- The WorldSoul Saga, a series of expansions in World of Warcraft, will have a faster content rollout than previous expansions, with more parallel work and multiple teams working on different expansions simultaneously.
- The WorldSoul Saga will offer a cohesive narrative across the expansions but will also have independent and exciting standalone stories in each expansion’s zones, quests, and world-building.
- The Early Access period for The War Within expansion will not provide access to max-level content, such as Mythic raiding or dungeons, to ensure a leisurely start to the campaign and prevent players from feeling pressured to join Early Access. The focus is on enjoying the story and leveling up.
World of Warcraft’s next few years are written in digital stone, with The WorldSoul Saga beginning in earnest some time next year. Until then, residents of Azeroth continue onward through the game’s latest expansion, Dragonflight, with its recent content push Guardians of the Dream making an appearance soon after BlizzCon 2023’s curtains closed.
The event featured an assortment of panels and features, venues in which WoW’s artisans could offer tidbits and hints at what’s to come. The WorldSoul Saga – a serialized trio of expansions which represent the largest connected World of Warcraft narrative to date – has inspired fan theories and predictions since its first onstage reveal at the event’s Opening Ceremony.
While many details remain under lock and key, two fundamental members of Blizzard’s team made themselves available in order to dive deeper into what’s to come and describe the process of making the ubiquitous MMO. Maria Hamilton is WoW’s Associate Design Director and Kristy Moret is Lead World Artist; together, their contribution to the “world” part of “World of Warcraft” is essential, along with their shared perspective on what’s on the horizon. The War Within awaits.
The Wait for The WorldSoul Saga Could Be Shorter Than Expected
WoW players are used to expansions release at a predictable clip – typically two years between – with periodic content patches appearing throughout. Now, with The WorldSoul Saga, World of Warcraft’s loose roadmap is more defined than ever, an aspect which should affect fan anticipation and expectation. As a result, it’s a framework may prove out in a faster content rollout than what players are used to.
Kristy Moret: We can’t speak to any specific numbers, but yes, [expansion releases] will be faster than two years. We’d like to make sure that folks are not finishing The WorldSoul Saga in 2030, right? We want to get it out at a little faster of a clip than that.
So, we’ve worked on structuring our teams and our development pipelines so that we can parallelize a lot more work, and make it so that we’re already working on [the second expansion of The WorldSoul Saga] Midnight. We’re working on The War Within, we’re working on Midnight, we’re full steam ahead on building all of these expansions to create this whole saga.
Maria Hamilton: I want to say that my job is to keep an eye on the ‘world’ part of the World of Warcraft. I’m about the zones, and the world art, and quests and narrative, and world building. And so, it’s my job to make sure that we are able to tell the story cohesively across three [expansions], but that each one is independently exciting and fun and standalone, right?
So, as we are building out, we’re already in progress on our zones in Midnight – that’s already underway – and we’re already well into story details as well. So, what we’ve done in order to be able to do this faster, with our practice over the cadence we’ve had for Dragonflight every two months or so putting out a content update, we’ve gotten very good now at working on multiple things simultaneously, and moving people around as needed to work on those things. So, our pipeline has gotten better as a result.
Kristy and I might be reviewing Guardians of the Dream stuff, and then looking at something at Midnight, and then we might then look at Hollowfall. So, we’re bouncing around, keeping an eye on things, and making sure that everything stays cohesive, but also unique.
And so, the designers that are working on all of these things are very excited, because they’re moving from one thing to the next thing to the next thing, and getting a chance to get their fingers in all of those pieces, as opposed to the sort of thing where you would imagine a team moving from one expansion to another. We’re doing a little bit more parallel work now, where people are bouncing around doing different things.
Kristy Moret: Each expansion will be a full expansion, and will have the full complement of zones, dungeons, and raids that we’ve come to expect from any previous expansion that we’ve released, so they will have a full suite of activities for players to do.
While the story is going to carry over across this whole Saga, the idea is that there’s always so many little local stories to explore, so many side quests, and little towns and villages off the beaten path that you can go visit. These are some of the things that our quest designers just put so much love into, that I imagine that, when you’re looking at the whole of the saga, there is that thread that goes through.
Where you’re going to find those really unique tales are going to be in those side stories, those local stories, the little hits off the beaten path that players may take as they go on these journeys.
The War Within’s Early Access Period & The Fear of Missing Out
Contrary to past experience, The WorldSoul Saga will be the very first expansion to the game to introduce an Early Access opportunity for those who opt to pay a premium. It’s definitely a contentious marketing decision for an MMO of this magnitude, but the team has been fairly outgoing about how this will affect players’ bottom-line experience, especially in terms of content-gating.
Kristy Moret: What we have been looking at is making sure that the Early Access period is, really, a leisurely time for players to start the campaign, and to really enjoy their dive into the story for The War Within. And, to that end, there will not be access to Mythic raiding or the Mythic dungeons, or any of that kind of max-level weekly daily content, so that folks don’t feel like they have to join the Early Access. It’s really more of a nice little perk for folks to kind of enjoy themselves as the expansion starts.
We hope to head some of that [concern] off just by not having some of those progression systems already available for min-maxing. Hopefully that will help.
Maria Hamilton: I would say also that, philosophically, we’re not looking to give advantages. That wasn’t the intent. The intent here is that people who feel like they have to rush and get to max-level have a little bit more time. If they want to take a little bit more time, there is no competition to be had, because nothing’s open and available yet. Just leveling up, getting through the story, understanding what’s happening, and then ready to go, right on the first day, start your max-level [journey]. We know that players that are very competitive tend to level to max right away, immediately.
WoW Mounts & Even More of Dragonflights’ Dynamic Flight
Mounts have always been a vital part of every MMO, but World of Warcraft’s current expansion Dragonflight bumped things up a level. The introduction of the dynamic flight system added an exciting and responsive aspect to mount-based travel, and the team is doubling down on this satisfying method of traversal.
However, this could possibly exclude older mounts in the game, and the panel discussed whether existing mounts are going to get more love and attention with future patches. Regardless, it seems that there will be more customizations and dynamic flight integration for newer mounts. At best, it would be wise to keep an eye on whether previous favorites might be updated in the months and years to come.
Kristy Moret: I imagine that we will continue to introduce new mounts that offer customization options. It’s something that’s really fun. The character artists love to make them, players really enjoy collecting the customizations. As far as older mounts getting customization, that’s less likely. They’re doing a lot of work to get hundreds of mounts upgraded to the dynamic flight rigs and being able to do all that stuff.
But I would imagine that, going forward, we will continue to see customizable mounts, but I don’t imagine we’re going to see too much happening to older mounts that you already have.
Maria Hamilton: I know they have to adjust the rigging in some cases. Some of the mount rigs are not capable, right? And part of dynamic flight is adding animations that work for your diving, and the wings fold and if they have wings, and the way that the dive and the soar, and the spinny move, and all of that stuff. That all has to be added. And so, that is why it takes a time to modify these old existing ones, to make them work for dynamic flight. So, it’s just a very, very time-consuming thing.
And there’s the question of, well, do we put out a couple? And then have everybody scream, ‘You didn’t do the one that I wanted!’ Or do we go, let’s wait a bit, and then put out a bunch, and say, well, here’s the first batch, you know? And hope for the best.
So, I think we were cautiously saying, yeah, let’s wait till we have more than just a couple. Because it is time consuming for our animation team, and if our animation team is doing that, then they’re not doing something else, right? So it’s always a trade-off.
Kristy Moret: Honestly, one of the things that’s so exciting to me, and I’m really glad that we were able to do this, is the idea that dynamic flight will be available, basically, from the beginning of the expansion The War Within. We designed all of the zones to really take advantage of the dynamic flight.
You’ll be in these caverns, and you’ll dive under arches, and you’ll swoop across these crazy tight corridors. You’ll open up into hollow falls canyons, you’ll dive down into the Nerubian areas. It is such a fun, fun ride. And we were really cognizant of how it was going to feel for the players, how the connectivity of the zones would come together, and really let you just feel like you’re in this space. I think that’s super, super fun. Super exciting. I’m really glad we were able to do that.
Keeping Content Accessible After Player Drop-Off
WoW‘s designers remain aware of the ongoing issues surrounding player drop-off. Content that is primed for group play can suffer when the larger percentage of the player population has moved on to other things, especially for latecomers, busy parents, or just those who prefer playing solo. The team continues to build around this key challenge, pushing for accessibility and viability of content, regardless of the party size.
Maria Hamilton: In Guardians of the Dream, which comes out [November 7], we do have the seed planting, but also we have the tree that walks around [Sprucecrown], in the [Superbloom event]. And the designer that was working on that specifically looked at some of the drop-offs, and some of the reasons that people stopped playing, or weren’t playing as frequently, or how difficult it was for people who wanted to play it when other people weren’t. And she made an effort such that you could, in fact, solo that, if you wished to.
So, if you’re somebody who came along, and you’re like, oh, I want to do this now, and there’s no one else [available], you can play that content, and it’s enjoyable and fun for you. So, that was one thing we did, was to look at that and say oh, hey, let’s try that.
Moving forward, I can’t give specifics, but I can say that in The War Within, the content that we have planned for endgame isn’t quite specifically in that style. We have other styles of max-level content that you will be able to participate in different zones. Some is intended to be grindable, some is intended to be soloable, some is intended to be group-based. So, we tried to spread the love a bit more, and provide more types of things to do.
As far as the group ones, and then, as populations drop, another area we’ve talked about is whether we want to, after less people are playing in a particular area …. Like, for example, if you go back to Forbidden Reach, and you wanted to do the rares or something, that can be hard if you don’t have other people with you. We talked about, oh, well, maybe we should make those scale, or something like that.
We know people still enjoy playing that content, we’re able to see metrics on that. So, we know there are people still interested, we don’t want to take that away. But, at the same time, we do want to keep in mind that participation will drop off, especially as you move, content release to content release. And, with content coming as quickly as it is – every eight weeks or so – people do jump to the next thing, right? So, if you came in just a little late, you just got back from your holiday a little late, you’re like, oh, where is everybody?
Kristy Moret: Yeah. And I think Delves are a great way to address this, too, because they can be soloable or played with the group. And they are repeatable outdoor content that you can do over and over. I think it’s a great way to be like, okay, well, nobody’s there to do that, I’m just going to hop in a Delve.
New WoW Tech in The War Within
A new expansion also means new technology to support the narrative team’s big ideas. The panel briefly went into the light/dark mechanics of Hallowfall, which affect what kinds of mobs players encounter. Seamless travel persists, first introduced with the Dragonflight‘s Airlock Tech, a system which helps bypass load screens and maintain player immersion in World of Warcraft‘s environments.
Kristy Moret: We actually haven’t had to scale anything back in this expansion, which has been really cool.
One example of new tech that we’ve got is honestly super epic, in my opinion: the Crystal in Hallowfall Canyon. Most of the time, it’s beautiful and bright, giving warmth to this land that the Rafi have arrived at. But sometimes it flickers off, and the whole zone feels feels dark, and a little bit more spooky, and a little bit more different. And this is all new tech that we have developed for this expansion. It was a really bold vision that folks originally had for the zone, the idea of the light really having an impact on the gameplay of the zone, of what creatures appear when it becomes dark, and all of that stuff. We really wanted to push for that, and we were able to get the tech to support [this]. Not just the light turning on and off, but the conditioning of the creatures that come out of the darkness, and things like that.
So, we have actually had amazing support from our engineering teams on implementing a lot of the new features that we want to have for The War Within. Things like the Airlock Tech that allows you to go from the Isle of Dorn directly down into the underground spaces without a loading screen. All of that stuff has been kind of like stretch goals, almost, but we’ve been able to get them, and it’s been really awesome.
Maria Hamilton: And I have to tell you, the light/dark stuff has been super exciting for the quest team, because this gives them the ability to be reactive in a way that they hadn’t been before. And, if things are scheduled, then they’re very expected, and if you don’t make them scheduled – like this crystal going out, it is not on a timer, it is fairly random – then we can make some really interesting events, and interesting things happen.
And so, the quest team has just been experimenting with all sorts of interesting ideas of what happens, right? So, we already have some playable gameplay that happens, and it’s really fun. It allows us to really push things.
Ethically Integrating AI into World of Warcraft’s Design
AI has apparently found its way into World of Warcraft’s design, but the attention remains squarely on prioritizing the creative team’s talents. The BlizzCon 2023 panel openly discussed how AI can help designers with some precision busywork, but never at the expense of human creativity and invention, easing some burdens while allowing artists to focus on their strengths.
Kristy Moret: So, AI is exciting. It’s kind of a new thing, but we want to use it in an ethical way, and in a way that isn’t going to replace any creative work that people like to do.
A big project that was embarked upon that does use machine learning is refitting helmets to all character races. This was a huge project that is very tedious for an individual character artist to have to do. It’s not super fun, right? Like, you’re just pulling a couple of bones here and there to try to get it exactly to match, and you got to refine it 370 more times.
So, that is actually a spot where we saw an opportunity to solve that problem through using some sort of machine learning. I don’t know exactly how it works, I’m not an engineer, but I remember seeing it and talking to the character team about it. And they were like, we didn’t believe it, but that that machine refitted all those helmets, and we are so grateful that it did.
Those are the kinds of places that we are looking at, even in terms of our development pipeline. We’re not looking to be like, oh, can we develop zones with AI? We’re looking at, can we use large language models to scan my Confluence page, and make my trading pages easier to search, so that my new artists can come on and hit the ground running.
So, those are the spots where we see opportunities to use AI in our in our process but, in general, we’re trying to stay away from, like … We’re not generating art with it or anything like that.
Maria Hamilton: I don’t think you can replace human passion. You just can’t. And trying to do that seems very, very silly to me. Anything that requires creativity, we rely on people, we really do. The boring stuff? Yeah, sure.
Press in attendance wondered if this meant that AI could help with the aforementioned dynamic flight integration for older mounts.
Maria Hamilton: Probably not. I mean, technical artists are amazing, and riggers in particular are amazing. I don’t know how they do this. But there is an element of, it has to look and feel natural and right. And if you look at animations that have been done that don’t, you can spot them right away. It’s like, whoa, that is really janky and looks terrible.
Kristy Moret: An AI can’t predict the weight, the squash and stretch. There’s a lot of animation principles that we actually pull from 2D animation when we are building these 3D models that are very intuitive. You know, in the same way that AI can’t do hands, because it doesn’t understand the concept of a palm with five fingers on it, the AI doesn’t understand the concept of the weightiness as you hit the ground with your mount or its wings.
Maria Hamilton: We want our animations to look good. I mean, that’s part of what gives you the feel of that gameplay, right? And so, if your dive looked bad, that would be bad.
Some Very Guarded Hints at The WorldSoul Saga’s Narrative
Unsurprisingly, most details of the wider multi-year story arc for The WorldSoul Saga continue to remain scarce. However, the panel did delve into some of the broader narrative elements, and which characters might find themselves at the center of the epic tale.
Maria Hamilton: Anduin is obviously involved in The War Within, but he’s not necessarily the central character. And we will make sure that players are aware of who Anduin is, and a little bit of his backstory, but we won’t probably focus [on him], because we really want players to enjoy Dragonflight as their leveling experience.
One of the advantages of Dragonflight is we focused really hard on exploration and discovery. And getting that dynamic mount, and learning how to fly, and exploring nooks and crannies, and dragons, right? Most players that are new are pretty excited about dragons. It’s a pretty safe bet that, if you throw dragons in there, people will probably like it, so we want to really focus on that.
But, as we make that transition into, oh no, something bad’s happening in the world, we want to make sure that they understand the stakes, and who the people are that are involved. It’s a big important problem, there’s a lot of big characters, so Anduin wouldn’t necessarily be the main character; he’d be one of many important characters. Because, you know, you saw Thrall [in the trailer] as well.
I think Terran [Gregory, Cinematic Narrative Director] talked about Alleria being quite important, and we saw a cinematic with Alleria confessing that she was not seeing the same visions. And there are, of course, reasons for that; Alleria has had her own issues with the light, and with shadow, and void.
So, Alleria is quite important. I believe he talked about Anduin and Thrall a little bit. I know he talked about Magni as Speaker, being able to find out what in the world is happening. There’s many more characters, though, to explore and discover in The War Within.
There are so many characters there that we have brought back and, really, anyone is fair game. Because this is a world-changing, terribly important event, and we’ve made a point of saying, everyone is getting visions. Everyone is seeing this.
So what can we expect from The WorldSoul Saga from now until then, and when might we hear more?
Kristy Moret: There is still so much more to dive into for other two expansions that will be coming up. I expect that there will be some fun surprises and other exciting things that we’ll get to announce – new features, improvements on features – that will help kind of drive that little hype train, keep it rolling as long as we can. We’ve got BlizzCons, we have an incredible fan base, really, that supports us as we try all of these fun different experiments and things.
So, my guess would just be that, because there is so much cool stuff coming, the more that we’re able to share when those dates get closer to actually really seeing it. That is what’s going to drive the excitement, all the cool stuff that will happen.
Maria Hamilton: Yeah, we have some features coming in Midnight, for example, since we’re already working on things, that I know are going to blow socks off. So, I’m not worried at all.
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