Geek Interview – Ghostbusting The Afterlife In World of Warcraft: Shadowlands With Ion Hazzikostas

It might be an expansion to a 16-year-old franchise, but buried deep inside the latest World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, is actually a simple introduction to the series, such that even newest players can enter and excel in, without the baggage of the past.

At least, that’s what game director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas promises, on the cusp of one of the best game launches of 2020.

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Shadowlands is really the best time for a new player to come into World of Warcraft that I can think of in the last 10 years,” Hazzikostas explains to Geek Culture. 

“We are creating a brand new new player experience, a custom zone known as Exile’s Reach, that is designed to really represent an introduction to WoW in 2020, so that you’re not having a new player come in and play content that was made ten, eight, six years ago.”

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Having streamlined the leveling system from the 120 level cap to just 60 levels, as well as giving new players quicker ways to level up, are some of the ways in which new or returning players can get up to speed in this new expansion, such that it’s easier to get caught up in the lore and story leading up to Shadowlands, and also to level up quick enough to get cracking on endgame content with more experienced friends and players. 

“It teaches you about the Modern World of Warcraft universe, shows you how to play your class, how to interact with the game mechanics, and then sends you directly into the recent Battle For Azeroth content so that you can come out all caught up and ready to join your friends in Shadowlands.,” Hazzikostas promises.

Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas, Game Director for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands.

But for longtime WoW fans, get ready to revisit the realm of Orcs and Humans; The Horde and the Alliance; Life and death as they know it, even as the game hones in on a previously unexplored section of the game – the afterlife. In Azeroth, at least. 

For the uninitiated, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands sees players take the conflict between the Horde and Alliance beyond the physical realm, into the afterlife known as the Shadowlands. There, players from both factions will have to temporarily discard their longstanding feud and take up arms with one of the four Covenants, in order to take the fight to the expansion’s big bad, the Jailer, who presides in the Maw. 

What’s most striking about Shadowlands is the four Covenants, which represents the four main aspects of death and the afterlife. Players pick a corner, which are all currently in some form of turmoil, in hopes of rebuilding them and ultimately strengthening their cause against the nefarious Jailer when the time comes. 

From the noble Kyrian, who serve as the ferrymen between souls from the mortal realm to the Shadowlands, to the Night Fae, whose core concept is that of growth and rebirth, Covenants offer a radically different perspective on how the departed make their way to the afterlife and manifest through different means. 

It is in getting the fundamentals of how each Covenant is distinct from one another, that the team had to nail in order to give players a sense of individuality when they pick their Covenant of choice.

“When building the world of the Shadowlands, really before we had any individual Covenants, we first built the world by itself. And we had this idea of four separate realms of the Shadowlands, reflecting different themes and aspects of death and the afterlife,” said Hazzikostas. 

“Once we’ve [fleshed out] each Covenant’s backstory, that really informed the design of all our systems, and later abilities each Covenant got. It became an extension of [their core concepts]; the Night Fae are more attuned to nature; the Kyrian in Bastion, who have light and airy structures. We came up with abilities for each class that seemed really cool based on the world that we’d built [in the expansion].”

And as with picking between the Horde and the Alliance, choosing a Covenant is an important decision, essentially pledging an oath with these beings in the conflict embroiling within the Shadowlands. What’s different is that unlike the permanent fixture of the faction, which is innately tied to race at character creation, players have the choice to leave Covenants and join a different one if they choose. 

Echoing the sentiments of WoW’s Senior Game Designer Johnny Cash in our previous interview, Hazzikostas points out that, while doing so is “relatively straightforward”, wanting to come back to a Covenant that a player had just left isn’t as such, as it is akin to “breaking” said oath. 

This means that players who do so will incur penalties, such as the inability to claim Covenant-exclusive rewards such as armour, and even Soulbind abilities. That said, they still can access ancillary aspects of Covenants after rejoining one such as unlockable Sanctum content and currency. This, then, reinforces the aspect of how players need to make an informed decision when choosing a Covenant at the start of Shadowlands.

“If you see a Warrior wearing shining plate armour and looking like one of the Kyrian, then that Warrior shouldn’t be using Venthyr abilities like Door of Shadows, because there’s a conflict there in terms of the nature of who that character is,” explains Hazzikostas. 

“The vast majority of the rewards that can be earned in World of Warcraft are completely [unlockable] and you can use them without restriction. But Covenant armor is kind of like class armor in that it really is tied to a fixed identity and being able to use it without being the being that earned that armor would undermine that.”

Okay, so Covenants are cool and all. But what, then, about the core Alliance-Horde conflict that has become the game’s core an, arguably the most iconic aspect of the Warcraft franchise? This reached a boiling point of sorts in Battle For Azeroth and Hazzikostas reassures longtime players and fans that said conflict hasn’t been forgotten, but instead has to be “set aside” in order to tackle a common foe in the Jailer. 

That said, he promises there will still be aspects of the Horde-Alliance conflict sprinkled throughout the main story in Shadowlands. As such, players of either faction will still be adventuring with their respective factions, but can interact with opposition players in central hub areas, such as in Covenant Sanctums, or in the main city of Oribos, as was seen in Class Halls in Legion, or the city of Dalaran in Wrath of the Lich King. Of course, in Oribos, there will still be PVP content, where Horde and Alliance players can shirk their Covenant duties and duke it out, like the good ol’ days, which is always nice.

Speaking of the good ol’ days, Shadowlands will also explore the theme of reunion, where departed characters from the sprawling history of the Warcraft franchise get to return to the fold once more in one way or another, and get to interact with new ones, or at least those that have survived throughout the years. 

And since this is Azeroth’s afterlife, it’s also only natural that players get to be reunited with iconic characters from Warcraft III, such as Uther the Lightbringer, who is among the Kyrian, or Kael’Thas Sunstrider, whom has now allied himself with the vampiric Venthyr.

But with such a massive pool of characters to pick from, don’t expect cameos, appearances or references from every single character that has died from the original real-time strategy games. This fan service won’t do the game or new players justice, and would instead bloat the expansion unnecessarily. Instead, the team has found opportunities to explore certain characters and how they contribute to the conflict within the Shadowlands and against the Jailer.

“One of the fun things as worldbuilders and storytellers about going into the afterlife [of WoW] is the ability to revisit and see what came of the stories of a wide range of beloved characters,” said Hazzikostas.  “We want to make sure not to overdo this; we don’t want the world to feel full of every character going back to Warcraft III, who’s now there [in the Shadowlands] to interact with again, otherwise it cheapens the feeling and the permanence of death.” 

But there are some very powerful stories that we can tell involving certain characters who can find closure by being reunited with loved ones or those who were close to them in life. [For example], it’s likely that Baine [Bloodhoof], who finds himself plunged into the Shadowlands, may be able to find and interact with the spirit of [his father] Cairne, and learn about the truth of his people.”

Of course, this is just a taste of what’s to come in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands when it releases in Fall 2020. Players who are keen on experiencing the Covenants and the goodies they offer can sign up for the beta, which starts in a week from the time of writing. Additionally, pre-orders for the Collector’s Edition of the expansion have begun now.