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WoW’s 20 year legacy would be an intimidating one for any game, and even as the most successful MMO in the world, you’d respect Blizzard’s decision to play things safe with its future plans. That is until this year’s Blizzcon revealed that that’s far from Blizzard’s mind.
Instead, the company announced perhaps its most ambitious plans for the MMO since that 2004 launch – a story known as The Worldsoul Saga, encompassing not one, not two but three entire expansions over the next couple of years. We sat down for a chat at Blizzcon with the game’s lead visual and development artist Gabe Gonzalez and assistant lead on encounter design Drew de Souza for a chat. In this first part, we spoke about the challenges in developing this epic saga and how they keep things fresh after 20 years of World of Warcraft.
VideoGamer: So obviously The Worldsoul Saga and its three expansions is a huge number to announce at once – what are some of the challenges involved in such a large scale operation compared to a regular expansion?
Gabe Gonzalez: I think maybe the most immediate reality is really that you have to really think a lot further ahead than you normally would. Really, the aim for the expansions is to really tell a really cohesive story that is really going to wrap up a lot of the loose ends that, as Metzen alluded to, there’s a lot of interesting bits of the lore and things like that that we’re definitely going to try to cash into. So I would say at least from the creative side and at least from visual development side of things, it’s definitely just planning ahead. It’s a much wider range of things that we have to account for, to make sure that we tell a cohesive story.
Drew de Souza: That said, each expansion should feel like you’re satisfied at the end of it with that specific chapter.
VG: World of Warcraft is almost 20 years old, does that give you a lot to draw from when creating new content and expansions?
GG: Yeah, definitely. I think internally for the art team, I think one of our pillars is honour the past. So definitely we look at the things that have been really successful in the past that resonate with players. I think all of us in the art team, and I think in the design teams as well, everybody that works at Blizzard, they’re really connected with the lore, the history, going back to Warcraft – Warcraft 3 – those moments, we always try to draw inspiration from that. We always try to reconnect to those moments and really capture the purity of what was interesting about World of Warcraft. So that’s definitely an inspiration, to your point, how you’re saying 20 years, we want to really make sure that this three expansion experience is something that is a really great capstone for those 20 years.
DdS: Yeah, you see that in the creatures even, the Nerubian culture, they’ve been around since Warcraft 3. And that is core WoW. But we also are dealing with evolved descended Nerubians, and what does that mean? What are their combat fantasies? And having that old and new together going into the future.
VG: Do you feel yourselves having to draw more from pre-WoW Warcraft lore, or post WoW – or do you try and keep those influences roughly the same?
GG: Honestly, I feel like we draw from all of it really. Again, I think it’s really about capturing those nostalgic moments that really resonated with players throughout their experience of the Warcraft universe. So we can definitely look forward to seeing a little bit more of it. Definitely trying to make it fresh and new. And always try to develop a really cool experience that we haven’t really experienced before, but leaning into those themes.
VG: You mentioned about the story that crosses over the three expansions – when you’re tying that into the existing WoW narrative, is there ever a danger in shutting yourself out from any avenues or loose threads you may have left from recent expansions that you might want to pick back up later, while still giving yourself enough room to grow further after and beyond the Worldsoul Saga?
GG: That’s an interesting question. I guess what it really comes down to is… Our main focus is really on how we’re going to create the best experience for these three expansions. So we’re not necessarily thinking too much about being super precious with making sure that everything is, I guess, avoiding things that we … It’s like “maybe that’s a little too ambiguous” or whatever. We have everything at our disposal and I think this is the time for us to really lean into those things. Definitely making everything cohesive is a big challenge, especially for our creative directors. And Metzen’s always sitting there going … He has great energy and he has a great mind for that type of stuff. So from my perspective, I guess, as a visual artist just he’s got it.
VG: That ties in well with my next question – of course, WoW Classic has just announced its next expansion will be Cataclysm, which was famous for “destroying” the World of Warcraft as we then knew it. Was there anything off limits when creating these news expansions lore-wise, or did you have carte blanche to take the Warcraft universe anywhere you wanted?
GG: I would say no. Like I said, again, I think we’re pretty … the things that we can try, I think the world’s our oyster. Obviously not to go into too much detail. There’s a lot of things that are still in development and a lot of things that we’re still trying to figure out. But yeah, we don’t want to be restrained or bound by the things that we’ve done in the past. We definitely want to make sure that our main focus is just providing the most epic experience that is going to tie this chapter of Warcraft.
VG: After 20 years, do you find it increasingly difficult to come up with new things to get players excited about and sink their teeth into?
GG: Well, speaking from the visual development side of things, I think it is a pretty big challenge when it comes to, obviously like I said 20 years of stuff. So whenever we are trying to develop a new culture, or a look for a new character or a new environment especially, it’s like; “All right, we’re going to go to a forest or a desert…” or whatever that zone may be. Then we might be developing. And it’s like, “all right, we already did… this zone looks like this other zone that we did, so how do we…” So that’s definitely something that we struggle with a lot. But we always find a way of coming up with something that is very unique and feels new to the player that they’re going to definitely feel like it has its own unique flavour. But it still very much feels like WoW, the core WoW fantasy.
I think specifically for War Within, one of the things that we were really trying to figure out was how do we make a player experience that ostensibly underground tends to be a little bit …when you think about it conceptually, it’s like, oh, “it can be dark and oppressive and you don’t necessarily want to be there”. But War Within is definitely not that. It’s an experience that is going to take you through a really wide variety of sounds that it’s really going to capture that Classic WoW experience in the sense of having a lot of variety and different types of environment. So yes, it’s a pretty big challenge, but we always find a way of rising to the occasion.
With the three expansions in the Worldsoul Saga – is it difficult to not tip your hand too early and give too much, too soon in the first entry? How do you balance what you’ll launch in the first expansion, and what you plan to develop in the rest of the trilogy?
DdS: It’s difficult! (Laughs)
VG: In trying not to put all your eggs in one basket?
DdS: Yeah. One of the advantages of having a game set in an entire world is we have this important mainline plot that we need to follow through with this trilogy. But we have a whole living, breathing world. There are still different surprises around each corner. There’s sub stories there. There’s a lot to tell within each expansion on its own.
GG: I think when it comes down to it, it is a pretty big challenge. I think Metzen said it, it’s probably the most ambitious storytelling enterprise that we’ve gone into when it comes to World of Warcraft. So it’s definitely there’s a lot of challenges that go into it. But the team is definitely rallying around it. And our main goal is to keep WoW the core experience that people can resonate with and be really drawn to and captivated by for as many years as possible. So yeah.
VG: As we established, The Worldsoul Saga is made up of three parts – The War Within, Midnight and The Last Titan – how do you intend to make each expansion stand out on its own, and have a unique identity within the trilogy?
GG: Well, we’re definitely talking a lot internally about the three different expansions. I don’t have too much to share on the other two of course. But they’re definitely going to have their own flavor to them. There’s definitely, like Andrew was saying, this one is going to be a really, as a package, the experience itself, we’re still going to provide you a really cohesive story within itself. But the way they tie together, it’s like a really cool crescendo. But they definitely have their own identities and we can look forward to.
DdS: Yeah, we want each chapter to have a satisfying end to it. Yeah. While still knowing there’s something on the horizon.
World of Warcraft: The Worldsoul Saga will kick off in 2024 with the release of the first expansion World of Warcraft: The War Within – which you can read more about in our second half of this interview coming later this week. The War Within will be followed by Midnight and The Last Titan, although exact dates for those expansions are yet to be confirmed.