WOW Dragonflight

The WoW: Dragonflight Alpha Kicks Off This Week And It’s A Wild Ride: An Interview With The Game Director

Big things for a classic franchise.

Earlier this year, Blizzard Entertainment announced the ninth expansion for World of Warcraft, World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. Scheduled for official release in December 2022, Dragonflight has just entered into Alpha testing status so we sat down with Game Director Ion Hazzikostas to have a chat about what to expect from this exciting new chapter of the World of Warcraft.

What has the reaction to Dragonflight from the World of Warcraft community been like?

The team is certainly pleased and excited by the reception. You know, one of the most nerve-wracking moments as a developer on World of Warcraft is that moment when we pull back the curtain and share our expansion concept with the world because at that point, we’ve probably been working on it for a couple of years and if the fundamental idea isn’t landing like we hoped it would, it’s too late to change it. So, when we set out to create Dragonflight, we knew we were returning to Azeroth, and we wanted to deliver a high fantasy expansion, something inviting that returns to the vibes of exploration and discovery, not a big universe-ending threat looming, right from the start – and of course, who doesn’t love dragons? 

When we were able to share the cinematic and the framing of the expansion back in April, we were really excited by the reception, and we’re even more excited this week to be able to pull back that curtain fully and really invite the world in to see what we’ve been working on, explore these worlds, mess around with the talent systems, see our other system revamps and more.

It’s very early in testing but so far,  have you had any interesting or surprising feedback?

The community as a whole is going to see Alpha tomorrow, but we’ve been trying to start the feedback process for some of our systems changes as early as possible. We began publishing comprehensive talent blogs for some of our revamped talent trees over a month ago, and again, it was one of those things where we knew it was a risky change; we knew we were making a pretty drastic change to something that is fundamental, which is the class and the spec[iaslisation] that players view our whole world and interact with the world through. We’ve been very happy to see positive initial reception; people in the community putting together talent calculators and people exploring theory crafting and exploring what their dungeon build might be versus what they’re going to PvP with.

Also, giving us really valuable feedback about choices that felt either lopsided or frustrating can allow us to begin that process of iteration even sooner. As we open up Alpha we’ll have more of these trees playable hands-on and over the course of the next months, we’ll get all of the remaining ones testable. So, we can’t wait to just get that ongoing dialogue during our Alpha and Beta period to just really make the [talent] trees everything they can be. 

We last spoke to the Dragonflight team in April, have there been any major changes or surprises since then?

Things have been proceeding according to plan, and I’m incredibly proud of the team as a whole for pulling off with as many variables that go into game development these days. This is the week that we had circled months and months and months ago for when Alpha was going to begin and when we were going to be able to share everything with the world and here we are and it’s happening. We can’t wait to move on to the next phase and begin to dig into the specifics of our systems changes, new rewards, zones we’re building, dungeons and raids and more. That key process that occurs over the course of Beta where we’re getting tons of feedback while things are still malleable enough to make major changes is one of the most exciting and gratifying parts of the entire development cycle and it’s right around the corner.

In the lead-up to the new expansion will any of the older content become easier to finish or more accessible to players who aren’t up to date?

We’ve loosened the requirements for allied races significantly already but we’re not planning to further adjust that. We’ve removed the reputation requirements and the repeatable content that was required to unlock them. Now it’s more just a single campaign questline that you have to play through for a given zone or another piece of content which really in a sense takes the place of what the starting experience for that race might be since they start at a higher level and they don’t have a traditional starting experience. In general, with updating World of Warcraft, we’re always trying to strike a balance between maintaining the investment that players have in their characters and fulfilling and catering to people who have been playing for a decade and are looking for something new while keeping things approachable and accessible and having a smooth on-ramp onto the latest experience.

So, the updates we made to our new player experience in Shadowlands are going to continue and as we slightly iterate and polish players are going to be able to pick up World of Warcraft for the first time, play through the Horde and Alliance themed Battle for Azeroth experience and then move on directly into the Dragon Isles at level 60 once Dragonflight launches. They’ll be equipped to understand the story, understand the story and the stakes and the systems in front of them. Dragonflight is a fantastic time to pick up World of Warcraft whether you are returning after some time away or picking it up for the very first time. 

What was the main motivation for revamping professions in Dragonflight?

Frankly, I feel like and the development team feels like professions have had so much unrealised potential over the last 10+ years in World of Warcraft. There is a fantasy there, that in some ways we came closest to fulfilling back in Classic 17 years ago, where you could be the blacksmith on your server that had the Arcanite Reaper plans and other people would seek you out because they knew that you had put a lot of time and effort into becoming a master smith. You’d skilled up, you’d collected rare recipes and you’d log on and get whispers from people who knew ‘oh that person’s a great blacksmith’ the same way someone else could be the most fearsome duelist on their server or a terror on the battlegrounds, you were a smith or you were an enchanter who had the rare recipes. Over the years, I think that has become a bit more homogenised where most crafters have the same things as each other.

The impetus in Dragonflight’s profession revamp was really, how can we make being a crafter a part of your identity? How can we make it have that depth that is there for people who want to engage in it and who want to differentiate themselves from other crafters of the same type and be able to say this is my playstyle, I am a blacksmith and this is a big deal. We don’t want to force everyone down that path if they’re not looking to do it. If you’re just wanting to gather herbs and mix potions for your raid, that’s still going to work as it has but if you want to become a specialist and be able to make the best thing of a certain type there is a tremendously deep system there that leverages our new work order system that can allow players, I think for the first time, to make gear that is on par with the best stuff out there without undermining the value of the other stuff that is out there.

We don’t have to worry about making raid gear irrelevant or dungeon gear irrelevant because in many cases, you’ll be taking something that somebody has earned from a raid that is bound to them that they can bring to you as a blacksmith to refine for them. They have to work with you, as a player, to get a portion of the materials and you have to contribute your expertise and refinement specialisation as a master smith or tailor or whatever else and then that product is one of the strongest items in the game. That’s an exciting part of the core fantasy and we can’t wait to get this whole system into players’ hands and see how they play with it.

What are some of your favourite Dracthyr customisation options? How do you feel about the character creator side of things?

We are just tremendously excited across the board, the character art team, our animators, and everyone just raised the bar here for what character creation and customisation can be. It has been fun watching people sit down to check out Dragonflight to find out that thirty minutes later they haven’t logged in yet because they’re still tinkering with their Dracthyr. When you create your Dractyrh for the first time, it could literally be just your Dracthyr. The odds are pretty decent that you will have made one that is literally unlike any other Dracthyr played by any other person in the world. There are as many possible Dracthyr combinations as there are grains of sand on all of the beaches in the world and then some and that’s pretty darn cool. I think looking forward, of course, we want to learn from the technology improvements here and what we’ve gained from delivering the Dracthyr and apply that to other races. I think that really is the focus. In general, we’ve been working through Shadowlands, in particular, to improve character customisation and give players more ability to express themselves and their identity in World of Warcraft and in Azeroth. Something we’re excited to be moving towards is more gender options as we’re offering character creation, so instead of male or female we’re seeing body types one and two, you’re able to choose voices for characters irrespective of body type, that’s just another one of these ongoing steps that the team is excited to work towards.

Can you tell us anything more about plans to expand the options for other races as well?

The body type options I just mentioned are going to be available for all existing races. The twenty-five different sliders you can toggle are Dracthyr only right now but character customisation improvements are an ongoing project, we’re never going to say that we’re done there, we know that there is no such thing as too much when it comes to options and variety in how you can express yourself in Azeroth. For a lot of players, making sure they have an on-theme name for their Dracthyr is very important heading into the expansion. Have you seen any particularly good Dracthyr names that you would like to share?If I said the best ones that would be unfair because then they would just get snatched up straight away and we want to keep the marketplace of names fair and equal but it’s definitely fun looking at all of the puns and placeholders since we announced back in April.

Do you have a particular Dragonflight that you feel especially aligned to or even a particular colour that you’ll go-to for your Dracthyr? 

I think I’m going to go with Bronze, the Bronze Dragonflight has always been, to me, the most interesting of the WoW Dragonflights. I think it’s really fun to delve into more of what they’re about over the course of the story in the Dragon Isles. The zone of Theldrasis, which is coming up a bit later on in our Alpha testing plans in a few weeks, will really focus on the bronze  Dragonflight theme. As we’ve seen in the past, where the Bronze Dragonflight is, the Infinite Dragonflight is not too far behind so that’s another fun story that we’re excited to visit in Dragonflight. 

As we get closer to open testing and the official launch of Dragonflight, what are you most excited for WoW players to experience?

Dragon riding for the very first time. I think the very first time is something I’m looking forward to, the team is looking forward to, we’re looking forward to on-stream reactions and if you’ve played World of Warcraft for a long time you’ve got a sense of what the engine is capable of and how moving around the world has felt in the past – Dragon riding takes that to a whole new level and it’s awesome and I can’t wait for everyone to experience it.

So, your approach to testing is a little bit different this time around. Can you tell us a bit about that?

The way Alpha is going to work this time around is that we wanted more focused testing and in past expansions sometimes we would launch Alpha and then weeks might go past before new content is added to it just based on how our internal builds were tracking and what was becoming ready. This time around we have an action-packed lineup coming this Summer. The first zone that is being tested right now is Azure Strand and right around the corner we’ve got the Forbidden Reach, the Dracthyr starting experience and then moving onto Waking Shores and then it’s like each new build, each new phase of our Alpha will have a new zone that we’re going to focus feedback on and we’ll take the other zones offline. That’s to preserve the mystery to some extent and to avoid overexposure to the story. We’ve heard a lot and learned a lot from our players over the course of recent Shadowlands testing that there’s a lot to be said for keeping some sense of surprise and mystery when it comes to exploring a new world.

World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is the ninth expansion in the enormously popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft. Dragonflight is scheduled to release in December of 2022, exclusively on PC via the Battlenet app and is available for pre-order right now.