WoW Shadowlands interview with Jeremy Feasel and Frank Kowalkowski

With Chains of Domination announced, WoW players are preparing for new challenges, from raids to dungeons to deciding whether to stay with their current covenant or move on. I spoke with Frank Kowalkowski, technical director and Jeremy Feasel, principal game designer about Chains of Domination, class balance and the various systems at play in Shadowlands.

In the panel about Shadowlands, there was talk about ‘Shadowlands learning’ and about having systems out in the wild and seeing how players interact with them. What have been some of the things you’ve learned?

Jeremy: Kind of three big things to hit up there. First would be the general system of renown and progression in the Shadowlands. I think that we are fairly happy with the idea that renown is a catch-up mechanism but also gives you a feeling of sort of consistent progression on a week by week basis and then I think all the different things it unlocks ended up feeling like an awesome package. You get armour and weapons and battle pets and mounts and the ability to unlock even more mounts as well as these really large meaty story quest lines with some big characters that themselves also have rewards so it ended up feeling like every week that you log in and increase your renown you’ve got a number of different things to look forward to. So that’s something we’re going to be continuing in Chains of Domination you’ll be seeing a whole lot more renown levels and in addition to that tons of new story chapters unlocking during those renowned levels with some of our big Shadowlands characters as well as these new cosmetic armour sets and flying and new covenant-specific flying mounts and all the colours associated with that. We’ve got plenty of new things to unlock during that whole renown track so it’s one of the big things that I think we’re pretty happy with.

One of the things that was somewhat polarising on the player side of things was the Maw and I think that is similar to how we saw players approach the more difficult sections of say Timeless Isle or any of our big end-game sandboxes. Players that really are looking for a challenge in the outdoor sandbox liked it and thought it was pretty cool, players that were looking for a challenge plus PVP had a lot of fun camping their opponents down there but players that aren’t looking for as much of a challenge in the sandbox area really felt like this was an imposing and foreboding and difficult place. So that’s getting across design intent right, that was good from a design intent perspective and what that allows us to do in Chains of Domination is get the sense of turning that on its head for players that feel like this is an intimidating place that they can’t traverse right now. The covenants coming down into the space and building their hub in Korthia and pushing back on the Jailer’s influence and letting you call your mount again and allowing you to cleanse the eye of the jailer by going through a quest line about it. All of these things allow that covenant moment to feel meteor like it really changes your gameplay down there it feels like you could spend more time down there it’s way less imposing so I think that feeling getting across that feeling was sort of exactly the arc that we wanted to take with them all.

Let’s talk about the raid loot and the M plus loot systems. Loot is a big thing for players and you’ve dialed back on the amount we get in raids. Can you just talk a bit about the philosophies and reasonings behind those decisions?

Jeremy: So we had a number of loot changes that occurred in the initial launch of Shadowlands including the entire concept of the Great Vault and that’s a pretty large and complicated system in and of itself. We thought that was an awesome inclusion and it definitely feels like it levels up the mythic plus chest in an awesome way. But as with any of these big systems, we were also looking to solve the issue of how in Battle for Azeroth it felt like you graduated out of a lot of types of content too quickly. You got geared very quickly and then didn’t care about world quests anymore and a lot of those elements we were looking to just sort of tune the knobs on and I think what you saw was that we’ve got a lot of different player types that play through the game at a lot of different speeds so we took a solid look over a number of months at how progression was occurring and how all these systems were working out, letting the sort of soup settle and simmer for a little bit to figure out where were the real issues and then we’ve made hotfixes in order to aid with some of those things like the raid loot elements and I think that’s also our opportunity to look for larger changes that we can make like the Valor point system and patch 9.0.5 and was one of the reasons why we planned for 905 to be what it is rather than skipping right to a 9.1. We wanted to make sure we could get out a lean mean 9.0.5 that includes all of the systemic changes help sort of alleviate those issues and I think that sort of patch cadence is going to end up being good for us because it’s allowed us to be much more reactive.

When 9.1 comes around are we going to feel like the anima drought is no longer as severe or are we still gonna be fighting for scraps?

Jeremy: So that’s sort of along the same lines is another one of the currencies that we’re looking at the current rate of acquisition of and I think that as the storyline starts to shift, you can expect to see a potential shift there as well that’s one of the things that we’re working on for sure.

When we get into the Maw and the new area, how will our covenant choice influence our time down in the Maw and what we see down there?

Jeremy: So similarly to your time outside of the Maw your covenant choice is going to continue to influence your covenant ability but expanding upon that in Chains of Domination will be these additional soulbind traits levels, additional conduits, additional things you can slot in there and then in addition empowered conduits with the ability to power up a conduit so we want it to feel like your covenant choice continues to expand your power level so that it feels like you’re still a member of that covenant but really the major storyline within the Maw is all the covenants coming together and making their assault. That said there is space in a lot of our big storylines to help tell the continuation of the covenant specific storylines that you’ve grown to know in the Shadowlands. So in Chains of Domination the storyline the big story arc is going to be played by all players of all covenants and there are covenant chapters in there but they’re played by everybody so for the Bastion covenant chapter if you’re curious you’ll be going and doing that and that helps finish off their storyline the story of the Forsworn and Uther. You’ll also be going and helping them out because the covenants have come together so it makes sense for a Maldraxian to come and do that Bastion chapter as well. uh for the Maldraxian we’re going to give you a little bit of a story catch up so that you know what the story so far was but you’ll get to see what that covenant you know sort of the local finale of that covenant storyline looks like and that makes it feel like we’re all in this together for the Kyrian player of course we want to make sure that there are fun little interactions that you only get as a Kyrian player during that chapter there’s a couple of little side quest elements that you’re only going to get as a Kyrian so you still feel cool for being a Kyrian and we delve further into some storylines that you might know a lot more about than a Maldraxian or it might be more meaningful to you.

On that topic I joined the Kyrian, where was my character during Kingsmourne?

Jeremy: Probably wherever your character is right now? Off doing world quests in Ardenweald or making his way up Torghast. What we found in the storyline up until now is that we really had no idea what the Jailer’s plan was and that this and his next move after this are gonna take everybody by surprise because he’s not just gonna attack us on one front, we’re gonna log in on Chains of Domination day to find that Bastion was attacked but then what happens next, there are other sigils for him to acquire as well. A lot of stuff is going to happen on day one.

With the Archon having the Bastion sigil, where are the sigils of The Primus and Sire Denathrius?

Jeremy: We’ll be delving into the story of all of the sigils as well as the future of some interesting characters like the Primus and Denathrius during our main story quest, so expect to see a lot of your questions about the Shadowlands answered there.

Our power levels are going to increase but Shadowlands has a diminishing return system on secondaries. How do you see that affecting gearing and progression? Are people going to try to push through the diminishing returns to reach certain points that might flip the way that they use their spells?

Jeremy: I don’t think we can ever anticipate what the top tier raiding community is going to do but what I can tell you is the encounter designers are going to try their hardest to make the craziest boss fights they can think of so we’ll definitely be looking forward to that race.

For Torghast you mention there’s going to be new wings and enemies. Are there going to be new rewards because I know a lot of players that only want to do things in a game if they’re going to get some big reward out of it.

Jeremy: I think one of the main things that we’re talking about right now is for those players that have finished all the way up through twisting corridors eight or for those players that have sort of maxed out their Soul Ash but also for the players that are having trouble completing Torghast and want to spend more time there but are feeling like when they can’t complete runs they’re not getting rewarded for it, we want to find a system that can help make all of those players feel good for spending time in Torghast. Its something we’re actively talking about right now is what is what would a meta progression system look like for Torghast and what are other elements we can put in there to help continue challenging players that really like Torghast and continue rewarding everybody whether or not you are doing Twisting 8 or you’re having trouble completing a run.

Related to that, a lot of the non-healer or non-pet tank classes seem to really battle in high layers. You get towards the end you don’t have the right power and the boss just ends your run right. Is there any going to be any look at the current powers or new powers that will help keep people in the race?

Jeremy: We are actively looking at making power adjustments uh both in 9.0.5 and in 9.1 so expect to see some adjustments to existing powers in 9.0.5 and then larger adjustments in 9.1 as well as the addition of new powers.

In the Maw, there are a bunch of items called Maw Lore items but they don’t have specific bits of text or anything attached to them. There’s just a quest to go give a thing to Ve’Nari. Was there going to be more there? Did something happen there?

Jeremy: It’s hard to speak to the design there because it’s probably up to the individual designer but as with everything it comes down to time and how much time you have to write text. I think that probably what was implemented was probably what they were looking for.

The last few expansions we’ve focused very a lot on borrowed power we’ve had cool artefact weapons that gave us a new skill and that got taken away, we now we have our covenant abilities but it feels like once those are gone, my character’s progression feels very different from say back in Burning Crusade I levelled up a bit, I got a new spell, I changed my rotation a bit will we ever see something like getting skills to add to our rotation or change things up?

Jeremy: So covenants felt like the right system for Shadowlands, something that we sort of built around both narratively and systemically but I don’t think that it’s the right solution for every expansion pack so it’s definitely something that’s still up for discussion and something we’re actively discussing.

You mentioned the increase in power from our covenants, how will our soulbinds play into that?

Frank: Soulbinds are going to be gaining new rows and new conduits and I think Jeremy alluded to earlier you’re going to have the option to actually be able to empower some of those conduits to kind of boost them a little extra so we’re going more for depth so we’re going to add a few new rows and those new conduits

Will we see anything new with the legendary crafting system?

Jeremy: We have a lot of cool ideas for where to take the system into the future. We want to continue to expand on it in our Shadowlands content updates. I don’t have anything definitive to announce to you today but uh do expect to see some legendary updates.

What kind of changes in class balance can we expect for Chains of Domination?

Jeremy: I think we’re really heavily focused right now on the 9.0.5 class balance changes and making sure those deal with the most immediate issues facing the different classes and then following that, we’ll have a more extensive overview into our class balance philosophies are for Chains of Domination.

What is the current process and thinking around class balance?

Jeremy: So I think one of the things that we want to make sure that we don’t do is throw a wrench into people’s plans, especially long-tail plans that they may have heavily and thoroughly researched. I’m sure a lot of people when Shadowlands first came out, or at least a lot of people like me that are RPG nerds and like really looking into your stats, thoroughly mapped out how all of their different characters were going to be built because I certainly did. I think that when you start hammering down a lot of nails or pulling up other nails in the middle of people levelling up their characters and getting their covenants set up before they kind of have their dream realised of getting their character where they want it to be, that ends up feeling really bad. It feels like you can never really make a choice you’re happy with so we wanted to make sure things stayed fairly stable during the whole launch of Shadowlands but like we’ve sort of mentioned or alluded to on the forums in 9.0.5 and then in Chains of Domination that’s where we’d be looking to make those substantive changes where we take a look at what are the most underutilised class covenant combos that maybe people really want to use. I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head but there are certainly some in there where we’re seeing an unfortunately low level of pickup and I’m sure there are some players that want to play certain combos and we want to make sure that those at least all seem viable options.

Larger patches are when we feel is the right time to make those big changes because then we can message it to players. We can put it in patch notes, you can prepare for it way ahead of time you can play it on the PTR and give us feedback so that would be where we make the first round of those changes and then expect to see larger and more substantial changes in Chains of Domination. Another thing that we’re looking at there, because now is the time when we’re making these big changes we’re going to be seeing a lot more people swap, so we’re going to be seeing how it feels viscerally to swap when you’re a max renowned player from say Kyrian to Venthyr. What you lose, what feels really bad, how many players feel like they need to make those swaps and their feedback to us is going to help determine the future of the covenant swapping process. I think about how difficult that is because if we’re going to make big changes like this, we don’t want you to feel bad for swapping. That’s the right time to swap so we need to make sure that that feels like a fairly seamless process.

With the arrival of Korthia, how dramatically will that change the skybox and the look of the zone?

Jeremy: So the actual Maw section is going to remain relatively foreboding although when the covenant forces come in and make their attacks and take over chunks of the area, you can expect the feel of that area to change. I think the largest change just environmentally is going to be with this new land mass of Korthia and you saw kind of at the end of the cinematic the Jailer had these giant chains going off into this land mass andhe’s going to crash it into the side of the Maw and it adds this large section of new space to go and explore.

Korthia was a pretty place. Whenever we do something like this we start from the pristine concept art. It looked like a zone from the Shadowlands that looked unlike any of the other zones it has its own palette, has its own special weirdly formed trees and plants and wildlife. That’s where we start from on the concept art and then we totally wrecked it. We just took the whole thing and sheared it as it got pulled into the Maw and you’ll see the trees are breaking apart, there’s energy coming out from them and the only wildlife that’s managed to survive is the stuff that’s covered in spikes and scales and looks like it would survive getting this catastrophic pull so that that was kind of the big change that we did to it but it’s still going to feel like a very different place than the rest of them all, a much more sort of natural environment.

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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