On November 24th the time has come and after an interim postponement, WoW Shadowlands will finally be released. We set off into the realm of the dead and fight Sylvanas, the jailer and all kinds of other villains on our adventure trip. We leave the world of the living behind us as well as Azerite armor, essences and island expeditions and exchange them for pacts, soul ties, media and legendarys. But before we even made our way to the Shadowlands, we had the chance to talk to two of Blizzard's developers about our upcoming adventure. Steve Danuser, for his part, Lead Narrative Designer was able to answer one or two questions about the story and the way the story should be told in Shadowlands. Frank Kowalkowski on the other hand, as Technical Director, told us a few things about the postponement of the expansion and why WoW Classic is not an issue for you as a Shadowlands developer.
In the process, some interesting information came to light. The developers confirmed that we can of course also fly in the Shadowlands and that we will soon get all the important information – including where we can fly everywhere. In addition, they would have an eye on the balancing more than usual, as they too are aware that the many new aspects such as pact skills are a risk. In case of doubt, however, simply add further features afterwards, because even if these are not planned, the capacities for something like that would be available at any time.
We have summarized the most important statements and information for you. You can find the full interview with them at the very end of the article.
Frank Kowalkowski – Technical Director
- Before the postponement, Shadowlands was not at the level the developers wanted for the release. This affected both the many bugs and some features that urgently needed fine-tuning. Therefore a postponement was inevitable, after all the developers wanted to deliver a "great" extension.
- They also used the time to collect further feedback.
- When choosing the new release date, they only looked to themselves. Wow (buy now € 14.99 ) Classic, Cyberpunk 2077 or the new generation of consoles played no role in the considerations. They just wanted to bring the game out when it was done and not artificially hold anything back.
- The publisher did not put any pressure on the developers to publish WoW Shadowlands in 2020. You had a completely free hand in choosing the right date.
- They are of course delighted with the many returning players and believe that they will be delighted. Because in their eyes Shadowlands is one of the best expansions of all time.
- They gladly accept criticism from gamers, but the developers, who all also play and love WoW, are their biggest critics themselves.
- The developers in Shadowlands have a particular eye on balancing as there are many new systems that interact with each other.
- There are large capacities available internally to take care of the balancing and play styles of the classes in Shadowlands.
- The most important thing about the new features is that players can play however they want. And the fun of the players should always be in the foreground.
- All of the new systems in Shadowlands are designed to give players a choice and thereby personalize their heroes more than before.
- All the new features that equip our heroes with "borrowed power" have to fit thematically into the concept and be part of the story. Therefore, these also change with the extensions. Artifact weapons become Azerite perks and corruption effects. And now these disappear and our soul bonds, the power of the pacts and the forged legendarys come into play. It's not about forcing the players to always try something new.
- You will definitely be able to fly in the Shadowlands. When this is the case and what requirements must be met, the developers will announce "pretty soon".
- There are currently no specific plans to implement further major features in upcoming patches. However, the resources for this are available. If it were necessary because some systems did not arrive as the developers imagine, it would be possible to develop further features without any problems. (Editor's note: The essences in BfA, for example, were not planned from the start, but rather developed as a reaction to the unpopular Azerite perks.)
- Nevertheless, the developers keep thinking about which features could fit the upcoming story.
- The possibility of creating a second Legendary is currently not an issue. The developers will think about this at a later date.
Steve Danuser – Lead Narrative Designer
- Nathanos is dead, even if Blizzard could not directly show the actual death for reasons of child protection. Like every mortal, his soul now wanders into the Shadowlands. But what happens to him there and whether we'll see him again, the developers didn't want to reveal yet.
- Sylvanas plays a huge role in the story we experience in the Shadowlands. We will learn more about her past and get explanations of why she acted the way she did. Because now she no longer has to pretend, but can speak openly about her motivation. Then the players can decide whether they acted heroically or whether it was pure malice. The developers still leave open whether we will fight them directly.
- There will be no active decision whatsoever that has any direct impact on the gaming experience.
- The peace between the Horde and the Alliance is only very thin in the Shadowlands, as many physical and mental scars have remained from the war. And some characters can't or won't forget what happened.
- Each pact in Shadowlands has its own little story on the way to old strength. In the course of Shadowlands, however, we will encounter dangers that no pact can handle alone. The pacts will have to join forces.
- In this way, Blizzard ensures that regardless of the choice of the pact, every player experiences the same main story. (Editor's note: That was a big problem in BfA, when the two groups had different stories and a lot of information was only given to one side.)
- In Shadowlands the story should be a little more straightforward again. Side stories will continue to be told and the cross-expansion storylines will continue, but by the end of Shadowlands you should feel like you've lived through and understood the story of the expansion. There should be a conclusion that will satisfy the players and fewer open questions that will be carried over into the next expansion.
- When developing an extension, story and features always go hand in hand. The rough story is given and some features of the extension often result organically from it. But it does not dictate the gameplay in any way. The developers wouldn't bring a feature into play that they weren't convinced of, no matter how well it fits into the story.
- Though bug fixes and feature tweaks were the reason Shadowlands was postponed, the story department didn't sit idle. You use the extra time to really let off steam again. It is known that all of the deceased went to the Shadowlands. And so the story writers added a whole series of other cameos, allusions and little feel-good stories. While there was a lot of these already since they are the DNA of the Warcraft franchise, players will find a lot more of them now.
The full interview
buffed: Shadowlands was the first WoW expansion in a long time that was delayed. But most people were relieved, because there were still so many bugs in the beta. What would you name the main reasons for the delay? Too many bugs? Unfinished features? A little bit of everything? And are you satisfied with the current state of the game?
Frank Kowalkowski: That's a great question. We don't take the decision to delay lightly, we know the people have a lot of expectations when we release. This came down to, when we were near the end and tasting the soup. It was not quite, what we wanted, maybe it's a feature that needs to be polished, maybe there are some bugs or some reworks we want to do that we think we need a few more weeks in order to address. We want this to be a great expansion. We think players deserve a great expansion and when we looked at it we were like we really should be thinking about what is going to be the best possible Shadowlands Release. We made a difficult decision, after we had announced the date earlier. A few extra weeks in order to polish. The most stuff was just polishing features, continuing to receive feedback. We received a lot of feedback from the community. So we felt this was the right decision and we felt good about the new release date.
buffed: Finding a new release date was probably not that easy. Many people think it would be better to have it delayed it into January 2021 – as now everything is very packed before Christmas. Can you give us an insight on the process of finding a new date? And what role did such things like WoW classic Naxxramas, Cyberpunk or the release of the next gen consoles played in your thoughts?
Frank Kowalkowski: Good question. First and foremost, we are going to release a game that is ready. Secondly, we are going to do what is best for players. You mentioned Naxxramas, which is not really a huge consideration. We do have separate groups of people that can manage each of those releases. It is not a huge burden over all. And thinking about what is right for the player. Holding on to it and just sitting on it for another six weeks doesn't seem great for players even if we then avoid things like Naxxramas. We pick a date we felt was best for WoW players worldwide and turned out to be the 23rd of November.
buffed: When you annoucned the 31st of December 2020 as a sort of last possible release date this year, would there have been some kind of legal consequences, if you had delayed it to 2021?
Frank Kowalkowski: That is a good question for the lawyers. I'm not the right person to ask about legal validations. We focus on the game and delivering the game and getting the game in the best possible state. I can tell you, that personally we didn't have any legal pressure put on us when picking a ship date. We picked the date, that we felt was going to be best for players and best for the game.
buffed: With Shadowlands there are so much players coming back. You said you had more pre-purchases than in every other expansion in the last ten years or so. What is this bringing to your mind? A big satisfaction or is it more like a feeling of pressure to not disappoint so many players that haven't played WoW for years?
Frank Kowalkowski: We always feel pressure. We are some of our harshest critics. We all love and play the game as well. So to hear people coming back, it's great and we love it and we feel our responsibility to each other obviously but also to the greater WoW community, so we are always wearing the mantel of responsibility.
Steve Danuser: Yeah and it really does excite the team to hear stuff like that because we are very proud of the work we have done on Shadowlands, we think that it's gonna be one of our best expansions, but it's great to see the community's excitement and we can 't wait to see players get in there and experience it for themselves.
buffed: With Shadowlands, there are many new mechanics and features coming to the game. Most of them have impact on the power of our hero. So many systems need to get balanced, otherwise we will maybe get a snowball effect and classes are way too strong or weak. What were the biggest challenges regarding this and did you do something different this time, as there are more features to balance then usually?
Frank Kowalkowski: That's a great question. We do have a lot of systems that interact with each other to contribute to player power. We keep an eye on things and balancing is one of those things when we were looking when it is the right time to release. We're thinking about: have we got all systems working well with each other? It's a lot about synergy. Some people are focused on power progression. We wanted to create systems that allow people to play the game the way that the want to play and I think a lot of those systems that we incorporated do that. We do have extensive testing capabilities to be able to look at a lot of different rotations and numbers and things and we pay attention to those. But ultimately, we also want the game to be fun for people.
buffed: Conduits, Legendarys, and Soulbinds in Shadowlands, Azerit traits, Essences, Corruptions, Tier Sets, Artefact weapons – so many different systems, that all had more or less the same effect: make you character a little bit better. Why do you decide to use so many different systems over the expansions? Is it just for storytelling reasons or do players really want to have "new stuff" every time?
Frank Kowalkowski: You touched one thing; thematically it makes a lot of sense. It fits into the story of Shadowlands to have something like a Soulbind. We know that legendary is a thing we do from time to time and what we really wanted to do. What Shadowlands is all about, is choice. You choose your covenant, you choose your Soulbind, you choose your legendary. Therefore, we wanted to create systems that give players the options to craft the character they want and choose the different things they want to try out. A lot of these systems provide you with power, but they provide you with an even greater degree of choice.
Steve Danuser: And we do like to tie the systems into the story of what is going on with that expansion. While the class halls and the artefacts of Legion really fit the theme of that expansion. Like Frank said, having that connection from your soul to one of these other characters that you meet in the Shadowlands. That's a very powerful thing and so we really like it when the systems help us tell the story and the themes we are trying to get across.
buffed: Now the mandatory question about flying in Shadowlands. Do we get access to flying and if yes, how and when? And will we be able to fly from one zone to others?
Frank Kowalkowski: We will be announcing the Flying plans pretty soon and also what the limitations and capabilities of that might be. But there will be flying in Shadowlands.
buffed: Do you plan to implement more features with upcoming Shadowlands patches?
Frank Kowalkowski: We certainly have the capacity to do that. We don't have a lot to announce right now in terms of forward looking features but we will be looking what we have and we thinking about what could be tied into the story that may be cool to have. We think about all those things and we make adjustments as we react to the player feedback and our internal feedback. But we don't have anything to announce right know. We have a lot of systems right now in Shadowlands. I think players have a lot of depth right out of the gate of Shadowlands. You explore those systems, you explore things like Torghast. There is going to be a lot there on launch. So we haven't really spend a lot of time thinking about what's next at this time.
buffed: A question we hear all the time – will we be able to wear more than one legendary at some point in shadowlands? Because some of them have great synergy with each other.
Frank Kowalkowski: I refer back to my last answer that's a capacity the world will think about and look at it. If we give the players these options, either for story reasons or systemic reasons. We think about all those things.
buffed: After the Pre-Event and the short cinematics – Is Nathanos really dead and gone now or is he just going to the shadowlands and we will see him there again?
Steve Danuser: Well, yes the Nathanos was canonically defeated. For various rating reasons we did not show the killing blow, but he was definitely struck down by Tyrande. Nathanos being a mortal being, his soul obeys the same patterns that other mortal souls do, so his soul would have crossed over into the shadowlands. What happens after that, you have to let the story unfold and see what comes to that.
buffed: Will we finally kill Sylvanas in the Shadowlands – maybe as a Raid Boss?
Steve Danuser: Well the story of Sylvanas is really at the forefront of much of what we are doing in Shadowlands and the story that we are telling. What you will learn about her will give context to decisions she has made in the past, choices she made in battle for Azeroth and earlier expansions. In the past, she really had to hide her motivations. She could not reveal the she was working on behalf of death, because that would have caused people not to follow her. But now, that she has crossed over into the shadowlands. Now that she is clearly on the jailer side, she doesn't need to hide her schemes anymore. She can be very open about what is motivating her. And you will learn about that through the course of playing through the Shadowlands story. And then players will get to decide for themselves whether they agree with those motivations or not. Was there something heroic to what she's doing or was it pure villainy just for the sake of advancing the cause of death. There's a lot to learn, a lot of very cool cinematics and scenes to see play out and then you get to make your own mind. As to whether players will ever get to stand toe to toe with her. Again, that's something that will have to wait and see how the story unfolds.
buffed: And will this have some impact on the gameplay, when we decide to stand against her or by her side?
Steve Danuser: No, we are not doing the same sort of choice-moment where you can be a loyalist like in battle for Azeroth. We told that story and we feel like it had a great conclusion with the Saurfang Arc and those who were loyal got to see Sylvanas' little bonus scene for going on her way. But that's not what the story of shadowlands is about. This is really about helping the realms of death grow strong again so that you can stand again the jailer and his schemes. Sylvanas is clearly on his side. So it's more a thematic element where once you know the things that drove Sylvanas to make the decisions she made you can look back and make up your own mind on those actions of the past. But it's not something that's going to play out in terms of choosing different questlines or things like that.
buffed: In Shadowlands, we finally have no different stories for horde and alliance while leveling through the zones. Which impact has this on the way you can tell stories InGame?
Steve Danuser: Well, we always have a choice when we are going into an expansion of what the themes are going to be and what the story is gonna be. Obviously, Battle for Azeroth was all about the Horde vs. Alliance conflict. And we felt that we have told that story. And if you play all the way to the end, you see some of the repercussions of that and how it changed the leadership of the horde, the structure there. As well as showing some hard feelings on the part of the alliance in some divisions in terms of how Tyrande sees the events of the war unfolding. But when it came to shadowlands, we wanted to tell a different kind of story. Something that was more on the cosmic level, this threat. Not only to the shadowlands, but to Azeroth itself and that's something that requires putting some of the hard feelings from the war behind for a time because you know that you are gonna have to fight beside some of these same people that you were fighting against and not that long ago. But the events from Battle for Azeroth don't go away. There are all the scars, both mental and physical from that war still remain and if you play through the intro and the pre-launch event you'll see that this piece that is existing between horde and alliance right now is certainly tenuous. And there's some people who will not let go of the pain they experienced. Which is a natural thing, that's what happens in real life, too. So we'll see some of these echoes play out as you adventure through the Shadowlands.
buffed: How do you make sure that every covenant member gets all important information? As this was a big problem in Bfa where interesting things were only told to one or the other side. Will we see some parts of the story similar in each covenant or will the most important quests be detached from the covenants?
Steve Danuser: So thematically the story of the beginning of Shadowlands what we call like act one of the story which is what you get in the 9.0 release. You can think of that as the story of these living mortals crossing over into the Shadowlands, choosing these covenants and helping them grow strong again. So it's kind of about each covenant on its own becoming stronger. But the time will come as the threat of the jailer grows as we go to our content updates that are to come. Where it will be a natural thing that now that the covenants grow stronger, there's going to be a time where they are going to stand together. So you will start to see the stories of the covenants intersection and intertwining. You see some of that already in the beginnings. In the covenant campaigns, you see parts where Bastion might go to another zone or Ardenweald crosses over. You see the intersection starting to happen and the trust starting to build. But it really will come down to the threat that is growing in the maw. It's so great, that no one covenant will be able to face that alone and you're going to see the stories start coming together to face that threat but that's down the line.
buffed: The overall story of shadowlands – will we see a straight story that is heading for a climax at the end or will we see – similar to BfA – more turning points and ups and downs?
Steve Danuser: Well, with battle for Azeroth we did tell some different stories that kind of intersected each other, that overlapped each other at times. But they could also feel apart from one another when it came to the old gods vs. the war between horde and alliance. With shadowlands, we are trying to tell a more focused story that is really about the threat that the Shadowlands faces and what that means for Azeroth and all the realms beyond. So when you play through the shadowlands and the updates that are to come you will get a cohesive story that has dramatic rises and falls. There are all those different arcs that play out. We do look at the story as kind of a multi-act play in ways and you want to have these classic rises and falls of tension. You need those build-ups and then you need what comes after so that you relax a bit and get ready for the next thing to come. That will all play out in the storyline. But we do intend for shadowlands to tell a complete story from beginning to end and answer a lot of these questions. That said we also do tie storylines that go through expansions. In ways, we've been following many of the same story threats that began even in Mists of Pandaria and that are still playing out. So that's not going to change. We will always keep telling the story of the world for these expansions, but we want shadowlands to come to an conclusion that feels satisfying and it feels like: "Yes, I played through that story, I understood what happened, I got satisfaction of facing the bad guys and hopefully we succeed in saving the shadowlands and therefore saving Azeroth as well. "
buffed: What comes first in the developing of WoW and new expansions – the story or the gameplay aspects? Is it more like: We have this cool Idea of different covenants, that represents different zones and story in the shadowlands – and then the gameplay department creates Ideas of how this can fit in the World? Or is it the other way around?
Steve Danuser: It really is an organic process. As we get together in groups the leadership talks about where the game should go. We share different ideas, we have different opinions, and we kind of talk those through. Then it really is about story and systems intertwining. That's the best way to tell stories. If you have different departments building things in silence those elements aren't going to feel as connected. In the case of shadowlands, the story was guiding us towards going to the shadowlands. We've been building up death as the theme – and Sylvanas actions are one part of that – for a long time. So it was a logical place for the story to go. And as we talked about what that meant, because after all the shadowlands was a very unexplored corner of the Warcraft lore, it opened up possibilities for us to think of things like the covenants and Soulbinds and all of that grew naturally out of this story we are trying to tell. But it wasn't a case of story dictating what systems had to do. It was a case of both of those teams as well as many others on the art side, engineering side, design side, all coming together to share ideas, to share thoughts and out of that we kind of hammered on those ideas and come up with the ones that fit together to tell the story. There's lots of cool ideas out there for what the game could be, but we tried to pick a set of features that match well with the storylines. And we feel like that really came together, both in terms of the covenants but also Torghast and the maw. You know, that was an idea to have a kind of rogue-like experience within World of Warcraft. But it works, because it fits thematically with what the jailor is all about and what the tower represents within the maw. So it really is about all those sides coming together and carving out what works best for the game in each expansion.
Frank Kowalkowski: There's no real checklist of what to do, like Steve mentioned, we typically start with a thematic or focal point and in this case it was "we are going to the shadowlands and now what?" And so we get a small group together to brainstorm and slowly increase that or spread it off into other brainstorming groups and somebody will throw something out like "wouldn't it be cool if there were a rogue-like?" It felt right with Torghast, but if it's not the right thing we are not trying to just jam it in there. We do make sure that it fits thematically. This is a very organic process that takes years like we began talking about shadowlands multiple years ago and it's really cool to watch it develop from that to what people are gonna see on November 23.
buffed: One last question. Can you reveal us one or two characters that we will see in shadowlands that will really surprise the players?
Steve Danuser: Well, no. I don't want to spoil any little surprises, sorry. What I will say is, that one of the things we got to do on the narrative side with our extra time because of the change of release-date was, we got to sprinkle in some little cameos and some little polish and some little flavor things . While those aren't as big of the stories as you would see with someone like Uther in Bastion. A lot of times there are some nice little breath interactions but just adds flavor to the world and just remind you of the charm and majesty that is so core to the Warcraft DNA so it was a great treat to be able to sprinkle even more of that stuff in during this polish time. So look for those kinds of things.
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