World of Warcraft’s latest expansion has been raging on, with regular story events and content updates that tell the ongoing story of the Battle of Azeroth. Blizzard has now detailed the second major update, Rise of Azshara, which will take players to the hidden city of Nazjatar to face Azshara herself, along with the new city of Mechagon where gnomes have begun replacing themselves with cold machinery.

This expansion continues the story of Battle for Azeroth and focuses heavily on a wide array of character customization options. From the new Heart of Azeroth and Essences menu to a punchcard with sockets to greater flexibility for your mounts, Rise of Azshara is squarely focused on giving high-level players a greater degree of control. GameSpot spoke with technical director Frank Kowalkowski and senior game designer Jeremy Feasel about the ongoing story, the mechanical flexibility, and more.

Rise of Azshara continues the ongoing story of a massive war, but a new story trailer makes the focus much more personal. It features Thrall, attempting to live a peaceful life and discovering this is no longer possible. Feasel says that in the midst of this large conflict, the studio wanted to take a moment to pause and reconnect with these larger-than-life characters.

“One of the things we wanted to do was bring the storyline back home, back to family, back to the individual characters and races that make up Azeroth,” Feasel said. “What are our faction leaders doing and what do they think about the state of the world? We check in with them periodically, but how do they feel about the actual war? It gives a chance to ground ourselves again, and remind ourselves what we are fighting for and who we’re fighting for.”

While the story’s conclusion isn’t in sight yet for players, Blizzard already knows where all of this is eventually leading and even how it will lead to the next major story event. Part of that simply comes down to the long lead time for developing new areas, mechanics, and equipment.

“It takes some time to develop content so we need to know where the story is going,” Kowalkowski said. “We definitely know where this arc is going. We definitely know how that is going to dovetail.”

Blizzard hopes that the story hooks and new mechanics, as well as checking in with beloved characters, it will sustain the game’s success. The studio stopped reporting active subscribers in 2015, and the rise of other online games and genres like the loot shooter and battle royale mean it is no longer the uncontested king of the social-focused online game.

“[Players will] drop off for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s hey, I moved or traveled overseas,” Kowalkowski said. “I think what we do is try and create the most compelling game that we can. Rise of Azshara is in response to a lot of feedback that we received both internally and externally, in terms of wanting to provide players more agency, more choice.”

Part of sustaining the game also means welcoming in players who have either lapsed for a long time, or even ones who have never played World of Warcraft before. With so much to do after 15 years, Rise of Azshara attempts to make the on-ramp smoother than ever and to allow players to catch up with their friends who may have already invested hundreds of hours into the game.

“Something that we are looking at especially with Rise of Azshara is making sure that characters don’t lapse at any point upon their leveling scale; they can quickly get up to the point where they’re playing with their friends in Nazjatar and Mechagon,” Feasel said. “So if you’re one of those players who stopped playing around the time the Tides of Vengeance came out, it’s going to be easy for you to get your next level up to unlock your first Essence. So you’re not lagging severely behind, you can jump in and start playing with them, start gathering essences right away.”

Essences are one of the deeper customization systems being added in Rise of Azshara. The game also adds punchcards with colored sockets reminiscent of gems. It all has a feeling of familiarity for long-term players, and that comes from wanting to introduce more flexibility.

“I think all of these things are evolutions of things that we’ve done before, in a way that makes it feel like you have a lot of different ways to customize your character that is just purely item-level based,” Feasel said. “So there’s always some way for you to log in and figure out, okay, this is how I want to advance my character today. There’s ten different ways for you to do that.”

Other new additions are quality-of-life adjustments. Mount abilities, for example, let you equip your mount with other special attributes that they don’t have by default. The specific example Blizzard cited was the Water Strider, which has the water-walking ability. With the new mount system, you can equip that ability on any mount. The studio was very frank about this as a response to a piece of player frustration, but it took a broader approach than the feedback necessarily required.

“We are looking at a situation where we heard two things from the community,” Kowalkowski said. “One was, I’m sick of using the Water Strider everywhere and at the beginning of every expansion for the first six months. And the other thing, because water walking, felt like it was a very powerful ability at that point. And the response can be, well, we’ll just take water walking over with their mount and that was actually one of the things we discussed.

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“When we look at a system like that: how can we give that utility, but also give people what they asked for? I don’t want to see the water walking mount all the time. Typically it’s a lot of trying to hearing what the players are saying but identify what the problem is and then come up with a solution that’s going to address the problem, rather than just hearing the feedback.”

In terms of both mechanics and lore, the team doesn’t show any sign of slowing. World of Warcraft is a hodgepodge of fantasy tropes and heroic conquest, and that flexibility gives the team lots of room to explore. The Battle for Azeroth is deadly serious, but even the Rise of Azshara expansion shows the duality of the world. Azshara’s lair is dark and foreboding, while the lost city of Mechagon is often goofy and light-hearted. Blizzard feels this is the strength of its world.

“I think one of the interesting things about the Warcraft universe–we go to another planet and fight a titan god one day, and then other days you’re rescuing pigs in Goldshire,” Feasel said. “We can tell very different storylines. We can create very different characters. Probably one of the most fun parts of the making of World of Warcraft is lifting up a character from a nothing side-quest to be something fans really care about and follow and has a Hearthstone card made about her. It’s something that we strive toward all the time because there are so many different characters and personalities in the world to draw from. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface.”

Rise of Azshara is scheduled to release this summer. For those who prefer the retro experience, Blizzard also announced World of Warcraft Classic will launch on August 27, with a beta scheduled this week and stress tests throughout the summer. Read our interview with the project leads on bringing WoW Classic back to life, and check out the neat 15th Anniversary Collector’s Edition releasing in October.



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