As foretold by yesterday's leak, Blizzard has revealed details of the first major content update for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands in its Blizzconline streaming event. The patch is called Chains of Domination and will focus on a drive deeper into the Maw, the terrible domain of the Jailer, the mysterious bad guy disrupting the balance of the Shadowlands - Warcraft's afterlife - and threatening an invasion of all reality with the help of disgraced Horde warchief Sylvanas.
I had a chance to chat to game director Ion Hazzikostas and art director Ely Cannon about Chains of Domination earlier this week. Characterising the thrust of the update, Hazzikostas said: "Now we are beginning a full frontal assault, returning to the Maw, not trying to hide but letting the Jailer know that we're here... In the process, we're going to explore a range of epic environments that are unlike anything we've seen or done before in World of Warcraft - and learn much more about the nature of death, the nature of the Jailer and the foe that awaits us."
The Maw has so far been a different, tougher kind of adventuring zone for WOW players: you can't summon your mount there, you need to avoid the Eye of the Jailer (a kind of alert or 'wanted' system) and you drop currency when you die. But the new Maw area added in the patch - Korthia, the City of Secrets - will be, it seems, more relaxed, "blending some of those elements and some of the thematic elements of the Maw with the traditional outdoor gameplay that we have built up over the years," Hazzikostas said.
Alongside this extension of the main Shadowlands campaign, the four Covenant campaigns will also be continued (and players can earn new Covenant cosmetic armour sets). There'll be a new 10-boss raid, The Sanctum of Domination, which will offer chances to fight the Tarrague - the terror which hunts down players in the roguelike-style dungeon Torghast - as well as the "true Eye of the Jailer" and Sylvanas herself, in what is being called a "fateful confrontation". Would this mark an end to the contentious Sylvanas arc that has dominated WOW lore for several years now? Can she be redeemed? Of course, Hazzikostas wouldn't say, but he indicated that it would be a definitive moment for that character.
Just as exciting, perhaps, is a new eight-boss "mega dungeon" called Tazavesh, the Veiled Market. Venturing into the bazaar of trans-dimensional traders the Brokers, players will go on a "mind-bending" heist that Hazzikostas likened to the legendary Return to Karazhan dungeon - itself a playful remix of the equally legendary Karazhan raid from 2007. "Think of it like a Harry Potter, Gringotts heist inspired dungeon," he said. "Going into [the Brokers'] dungeon is gonna be a whirlwind tour of reality... it's not just a single location, right, it's going to span the reality of Warcraft as we know it."
As has become tradition, the patch will also allow players to unlock the power of flight in Shadowlands, and it sounds like it will be easier to achieve than in the past, "simply by continuing and completing the campaign, no reputation grinding required this time, just play through the main story," Hazzikostas said.
In terms of the systemic and balance changes we can expect from the patch, Hazzikostas was circumspect. "The content that you're going to see, we've known this was coming for a while, right? Systems are much more reactive. They're much more product of what I think of as a conversation between us and the community. And those ideas are still coming together in our 9.05 patch that's on our public test realm right now. We're seeing some evolution both in terms of class and covenant balance, but also how loot is being awarded and how players who focus on dungeons can work towards building up items of their choice. We have a lot more that we want to address regarding loot broadly, how Torghast plays out and more. But those systems are going to unfold themselves as we get on the PTR and can really get direct feedback from our players."
How Torghast fits into this is particularly interesting, because as a randomised, roguelike-inspired infinite dungeon inside which players can expand and distort their characters' powers, it is both content and system rolled into one. Hazzikostas confirmed that "all-new layers and an all-new aesthetic wing" will be introduced to Torghast. And he also admitted that there was work to be done in getting this tricky balancing challenge right so it was as rewarding as other ways to play WOW.
"What we launched with was something where success and failure was very binary," he said. "And there are probably few feelings in WOW worse than getting to the end of a Torghast run, let alone the end of, like, a Twisting Corridors run, and failing at the final boss and walking away completely empty-handed. There are very few activities that ask you to dedicate that much time and leave you with the possibility of getting nothing. And that shaped player experience as well as kind of guided our hand when it came to tuning the experience, which led to it at times feeling a bit flatter than players would prefer, because failure was so punitive. We'd like to get to a place where it's less binary, there's more of a sliding scale, players can always go in feeling like they came away with some progress towards the goals they're working towards. And in turn, that lets us have a wider gamut of challenge and engagement, because failure isn't quite as painful."
Customisation of your character via Covenant-specific Soulbinds and Conduits will be extended - and though Hazzikostas didn't go into detail about this, he noted that these endgame systems (as well as Legendary item crafting) had been built to be extensible, a lesson learned the hard way after the poorly planned "system soup" (his words) of last expansion Battle for Azeroth. "We're trying to build upon the foundations of the systems that we have laid out in Shadowlands rather than create all-new ones and bolt them on... I think, frankly, you know, that was something that in retrospect, was a little bit of a failing of Battle for Azeroth - that it felt like the systems we launched with were not extensible in the way we would have liked [and needed to be] retrofitted and almost replaced with each successive content update."
These Covenant-specific endgame progression systems - as well as the special Covenant abilities - were widely criticised for their effect on game balance during the Shadowlands beta test. It was one reason the launch of the expansion was delayed last year. It presents the WOW design team with a tricky challenge as they try to balance the needs of players who are seeking to min-max their character for every sliver of advantage and players who like to role-play and make choices for more aesthetic or thematic reasons. Hazzikostas thinks the balancing effort has been mostly successful - but where it hasn't, he is cautious about making corrections too quickly.
"I think our goal has been that for people who are driven by aesthetics, people who are driven by wanting to learn more about a piece of the story, they don't feel like they're hindered as a result of that choice. And by and large, we feel like we've succeeded in that. And in the places where we have fallen short, that's what our first minor content update in 9.05 has been trying to address. We're hesitant to make changes to the Covenant tuning via hotfix, even though we have the technical ability to do so, just because we didn't want to suddenly undermine player choice if they chose one covenant versus another and then they log in the next week to find something different. Whereas a patch allows us to give a bit more advance notice, get a bit more feedback and iterate on the process."
Overall, though, Chains of Domination should find World of Warcraft in a happy place when it launches later this year. Shadowlands has been a smash hit - it was briefly, before the release of Cyberpunk 2077, the fastest-selling PC game ever - and while there is always griping, players seem about as content as they ever are. Perhaps that's surprising for an expansion that is as conceptually far-out as Shadowlands. The previous two expansions, Battle for Azeroth and Legion, with their faction wars and demon invasions, swamps and forests and mountains, trod much more comfortingly familiar ground for Warcraft, whereas Shadowlands explores a multi-dimensional realm beyond death.
Art director Ely Cannon, for one, thinks that's exactly why it has worked - especially in the current moment. "I think the visuals are really interesting and different... and not only that, but I feel like we've tried to approach it in a similar way to what the more classic zones did, where they were a little more puritanical about the way they presented the themes... It had a very clear character, and then coupling that with the Covenant fantasy... everything just felt like such a strong fantasy in such an interesting place to be transported to. At least for me, as an RPG player, as somebody that enjoys that opportunity to step into a world that's not our real world - especially in a year like we've just had. A game like this that allows you to be in that fantasy space, and especially one that's so poignant and clear and focused as Shadowlands, I think, did end up being really powerful."