INTERVIEW: Talking ‘Dragonflight’ with Game Director Ion Hazzikostas

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Dragonflight - But Why Tho

We are only a couple of weeks away from the long-awaited, World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. After the slow decline in the reception of Shadowlands, the most popular MMORPG franchise looks to shake up its own game with a new playable race, new class, new talent system, a complete HUD rework, and of course lots of dragons. It is very ambitious to change so much in the ninth installment of World of Warcraft, however, the team at Blizzard is looking more than up to the task as Dragonflight slowly makes its descent.

Before players take flight in World of Warcraft: Dragonflight, Game Designer, and longtime Warcraft expert Ion Hazzikostas joined us and other outlets to discuss the upcoming expansion. The following interview is lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

BUT WHY THO: With the launch of World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Classic preceding the launch of Dragonflight, are there any lessons you’ve learned from that rebooting that you are going to apply with Dragonflight? 

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: We’ve learned a tremendous amount from Classic over the last few years. Among the World of Warcraft development team, particularly among many of us who’ve been on the team for a long time, there’s always a lot of debate on changes that have been made over the years that remove friction and ask, ‘Did we lose something by making those changes as developers or is it that the community in a lot of ways is it a different place now?’ Some of our experiments in past recent expansions like Shadowlands or restrictions on changing your armor around your azurite armor in Battle for Azeroth were harkening back to what was seen the way Classic worked 15 to 16 years ago.

Back then it worked to good effect where you had to pay an escalating respect cost to change your talents and decisions felt weightier and it was harder to just change all these aspects of your character, which in a sense did create more investments in them, more social interdependencies and so forth. But I think what we’ve seen looking at players go through Classic today is that really the communities are set at a different place.

The same systems that played out one way in 2005 and 2008 don’t play out the same way today. People do meta game, people do min-max. People, even if respecting is super-inconvenient, still, feel obligated to grind lots of gold so they can respec whenever they want to be the optimal thing for what they’re doing. And some of our efforts in the modern game put the cat back in the bag we’re a bit misguided in that sense. We were trying to return to a place where our players no longer really were. I think Dragonflight is fully embracing that knowledge as we look forward. It’s meeting players where they are, it’s giving freedom and agency. It is the depth and the customization of old-school talent trees dialed up to eleven but retaining the flexibility the players today want and expect. And that’s kind of the modern ethos embodied.

MAX – DOT ESPORTS: With the timing of the release for Dragonflight close to Christmas and holidays, what was the thought process in balancing the raid and the timing of the raid and avoiding sort of that previous situation that we had where the thing [raid tier] dragged on forever in a day?

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: There’s a ton of effort that goes into creating and balancing. I think it’s more taking a step back from trying to just one upping the evermore skillful and evermore organized best skills in the world. If we keep trying to one-up them, we’re going to create something that, yes, will be very hard for them, but that is actually so hard that it’s frustrating for everybody else and that’s not the right thing for the game. We are releasing Mythic Difficulty at the same time as heroic in large part because of the holiday season coming up, players don’t want to have to organize competitive cutting-edge raiding over the holidays. Also, it’s nice for us to be able to spend time with our families as well and not be hot fixing on Christmas Day. But all of that said, I am hopeful that if this experiment works well it’s something we would continue even without holiday conflicts. It’s always been a little bit odd to have that first week where Mythic Difficulty wasn’t available but also loot from some sources as a result was kind of arbitrarily gated.

Why did my rewards stop getting better? The answer was like, ‘Oh, because we want to be fair to the World First Raiders.’ That’s not a satisfying answer. I think that releasing everything simultaneously will make for an overall more exciting focus stretch at the very, very high end in terms of competition and for the rest of the player base, it just means all your options are available to you. If you want to start delving into higher keys, go nuts. If you are a very skillful PvP and you can climb rating, you’re not going to hit a ceiling that limits the rewards that you get. We’re going to be paying close attention to how it goes. We’ve tested all the encounters thoroughly, gotten feedback over the course of multiple rounds on Beta, and looking forward to kicking off the season in December.

Dragonflight - But Why Tho

ERIC SWITZER – THEGAMER: The dragon aspects have a lot of history but a big role in the story for a long time. Do you expect that new players may have some trouble catching up with all the characters in their backstories?

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: Our hope is no. There’s a lot of depth to the story, and players who played through Wrath of the Lich and Cataclysm, who remember some of the nuances of the aspect of past experience, may appreciate the extra depth there. But at its core, this is a story that doesn’t have barriers to entry. It’s about these dragons who are guardians of Azeroth. The stories the players saw in the Legacy cinematics released over the last few weeks will also be available in-game as a kind of backstory and context. These aspects guardians Azeroth had to sacrifice their power to defeat Deathwing and save Azeroth years ago.

So when this ancient threat from primordial times, the Primal Incarnate, returns, they no longer have the power that they once did to stand up to them. Without that power, now they need our help. We’re going to learn about the origin of the aspects. We’re going to learn about what losing the power has meant, where it came from, how they’ve interacted with each other altogether as we journey through the Dragon Isles and as we look to crown new aspects, in some cases to replace those that have been lost over the years. So this backstory, adds depth for those who are familiar with it, but it’s not required to really understand.

BUT WHY THO: Toxicity like in the group finder is still very prevalent. At this point in the game, all these years later, are there any plans that may be introduced where we have that reputation accommodation system that will maybe allow for players with high reputations to have more rewards, more currency, or something to incentivize better behavior?

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: I think there’s definitely value to the accommodation system. We watched and learned from what the Overwatch team tried there with their end-of-match commendations. We need to be careful in terms of whether it’s penalties or rewards to make sure that, again, we’re encouraging genuine, earnestly, good play and not yet another layer that’s going to be meta-gamed and optimized. But I think carrots work. And so we’ve tried to have a code of conduct we asked players to adapt, to acknowledge. We have improved our ingame reporting and enforcement of harassment, hate speech, and harmful language.

At the end of the day, though, the person who was toxic to you getting suspended doesn’t like a day later doesn’t make that toxicity feel less bad. It doesn’t make your experience of getting pushed stat and kicked out of a dungeon group feel less bad. And so we need to do more and want to do more to just encourage positive cooperative play. We have nothing to announce specifically right now, but I think something like those positive commendation systems, reasons to care about others opinion of you, reasons even if you’re probably never going to see those people again, to make them want you to not like, to make them not think of you as a jerk. Like all those are valuable and we want to continue to grow in those areas.

MOMO TABARI – LAPTOP: We will someday see dungeons from Cataclysm, Lich King, and the Burning Crusade or even Vanilla redesigned to fit into the current Mythic Plus system?

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: It’s possible but unlikely without major changes. When we get to dungeons that are from that era, we’re more likely to do what we have done to some dungeons where it’s like a full reimagining updating of the dungeon the same way we did similar things for the Scarlet Monastery dungeons in the past. There’s a challenge. We internally probably draw a line around Mists of Pandaria when it comes to how far back we’re going to look for Mythic Plus rotating seasonal dungeons. In part because there’s something a bit more modern about the encounter design. Even Mist dungeons were designed with Challenge Mode as a system and a time trial concept and a higher difficulty concept and built to support people running trying to get a gold challenge mode ten years ago, which was in some ways the precursor predecessor to Mythic. We weren’t necessarily asking ourselves the same questions that we ask when making dungeons today, and so I would say unlikely in their current form, though, as always, anything is possible.

MAX – DOT ESPORTS: In terms of raid release times, could sort of expound upon sort of the difference between the way that Shadowlands ended and the feedback that you take from that and how that translates into the new expansion and what sort of conversation are you having with the Liquids and Echos of the world when you’re sort of in that process?

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: We hear from them, their leaders are visible streamers and folks who have large audiences who get their feedback out and it’s unmistakable. We want to offer an interesting experience for them. Our goal with the high-end PvE tuning is to make things just hard enough to allow the best guild in the world to meaningfully distinguish themselves from the second-best guild in the world. If things are so easy that everyone wins pretty quickly or all the top ten guilds can beat the boss within a few hours, well then whoever wins is whoever got there first. On the flip side, if everything is impossibly hard, we have to nerf things multiple times, we’re overdoing it. We’ve also frustrated a tremendous number of people while finding that out. Most of the feedback that we heard was not just about the length of the race. It was about the hundreds, the thousands of other guilds struggling on Halondrus, struggling on Anduin, trying to finish heroic, trying to keep their guilds together amidst the frustration.

That led the team as a whole to take a step back and ask, ‘What are our goals here?’ Bosses are meant to be beaten. We can make impossible bosses if we want to beat the player base. We could do that easily. That’s not great game design, that’s not our goal here. It’s taking a step back and trying to create a framework wherein those first couple of weeks the tools available and the gear available, things are hard enough to provide a stern test for the very best skills in the world while also meeting everybody else at their appropriate difficulty. Whether you’re starting progression in normal or you’re trying to start a mythic with the goal of getting cutting-edge months down the line, you should have a satisfying progression experience without random roadblocks. It’s always been our goal but I think it got away from us a little bit over the course of Shadowlands. I think we’re happy to rein things back in and hope there’s going to be a better experience for raiders of all skill levels and all approaches to the game as a result.

ERIC SWITZER – THEGAMER: What the benefits of dragon-riding are over regular flying, specifically, when a player is just sort of on the grind doing their world quest, why do they want to do this more active flying rather than sort of passively traveling between locations?

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: I mean, aside from feeling awesome, it’s more than double, almost triple the speed. So if you’re maximizing your momentum, you are using your active abilities diving you can zip across the Dragon Isles from one side to the other. It’s not just the illusion of movement. It’s real movement. It’s real speed. The goal wasn’t to take flying and be like, ‘Well, let’s make this harder. Let’s make this require more work.’ It’s like, ‘Let’s give you the tools to move far faster and more newly than you’ve ever been able to before.’

BUT WHY THO: With the shift away from the borrowed power systems, what’s been the talks with the design team and making sure you’re balancing new abilities but also presenting the ability bloat and also making sure that everyone is able to come into the raid so you don’t have those frustrations of not being brought to raid because you don’t have a certain ability?

ION HAZZIKOSTAS: Our goal, ultimately, is to make an environment where players of every class in spec can shine, where they have their moments in the sun and have strengths and weaknesses. We want differences. I think people often wonder, ask, why not just give that to everybody? It would make it easier to balance. Yes, it would absolutely make it easier to balance. But our goal isn’t perfect balance. Our goal is fun, variety, and cooperative gameplay, which I think shines; when I’m good at something that you’re not as good at or you have a strength that offsets my weakness and we’re going to work together to overcome a challenge that we couldn’t necessarily do alone.

Ion Hazzikostas has been with Blizzard for many years and his passion for World of Warcraft hasn’t wavered. If we weren’t already excited to jump into World of Warcraft: Dragonflight in the coming weeks, we certainly are now. You can jump into the pre-Patch for World of Warcraft: Dragonflight now and on full release on November 28, 2022 at 3 PM PDT.

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