World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Interview – Morgan Day & Steve Danuser

Since its release a few months ago, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands became the fastest-selling PC game of all time. The expansion takes players to the Shadowlands, a never-before-seen realm in the lore of Azeroth. Players have entered the world beyond the Veil and started to uncover some of its secrets, but there is much more for them to explore. During BlizzCon 2021, players learned more about Patch 9.1, which introduces the Chains of Domination campaign.

Chains of Domination begins with the Jailer, previously teased as the expansion’s final boss, taking control of Anduin Wrynn’s body. Players will experience a new 10-boss raid and 8-boss megadungeon and will have the opportunity to finally face Sylvanas Windrunner.

While the raid and megadungeon are the centerpieces of Patch 9.1 for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, players can also expect some highly requested changes to appear before the update in Patch 9.05. After receiving feedback from PvP and raid players about loot drops and gear available in Castle Nathria and Mythic+, developers will be rolling out changes that include the return of Valor Points, improved loot tables for bosses, and an easier way to upgrade gear. Screen Rant had the opportunity to sit down with Lead Game Designer Morgan Day and Lead Narrative Designer Steve Danuser at BlizzCon to talk about these upcoming changes to World of Warcraft: Shadowlands and what players can expect from the new campaign.

Since Shadowlands recently became the fastest-selling PC game of all time, what do you think makes this expansion such a special addition to the universe of World of Warcraft?

Steve Danuser: Well, I think one of the things that we’ve picked up from our players is what a fresh opportunity this is to go into a realm that has not been established before. We’ve done lots of cool expansions, like Battle for Azeroth for example, when we went to places like Kul Tiras and Zandalar. They were new, but they were rooted in story that we were familiar with. And so when you went to a city like Boralus and immerse yourself in it, it was awesome and cool and new but felt familiar in that way. This is Warcraft‘s DNA here; same thing for going to Zandalar and meeting the Zandalari trolls. It’s new stuff, but in a way that felt familiar.

Whereas Shadowlands is this entirely new realm of existence on the cosmic scale, so it was really our first chance to delve into that cosmology chart that we showed in the in the first Chronicle volume. To make that real was a tremendous opportunity. Our artists really loved it and dug in, and you’ve seen things that are just so fantastical. And yet, when you get there, it feels like WoW. It doesn’t feel like a different game, and all credit to our team and our designers, and just everybody who worked on it to make it feel both recognizable and familiar. You get that warmth inside you of exploring these new places, and yet having all that thrill of discovery in a brand new place.

Morgan Day: Absolutely. And like Steve mentioned, it has been a tremendous opportunity to learn and continue to build on our previous lessons and stories. And in some of these cases, also taking lessons learned from our previous expansions – not only from a content perspective, of taking content that we felt was really successful and continuing it forward, but also what we learned about different systems.

This time around, we’ve got Renown, which is this really awesome opportunity for players not only to gain power but also to progress themselves through the story. And we looked at feedback from players and heard a lot of our endgame progression systems felt like they took a lot of time to really get through. We took that to heart and made it so that if you want to get all of your Renown for the week, there’s a couple of cool activities you have to do. And then you can go on and experience some other portion of the game that you’re really excited about, like the raid content.

We’re always looking to build upon those previous successes and learn as well, and to  try to apply those with our new expansions and updates. One of my favorite ones is in Legion, where we introduced a mega dungeon with Karazhan. In Battle for Azeroth, we introduced Operation: Mechagon, and we have gotten a ton of feedback about how successful they are and how much people love those. We took all that feedback, and we said, “This is a really epic, really serious, heavy tone.”

One of the things that’s so fantastic about World of Warcraft is just the depth and breadth of things that there are to do. We saw in our new mega dungeon Tazavesh, the Veiled Market, where it’s just a completely different tone. You’re gonna interact with these brokers, which are characters that you’ve been introduced to in the Shadowlands. You talk to them in Oribos, they usually ask you for things from all over Shadowlands. You might be familiar with Ve’nari, who I’m sure we’re gonna hear from again, and really get to dig into and explore what their culture and their environment is,  and how they interact with each other. It’s just such a different tone, and it’s a bit more lighthearted.

I would say, at times, some of the encounters are really silly. I’m sure you saw Jeremy’s deep dive panel; there’s a pirate dragon in there. Slightly different tone than some of our other things, but that just goes to show how much awesome stuff there is to explore in the Warcraft universe still.

About the endgame content changes that you made, what prompted the changes to the way players can get loot and gear?

Morgan Day: That was really a much larger discussion when we were moving to the Shadowlands. We’d heard a ton of feedback from players, where they really weren’t satisfied with the ability to basically get the best drops in the game and really feel like they were complete and had finished their character. With the introduction of war-forging and Titanforging in Legion and Battle for Azeroth, that was something where it felt like that end goal was just unachievable. We knew we wanted to take a step back, and really revisit that.

With Shadowlands, we’ve determined we’re going to remove Titanforging and warforging, but with the removal of that, we have to revisit how much loot you can essentially get within a raid. We’ve actually heard a ton of feedback about that, and we did make some changes just recently to increase the number of loops that you got from a raid boss. If you have a 20 mana boss, you get an additional loot now than you had in previous weeks. It was one of those things where we took a step back and said, “Okay, we were over here. We’re over here now.” There’s probably some room in the middle where we can still make changes and still achieve our previous goals, and make you that raiding progression feel a bit more satisfying.

But in the 9.05 update, which is coming soon, we’re making additional changes there because we’ve heard a lot of feedback about players who are gearing up through PvP. They’re really happy and really love the the return of conquest. We’re making changes to Mythic+ players, so that we’re returning valor points. They’ll be able to earn valor every week and upgrade the Mythic+ items. We were looking at the Raiders and hearing that feedback about what’s really the strength of the Raiders. If I’m a raid player, what am I able to say I have? So, in 9.05, we’ll actually be adding a lot of potency conduits to Castle Nathria drop tables that aren’t currently available.

So, for a lot of players who are looking to upgrade their conduits right now, one of the only ways to do that is by earning Stygia and upgrading the conduits like that. In 9.05, we’re going to be adding a lot of those potency conduits that people have been trying to acquire to bosses within Castle Nathria. For instance, Denathrius himself will drop all of your covenant potency-specific conduits. If there’s that one that you really wanted, maybe the only place to get into is a world boss right now, but Denathrius will be able to have that in his loot table in 9.05.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the return of Valor Points? What was the decision process of taking them out but then putting them back in?

Morgan Day: I’m trying to remember the last time we had Valor. It goes all the way back to Mists of Pandaria or something when we had Valor last.

Steve Danuser: I think they were in Warlords, weren’t they?

Morgan Day: It’s been a minute. But Mythic+ is something where, as I was just discussing, we really looked at loot and specifically those different types of content as being kind of independent elements. If I’m a PvP-er, I should feel like I have a progression and a way to gear up by doing PvP. Same goes with Mythic+; we treat Mythic+ as its own self-contained ecosystem. If you just want to play Mythic+ and you never want to raid or PvP, you should feel like you have a progression that feels really rewarding and exciting.

But when we take a step back, we want to make sure that there are strengths and weaknesses to each of those. For instance, in PvP it’s really awesome that they can hand-select the item they want and want to upgrade. Versus a raider, where they have to progress through the raid and are getting random drops. But maybe the drops that they’re getting should be the highest level of any of them, because that should be one of the strengths of raidings. Raiders get the highest level for instance, but they’re at the mercy of the drop happening.

In the Great Vault, as we’ve seen introduced in the Shadowlands, we did want to make sure that players did have some agency to be able to pursue something from a raid or Mythic+. And we were looking at Mythic+ as, “What’s the thing that they’re able to do? What’s their strengths?” Obviously, the great vault has one of the highest item levels that you can get from Mythic+, but we felt like your end-of-run reward from Mythic+ wasn’t quite as exciting as we were looking for it to be. We felt like in Battle for Azeroth and Legion, with Titanforging and warforging, you could just run a ton of Mythic+ and hope that you get that high level drop.

With the removal of that in Shadowlands, as we heard feedback from our players and experienced it ourselves, we felt like there should be something that you’re always excited to get at the end of the run. What could that be? And it just instantly led to discussions of, “Remember that Valor thing? Maybe we can bring that back, and give them a path to progress their gear and target some of those upgrades.”

Is there anything else you’ve heard fans clamoring for that you might add in future patches?

Morgan Day: Am I gonna say something that I’m gonna regret? I was just discussing different strengths and weaknesses of the different gearing systems. Raiders having the highest I-level. I always think it’s funny when the Raiders are like, “Man, the PvP-ers got it easy right now.” And then the PvP’ers are like, “The Raiders get the highest item level stuff right now.” There’s that fun dichotomy there.

But we do want to make sure that PvP-ers, for instance, feel like they have the ability to succeed and be the best at what they are by just doing their content. So, we’ve been talking a lot about past systems thinking the past systems like valor. There’s been things in the past that we’ve done for PvP gear to really ensure that it’s going to be competitive and, in a lot of cases, even the best for that environment. We’ve been talking about past systems that we’ve introduced there, like different stats.

Back in Warlords, your PvP items would actually change item level if you were fighting versus a player versus an NPC. There was a lot of weirdness there, like, if I’m out in the outdoor world in a PvP server and a player slaps me, suddenly I get way stronger. But with the introduction of things like war mode, some of those problems have been solved for us. Those are definitely topics that we have heard players discuss, and are also discussing internally, but we haven’t really announced anything in that regard.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Chains of Domination campaign, like what players might be able to expect? Any special or secret info that you can give them to prepare?

Steve Danuser: Well, the action of Chains of Domination picks up right after the cinematic that you saw. Obviously, we see an attack on the Bastion covenant, and we see Arkhan wounded by a dominated Anduin. The covenants will be reacting to that, so you’ll come in to the action there. This attack upon the Arkhan has implications for the other Afterlives, as well, so the action kicks off with you reacting to that and trying to take a stand there.

Then it becomes about not just being on the defensive, because we’ve got people like Bolvar, who are master strategists and now can help us take the fight to the Jailer. That’s very much the theme of the campaign of Chains of Domination: we need to establish a foothold within the Maw and not let the jailer be calling the shots here; we’ve got to take the initiative. So, we’ll be working with our covenant members to go into there.

There’s this new realm called Korthia that’s being pulled into the Maw, so that’s a new place for us to explore. There’ll be other new parts of the Maw that we hadn’t been able to get before, and we’ll see changes as the covenants are coming in with their strengths. They can lay claim to some areas that were super dangerous to us before, and now we can start pushing back against the Jailer’s influence. Part of the campaign is about exploring Korthia, pushing back against the Jailer’s forces in the Maw, and then another part of it is continuing the stories that we began with the covenant campaigns.

Everybody will get to participate in those campaigns, so regardless of your Covenant, you’ll be able to be work with the Kyrians to further Uther’s storyline, for example. You’ll be adventuring with the Draka, and with the forces from Maldraxxus. But each time you do that, if you’re a member of that covenant, there’ll be some extra content for you. It feels like you’re gaining a little extra love, because you’re a member of the covenant during that part. So, there’s shared campaign chapters, and then there’s also flavor for each of your covenants as well. All those storylines will continue in Chains of Domination.

Morgan Day: Like Steve mentioned, the Sylvanas and Anduin story has been progressing, and there is a lot more to that story that we’re gonna see unfold in Chains of Domination. I think Jeremy mentioned this in one of our panels, but in the Sanctum of Domination, which is the raid, we’ll actually finally come face to face and encounter Sylvanas herself. That is absolutely something that will be a catalyst for some major changes within the Shadowlands, and that really will catapult that story forward. We’ll get to potentially see some of the motivations of the Jailer, see as his plan unfolds and where that leads us.

Steve Danuser: When you complete that final encounter in the [Chains of Domination] raid, without going into spoilers, the Shadowlands will never be the same.

When players complete that final stage, is something big coming?

Steve Danuser: Well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Yes, it’ll be very memorable.

What would you guys would say is your favorite thing about Shadowlands so far? What have you really enjoyed working on, or what’s your favorite part of it?

Steve Danuser: Well, for me, it really is delving into this whole new section of the Warcraft universe. The cosmology chart that we introduced in the Chronicle Books, years ago now – we’re seeing a portion of that come to life. And we’re really setting the stakes for the future of Warcraft. There’s a lot of little things that you can pick up on here, as you venture through the Shadowlands, that hint at the origins of the universe. There’s the mysteries of the First Ones, who created the Shadowlands and put Oribos there at its center and built this system, who touched the the realms beyond. What is their story? What is their influence? That’s something that’s definitely going to be delved into down the road.

It’s really about establishing more about the universe itself, and getting to play here in this afterlife, and encounter these larger than life characters. We get to see the storylines with people like Sylvanas and Anduin, who we’ve been with for years, and see their storylines change and grow. It’s just opening up a lot of possibilities for the future of Warcraft, and that’s super exciting for me.

Morgan Day: To just bounce off what Steve was saying, there’s so many exciting and epic contents that we can create to really help bring that story to life and let players experience some of these things that they may have never seen before. For instance, working on Sanctum of Domination, there is so much cool stuff in there from the perspective of continuing the story of Torghast, which is a new feature that we added with the Shadowlands of this rogue-like experience that we’ve never had a chance to do. That was, in and of itself, super amazing and fun to work on.

But taking those building blocks and looking towards the Sanctum of Domination, one of the things that I think is really awesome, is that if you go out into the Maw and actually look up into the Skybox towards to Torghast, you’re gonna actually see it’s two towers stacked on top of each other. From what we’ve seen so far within Torghast, it’s just that lower element of it. When we travel into the Sanctum of Domination, you’re going to actually come face to face with the Tarragrue as the very first boss  in the raid. If you’re familiar with Torghast, he’s that guy that kind of sweeps you out after you’ve died a few too many times.

You’ll be able to fight him, actually using some of those same Anima powers that you have seen in Torghast, and maybe even some new ones as well. That was something that we were talking about from the story of, “Okay, this thing is obviously a big beefy creature. Of course, he would be the gatekeeper into that larger second half of the tower where the Jailer himself is going to be potentially waiting for us at the top.” Being able to experience that and leverage that really awesome content in a new way is always something that is really fun to work on.

What was the development process of building Torghast?

Morgan Day: Yeah, that was really exciting. Steve can chime in here, too, with some of the story elements of it. But from early on in Shadowlands, I would say that is one of the features that has changed the most through almost all of WoW history, in terms of how much it’s changed during development. During our initial alpha and beta, we knew that this was going to be a really awesome feature, and we wanted to get it in the players’ hands as quickly as possible.

From very early on in the alpha and beta, we wanted to make sure that was playable and players could give us feedback on that. We didn’t even have all the powers created, and some of the classes weren’t even playable in there. But we knew we needed that feedback, and we knew we wanted to have a long iteration process there.

There were so many things that have changed through the course of development. Early on, players gave us very loud and clear feedback about not wanting it to be timed, because initially we had a lot of elements of a timer on it. That massively changed. There was discussion about the Visions of N’zoth update from Battle for Azeroth; we had horrific visions, which were a keyed feature. You needed a key that you would earn every week to go do a run.

That was actually something that we were test-driving for Torghast, and we heard a ton of feedback from players about like, “We want to be able to run this as much as we want. Not only do we want to be able to run this as much as we want, we want be able to have la two-hour run.” So, we added a new feature with the Twisting Corridors within Torghast that is a much longer experience, where you can really get tons of powers built up and you can get crazy builds going.

And all of that stuff was due to player feedback and the time that we had to iterate on that over the course of Shadowlands, which was super duper fun.

Steve Danuser: I think our features like that, like Torghast, are at their best when they’re super tied into the narrative. Torghast was all about the Jailer’s almost infinite power, and this place where all these souls over the eons had been brought in and twisted into these terrible monstrosities. That just lent itself to great visceral storytelling by moving through this place. The story literally comes at you in all these different ways, and it’s just a lot of fun. It really gets the team passionate about it, as well. I think you can see the excitement and love that the people who worked on Torghast as a feature had, because it just came to life in that place. We’re super proud of how it came out.

It seems like the fans are too.

Steve Danuser: Yeah, people have been having a lot of fun. It’s been cool to watch. There have been some great streams of epic powers and epic mishaps that have happened within Torghast. Both of those are super fun to watch.

Morgan Day: The first couple of weeks of the Shadowlands launch, it was hilarious watching the different community videos and highlights that would pop up from like, “Haha, look at this crazy build!” And it’s like a mage that’s just coming out of invisibility and doing a ton of damage to the end boss. I saw a monk who got some really crazy power and was just jumping a whole lot. It was like, “This is crazy town.” It’s so awesome that people are able to create these fun player stories from that content. That’s really, really amazing.

Do you guys have a favorite covenant, and why?

Morgan Day: You’re asking Steve to pick his favorite child.

Steve Danuser: I know. I really can’t. There are so many great stories in all the covenants, and so many characters are fun to identify with. It was really hard for me, honestly.

As much as I played through all the different phases of testing the game from early on – we play so much and give so much feedback and stuff – even so, when I maxed out my first character, and I stood there to having to make that choice? It took a long time. I was not sure what I wanted to do, because I had so many compelling reasons and so many great memories already of the characters and the storylines and all of that.

Obviously, I did have to choose, but I make different choices on different characters so that I still get to experience it all. The covenants are really fun, and I’m really happy with how those storylines and the characters came out.

Morgan Day: I definitely have multiple characters as well. I’ve actually swapped covenants around a few times. I do a lot of PvP and a lot of raidings, so it’s like, “Okay, this way there’s definitely major strengths and weaknesses of certain elements.” It’s always that push and pull of like, “Do I want this one, because it’s really good in raids and battlegrounds? Which one which do I want to go for here?” It’s been really awesome to see how much players have enjoyed interacting with that.

I don’t think I have a favorite. I have favorite pieces of different ones of them, though. Every time I go to the raid, and I see my Venthyr buddies who are wearing their armor with huge gargoyles on their shoulders? That armor is so freaking cool.

Steve Danuser: Yeah, honestly. When choosing a covenant, you’re going through multiple phases. You’re like, “Well, I really like this power. But let me look at those transmogs again. Oh, man, how can I not use that one?” It really was a back and forth, but it it’s super fun.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is available now for PC and Mac.

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