After demons and death gods, ‘Warcraft’ gets sunny with ‘Dragonflight’
In an interview, the popular game’s general manager and executive producer talk community expectations, controversial plot beats and the future of cross-faction play.
By Jonathan Lee
November 28, 2022 at 6:54 p.m. EST
Blizzard Entertainment’s “World of Warcraft” marked its 18th anniversary Nov. 23. Since its initial release in 2004, the series has consistently remained the most popular MMORPG in the world, outliving and outpacing numerous competitors.While the game’s population has fluctuated over the years, over a million players still log into the game daily — including, unsurprisingly, its own developers.
“I play the game a lot,” John Hight, general manager of Warcraft, told The Washington Post. “I tend to do that somewhat anonymously. I mean, people in Blizzard know who my toon is, but the rest of the world, most of them don’t, and I walk anonymously through the community and I’ll do dungeons with them or do content in the world with them.
“I’m always struck by how friendly and helpful people are,” Hight said. And “Dragonflight,” the game’s ninth and newest expansion, reflects that, in some ways.
In “Dragonflight,” which features a lighter tone than some of the game’s previous expansions, players will explore the previously unseen Dragon Isles, home of the powerful Dragon Aspects who have safeguarded the world of Azeroth for thousands of years. “Dragonflight” introduces the new magic-based evoker class (exclusively paired with the expansion’s new playable race, the dracthyr) and a dragon riding mechanic using an overhauled flying system.
But “Dragonflight” has a lot riding on it as well. The game’s past two expansions, “Battle for Azeroth” and “Shadowlands,” endured lukewarm reviews from fans. The Washington Post spoke with Hight and Holly Longdale, vice president and executive producer of Warcraft, about the game’s longevity, addressing community feedback, how the series will approach storytelling moving forward, additional cross-faction features and more.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Launcher: “Dragonflight” is a big tonal shift from the last few expansions, which have been quite dark and gloomy. “Legion” was about a demonic invasion, “Battle for Azeroth” was about a giant world war between the Horde and the Alliance and “Shadowlands” was about a rogue death god who wanted to unmake reality. “Dragonflight” seems to be much more in the vein of high adventure. Was this an intentional decision by the team? And was it based on player feedback at all?
Holly Longdale: Yes, to all of those. As far as the theme, the team is a reflection of the world today and what we need. With covid and everything else that’s been going on in the world, this theme of hope really came from the team, to really bring the joy of “let’s get back to Azeroth and the beauty of the outdoors,” really leaning into our characters and high fantasy. So it came from the community, it came from the team itself.
John Hight: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. We typically have a few different storylines we want to chase so there’s a backlog of “oh, this would be a cool story to tell.” Even in the early stages of “Shadowlands,” we decided we had to follow that up with something more high fantasy and uplifting. And you know, dragons have always been something we have wanted to do as so much of Azeroth has been steeped in what has happened with the Dragon Aspects and how they influenced us mere mortals in Azeroth. We’ve left that shrouded in a lot of mystery and now this is an opportunity to tell more of those stories.
Now, we could not predict at the time that there’d be a preponderance of interest in dragons. I’d love to be able to say that we were so visionary that we knew there’d be all this excitement about dragons. [Laughs] I think it’s cool.
Sylvanas Windrunner, who has been one of the principal villains for the past two expansion packs, has not been well received by fans. Many players took issue with her story arc and saw her as an example of a greater critique: that “World of Warcraft” villains are one dimensional.
The “Warcraft” team has mentioned a desire to make more interesting and nuanced villains who aren’t just about destroying the world. How has the team approached that idea?
Longdale: John and I can both tell you that with the feedback around [Sylvanas], we’ve heard the community. Quite often, when you look at films and TV, you make what can be considered a controversial choice. It can make the community a bit uneasy and in some cases, unhappy.
That said, I can tell you that the team has gone back to the origins of “World of Warcraft” and they’ve mapped the character arcs for every single character and mapped what’s worked as well, and what players have become really attached to. Now we’re in a new space where we’ve used the majority of characters from “Warcraft III” and prior. So there’s been a very careful, deep exploration of where we go from here and how do we support the characters we have now.
How do we create new ones? Who’s the next Arthas? Who’s the next Illidan? Who’s the next Sylvanas? We are looking long term. We are looking three years, five years, 10 years, 20 years in the future. We took real stock and we want to be very careful and deliberate and bring in as many great minds as we can to help us get there.
Hight: Yeah, these characters and the stories we tell about them are so important, and these are memorable to our fans. People have tattoos of Thrall or Jaina. Those stories that those characters tell are also parables that people are learning life lessons from.
We’re going to double down on the story. It’s important to me, it’s important to the team, it’s important to Blizzard. We are stepping up not only the staffing that we have but how we approach the story. We want to tell great stories around characters, as Holly said, with plans to chart out the creation of new heroes and the evolution of those heroes across multiple expansions. But also giving depth to heroes and villains so there’s things we can relate to, things we can see of ourselves, whether it’s our demons or our virtues.
Now, as you can imagine, storytelling in a nonlinear form is more complicated. People don’t consume story in “World of Warcraft” in a one hour sitting. They are experiencing it at different rates over a matter of weeks and months, so we have to make sure that the vehicles we use for conveying story allow people to consume at different rates. There may be gaps. You play one week, you go hang out with friends and family for a couple weeks, and then you come back, and we’ve got to make sure that you can still follow the thread of the story and be immersed in it.
“World of Warcraft” has had a lot of competitors over the years, but has consistently remained the most popular MMORPG in the world. Why do you think the series has endured for so long?
Hight: I’ve been a player of the game for 18 years. My character’s old enough to vote and actually older than some players in the game. [Laughs] It is kind of a phenomenon for us on the team. We recognize that we’re the caretakers of a lifestyle for many people — some of their fondest memories, some of the closest relationships that they’ve had. It goes beyond just the game.
It’s a big responsibility for us and we’re also participants in that community. I think what’s helped us stay fresh and continue to be out there every couple years is the evolution we go through with each expansion. It’s as big as a box release. We always put in some major features and a lot of content for our players. And the change that we’ve recognized over the last year is the desire from our players to continue to have things to do. In the past, we might have been okay with having a number of months in between updates, but that’s no longer the case. That’s why we expanded our team. You probably saw that we acquired [the studio Proletariat Inc] in Boston and they are actually dedicated strictly to “World of Warcraft.” That’s in our efforts to step up their content releases for our players.
Longdale: I can say for the team, what we’re looking at in particular is getting feedback from the community on where we should go and what’s missing. [The team] is all players, including me. I also have an 18-year-old character. I’ve got many. Because we are the player base ourselves, we represent every kind of player that plays “World of Warcraft” and probably some beyond that we should be looking into.
It’s a constant conversation, day-to-day on what can we do, how can we do better and learn from our community. It’s really important for us and we’re not going anywhere.
This may be a tinfoil hat theory, but the “Dragonflight” trailer showed a Zandalari troll and a Wildhammer dwarf, who were sworn enemies of opposing political superpowers in the past two expansions, working together and cheering each other on. Is this a hint that “Dragonflight” will be adding more features to facilitate cross-faction grouping? Perhaps cross-faction guilds?
Longdale: I mean … Wouldn’t that be great? [Laughs]
Hight: You know, it is informed by what we’ve already done. We’ve heard our players say, “Hey, you know what, I picked Alliance and I like Alliance but I have a preponderance of Horde friends and I’d like to be able to do raids and dungeons with them.” We feel like we shouldn’t have created strict boundaries in those circumstances.
I’m glad you picked up on that. But factions are important and I think it’s still very important that PVP be PVP. The conflict between Horde and Alliance is as old and as deep as “Warcraft” itself. I wouldn’t anticipate you’ll see a complete erosion of that, that everyone’s going to be Kumbaya and they’ll all be on the same side. But I think we do want to be careful in our application of factions.
Longdale: Like John said, we’re being very careful about what we’re doing with that, but it’s one of those areas that players have been asking for a while. Our own team acknowledges that it’s something we need to explore.
The dragon riding mechanic in “Dragonflight” has drawn comparisons to a similar feature in “Guild Wars 2.” Would you say that comparison is fair?
Longdale: Interesting point of view. I’ll say first that we’re all gamers and I think we’ve pretty much played everything, but I think the inspiration for dragon riding initially came from us doing the dragon theme. When we’re talking about building a world of dragons and creating that immersion, verticality is obviously going to play a big role. Dragons have to have places to protect themselves and high points.
So it started from doing something different and evolving what we’re doing with flight and traversal. Initially, they were just dragon mounts with some new things. And then, this is so much of what happens in this industry across the board and particularly in “World of Warcraft,” someone tinkers and discovers something magical and has a few people test it. It was an evolution of how to traverse the world, make it more active and have more immersion.
If there’s comparisons to other games, I wouldn’t say we went, “We’re going to do that thing over here.” Remember, the game is 18 years old and we’re constantly updating our technology. So this was a very deliberate evolution. I wouldn’t say it came from one particular game.
Hight: I mean, the genesis of it was literally: “Okay, we’re going to have dragons, what are all the things we would expect to have in an expansion that involves dragons?” We put together a list and a few things started bubbling up, and dragon riding is something that bubbled up. As Holly said, there became an evolution. Okay, we’re going to do that, but how do we meet players’ expectations and then how do we do something that they didn’t expect?
I think that was one of the evolutions that was a little bit later, to step up our flying mechanics and work on the physics of it. I think it’s made the game even more fun to fly than it was before.
Is there anything you’d like to say to the “World of Warcraft” community on the franchise?
Longdale: For me, I’m all about the players and the team. We’re really looking forward to the future. You’re going to see some really good stuff.
Hight: I play a lot of different games and I think [“World of Warcraft”] is a unique experience because of the community. I’m for the future of gaming in general because as more people consider gaming as their chosen form of entertainment, it’s led to much more diverse communities and inclusive content.
“World of Warcraft” is the proverbial Swiss Army knife. We have a little bit of something for everyone and will continue to do that. It’s got a playground that is conducive to that and there’s no one way to “win” the game. It’s about being part of the experience.