World of Warcraft: Dragonflight’s Team Takes us to The Dragon Isles

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On Monday, November 28th, the team at Blizzard rolled out their newest expansion, World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. Back in September, we got a look at the new class and race, as well as a glimpse of Dragonflight’s new area. Finally, it’s time for players to take over the Dragon Isles on their mains, or get creative with the new Dracthyr Evokers. With Dragon Riding, the ability to fly, and the chance to DPS or heal, be prepared to see plenty of Evokers on your levelling journey.

Gearing up for Dragonflight, CGMagazine got the chance to sit down with Lead Combat Designer, Brian Holinka, and Senior Game Designer, Graham Berger. Chatting with the team behind the latest WoW expansion brought to light a lot of the progress the game has made in the last decade, and what they hope to achieve with World of Warcraft: Dragonflight.

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CGMagazine: Brian, You’ve been with WoW for 10 years now. Can you tell us about the evolution from 2012 to now?

Brian Holinka: There are a lot of differences from when I first joined to Dragonflight. The team is much larger, and the game is a lot bigger in terms of the number of difficulties of raids, the mythic plus as another vector of the end game, and the way the world as becoming a part of the game with things like World Quests. Back when Mists of Pandaria came out, you levelled through the game and there would be a couple of specific places where you did dailies, but you didn’t spend time in the outdoor world the way you do now since Legion.

Now, you’re engaged in the world for a lot longer, which is great! The level designers do such a great job creating cool, interesting spaces for you to be in, so it’s almost sad that once you had finished levelling through that adventure you really never went there again. So I think that was a huge improvement over the last couple of years.

Then, obviously, there are some more recent changes like how we do the talent system. Bringing up Mists of Pandaria, I started the week it shipped, so I got to play World of Warcraft for a week. It was awesome, ‘This is the greatest job in the world. This is the dream. Everyone thinks we just play video games at work and here I am!’ So that was really awesome.

The talent system had changed during Mists of Pandaria, and it is changing again for the first time since then. We were trying to create this curated experience that made sense, making only impactful choices. And after a year of seeing the value of players levelling up and getting talent points and then being able to spend it in a talent tree, we see how it drives more decisions about what defines their character and spell book. Those are just some of the evolutions I’ve seen over my time here.

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CGMagazineWhat can you tell us about the new race and class in Dragonflight? And what do you think it brings to the table for new WoW players?

Graham Berger: So, Dracthyr Evolker, our new race and class combination, is leaning into the fantasy and the story of Dragonflight. Going into developing this Dragonflight, we thought ‘What’s cooler than hanging out with dragons and questing alongside dragons? What if you could be a dragon?’ and then ‘How do we accomplish that?’

We can’t let you be the size of Alexstrasza, but if we can make you this draconic humanoid, tell a new story about kind of how they came to be, and let you play around with a lot of the types of magic that dragons have been showing off for years in World of Warcraft—that’d be cool.

For new players it’s a really exciting way to get into World of Warcraft, to be this entirely new race and class, you’re on the same footing as everyone else—even the more experienced players—because no one knows how this class works.

It’s new for everybody. It looks super awesome. It feels really modern, there’s a lot of mobility, you can dash around the play space, and you get to fly around using their racial soar that uses the same sort of physics and locomotion style as the dragon riding system that everyone is going to be playing with when we go to the Dragon Isles. So just getting to play with the new stuff that is coming to World of Warcraft and Dragonflight that we have been developing over the past years.

CGMagazineWould you say this is the most customizable race yet?

Graham Berger: Easily. Easily the most customizable race. One of our engineers did try to do the math on how many possible combinations of customizations there are, and it’s some astronomically large number; millions. When it came out on the 15th and everyone was making theirs—I had my settings all saved—but a lot of friends were streaming on Discord or spending about half an hour or an hour just going through all the settings and picking everything that they wanted like “What if I used this scale and this skin tone?” or “This horn and this jewellery?”

I think there’s a lot of fun to be had to pick out how you want your Dracthyr and your Visage form—your humanoid shape shift—to look, and how you want to represent yourself as your character.

Brian Holinka: On a personal note, my son, I kind of showed it to him yesterday, but he had karate and homework and all this stuff he had to do before he went to bed. So, all day, he’s been waiting to get home and finish up his homework now, so he can spend the hour whatever he wants just messing with the customization. So that’s really fun.

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CGMagazine: Does he play WoW?

Brian Holinka: He does a little bit. Funny story, I wasn’t on the team yet, but he was born around when my guild was trying to kill Arthas for the first time. We were wiping on Arthas, and then think during that time he was born, and I said I’m out. I’ve got a son now, I can’t raid. They maybe killed Arthas.

So now he’s pretty much ready to play. He’s played a bit. He must have played it 30 or 40 times, that new player experience on Exile’s Reach at the beginning of Shadowlands, and I’m excited. Another interviewer suggested that maybe I should go back and kill Arthas with him in Wrath of Lich King Classic. I thought that might be a good idea, I may try to do that.

CGMagazineCan you explain the new specialties for the Evoker class and how they came to be designed?

Graham Berger: So the Evoker has two specializations. They have a range damage dealer called Devastation that specializes in the red and blue magics of the dragons. Then they have a healer specialization called Preservation that utilizes the green magic of the Emerald Dream and bronze; our time magic, reversing time, moving time forward.

In developing the class we had brainstorming sessions with the team and took what’s cool about dragons in media and pop culture and in our game, and had a lot of stuff come out of that. One of them was, we have these five very unique magical kits, and I want to use them, we pulled from that what specializations we want to do.

Range damage was an easy one, we haven’t added one since Classic, so it was an awesome time to add one in Dragonflight. If we have magic, we could be a caster, let’s do that. Red and blue fit that. Red being life and destruction and red, fire and burning is very resonant, if you think about dragons, you think about them breathing fire, so we knew we wanted to do that.

Looking at the remaining schools after we picked those two we have bronze, and green magic, green is very healing-oriented and no other class in the game can manipulate time magic the way that bronze dragons can—Mages have a little bit of it, a few spells that touch on time magic—but the opportunity for us to dive in and see what we can do with time was too exciting to pass up. It felt like that fit healer really well, so that’s where we landed.

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CGMagazineHow does it feel seeing all the pieces of World of Warcraft: Dragonflight come together? What is the thing you’re most excited to be able to finally see when they jump into the game?

Brian Holinka: The three projects for our combat teams during Dragonflight; the Evoker, talent system, and rated solo shuffled for PvP, those are the things we worked on. When you reimagine how everyone is going to create their character and play their character that’s an experience that makes you nervous. Even if you come up with this design, talk with a lot of other smart designers about if it’s a good idea, show it to the team and people seem to get excited about it, people play it in internal tests, you do the user research surveys, and you’re getting positive responses.

That’s good, but until it hits the players, you don’t know if you did a good job. For the most part, it seems like people are happy, players are enjoying it. It’s not perfect. I’m sure there are certain talent trees need some work, or players feel like they can have more variety, and we want to deliver that. But, for the most part, we’ve accomplished our goals of giving players a lot more autonomy in terms of customizing their character, and making level ups feel more rewarding when they get a talent point, and players being able to tinker with the talent trees in Dragonflight.

When I was a player, I had so many memories during the Classic era of going to these talent calculators trying to figure out builds. I feel like we’ve recreated that, like people are doing that on those fan sites nowadays. I’m happy about that, that makes me feel like we did something that people really enjoy. That’s a special thing, because, you know, this game is a long tenure game. So many people we know and respect have worked on it. So many friends and family play it, and so to do something this massive and for it to go well, it’s definitely a load off my mind, for sure.

Graham Berger: The obvious one, having worked so closely on the Dracthyr Evoker for Dragonflight, seeing that go out, we had an alpha, we had it in beta. Obviously, we’ve been getting a ton of feedback from players. That was super useful in kind of getting it to the launch stage. But seeing it go out, I spent a good hour and a half sitting in the starting zone, The Forbidden Reach, and watching new Dracthyr come out. Seeing people’s customizations and watching them try soar for the first time. It was so cool.

Personally, my friends having fun with Dragonflight, that’s why I do this, right? Aside from that though, because that’s the easy answer, I’m excited about the UI revamp up to Dragonflight. I have a ton of add-ons, a lot of us play with a lot of add-ons to customize the UI just the way we want.

The team did so much work to make so much of the UI editable, so you can move things around and resize things. They added a ton of accessibility options in Dragonflight. I like being able to make the UI the way I want and not have to worry about add-on updates and things like that. Add-ons are super powerful, so I’m glad our game has them and people update them, but I like to keep my set-up really light, so the revamp letting me do that I think is really cool.

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CGMagazineWhy the choice to overhaul the UI so much to allow that level of customization?

Graham Berger: There were actually two sides to this, one was an artistic refresh, a lot of the assets and textures we were using were from the 2004 original game, and it was starting to feel a little dated, so kind of giving it a more modern look—it works on 4k resolution—while still feeling very World of Warcraft was something the team has wanted to do for a long time and this felt like the right opportunity to do it.

Brian Holinka: There’s also that functionality players asked for, like the ability to move action bars, and move different components of the HUD. Those were just systems and design decisions that we had made years ago. A lot of people—even within the team—make modifications to their UI because they like different placements. That not being a base part of the UI, it was important for the team to bring it to it so that players can very easily edit their UI and those big elements. It just felt like a modern take on what a UI would be.

Graham Berger: Regarding new players, I think that the other big benefit of this is if you’re new to World of Warcraft and want to try it out you don’t know about add-ons, you don’t know that you can go get a thing that is going to change how the game looks. So, we need it to be something that’s inviting, and easy to understand for new players. Revamping was a big effort on that front to make it easier for players using monitors that are twice the resolution from 20 years ago; the UI needs fit that and be clear and understandable for new players.

CGMagazineThe Dragon Isles are one of the newest areas of the game. What were some challenges in making this zone, and what were some things you wanted to make sure the game had for the new area?

Brian Holinka: Whenever we create new zones, and new worlds for players to explore, we are trying to tell an interesting story and introduce them to compelling characters that they want to be around, new cultures like who lives here? What do they do? What are they about? What are some of the challenges they face and of course? Why do we want to punch some of them in the face? What is the reason that we are going to come here and fight, or not fight?

One thing we were excited to tell about this story in Dragonflight was these dragons, these Aspects. We haven’t visited their lore or their story in a number of expansions, since Dragon Soul and Deathwing. It’s been a while since we have touched on these stories. The Aspects and this idea of dragons and the flights, those are stories that have always captured and excited players of World of Warcraft. So it’s really exciting to be able to dedicate so much time and story and telling that story and really delving into it.

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CGMagazineAccessibility is a big topic for gaming in general. What are some things you’ve done in World of Warcraft: Dragonflight to help make WoW more accessible?

Graham Berger: There’s a lot of effort on different fronts. For the Evoker, they have a new spell mechanic called Empower, where you press and hold down a key to charge up a spell, and when you release it, it determines what effects it’s going to have, the longer you hold it, it might do more damage or have a longer lasting effect, that sort of thing. From the outset, the intention was to convey this feeling of your dragon breathing in and choosing when to release your magic.

However, early on [developing Dragonflight] we got feedback from a lot of people both on the team and externally that don’t want to or can’t hold down a key. So one of the first things we did was make sure we have a press and tap option where you can push the button once to start and then push it a second time to fire it off. Another big one is for the Dragonriding new in-air locomotion system. When you visit The Dragon Isles in Dragonflight, pretty early on in The Broken Shore, you get the Dragonriding Drake that you can ride around and swoop, dive and play with that whole new system.

The physics of it had a side effect of breaking the /follow functionality. It doesn’t allow players who use a guide or a friend to lead them through the world, it just doesn’t work with Dragonriding. So the team went back and added a feature called ride along where you can talk to a character, turn on this option, and your friend who wants to follow you can interact with your Dragonriding Drake and turn to a little webling that then flies alongside you. So your guide, so you can still fly around and take you wherever you need to go, even with this new system.

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CGMagazineWhy the choice to head back to Uldaman in Dragonflight over other dungeons? And what changes can players expect? 

Brian Holinka: Good question.

Graham Berger: I’m not sure why we picked Uldaman, I was not there for that conversation. The dungeon is updated for level 70. Boss fights are all re-done. Part of it is that Uldaman is steeped in Titan lore for World of Warcraft, the dragons and the Aspects trying to regain their power, all of that is going to tie into the Titan’s intentions for Azeroth, what have they left behind?

So we’re going to be discovering Titan facilities and a lot more of their history in The Dragon Isles as well. Uldaman is a really good fit for that. It’s one of the first places in World of Warcraft, where we saw Titan history, so it’s pretty appropriate to revisit. 

Brian Holinka: Of course there are lore reasons, but then there’s also the benefit of “We haven’t been there in a while!” Its probably content that people have some very fond memories of, and it’s often cool to go back there in an event like this and f revisit it with a fresh story; the perfect mesh of those two types of things.

CGMagazineWhat do you suggest players do when they first jump into the game now?

Brian Holinka: If someone is a brand-new player I recommend making a character go through the starter experience, Exile’s Reach, where you can just try a bunch of different classes, and find the ones that you like. It introduces you to the class and the mechanics up to level 10. It’s a great way to get introduced to World of Warcraft, for the past expansion and Dragonflight, and then decide which character you want to level up.

If you’re a returning character, once you get re-added to the game, your character is placed into a starter build for our talents to get you up and running right away. We didn’t want players to start the game and find all their buttons are gone and have to spend 50 points on talents. Instead, we have this starter build which gets them up and running right away. So you can look at what the talents are, if you want to change them that might be interesting.

You could jump into world events, and primal storms, and group up with several people to go to different parts of Azeroth to fight infused elemental enemies and large bosses. It’s a nice catch-up experience that everybody’s doing—grinding away in this system that gets you caught up and gets you ready for Dragonflight.

Graham Berger: And make an Evoker!

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CGMagazineJust a fun question for both of you, what is your favourite WoW expansion to date, not including Dragonflight

Graham Berger: So as a player, everyone has a soft spot for when they started playing. I levelled when Classic was first out but really started playing in Burning Crusade. That’s when I became hardcore, I was raiding and actually understood the game, so I have a lot of fond memories from that time. I made a lot of friends that I still talk to and play games with. I always look back on Burning Crusade as my favourite expansion.

As a developer, and I’m not allowed to pick Dragonflight? Probably Legion. I feel like Legion was also a turning point for the game as a whole; a new era for the game. We revamped a lot of the classes and tried out crazy new things with the artifacts and the legendary systems, so I think Legion was a time of really “Let’s try new things. Let’s push World of Warcraft forward and see what it can become.” That was cool to watch and to be a part of as a developer. 

Brian Holinka: Similarly, [if I can’t pick Dragonflight] it’s hard for me to pin down one because they’re all special for their own reasons. I certainly started levelling in the base game and did a little bit of dabbling with the guild and in Burning Crusade. But Lich King was the first time I really was committed to raiding and PvP and playing the game seriously. I have all kinds of great memories of one, being young with lots of time, and then playing that game with friends.

Mists of Pandaria was the first time I started working here and at first, I wasn’t sure what to make of that expansion but in the end, I had so much fun in that world, and it still strikes a tone that is so fanciful and easygoing. I still love levelling up characters in that expansion. I would also agree with Graham, Legion was just such an epic experience, the artifact abilities, the introduction of world quests, and the feeling of class fantasy that was delivered through all the class-related quests. I think that was what made Legion such a magnificent expansion.

And then obviously, the most recent ones I have a fondness because of all the work I’ve been doing with this team for BFA [Battle For Azeroth] and Shadowlands. I feel like we’ve really grown as a team, and so I really appreciate the time that we’ve had on those.

CGMagazine: Anything else you want to mention before we wrap up?

Brian Holinka: Play World of Warcraft: Dragonflight!

CGMagazine: Thank you so much. I know everyone in the office is excited to jump into Dragonflight when it is out. So congratulations on the release, and we’re excited to see more.