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Shadowlands Development Update from Game Director Ion Hazzikostas

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Game Director Ion Hazzikostas has just posted an update on the development of Shadowlands that will go live in 7 weeks.

Highlights

  • Shadowlands will have two branches of development:
  • The 9.0.1 branch focuses on the pre-patch, and 9.0.2 on the Shadowlands expansion.
  • Some players are not ready to pick their Covenant on alts right away, so there will be an NPC that allows you to replay the narrative arc as first-time characters experienced it or start at the end of Revendreth's story. If you choose the latter option, you will enter the Shadowlands in a state where the entire Campaign has been completed, with Bonus Objectives in locations central to the Campaign.
  • Torghast has too many introductory questlines currently (6), and they're reducing that to just 1 that unlocks all wings.
  • Players who made the wrong choice and decide to go with a different Covenant will not be punished, but when returning to a Covenant you abandoned, there's a path of redemption consisting of two weekly quests.
  • The devs are reevaluating the secondary stat distribution on PvP gear or adding PvP-specific set bonuses but they have no details to share at this time.
  • Sockets will be a random property on gear, but Ve'nari (The Maw Vendor) will sell a consumable that allows you to add sockets to gear, just like Gouged Eye of N'ZothGouged Eye of N'Zoth in 8.3.
  • In Shadowlands, only Helms, Rings, Necks, Bracers, and Belts can have a socket randomly generated or added by Ve'nari.

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In seven weeks, brave heroes of Azeroth will venture into the Shadowlands to confront the forces of the mysterious Jailer and discover the nature of Warcraft’s afterlife. As our development shifts from implementation of new designs and content, towards polish and tuning of the world we have crafted, I would like to offer a roadmap for what to expect over the coming weeks on our Beta servers.

Introducing 9.0.2

First, on a technical note, players paying close attention to the Beta client may notice that this week’s update bears the designation “9.0.2.” Unlike recent expansions, this time around we will have not one but two client updates, aka patches, in the weeks prior to the official release of the expansion. Development of Shadowlands -specific content (the zones and dungeons of the Shadowlands, covenants, etc.) will proceed with weekly Beta updates in the 9.0.2 branch, while our Public Test Realm runs patch 9.0.1. This approach allows us to get features like the new character customization options and the streamlined leveling experience into your hands sooner in 9.0.1, while allowing the team the maximum possible time to keep polishing the level 51-60 Shadowlands experience in 9.0.2. Our Beta environment will continue to receive weekly 9.0.2 updates, and patch 9.0.2 will go live shortly before Shadowlands officially launches.

Alt Leveling

As we first announced at BlizzCon last year, while everyone’s first trip through the Shadowlands is driven by a linear narrative campaign that grants access to endgame features such as covenants, world quests, and more, we want to offer players who are leveling alts a much more flexible experience. We have had a version of that experience available in Beta for the past few weeks, as alts select their covenant immediately upon first arriving in Oribos, and then can tackle the four zones in any order they choose.

However, we’ve received a couple of points of feedback that have led us to refine this approach: First, a number of testers felt like they weren’t necessarily ready to pick a covenant right away on a new class, and wished they could replay the narrative arc that let them “test drive” each of the active abilities along the way. Second, even for players who were familiar with the overall story by that point, it felt confusing or wrong to play through portions of some zone campaigns out of order or while already a member of a covenant (e.g. doing the main Revendreth arc while already being a member of Renethal’s venthyr).

In this week’s build, alts emerging from the Maw for the first time will be met in Oribos by the mysterious Fatescribe, who now offers an explicit choice between replaying the narrative arc as first-time characters experienced it, or following the threads of fate to their inevitable conclusion and beginning the journey at a point following the climactic events at the end of Revendreth’s story. Characters choosing the latter option will enter the Shadowlands in a state where the entire narrative Campaign has already been completed, with new Bonus Objectives available in locations that were previously central to the Campaign. Lucrative zone-wide objectives for each of the four zones will provide additional structure while allowing alts to roam the Shadowlands as they prefer, earning gear and experience through their choice of a zone’s side quests, bonus objectives, world quests, dungeons, or rares and treasures.

Our goal with this alt experience remains offering more flexibility than ever before on repeat playthroughs, while also allowing alts to begin making progress towards their endgame goals, earning Anima for their covenant’s reservoir or catching up on Renown so that they can hit the ground running when they reach 60. We look forward to hearing feedback on how the new experience feels!

Torghast Progression

A number of players in the past couple of months on Beta have raised concerns about what seemed like excessively lengthy introductory questlines in Torghast, which at their worst could feel like five or six successive tutorials that had to be completed before players could access the “real” feature. In a coming build (likely next week), we’re restructuring the way Torghast is unlocked, such that players can gain full access to the main wings of the tower after completing just a single introductory run that also grants access to the Runecarver. The remaining quests to locate and rescue Jaina and Thrall will be incorporated into a larger questline that spans the six main Torghast cell blocks, rewards legendary crafting materials, and eventually unlocks the Twisting Corridors section at its conclusion.

Speaking of Twisting Corridors, as we finalize tuning, Twisting Corridors should come into its own as the “Challenge Mode” wing of Torghast, offering eighteen-floor runs at a higher level of difficulty than the rest of Torghast, with cosmetic rewards for clearing certain thresholds.

Covenants

Covenants are the centerpiece of Shadowlands and have been the subject of passionate discourse across the community over the past weeks, which has been mirrored by discussion and debate within our team. From the system’s first conception, selecting a covenant was crafted to be a weighty decision, shaping a character’s abilities, cosmetic rewards, and access to endgame story arcs and sanctum systems. A weighty decision almost by definition comes with some amount of stress, whether anxiety about making the “wrong” choice, or just evaluating various pros and cons and wishing there were a way to just get the best of all worlds.

In designing this system, we’ve done what we can to minimize the burden of regret. Those measures should be fully enabled by next week’s Beta release. While picking a covenant at the end of your journey to max level is a weighty choice, it is not a permanent one. If you find that, whatever the reason, you are unhappy with your initial covenant pick at level 60, you need only return to Oribos and you can immediately switch to a different one. Now, if you later wish to rejoin a covenant that you have left, that is slightly more involved: There is a path to redemption consisting of a series of two weekly quests to atone for breaking your vow and to rededicate yourself to that covenant’s cause. These quests are now available for testing in Beta; they are still being tuned, but the intent is that they are largely ceremonial rather than feeling like an arduous grind.

We have also taken steps to ensure that a player who switches covenants, as well as one who reaches max level later on in the expansion, never feels permanently behind as a result. Renown measures the strength of a player’s connection to their covenant and is the main vehicle for unlocking additional Soulbind powers and various covenant perks and rewards. Players primarily earn Renown via weekly quests to gather anima from across the Shadowlands, and to rescue souls from the Maw and restore them to their rightful place in the covenant. If a player has missed any of those quests, however, they will find that they can earn Renown directly through a range of activities such as dungeons, world quests, and PvP, until they are fully caught up. This system will be functional on Beta in the coming weeks.

In short, a player who regrets their covenant choice, and who wants to change their mind, should be able to do so straightforwardly at any point during the expansion, and will be able to reach a state with no long-term drawbacks or disadvantages compared to someone who had been in that covenant all along.

We’ve also heard from many players who, rather than being worried about regretting their choice, would prefer that they not have to choose at all; they have advocated that we offer a way to switch among the various active abilities offered by covenants without friction. But these covenant systems are thoroughly intertwined: Covenant abilities are often modified by covenant-specific conduits and soulbinds; most of those soulbinds in turn are unlocked through covenant-specific narrative campaigns. Granting access to one of these without the others would lead to an incomplete or confusing result. In short, pulling on that thread (or cord, as it were) would unravel the entire fabric of the system. Even so, we would embrace the work required to rebuild the covenant system along those lines if we agreed that it would be an improvement, but we ultimately do not share that view.

Before starting an arena match, engaging a raid boss, or entering a dungeon, a character in Shadowlands can change their specialization, talents (and PvP talents if appropriate), legendary item, other equipment, active soulbind, and chosen path within that soulbind. When it comes to customizing your “loadout” – the set of tools you’re going to take into a given encounter – WoW offers more options than ever before, and you can almost entirely reshape your character on the fly to suit the moment. But as malleable as those choices are, none of them, other than perhaps your specialization, defines your character – they aren’t who you are, but rather what you happen to be doing at any given moment.

Rather than add yet another layer to that decision matrix, we’re trying to do something different here, and let players more meaningfully define their character’s identity and set themselves apart from others who play the same class. And that identity entails a blend of aesthetic preference, narrative experience, and mechanical strengths and weaknesses. From the earliest sketched designs of the covenant system, our goal was for the answer to “what do you play?” in Shadowlands to be “Kyrian paladin” or “Venthyr paladin” rather than just “paladin.” And given the central role of combat and power progression to World of Warcraft as a whole, achieving that goal for most players requires that there be player power implications to covenant choice.

None of this is to say that development on covenants and their powers is finished, or that we are not open to further changes. Far from it. We understand that when we offer a choice between competing packages of strengths and weaknesses, if we’re not careful, especially given social and community pressures, weaknesses can easily overshadow strengths. The satisfaction of having an edge in one type of content doesn’t make up for the frustration of being excluded entirely from participating in another. But while tearing down the entire system may seem to some like the simplest way to avoid that pitfall, we’re committed to working with the community to ensure that players feel viable regardless of their covenant choice.

If you really want to go Kyrian on your rogue, but can’t justify it because every guide currently says that the Necrolords’ Serrated Bone Spike is too good to pass up, or if an otherwise appealing covenant has benefits that seem irrelevant in PvP, those are exactly the sorts of imbalance we want to fix, and your feedback is essential to that process. In the coming weeks, we’ll be doing numerical tuning, making changes to underlying ability designs when needed, and potentially leveraging covenant-specific conduits if a covenant needs some targeted shoring up to ensure that they’re viable in a particular type of content. As our combat team shifts its focus primarily to tuning, we’ll be rolling those changes out to Beta servers ASAP for further testing and iteration.

PvP Itemization

We have been following the constructive feedback about the range of gear available on our PvP vendors, and we agree with the underlying concerns. While WoW is an interconnected ecosystem of different content and systems and we feel that the very strongest characters should be the ones who participate and excel in a wide range of activities, each individual progression path should offer the majority of the tools required for success in that path. The current PvP vendors fall short of that goal.

We are considering a few different solutions, such as reworking the stat coverage of the vendor gear and/or providing PvP-specific bonuses through those items. As soon as we’ve settled on a direction, we’ll share our plan for feedback, and get the changes up on Beta for testing.

Sockets

While we eliminated Warforging and Titanforging in Shadowlands , with the goal of increasing clarity and player agency over rewards, the question of how to handle sockets was not quite as clear-cut. A certain critical mass of sockets across all player gear is essential to support Jewelcrafting as a player profession, and in recent expansions the chance for any endgame item to upgrade to a socketed version gave players of all playstyles the opportunity to interact with the Jewelcrafting tradeskill. At the same time, sockets unquestionably constitute power, and can be every bit as impactful as Warforging.

Trying to balance these considerations, the approach we’ve settled on for Shadowlands is to keep sockets as a random item property, but to allow players to add sockets to their items via a consumable sold by Ve’nari in the Maw (similar to Gouged Eyes in the recent Visions of N’Zoth update). This way all players can take advantage of gems and seeing a socketed item drop offers a short-term efficiency advantage, but in the long run competitive players can still make steady progress towards a best-in-slot gear setup without relying on an additional layer of randomness. Finally, in order to limit the total impact of gems, and the power gap between players with full sockets and those without, in Shadowlands only Helms, Rings, Necks, Bracers, and Belts can have a socket randomly generated or added by Ve’nari. These changes should all be active by next week’s Beta update.

The one thing all the above topics have in common is that they have been driven by your passionate feedback throughout the development process, which has helped shape the game for the better over the course of the past year. And a special thanks to all the testers reporting bugs on Beta – we’ve already fixed thousands of issues based on your reports, and are continuing to work through those reports as we aim to make Shadowlands the best experience it can possibly be when it arrives on October 26.

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After 15 years of not being able to balance classes, they still think they can add so many new stuff and make it balanced. This is really a stupid decision.

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With every statement they make about covenants and conduits/soulbinds, i lose more and more faith, that they will ever understand, why this system is bad.

No matter how many people will tell them, they don't want it, their answer will just be something about 'meaningful' and 'we as developers know better'.

Edited by Asakash

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2 hours ago, Mugendai said:

After 15 years of not being able to balance classes, they still think they can add so many new stuff and make it balanced. This is really a stupid decision.

This pretty much, they are adding various different systems - covenants, soulbinds, legendary powers... No way they are going to balance it for every class and spec. Also this blue post doesn't sound too optimistic, looks like they haven't figured out how to even balance PvP (personally, I would be up for more normalized stats and it relying more on skill, rather than gear). But it's a hole they dug themselves. They made balancing even harder with too many systems at once, and they will have to reinvent or salvage a lot from them for next expansion.

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1 minute ago, Asakash said:

 'we as developers know better'.

Tell that to legion artifact grind, tell that to so many missed opportunities in WoD. tell that to literally the entirety of BfA and how crappy it's been so far. dailies and weeklies are like chores you almost HAVE to do for some people. Why won't they just listen. They could atleast improve some aspects people are screaming about. God i wish blizzy would do better. it hurts so much to see my favorite games get butchered over and over again.

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3 minutes ago, Freakwent said:

Tell that to legion artifact grind, tell that to so many missed opportunities in WoD. tell that to literally the entirety of BfA and how crappy it's been so far. dailies and weeklies are like chores you almost HAVE to do for some people. Why won't they just listen. They could atleast improve some aspects people are screaming about. God i wish blizzy would do better. it hurts so much to see my favorite games get butchered over and over again.

Yeah, I agree. They say that they will listen to the players this time. When i watched the interview between Preach and Ion, it was so obvious, that they really don't listen very much.
You could see Preach's soul leave his body over Ion's answers on the player's concerns for covenants.

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What really got me hyped though was the possible return of pvp stats. The icy veins summary missed that. Finally, a return to alternative progression between pvp and pve, without one side bothering the other. Actually hopeful for pvp in wow which i hasn't been since  bfa wrecked it. 

As for covenants, I disagree with their direction about but I respect their candor and their vision of what they're going for. Its probably impossible to achieve when its interlinked with player power, making it simply a cosmetic+story choice would have been more succesful, but I'll give it a shot. If I'm not excluded from content i love do to picking a covenant, i wont be too mad. 

 

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13 minutes ago, Mishmish said:

What really got me hyped though was the possible return of pvp stats. The icy veins summary missed that. Finally, a return to alternative progression between pvp and pve, without one side bothering the other. Actually hopeful for pvp in wow which i hasn't been since  bfa wrecked it. 

As for covenants, I disagree with their direction about but I respect their candor and their vision of what they're going for. Its probably impossible to achieve when its interlinked with player power, making it simply a cosmetic+story choice would have been more succesful, but I'll give it a shot. If I'm not excluded from content i love do to picking a covenant, i wont be too mad. 

I added that, thanks for the reminder.

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As is so often the case when changes are coming, many vocal folks express much dismay at the changes—decrying them as “game wrecking” or such.

Here’s the thing—unless you’re trying to simultaneously pug multiple types of top-level content (mythic raids, +15 keys, rbgs), or part of the 0.0001% participating in world-first raiding, the covenants are not going to notably affect accessing all the regular areas of the game. As it is, even many pursuing a top-level part of the game will just do the min-max on their covenant choice (like all the other power-affecting choices) for their particular focus (e.g., focus on keystone dungeons until new raid tier comes out, then switch covenant to min-max for raiding).

And let’s not pretend that anywhere near the majority of us are top-level players for any of those content areas.

I’ll still be able to pug into normal, and even heroic after a bit, raiding, regardless of my covenant at the time. I’ll still be able to progress keystones (with no difference to the level of drama that comes from pugging those now—sometimes smooth friendly runs, sometimes folks angrily bailing at the slightest deviation from their expectations of perfection).

It’s generally been the case that if you want to excel at a top-level activity in WoW, that you have to make some choices that are not optimal for other top-level activities (i.e., raiding vs. pvp). Covenants do not change that basic challenge.

Besides, with so much opportunity for variation in the game over the years, I’ve never been one to buy into the “one true way” to play any given piece of content. It should be interesting to see how the different covenant abilities lead to different choices in running through a given dungeon, or any other part of the game.

I don’t yet know if I will find the covenant choice fun, and whether it will be and remain a net positive on gameplay. As someone who maintains a lot of alts, I do expect that I will likely find the variety interesting and enjoyable.

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9 hours ago, Trest said:

Here’s the thing—unless you’re trying to simultaneously pug multiple types of top-level content (mythic raids, +15 keys, rbgs), or part of the 0.0001% participating in world-first raiding, the covenants are not going to notably affect accessing all the regular areas of the game. As it is, even many pursuing a top-level part of the game will just do the min-max on their covenant choice (like all the other power-affecting choices) for their particular focus (e.g., focus on keystone dungeons until new raid tier comes out, then switch covenant to min-max for raiding).

Sorry, but that's just not true. 
First, most players simply WANT to be optimized for whatever content they're doing, which won't be possible. You will have to decide, weather you want to dps, or heal, or tank, in dungeons or in raids or in pvp. You can only be optimized for one of them, which is horrible, especially if it will be again the case, that you will have to do all kinds of content to be competitive in one. 
Optimizing is for me, and for many players, what's the most fun in an mmo.
You can already see it on ptr, where pug groups look for specific class and covenant combinations.

The 'it's just the top 1%' - thing is just not true, there are many videos out there you can watch, from many content creators, that will tell you otherwise.

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13 hours ago, Trest said:

It’s generally been the case that if you want to excel at a top-level activity in WoW, that you have to make some choices that are not optimal for other top-level activities (i.e., raiding vs. pvp). Covenants do not change that basic challenge.

It's not just for "top-level" activity, average players may feel lack of balance as well. For example, if a player is doing world pvp, lack of balance is going to affect them as well if two characters with similar gear, but very different abilities from covenants, bonuses from conduits etc. are going to face each other. On PvE side, you might also be barred from being invited into many LFG groups, just like today "link curve", but now some may require specific covenants and other stuff (for mythic+), and not just for highest difficulties. So have to disagree here.

Edited by Arcling

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I see zero difference between the complaints about covenant imbalance and the eternal complaints about class & spec/role imbalance. The only way to truly avoid this problem is 100% homogenization, which means much less fun.

I, for one, am quite willing to live with some imbalance to have a playable and fun game (and as a WoW player since Wrath, that’s not just hyperbole).

If your fun comes exclusively from absolute min-maxing, then either pick a narrow part of the game to focus on, or get some alts going to cover the different things you want to do. You don’t get to be best at everything on one character, and that’s okay.

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3 hours ago, Trest said:

I see zero difference between the complaints about covenant imbalance and the eternal complaints about class & spec/role imbalance. The only way to truly avoid this problem is 100% homogenization, which means much less fun.

I do, game used to have purely gear-based progression. Homogenization isn't the only solution, balance may never be perfect, but adding various systems on top of existing talent trees, mechanics etc., creates huge mess to balance, simply impossible to not have plenty of things considered useless. Plus, these systems are going to be discarded in next expansion for something else, so it's not even something built into class mechanics for good.

Edited by Arcling

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