Ion Hazzikostas on How Blizzard Reinvigorated 'World of Warcraft' with 'Legion'

Ion Hazzikostas on How Blizzard Reinvigorated 'World of Warcraft' with 'Legion'

Glixel / Blizzard

The 'WoW' game director discusses the lessons learned from 'Warlords of Draenor' and looks to the future

The 'WoW' game director discusses the lessons learned from 'Warlords of Draenor' and looks to the future

Exactly one year ago, Ion Hazzikostas, then assistant game director for World of Warcraft, was busy with his team designing the first bosses for the Legion expansion's Nighthold raid that just went live last Tuesday. Never before had the storied massively multiplayer game seen darker days. Seven months had already gone by since the last patch for the much-maligned existing expansion Warlords of Draenor, and five more would pass before the next one. A couple of months before, Blizzard Entertainment had announced it would no longer announce WoW’s subscriber numbers, leading critics to wag their fingers and speak of gloomy future for a game that in 2012 peaked at 12 million subscribers. Viewed from the outside, Blizzard seemed to have all but abandoned it in favor of younger, flashier creations, like its then-upcoming team shooter Overwatch.

But in the studio, Hazzikostas and his team were onto something big. He acknowledges they probably could have done something where they pulled together the majority of the team and released a smaller patch for Warlords to plug the gaps. But in the end, they stayed the course.

“I don't think that would have been our best content, and it would have very significantly further impacted the timetable for Legion. I think we made the decision that felt like the only one we could make at the time, which was to stay the course, make Legion the best game it could possibly be and right things going forward,” he says.

The effort seems to have paid off. By almost all accounts (including our own), Legion is good, even great. Not only have the content patches breezed by at a comfortable rate since launch, but Legion reinvigorates World of Warcraft with much of the joy of exploration that characterized its early years. Continually randomizing "world quests" keep players coming back, as does an impressive roster of world bosses. Warlords of Draenor started out with high hopes as well, but with Legion, Blizzard has managed to maintain that excitement months into the expansion.

And it's Hazzikostas' baby now. For all of the hope it brought for WoW's future, Legion's release saw the departure and replacement of several key developers, either for new horizons or for new projects within Blizzard itself. (Curiously, it's a theme that parallels Legion's storyline, which kicks off with lore heavyweights getting permanently pushed off the stage and replaced by successors.) In the jumble, Hazzikostas, a former practicing attorney who's widely known as "Watcher" to the WoW community in honor of an NPC he used to use to monitor raids, inherited the crown from former lead game director Tom Chilton.

He's also open to talking about WoW's stumbles, which is refreshing. Hazzikostas acknowledges the Warlords of Draenor expansion had its share of disappointments, yet he flatly denies that it was in any way "rushed," as some critical players have come to believe. "I think there were certainly times where I wish we could take a time machine back a few months and make some different decisions. I think Warlords was an example of an expansion that suited some of our player groups very well and failed for others," he says.

Overall, he believes, Warlords slipped into its content drought largely because of how its patches were delivered, and Blizzard took the hard lessons from that and applied them to Legion. "I think that the pace and the rate at which the story of Warlords unfolded from a storytelling perspective, from a narrative perspective, a pacing perspective probably did feel rushed," he says.

And so they took the step of releasing small doses of new content as Legion progressed, so even fast-paced players would have a reason to come back week after week, day after day.

"Something that we're increasingly doing is decoupling the release or exposure of new pieces of content from our technical patch schedule. In the past, a patch would drop and everything would be there at the same time and that wasn't necessarily what all of our different players of different playstyles wanted or needed," he said.

In Legion, the best example of this new approach is the ongoing saga of the Nightfallen, a group of mana-addicted night elves who've been living in a city under a bubble for 10,000 years. Most of them sided with the demonic Legion when the shield went down, but players align themselves with rebels who've been kicked and gone mad in exile, and are striving to reconquer the city. It's a fantastic story, filled with sorrow, fascinating new lore, and the occasional dash of humor. But it's not something you can accomplish in a weekend binge. The Nightfallen's struggle unfolds over many weeks, with new quests detailing the arduous resistance unlocking every Tuesday for individual players.

That's appealing in itself, but Blizzard upped the stakes by setting much of the action in the city of Suramar itself, which bustles with life in a way no other city in Azeroth has before. Multiple districts, crowded with elves strolling about their business, sprawl across what seems like miles. And through it all, Blizzard manages to make it feel like a living metropolis. "There were definitely times along the way where we asked ourselves and seriously worried whether we were trying to bite off too much, with the sheer scope of the city, both from just an artistic production perspective, from a performance perspective, making sure it didn't melt your computer when you tried to look at the city as a whole," he says.

Now, though, he sees it as the team's finest creation in Legion, and a testament to the strength of Blizzard's vision for WoW's future. But it didn't come easy.

"We kept asking ourselves, 'Can we fill out a place of this size and complexity and depth with content that makes it feel meaningful?' We didn't feel like we got all the way there in the initial 7.0 Suramar content, " he says. "That was part of what we aimed to solve with the 7.1 Suramar insurrection. We knew there was so much more story to tell there, and more that we could do with the space that we created."

It's one of the finest developments in the new narrative approach World of Warcraft has taken since its 2012 Mists of Pandaria expansion, which started a trend of each new patch and expansion growing organically into one another to tell a better story. It also helps the team have a better roadmap for content. "Years ago, from expansion to expansion, there was almost no transition, really. I mean, you saw the Lich King and then, okay, the next thing that came after it had nothing to do with that. The next thing that came after that also had nothing to do with, you know, Deathwing or the Old Gods," Hazzikostas says.

This way, there's always a reason to come back to WoW, and they plan on using the approach to maintain variety. As such, they're working on an entire new zone that will shuttle players out of the familiar content and and shake things up with new scenery.

"When 7.2 comes out, people will very much be looking for a new chunk of outdoor content to explore," he says. "I think the Broken Isles are great, but you probably will have had your fill of Highmountain and Stormheim, and then helping the Highmountain Tauren kill Drogbar and so forth. But will raiders need a new raid by then? No, I don't think that will be the case at all. It means that we can pace things out better for all the different player segments as well as have new things to look forward to on a weekly or monthly basis that aren't just tied to major patches."

Legion also marks a major departure from Warlords of Draenor by being much more social, a key ingredient in the success of any MMORPG. They key offender here were Warlords' "garrisons," which basically amount to extensive housing modules that let players recruit major figures from Warcraft lore as NPC followers. The problem has been that once your garrison was sufficiently upgraded, there was no need to go out in the world for trade supplies, gold, or, in some cases, gear. It made WoW bafflingly lonely for some players.

"Where garrisons went astray, I think, was in how central an experience they were, and how that often came at the expense of other traditional types of WoW content, because the rewards were so easy to get just by clicking the button," Hazzikostas says. "You often didn't feel like it was worth going out in the world and going out into a dungeon."

Legion wisely boots players back into the world. Fantastic rewards are out there, but to get them, players actually need to venture out into the Broken Isles, which naturally brings them into contact with each other. So too does Legion's evolved form of garrisons: the new "order halls" that group you with members of your own combat class – "a private clubhouse," as Hazzikostas calls them – and reward lesser knick knacks for sending followers on missions.

"One of the areas where we feel Legion has succeeded is in trying to deliver meaningful content for every one of our player subgroups. When we think about the package that constitutes a World of Warcraft expansion, we are checking those boxes: that there's something for the collector to strive for, that there's something the person who just likes dungeons and five-player content and doesn't want to deal with the hassle of finding a raid group to do, and so forth."

Does he have any regrets about Legion? Only one, which pertains to the rare "legendary" items players can now get randomly from bosses or world quest rewards. The new design for legendaries marks a big shift from the previous design, which required that players take part in raids and quests for weeks on end.

"We were too stingy with them, especially up front, and then there's this general sense of them feeling like a bonus rather than a reward. I think player discussion in the community kind of reverse engineers aspects of how the systems works. It feel like players are due for a legendary at a certain point, and if they don't get the one that they wanted, it becomes a disappointment instead of what would otherwise be an exciting moment. I think there are different ways we could have approached delivering those items that would have changed the psychology of how players received them and made them more universally exciting."

For the most part, though, he's happy. He's extremely proud of Blizzard's decision to make every zone of the Legion expansion scale to a player's level, as it allows friends to play together and transforms the whole landscape of the Broken Isles into a playground for endgame content.

Stories like that of the Nightfallen play into Legion's larger focus on the Burning Legion, the interstellar band of demons intent on destroying the universe. Most of the story of Warcraft focuses on the effort to keep them at bay, but in Legion, they at last pour in and threaten doom for all. In a future patch, Legion will send players to the demon homeworld Argus for what would seem to be a final showdown.

We don't quite know how that'll turn out yet. (It's amusing to consider whether Blizzard will simply let them win, thus shutting down WoW forever on a high note that'll leave fans remembering it fondly.) But whatever direction it takes, anything that follows will effectively be a different World of Warcraft.

A decisive defeat of the Burning Legion would effectively close the book on all the major chapters of Warcraft lore. More to the point, it closes the door on many of Chris Metzen's visions, who served as the prime mover of Warcraft's lore for more than two decades. Metzen left during the mass exodus following Legion's launch, and I asked Hazzikostas if the upcoming seeming final showdown with the Legion was meant to be a symbolic farewell to Metzen as well – an act akin to Shakespeare's Prospero casting his staff into the sea at the close of The Tempest.

"Metzen was invaluable in big-picture guidance, and we would kind of run concepts by him and pitch him ideas for our expansion, because there are few people who have the same knack for nailing what is cool as Metzen. It's not like he was the one writing the quests, or sitting in the meeting rooms every day. He was a far too busy person for that," he says.

Instead, the team itself has been shaping the lore, particularly with heavy input with WoW's creative director Alex Afrasiabi, whom he credits with sculpting some of the game's most memorable storylines from the beginning.

"I think increasingly, the storytelling in World of Warcraft, for many of the past several years has been driven by all of the brilliant storytellers within the team that have grown up within this world, playing this game, that have an affinity for it and have been pushing these storylines forward," he says.

And could that mean that there's something bigger on the horizon? A proper sequel to World of Warcraft? Hazzikostas, who ultimately guides World of Warcraft's fate, laughs at the idea.

"I think in many ways we view each new expansion as a piece of that. You know, you can make the argument that right now you're playing WoW 7. There's been so much that has changed and evolved over the years in terms of the engine, our systems, our classes and brand new features, brand new ways of interacting with the game that if you actually compared the two side by side, there are significant differences."