With WoW: Dragonflight less than a month away, Laptop Mag sat down with Associate Art Director Tina Wang and Lead Quest Designer Maria Hamilton to talk about the various zones of Dragonflight, the cultures of the creatures that inhabit them, and how Dragonriding marks a drastic shift in game design compared to previous expansions.
We also get into why Blizzard is obsessed with ducks this expansion and how the art and quest design team come together to form such a coherent experience that allows the player to explore as much of the world as possible.
How Dragonriding impacts quest and zone design
Dragonflight offers a unique opportunity for players to explore and interact with Warcraft’s world in a way that has never been possible before. For the first time in WoW’s history, players will be flying from the very beginning of the expansion, and as a result, the ability to fly is inherently linked with how quests and zones are designed.
Wang explains that the macro design of the Dragon Isles is built with a spiral upwards through the zones, meaning players will begin at the lowest point at sea level, eventually climbing up through the continent. And when they get to the top, they’ll be greeted by Valdrakken, the expansion’s hub in Thaldraszus, where players will most likely set their Hearthstones and dive off the highest point on the island, soaring downwards and building momentum through the Dragonriding ability.
“With Dragonriding, and the speed of Dragonriding, it affects the spaces we want to make because with that high level of speed, we wanna give that sense of this vast wilderness.” She also says that the Dragon Isles is the largest expansion continent Blizzard has ever created, attributing much of that to “the negative spaces in between those points of interests that really feel like this is an untamed land.”
Hamilton claims that the inclusion of Dragonriding means NPCs and events can be placed at higher elevations so “players would have that pleasure of diving off of a high area and using momentum to go to the next hot spot.” Part of that is to ensure that the player can see where they are going and pick out points of interest from a distance, and while flying through the Dragon Isles, they’ll see certain quests below them. The design intent is to make players think “maybe I wanna go back there later, because there’s something there. I don’t want to miss out on seeing that.”
This is especially true in the first area, where the team “tried to make there be interesting and appealing things to go after that you might notice, so that as soon as you got that Dragonriding mount, you could come back.” Dragonflight also directly utilizes Dragonriding to find secrets, and of course, to interact and begin quests, you’ll need to fly around. There are “races for Dragonriding as well, which are fun, they’re timed and so you’re trying to achieve the highest possible score on those.”
She also explains how the team wanted to reward players for flying around and checking things out, putting an emphasis on exploration and discovery. “In Thaldraszus, there’s an area not far from town where we have a questline about an entrepreneur that is attempting to create a spa and things go a little bit wrong and there’s actually a floating island there.” She claims that there’s plenty of things to find on that island, and the team tries to liberally place secrets or full-blown questlines in spots where they think the player will want to explore. She also hints that the space around The Obsidian Citadel has plenty of secrets that players haven’t noticed yet.
Wang goes on to explain that Dragonflight will feature major factions, with one of them focused on Dragonriding, where you’ll engage with activities related to it. There’s also the Dragonscale Expedition, a group that is more about exploration throughout the isles, featuring activities like rock climbing and planting a flag on high peaks. And of course, when the player is up that high, they’ll probably want to swoop down on their mount, gaining that intense speed from the downward momentum.
I also wondered if it would be implemented in substantial ways through dailies, weeklies, world quests and endgame content. Hamilton explained that there’s actually a dungeon called The Nokhud Offensive, where players will be Dragonriding throughout these massive plains to reach each of the bosses. However, Hamilton couldn’t remember any world quests off the top of her head that involved Dragonriding.
Next, I asked if Dragonriding would be used as a mechanic during boss fights, but Hamilton wasn’t sure of this either, as the design is primarily focused on traveling between the bosses rather than using them as a fighting machine. She claims that the team “wanted people to be able to enjoy their talents and their talent trees and the combinations of classes, the various benefits you get from certain combinations,” rather than focus on something else.
How quests and art come together
Quest design offers a great avenue for the player to experience the art of Warcraft, so I asked how the two teams come together to ensure the player is experiencing as much of that world as possible. As expected, Wang explained how it’s a collaboration at the beginning where the art, quest and narrative groups work together. “Art will create images that are inspired by the narrative and then quests will work with us too on additional things that they might need to help enhance specific stories that they’re telling.”
She also went in-depth on how each of the Dragonflights and their “various seats of power” require each team to contribute in order to flesh them out. “We have the Ruby Life Pools, where there are dragon eggs in there, we have the Azure Archives, arcane vaults where you see this blue dragon arcane magic and its influence and how they’ve built this location to take advantage of that space. You even have gnolls in the forest that are affected by that decay, so we really come in to support the story.”
Hamilton also claims that there’s a “great deal of back and forth” between the two teams, with her team in particular taking inspiration from the concept art and ideas that team provides. “We’ll be working on a particular quest and we’ll realize, oh, we kind of feel like this would look better if we had a particular visual effect or if we had a particular prop or something, and we’ll make a request to art for that, explain what we’re doing, and talk about why we think that’s important to help the quest sell its story.”
All about Valdrakken
Valdrakken, Dragonflight’s main city and the location that will act as its primary hub, features tall, thin spiraling towers and intricate carvings within the stonework, offering a unique and gorgeous look at the culture of The Dragon Isles. I asked if there was anything in particular that inspired these cultures, and Wang claims that the team was focused on “building these massive spaces and mountains that are carved out of the rock of the land, so there’s these really solid, grounded buildings with this incredible variety of roofs and glass, just to show that the dragons are a very advanced culture with this sophisticated level of craftsmanship.”
She further explains that those influences go beyond just the hub area, woven through elements of the dragons themselves and the areas they occupy. “With the red dragons, there is this elegance to them and this beautiful crimson color and the flowy shapes really accent the magical powers of water and the blooms of flowers. Meanwhile in Neltharus, with the black dragon, there’s this contrast. There’s lots of heavy metal and these sharp and more aggressive forms that tie in well with that dark volcanic environment and who the black dragons are.”
Revisiting the Dragon Isles
If you didn’t know, the Dragon Isles were meant to be introduced into World of Warcraft as a raid a long time ago. In these stages, we had small bits of concept art without much else to go off of, so I asked the two what it felt like revisiting something from the past.
Wang explains that “It was very fun to revisit cultures and themes that we’ve had in the past because, many of those developers of World of Warcraft are huge fans of the game, so they had played the game when it first came out, played classic, and the various raids, and the themes of Dragonflight have a lot of overlap with some of those early stories.” She explains how the black dragons, like Onyxia and Neltharion/Deathwing, had occupied Dark Iron spaces, so the team had an opportunity to think of what their homes would look like if they had built it themselves. They have also taken much inspiration from Northrend and other facets of the world to ensure “it’s this connected World of Warcraft.”
“We see the red dragons have the Blooms, these giant red trees, we see Azure Archives, that might remind you of The Oculus, and so it’s really this fun mix of, how do I imagine those things in my heart when I played it way back when, and how do I recreate that with our new high fidelity and make it look like that picture I saw in my mind.”
Dragonflight has been surprisingly focused on the inclusion of ducks, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some greater reason. Wang claims it’s a long-running joke within the game, as there’s a duck toy players can purchase from Dalaran, yet ducks are never featured at any point in the world. She claims that it got to a point where people were like “Where did they come up with this? Is this just a fever dream that someone invented this?”
She goes on to explain that they finally felt it was time to make sense of that toy, as the Dragon Isles is this incredible, lost land. And also, “you know, ducks are adorable.” Hamilton also had something to add, suggesting “I think a male duck is a drake, and drakes are dragons, and this is the Dragon Isles, so… let's say that’s why.”
The Centaurs of the Dragon Isles
The Centaurs of the Dragon Isles are a major faction that players will encounter throughout the continent, so I asked if there was anything in particular that inspired their homes and culture. Wang explained that the team wanted to look back at what they had in Desolace, but that was a time when they didn’t have much, essentially giving an opportunity for them “reimagine that in a totally new light and really enrich their culture.”
Wang explains that the centaurs were led to the Ohn’ahran Plains by Ohn’ahra, a powerful god of wind. “You’ll see in various areas of the Dragon Isles there’s these rock pillars and statues of the eagle Ohn’ahra that can get struck by lighting and there’s these incredible storms.” She says the team was “trying to create that connection between this ground culture and the elements they’re associated with.”
Hamilton explains that the Centaurs are nomadic and revolve around the roles of their clan, even featuring their own helper dogs that seem quite important to their culture. “If you think about nomadic tribes, sort of in history, they were tied to their horses generally, it was very important, but of course Centaurs are already kind of horses, so we wanted to provide another piece, another companion for them on their travels.” The Centaurs often look to their ancestors, which she claims was somewhat present in Desolace, so there’s going to be subgroups focused on spirituality, others that are more war-like, and others that act more as hunters.
Accessibility in Dragonflight
World of Warcraft has gotten more inclusive and accessible over the years, and that’s applicable to both art and quest design. Hamilton explains that the team never wants “to put a player in a position where they can’t complete a quest because there’s some specific issue, timing issue or something that we haven’t made sufficiently accessible.”
One example involves an area in the main story where the player needs to race through time dodging obstacles, using speed boosts and power ups to finish the course. The team had trouble finding a way to make it accessible, but ultimately decided that they could just let players have the option to completely skip the quest if they needed to.
Wang also explains that “with our Dragonriding, we did recently add in the ability for a second player to turn into a little whelping to ride with their friends as an accessibility option as well. So I’m very excited that players will still be able to adventure together, even if one player’s dragonriding skill is not as effective as another.”
There are also controller options available now, where players can “be facing an interactive object or an interactive creature and just push a button on a controller rather than having to run over and right click.” Things like this help certain players enjoy the game without having to use the keyboard.
Wang also goes in-depth explaining the accessibility choices the art and world building team has had to keep in mind, including things like being able to make your cursor bigger and concern over bright flashes and bloom when designing an environment to avoid triggering photosensitivity.
If you’re looking to hear more about what’s coming to Dragonflight, we spoke to Game Director of World of Warcraft Ion Hazzikostas in a previous interview, where we discussed time-gated questlines, the Dracthyr Evoker’s abilities, the changes coming to transmogrification, how old raids (particularly BfA) will be impacted by the player’s massive increase in power, the evolution of leveling through Chromie Time, and the revival of talent trees (and whether Covenant abilities will find their place within them).