Interview: WoW Legion’s Lead Class Designer and Senior Producer

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World of Warcraft: Legion is the sixth expansion pack for one of the most prolific names in modern gaming, one of the rare few subscription-based MMORPGs that are still going strong today. This expansion returns to the franchise’s height of popularity by bringing back the Burning Legion, an otherworldly threat that forces the warring Horde and Alliance factions to unite once more.

Blizzard Entertainment flew in Lead Class Designer Adam Kugler and Senior Producer Travis M. Day all the way from the US for the Legion launch party held at Zouk. We managed to catch up with them before the celebrations to gain their thoughts on World of Warcraft’s biggest, and most anticipated, update.

WoWLegion_AdamKuglerAdam Kugler joined Blizzard Entertainment in 2012 as an FX artist for World of Warcraft before getting handed the reins to all the playable classes. It’s easy to see why – he professes his love for all things gaming and has plenty of insight to provide, no matter what title you bring up. Adam was also heavily involved in the development of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, owing to his past experience as a professional poker player. Ask him about the Coin if you ever get the chance.

WoWLegion_TravisMDayTravis M. Day is a more recent employee, joining Blizzard only in 2015. He does, however, bring with him a wealth of experience, having worked at Activision, Electronic Arts, THQ, and even Cloud Imperium Games for the space-faring MMO Star Citizen. His current role has him scheduling, tasking, and coordinating the various design teams. He’s also a huge Warcraft fan and will readily dive into its lore.

So…. demons.

(Both laughs)

Adam: Yeah they’re all over the place right now.

Demons, Demon Hunters, Illidan – they’re hot properties for Warcraft. What was it like working behind the scenes for Legion? Were there any miraculous bug fixes or sordid blood sacrifices going on?

Adam: Well it’s worth mentioning that the World of Warcraft team is bigger than it’s ever been. Part of the challenge for Legion was definitely the fact that our team grew significantly but it shows in the game, right?

I mean the game’s just huge. There’s so much stuff to do between Artifacts and Legendaries and Demon Hunters, Mythic dungeons and all of the raid content – there are just tons and tons and tons of stuff and we’ve got tons and tons and tons of talented people working on it.

So behind the scenes is: we grew a lot. (Laughs)

Travis: I’ll also say that’s one of the things that most impressed me. I only joined the team about a year ago and I’m used to the classic game industry, like a mad dash to the finish line with blood sacrifices and the whole bit you were talking about.

We’ve been deployed to the alpha in some capacity since December and so we’ve had a really long time of getting feedback from the community, doing bug fixes with the community, actively iterating and adding. It’s actually created a kind of a… I don’t know. A calm? A process? As we approach the end here and we’re ready for release day it’s actually the least crazy launch experience I’ve ever been a part of.

It’s like: “OK. I think we’ve got this and whatever is wrong we’re not going to know until the day it happens.”

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Adam: There will always be things wrong but we still very much adhere to the “it’s done when it’s done” mentality. We do work plenty of overtime just to get things rolling or whatever but at the end of the day, we need to make sure that the game is as bug-free and as perfect and polished as it can be. We’ll always continue to support the game, there’ll always be bugs.

We have this metric of: “How many crashes are there per day? We need to get it under this many crashes per day before we can get it going.”

It’s just funny to see that metric. “Well we had like 10,000 crashes a day, now we’re at 7,000 – alright we’re getting there!”

There are so many things that a player can do in WoW. How does Blizzard approach expansions and new content? What kind of research do you guys do?

Adam: Generally we have a kernel of an idea of what to do with the next expansion, kind of ahead of time. But that always blooms into something much larger than at the start.

Artifacts started as “we can do this small thing because it’s really easy to execute” but yeah it’ll be cool if you had an Order Hall to go with it; it’d be cool if you had one per spec; it’d be cool if you had this whole tree that you could grow through. It’ll be different and then that means class abilities. So it just kind of grows into this huge thing.

We all play tons of games, we’re huge nerds, gamers at heart. We look at games that are successful, we pick things that we like from them or do our own version of them. We just find something that’s brand new that just feels right for what we do, so research is just “we play a lot of games.” Our own and others and… it’s what I do for a living. I even play video games when I’m at home. (Laughs)

In that sense was there any particular game that inspired the direction of Legion?

Travis: I think Legion draws a lot upon Warcraft itself. Warcraft 3 definitely had a lot of influence on the story of Illidan and setting him up as a character. Burning Crusade obviously had a lot to do with it as well, setting the tone of who Illidan is and what the threat of the Burning Legion is.

It’s almost as if it’s been building to this expansion pack in a way because there’s so many things that have established Illidan, established the Legion, established the ongoing war since the first, second and third games – it set us up for this grand telling. I don’t know if it’ll be the end of the Legion forever but, at least for now.

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Adam: For Demon Hunter specifically there was one space that I really felt WoW hadn’t done in its own way and that’s a sense of something that’s contained within you. Something like a superpower that gets unleashed. So if I punch a guy – as I punch my fist transforms into this fiery thing and then it goes back to normal.

Many different versions of that have been done throughout fantasy but WoW never really had a version of that, and so I wanted to see what we could do in terms of that hook for Demon Hunter. For a lot of the really powerful abilities, you will transform into a demon for a split second and just unleash havoc on people and then go back into being an unassuming guy with some felblades. Some transform you for a really long time and some for a short burst of time, but it’s that whole “I have too much power that needs to burst forth” and then reign it back in.

Speaking of Demon Hunter, how do they stack up against other current options right now? If some new MMO player were to come in, how would you explain it in a nutshell?

Adam: Demon Hunters are awesome because they’re super mobile. In terms of how viable are they we definitely make an effort to balance every class; it’s not like we actively make one more powerful or less powerful. You look at all the content we have – whether its dungeons and raids or the outdoor world – and make sure that everybody has their own niche and feels unique.

Speaking to Vengeance specifically, which is the tank spec for Demon Hunters, they have a lot more utility than most tanks do but they’re also a little bit fragile. Part of their strength is how much they can control big chunks of the battlefield as opposed to just being really tanky or being really beefy or being able to save your allies. They can’t heal people, for example, but they can Fear enemies or clump them together or silence big groups so there’s a lot of spatial play with them that’s cool.

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And then just on the DPS side, it’s being super mobile, more mobile than any of our other classes. Some talents even tie directly into how mobile you are, like how dashing gives you more damage.

You guys also oversee all the other classes. Are there any particular changes that you’re most excited about?

Adam: I’m super excited about Shadow Priests, Outlaw Rogues, and Survival Hunters specifically. Shadow Priest gets to finally fulfill their fantasy of being really void-driven shadow magic. We haven’t really used the Old Gods as a hook for any of our classes until now and having that, like, wrestling with going insane and then just trying to hang on to that ridiculous amount of power for a little bit of time and then going back to normal. It’s kind of like the Demon Hunter except it’s consuming them and they want to be in that angry space for as long as they can before they build that back up.

Shadow Priests have always been in this world of: “I don’t know what my identity is. Am I a Warlock, am I a Mage, am I somewhere in between?” And now they have that unique hook. Discipline also, actually. We did a really good job – Holy is very much on the healing side and Shadow is very much on the damage side – Discipline we’re kind of doing an experiment where you can do both pretty well and we haven’t really done that before. So finding a niche for that is something that I would love to see, how it plays out. It’s scary territory for us but I think that’s a good place to be. I love taking risks like that and seeing how far we can push our design.

Outlaw Rogue doing the half-pirate, half-swashbuckler like [Hollywood actor] Errol Flynn, a musketeer with guns and swords and stuff I think that’s really fun. I worked on the Roll the Bones visual which was this really crazy idea we had and it was just like, “I think I know how I can do this.” And then it just turned out to be what it is and “I think that’s cool?” (Laughs)

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And then Survival Hunter…

Travis: It was another one that was missing its niche. It’s kind of like Marksman except more traps? Or different arrows? So it was kind of missing that “what is the core fantasy?”

Having it move into the melee space and actually return to its roots that was the vanilla Survival experience. You got your Raptor Strike and all that and having those come back and play a role, moving into melee, giving mobility like the Harpoon to draw you in – it’s like it finally gave them a unique identity. If this is the beast companion guy that you’ve always wanted to play then you’re going to have that role.

Generally those are the ones that probably got the most drastic changes but every single class – I think one of the things that’s fun to see is when you go into a five-man dungeon now and you can actually pretty readily, visually go: “Oh look the Rogue is doing his roll of the dice right now” or “Oh look the Paladin just threw his hammer.”

You get more flavor both visually and also as a player. That feeling of “What is that experience that I wanted?” and it delivers a little bit more for every class now.

Artifacts are a huge new weapon system that you’ve clearly paid lots of attention to. What were some of your design pillars going into it?

Travis: Core to the fantasy was we wanted something that was unique from a lore perspective. So there are things like Ashbringer that’s really well known and everybody’s heard of; there are other things like Felo’melorn which is the Fire Mage Artifact. But every single one of these has an extensive write-up on it by a creative development team that handles all of our lore, our books, any property that’s Warcraft related. As you go through the game you’ll actually unlock more and more information about the artifacts.

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So even if you’re not familiar with it yourself, through the game as you play you’ll learn more about its history, where it comes from, and those are tied directly into the abilities of the Artifact. One of the core pillars is definitely going back to that class fantasy, that spec fantasy – your weapon needs to feel like it belongs to that class, it needs to feel like it belongs to that spec, and it needs to feel like the abilities and the things you can do, and the things that it improves, have a direct connection to where it comes from.

It has this cool flow through the whole experience so it’s always feeling like it’s based in the reality that we want you to be living in. We’re immersing you in that reality.

Adam: One of my favorite parts about Artifacts is how unique they are, even the acquisition of them is different depending on what you do. I like to play alts, I play Fire Mage and I will until the end of time, but I also play Death Knight, Paladin, Hunter and a bunch of other classes, and I’m really looking forward to going through that acquisition, going through those multiple storylines.

And we have catch-up mechanics that lets you level-up additional Artifacts faster the further you get into the expansion, so it’s not like it’s going to take you the same amount of time from day one to week three to get as far in your second Artifact as your first. We’re really allowing players to go as far with one as they want, if they want to deep dive and have a little bit of extra power in there, or if they want to be a Druid and have all four and that kind of thing.

It’s pretty safe to say that Order Halls are an evolution of Garrisons. Past feedback has it that those eventually ground down to a chore, so what steps did you take to combat that?

Adam: For me, I think Warlords level-up content was one of the best we’ve done and the Garrisons definitely tied into that – Garrisons were a part of your progression. One of the things that we were a little bit blind to was what that looked like in month three or month four, and so what we did this expansion was we had such a huge amount of testing of the end-game, basically to figure out what that looks like.

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Your Order Hall isn’t something that you tend to like your Garrison – there’s no mine, there’s no garden or that kind of thing – it’s more about using it as a staging ground to go out into the world, even the follower missions.

I actually think the follower missions were very successful in the leveling experience; it’s just that when they became the go-to simple task for getting gear it kind of fell apart. Now what you do is you send out your followers to scout an area for you, so they’ll give you information that allows you to get to that area and get more out of the questing in that area. They’re not actually going to go and get loot for you, they’re basically giving you the information to get more yourself.

Travis: Yeah, that was always the disappointing part. It’s like: “Wow, it sounds like they had a really cool time and went out and did some really interesting things. And I didn’t get to do anything.”

(Both laughs)

Adam: It’s also a place for you to meet up with people of your class so you get that homey feel, but it’s not like you own this area. You’re part of a sacred order with your small-knit group of people but, ultimately, you’re going to be out in the world and out dungeoning and everything else. It’s a different vibe than Garrisons, for sure.

Travis: It feels more like a staging area. There are little things you can do, you can upgrade – it has its own talent tree with the Order Hall to give you different abilities, either in the outdoor world or as perks and benefits. It’s also where you go to interface with your Artifact weapons so there’s some very key reasons to return to it, but a lot of those are tied to you as the player.

The choices you want to make, the adjustments you might want to make… and I think one of the things that really helps a lot too is having it so it’s not just your space. Having other members of your class there not only reinforces the idea of the class fantasy but also reinforces the idea of you being part of this larger group.

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Something fun not a lot of people might know is that Demon Hunters can actually speak to each other in demonic.

Adam: Yeah they can actually speak to each other cross-faction.

Travis: So if you go to your Order Hall and speak demonic… it’ll be kind of fun.

Sneaky! So what would be your one tip to new and returning players?

Adam: Mine is definitely “play the class you love”. I play Fire Mage and I will until the end of time. I have played a bunch of different classes and finding the one that speaks to you will be the best experience you probably can get.

One thing we’re coming up with very shortly that’s awesome is a try-before-you-buy. We have the boost token experience – you can try a character at max level and see if it’s something you’d like to play and then use your boost, rather than boosting ahead of time. It really lets you try a bunch of things, figure out what you like the best, what speaks to you the most on a fantasy level or just a mechanic level, whatever your jam is for the game.

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Travis: It’ll actually let you go through the entire Artifact acquisition so you can kind of see what your choices are.

Adam: Yeah, so ultimately play what you love because that’s what you’ll do the best with, whether its Mythic dungeons or raids or outdoor stuff. It’s whatever that speaks to you as a player.

Travis: Personally, I would say that WoW, not only within the game itself but also War 1, War 2, War 3, the books, the accompanying animated shorts that we’ve done – there is a ton of lore out there for people. If they really love the universe and want to immerse themselves in it then there’s a lot of great lore, and in this expansion pack we’ve done an especially strong job of tying into the lore really well and just having a strong fantasy.

The thing we’re stressing is the strong fantasy and immersion. It’s like one of those things where you see a movie that’s based off a book. If you’ve never read the book you’ll go: “Yeah that was fun. I enjoyed that.” But if you’ve read the book you’re like: “Oh, that was that guy! I remember him!” And that adds a lot for me, I really like that.

So I would recommend that people – even if they just start with “Okay, I’m going to play a Paladin” – that they go do one quick little read-up on Ashbringer, find out about it, and then go through the Artifact acquisition, and then go through and play the game. It adds a whole other layer to the experience that you won’t be able to appreciate otherwise.

Thanks for your time!

World of Warcraft: Legion is out now for Windows and Mac. If you’re missing past expansions or are coming in fresh, you’ll need to pick up the base World of Warcraft game for US$19.99 (approximately S$28).

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Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.