Finally, it seems, Warcraft fans who have wondered just what Blizzard is doing with supervillain Sylvanas Windrunner will get some answers.
This week, Blizzard launches World of Warcraft Shadowlands update 9.1, dubbed Chains of Domination, and with it adds a brand new raid that ends with a boss fight against Warcraft's most divisive character: the Banshee Queen herself.
Sylvanas has been the subject of much debate for some time now, with players wondering whether she's set for a redemption arc. Sylvanas, let's remember, murdered loads of innocent Night Elves, shacked up with the mysterious Jailer, and helped to imprison King Anduin in the depths of the Maw.
Could true defeat come for Sylvanas at the end of the new raid? I doubt it. Sylvanas is a controversial figure, but she is also immensely popular. Killing Sylvanas off with the Shadowlands still in play and future stories yet to be told seems unlikely. But, Blizzard has promised in a recent interview with Eurogamer, answers are coming.
"Regardless of how you feel about Sylvanas, you're going to get some answers," was how lead quest designer Johnny Cash put it to me. Cash, alongside technical director Frank Kowalkowski, gave me the rundown on 9.1 in a Zoom call that delved into everything from datamined cutscenes to Infinite Pirate Dragons. But, I'll be honest up front dear reader, what's coming to Sylvanas, the overarching Shadowlands story and the payoff fans have been waiting for - in my case since the high elf ranger-general of Silvermoon became the Banshee Queen at the dastardly hands of Arthas Menethil in Warcraft 3 - forms the bulk of the chat.
To lore and order!
It's a remarkable time to be making games. 9.1 comes out over half a year since Shadowlands launched. With everything that's going on in the world, how has production of 9.1 gone? What sort of challenges have you faced?
Frank Kowalkowski: Yes, it's certainly been a unique year throughout the world and for the team. Chains of Domination was the first content update we've ever done for World of Warcraft that was conceived, designed and implemented, and developed and iterated on all from a work from home environment.
With Shadowlands we had a lot of the concepts and a lot of the work had been done and then transitioned to work from home, where we finalised and shipped. This was the first one where we did everything in work from home. We learned a lot of new things. For a developer, you like to learn new ways of doing things because you can take some of that going forward. And you can learn from the things that went well, and the things that didn't. One of the things we really liked for Chains of Domination is we did take our time. We wanted to make sure we hit the quality bar we wanted to. We put a lot of content in there - there's a little bit of something for everybody. We did want to make sure this was a content update that's going to appeal to a broad swath of players.
Would you say it's harder to make this kind of update under those conditions? I can only imagine it slows things down? You can't just go over to someone's desk and discuss what they're working on. How have you managed it?
Frank Kowalkowski: It's different for sure. But the challenges are different. You mentioned being able to go over to somebody's desk. Certainly there are fewer opportunities for that. We do have a full suite of collaboration tools. So it really requires us to think differently about how we do that. We have a lot of different tactics for trying to recreate those environments. And people have the ability to work independently. It's been a different environment where we have learnt to take advantage of the strengths of work from home, and do our best to work around or develop new practises to get at the same successes we had when in the office.
How did you go about deciding on the scope of what 9.1 would be given the work from home situation? Did you have to manage the scope because of that? Or did it not make much of a difference?
Frank Kowalkowski: It really doesn't because players have expectations for what a content update looks like in World of Warcraft, and we have to meet those expectations. When designing what we wanted to do for Chains of Domination, we knew there were story beats we needed to hit. We obviously knew we were going to do a new raid and a new zone. So it really didn't have an impact on what we wanted to bring to players.
Korthia is your new zone. What sort of quests can players expect? You've mentioned there will be plenty of secrets to discover.
Johnny Cash: Korthia is an area players will be spending a lot of their time in Chains of Domination. In the story we've set this place up as the city of secrets, this place where the Attendants in Oribos, their brothers and sisters, hid all these things away so people like the Jailer would never find them. Obviously, the fact we're going there and fighting the Jailer means he's after those secrets that were never intended to be found.
So a lot of questing focuses around those sorts of ideas, uncovering these ancient relics, these ancient powerful things, and both keeping them from the Jailer and using them against him. One of the simple examples there I really like is, throughout Shadowlands, if you joined a Covenant, you've been spending time as a Kyrian, or a Night Fae or a Necrolord, getting to know those characters and that story really well. In Chains of Domination we're coming together more, to bring the fight as a unified front.
One of the cool opportunities there is the quests that you're going to do every day in Korthia, they've sent you around, you're killing enemies, you're finding relics, that sort of thing, you're getting to interact with members of the other Covenants that you maybe haven't talked to in a while. If you're Kyrian you probably haven't talked to Lady Moonberry in a good bit. So you get to catch up with these characters and see what they're up to. We've inserted lots of different dialogue between the characters as you accept and turn in quests. So it kind of feels like this one unified force. You get all these different insights that are really cool.
Another thing I'm really excited about while you're in Korthia is The Archivists' Codex. You're talking about secrets - maybe I can answer your question a little bit without giving too much away. Pretty quickly you'll meet this character who is an archivist - they want to protect these relics. They have this tome, this book in which they're cataloguing all the things that have been lost. As you're killing rare enemies and doing quests and finding the treasure behind the waterfall, that kind of thing, you're going to be finding these pieces of research that you can share with this guy to learn more, and craft new items. That can result in some really cool secret opportunities that open Korthia up over time.
One that's really cool is there's this hidden rift within Korthia that's difficult to access at first. You might access it at first a little bit into the update and find the giant boss who was hiding in plain sight. And you can use an item you craft to pull him back out into normal Korthia and then everybody around you can help you fight it and get an epic reward. That boss has been there the whole time - you might have been playing through there for a couple weeks and had no idea.
That's just one. There are all of these hidden little things we put throughout Korthia for players to find that keep piling on top of each other to be cooler and cooler as you learn more and expand your reputation.
Will we learn more about the First Ones in Korthia?
Johnny Cash: There's a lot of secrets hidden in Korthia, right? And we've heard little snippets here and there about some of these groups, like the First Ones. The Primus' message to us early in Shadowlands has a mention of these First Ones in a vague kind of way. That kind of information is something we would never want the Jailer to find out. Will we learn more about them? What will we learn? I don't want to spoil the coolest parts of the patch! But what I can tell you is there are a lot of things players have learned a little bit about in Shadowlands so far - and characters like Uther, Tyrande or what the Jailer's up to, what his ultimate plan is - we're going to learn more about a lot of those things in Chains of Domination. We'll get some more questions, too! But we're also going to answer a lot of things. Some of the answers players have really been searching for are going to be really satisfying to finally hear.
You're putting Sylvanas as the final boss of the new raid. What can you say about how that fight will go? What might we learn? Also, I'm not going into this fight expecting to defeat Sylvanas because it's Sylvanas. So how do you create a meaningful boss fight when everyone expects her to live to fight another day?
Johnny Cash: As you do the story in Korthia and you're playing through the new chapters, you're going to be building up to that moment, building up to this fateful encounter with Sylvanas that some people hoped would never come and some people have been waiting for for a very long time - and maybe that's different depending what character you're playing.
The Sylvanas fight, the team has put so much love and energy into making this one of the coolest encounters we've ever done. It is spectacular. I know players on PTR [Public Test Realm] have seen a hint of it, but as we've finished everything up and the final visuals are in, and all the extra mechanics and all that kind of thing, it's so spectacularly cool.
One thing that's cool during the fight is you get to see the different phases of Sylvanas as we've known her over the past many, many years. So we get to fight her as the Ranger General, but also as the Banshee Queen, and also as this Maw-empowered ally of the Jailer. And so we get to see all those different facets of Sylvanas that we've come to know her as over the years.
And the thing that people haven't seen on PTR yet, and the thing that... yeah, during the raid fight we're obviously focused on the battle at hand, but at the end there will be those cinematics that play and we're going to learn some things. Nobody wants spoilers - you want to see it for yourself in the moment and earn that for your character - but we're going to learn a lot of things about where the story of the Shadowlands is going, what the fate of Sylvanas is, and where everything stands. Those questions people want to know, we're going to have answers to. And I am really excited for people to hear those answers!
It's interesting you mention upcoming cinematics. What do you think of players who datamine the patch before it's out and release these unfinished cinematics and dialogue, which players then use to search for clues and potential story developments? It all gets spoiled before launch, doesn't it?
Frank Kowalkowski: Players are passionate and they're willing to go through very extreme lengths to try and figure out what's next because they want to figure out what's next. They're very connected to their characters, the game and the story of the Shadowlands in the greater World of Warcraft universe.
From our perspective, we'd prefer people to play through and see it as intended, because then they'd have all the context they need. But I'm excited the players are excited. Speculation is part of the fun of anticipation, right?
Going back to Sylvanas, fans want to know if she's set for a redemption arc. I think a lot of what that is about is seeing the terrible things Sylvanas has done and some of the cool things she's done, and it being difficult to marry the two sides. Where do you guys stand on the ongoing debate about Sylvanas and whether a redemption arc for her could ever be justified?
Johnny Cash: Sylvanas is a complicated character, right? As you mentioned, she's done great and terrible things. And I think rightfully deserves judgment on either side, depending on who you are, and what speaks more strongly to you. And we treat Sylvanas like any of our marquee characters - these big characters that are really important to the Warcraft storyline, we always want to do them justice and find the right opportunity to tell their story in the best way that we can. Sylvanas is such a popular character and such a polarising character that people feel strongly about her one way or the other. And ultimately, our goal at the end of the day is to tell her story and to tell it in the context of the greater narrative that we want to weave for people.
We don't want to get into spoilers about where Sylvanas' story is headed, but we want to give a really big moment for her here, and have this culmination of a lot of threads that we've been talking about for quite some time. So I think that will be really exciting for people. Regardless of how you feel about Sylvanas you're going to get some answers. And I think that's going to be really great.
It remains to be seen as to where exactly Sylvanas' story is headed, but it's intertwined with the story of that of the Shadowlands. She's been standing at the Jailer's side for some time now. And now Anduin is involved in this whole thing. And we're gonna see how that plays out. And we just hope that it's a really cool story for players, and then it's something that people are excited to talk about.
Let's move on to the Broker Mega-dungeon. It's got an Infinite Pirate Dragon. What's an Infinite Pirate Dragon, and how do I get one as a mount?
Frank Kowalkowski: Wow, that would make an amazing mount! I think the Infinite Pirate Dragon might have something to say about that as well though.
The Infinite Pirate Dragon is a boss in the second part of the mega-dungeon players will get an opportunity to engage with. There will be some lead-up to that point that will explain why you're going to fight an infinite pirate dragon. Tazavesh is the mysterious city of the brokers, and we're going to get to see a lot of how the brokers live their lives, how they go out and collect these various artifacts they like to sell to the denizens of the Shadowlands, and the Infinite Pirate Dragon is going to factor into that.
Yeah, but what exactly is an Infinite Pirate Dragon?
Johnny Cash: The ultimate story of Tazavesh is kind of a heist scenario. So you end up going to not only Tazavesh proper, but a couple different locations as you're trying to stop this heist of this powerful artifact. And so in the moment, it's kind of like one of those sequences you've seen before in media where you're chasing the bad guy through a portal and you end up somewhere completely unexpected - that kind of idea. It's part of the brokers' thing - they have the ability to go to all different parts of the Warcraft cosmos to borrow things they will then sell to other people - living and nonliving. Ultimately, it's best to see that in context as to how we actually get there, but it all makes sense within the idea of who these guys are.
And while you're going through these different parts and exploring Tazavesh and all it has to offer - just like Korthia, we did want to carry through that theme of having some secret stuff going on. So if you've done mega-dungeons in the past, you're a big dungeon person, you might recall previous ones where we've had those hard modes you can activate... well we're not going to tell you how, but if you want to poke around there are some special modes for some bosses you can activate to get some extra rewards.
Okay, but no Infinite Pirate Dragon mount?
Johnny Cash: I don't think so. [Blizzard has confirmed to me that no, the Infinite Pirate Dragon is not a mount in World of Warcraft. Bah! You can get Sylvanas' bow as a hunter, though!]
Back in February you guys were talking about not really seeing anything that needed to be overhauled in terms of systems. Rather, you were looking at iteration. In the months since, what have you changed?
Frank Kowalkowski: Systems is a pretty big word. It covers a lot of things from player power progression to PvP talents choices, which we did overhaul - we found a new set of PvP talents, some of which are very cool. Mages throwing up an ice wall, warlocks sucking enemies into a vortex and sending them off to where they set up their demonic portals. We wanted to bring a little more flavour there.
We're pretty happy with how soulbinds turned out. We expanded that system - we added four new rows, and then we added the capacity to empower certain slots of your soulbinds. So it's more about expanding those systems we think were successful, as much as it's doing any sort of overhaul.
Johnny Cash: One area I think received quite a bit of change is Torghast. It's very thematically tied, obviously, to the Sanctum of Domination raid, which sits above it thematically. People love Torghast and just want some new things to run in there while they're doing it, and some new things to explore. The team's done an awesome job. We made the average run a little shorter. In Shadowlands it was six floors. Now it's five, which is just a little bit shorter and feels just about right. We're very happy with that.
We also added some new layers for people who want to keep pushing deeper. Like the person who wants to push Mythic+ further in the new season, if you're somebody who wants to push deeper into Torghast there are some new layers there.
One of the things players gave us feedback on was wanting to vary things up a bit. And so while you're in a run now, we've added a new scoring system. Depending on how you do, if you do really well you can actually open up some bonus floors with a totally new art kit, extra challenging, but also extra enticing rewards at the end of them - some cool cosmetics I think people are doing to really want.
If you're somebody who's maybe having a harder time in the tower - maybe you're on an alt and your gear's just not quite there - as you're killing things you're going to be filling a new anima empowerment bar. Once you fill the bar, you get a special button you can press, and it gives you super mode for a little bit. It's the same feeling when you pop Bloodlust and you're full power for a bit. That can help you kill that really difficult boss you've been struggling with or get one layer deeper than you had before.
For run-over-run progression - because we really wanted to go deep on Torghast , especially in a very Torghast-themed update, like you have to, right? - we added a meta-progression. Very early on in the patch you're going to be introduced to this box of many things, this mysterious cube we'll learn more about over time. As you go through the runs you'll earn a currency based on your rating, run-over-run, and you can use that to unlock perks. You can unlock buffs for yourself, or the ability to reroll powers - different things that help you customise your run and make yourself even more powerful, so as you go deeper and deeper you can do better on runs down the line.
If you really like Torghast, there's a tonne of new stuff to check out, in addition to the PvP and the new Mythic+ affix. Over the past month the team has been very busy doing plenty of systems stuff to keep players happy, too.
Frank Kowalkowski: We had a look at some of the affixes. Things like Storming and how punishing they were for melee, that's a system we did look at and respond to some player feedback on.
Shards of Domination - this capacity to earn these unholy gem rune things from inside of the Sanctum of Domination to help customise your gear inside of the raid and potentially hook up some set bonuses that are active inside of the raid, are ways we've looked at systems that can be additive to what we already have in Shadowlands.
9.1 arrives seven months after Shadowlands launched. Based on the timelines of when major updates launched for previous expansions, there isn't a huge amount of time left for more updates like this before a new expansion should come out. What can players expect after 9.1 comes out?
Frank Kowalkowski: We're working really hard on the next content update. We know what's next incoming for Shadowlands, and we have a plan that has not changed for what we want to do with Shadowlands. In terms of what players can expect, Chains of Domination has a lot of content we think is going to keep people engaged with the game for a while. There's a lot to pursue there, no matter what your flavour of playing is, whether it's Mythic+ or Torghast, or collections or questing, or even raiding, there's a lot there to keep players occupied.
We're working on what's next, and we understand players are hungry for content. And they're hungry for content at a specific quality level they've come to expect from World of Warcraft, so we're working on that.
World of Warcraft Shadowlands patch 9.1, Chains of Domination, launches 29th June.