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The folks at Gamasutra have managed to chat with Blizzard Entertainment's creative director Alexander Afrasiabi and production director Jon (John) Haight about the upcoming new PvE features in World of Warcraft's Battle for Azeroth expansion. In short, the expansion's PvE content will focus more on emergent gameplay, randomized content and favor improvisation over memorization of encounters. Here's a bit on how that will work:
First, a quick breakdown of why the announced “island expeditions” are a notable feature for World of Warcraft. In Battle for Azeroth, islands are instances meant to be experienced with multiple players in a party, just like dungeons. The key difference is, when the instance loads, not only will the loot tables be different every time, the enemies and encounters on each island will be different too.
Since this expansion focuses on a renewed conflict between The Alliance and The Horde, players will either be pitted against an AI team representing the opposite faction, or if they choose, an actual group of opposing players, as they all race for the same randomly-generated goal. Many of these goals involve gathering Azerite, the new resource players can use to participate in end-game progression, but they may also involve killing specific enemies before the other team does.
Afrasiabi jokes that this randomly-driven encounter design is a kind of “holy grail of gaming,” since it hopefully ensures that each push into the Islands is fresher than the usual scripted content seen in Warcraft raids. “We had years of experience building this content, how do we make something more compelling? How do we make something that doesn't become stale after X uses,” asked Afrasiabi. “That led us down the path of randomization. How do you make randomization become a thing that isn't really frustrating when you get the wrong seed?”
Now that Afrasiabi and his team have had time to explore that idea, he says the biggest difference between these two forms of design is that dungeons, like his favorite raid The Halls of Valor, do a very good job delivering large encounters that reward practice but diminish “newness” over time.
But on the islands, Afrasiabi says that they’ve been able to explore more emergent gameplay, with “little mini stories and micro-stories that are happening across these island explorations. Hopefully, the tenth run, the twentieth run, it's different enough because of the randomization and the AI that you don't feel like ‘man I've seen this before.’”
Part of the reason there’s more emergent play in islands, is performing well in them involves less prescribed choreography and a more give-and-take interaction with the game’s artificial intelligence or players from the opposite faction that are racing for the same goal as you. Haight adds that this kind of challenge opens the door for unusual party configurations, meaning a 3-healer party could succeed in the same way a traditional tank/DPS/healer party could.
Island encounters are also a lot shorter than raids, lasting 15-20 minutes instead of…well, hours, so there’s a big incentive for the Warcraft team to avoid that repetitive raid feel. “We want to make sure that all those prolonged play sessions you're not [thinking] ‘this dungeon is awesome, but it can't be awesome forever,’” says Afrasiabi.
Haight notes that the way islands are designed, players won’t be focusing on mastery and memorization so much as they will improvisation. “So it's not a scripted behavior in the same way that a dungeon boss has. They're going to react to you in the way that you act towards them,” he explains. “So it's stimuli and response. It's going to feel very different.”