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Blizzard says "it's time to make a bold statement" with World of Warcraft

"It's time to set ourselves up for the next 20-plus years."

An illustration of the now fairly grizzled human paladin Anduin, from World of Warcraft.
Image credit: Eurogamer / Blizzard

This year, World of Warcraft will get its 10th expansion, the War Within, which as an occurrence is nothing particularly remarkable - there have, after all, been nine of them before. This time though, things seem slightly different. There's an air of change around Blizzard, at least as far as World of Warcraft operations go. It's personified by executive producer and vice president for World of Warcraft, Holly Longdale, who joined the WoW team in 2020 (from EverQuest) and stepped into the EP role about two years ago. She talks - in a presentation at a WoW War Within event in London - about the team trying, for about a year-and-a-half, to be more transparent and share development more openly with the community, then elicit feedback more readily from them. And though team-leaders tend to say things like this, there does seem to be some evidence to back it up. Look on the World of Warcraft website: there's a string of in-development posts about War Within that reveal considerable information about it - there don't seem to be cards held close to chests. There are also posts detailing recent experimental ideas like battle royale mode Plunderstorm, which came out of nowhere, and the equally unexpected new Remix idea, which supercharges an entire previous expansion's content - in this case Mists of Pandaria's - for a speedy recap levelling experience. It sounds like a great idea.

Things have needed to change. World of Warcraft has never faced more competition - not only from other MMOs like Final Fantasy 14, but also from games that might as well be labelled MMOs, such as Fortnite. Whether or not World of Warcraft still rules the roost, I don't know, because Blizzard won't talk numbers, which in itself is probably telling. More importantly, Blizzard has had to weather some ferocious storms. There was the lawsuit that alleged sexual discrimination at the company, which although it was settled last year for multiple-millions, has caused considerable harm. There was also, at the same time, the whole will-they won't-they saga of the Microsoft Activision Blizzard buyout, which has now finally gone through and will bring changes of its own, such as Microsoft-enforced layoffs announced earlier this year.

An overview of what to expect in the playable World of Warcraft: The War Within alpha.Watch on YouTube

It's against that backdrop Blizzard tries to answer the not inconsiderable question of how to make a 20-year-old game still feel relevant today. It's a remarkable innings, and it staggers me to think of how many millions of people and lives World of Warcraft has touched during it, but how do you bring those people back? Partially, some of the answer seems to be to go big. The War Within, unlike any previous WoW expansion, will belong to a trilogy - the Worldsoul Saga - which will build and build in scope until we're facing those legendary titans we always hear so much about from the game's foundational lore. Expansions two and three - Midnight, and The Last Titan, respectively - are already in development, and should combine to deliver the most ambitious connected storyline the game has ever seen.

There's also a sense that the game is heading into a new era. The combined development effort on the Worldsoul Saga will take at least six years, if previous expansion cycles are anything to go by, and when I speak to Holly Longdale, she mentions - not for the first time - looking ahead to the game's next 20 years. Can you imagine?

Nonetheless, there's also a lot about the War Within that's very familiar. Like nearly all other WoW expansions, there'll be a new zone to explore, new mechanical features, a new playable race, and a raised level cap. The theme is going deep underground so it makes sense that the new playable race is a dwarf - the Earthen - and though we're going below, we're not getting claustrophobic. Think instead of those vast underground places Gandalf plummets through when he's slugging it out with the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings.

An underground dungeon in World of Warcraft: The War Within, with a spiralling, wooden-walkway-lined settlement of some sort.
A vast, underground, glowing cavern in World of Warcraft: The War Within.
An outside area in World of Warcraft: The War Within, showing the stony dwarven city of Donogal.
An incredibly large underground area in World of Warcraft: The War Within, dominated by an enormous sun-like glowing gem.
A handful of screenshots showing some of the environmental variation in 'underground' expansion The War Within. | Image credit: Blizzard

The notable new mechanics are Hero Talents, Warbands and Delves. Hero Talents excite me most because they're an additional layer of customisation, designed to get you closer to the class fantasy in your head. I long to be a raging berserker, for instance - don't ask - so the new Slayer Hero Talent tree is the one for me. But I could have been a Colossus or a Thor-like Mountain Thane. There will be 39 of these Hero Talent trees in total, a few for each class, and they've been detailed in a number of posts on the official site.

Another notable new idea is Delves: single-player storied dungeons designed, as associate design director Maria Hamilton tells me, to be playable in lunch breaks or equivalent 15-minute gaps. They're available in different difficulty levels and, on higher levels, will apparently offer competitive endgame equipment rewards, which is exciting. In order to be playable alone, they'll come with an NPC friend who'll fight with you, in either a damage or healer role. It's an extension of the Follower NPCs you can dungeon with in Dragonflight, which, incidentally, will be available for dungeons in the War Within from the beginning. And it all means Blizzard can now put mainline story content in dungeons where it couldn't before, because it didn't want to leave people who couldn't - or wouldn't - dungeon, out.

I tried one of these Delves, incidentally, during the alpha preview event, and I liked it. I set my companion Brann Bronzebeard (who will be the Delve companion for season one, apparently) to being a healer and breezed through scripted minecart-related shenanigans and fighting a boss at the end. It felt novel to be able to take on a dungeon alone.

A screnshot showing the new Warband log-in screen to World of Warcraft, in which you'll see your characters huddled around a campfire, waiting for you to choose them and log in.
A screnshot showing the new Warband log-in screen to World of Warcraft, in which you'll see your characters huddled around a campfire, waiting for you to choose them and log in.
The new Warband log-in screen. It looks like Diablo, doesn't it? | Image credit: Blizzard

Finally, Warbands remind me distinctly of Diablo, which of course Blizzard also makes. It's a system that gathers all your characters on your account and puts them more to the fore, collecting them on one log-in screen that looks a lot like Diablo's log-in screens - your characters all sitting around a campfire, waiting to be played. Warbands go deeper than that, though. There will be Warband-specific rewards in the game, a shared Warband bank, and your reputation and reward gains will be shared across the Warband thank god.

One other minor but, I feel, significant point. The iconic exclamation and question marks you see above NPC heads: they're getting a refurb. There will now be multiple types, colours, shapes, and other nuances to better show - at a glance - what the hell is going on.

The War Within will be released sometime in the late summer, early autumn. My full interview with Holly Longdale follows.

A screenshot showing several multi-coloured Earthen dwarves from the new World of Warcraft expansion The War Within. They all stand next to each other and stare at the camera. It's quite disconcerting.
Who on Earthen these people? (They are the new playable dwarf race, the Earthen.) Quite a disconcerting image, isn't it? I see lots of family tension. | Image credit: Blizzard

Eurogamer: I'd love to hear a bit about the idea for a trilogy of expansions. Is this an idea Blizzard has been sitting on for a while - where did it come from?

Holly Longdale: Well over a year ago, we were talking about, "Okay, 20th anniversary is coming up, it's a big moment, significant..."

It sure is!

And we spent time talking about [it] and then we thought, 'I think that's too micro. Let's take a step back. Where are we going? What is World of Warcraft? What are we doing with this crazy behemoth, glorious thing that was created?'

And so from that we thought it's time to make a bold statement. It's time to set ourselves up for the next twenty-plus [years]; what does that look like? Then, we did some reflection about storytelling and what it means to be a citizen of Azeroth on a terrestrial world, and really examined that closely.

The best way I can describe it is I referenced Star Wars earlier. So we're thinking of an episode one, episode two, episode three. Each episode, in and of itself, is a contained story that has its own arcs, but they contribute to an overall story.

A World of Warcraft screenshot - a screen full of menus and icons showing the new Hero Talents.
A World of Warcraft screenshot - a screen full of menus and icons showing the new Hero Talents.
This is me picking my Slayer Hero Talent specialisation for my warrior. You can see that, as an overall skill tree, it's fairly small. The abilities on the tree are more passive-focused and amplify the kinds of things you already do, in unique, flavourful ways. | Image credit: Eurogamer / Blizzard

And presumably they'll be linked together between expansion by a string of content patches?


How to phrase this without giving it all away? We're aware the focus for the War Within is manipulation by way of Xal'atath and whatever evil deeds she's doing.


God, it's so hard to say this without revealing things!

When you think of Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Yoda - all those characters - their arcs take place over that entire saga. It's not resolved in one. There's a very real cadence for how this will play out that can't be rushed. If we tried to do everything we planned to tell in one expansion, it wouldn't be good.


Will these expansions being a trilogy affect the content we're used to getting in them, or the speed at which they're typically released?

We are going to be delivering our expansions very similar to what you would expect from Dragonflight, but we're not sure how quickly the expansions are coming because we're still building that muscle on how we do staggered development. Obviously War Within is going to be shipping [this year], [but] Midnight and the Last Titan are all in development as well, so we're trying to do staggered development. Depending on what we learn, you can expect a WoW expansion to contain similar things to what they have in the past. We want to deliver what players have enjoyed, expansion over expansion, but then we also have new additions. Delves are going to continue, Hero Talents will continue-

Hero Talents will continue in the sense there will be more of them - a more broader array than there are now, that are coming to War Within? There's-

There's 39.

Bertie's World of Warcraft character flies above the new War Within dwarven city of Donogal.
Bertie's World of Warcraft character flies above the new War Within dwarven city of Donogal.
Bertie's World of Warcraft character stands on the steps to the new War Within dwarven city of Donogal.
This is me, flapping around the new city of Donogal, I think it's called, on the Isle of Dorn. Not to be confused with the kingdom of Dorne from A Game of Thrones, of course. | Image credit: Eurogamer / Blizzard

Broader than the 39?

Um, potentially. When we think about it initially on paper design, it's like, 'Yes, obviously, you can do that.' But we're starting to hold back a little bit because it depends on what players' feedback is, what works and what doesn't. But at least initially the goal is - or the intent is - to grow it and really deliver on the notion of class fantasy.

So all those things will continue over time and then naturally, as we do expansions, there's likely to be more features that come online - so a lot of that will feel similar.

As to our content cadence: we're still getting our legs under us with the eight-week patch cadence. And eight weeks is sort of a guide; some may be faster. We generally don't like going over eight weeks because we find that's been really good for us, but it's also: what does it mean for Azeroth to feel alive? What events should be happening in the world? And to continue experimenting.

Speaking of experiments: you recently put out a battle royale spin-off called Plunderstorm, which came out of nowhere. It seemed to be really popular - how did it do?

We were like: we know not everyone's gonna love PvP, but that's okay, and we set ourselves some engagement targets of like, let's just throw some numbers at it and see what happens. And it outperformed everything. Even with the people that were... PvP is a polarising game type or genre. And then while that's still live to announce Remix, it's like, if you hang on with us for a minute, we'll have something for you.

Is there a chance Plunderstorm could remain as a permanent fixture, given how well it seems to have done?

It's not designed for that, currently. But part of doing these limited-time events is so we can get something out there, see if people like it, and then if it does seem to have legs for a permanent option then we can design it for that. What we don't want to do is put something out there that wasn't intended to last. So we're going to see.

A couple of images from a Delve. You'll see a misty kind of instance portal in some outdoor areas - this one is at the entrance of a mine - and you'll travel through to the Delve from there. As you can see, you first need to pick a difficulty, and the rewards for them are showcased for you. | Image credit: Eurogamer / Blizzard

I also wonder if in some way the trilogy is about keeping people's attention between expansions, to stop the natural drop-off after it comes out?

This is a great subject because we did set ourselves a goal, when Dragonflight launched, to do eight-week cadences, but it was not just to throw a random objective out there: we wanted to see can we retain people?

We knew that our more casual players are solo players; they would do our level-up campaign then they'd take a break until we did more content that spoke to them - quests and so on. So we thought, 'Okay, well, they're underserved - what can we do for them?' And that's where we ended up adding more content, holidays... We're employing a lot of data to be able to guide us on how to parse our content to our various segments and make sure that everyone is served. So the expansion tracks are the high-level storylines for the game, and also the feature sets. Now, we have a live team that keeps the heartbeat happening for the game in between our larger patches.

I see - so you have your development team and your live team?


How does that break down when you factor in World of Warcraft: Classic as well, because anecdotally, it seems to be a really popular thing. How is it doing and where does the bulk of the WoW audience lie?

I can't give numbers but I can say they are both incredibly healthy. Season of Discovery [the second WoW Classic season]: we suspected it would do well [but] it did a lot better than we expected. So did Hardcore.

Hardcore was a brilliant idea.

We're just supporting what the community was already doing, but we did it officially and that was a big lesson for us as a team. We've always recognised that listening to the community obviously has benefits, but really leaning into it and providing official, WoW team solutions to things that they wanted to do anyway: amazing.

Look at that - it's a new World of Warcraft exclamation mark! There's a whole new variety of exclamation marks and question marks in the game - the UI has been overhauled. | Image credit: Eurogamer / Blizzard

I have another bitty question about Chris Metzen, one of the founders of Warcraft at Blizzard, who rejoined the company recently after several years away. I know he's working on a future vision for Warcraft, but is he directly involved on World of Warcraft day to day? Do you talk to him about the vision for the game?

Oh yeah - all the time. He meets with her [Longdale points to a divider behind which Maria Hamilton is holding interviews] at least a couple of times a week.

Oh I see! I wasn't sure if he was off doing something else.

No, he's guiding the ship.

The other thing I wanted to ask concerns the industry and everything that's been happening to it. One, are you all okay, and two, has there been any significant restructuring on the World of Warcraft team itself?

Yes, we're okay. Our team and our game, alongside our community, has done very well - we're so thrilled and grateful.

In broad terms, the industry is relatively small, so a lot of us have been touched by people who have lost their jobs. Fortunately though, our team is completely energised by the feedback from the community that we've turned a corner, that we're different. We're growing. We've continued to grow to serve this goal of delivering Classic, delivering Modern, and being different, being better, and listening. We count ourselves as fortunate. We're in a really great position with our game, and we're just going to keep driving and serve our players.

That's very good to hear.

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