Two growths back, with 2016’s Legion, top-level and endgame World of Warcraft went through a huge modification. Legion presented Artifact weapons for each class expertise that might be definitely powered up and utilized to more personalize each expertise’s playstyle. All informed, it was a net favorable, dovetailing well with a few of the growth’s other developments – such as the repeatable, turning World Quests – to open long-lasting endgame development to a larger range of gamers than simply the raiding hardcore. WOW ended up being a video game you might pleasurably bone up at and advance your character without feeling funnelled towards increasingly more tough group material in the mission for evasive loot drops. (It ended up being a lot more like Diablo in that regard – coincidentally or not, existing WOW production director John Hight likewise functioned as the production director on Diablo 3’s outstanding console variation and Reaper of Souls growth.)

However, layered-on, endless endgame development systems of this sort included issues. They can feel aimless or frustrating, or both, and in some cases gamers can wind up feeling more boxed in than freed by them. That’s what took place when Blizzard attempted to construct on the Artifact system in 2018’s Battle for Azeroth. Its connected twin systems of Azerite armour pieces that can be powered up and Essences that approve brand-new capabilities felt picky and overdeveloped, including problem and big grind without likewise including anything especially unique to your specification. The WOW neighborhood enjoys to grumble about them.

“We likewise heard comparable feedback… and we concur,” states lead video game designer Morgan Day with the smallest recommendation of a sigh. I’m speaking with Day and Hight over Zoom ahead of the release of next week’s Shadowlands growth, which the WOW group has actually been completing while working from house.

“You understand, we included the Azerite armor system, and extremely rapidly heard gamer feedback – and saw even simply from engaging with the video game ourselves – that it was going to be tough to broaden,” states Day. “A great deal of the feedback we got was,’You’re simply going to make us re-earn the very same power that we have currently had from the video game’s launch – what the heck, Blizzard?’ And we took a look at that and stated: ‘Yep, in order to solve this, I believe we really need to develop a brand-new axis of development.’ And that’s where we presented the Azerite Essence system, which was type of layered intricacy. We understood that that’s what we were getting ourselves into.” It was a repair, basically; one system plastered over another that wasn’t actually working. And it had to do with as classy as that sounds.

Production director John Hight.

Going into Shadowlands, the WOW group understood these endgame development systems had a location in the video game which there was a genuine cravings for them amongst gamers. But they likewise understood that they had not nailed them yet. In fact, as Hight acknowledges, they realised they had temporarily forgotten a vital principle of player motivation in implementing these systems in the first place.

“I think part of what we learn – or we relearn, I guess – is players want a sense of achievement, a sense of accomplishment. And so, having kind of infinite progression in the Artifact system, they didn’t have that sense of fulfillment, right? It’s sort of just chasing this number that gets bigger and bigger. And so we want to move away from that in Shadowlands.”

Lead game designer Morgan Day.

Shadowlands’ key endgame progression system – Soulbinds – is much more defined. (That doesn’t mean it’s more limiting though – far from it.) As you adventure through the Shadowlands, Warcraft’s version of the afterlife, you will choose to ally yourself with one of four Covenants, which are essentially fancy, interactive factions. Within each Covenant you will meet three key characters you can form a Soulbind with, unlocking some of their special powers for your character to use. (Day likens them to the game’s racial abilities, such as the Goblin rocket jump.) Each Soulbind comes with its own talent tree that gradually unlocks as you gain renown with the Covenant. You can see, depicted clearly, where you’re going and the powers you’ll unlock.

The issue with Soulbinds, though, is not depth, but breadth. “Think about it, we’ve got a dozen classes, three dozen specs, multiplied times four Covenants,” says Hight. And you can multiply that by three again, with the choice of Soulbind within each Covenant: that’s 432 permutations of class, spec, Covenant and Soulbind, even before you factor in the choices a player might make within the spec and Soulbind talent trees.

Being set in the afterlife does not mean all of Shadowlands will be gloomy.

It is, surely, a balancing nightmare.That’s certainly what players of the alpha and beta thought, some even wondering if these endgame progression systems – sometimes called borrowed power systems – made balancing the game properly impossible. Balancing was indeed picked out as a key reason Blizzard needed to delay Shadowlands’ release by a few weeks, with Hight’s note pointing out the complexity of interlocking systems in a game like World of Warcraft. (Alongside Covenants, Shadowlands likewise introduces Torghast, a roguelike-style randomised dungeon.) As Hight notes, balancing and fixing such broad and layered systems is exactly what beta testing is for. “There is nothing more valuable to us than the sort of crowdsourcing that happens with thousands and thousands of beta participants going through… A lot of people went through levelling up a character to going in, choosing Covenants, trying different characters and giving us really excellent feedback. And, you know, that’s priceless.”

Day reckons that, if balancing the Soulbinds is always likely to be an ongoing process, at least the team now feels it has the tools it needs to do it. “We feel very confident that we have, I guess, the knobs that we would need to adjust to get to a place where we and the community are excited and happy with where we ended up. And that’s something that has been a major focus of ours over the last few weeks,” he says.

But he points out that Soulbinds initially feeling off in the beta wasn’t necessarily a balancing issue. With any progression system, pacing is a vital consideration. “We had actually gotten a lot of feedback early on about Soulbinds not feeling super impactful, or they weren’t very exciting when you very first grabbed them. Even within the last few weeks, we’ve made major changes so that the talent, I guess we could call it, at the bottom of the Soulbind tree – we actually just moved most of those to the top so that as soon as you get them, you get one of the most exciting aspects or most exciting things that Soulbind can give you.” Alongside a focus on pacing, there is the learning from Battle for Azeroth that such systems need to be naturally expandable. “Something that we’ve been focusing a lot on and with Shadowlands is just making sure that we pace it well and also making sure that we have room to grow. Maybe going wider on a lot of these systems as well.”

Naturally, the four Covenants reward you with some fetching themed armour sets.

Perhaps the key point, though, is that Blizzard doesn’t start with the nitty-gritty game design thinking at all when it approaches a new endgame system. Quite the opposite. The core of the system is thematic, even emotional. “A lot of it really stems from a location of: well, what makes sense for the theme and the setting of this expansion? What’s the story we’re trying to tell? Why are we going to this place?” says Day. The Covenants (broadly analogous to angels, necromancers, fairies and vampires) are a storytelling device as much as they are an option for customisation and progression, and Day thinks players’ choice of Covenant and Soulbind will – or should – be driven more by roleplay than min-maxing. “We were discussing, what’s the emotion we want to elicit, how do we want people to feel about this? I personally believe about it almost like a sub-spec: like my Venthyr Paladin feels way different than my Kyrian Paladin. And that is something that we thought would be really, really fun to pursue, people would really enjoy engaging with.”

The tuning and balancing workload kicked up by this premise is a challenging, complex and expensive afterthought, but the World of Warcraft developers clearly think it’s been worth it. Time will tell on that – Shadowlands launches on Tuesday, and these systems will likely be refined over the whole two-year lifespan of the expansion. But it’s true that WOW has always excelled at flavour: making each faction, every race, every class, every spec, even every individual skill feel charismatic and distinct. 16 years from launch, it’s one of the things that still sets the video game apart. And maybe this emotionally led design process is among the reasons for that. I’d say that’s worth a balancing headache or more.