The World of Warcraft needs a hero, even if its maybe-crazy Night Elf with glowing green eyes.Read more ↓
On August 30, Blizzard releases Legion, the sixth expansion for its hugely successful World of Warcraft. The online role-playing game makes most of its money from monthly subscriptions, so massive content drops from expansions help back lapsed players and keep current ones engaged. World of Warcraft originally launched back in 2004, but these expansions have kept the game relevant, even if its no longer the colossus it once was.
Legion adds a new class, Demon Hunter, areas to explore, and features (like a customizable Artifact Weapon and Class Halls for you to hang out in). It also brings back one of Warcraft’s most popular characters, Illidan Stormrage. We last saw the Night Elf Demon Hunter in Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft’s first expansion. He played a villainous role then. Players even (seemingly) had to kill him.
GamesBeat interviewed Legion’s game director Tom Chilton and senior art director Chris Robinson about bringing Illidan back, his new role in the story, how making expansions is different from it was in the early days of World of Warcraft, and more.
GamesBeat: Illidan has always been a complicated character. He’s often leaned toward a villainous role, but it’s always been ambiguous. This seems like the first time he’s being cast more on the heroic side.
Tom Chilton: Internally at Blizzard, we’ve always viewed him as a tragic hero in a way. We’ve always seen him as, well, his ultimate goal is to take on the Legion. The problem is that his methods of doing that are unsavory to Azeroth as a whole — particularly to the Night Elves and so on. That’s always been a source of contention and led to him splitting off to go to Outland. We felt like his evolution into a hero for this expansion made sense. That’s ultimately what Illidan is about, fighting the Legion.
Chris Robinson: There’s always two sides to every story. We got to experience that previously from the player’s perspective, coming up into this moment where he feels like he is the bad guy. You have to take him out in order to progress. But there’s this wealth of information about his side of the story that we didn’t know coming into that fight and that experience.
When we started talking about the Legion invading Azeroth, that’s an awesome opportunity to go back and take a look at Illidan and the core of why he’s a tragic hero, what journey he’s gone on to get to where he’s at, and then tell that side of the story, looking through the other side of the glass and seeing, from that perspective, how we as players kind of screwed up a bit.
GamesBeat: Has his popularity kind of transformed his role? Does that have an impact?
Chilton: We’ve had a sense, for a very long time, that there would be a time where it made sense for Illidan to make a return. Certainly there are lots of very important story elements to the demon hunter starting experience. It shows some things from his perspective. The Harbinger cinematic we just saw, and then there’s a limited quest line as you progress through the Broken Isles, and that caps off at max level to tie it all together and make it all make sense, why this is happening and how it is that he’s coming back and exactly what’s going on with that. It all fits very well together. I’m excited for players to be able to experience it all once all the cinematics are viewable and all that stuff.
Robinson: Story defines character and not the other way around. It’s not as if there’s so much investment in this character that we have to find a way to cram him into the story that’ll feel awkward and weird. It’s more like, the Legion is invading Azeroth, so who’s the central character we can rely on to 360 approach that, from all different angles? He was the natural choice from that aspect.
GamesBeat: When he was killed off, did you think his death would be permanent? Or was it always in the back of your minds that he could return.
Chilton: It was [always in the back of our minds that he’d return]. We always felt like — we tried to make sure that there were enough loose ends that hadn’t been tied so that it would make sense. We didn’t know exactly what the method would be that we would use to realize that, but as we got into the Legion expansion storyline and started to think through what made sense to evolve the story, it organically came out of that.
Robinson: When we were in Burning Crusade, that was like a mini-invasion. It was another planet. You didn’t have a connection to it. We defeated them, beat them back, and for all we knew — it’s a little bit of the Legion, but how much do we really want to explore that?
I think we ended that knowing that we’d just had a peek at what the Legion really was. Ultimately, the terror there is not if they invade another planet and we need to go and help out. The terror is, what if they come to Azeroth and what if it’s not the B squad they’re bringing? What if it’s the major invasion we have to take on?
GamesBeat: In Warlords we had the alternate Draenor. We saw a lot of characters who were dead before coming back. Was there ever a worry about cheapening death in Azeroth?
Chilton: There is. There totally is. We have to be conscious of that and make sure that when we do it, it works and makes sense and feels right. Otherwise you’re absolutely right. It starts to feel like it’s meaningless. Varian died. Just cast a res! [Laughs]
GamesBeat: It becomes like a Marvel Comics death.
Chilton: Yeah, yeah.
GamesBeat: Looking at the expansion, with Illidan and so forth, you see a lot of Night Elves. Maybe not more of the Alliance in favor of the Horde, but with Draenor, it was very Horde-focused. Was there a conscious decision to have a bit more the Alliance races represented here?
Chilton: I wouldn’t really say so from a standpoint of — we concepted these expansions together, back when we were halfway through Mists [of Pandaria] development and we were starting preproduction on our next expansions. We jammed three different expansion concepts that we ended up liking, and it was really about, well, what order do we fit these in?
We never thought of them at the time as, this is the Horde expansion and this is the Alliance expansion. It just worked out to feel that way. It’s funny, because even when we had announced Warlords and got that feedback — oh, this feels like a Horde expansion — well, okay, I guess that’s understandable. We didn’t think of it that way, but we think the next one will offset that pretty well. It’s just a shame we couldn’t talk about it for two years.
GamesBeat: The Class Hall idea is a neat idea, but for me, I’m a Death Knight player. How interesting is my Class Hall going to be? Because we’re kind of the class that’s already had one, that floating necropolis. How will that still feel like a new feature for a player like me?
Chilton: Ultimately there’s more to do there now in Legion. You’ll have your forge there that you’re going to go to and be able to do your artifact stuff. There’s also the scouting table, to pick which zone you want to go to next, the scouting map. And then also, with that, the champions you’re going to recruit and send off on missions and have quests and all that stuff for you. In a lot of ways it’s just more content than has been in there in a long time, ever since Wrath of the Lich King. There’s some aesthetic freshening-up, too.
Robinson: Yeah, a lot of visual updates. It was just making the right decisions. We’re not going to set out to change it for the sake of changing it. Like, we have a Death Knight food truck that’s driving around town this year. [Laughs]
It seemed like it was a natural fit. There were a lot of these that were easier than others, because right away it was, oh, I know that’s exactly what it’s going to be. But certainly, when we knew that, we didn’t rest on our laurels and say, okay, they’re taken care of, we don’t need to do anything more. It was definitely a conversation like, okay, we know what it’s going to be. How can we hack as many visual updates and design updates in to make it feel fresh?
GamesBeat: Expansion development seems a lot different these days. At the beginning, it was still tying up loose ends from the Warcraft III story. That seemed to naturally lead you to Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. What was expansion development like once you had the Illidan plot thread and the Arthas plot thread tied off?
Chilton: It’s been more challenging in that we want to make sure that we have a natural continuation of storyline using a good blend of characters that are familiar and new. That gets harder to do as the ones that have been in previous Warcraft games have been consumed in one way or another. But there’s also — we have the ability to groom characters from within World of Warcraft itself, characters like Garrosh, who didn’t really exist prior to World of Warcraft, but were born and raised in the universe in WoW. They can end up having a long story arc that spans multiple expansions. It’s challenging, because we do want to have a nice balance of history along with new stuff.
GamesBeat: When you’re developing expansions, what’s the first thing you think of? Is it setting? Is it whether you’re doing a new class or a new race? What’s the first bullet point you build around?
Chilton: It’s definitely story and setting, that combination. Ultimately it’s the World of Warcraft, right? The setting drives everything else. At the same time, it has to be a natural progression of the storyline. We think about it very much in those terms. Then, once we know the story and the setting, what kinds of feature make sense with that? The features, whether it’s a new class or a new race or artifacts or overhauls or whatever it is, need to make sense in the context of that setting and that story.
Robinson: A lot of this stuff almost writes itself. After we figure out that initial approach to the story and the setting — this time around it was pretty clear that we needed to do Demon Hunters. It wasn’t necessarily that we set out to do Demon Hunters as a class, although we had wanted to for quite some time. It just felt like, once we figured out the setting and the theme, that was the right decision to make.
GamesBeat: I remember, maybe even before the game came out, where there was the idea of the hero classes. It seemed like you would eventually hit a level and then pick a new, stronger class. Was demon hunter originally part of that idea? Was it going to be one of those hero classes?
Chilton: Yeah, we toyed with that concept a lot back then. We tried to plot out these different progressions for every character class. You could maybe become a Chieftain, or a Demon Hunter, or a Witch Doctor. All these characters from Warcraft III. We tried to think about how that might work. But every time we tried to go down that road, it broke in all kinds of ways. It just felt really weird to end up with, okay, what’s a Gnome Chieftain going to look and play like? It was one of those ideas that sounded really cool at a very surface level at first, but then once you had to start figuring out the nitty-gritty of the design, it totally doesn’t work. That’s why we ended up not going in that direction.
GamesBeat: We had this kind of hero class with Death Knights, where you start at a certain level, and then with Monk it went back to being a regular class again. Why, with Demon Hunter, are we starting at that higher level once again?
Chilton: It makes sense in the context of the expansion. We wanted to make sure it felt like, if you make a Demon Hunter, you’re immediately engaged in fighting the Legion. We didn’t want to start you at some point where the content that you would be experiencing as a Demon Hunter wasn’t really related to demons in any way. Imagine if we’d made it level 50, right? You come out of Mardum, which would still be a great start and all that, but then you flow out of there into what? Into the Plaguelands or something?
Anywhere you pick along the line, other than, okay, I guess we could start you at level 60 and have you play through Burning Crusade, that feels kind of anti-Legion. But then there are weird timeline loops and stuff like that. It just felt like the most natural way to introduce it. It also has the secondary benefit of, people returning to the game have a pretty nice segue right into the expansion.
Robinson: Thematically it was a lot like when you’re dealing with the Lich King and he’s conscripting these people into his service. You’re Illidari, right?
Chilton: These badass ninjas.
Robinson: You can imagine that if you go through Illidari training, you’re not going to be killing boars on the plains of the Barrens for very long. He’s pulling people in to put them on the front lines and fight back against this force.
GamesBeat: Once before, you completely redesigned the original early level experience with Cataclysm. We’re at a point where that’s just as old as the original was at the time.
Chilton: It’s actually older now than when we redid it.
GamesBeat: Is that something you guys thinking about? Will you have to rebuild that again at some point? If you re-do it again will you do it like that, where it’s tied to a specific event? Once the next expansion comes out, that kind of feels old again.
Chilton: Never say never. Right now we don’t have any plans to do the Cataclysm approach again. I can imagine us revisiting the leveling-up experience, but I think that some of that may have to do with something more systems-ey in nature. For example, if we imagine that the scaling level stuff in Legion works out well, then that’s a tool in our toolkit that we could potentially apply to other parts of the world.
We have this idea that, well, it could be really cool to add a lot more freedom and variety to the level-up experience. What if you imagine that we broke up the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor into 20-level buckets? These zones are levels 1-20. You can do any of them in any order and they’ll scale from level 1-20. These are 20-40 or whatever. That could be an interesting way to not really change the content, but change it up in a way where you have a fresh experience going through it because you have a lot more different pathways. Boost, in some ways, makes that approach obsolete.
Robinson: The other thing to add is that we know that there’s this cornucopia of material we’ve built that we want people to continue to experience. It’s much more likely, with a system like boost, that we’ll find ways to send people back at a higher level and make sure we’re always exploring the world, rather than relying on the initial level-up experience to do that for us.