As one would expect, Battle for Azeroth at PAX East was most definitely a thing this year, particularly since the expansion decided to drop its launch date on us. I was fortunate to join the developers of the new expansion to learn a little bit more about Warfronts, the new Heart of Azeroth item, and a couple of thoughts on how PvP is going to tie into the overall conflict that powers the expansion.
One of the primary causes for all of the tension between the Horde and the Alliance is the material known as Azerite, which is quite literally the crystalline blood of the planet that can be utilized to power new technologies as well as the Heart of Azeroth item that players will be empowering. With this new item now conferring bonuses to the players, one of the primary concerns that came to mind was whether this item was once more going to end up repeating the mistakes that Artifacts had during Legion’s update cycle. The developers are taking some of the lessons they’ve learned to Battle for Azeroth’s newest power-shiny, but one of the big things that should make the Heart of Azeroth less prone to those issues is that it’s tied to your class, not your spec, meaning players can switch over to what they want (or need) to play.
As for finding Azerite itself, that’s part of tie Islands gameplay that the developers are extremely excited for, particularly since it’s applying some new AI tech to the game. Since Islands are going to be the focal point of getting to the Azerite, the developers have elected to do a little something different with their AI. This new “advanced NPC” tech they’ve pieced together looks to recreated the behaviors of actual players, whether they’re aggressive, defensive, or a bit more cautious. One example given was a test of one NPC named Sneaky Pete, who the developers dropped into a town to see if the NPC could successfully tail the player. Sure enough, Sneaky Pete was using cover, darting away from sight and avoiding contact as often as possible. It ended up being quite creepy to witness, apparently.
So what does this new tech mean for the rest of the game? Immediately I thought how this new advanced NPC AI would apply to content like future raids. One of the developers shared my enthusiasm as well, and while they’re most definitely eager to see if this AI can be applied elsewhere, the developers are right now focusing entirely on making sure that it works for its intended purpose before trying to shoehorn it into other systems. An example was how the developers first came to use a fog of war mechanic in the Arathi Basin Battleground; once they saw how it worked and how players reacted, they expanded on the fog of war tech further. After all, as they said, sometimes game designers like to make something happen before fully asking whether they should.
Azerite not only fuels your character but it also will be what leads to Warfront gameplay – a PvE mode that, at least to me, sounded like it was going to be a PvP format. The reason for this is pretty apparent, now that I think on it; the developers want to be sure the fantasy of conflict between the Horde and the Alliance is felt without force-feeding PvP to people’s throats. Warfronts will be a form of end game feature but are the next step after players have done their Azerite hunting on the Islands; Islands are a personal interaction with the enemy faction, while Warfronts are the big set-piece interaction.
Naturally, this isn’t going to mean that Battleground PvP and world PvP are going to the wayside. As a matter of fact, the storyline that will play out during Battle for Azeroth means there’s more potential for new Battleground PvP to be introduced. As for world PvP, despite the fact that shard types are going to merge, players are still going to be able to opt-in as they see fit.
With these new AI systems in place to make PvE more dynamic, the draw of Azerite fueling factional tensions, and the storyline offering the leaders of each side their opportunity to show themselves growing into their respective roles, it’s likely going to be a very intriguing time for World of Warcraft players once the expansion goes live.
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