Today’s hotly anticipated World of Warcraft: Shadowlands expansion launch will have all players questing in exactly the same place at exactly the same time for the first moment in many expansions. Blizzard Entertainment has avoided that approach since launch-day issues in Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor.
Game director Ion Hazzikostas told us that Blizzard has the tech in place to handle the crush now, and any potential hiccups are worth it for a seamless storyline. We sat down with Hazzikostas for an interview to discuss the tech that goes into keeping the game running smoothly for masses of players occupying the same locations, including sharding, which creates new copies of an area if too many people are present.
We also talked about the increased pace of developer communications with players, as compared to recent expansions; the SSD requirement-then-not for Shadowlands; the cap on the number of monsters many character classes can damage at once; and whether the delay from the expansion’s original October 26 launch date has been enough time to fix the issues his team saw.
GamesBeat: What tech are you using to prevent issues when everyone logs in to do exactly the same quests at the same time in Shadowlands?
Hazzikostas: A lot of the work that we’ve done engineering infrastructure-wise since Warlords of Draenor — and everyone remembers the wonderful, smooth launch experience that Warlords was in 2014, spyglasses and Frostfire Ridge and all — so much of our work, including sharding, has been an effort to alleviate those day one problems, that massive player collision.
Sharding is the biggest one of those, the fact that it doesn’t matter if everybody wants to go to the same zone, we are just spinning up more copies of that zone as opposed to crashing the server like we did in Jade Forest, or Frostfire, or Shadowmoon, so that’s something that scales.
Things like collision around an NPC — we have the ability to dismount players as they get close to the NPC. It’s a heavy-handed solution, so we don’t use it super frequently. On some level we’re willing to put up with a bit of awkwardness around that literal moment of interacting with the quest giver, because that’s 20 seconds, and then you move on and everything is fine after that.
The tests that we’re doing, that we just did on beta, are aimed at making sure that that day one, hour one experience as people flow through the Maw and into the Shadowlands is a smooth one — both lag wise and just in terms of the mechanics of players competing for quest objectives and whatnot.
GamesBeat: Why go back to a linear story, after several successful expansions where Warcraft players had different choices of where to begin, lightening that pressure?
Hazzikostas: I think there are strengths to storytelling in that form. It’s something that WoW had, for the most part, up until Legion. [In Mists of Pandaria,] you start in Jade Forest, and you meet these new characters, and your relationship with them develops over the course of Pandaria. And you’re introduced to the concept of the Sha, which then manifests itself in horrible ways by the end of your journey.
That’s a story that we could only tell because it was linear. In Legion and BfA, we gained a lot of flexibility by letting players choose their path. But we also didn’t know whether you were going to do Vol’dun first or Drustvar first, or are you going to do those zones third, which meant they each had to be self-contained stories. And that limits our ability to craft a cohesive narrative.
So Shadowlands is trying to really capture the best of both worlds. The linear strong backbone narrative that we had back in expansions like Mists, but then when you’re jumping in as an alt and trying to replay it, you have the Threads of Fate mode that lets players level through any of the zones in any order they choose, as well as accessing some other end game activities like world quests along the way. So they have max flexibility.
GamesBeat: You’ve also incorporated new graphics tech into Shadowlands. How do you balance the “Ooh, shiny” factor brought by new technology, the need to ensure good gameplay experiences, and the desire to keep WoW working on older hardware?
Hazzikostas: For the most part, it’s customization of all of our options and our bells and whistles. If you have the latest, greatest graphics card and all the drivers, you can turn on ray tracing and experience things in the WoW engine that were never imagined 15 years ago. But we also want to keep the game accessible and running on older hardware, like it always has.
GamesBeat: Shadowlands initially required SSDs. Later, you revised that recommendation.
Hazzikostas: I’m putting on my fake tech director hat here. SSDs and load times are a bit of a different problem, because there’s no setting you can change there. It’s just how big are the assets. I think the original SSD requirement that went out was more a question of, how we want to interpret “minimum?” Because the reality is, the game will actually run on hardware below what we list as our minimum. It’s just a question of what is acceptable.
SSD is a binary thing. If you have an old graphics card, there’s a slider that you can turn down and you can lower your draw distance. SSD versus a more-traditional drive, there’s nothing you can change there. Your load times are going to be longer, because the size of the game assets has grown. And when you hearth to [the hub city of] Oribos, when you zone into a new space, it’s going to take you longer to stream all those assets off your drive into memory, and there’s nothing we can do to speed that up.
It’s actually nothing new to Shadowlands in this regard. If you don’t have an SSD, hearthing to Orgrimmar or Stormwind today has long load times. Players would have a better experience if they had shorter load times. It’s one of the best upgrades players can make to their systems.
It’s not required to play the game in Shadowlands. If you’re willing to have long load times when you’re changing zones, once you’re up and running, everything will be just fine based on your CPU and your graphics card. But we just wanted to warn players that their experience might be meaningfully impacted depending on their drive speed.
GamesBeat: Was Warcraft’s new area-of-effect damage cap, the number of targets that you can hit with a single spell or ability for some classes, related to that hardware equation at all? Or was that an attempt to move away from a certain type of gameplay?
Hazzikostas: That was an attempt to differentiate damage profiles. It’s often described as an AOE cap, like we put some programmatic rule in place that AOE can’t hit more than X targets, but a mage’s Blizzard or warlock’s Rain of Fire and a bunch of other effects don’t have any meaningful caps. They have the [diminishing returns] past 20 that they always have.
This was an attempt to differentiate cleave as its old traditional niche, back to Wrath of the Lich King. Spells like like Multi-Shot and Whirlwind and their ilk only hit a fixed number of targets, which allowed for certain subset, notably melee, to excel in those four and five-target situations.
GamesBeat: What led you to believe the change was necessary?
Hazzokostas: This was partly driven by the introduction of demon hunters. There was just an arms race around uncapped AOE, where everyone can just annihilate a pile of mobs placed in front of them.
It increasingly became the right solution to virtually every problem players were presented with, whether it was running Island Expeditions, running Horrific Visions or doing high keys. When in doubt, just pile as many mobs as you can on this one spot, drop a stun or two if you can, and just blow them up by stacking all your cooldowns.
While there’s room for that, and that should be a strategy, a world of universal uncapped AOE made that the right answer to nearly everything. And then the classes that didn’t have the best uncapped AOE felt like they didn’t belong at all.
Whereas with five-target AOE, yes, you’re not going to be optimal when there’s a big pile of mobs that need to be AOEd, like a bunch of little critters in an encounter. But when you’re stacking three adds on top of a raid boss that needs to be fought over a long period of time, those specs, those classes should excel. We’re trying to reintroduce and create texture and offsetting strengths and weaknesses to WoW gameplay.
GamesBeat: Developers posted about that change and many others more frequently in the Shadowlands beta testing than they had in recent expansions. Was that a deliberate strategy?
Hazzikostas: I’m glad that it feels that way. I think we have a lot more that we could do to communicate on a more regular basis. I think one of the big challenges for us during beta is frankly just splitting bandwidth between making the changes and communicating about them, to give context to players who are understandably unsettled and concerned when they see a round of data mining from the latest beta build.
We do that institutionally with our major releases, with patches, with a new PTR that drops, because we understand it it’s super important to give context to every big change that’s being seen. But when we’re pushing out beta builds, sometimes two a week, that are capturing development in near real time, it can be challenging.
GamesBeat: How does your team decide what to write up?
Hazzkostas: We’re trying to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, but also not freak out players who don’t realize that, “Hey, you just caught half of this change that’s in the works. The other half is going to come next build because only part of it was done when this beta release was made.”
That’s an area we’re intending to improve. I give huge kudos to our community team, who have really immersed themselves in our development process more than ever to keep an eye on hotfixes, on tasks as they’re being implemented — just to flag things that the community needs to know about and get that information out there.
GamesBeat: It’s clear from those posts that there have been a flurry of changes since the original October 26 Shadowlands release date.
Hazzikostas: One of the things we wanted to do, at least on the combat team side, with these extra weeks was tuning. It was something that frankly we didn’t have enough time for in Battle for Azeroth, and we underestimated the importance of as we were shipping Battle for Azeroth. There were vast changes we had to make to portions of the Azerite system and more after release.
We’re doing a lot of that work up front now, but that means more rapid iteration. Also, it’s a back and forth process. Sometimes if you see something nerfed, then we turn around and buff it, it could be that we were wrong. We nerfed it and we were overlooking some other aspect of a system. The community reacted to the change and said, “Hey, you just completely killed this talent with that change. Do you realize that?”
We go back and look at it and say, oops, we didn’t realize that. Thank you for pointing it out. Now we’re going to find a middle ground, or find a new solution to the problem we were trying to solve in the first place. The communication is a two-way street there.
GamesBeat: Do you expect this pace of communication with Warcraft players to continue after launch?
Hazzikostas: I’m not entirely sure. I think that the rate of change will slow down. I think I’d like to keep the communication proportional to the rate at which things are changing.
When the game is live, we’re not going to keep changing talents, redesigning things from week to week. That would be a very de-stabilizing foundation for the millions of people that are playing the game — as passionate as a huge portion of our community is, and rightly so, about the nuances of their moment-to-moment class mechanics.
GamesBeat: Why not keep making those changes?
Hazzikostas: Change has a disruptive cost to a larger portion of our players, who just want to log in and play their hunter and quest, or log in and play their rogue and run a dungeon or do a battleground. When things are changing out from under them, when their rotation changes or when the ability that used to be in their bar isn’t there anymore, that can be a profoundly alienating moment.
That’s what comes in the territory of a new expansion, but once we’re into patches [instead of] week to week hotfixes, we become much more conservative, and therefore there is less to communicate about.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like the delay since October 26 has given you enough time to resolve the issues your team outlined in Shadowlands?
Hazzikostas: Certainly, we feel like the game is ready and that we have addressed the areas that we identified. Now does that mean that it’s all perfect? No. But you could give us months more and this still wouldn’t be perfect. Balance wouldn’t be perfect. Those are all going to be ongoing efforts.
But we feel confident and comfortable that we’ve crossed a threshold. There is an amazing world out there waiting for people to jump into it. Players are going to journey through the Shadowlands, level to 60, join their Covenants, explore these new game systems, climb Torghast, gather Anima, gear up, all the rest, and have a polished experience doing so.
Are we going to keep iterating and improving upon that, based on their feedback and what we learn? Of course we will. But it’s as ready as any WoW expansion has ever been.