World of Warcraft devs discuss helping build The War Within

As World of Warcraft inches closer to The War Within, we ask about design, leadership, flight, Delves, and some of what to expect from Azeroth's next chapter.

Blizzard Entertainment

World of Warcraft has been taking players across Azeroth for more than two decades. It's hard to imagine that Blizzard is just getting started with its storytelling, but there's a lot of intrigue surrounding the game's next handful of expansions. Up first is The War Within, which will introduce new features, new areas to explore (both by land and by air), and a new story that promises to test everybody's favorite characters in exciting ways.

There's a lot that we're eager to learn about The War Within, so we spoke with Senior Narrative Designer Abigail Manuel and Lead Visual Development Artist Gabriel Gonzalez. We ask about the story of the next expansion, assembling it under the leadership of Chris Metzen, building on the mechanics introduced in the Dragonflight expansion, Delve instances, and much more.

Anduin in World of Warcraft: The War Within

Source: Blizzard Entertainment

Shacknews: My first question is for Abigail. Abigail, how much time has passed since Dragonflight to The War Within in World of Warcraft?

Abigail Manuel, Senior Narrative Designer: You know, that's a good question, and one that I'm not prepared to answer. It has not been more than a few years. We're not going far, far into the future. This is something that, and this is something that we've really started thinking about is, a continuing story that happens in the present. So I believe that is the correct answer.

Shacknews: Gabriel, what is it like for you to create these new environments that are going underneath Azeroth for the first time, that are very open-ended, actually, when I saw them?

Gabriel Gonzalez, Lead Visual Development Artist: I guess the short answer is very difficult. I think one of the main concerns that we had with this expansion, because we're going underground and there can be a lot of themes of space that's feeling very oppressive and dark, we needed to get really creative when it came to, how do we inject like a fantasy that the player wants to and enjoys being in for a longer period of time? So I think we had to break the immediate definition of what it feels like to be underground. And I think the fantasy for these spaces is that they are very wondrous. They are very full of life and not necessarily what you would expect from a cavern that you would see on the core of the planet. So yeah, that was one of the main things that we were focusing on.

Azj-Kahet in World of Warcraft: The War Within

Source: Blizzard Entertainment

Shacknews: Now, Abigail, the Nerubians are coming back. Can you kind of talk about how we'll fight them, or work with them? Are we going to explore more of their culture in-game? Because I haven't seen them for a hot minute. They were in some dungeons before then. Obviously, everyone knows them from [Wrath of the] Lich King, but they were kind of very evil in 'Lich King.'

Manuel: Yeah, the Nerubians are coming back and they're not the same Nerubians that you've seen before. The Nerubians before were kind of an undead race, not a whole lot of depth there, but interesting also in artistic ways, as well their architecture and things like that. But, really, in The War Within, we're exploring Azj-Kahet, their main city and you're going to learn about their culture. It's not going to be just a cut-and-dried sort of, "Oh, the bad guys" sort of thing. There is more going on down there and you'll get to see more about that, about their society, and what kind of stratifications there are in their social structure.

Shacknews: With Chris Metzen coming back, how has he helped you form this world, either like from a design standpoint or a narrative standpoint?

Manuel: It's kind of an interesting question because our process has changed a little bit as far as we're always changing our process. We're always improving our process. That's not something that happened because Metzen came in. He is a very higher level, high concept, overall beats sort of person. And while we do come to him with what we're going to do, the smaller things like that are really something that he lets us do. So he's more of the high concept sort of person and that's how we foster creativity over the team.

Gonzalez: If I can add to it to that a little bit, I feel like the biggest change that we had with him coming on is really this new, unprecedented thing that we call the Worldsoul Saga, which is a saga that overlaps three contiguous expansions, so that's pretty different and ambitious for us.

So I think the high level, like Abigail was saying, setting those high level, high energy, captivating sort of like storytelling moments has definitely been amazing, definitely. It's like a big team effort that goes into putting this whole vision together and anywhere from obviously the Chris Metzen level to the people who are making small things like the props, like the crates and barrels, the grass, the trees, and things like that.

Shacknews: Abigail, from a narrative standpoint, what do the hero talents open up for telling a character's story or even building the world more? Now we have Frost Fire Mage, we finally have Shadowhunters, and this kind of stuff that we've never seen in the game before.

Manuel: We have a lot of tentpole characters that have these great special abilities. I think it's kind of a logical extension of you being the hero of the game, becoming more powerful, and then specializing into something that is really cool. It's really tapping into, not necessarily in a narrative way that it's not being told as a story, but it's more like with the magic itself, about what kind of character that you want your hero to evolve into. I think it's really got a lot of interesting things, like I'm really excited about Soul Harvester because I'm a Warlock player normally, so growing into that interesting type of fantasy. It's really going to be an interesting thing for players to grow into.

Gonzalez: Mostly, what I want to say is I'm just super excited to play. I play Balance Druid, and I think for me, the more I can delve into the lunar-like magic fantasy as the Chosen of Elune, I'm super looking forward to that one.

Shacknews: Now for you, Gabriel, just a curious question. Since Dragonflight, dragonriding is now going to be everywhere. How does that affect your visual process when developing these areas? Or does it at all?

Gonzalez: It definitely does. I think one of the biggest changes that we had in Dragonflight was that introduction of Dynamic Flying, which is a completely different way that people can consume and move through the world. We had to basically create spaces that would allow for interesting flying to happen in them. That's really something that goes into the collaboration with world-building teams [and] the world art teams: How they lay out the zone, how much verticality we might want, all types of things that might affect the archetype of the zone, and what the zone is meant to feel like. Obviously, if, for example, we need to make a zone that maybe doesn't have as much verticality and interesting vantage points, how do we make that experience still fun and interesting for the player to traverse through? So it definitely has an impact, but I think it's really about how the player moves through the space more than anything.

Shacknews: Talk about some of the challenges, because WoW is such an open-based game now, where a player can land anywhere in a zone and go at their own pace. How do you focus them, narratively, to follow a story path that could end in a raid, end in a dungeon, or end with opening a new zone without them getting lost or overwhelmed?

Manuel: I think there are technical solutions that we've come up with on the questing side, as far as markers, POI blobs, things like that, that can direct people back. As far as planning those sorts of things, we do make sure that the throughline makes sense from a spatial consideration, as far as, we lead you to the zone in a certain way with the main campaign. The local stories have logical places in hubs and we do make it so that the main campaign can just sit in your quest log and you can go back to it at any time. We're not really that aggressive in making you go back and do those sorts of things if you don't want to do that. It's absolutely fine.

Gonzalez: Slow down and smell the flowers.

Manuel: Right.

Gonzalez: I can tell you from an art standpoint, we do a good amount of asset placement, artifying, and even thinking about the visual language and how the zones are laid out that help lead the players to certain places. How we lay out the roads, where we draw attention, where we might draw the eye, how we use color, things like that, all plays into the flow of the overarching story. But definitely to Abigail's point, still finding that added layer of living world type of feel of like subtle, smaller stories in the environment as well, I think is super important to us.

The earthen in World of Warcraft: The War Within

Source: Blizzard Entertainment

Shacknews: Speaking of the Isle of Dorn, we're going to see the earthen in a big capital way. What are you excited for players to experience in this new island?

Manuel: We've had the earthen around for a really long time, but you know, I feel like it was kind of like the Nerubians, right? They're there to hit you. So now we've really gotten into this race of constructs that have been around for thousands of years. What does that mean? Where did they come from? Why are they here? We dip into that old Titan lore that's been around for a very long time, and I think it's interesting. We're going to see more of that, more of how the Titans shaped Azeroth, shaped this specific people, and it's really an interesting story about the earthen coming into their own. Because, at some point, some of the earthen became dwarfs, right? So, we're seeing that weird thing, a thousand years before. It's this first step in this evolution towards a race like that, but will they ever change? No, but we're in this catalyst situation with them and so I think it's an interesting kind of pivotal point that we're walking into with the earthen and to see in their evolution.

Gonzalez: I was just going to add, it's pretty similar to Abigail's answer, it's like the other flavor that goes into their culture and understanding who they are as a people. I think that's what I'm really excited about. From a visual development standpoint, we spend a lot of time thinking about, "Alright, there are people made of stone. Like, do they eat, do they sleep? Do they need beds? Like, how does this work?" So, obviously, the overarching storytelling is super important, the big epic stories, but for me, the feeling of "Okay, this is like a real culture. There's people living here, having day-to-day lives," type of thing is what I get really excited for the players to discover and inform their understanding of what the earthen culture is like.

Shacknews: What goes into having that discussion at the table? Take us to the table, if you can, about what you decide an Allied races is going to be, because there are so many races in the World of Warcraft that have been around forever, and everyone's pounding their fist wanting a certain one, but how do you decide on what? How did you decide on the earthen, I guess, is the question?

Gonzalez: I can tell you internally, too, we do that a lot. I think whenever there's the character team with their amazing work, whether they're making something for the environment or for the raid or something that's like maybe a little bit unusual, it's almost like an inside joke that everybody always types in the chat, "Oh, this is the new Allied race, let's do it." So I totally, sympathize with that feeling that the players have.

I think what it really comes down to, and again, my expertise obviously is in visual development, so I'm not super privy to the entire discussion that goes into picking a race, but I would say it really goes into what makes sense for the story they were trying to tell. What would make a really interesting new fantasy for the player that we haven't really seen before? How those two sorts of things played together is what ultimately really informs what, becomes an allied race.

Shacknews: Blood Elves have been slowly creeping up in the lore, and we're learning more and more about them, their culture, their power, and how they separated, and all that good stuff. Can you talk about the role that their villain, as well as the race and their culture, will play in this expansion?

Manuel: Well, I will say that Xal'atath, in appearance, is Void Elf and may not be as aligned to that as it appears. We also have Alleria, who can tap into void power, and that's going to be a pretty important thing going forward as the story progresses, because it is this interplay between light and dark. I can't go super far into it, but, void power being this idea of, "Is it something that corrupts? Is it something that can be controlled?" Those sorts of themes are going to definitely bear out in this, and it is going to be like, again, The War Within specifically going back to Alleria with that.

Delves in World of Warcraft: The War Within

Source: Blizzard Entertainment

Shacknews: The delves are new solo dungeons people can experience. Can you talk about, from a visual standpoint, designing those and, from a narrative standpoint, if people just decide to do this, how they can continue the story while getting geared instead of doing a questline.

Gonzalez: The fantasy for [players] is places that you stumble upon as you're questing through the world. Like you were saying, you'd like to explore the world and get that open sense of "Oh, this is like an open world type of thing." I think that is at the core of the fantasy here with Delves. You'll be questing through, you're going to find this, "Oh, what is this weird thing? I'm going to go in there and I'm going to delve into this. I'm going to delve into this place and figure out what it is."

So, I would say, with that in mind, thinking about the design of the Delves themselves, it really leans into the environment that you'll find the Delve in and some of the tangential, contextual stories that are happening around that zone. There's a lot of variety that goes into Delves as well, so it really depends on where you might find it and what might be happening around it.

Shacknews: Abigail, can you tell us what role Thrall will play in this expansion and what he's been doing the last few years?

Manuel: This is kind of a "come together" for a lot of these characters. Thrall answers the call of the Worldsoul as well.

There are some things that I can't tell you about, between that and the start of the expansions, I'll have to gloss over that. But in this expansion, Thrall is there as a leader, not the leader... especially for the, later on, guide for the earthen, for parts that you have not seen yet and I cannot fully talk about. But, yeah, so Thrall was there, as support for the Horde, as Jaina is for the Alliance. And [he] is a part of the story, though I think that the narrative is focused in other places at the moment.

Shacknews: And then my last question for both of you, we'll start with Gabriel. Gabriel, what's the biggest misconception about your job when you tell someone you're a lead visual development artist?

Gonzalez: I guess maybe that I get to draw every single thing that gets into the game. It really is, especially with the way that our team works, which has so many amazing, talented folks. It really is a team effort. We might put an idea out on the table and it's really awesome to see, like the character folks like jump in and add in to make it something completely different and unique that we hadn't even considered before, or the environment folks [too], for that matter. I think maybe one of the misconceptions is that there's one single person calling the shots officially on what everything should look like and feel like.

But I think what it really comes down to is, the World of Warcraft team is full of super passionate people that have been playing the game as long as most of the other folks that are super passionate in the game. I can tell you I've been playing since Warcraft 3, my first exposure to Warcraft. I think there's tons of desire to be a part of that, so it's really a team effort.

Shacknews: And Abigail, what's the biggest misconception for you as a senior narrative designer? Obviously, it's that you make all the narrative decisions.

Manuel: Right! There are multiple senior nerd insiders on our team. And also, I think that the misconception is that we write absolutely everything, and really it is a thing that we do in tandem with the quest designers. There's a lot of give and take there. I think a good analogy is the classical difference between plot and story, where plot is the things that happen. The quest designers do the gameplay and the things that are actually happening in the story. Narrative is the story itself around it, the dialogue, the quest text, and things like that. I think that a lot of people just assume that quest designers just hook things in, and that's not true. They do a lot of the gameplay stuff for us and we are the people who do the checks and balances, make sure things plug in and make sure that's tonally and culturally correct for the different races and the different characters.

Shacknews: That said, please don't kill Thrall.

Manuel: You know, my pithy thing to say is, "Well, I don't think Metzen would let us," but, you know...

Shacknews: You never know.

Manuel: He definitely would if he could, if it made sense. Yeah, but no, that's not something you have to worry about for the immediate future.

World of Warcraft: The War Within is expected to release later this year on PC. Alpha testing is currently underway with beta sign-ups available on the World of Warcraft website.

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