WoW devs explain role of Covenants, customization & choice in Shadowlands

Sarah Boulian Verral and Patrick Dawson on a Shadowlands background for the dev interviewActivision-Blizzard

World of Warcraft’s Shadowlands expansion is now imminent. We had the chance to sit down with some of the developers, talking to them about the Shadowlands experience and how it’s going to appeal to different people.

Since its release in 2004, World of Warcraft has touched the hearts and minds of people all over the world. Communities and friendships have been built, and players have laughed, celebrated, and cried about overarching plot points and storylines.

Some leave the world of WoW for years on end, and others have heard of the game but haven’t ever taken the leap due to how overwhelming the experience can seem. Shadowlands, however, leans heavily on allowing these people to dive into the game. Players can experience the content on offer in a more streamlined, accessible way.

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In a sit-down interview with Dexerto, Production Director Patrick Dawson and Senior Level Designer Sarah Boulian Verral talked about what sets this Shadowlands expansion apart, and why now is time to dive into the universe.

The Level squish

Patrick Dawson on a background of WoWActivision-Blizzard
We spoke with Dawson about Shadowlands for new and returning players.

World of Warcraft’s level cap up until recently sat at 120. This meant that hitting max level was an often arduous and tiresome process, often feeling confusing to consume alongside the current storyline. With Shadowlands’ pre-patch content, this has changed.

Dawson said: “Ultimately, looking at new players coming into WoW, it was a pretty daunting ask to say, ‘here’s 16-years of history with 120 levels that you need to go just to catch up with everyone.’ And the reality of it is that’s just not the case. We wanted an experience that we could craft that would deliver that to new players.”

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The pre-patch squished players sitting at 120 down to 50. The upcoming Shadowlands content takes players through the last 10 levels for a level cap of 60.

Dawson also stated: “The core desire to do this was to make every level more meaningful, so that way when you do level a character, either for your first time or as an alt, you’re getting something every level.

“We’re already learning a lot from what it looks like to do this process of level squish. The system is evolving, but ultimately the goal of it was to have it be an evergreen system that 5 years, 10 years from now, players could still come in, do Exile’s Reach if you’re a new player and go right into the latest content.” 

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“So, the idea is simply: pick your expansion, go through it and then get right to the endgame, rather than having to go through all of these different bits and pieces.”

An Epic Adventure

Sarah Boulian Verral on a WoW backgroundActivision-Blizzard
Boulian Verral says that Exile’s Reach is a much more “modern experience.”

Boulian Verral honed in on the gameplay. She told us: “In Exile’s Reach, it’s a much more modern tutorial experience as well, so if you’re a new player, we really introduce you to WoW’s mechanics and UI, and gameplay so much more robustly than we have in the past. It’s a beautiful island, and it actually culminates in a dungeon experience, as well, so new players get right into the core meat of what it’s like to play WoW.”

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After finishing the starting area, new players are brought through the experience of BFA. Older players, however, are able to choose what expansion they venture through via Chromie Time.

Dawson also believes that Exile’s Reach is great for returning players, just not new ones. “I remember recently, I went through it on a Shaman, and you have to actually explore how to get Ghost Wolf, and what it means to be in that form. So, as a returning player, it will actually help you reconnect with your class.”

Plus, it brings your character down to a more grounded level. “It takes you back to this moment of where, back in the original days of Warcraft you were just an adventurer. You weren’t this great hero who had done these epic things.” 

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In the current state of WoW, players are often regarded as ‘Hero’, whereas Exile’s Reach strips that back. “You’re a crewman on a ship. You’re not the person who’s slayed Onyxia, destroyed Deathwing, stopped the Legion from invading, and ultimately stopped N’Zoth from infecting Battle for Azeroth. So, it’s neat to go back and start building up again to that heroic status that you have today.” 

That Warcraft feel of family

A picture of Torghast, Tower of the Damned in Shadowlands, featuring two charactersActivision-Blizzard
Venture through Torghast to grow your hero into an unstoppable force.

Both devs noted how World of Warcraft provides people with experiences and social connections. Patrick even said “everyone is a gamer, whether you know it or not.”

People who don’t consider themselves to be gamers often play games on their phones, or on social media sites – and by that logic they are convinced now is great time to give something like WoW a shot. Dawson’s mother even tried out WoW after his recommendation – and loved it! 

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The developer says that he’s met people all over the United States and Europe due to WoW that he plays with regularly, whether through BlizzCon or his travels.

“It is an experience,” Dawson said. “It is a social connection. It’s where you’ll have meaningful relationships, even online.”

He retains, though, that if you are interested in this expansion for the entertainment factor, you’re getting it with Shadowlands. You’ll experience how it is to “peel back the veil of death and what that means, and discover great mysteries.”

For those of you that are in for a challenge, look no further than Torghast, Tower of the Damned. “It’s endlessly replayable, where you will try to conquer the greater challenges as you ascend this tower, and in doing so you’ll actually gain more and more power.” 

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Ardenweald photo of different races and classes playing together in ShadowlandsActivision-Blizzard
WoW provides a social experience like no other. Experience the fantastical world together, with new and old friends.

This results in being able to take on some of the hardest to beat bosses and enemies in the game. It provides a reason to keep returning and trying to progress further and further into Torghast.

Verral remains steadfast that with the global health situation ongoing, where it’s widely advised not to meet in large groups, that many friends are going to be connecting in games to keep those social bonds. 

As a new player, Bouilan asks what it is that you like? Do you enjoy story? She recommends jumping into the game and taking the time to look around corners to find treasure and mini storylines that have been written. 

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Do you like to craft? Create and sell gear for other players of the differing player types that WoW caters to. “World of Warcraft has been out for 16 years, and we are incredibly highly polished,” they said. “And I think you’ll find that our experience is one of the absolute best community experiences that you can play.”

The Warchief Problem

Exile's Reach photo showing a boss battle between a group of playersActivision-Blizzard
Exile’s Reach culminates in a fantastic dungeon experience.

WoW’s story can be confusing and overwhelming. That’s why they’ve taken steps to change this with the newest expansion. There are so many complicated stories, and with Sylvanas they are still getting the chance to unravel her story a decade later. 

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“If you went into Orgrimmar, in the center area and you’re like, wait a second, who’s the Warchief right now? Like, we’ve got Thrall, Garrosh and Sylvanas, depending on which expansion you’re in”

“This is something that we were trying to fix with the new level squish, and the experience a single expansion moment.” With the Horde, and in regards to the Warchiefs switching and changing depending on what storyline you’re playing, the Warchief will now consistently stay and reflect which one was in power at that particular time. 

Once that story is done, it will revert back to whoever is Warchief at the present time. It’s much more concise and easier to follow the change, they say.

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Player Agency in Shadowlands

Picture of Plat Armor rewards for CovenantsActivision-Blizzard
What Covenant will you join? The choice and resulting awards await.

One of the things that players have wanted in WoW for so long is better character customization options to reflect themselves. Not just that, but whatever fantastical character they want to portray. Sarah and Patrick spoke on why now was the right time to include these updates.

It was important for them to do the update right, and allow players the option of properly being able to represent themselves if that was what they wanted for the character fantasy. As to why now? Bouilan Verral said: “Shadowlands is all about player agency. It’s the core theme of the expansion.” Choices are a big part of the expansion: What Covenant did you choose? How does your character develop over Shadowlands? What Legendary are you going to make?

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Choices in how you look comes into that player agency, and so they didn’t take it lightly. They wanted to be inclusive “to make everyone feel like they had a home in our game, and the sooner the better.” Seeing the reaction of fans for the current updates for customization has through posts on Reddit has also been incredibly heartwarming.

Dawson said: “Ultimately, just to do it right took a massive undertaking, and a lot of development time, and we wanted to make sure that we committed to that in Shadowlands.”

“This is just the beginning for our character customization, I’m sure there will be more hair styles and eye colors, different things that we add throughout the course of what we’re learning from what people want in the community as a result of that.”

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The team are incredibly proud of and happy with the additions for players in being able to express their fantasy, with Dawson adding: “We hit the mark, there’s still more to go, but we hit the mark.” 

Player Choice in Shadowlands

Revendreth shown here in desiccation with a create kneeling on an outcropActivision-Blizzard
Will you choose to align with Venthyr, Covenant of Revendreth?

With player agency comes player choice. Covenants are an incredibly meaningful choice. Each one has their own storylines, benefits and abilities tied to them that will directly affect your experience in Shadowlands.

“It’s meant to be the lens in which you experience the whole game through. Your choices about what covenant you pick are going to apply to everything, including PvP, but also your raid experience, your outdoor quest experience.”  

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All these choices made will come into play with Shadowlands. The way that you treat Covenants will also affect that, too. “If you regret your choice, you absolutely can go and select a new covenant,” Dawson added. 

But with this comes consequences. If you were ever to regret that particular choice and try to join back to your old covenant, they may not welcome you with open arms. “Let me go ahead and prove my worth again and earn it back.”

With Shadowlands soon on the horizon, it appears to be a perfect opportunity to jump into the game. Whether that’s for the first time, or as a returning player, we’ll see you in Azeroth! Hopefully, it lives up to expectations. 

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