WoW Shadowlands interview with Frank Kowalkowski and Steve Danuser

World of Warcraft’s Shadowlands expansion is less than a week away, and I’ve been prepping my bags for an influx of new items and trade goods. Just before we all travel through the veil into the Shadowlands, I got to chat with lead narrative designer Steve Danuser and technical director Frank Kowalkowski about the delay of the game, ray tracing, handling the day one rush and how classes line up with the cosmology. Grab a coffee and get comfortable, its quite a ride.

How are things at the studio? We just had a big delay, what did that mean for the team?

Frank: You know it really comes down to when we tasted the soup we felt it just needed a little bit more time to cook. We got a lot of feedback throughout the course of the beta from when it started all the way up until now we’re still getting and collecting feedback. You know as we near the finish line here I think it was a matter of really looking at what we wanted to accomplish with Shadowlands where we wanted it to be and just realizing we needed that extra few weeks to nail down make sure that we tested and made the changes that we wanted to make so we can deliver the best possible expansion.

Steve: We’ve got different parts of the team working on different things at different times you know by necessity. Some people work ahead, some people like the systems guys really have to stay in there and balance the numbers on the narrative side it gave us a chance to just put an extra coat of polish on things and work in a few little easter eggs the community has already picked up on a couple of those little nods to characters that have passed on and things like that so it gave us a chance to do those little fun things that players enjoy as well.

We’ve gone back to a map where every zone is separate instead of a continuous continent, what are the benefits and drawbacks of having that kind of map?

Frank: That’s a great question. There’s no real technical challenge on our end being able to go seamlessly between zones like you could say in Battle for Azeroth versus going explicitly between these little islands. I think there’s a narrative component that Steve can probably go into that discusses why these are so disparate and separate but the challenges here from a technical perspective or how can we make that feel seamless and that’s why we have those little conduit corridors that you go through as you go between them to kind of you know help us fantasise that passage. But we’re not actually on different maps, they’re all on the same map we actually use a lot of technology underneath to kind of give you that feeling and that sense that they’re actually separate maps but from a technical side they’re all considered the Shadowlands map.

Steve: Yeah it was it was really a story reason that the Shadowlands are set up the way it is in terms of the different afterlives feeling separate because that was just what fit the fiction we wanted to tell the story of this place with infinite afterlives and so for the ones that we were visiting it made sense to have those feel like distinct entities within this much larger space and so that’s why things like traveling through the in-between gives you that sense of vastness and how these places are separate yet they’re still connected by this this anima network that at one time flowed through everything and that we are gradually restoring. It has benefits in that it makes each realm of the Shadowlands feel like its own distinctive place like you’re nestled within this one corner of the realms of death but you can still move freely to the other ones once you move through the story.

Now that we’re moving back to a set campaign rather than choosing which zone quest in, what kind of steps have you taken to prevent campaign bottlenecks.like a thousand people running at the same quest giver or all about to hunt boars?

Frank: We’ve obviously seen it before, particularly with the release of some older versions of World of Warcraft recently. What we’ve done in in the more mainline game is we have the ability to recognise how many people are in a zone and then we can actually spin up a new version of that zone on that server so that we can avoid some of those situations where yeah you have a you know 10 000 people trying to cram into the same quest giver. We call that quest collision where people are trying to get in and do the exact same things whether it’s interact with an NPC or go figure out if they have to kill that boar or not and if there’s only 30 boars you have 10 000 people so we resolve that by doing this kind of soft instancing that we call sharding where we we can take groups of people and spread them out across these they’re all playing the same content they’re all experiencing the same story and if they want to they can group together but that is the way that we avoid that is this something by spreading a player base across multiple instances.

Steve: This is a great example of how content design works with engineering really hand in hand because we have a great partnership with them where they’re being watchful of some of those choke points and performance issues and things like that. Engineering really works with all disciplines. They work with artists too to look for areas where there might be too many polygons and all those kinds of things. We’ve gotten smarter over the years. We try to spread those moments out such that we can kind of pace players and let them spread out a bit. Obviously there’s times especially at the start of an expansion where everybody is kind of hitting one thing but we test those as diligently as we can and try to be prepared for what we know will be an influx of excited players just champing at the bit to engage with that content.

Why do we sometimes have quests disappear, especially end of expansion related ones? (Horde leadership for example)

Steve: So with that quest line in particular, there were actually some quests marked deprecated by mistake and we have since fixed those. Those will be available again once the 902 version goes out but unfortunately we didn’t make the change in the 901 branch and that’s what people are experiencing right now. But that wasn’t the intent, it was just as people were cleaning up some old quest work and some of those got accidentally flagged so they will be back. We do try to keep those key storylines intact for people to engage with every once in a while for example when we were doing some of the reflows with the new Chromie time system and trying to just more elegantly move people from one expansion to another, there are times when we adjust things but the intent is not to take significant story beats away or or hide those we’d rather have those there for people who want to go through every bit of the expansion. If you want to play through Battle for Azeroth all the way to the end and see those scenes of the treaties being signed and Tyrande’s reaction to the alliance or what Thrall and the others say on the Horde side those will be there for you to do.

Speaking of Chromie time, that must have taken quite a bit of work. Was there special technology involved or how did you approach that?

Frank: We knew we wanted to do this for a while so yeah it was a very large engineering effort headed up by our gameplay team. It involved a lot of collaboration between engineering and design like when you’re when you’re going to squish something down you know we can just do simple math and divide everything that’s not necessarily how we want things to scale so it took a lot of back and forth between our engineering group on the gameplay side and then just a whole variety of people on the design side. This is one of the larger feature efforts we’ve done over several expansions and consequently because it was so large and involved so many people, it actually had a lot of eyes looking at it at all given times and we got a ton of feedback from everybody on the team and people playing the beta and we’re very happy with how it turned out we actually think it turned out extremely well.

The cosmology comes up a lot at the moment, thanks to where we’re going and bigger awareness of what’s going on around Azeroth. Have you ever looked back at the classes and thought that maybe they need a redesign to change how they fit in the cosmology? Like how Priests are basically able to channel diametrically opposed forces of using both Light and Void depending on specialisation.

Steve: So we certainly do think about a lot of things in relation to the cosmos and the greater powers at work in the universe but rather than seek out ways to go back and kind of retrofit the classes to fit into that, we think about instead like how we could we explore some of those story implications of things like you mentioned like the Priests being able to use these two forces that seem to be at odds what does that say about those two forces. Even though they would seem to be at odds all the time, are there actually ways that those two forces require one another in order to serve the greater balance and things like that so we certainly think about it.

Perhaps one expression where we consider that is in the different types of damage that entities do, we’ve got kind of a system in terms of damage types that’s been with us for a while and it doesn’t always fit some of the ways that the cosmology goes, so it’s one of the things we talk about maybe sometime down the line we’ll look at aspects like that but I wouldn’t say that there is a desire to completely change the workings of classes in order to fit a cosmology chart.

“We said before that Battle for Azeroth had some challenges and that we were telling a lot of different stories that didn’t always flow together, and so with Shadowlands we really made it a point to set out and map out the whole flow of the story.”

The new big buzzword for everyone with a computer is ray tracing. What does that add to the mix for WoW?

Frank: Ray tracing is cool technology it allows us to do a lot of things with both lighting and shadow that haven’t been available because they’re very computationally expensive so some of the newer graphics cards the dbx12 graphics cards that have RTX support we are going to support ray tracing for our shadows. Our shadow technology was great. It was developed in the early 2000s and uses a lot of the standard techniques we’ve updated over the years and we’ve optimised them but they still have a lot of the artefacts and some performance issues that are inherent with that technology. What ray tracing is going to allow us to do is get a foot in as the ray tracing technology of the RTX becomes more common across graphics cards four or five years from now. It creates crisper shadows that allow us to do things like shadow fall off that seem more natural in terms of lighting and shadow they play very important parts in terms of selling certain aspects of realism or even the fantasy so we’re really super excited about the early returns on what we see is a very cool technology going forward. So we’re very happy to support I’m very happy to partner with our hardware vendors to help bring this technology to World of Warcraft

Steve: You see Garth even our engineers talk about light and shadow all the time it permeates everything in this cosmology.

Frank: Ours are very much less in conflict.

So that’s how they work together. They’re just graphics cards actually.

Steve: That’s right.

Speaking of the shadow tech from very long ago. Do you ever just feel like okay now it’s time: WoW 2.0. Or would that just be way too monumental an ask?

Frank: WoW is an evolving game. When you look at, you know, we just released WoW Classic last year for instance. A lot of people tell us how different the game has evolved over the years. It’s going to continue to evolve. The technology in the game continues to evolve. We added pixel lighting a few years ago, we’ve added ray tracing now. We continue to evolve the technology, the game that renders the modern game is not the same game that rendered the original World of Warcraft 16 years ago. So right now we’re continuing to make World of Warcraft because that’s the game that people tell us that they want to play. It is also a game and we have the processes, the technologies in place to be able to evolve that engine, to bring it forward and continue developing amazing things, and we work a lot with our art and design partners. We’ll be looking at what they want to do with the game. We want to add more trees, more bushes, we want to add these kinds of trees and bushes and things like that. So we’ll work with them and you can see it over the last few expansions. We’ve increased a lot of graphical fidelity in the game. We pushed out the draw distance in Legion, and it’s created some really cool evolutions of the engine and we’re going to continue to do that going forward. We’re by no means done and so I think what we’re looking at is continuing to evolve this game and this engine and doing the things that we can to give it that freshness and that uniqueness.

Steve: Yeah, I think that multifaceted evolution is really a big reason why WoW is still so vital and so active. It is like a new game being birthed every expansion. If expansions were just about adding some new content and some new monsters to fight and some new places to go, people would like that, that would still be super cool, but the fact that we can keep driving the technology underneath everything, that we can keep improving performance and and raising fidelity and all those kinds of things, that really makes just the act of playing the game feel fresh and alive every time, and just keeping it so responsive and so tactile. Our engineers deserve so much credit for just keeping the game always feeling like it’s a better and better experience to play.

From what I’ve seen of Torghast, it looks like you have a mixture of big techs that have come from the last expansion or two. How big a project would you say that is, or how many toolsets from before will people be able to recognise in Torghast?

Frank: Wow, so Torghast did build on a lot of previous technologies that we’ve had in the game and we’re going to continue to build on Torghast. We’re going to continue to develop Torghast and expand that technology as we go forward. There are some elements from features we’ve done before and they’re really elements, they’re more likely to be alluded to evolutions of both design and technology. We liked, for instance, a lot of the dynamics planning we got out of Islands in Battle for Azeroth and when we look at Torghast we’re bringing some of those elements in there but we’re also adding a whole lot more so we have a lot of the same dynamics: the ability to choose kind of randomly which map you’re going to load next as you go between these floors, the whole tower power structure of branching these temporary buffs and the UIs associated therein. So some of it is older technology that we’ve evolved and brought forward and some of it is just fresh ideas and I think that’s when World of Warcraft is the strongest, when it’s marrying those two concepts: the familiar and the new.

When we get a new expansion it feels like we always get like four to six new regions. Is that just a number that worked in the past and you stick with that, or is it some magical number like in some games you do three quests to progress the main story and in each of those three quests you have to get three things?

Steve: Well, I would say game designers are fond of certain numbers and certain patterns and things like that and so we’ve learned over the years some of the numbers that work best for quest counts and things like that, but in terms of when we’re planning an expansion, it really is an organic process of what kind of world do we need to tell the story that we want to tell. And we talk through that and we start making decisions about our size and our scope and all those things. We have so many variables and so many knobs to turn. One of those knobs is the number of zones you have, another knob is how big each zone is. So you can have a vast world that’s made up of a smaller number of places, or you can have a vast world that’s made up of lots of little places, and those are all choices that you make in terms of what you’re building. When we’ve done expansions in the past, like say Battle for Azeroth, we knew kind of what the scope of each of those kingdoms needed to be, and so we tailored the expansion for that. While Shadowlands gave us a chance, being this new unexplored realm, we really got to dig in and decide for ourselves how many different places did we want to show within this realm of infinite afterlives? So it really comes down to what fits the story and what fits the gameplay that we want to achieve, and then we plan our schedules and all that based on those decisions.

Speaking on schedules and things, you have a much better idea of how many quests there are in a zone and stuff. I’ve often noticed when people talk about an expansion: before an expansion they’re very excited about the new zones and the initial leveling experience, but when they look back on an expansion they talk about the ending zones, where it’s not big story beats or it’s a big quest line. How does that work in terms of you deciding where which story bits go? Like this will be the point one patch, the point two, the point three?

Steve: Well with Shadowlands for example, we really did try to think about the story holistically. We said before that Battle for Azeroth had some challenges and that we were telling a lot of different stories that didn’t always flow together, and so with Shadowlands we really made it a point to set out and map out the whole flow of the story and how it was going to play out across our different content updates. And we really wanted to leave as you play kind of the first act of the story with the launch of Shadowlands, the 9.0 update. We really wanted to leave the story in a place that made you anticipate what was coming, a little bit of an exciting cliffhanger there for you to look forward to and give you things to think about and talk about as to what might happen in the future and so I think it allows us to do some interesting storytelling by really looking ahead and kind of planning the cadence of where things are going. And the goal is that by the end of it you can look back at the entire arc of Shadowlands and kind of see it as the different acts of a play that had their rising tensions and their climaxes and the denouement that comes at the end of it. 

We’re about to head to the Shadowlands and there’s a really big sword stuck in Azeroth’s still. 

SD: I’ve heard that, yes, people have mentioned that there is still a giant sword in the world. Yeah the way that Sargeras struck Azeroth like that right as he was just about to be imprisoned by his fellow titans, that’s a big deal and it’s something that’s gonna have kind of long-term implications. We’ve seen part of that resolve in the events of Battle for Azeroth and some of the more immediate needs being addressed, but there’s bigger things to think about in terms of what that sword symbolises. What was Sargeras trying to do? What was his intent with striking the world? Was it purely destructive? Was there more to it than that? I think those are the kinds of questions that over time we will be able to delve into and unpack a bit and learn a lot more about some of those cosmic entities and what they really want with the world.

Which of the covenants is your favourite? 

Steve: I’ll let Frank go first.

Frank: Oh man, I have a lot of characters and I’m attached to a few of them. My main is my Death knight but he’s also a Night Elf so I have this situation where I’m kind of drawn to Ardenweald because it’s got that kind of Night Elf vibe to it. It’s got that very fey vibe that seems very natural to them. And there’s also Maldraxxus which is like if you’re a Death knight, like this is your culture kit right here, expressed, but they’re all cool. I’m probably gonna have to make a hard decision between Ardenweald and Maldraxxus on that one but I am going to play all of them. I really like the Venthyr and their storyline there, and then the aspects of Bastion are just absolutely gorgeous. I really enjoyed a lot of the characters that I got to meet there. So thankfully I have about 10 max level characters that I can go between and level up and attach each one to a separate covenant. So I can probably give you a solidified answer in a few months about which one is my favourite but I can tell you that a lot of it’s going to depend on which character I’m playing. Some of those decisions will be aesthetic, some of those will be just kind of what my gut says and some of them will be because, ‘hey I like hitting that button more’ or ‘I like this how this soulbind plays with my character’ and everyone else is going to make those decisions too about which covenant that they feel most drawn to. 

Steve: Yeah I think that’s one of the cool things about covenants is that you have a lot of different reasons depending on your play style for what choices you want to make and things like that. Much like Frank just expressed, I think I really approach it almost where I let my characters tell me where they want to go, like certain aesthetics and things like that. It’s a little crazy sometimes but we spend so much time with these characters that I feel like I do want to listen to them and let them kind of tell me. I have a Nightborne that I play a lot and I just feel like, man, they’re going to be drawn to the Venthyr, like there’s really no getting around it. It kind of fits their decadent sort of lifestyle, I think that that opulence and that slick vampire aesthetic is probably going to draw my Nightborne in there, but I also have a Forsaken Warrior and I have a feeling Maldraxxus is going to be a big draw for that guy. So it really just depends and I’ll let my characters kind of guide me in some of those choices.

One final question: How do you feel about the Hearthstone team resurrecting the Old Gods and throwing them at the Darkmoon Faire? 

Steve: Well, we have a lot of fun talking with our friends on the Hearthstone team and the nice thing is that we’ve acknowledged that while there’s some thematic crossovers and sometimes obviously they draw upon the characters of Warcraft and occasionally we pull in some of their characters and things like that, but broadly speaking they’re separate games in separate sorts of universes. So I will say that playing with the Old Gods is very fun, so the fact that they get to do it and tie in the Darkmoon Faire and all this stuff, I’m a little envious of some of the fun that they get to have because that’s a pretty great playground to be able to tell stories in.

Thank you so much for your time, Frank and Steve. It’s been great. 

Steve: Always a pleasure Garth, thank you. 

Frank: Thank you for your time.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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