World of Warcraft Game Director Ion Hazzikostas, in our exclusive Q&A.
World of Warcraft’s eighth expansion pack, Shadowlands, arrives Monday in the midst of a record-setting flurry of interest by players. Forums, fan sites and discussion hubs are buzzing with chatter about the game’s systems, balance and tuning, and changes are being made quite literally up until launch.
We caught up with Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas for a private interview on the state of the expansion after its delay from October 26, and the flurry of changes made to balance the Shadowlands’ many systems.
We chatted about what happens after future nerfs or buffs to the four Covenants players can choose between and their abilities; things he’s proud of and things he regrets about this expansion; and perennial questions like end-game faction balance for Alliance and Horde players.
Heather Newman: What metrics do you use personally to determine whether an expansion like Shadowlands is a success?
Ion Hazzikostas: I don’t know that there’s a single metric. How many regrets do I personally have three weeks after launch? How much would I want a time machine three weeks after launch? What are the things, knowing what we will a few weeks into the expansion, we would go back and fix or do meaningfully differently, if we could?
The shorter that list, the more successful the expansion is, and the better I will overall feel. Different pieces of the team have their own versions of that.
We do our best to synthesize all the information that we have accessible, all the feedback that we’re getting from a million avenues, stats on difficulty, on tuning, everything that we possibly can get our hands on.
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But at the end of the day, there’s nothing that can give us certainty for what the experience is going to be when millions of people hit it at once. We just do everything in our power to minimize the likelihood of regret, to anticipate every possible eventuality, to respond to the feedback as best we can, and then cross our fingers and let the magic happen.
The shattered sky awaits in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands.
Newman: Do you regret anything already?
Hazzikostas: Kinnnd of regret announcing that we’d be launching the game on October 26th. [He laughs.]
If I could go back in time… Moving the date was not a decision undertaken lightly, but it was one where I and the whole team felt fully supported by the company, once it became apparent that we needed to make it. It would have been nice to have realized that a bit sooner.
We’re a team of perfectionists, and every expansion is coming in a bit hot. There are always things that we wish we could do, if we had more time. It was true for Wrath of the Lich King. It was true for Legion. It was true for insert-name-of-your-favorite-expansion-here.
And so the risk is being a little bit desensitized to that feeling. It wasn’t until a bit too late that we realized, no, we’re actually not going to be able to deliver the Blizzard-worthy expansion that our players deserve in the time available.
Newman: Is there a particular moment where that became clear?
Hazzikostas: It wasn’t a particular thing. It was, frankly, bluntly, a growing sense of unease. Just playing the game ourselves, obviously listening to feedback as always. We always come across some things that are a little bit rough, that are unpolished, that need refinement. We keep doing that up until the moment the game is released.
But the level of work that was obviously still remaining far exceeded what we had the time to do, and it just became obvious that there’s no way that equation works out.
Newman: What role did the pandemic play?
Hazzikostas: We’ve been trying throughout all of this to really prioritize the health of our team wherever possible. If faced with the options of, ask unreasonable heroics of a development team that’s already been emotionally taxed by everything this year has entailed and even then likely come up short, or make the hard decision and tell the community that we needed more time… It actually wasn’t that hard a decision in the end. I regret getting to that point, but it was the right thing without question.
Newman: What are you already proud of?
Hazzikostas: I think the extra time when we delayed the game, that time was necessary for portions of the game, the portions that we called out in the [development] update that we made: everything from the clarity of our end-game systems, end-game rewards, to Covenant balance, to the gameplay experience going into the Maw — and whether the Maw was a place that felt like it had a clear sense of purpose, and was simply a fun place to adventure moment to moment.
But there were tons of other pieces of the game that didn’t need that extra time actually. Like our level-up content and our quests, our dungeons. Those were ready, actually. Those would have been ready to go out with a late October ship date for Shadowlands.
But what moving that date allowed us to do was to have the uncommon opportunity for a large chunk of our team to just polish, to just go back in and take things that were done, that were shippable that were already going to be great, and find ways to make them even better. To play large chunks of the game internally, give each other feedback beyond what we already routinely do. Just go back and add little whimsical moments. Things that you know are not necessary, but are cool/funny/just expressions of every team member’s creativity and passion.
That’s something that’s rare to get to do. We always do it – obviously, there is creativity and passion that goes into everything we make. But we’re always beholden to the fact that we know our player base is hungry for new content.
When something gets to a point where we know it’s going to be fun, we know it’s going to be stable, we know it’s not going to have a ton of bugs, we want to get it in player’s hands, so they’re not waiting longer. And so everyone always has to draw their own personal line and cut themselves off, or our producers do that, when it’s time to let this one go and move on to the next project. A large chunk of the team getting an extra month, to just improve, was a gift.
Newman: Can you give me an example, something that was not in the game before that delay happened?
Hazzikostas: A lot of it is purposeful additions: huge chunks of content in the Maw, quests, all of that. That was an area where we put together a strike team to come up with a list of problems and spend a couple of weeks playing thoroughly, and then had a really fun interdisciplinary group just throw themselves into reinventing the moment-to-moment gameplay there.
There are world quests that didn’t exist a couple of months ago. There are some treasures, little moments and cosmetic interactions and conversations that you overhear.
It’s mostly flavor, right? It’s a lot of things that being a Night Fae in Ardenweald means, that it didn’t necessarily mean a couple of months ago, because they weren’t necessary to ship the game. But given the time? We’re going to do what we can to make that happen.
Night Fae headquarters.
Newman: What happens if someone joins a Covenant like the Night Fae, and then significant balancing changes still need to be made down the road?
Hazzikostas: If players figure out some combination that we have overlooked, our general philosophy to balance changes regarding Covenants and similar systems with investment, like Legendaries, will be a conservative one. I think we’re going to err on the side of holding off on making changes to those systems until a patch, to give players significant advance notice. If something is a huge outlier, of course we will nerf or buff it.
But I think part of what being conservative in that space means is still keeping the relative ordering of things. Like if it turns out that Venthyr for class X is far and away the best at Mythic Plus [dungeons], and it’s so much better that all the other options aren’t viable, what we would do is nerf it, but not necessarily nerf it as much as the raw math might dictate.
We’d still keep it the best, because people may have made that choice in good faith. We don’t want to make them regret their choice. We don’t want to make everybody feel like they need to switch Covenants, but let’s also make people who didn’t make that choice feel like they can be competitive and viable as well.
Those darned fire mages.
Newman: Ideally, given all the knobs and levers that you have to tune with, they wouldn’t be that far apart to begin with. Are you expecting things to change later?
Hazzikostas: I think part of what we saw, I forget the exact combo, but it was like Blaster Master azerite traits and the Lucid Dreams essence and the Mechagon bracers in combination, were ridiculously potent for fire mages in Battle for Azeroth. And that wasn’t commented on or really realized during [public testing], at least not to my knowledge.
But once players discovered it, it exploded the value of those things. Is there something like that that we might be overlooking, where there’s some legendary [item] used in conjunction with a certain Soulbind within a Covenant that does something crazy? It could be.
That’s what we’re keeping in reserve as a possibility. To the best of our knowledge, the systems are relatively balanced, and all Covenants are viable for all gameplay paths players may want to pursue.
Newman: Define viable.
Hazzikostas: Viable means different things to different people. If you’re literally a world-first racing raider, you’re going to take every conceivable edge, and those players will do things that most players, even very competitive players, wouldn’t consider reasonable or worth the returns.
Our goal is not to stop Limit or Exorsus or whoever from thinking like they’re going to min-max their Covenants for specifically [Castle Nathria raid end boss] Denathrius, or specifically the toughest bosses in Nathria as they see them.
Our goal is to make sure that a guide that’s written a couple of months from now about how to tackle those encounters doesn’t say, “Hey, you should all go Covenant X.” And we feel confident in the track we’re on there.
A cinematic view of Castle Nathria end boss Sire Denathrius.
Newman: Do you have targets for how much power you’re hoping the various systems will add to a class or character? In other words, do you expect core player power to account for X percentage, conduits and soul binds for Y, legendaries for Z?
Hazzikostas: There certainly are target percentages for all of these things. There’s a target percent contribution that a given conduit should have, that a throughput Soulbind trait should have, that a Covenant active [ability] should have.
In general, the goal is for everybody to have roughly the same percentage of their total power coming from these systems. Now, obviously players may figure out tricks or rotations that shift that a bit in one direction or the other, but at the end of the day, we’re certainly not sitting around saying, all right, this class should have half of their throughput come from the systems. This other class should be way off in another direction.
Dwarves: The bane of damage over time bleeds everywhere.
Newman: Finally, let’s return to one of our perennial topics – faction balance in high-end dungeons and raids. Most groups for that content are Horde. There was that brief moment in the Shadowlands beta where everybody wanted to be dwarves to handle that bleed ability in the Castle Nathria raid. I think it lasted five seconds until it was nerfed.
Hazzikostas: That was one ability in one encounter, and all immunities got nerfed so that you wouldn’t stack paladins. Dwarves are still great for immuning off bleeds in, I think, four different encounters in Castle Nathria.
Newman: Any chance we might someday be able to group with our Horde and Alliance friends, the way our faction leaders have done?
Hazzikostas: Oh Heather, look at that — it looks like we’re out of time. [He smiles.]
Newman: God damn it.
Hazzikostas: [laughs] We are obviously aware that it’s a problem. The challenge is, at this point, primarily a social one. There isn’t a mechanical advantage to being one faction or the other.
But the division between Horde and Alliance has been such an integral part of World of Warcraft. We are grappling with reconciling that with the natural desire to play with your friends, or have more-ready access to groups. But we have nothing to announce at this point.