level 70, and so on. And so, we played with things like that. We even looked at the idea of maybe switching around the order of the expansions. How would it feel if you were going to Jade Forest at level 25, and things like that and that got a little wacky, so we kept it where it is today.”
Did you find that changing it to the scaled system has resulted in any significant changes in the behavior of players and the way they approach the content?
Paul: “Yeah, absolutely. For one, it's much easier for players to complete zones that they start now, since the zone will scale with you. You can play through an entire questline.”
“I have a personal experience, which was, I was playing my level 50ish Warlock, which I'd been, kind of, passively leveling over the last year or two, through Eastern Plaguelands, and actually completed the entire zone - all 65 quests or so - which are in that huge, huge zone, which isn't something I'd done in the past just because the way that the speed of leveling goes, these days, you could complete five levels within 30 to 40 of those quests, and then move onto the next zone.”
“Now, with the way with scaling, you can stay and finish that storyline, and get all the way to the big finale of that pretty cool zone if you choose to.”