Games Interview: Blizzard’s Paul Kubit and Shani Edwards discuss the road to World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth

After months of quietly dropping hints, the trickle of information about Battle for Azeroth, the next expansion in Blizzard’s legendary MMMORPG World of Warcraft, is beginning to resemble a small wave. From its winter release window, the return of  the classic Orcs vs Humans conflict, and the reveal of its intriguing new Warfronts mode, there’s plenty for returning veterans and curious new fans alike to be excited about. We spoke to Battle for Azeroth senior game designer Paul Kubit and World of Warcraft producer Shani Edwards via email to find out more.

The Iris: So, cards on the table: two weeks ago I had never played World of Warcraft before in my life. After nearly 15 years of watching the game from the sidelines, Battle for Azeroth drew me in because it seems like there’s an element of getting back to the Orcs vs Humans foundations of the series — even the key art resembles the old Warcraft 1 and 2 box art (and bless your hearts for that). What drew the team in that narrative direction?

Paul Kubit: World of Warcraft has played with lots of different themes from expansion to expansion. In some expansions, we’ve focused on exploring a new place and how the Horde vs. Alliance conflict played out there; in others, we’ve focused more on the two sides teaming up to fight against a greater evil, such as fighting against the Lich King in Wrath of the Lich King or, most recently, Sargeras in Legion. In Battle for Azeroth, we wanted to explore a story that really focuses on the two sides fighting against each another in the wake of a major story development at the end of Legion.  Azeroth, the world on which the Horde and Alliance live, has been critically injured, and Azerite, a mysterious new super-valuable resource, has emerged as a result of that damage. Both the Horde and Alliance want this resource for themselves, as it will significantly empower their respective factions. So, the stakes have been raised. The story of Battle for Azeroth naturally flows to a place that harkens to our original Warcraft days.

What does the road to Battle for Azeroth look like? How do the events of the Legion expansion dovetail into the new content?

Paul: Given what’s at stake, both the Horde and the Alliance are looking forward and realising that if there is going to be a massive conflict between them, they want to have as many troops on their side of the conflict as possible. The recruitment effort is being kicked off now to make sure that both the Horde and the Alliance have those reinforcements on their team

On the Horde side, they are reaching out to the Highmountain tauren, who they met in Highmountain during the Legion expansion, and the Nightborne, who they met in Suramar. On the Alliance side, they’re bringing in the Void elves, who are looking for their place in the world, and the Lightforged draenei, who they fought alongside on Argus. As players start moving forward with those recruitment quest lines, they’re going to learn why these particular races chose to join either the Horde or the Alliance and what that means for the future of their factions.

Given this major return to the Orcs vs Humans conflict that is the beating heart of the franchise, do you feel that Battle for Azeroth presents a good moment for new players like myself to jump in? At this point, given WOW’s lifetime and impossibly huge playerbase it must seem crazy that new players could still exist but I promise we’re out there.

Shani Edwards: Now is a great time for new players to jump in, especially since we just revamped the levelling system to make that a more enjoyable experience for new players. It’s also a great time for existing players to bring along a new friend who hasn’t experienced World of Warcraft while they are levelling up a new Allied Race to earn their Heritage Armour set.

Where do the new continents Kul Tiras and Zandalar currently sit in the piece narratively and politically? They obviously play key roles in Battle for Azeroth but where do they stand now as those events loom on the horizon and what can players look forward to upon arrival?

Paul: It’s hard to go into detail on Kul Tiras and Zandalar without going into story spoilers, but both are places that the Horde and Alliance know of, but we haven’t seen in World of Warcraft yet. Both are home to large populations and mighty naval fleets. In the case of Kul Tiras, the people there are humans. In the case of Zandalar, they’re trolls. Both would be exceptional allies to have in an upcoming battle, especially since they are both seafaring nations with battle-tested fleets. Having this kind of naval support would give each faction a fast and powerful means to get from one continent to the other, which make them key allies to recruit for both the Horde and the Alliance.

Of everything I’ve seen while looking into Battle for Azeroth, and without wanting to get too far ahead, the feature that’s piqued my interest the most is Warfronts. It seems like a throwback to Warcraft’s strategy roots — its certainly prompted a lot of older school Warcraft fans I know to sit up and take notice. What’s prompted the team to re-introduce these RTS-like concepts now, nearly fifteen years after Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne?

Paul: Warfronts dovetail nicely with the core themes of Battle for Azeroth, which is: Horde vs. Alliance. There are a lot of gameplay elements and themes that call back to Warcraft RTS days. This theme is something we’re focused on even now, with the opportunity for players to start recruiting their Allied Races to bolster their faction forces, such as the Lightforged draenei, Void elves, Nightborne, and Highmountain tauren.

Shani: Warfronts is our take on what it would be like to play a hero in an RTS. Your hero gets to be on the battleground and be a vital part of the combat. That was another experience we wanted to try out on our end.

Further, do Warfronts have any significant entry requirements? Will they require the same time commitment from the player as something like raiding? Are there Heroic and Mythic modes involved? How much of the base building involved is controlled by the player versus pre-determined? To boil all of these down, I suppose the real question is, how much crunchy strat are we talking here?

Paul: We’re working hard on Warfronts, but we don’t have any of that level of detail to share with you just yet—but our goals to make Warfronts accessible and fun to as wide a range of players as possible.

Over the course of the World of Warcraft story, and even going back to Warcraft 3, Jaina Proudmoore’s arc has been one of the wilder narrative rides. With Jaina’s recusing herself from the Kirin Tor (I’ve done so much lore reading over the last couple of weeks, you guys), and now poised to be one of Battle for Azeroth’s driving forces, where’s Jaina at right now as Legion winds down?

Paul: In the World of Warcraft game experience today, Jaina has been absent from current events, but in Battle for Azeroth, Jaina is back to settle a score. We’re going to find out what she’s been doing, and what has happened to her. You’re going to see a lot of Jaina in the future. She’s going to play a huge role in the Alliance’s story line throughout Kul Tiras.

What can you tell us about Battle for Azeroth’s six new playable allied races and how they differ from the base classes and what long-time players have to look forward to there?

Shani: They differ from the game’s standard races because they have all-new customization options, new racial abilities, new racial mounts, and special Heritage Armour sets. We want them to feel special when you unlock them and represent your efforts to recruit them to the faction, and we put a lot of effort into their customisation options and Heritage Armour to feel distinct. Allied Races are a prestigious thing, because you can’t just make an Allied Race and play as one right away. You have to earn the trust of the factions in Legion and complete their campaign and recruitment quest line—only then are you able to convince them to join your side. The cool thing about the Allied Races is that you get to find out why each of them chose to join which faction. For example, both the Alliance and the Horde helped the Nightborne, but in their recruitment quest line you get to discover why they ultimately end up joining the Horde.

The Features trailer on the Battle for Azeroth website is full of pirates from Allied and Horde races alike. This obviously begs the question, can I get my own pirate ship? Will this tie into the trailer’s promise of uncharted islands to plunder and if so, how?

Paul: One of the big features coming in Battle for Azeroth is Island Expeditions, where you and several other players will form a landing party to plunder some islands in the Great Sea and collect Azerite while fighting against advanced AI-controlled NPCs, who are able to do the same. While you might not have your own pirate ship to call your own, you’ll still be able to scratch that pirate itch of looting, plundering, and claiming treasure. There’s also a lot of randomised elements, so you can have different experiences every time you set out on an Island Expedition.

To wrap up, and without wanting to spoil any surprises, what’s the thing you’re most looking forward to seeing players enjoy or interact with in the new expansion?

Shani: I’m most excited to see players playing the new Allied Races. We put in a lot of time on the art side into making them really unique and really customisable. The Void elves have some of the most detailed hairstyles on any of the races than we’ve used before. They all have new tattoos and new customisations. We’ve put a lot of work into them and making them feel special.

Paul: I’m excited to see some faction pride reignited—to see the Horde players get really excited about playing Horde and the Alliance players about playing Alliance. We have that now, but whenever we start fighting against each other, that’s when you really start digging deep into what it means to be a part of the Horde or part of the Alliance. I’m looking forward to rooting for my side and seeing our community rally for their favourite faction.

Our sincere thanks to both Paul and Shani for taking the time to chat to us. World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is set to release this winter. Preorders are available now via the official site.