Over on the official WoW Reddit, their moderators (Aphoenix and Flapsnapple) sat down with  Lead Narrative Designer Steve Danuser and Frank Kowalkowski, the Technical Director. In a very lengthy interview, transcribed wonderfully by the moderation team. Full Q&A below, and full transcript here. Be sure to drop by the WoW Reddit to give your thanks.


Question: How reactive is the narrative to fan "adoptions" of minor characters like Zekhan or Sylvanas' standard-bearer? Is that inspiring or encouraging for the team to see the reactions to those?

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • They find fan reactions "super encouraging."

  • "We spend so much time working on cinematics and in-game stuff, all those things, and sometimes we kind of anticipate “Oh! Maybe the fans will react towards this or this more” and something comes out of nowhere and a Zekhan happens where people are like “That! That's the thing I love!” and it's so fun."

  • "It does encourage us to be like, “Hey, you know that minor thing that we had here, we can snowball that into something really cool” and do it in a way that still feels natural and like was a part of the story. So we're definitely feeding off that excitement that the fans give to characters like that."

Question: Can you confirm or deny whether the old gods are dead? We've got a lot of people who think that we've only fought manifestations, and their true forms lie dormant somewhere. Are we maybe going to see more of that?

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • Confirms that we've killed their forms, in the cases of Yogg'Saron and C'thun despite echoes of them still seeming to permeate the world.

  • "If you think about our cosmology and the way that creatures of magic work as opposed to mortals, mortals die they go to the Shadowlands. If you fought the Legion, you fought demons. If you kill them on Azeroth, where do they go? Back to the Twisting Nether, which is the place where they come from."

  • "So if you think about other magical creatures and think what happens when you kill them on Azeroth, where do they go? There's the potential for things like that to kind of happen. We try to have this cosmology of the way things work, and that's something that you can apply to other things. And I think the old gods are an interesting case where, you know, we've defeated one version of them and who knows if another manifestation will eventually take place."

Question: What were some of the lessons learned from WoW over the years that helped influence the foundation of WoW Classic and vice versa?

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • WoW has evolved since it was released in 2004, in large part due to fan feedback. Nevertheless, he's really excited about the success WoW: Classic and Battle for Azeroth have had.

  • "WoW Classic is kind of a thing that we’ve resurrected, and we're going to leave it alone and kind of just go forward with Shadowlands"

Question: I was wondering just about like lessons learned that sort of influenced, like, layering and sharding and load balancing. Things like that.

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • "Layering was something that we couldn't do in the original game, so that was something we're able to carry back to help kind of balance the load around the original. There was not a lot of other, you know, things that we really needed to go back and influence on Classic. It's just something we resurrected."

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • "The team was playing WoW Classic too, just like everybody else. There's some really cool philosophical things that we can look back on in Classic and say, “Man there's some really cool stuff there.” And so it's more about taking the lessons of Classic and looking how they might apply to the game but in a way that fits Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands. So it's been really great for us as a team to see that and see what people react to."

Question: From a technical director point of view, can you walk us through the life cycle of a World of Warcraft patch, like what does that look like? I understand that that might take 45 minutes.

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • "It actually starts with working with people like Steve to figure out, where are we going with the story? And from there we’ll branch out and, even on the technical side, we’ll want to understand who's going to be involved with developing the content? Is it going to be level designers creating a new zone? Is it going to be primarily encounter designers and dungeon artists creating a new raid? And from there we’ll begin to kind of get an idea of, like, the size of the patch and the scope of the content update."

  • "We’ll begin to work with designers if there's gameplay features that need to go in. Our engineers will work... sometimes they'll actually sit with the game designers themselves while they evolve a feature out. And then we'll begin to slowly pull things together; we’ll begin to work with our live ops team to get that build up onto the PTR. We’ll begin gathering feedback from people on the PTR as a team, whether it's engineering related or design related and we’ll begin to make bug fixes or adjustments based on feedback we're getting from the players."

  • "And then finally, we get to patch day. Thankfully, we've been doing this now for 15 years. We have a lot of push-button abilities that we didn't have back in the day so that we can mark things live a lot quicker."

  • "You know, a lot of the downtime we have on patch days is actually us internally going through and we'll verify everything is functioning as we intended it to now that it's in a live environment. We’ll load up our own characters; make sure that they all look good and okay. And when we're doing that, to make sure that when we let it out to as many people that we either, A, have a great experience for them or understand, is there a feature or something that we need to make the community aware of? It's either not fully working yet or... That’s kind of the gist of like, what goes through."

  • "It takes a whole team to get the patch out. The engineers, yeah, we're doing a lot of the coding and the live ops team is doing the actual pushing. But you know, we're bugging designers on patch days, to make data fixes that we can then push out to the live realm. We have a lot of capability to fix things live that’s seamless to players, and we take advantage of that."

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • He'd like to break the myth that designers often visit the engineers and they're told "No, that can't work. We can’t do it that way!” but in reality "All these teams are so, like, if they hear an idea that sounds cool or awesome, they're, like, “Let's work to make that awesome! Let's figure out how to make it work.” So they are such partners in the collaborative process of making really cool expansion features."

  • "Torghast in Shadowlands would not be possible if engineering hadn't been like, “That's an awesome idea. It's complicated and a whole bunch of stuff we need to figure out, but it's worth it,” and then just digging in and making it happen. So these guys are awesome."

Question: So for Steve, what are some of the characters or storylines that have existed in the WoW lore that have yet to be addressed in game that the team is really sort of itching to do and try to weave in?

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • "There's so many, one of the joys of working in this universe, this IP, is that there are so many characters and some that are just mentioned in passing and some that have been in books but never in the game, things like that."

  • "For example, the whole Alleria and Turalyon arc that we did in the Argus patch for Legion was an example of: here's characters that we've been waiting a long time to bring back into the game or bring into the game and we just hadn't had the right opportunity before and then here’s an opportunity. So we're always looking at things like that."

  • They'll bring characters into the game when it feels natural to do so, such as "Calia Menethil is another one that, we kind of, she was mentioned in the books and we had hints of her in Legion and she played a very small role. But that was always something tha as we were looking at the Before the Storm novel, it just felt natural that that was a character that we could develop there and then bring into the game. "

  • The Shadowlands has a huge opportunity to bring back dead major characters and see where they're at now, how have they atoned or adapted after all these years? "As far as other characters ahead, I think one of the cool things of Shadowlands is that it gives us the chance to look back at some characters, like Kael’thas Sunstrider, and say, “Yeah, he did all this stuff in game before. It's been a long time. What would have happened to his soul over all this time?” like, based on the things he did in life, what kind of afterlife is he looking at and how could that affect these events that are playing out in the Shadowlands?"

  • There are other, unannounced major characters that will make a return.

  • The universe is extremely diverse and rich and it draws him a lot of inspiration.

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • Sometimes the Devs sit around and discuss the fact that they can't believe these characters have been around 15 years and yet still there's so much more story to tell. What if these characters are around for another 15 years, or more? "When we begin diving in and looking at the characters, the history, the cosmology... We have a lot of story left to tell."

Question: With BFA, we have the option to support Saurfang or Sylvanas. Do you feel like that was a success? Did that work out how you wanted? And might we be seeing more of that in Shadowlands?

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • "We knew that when we were making Battle for Azeroth that it was going to be an expansion that tested people's feelings and loyalties. And again, putting these two sides against each other in a way that really hadn't been done to that degree in WoW yet, so far. And knowing that what we were doing with Sylvanas, where she was going into the Shadowlands, all this time, she's been doing these things in BfA because we knew where she was going to end up. It's hard when you can't yet connect the dots for people, you have to kind of set that trajectory in motion. So we knew that, well, it's going to look bad for Sylvanas; people are going to take some of this stuff wrong, but we have to stick to this."

  • "We feel like we have a really good story and we want to see that through. But, as we were talking about that, that's where the idea came for, you know what, there's going to be people on the Horde side that are really divided about this. It would fit the story, because we were already going to branch into these two kind of sides within the Horde, that what if we let players do that? And it's not something we ordinarily do, but this felt like a really right case to do that. And so, really for the first time, we offered that kind of narrative choice for people to make in-game and I think it was successful. You know, everyone was waiting to see how it would play out and in our 8.2.5 patch when we finally got to see the Reckoning cinematic, the Mak’gora happen, and then kind of the aftermath of that depending on which side you chose. For the reward for the loyalists to be, like, this one-on-one with Sylvanas where she gave you at least a peek into what was to come. We felt like that was a fitting way to end that."

  • The loyalist campaign felt right at the time and may happen again in the future, but there's currently no version of it in Shadowlands right now.

Question: So, Frank, with the increased use of sharding and layering has the team revisited older ideas like player housing in capital cities, major cataclysmic events, zone-size PvP arenas, things like that?

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • The discussion about player housing is always "when is the right time for that?" and Shadowlands is not the time for that as it "doesn't seem to make a lot of sense." It is something they're continuously discussing, even after the Garrison experiment. They may revisit it in the future.

  • "Sharding gives us some luxury to be able to do a lot with populations in the world. We’re certainly looking at some of the impacts that those have had on some of the events that we did for Battle for Azeroth. And we're certainly learning some lessons from that. It's a technology that, when you think about the lifespan of World of Warcraft, is actually relatively new. And so we're continuing to develop it and we think we’re going to make a lot of progress with what we can do and the types of content we can bring to players as a result."

Question: We had a hard time narrowing down our questions for you [Frank]. I think both of us work in tech. So I think this one we really want to ask which is like, WoW has a 15 year old code base. What parts of working with that have been the trickiest over time? Like is there anything in the engine itself that is just, like, if someone says, we have to work on, I have this idea and you're just like, that is going to be a nightmare? Is there anything like that, that you can tell us about?

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • Before working at Blizzard, he had the same assumptions those outside the company do about the codebase.

  • When he was hired, the codebase was 10 years old if the Alpha was included in the timeline.

  • "I was surprised at how much, when I was going through the code and reading a lot, about how much of it had been rewritten since the very launch of WoW, I'd say at that time was half the code has been completely rewritten."

  • To enable Sharding, the entire way the game puts players into the game had to be rewritten.

  • "I'd say the trickiest thing is how dynamic the code is to meet the needs of the game. There's very little code left from the day that we shipped WoW initially. And that's got benefits to it. And in the sense of it is adaptable, and we're able to do a lot with it. So I think it's been quite a ride."

Off the cuff: Now you're finally getting the Auction House out there with some new code for that so that’s pretty good!

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • "The Auction House is a good example of something that took us a while and a lot of that was just figuring out when would be the right time to make a change like that significant. Visions of N’zoth seemed like a good time to do that."

Question: So Shadowlands seems narratively similar to Warlords in the sense that you're leaving Azeroth behind to chase an existential threat from somewhere else. Can you give us any sort of hints as to what we can expect from the story of the Shadowlands to set it apart?

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • Warlords was a place we were kind of familiar with. We'd all seen Outlands already and we roughly knew the history of the place already before we arrived.

  • "Shadowlands is all new territory. It's something that was only footnotes in our in our history books. In our Chronicles. Things we kind of skirted the edge of at different times and different classes, but we never fully went in there. So looking at our cosmology chart and looking at the opportunities that have presented was something that we were really super excited about."

  • "So it was something that allowed us to create this landscape, these zones, these places to go the characters within them that felt new and fresh. But yet when you see them when you look at the style that they have, and the way that they move and the things they do in this world, it would still feel classic WoW, like, Oh, yeah, I see this, this is an extension of the universe."

  • "We want that WoW DNA to flow through everything that we make, even if we go into these fantastic places. So the storyline that we get to play through we get to bring back the kind of more linear narrative arc that some of our earlier expansions had on your first play through and then on subsequent play throws with old so you still get all the benefits of kind of choosing where you want to go and what order you want to do this stuff in. So kind of the best of both worlds for us. So it gives us a lot of chance to look backward and take the best of what we've done before, but evolved in new ways and we're really excited about that"

Question: That kind of leads into our next question. What is one narrative story, one part of the story that you're most proud of. What is the thing that you that that's just the best for you?

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • While he gets really excited for the big adventures, big battles like the Burning Legion or against Argus, he really likes the personal stories.

  • "Bringing Alleria Windrunner back in and then showing how she interacts with her sisters. You know what, when it gives that personal side to the universe and those are the things that I kind of are drawn to and just feel a personal connection to.

  • Looking back at Legion - "The story of Runas. That the Nightfallen guy was just looking for that mana crystal and how he falls, you really felt something when he went. So those are the kinds of stories we like to chase and I'm always looking for those things."

  • There are a few of these personal stories in Shadowlands

  • Steve gets so excited he catches himself before he spoils something the team was discussing last week.

  • He loves the merging of 'Big Picture' themes into the personal stories, no matter the genre as that really resonates with his heart. He's really proud of those moments.

Question: That's awesome. Just to follow up on that, like you mentioned the Runas quest. You were in the voice acting things for that, right? There was Jim Cummings who did the voice of -Yeah. Did you get to meet him or work with them, like have any interaction after the fact. I was really jazzing about the voice acting. So I want to get your thoughts around that.

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • "I've gotten to work with so many of our great actors or great voice actors. And most of the time just because of the logistics of it. The way that it work is we have a sound studio in Los Angeles that Andrea Toyias our director goes to and she'll work with the actors there. Then I Skype into the session"

  • Andrea and Steve have a great connection so they know exactly what each other wants.

  • "So bringing that [relationship] to the sessions like with Jim Cummings or just so many great actors it's a real privilege and a treat. One of my one of my favorite memories of that kind of thing was with Velen, and when we were doing the the stories between Velen and Kil’jaeden and working with an actor to really dig down into like, Man, this is what drives you now, you two were like brothers so long ago and you've come to hate each other. And now here you are like that, that the pinnacle of everything you've cared about and fought for, and to see the way actors dig down and just bring themselves and inject that into the roles. It's just amazing."

  • He finds the voice actor panels to be really amazing as they're able to bring the energy and the vibe they get to experience in the studio to the audience.

  • He was super proud of the Voice Actor panel they did early on Saturday.

Question: So what are some of the technical solutions currently in place to help try to maintain faction balance across servers, and as a whole, thinking in features like war modes for example.

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • When a player enters war mode, sharding is included in the equation. They do their best efforts to make sure shards are balanced, so if they see a preponderance of one side or another they may try to put more people into that shard to balance it out.

  • Unfortunately it's often the case that one faction is in war mode far more than the other so this is where faction bonuses can play a key role. By funneling players in who want the war mode bonus chest offered from the NPC's in Boralus or Dazar'alor, that helps them balance out the shards.

Question: Are there any technical blockers preventing users from logging into WoW and Classic WoW at the same time?

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • It's possible for them to do it and they're discussing whether or not they will enable it. The question is "should we allow people to be playing classic, and mainline at the same time, that feels a little weird."

  • During the launch of Classic when the queue times were very heavy, a lot of people wanted to play on retail and couldn't. It made sense then but as the queue times have stabilized there's less pressure to do that now.

  • It's something they're still thinking about enabling in the future.

Off the cuff: On one thing you said there was you called call the game mainline is that-

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • They call retail "mainline" internally but otherwise use "Battle for Azeroth" or now "Shadowlands."

Question: Will Tyrande become a villain? or will she get justice for people? Will the Night Elves rise above their relentless suffering?

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • "The Night Elves have taken some shots on the chin in Battle for Azeroth, for sure. Tyrande is one of the most beloved characters and in all of Warcraft canon, and, I don't want to speak to datamined broadcasts and things like that, but we will see Tyrande have some conversations with some of our other characters as we wrap up the Battle for Azeroth."

  • "That's a storyline that we definitely want to pay off and we have some interesting things in the coming expansion that I don't want to spoil but I hope that Night Elf players get to see a new side of her and their culture in a way."

Question: How do you handle the pressure of making new characters like Talanji and Calia Menethil, or maybe characters we just haven't seen before. Making them likable and to have them share the screen with characters that have been established for you know, 15 or even 25-30 years.

Answering: Steve Danuser

  • The way they go about it is to give you the character personal time with them. To show you how they react to situations, to read a quest and understand what they're going through and how it effects them. You'll begin to understand there personality more and watch them react to the world around them. How they react under pressure and face difficult circumstances that require tough decisions or personal sacrifice.

  • "It's all those nuances of characters and how they behave when they're put under those pressures that make characters feel real and relatable. And so it's always about getting the player to spend time with them and it worked really well with characters like Talia and Flynn in Kul'Tiras for example. We were super proud of that in Battle for Azeroth and can't wait to do some things with those kind of returning characters that people either know like Kael’thas, or someone like Draka who has only been either in books, or in Warlords a different version of her and so those are opportunities for us to take some of those characters and make them vital again and show different sides of them."

Question: So there's a lot of speculation that cross faction play could come at some point in the future. If you were tasked with making that possible, what sort of complications would you expect?

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • Echoing Ion's answer from the Q&A panel, the issue isn't necessarily the technical aspects but why they would want to upend the concept of Warcraft.

  • Otherwise, he says that from a technical perspective there's not a lot of issues. "I mean, there's probably some things with achievements that will need to be revisited, but these are all solvable problems."

Question: You talked a lot about the Auction House rebuild. Can you talk to us about some of the challenges you face with the Auction House rebuild? And is there anything you learned from like the Diablo team maybe with their Auction House?

Answering: Frank Kowalkowski

  • "It's a matter of asking ourselves what should the scope be? Should we go beyond server to regional? How do we manage the commodity system?"

  • "Most importantly, when is the right time to do it. We actually had a hand in the meeting on the technological roadmap early on during BFA, we decided maybe like right in the middle when everyone's involved in the world would be the best time. Or maybe we should look for, kind of end an of expansion thing so we're giving it some time to soak and give people some time to get used to it before the next expansion. That would be a better time to do that."

  • "Technologically a lot of it is just remapping data and work. Then try to solve a lot of the edge case problems like, what are we going to do with all the auctions on the old auction house? So we have to have a plan to let those kind of soak out and then we can flip the switch and put the new auction house so a lot of problems tend to be more logistic rather than technical."


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Last Updated: Nov 05, 2019

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