WoW: Season of Discovery devs on PvP encounters, GDKP runs and the future of the game

James Lynch
The World of Warcraft: Season of Discovery logo on a background of the map of Azeroth

World of Warcraft: Season of Discovery is now well into its second phase, and it seems as good a time as any to take stock of where we have been so far and what’s to come in the future. Happily, Dexerto had the opportunity to sit down with the developers behind the game and do just that.

Few WoW players would argue against everything that Season of Discovery has offered so far. The game altered much about the Classic formula to provide an entirely new experience within an intimately familiar environment. It has also successfully walked a fine line between appealing to longtime players and bringing in new ones.

That said, there are still at least two phases to go before the seasonal experience comes to an inevitable conclusion.

We spoke to Lead Software Engineer Nora Valletta and Senior Game Producer Josh Greenfield to talk about the future of Season of Discovery, GDKPs, class balancing, and a whole lot more.

Stranglethorn Vale was the logical next step for Season of Discovery PvP

A troll stands in STV during The Blood Moon PvP event in Season of Discovery

In the first phase of the game, the Battle for Ashenvale took center stage. While it was a refreshing foray into timed open-world PvP, it did have a lot of recognizable elements that rooted it in maps and modes that players have seen in mainline WoW. Not so in Phase Two. The Blood Moon event in Stranglethorn Vale is a stark and very deliberate departure from the norm. Greenfield explained some of the thinking behind the new activity.

“I think we knew pretty early on that we wanted to do something radically different. The thing about Ashenvale is that it was an interesting experiment in that we wanted to do something that was like outdoor Alterac Valley-lite.”

“It had a lot of the same issues that AV had, with a lot of people focusing on PvE encounters. I think the true success of Ashenvale wasn’t necessarily during the event, getting into big battles, though that did happen, particularly in those two middle objectives. It’s really just getting more people in the zone and fighting before and after battles.”

“That was the true success of Ashenvale, but that was a very PvE-driven, PvP event. We knew we wanted to do something that was completely different, and I think it can’t be argued it’s not completely different. There’s probably never been anything in WoW like it. Really, the concept was, “What if the Gurubashi Arena was everywhere, for half an hour, every couple of hours?” Doesn’t that sound cool and wild, if nothing else? It just went from there.”

As Valletta notes, Stranglethorn Vale was simply the logical next step for a seasonal experience that isn’t afraid to push boundaries. “The Gurubashi Arena makes sense too. Early player leveling, you’re kind of in your own racial hubs. You’re in your own starting areas, then you advance to the next area and you’re still not encountering the other faction very often.”

“But in Phase Two, we’re going to the iconic Stranglethorn Veil skirmishes that happen oftentimes on PvP realms, alongside Stranglethorn having that iconic Gurubashi arena. What if it was the Gurubashi arena but everywhere in the zone?”

Season of Discovery’s bursty PvP isn’t going to change drastically

The new powers on offer to players in Season of Discovery have led to significant damage output for a lot of classes. In PvP, this can mean anecdotal situations in which the traditionally “squishier” classes in the game get one-shot.

Though this can be a bruising experience, it can be mitigated with certain builds. Greenfield was keen to stress the effect that the staggered leveling system has on this while also confirming that it is something the development team is actively looking at.

“Things like that are something that we’re always looking at. We knew it would be pretty bursty, especially since we’re in a little bit of a weird spot right now because your gear selection while leveling is a little bit more narrow than it is at max level.”

“Max level in original WoW is very bursty, too. If you’re a fresh 60 mage going into a battleground, it’s very easy to get one shot by a Mortal Strike Warrior or something, right? These PvP events may have a lot of different types of players participating in them. There are players who are diehard PvPers, and they’re gearing properly. They’re taking the steps needed to ensure success.

“Then there’s Joe Blow who’s like ‘I’ll check this thing out.’ Then it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m getting blasted.’ So I think the main lesson we have from this is, with this player power increase, we definitely want to offer more options for gear in future phases that help you be able to survive a little longer.”

Equally it is important to remember that Season of Discovery is not a typical MMO. The phased leveling experience moves quickly, and there are certainly practicalities involved in addressing issues quickly. Valletta described how this process works behind the scenes.

“We’re oftentimes aware of a great many things going on in Season of Discovery, and we care about all of them. Because of our team size, we’re trying to responsibly prioritize and action things that are the highest impact, highest value things at the time. We do have to make decisions on what can wait a little while and what should we action now, right? So we’re often aware, and we care very much, I promise.”

Season of Discovery’s nature has necessitated collaboration with the community

Anyone who has been following Season of Discovery will have noticed the significant levels of communication from the development team. Whether it be via Greenfield’s active Twitter/X account or blue posts with detailed developer’s notes, every step of the decision-making process has been remarkably clear.

When asked about this, it becomes immediately clear that a lot of this is owed to the nature of the game, as Greenfield explains.

“It’s a double-edged sword, right? Anyone in PR can tell you, the more you talk, the more you open yourself up to potential issues. I think for something like this, especially, to work, I don’t really feel like it makes sense to sit up on the mountain and then just send the commandments down. We generally want to try and give some sort of reason or insight.”

“We know that there’s people who say ‘I don’t agree with you, I think that’s wrong’ and that’s okay. There are a million different ways to solve any problem, and we’re going to make the one that we think is holistically the best choice. We may be right, we may be wrong, but it’s a moving target where we’re trying to do this as the train is moving down the tracks at full speed.”

What quickly becomes clear is that, whether the decisions the team makes pan out or not, everything is very deliberate. As Valletta notes, this relationship between the player base and the people in the control of the game has blossomed to such an extent that it almost feels like a co-development project.

“Us engaging on social media and engaging on these platforms is part of our approach to sit with the players and really bring them into the development of the season with us. Rather than it being a developers and players type of experience, it’s almost like we’re co-developing the game with the players. We would much rather it be a dialogue than, like Josh said, sitting on a mountain and delivering the commandments down.”

Intuitive crafting changes will continue to feature in Season of Discovery endgame PvE

Enemies lie in wait in Gnomeregan raid in Season of Discovery

At the end of each phase of Season of Discovery thus far, players have been able to experience a raid adaptation of a dungeon instance. Phase Two centers on Gnomeregan, and a big part of that is highly desirable craftable items. Unusually for Classic WoW, this feature was remarkably varied and brought previously “undesirable” professions into new relevance.

The general reception to this move was positive, allowing players greater room for experimentation. Greenfield explains what went into this process.

“I did a lot of the crafting implementation myself for both phases. The feedback that we got from that was, ‘Hey, this was a really cool quest chain. I wish I could have engaged with it as not a Leather Worker, Blacksmith or Tailor.’ The reason we did it that way in the first phase was to give players in those production professions a good reason to take those and not just skip them for something else.”

“That was the goal there, but we definitely got the feedback like ‘I really wish I could have engaged with this as an Alchemist or as an Enchanter. That whole new quest chain, you don’t actually have to be a crafter to do it. You can do it all. We don’t want to gatekeep any interesting content from people just because of a choice they made, unless it really makes sense to do so.”

Though he wouldn’t be entirely drawn on the subject, it does seem as though players will be able to enjoy similar systems moving forward.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say. We can’t do specifics, but I think that’s a pretty safe assessment.”

At this very early stage GDKP measures look to be paying off

One of the biggest changes between Phase One and Two of Season of Discovery was the banning of GDKP runs. These dungeon and raid runs essentially saw players bid on desirable items, with the winner being the person willing to part with the most gold.

While this is against the spirit of the game, it was previously considered acceptable in the terms & conditions. Not so now, largely due to the negative effects that these runs have in-game and their unique ability to launder gold bought for real cash. Greenfield is cautiously optimistic about the measures the team put in place.

“It’s probably a little bit too soon to say, but I think my knee-jerk initial reaction of playing the game on multiple servers a lot is yeah, I’ve noticed a lot less advertisements and things like that. It’s given us the opportunity to crack down on things a little bit more easily. Not just gold selling and botting but gold buying.”

“GDKP is an excellent way to launder money and an excellent way to obfuscate the movement of illicit gold. Without that sort of shield, it’s making it a lot easier for us to clean up other things and be a little bit more steadfast about other aspects of the economy.”

Valletta was similarly positive, in particular stressing that initial anger with the decision from some portions of the community seems to have abated.

“I think it’s safe to say that this early on, it’s hard to make a conclusion. So far we are, it’s looking rather like a positive change. I will say this is totally anecdotal and this isn’t backed by any of our data as of yet. We’ve been surfing the Discords that we’ve snuck into and browsing community Reddits, social media, and our official forums.”

“There was really early on a lot of uproar in the community about the decision when it initially took effect. At this point, I actually don’t see it being nearly as much of a hot topic. It’s almost like folks have said ‘Okay, GDKPs aren’t a thing in Season of Discovery anymore. I guess that’s life.’ Then things have kind of moved on. We’re not seeing a ton of uproar from the folks who were upset about it.”

The final phase could be the most groundbreaking

A player discovers a Rune in Season of Discovery bots

There are still two phases to go in Season of Discovery, and what exactly they will look like remains relatively unclear. Each phase has been guarded by significant secrecy and a general spirit within the community to preserve the ethos of the experience.

This has left a lot up in the air, but the game’s last phase is the one that perhaps has the most unanswered questions. How the usual endgame raids will stack up alongside refreshed dungeons and the wider experience is going to be an unusually broad landscape to manage. Greenfield explains some of what players can expect.

“There are a lot of folks who say, ‘I have this guild and there are six 10-player raid teams. I really just want 40 player raiding again.’ Then there’s a lot of people who say, ‘I really love 10-player raiding and that’s what we want forever.’ I don’t think there’s an objectively correct decision, it’s mostly just preference,” Greenfield shared.

“What we’re trying to do is not take anything away from anyone. Those raids that were 40-player will likely stay 40-player. Now, will they look exactly the same? Hard to say and that’s not something we’re ready to talk about right now. There are some things you can expect to stay the same and there are some things that will change a lot. There will be some form of 40-player raiding at some point.”

Beyond the final phase, Season of Discovery could have a lengthy legacy

As with any seasonal experience, the Season of Discovery will have an inevitable end. That said, the development team is aware of the effect the game has had on the community. Players have become as attached to their characters as they have to some of the most innovative changes. Though details are thin on the ground for obvious reasons, Valletta did lay out some of what the future may look like.

“I think the most important thing is what players want to see. There’s a lot of things that we would be excited to build. The season will come to an end eventually. Whereas the characters that you’ve created and invested time into and leveled, their stories don’t have to end with the season,” he revealed.

“We are envisioning an interesting place for them to move to that allows them to keep some of the itemization that we’ve added in Season of Discovery. Something very similar to Classic Era but not existing Classic Era realms. As far as possibilities, our team is fortunate in that there are a great many very exciting directions we could take the future of Classic.”

Greenfield also shared his thoughts on the many potential futures and lasting impact of Season of Discovery.

“We are putting a lot of effort into crafting new discoveries, the narrative content that goes with that, and some of these new raids. It would be a shame if that went away and was never available again. We’re building it in such a way that all this content is sort of modular enough that we could flip it on in a different version of WoW at a different point, and maybe adjust it or scale it up,” he said.

“There’s a lot of things we can do with it, and we’re building it in a way that it’s reusable if needed. We really want to keep an eye on what’s well received and what are the things that we probably don’t want to carry forward. It would be a shame if this stuff was completely lost and so we’ve been telling people that no matter what, your characters at the end of the season will be able to go someplace cool.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of Season of Discovery, it has been a masterstroke thus far. Placing the priority on enjoyment and experimentation over micromanagement and prescriptive design has led to a game that is, above all else, fun.

With plenty more to come before the final phase, there are a lot more stories to forge in the crucible of Azeroth.

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