The World of Warcraft team is gearing up for the biggest content update since Dragonflight launched late last year. 10.1 Embers of Neltharion is an exciting new patch that will introduce a whole new zone, a new raid, a new season of Mythic+ dungeons, cross-faction guilds and much much more. Ahead of the launch on May 2nd, 2023, we sat down with Game Director Ion Hazzikostas and Lead Quest Designer Josh Augustine to discuss little cowboy hats, snail racing and some other pretty cool stuff as well.
This is the biggest Dragonflight update since the game launched late last year – can we expect the timing of major updates to follow a pattern or is it dependent on other, less predictable factors?
Ion Hazzikostas: This is our first major content update and brings with it an entirely new outdoor zone, a new dungeon season, a new PVP season, a massive raid to explore and more. I think these big updates have generally been considered the mainstays of past World of Warcraft expansions. The thing we’re doing differently this time in Dragonflight is we’ve had two updates already and as we laid out in a roadmap at the end of last year, we always want to have there be something just around the corner for players. There’s always something that has just gone live, something that is on our playtest realm, something we’ve just announced. There’s a wide range; big, small, serious, competitive activities, lighthearted activities, cosmetic pursuits – whatever you as a World of Warcraft player want to chase, there’s something new lurking around the corner.
As you mentioned, one of the most exciting features of the update is the new zone, Zarelek Cavern. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Josh Augustine: Yeah, I’d love to talk about Zarelek Cavern, there are a lot of fun new activities down there.
The campaign that kind of takes us down there is really exciting.
You head down with the Black dragons and they’re looking into an Neltharion’s past. He was a former leader of the Black Dragon Flight that became corrupted and so wrestling with the history and what does it mean to be a Black Dragon? What is that future going to be? Do they want to choose a new direction? On the story side, I’m really excited about the opportunities there and for the Dracthyr to wrestle with what they find down there.
During the endgame, there are a lot of new, fun things in the zone. One of the things we’ve enjoyed doing in Dragonflight is faction activities. So when you meet the Tusk, you have the feast with them, when you meet the Maruuk Centaur, you go on hunts. When you meet the DragonScale Expedition, you go rock climbing. When we were looking at the Niffen, the new group of mole people that we meet underground there, we had a lot of fun exploring, like, “What’s gonna be their fun new gameplay and game activity? What is it? What do these people bring to the table that’s uniquely them and uniquely cool about them?”
The Niffen are adorable, can you tell us a bit more about them and the inspiration for them?
JA: It’s a fun process with the whole team. We start early on with the narrative and the art team jumps in on what could be down here. What could they look like? You know, there’s tons of iteration that goes on there on the design side. That’s where we get a lot of our inspiration. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but they have fun little cowboy hats as well, right? So like, you see that in the artwork and immediately we can come up with a hundred ideas of rewards or activities and stuff we could do.
We also have a quest designer on the team named Laura, who loves rats and she has a bunch of pet rats. She wrote this document about like, rat social structures and how they compete for Alpha Dominance and brought that to the team and it inspired ideas about these different aspects of the culture. That’s one of the things I love, working with a new culture like this, there are opportunities for everyone on the team to jump in and leave their mark on what it becomes.
Do you have a favourite quest or quest line that you tell us about?
JA: Absolutely. I’m gonna cheat a little bit here because it’s not technically a quest line but there’s a new activity called Sniffen Seeking, which is an adorable name on its own. Basically, you meet a Niffen in town who’s sad because Niffen love to go digging underground, searching, exploring, and finding new treasures but they always use the buddy system, ’cause you need to be safe underground. He’s sad because his buddy can’t go diving with him anymore. You, the player, look like a potential new dive buddy, so you get to go on your first dig with him and it’s a lot of fun. It’s almost like an escape room kind of feel.
You get in there, there’s a treasure, there are tools, and you can pick them up and uses your buddy’s super sniffer nose to smell out clues. It’s all about finding the prize and figuring out how to use the tools to get it. Along the way you meet your buddy’s friends in different caves, you see their reaction to him and how he interacts with them and you just kind of get to know him and just fall in love with him throughout the whole feature. That’s my absolute favourite.
Yeah, that sounds really cool and very different. You know, you’re fighting epic world bosses on one side and then just helping out this little guy in the meantime.
JA: Yeah! That was some of the fun of going through the iterations. We’re always looking to make faction activities special and something new. We don’t want it to just be like go kill twenty things again. So we went through a lot of iteration with that, getting feedback from people on the team, then on PTR. It’s really fun to find new gameplay types in WoW.
On the other side of gameplay, there’s a new nine-boss raid, can you tell us a bit more about that?
IH: Sure. So, the raid is called Abberus, the Shadowed Crucible and it’s in the ancient underground laboratory research facility of Neltharion, the former Black Aspect who later became Death Wing and ravaged Azeroth during the Cataclysm expansion. We’re returning to a place that shaped the future of all Dragon Kind and all of Azeroth.
The Dracthyr, the Dragon Aspects, everyone has a reason to seek our Aberrus because it contains powerful secrets about the origins of Dragon Kind and their purpose in Azeroth. When creating this raid, the team was inspired by past Black Dragon raids that old-school World Warcraft fans may remember from all the way back in Classic. Black Wing Lair was the second big raid zone ever introduced to the game.
It was a similar laboratory that was the home of Nefarian who was Neltharion’s son. This is sort of just a styled up to 11, super modern version of that with the same general vibe of tinkering with forbidden experiments and secrets. It’s just a really fun space to explore.
Do you have a favourite boss from the raid?
IH: One of the bosses you fight is actually an Echo of Netharion himself, who we knew as Death Wing. I think something we’ve seen across the Dragon Isles is the ability for these powerful dragons that may have faded from this world to leave behind echoes of their consciousness that we can interact with, so of course in Netharion’s laboratory, we’re gonna find one of him.
I mean, I’m not gonna lie, it’s an excuse just to get to fight Neltharion who has long been dead otherwise. It’s just a really cool look at a very charismatic and interesting character.
JA: I’m a sucker for the story, I love the end fight. Not necessarily for the fight mechanics itself, but the things you learn and how the characters react, I love that.
Onto Mythics. We have a new rotation of Mythic+ dungeons. What goes into picking which older dungeons go into rotation?
IH: That’s a great question. It’s something we’re doing really for the first time, this is the first season in the middle of a of a WoW expansion that will have an all new pool of dungeons; four new dungeons from Dragonflight, plus four older ones.
I think the team was looking for a mix of thematics. Neltharion’s from the Legion expansion was a very natural fit in this expansion, we gotta do that one. For the others, it’s about fleshing out the range of layouts, hazing, aesthetics. Dungeons could be more linear, they can have different numbers of bosses or they can have branches or hub and spokes layouts. I think recognising that we’re asking players to spend tons of time across this pool of eight dungeons over the course of the season, we want as much variety in setting everything from the colour palettes to the mechanics.
We’re looking to figure out what helps complement what we already have as we flesh out the rest of the set. That actually led the team to pull in the oldest dungeon we’ve ever used in Mythic+, which is the Vortex Pinnacle dungeon from all the way back in Cataclysm with some updates to adapt it to the modern system.
Do you have a favourite of the new Dungeons?
IH: It’s a good question. Probably I think, Brackehide Hollow. It’s a dungeon that was very, very difficult, arguably, notoriously difficult right when Dragonflight launched. I know some folks were dreading seeing it come back into the season two rotation but we’ve done a lot of work on it to smooth out some of the rough edges and pain points and I think gonna be a great example of modern dungeon design.
Players will be able to complete it in Cross-Faction Guild from now on and a lot of people are excited about that. Why was now the right time to launch this feature?
IH: To be honest, it’s the soonest we could get it in players’ hands at a high level of quality. It’s something that we started thinking about after we rolled out Cross-Faction instance gameplay last Summer, late in Shadowlands, and allowed players to play with their opposite faction friends in dungeons and raids for the first time.
We quickly heard, ‘Hey, this is awesome, but I raid with my friend’s Guild and I can’t access their Guild repairs. They’re making jokes in Guild Chat, and then they have to repeat them for me because I can’t hear them‘ and so on and so forth and so that led us to start asking, what would it look like? What would it take for us to allow friends to join each other’s guilds across faction lines? One of the quirks of navigating this entire space is that we are swimming upstream against 20 years of precedent in history that were designed to work the other way. So we just need to make sure that we’re, checking everything, fixing bugs making sure all the logic works and also so that we’re moving conservatively, but steadily in the direction of tearing down barriers that prevent friends from playing with each other and making faction more of a choice about personal identity rather than who you can and can’t play with.
Another thing from the technical side is that you’re introducing the gear upgrade system. We’ve heard a lot about how that’s gonna work. I’m just wondering from a game direction side of things, when did you decide that you should look into this gear upgrade system, and why?
IH: This is actually something that started out as a pitch from a great designer on our rewards team. She was looking at the landscape of what we were laying out as we prepared for Dragonflight before the expansion had even shipped. It had different currencies involved in upgrading different sorts of items and different parallel paths and if you got this item from this vendor in the outdoor world, you needed this currency to upgrade it. If you got that one, you needed that currency. So, if you got something from a dungeon, well then you should get valour and if you were a raider, too bad, you don’t get to upgrade your things at all.
That naturally got us thinking surely there’s gotta be a better, more elegant way to do this – a way of not having so many different currencies, of unifying these progression tracks like a grand unified theory of item upgrading that also gives raiders the ability to access to the same progression as others.
Originally we talked about doing something like this for Dragonflight at launch, but that was a terrifying idea given the ambitiousness of the system and the time remaining at that point.
We wanted to give it a shot, so we kind of planned it around our first big content update from the ground up. The theming is definitely very much tied to this update but we’re not trying to make any secret of the fact that if this works well and is well received, we would likely evolve and enshrine it as a more permanent part of how the game works.
The goal is just more flexibility and while it’s a lot of change upfront and if you read the blog, it’s a lot of words. It’s ultimately more simple than the different upgrade tracks for different items depending on where they were retained.
What are you most excited for people to see, experience and explore in Embers of Neltharion?
IH: For me, I think it’s what comes next in the story. The community is so adept at figuring everything out. Everything is pored over and data mined and guides are written and everything is laid bare before it reaches players’ hands.
One of the exceptions is our story. We’ve tried to do what we can to keep the surprise around our big narrative moments, around cutscenes, and cinematics. The things that are going to set up in a big way, what comes next for the story. So much care has gone into crafting Dragonflight’s story, it’s just really exciting for the team and everyone who’s worked on it and touched it to see players experience that together in real-time.
Seeing that unfold is gonna be a really fun part of the next couple of weeks.
JA: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good answer, but I’m gonna go even more specific. I’m really excited about Fyrakk. His name isn’t in the title of the content update but he is a big deal. He’s the big fire dragon in the cinematic.
There are really fun moments with him during the campaign where you get to see him powering up in an area and not really even paying you attention because you’re not even worth the hassle – there are some fun little touches too, where if you emote at him, he’ll do something back at you. There are a lot of fun things like that.
Then on the surface, we have Fyrakk assaults where he’s gonna be blazing through. I love those times when we pay homage to the great moments in the World’s history, like that Cataclysm pre-patch event where he and Death Wing went through and torched everyone. We’ve got a mini version of that. I’m just in love with Fyrakk and so I’m excited, I think this is gonna be his content update.
We’re running out of time but this is a little callback to something you said earlier. You mentioned cowboy hats, and I just have to ask, is that tied to the snail racing?
JA: Oh, I’m so glad you asked me about snail racing. I can fill the rest of the time talking about snail racing, don’t worry. Yeah, so snail racing, it’s one of those features that when we knew the Drogbar were coming back, we wanted to – kind of like what we just mentioned, pay homage to the history of the World. So we were looking at like, what is something that players loved about Drogbar?
So of course we’ve got plenty of weightlifting and all that kind of stuff too, but like the snail race was something we wanted to do a callback to. We kind of just handed it to a designer, like, ‘Hey, we know we wanna do snail racing. You wanna figure out something that could be fun?’ and they just ran with it.
It’s one of those things you see in the game and can just tell the designers were having a lot of fun making it. There’s way too much detail, they went way too far in depth. The designers turned it into a social event, where the race starts publicly for everyone. You can choose which snail you wanna root for and then all the players who are rooting for that snail can get treats to throw at ’em to like speed ’em up or you can throw rocks or something to block the other snails. Then you have randomised events where maybe a spectator NPC gets angry and runs out and starts attacking one of the snails or whelplings swoop through and burn everyone in the course. It just became this big social activity where everyone’s working together and then if you get your snail to win, everyone’s cheering and you get the little check mark on your achievement to get all the snails. It’s just super fun. It’s one of those things that I love about the work we get to do on the quest team because we help populate the whole outdoor world.
Quests are awesome but the thing that makes Warcraft, Warcraft for me is those little details out in the world where there’s no reason this thing has to be here, right? But you get this fun little story. That’s the little stuff that makes the world feel real and lived in.
So yeah, snail racing.
I can’t wait to get my guild into snail racing!
JA: Oh yeah. I’m gonna give you a bonus here too. Snailys is a daily set of quests but we call ’em snailys because…snails. You get a snail mount! You go through a series of quests but I love the twist we did on it this time. We’ve done a series of quests to get a mount several times now and we’re always looking for a twist. So, we have a snail and snails move really slowly, right? So we give you the mount immediately but then your series of quests slowly make the snail faster and faster until you get it up to regular mount speed. So there’s just a lot of fun in there. I love snails.
World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is available exclusively on PC via Battle.net and requires an active subscription. Patch 10.1 Embers of Neltharion goes live on Tuesday, May 2nd, 2023, and is available for World of Warcraft players who own the latest expansion.