World of Warcraft Shadowlands‘ Morgan Day on work-from-home design, new players, and roguelikes

Shadowlands

Plague is a part of the fabric of World of Warcraft. There are whole cultures in the game’s world that are built around sickness and decay. Since the outbreak of the real world Covid-19 pandemic, Blizzard have complied with Californian work-from-orders, transitioning the entire WOW team to working in isolation. What an odd situation for a game like WOW, one built on a foundation of social interaction, to find itself in.

Lead game designer Morgan Day has worked at Blizzard for a very long time indeed. Right now he works as one of the lead game designers on World of Warcraft, specialising in combat. Morgan is likely the designer responsible for some of your favourite dungeons, raids and combat scenarios. In the latest expansion Shadowlands, he expands his love of battle to the new roguelike challenge, Torghast — the Tower of the Damned. We spoke to Morgan about designing in isolation, introducing new players to such a storied game in a year where they might be stuck at home and looking for a way to connect, and exactly how you build a roguelike subgame into an MMO like WOW.

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The AU Review:

I was going to ask, watching every day, seeing the news coming out of the States — we’ve touched on the subject of how it’s been developing in isolation and how strange it must be to be working on a multiplayer game, a massively multiplayer RPG like World of Warcraft, in isolation. I was wondering if you might be able to speak to that. How you’ve been able to keep your spirits up while you’ve been working on the game.

Morgan Day:

Totally. It’s certainly been a unique experience. It’s not, it’s not something that any of us expected, and prior to this happening, our team was … it’s such a collaborative environment. It’s something where, you know, making games is all about that discussion and those serendipitous conversations that happen in the halls where so much cool stuff comes out of those discussions. Especially on the World of Warcraft team, everyone on the team is so passionate about the game. We are all avid players. And one of my favorite things is when you come in from the weekend on a Monday and everyone’s walking around the halls and give each other feedback and just kind of talking about the game. It’s really exciting. So, there’s certainly elements of it that I miss but I feel like, you know, I’m really proud of what the team’s been accomplishing. We’ve been developing through the situation and we’ve gotten — you know, the beta is something that we’re really driving towards and that’s been this next milestone as well as the road ahead. And, you know, people are doing the best they can and I couldn’t be more proud of the team.

The AU Review:

I was interested in the level squish and how that’s going to work. I was wondering if you could walk me through that. As I understand it, rather than going to level 130, I believe we’re going back to (a system of) level 1 to 50, right?

Morgan Day:

Yeah. It’s wild, right? So, I mean, it’s actually a fun story. This is something that, you know, for, for multiple years, for multiple expansions — heck, at multiple Blizzcons at Q and A’s, this has come up before. All the way back to Warlords of Draenor and Legion development, people would ask “Hey, this is just a lot of levels! What’s going on? And most recently with Battle for Azeroth with the introduction of allied races, there is heritage armor that you can earn if you level with that new allied race from 1 to 120 naturally. And we were just seeing a ton of feedback about “man, this is taking a while to level up. It’s just, it’s just a long, you know, there’s a lot of content and the whole lot of levels to get through.” And for that to feel satisfying, we didn’t want to speed it up so much that you’re getting a level every 15 minutes or something. That would just start to feel really jarring. So we have been listening to feedback and wanting to really address it on multiple fronts. This is something where, like you mentioned, if you’re level 120, you’ll be level 50 once Shadowlands comes out, and on top of that, we looked at other areas where we could potentially improve the levelling experience. So one of the major things that we have been working on and are really proud of, and people have had a chance to check it out in the Shadowlands Alpha, is a new player experience called Exile’s Reach. This is an experience that — we wanted to take an opportunity and say, let’s craft what we feel like is an epic Warcraft story for both the Hoard and the Alliance that will really immerse you into the game, into what World of Warcraft is and the types of adventures you might experience. And it even caps out at the end of the introductory experience on Exile’s Reach with a little mini tangent where you can queue with other players. There’s dungeon bosses there, awesome epic moments — uh, spoilers, but there’s this undead dragon that is resurrected by this necromancer. And it just caps that experience off in a way that feels truly like your experience in an MMO. So we really wanted to look at shadow lands as an opportunity for, uh, to create, you know, the best time ever to try out world of Warcraft if you’ve never tried it before, because, you know, we have heard that feedback about it can feel daunting, 120 levels. How many hours do I have to get into the game before I get to see the new stuff or play with my friends who have been playing for years? So between changing the levels and as well as introducing Exile’s Reach with the new player experience, we really wanted to craft that experience where everyone can say “Okay, now is the time I’m going to try to get into World of Warcraft. I always have heard about these MMO RPGs with all these people around and the relationships that they’ve built by playing this game and I want to get in on that. So yeah, that’s something that we were really excited to take a look at for Shadowlands.

The AU Review:

I’ve actually been wondering with that with so many people in isolation this year, how many new people are actually going to come into the game when Shadowlands arrives. You’ve got 16 years worth of history and content and all of these things in the game. How can you possibly onboard new players at this point in a way that’s sort of smooth and easy to understand?

Morgan Day:

Sorry, what do you mean? What do you mean by that?

The AU Review:

I mean, it just seems like there’s so much GAME there when you’re bringing new people in. How do you find is the best way to onboard them, I guess?

Morgan Day:

You know, that was one of the challenges that we were looking to try to tackle head on with this new player experience and, you know, adjusting the levels so that there’s only 50 levels to get through. So, with previous expansions, there were all these expansions that you could potentially have to level up through to get to the max level. And you never really even had the opportunity to get to the end of the story of that expansion, because you were leveling through, you know, maybe a 20 to 30 level range and you would only get through a couple zones. So, with Shadowlands, if you’re a truly new player, you’ll quest and experience Exile’s Reach, which like I said, is a pretty epic story all to itself. It’s about level 10 and then we’re actually changing it so that from level 10, you’ll be able to level through Battle for Azeroth from level 10 to 50. And Battle for Azaroth, you know, that’s the expansion that preceeded Shadowlands and we’re really proud of it. There’s a true Horde versus Alliance narrative that feels really core to World of Warcraft. And you should be able to move through that at a much more brisk pace than say, you know, previously level 1 to 110 would have been to get to the most recent expansion right now. From 10 to 50, that should be much shorter. And it should only be — it’s only one expansion that you’re leveling up through.. That feels relevant and new, and people are still talking about this content for those more experienced players. This has been stuff that they were living in world of Warcraft. And then when you’re a level 50, you’ll roll into Shadowlands. So it’s something that we wanted to try to make that experience feel as streamlined as possible. We’ve also heard a lot of feedback. And also to your point, you know, we have 15, 16 years of content that is still really awesome. And there’s a lot of interesting quests and stories out there. And we didn’t want that to feel like we weren’t utilizing it or there wasn’t a way for people to go experience it if they wanted to. So if you’re a player who has a max level character, there’s a new level and experience that you can engage with that. Internally we call Chromie Time, which is a character who’s part of the bronze dragon fight. But if you’re familiar with time walking, it’s like, we’re time walking the world around you so that you can choose an expansion. You know, once you get to level 10, if you want to do Exile’s Reach, or you can start at level 1 if you have a mixed level character already, you can choose an expansion to quest through, and it will scale the world from 1 to 50 for you as you go through that content. So, you know, if you just love Warlords of Draenor, and you want to play through that and you want to make a new character, because you love your alts, you can play through Warlords of Draenor until you hit level 50, at which point you will be able to go into Shadowlands and continue questing from there. But that should feel like a much more contained story and package that you can experience rather than having to jump around to lots of different expansions. So we’re trying to get a little bit of the best of both worlds with a lot of parts of the game with Shadowlands.

The AU Review:

That’s very cool. I mean, I speaking for myself when I jumped into a battle for Azeroth, I definitely felt the weight of all this content. There was so much that I could potentially do! So that’s, that’s very, very cool to hear. I look forward to going through this new path. That will be fun. Now, I know, I know you’re very interested in combat. I wanted to talk about, Torghast , the tower of the damned, this new roguelike challenge. Um, cause I know a few old guard WOW fans that are friends of mine who were very interested in this. I wonder if you could walk me through that. How does a roguelike work in World of Warcraft?

Morgan Day:

So like you mentioned, we all are absolutely inspired by all the really amazing roguelike and rogue-light games that are out there. There’s tons that I am always checking out and playing. And, as we set out to start development on Shadowlands, we’re always asking ourselves, what’s a cool thing that we put in our game that feels new, like, feels distinctly Warcraft, but also is new and fresh? And it might be a type of content people haven’t seen before. And as we were talking about Shadowlands and the story we’re trying to tell, this dark figure, The Jailer, who is a character that you’ll be introduced to right out the gates in the Shadowlands intro experience that people have gotten to see on the alpha most recently. And there’s just this huge, epic tower that, you know, some of our concept artists started to come up with earlier. And we looked at that and we’re like, “I want to climb that thing.” And we’re like, well, what kind of gameplay, you know, is reminiscent of like climbing a tower and be like, “Oh my gosh, we should totally do some kind of like roguelike or rogue-light aspect of gameplay. So that’s something that we started to pursue. We did a lot of cool early prototyping and really the main thing that we talk about and our goals there, are very much so focused on just replayability and making that experience feel fresh every time that you go into it. So, you know, you played Battle for Azeroth, so you’re familiar with the island expeditions. We often love to look at new technology or new elements of the game that we have created for a feature and ask ourselves, “okay, how do we level this up? What’s the next evolution of this?” So a lot of the technology that we created for islands, we looked at ways on how do we leverage, you know, “Hey, can we spawn almost a dungeon floor where the creatures, every time you go in there, they’re doing something different or there’s a completely different ecology with different creature types when you go in there. And can we put little vignettes or powers at the end of these corridors, that every time you go down there, you’ll get a new power. They’re called Anima powers or Anima cells that you can get as you’re progressing through Torghast. And they have really cool, really crazy powers that are something that normally you would look at it and be like, “Oh my gosh, Blizzard is breaking the game. That’s way overpowered.” But this is a contained experience and all those powers exist in that one Torghast run, and you don’t get to take them out of The Jailer’s tower with you. They only are there for that one run. And if you win the next one, you get to start over and pick all new powers. And hopefully you can find cool builds that you can — some creatures in Torghast called Maulrats, which are basically like little rat things that skidder around. And there’s all kinds of cool powers that interact with the Maulrats in different ways so that, you know, when, when you kill it, it explodes. So you can set off this chain reaction. So maybe you start to pick powers based on killing Maulrats more quickly or making that explosion do more damage. And then the next time you go in, you get more powers that are focused on your class. So you want to try to find a different build where you’re playing your class that look a lot different than you would normally plan a dungeon. So, it just kind of speaks to one of our goals of creating a unique experience that is very replayable and so reminiscent of some of those roguelike and rogue-light elements. Yeah, it’s been super fun watching that evolve. We’ve gotten a ton of great feedback from the player base during the alpha, Ian mentioned that, you know, we’re making a pretty substantial change where initially when we announced the feature, we said there would be keys that were required to get into Torghast to do your run, which we had also done with the Horrific Visions in the most recent update with Azeroth. And we were taking inspiration from that and kind of carrying it forward as another example of how we look to evolve these systems over time or apply lessons learned from a previous one. And this is one where we kept capturing the feedback of, “Hey, just let us do it for like an hour straight. This is so much fun.” And when we took a step back and looked at it, we were like, this is a really awesome replayable experience. We feel like it has enough replayability where we could say, yeah, go nuts. You guys can play this as much as you want. And it would still feel just as fresh however many times after you’ve run it.


 

We’d like to thank Morgan for taking the time to speak with us and wish him and the WOW team every success. While the Shadowlands expansion does not yet have a release date, the game is set to release in Fall (that’s Spring here in Aus) later this year. The game, which has been running in closed alpha for some time, will move to closed beta with a large wave of new invites going out. If you’ve got your name down, keep an eye on your Blizzard launcher to see if you’re in.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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