For a game with more apocalypses you can shake a stick at, Dragonflight – the upcoming expansion for long-running multiplayer game World of Warcraft – offers something of a holiday for Azeroth’s beleaguered heroes. There’s no apocalypse to stop, world-ending villain to batter, or war to win – just a long-forgotten island waiting to be explored.
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Speaking to NME, Steve Danuser – Dragonflight‘s lead narrative designer – explains that the expansion’s lower stakes were a deliberate choice from Blizzard‘s design team. Danuser says the team wanted to capture a “sense of exploration and discovery” with Dragonflight, and says it feels more aligned to 2012’s Mists of Pandaria expansion than some of World of Warcraft‘s more dramatic setpieces, like Wrath of the Lich King or The Burning Crusade.
“We wanted to emphasise this feeling of not rushing to confront a world-ending threat,” explained Danuser. “[It’s more about] this land being out there – let’s go explore it, we’ll meet some friends and enemies along the way. It’s a great chance to tell stories that are new and different, but rooted in the history of Azeroth.”
Danuser adds that the player’s companions on this journey – Dragon Aspects, the former guardians of Azeroth and huge names in Warcraft‘s lore – are central to Dragonflight. The developer stresses that “making dragons awesome again” was one of the “driving messages” at Blizzard, which is why the scaly group takes centre stage in this expansion.
“We’re returning to Azeroth and we’re going to a place that we’ve heard talked about before, but we’ve never seen – we get to go there beside some of the most famous characters in the Warcraft lexicon, the Dragon Aspects,” says Danuser. “We’ve seen them at their highs, when they’ve been powerful and great, but we’ve seen them give up their power – and what happens when they turn against one another. This is a chance to go to the Dragon Isles alongside them, see this kingdom they left behind and try to help them regain some of that glory that was lost.”
As players begin their expedition to the Dragon Isles, they will find themselves exploring Azeroth from a whole new perspective. One feature of Dragonflight is, as the expansion’s name suggests, the addition to ride dragons. For Maria Hamilton, World of Warcraft‘s lead quest designer, taking to the skies has allowed the quest design team to explore their work in new ways.
“We had the advantage of having these vast spaces, these giant landmasses to sprinkle interesting information throughout,” says Hamilton, who adds that players being able to ride dragons “was a large motivator in how some of our questing flowed through areas.”
“We knew what you could and couldn’t reach, and we could get you to very high places and give you that exhilarating moment of swooping down to the next location,” explained Hamilton. “We made a concerted effort to use those vast spaces and use that feeling of momentum to move between all of our quest objectives and make sure you had those opportunities for those magnificent vistas that our artists and worldbuilders have put together – we really wanted to show off the place as a fantastic, amazing location with tonnes to explore.”
Hamilton also says that her team has gone “an extra step” in fleshing out the Dragon Isles with more local stories. “You can come across a very isolated place and find quests there that tell the story of that culture – and while we’ve done that in the past, this time we really leaned into it and made sure there were tonnes of them,” shared Hamilton. “So as you dragon-ride around the isles, you’ll find nooks and crannies with hidden treasures, creatures, stories and quests that all help contribute to the story of this place.”
Though Hamilton is reluctant to share any spoilers, one particular quest made by her team “surprised” her when she played it through for testing purposes. “There was this very unassuming little quest where you sit down and chat with someone – and I don’t want to spoil anything, but anyone who has left home knows what it’s like to long to return,” describes Hamilton. “To go home, to see those places again, drive around where you used to live and do all those things – many of us can think about that. But sometimes you have that moment where you realise home isn’t what you remember, or home doesn’t have the same feelings it did at one time.”
“This particular story is about that,” Hamilton continued. “It’s about a dragon who has returned home and is now thinking about the past and considering what the future may hold. I just thought it was beautifully written – it was really well thought-out with all the feels, there are a lot of quests where we got some good emotion in there. There are a lot of really strong themes here to build off – so that one in particular, I remember when I was playing it for the first time and I didn’t know what to expect – my feedback was like ‘Wow, where did that come from? That’s fantastic!'”
Likewise, Danuser is particularly fond of one particular zone on the Dragon Isles, called the Azure Span. The narrative lead says anyone fond of the Tuskarr – a race of Walrus-like humanoids introduced in 2008’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion – should take time to explore the zone for some pleasant surprises.
“It was really fun for the team to dive in and tell some stories about their culture – there are tonnes of fun little side stories there where you get a sense for their community, the things they love and care about, their kinship with one another,” Danuser says. “There are some great things to delve into, and it really is one of the places that has so much of that classic Warcraft charm and feel – these stories will touch you, and a lot of them will make you smile.”
It’s been several years since World of Warcraft’s last expansion – so for many Warcraft fans, Dragonflight will offer something of a homecoming not just for Azeroth’s Dragon Aspects, but for the MMO’s players. That sentiment rings true with Danuser, who says the expansion is “about that feeling of coming home to Azeroth and seeing this world that feels familiar, yet fresh and different.”
“That’s true of the whole game, as well – we’ve refreshed so many different systems and features, from the user interface to the talent system,” Danuser adds. “It’s a really exciting time to jump back into World of Warcraft – and I think that feeling of excitement and optimism permeates Dragonflight.”