For years, Blizzard has been trying to put the "war" back in Warcraft. During an interview at Blizzcon last weekend, game director Ion Hazzikostas told Kotaku he thinks he's finally figured out how to make it happen. But first the designers have 13 years' worth of problems to work out.
Soon, the WoW team will eliminate the longtime divide between PVP servers, where everybody's fair game to attack, and PVE servers, where player-vs-player combat is much rarer.
In its place, all servers will get an opt-in, opt-out system, with special incentives for opting in.
Players will only be able to turn PVP on and off while they're in Azeroth's major cities, so if a sneaky rogue starts rearranging your insides while you're out adventuring, you can't just render yourself incorporeal and skip merrily off into the sunset.
Hazzikostas hopes this will pump some much-needed lifeblood into world PVP's heart, which has been inching ever closer to flat-lining since shortly after World of Warcraft first came out. He also wants players to know, though, that this is just the beginning.
"Doing this gives us a foundation upon which to build," said Hazzikostas.
"I think in the past when we talked about ideas for PVP content in the world, we often ran into the question of 'Well, what does this mean for people on PVE servers?' Are there just millions of people who don't get to experience this content at all, even if they want to?"
Now, he said, every player can get in on the fun, paving the way for a "renaissance" of world PVP. But the WoW team still has some significant barriers to overcome. Hazzikostas specifically pointed to features like server transfers, which have led to unfairly lopsided numbers of Alliance and Horde players on most servers.
It's not much fun to fight if you're almost certainly gonna wind up outnumbered. Hazzikostas also noted that flying mounts give anybody who's not down to put up their dukes an easy out: "If you see someone coming, you can just get on a flying mount and zip away," Hazzikostas said.
"There's basically nothing they can do to stop that. That makes it harder to have those conflicts in the first place."
Lastly, he said that the WoW team, more focused on arenas and battlegrounds, hasn't done a great job of balancing world PVP over the years. "World PVP is never gonna be inherently balanced or fair; you could be ganked three vs one, and you're dead," he said.
"But in terms of the pace of combat and things we disable in arenas and battlegrounds like crazy legendaries and super powerful items, we could do more. Those things are important to the feel of an RPG, but they also create an un-fun experience if you're just trying to have an interesting battle in the outdoor world."
One solution the team is looking into, Hazzikostas said, is to apply a level-scaling system à la the one that first appeared in the Legion expansion and will soon be part of all PVE encounters in the game.
Figuring out how it will work, however, will be a delicate process, because scaling that's too overt could be "jarring and undermining" to what RPGs like WoW are all about: levelling up and progressing. "If I have this amount of health and these stats, if the second another player attacks and suddenly my stats change, that feels super broken." he said.
The key, then, is to make it more like the sort of scaling that allows, say, a level 108 character and a level 102 character to quest together against NPC enemies.
"We don't want to arbitrarily break portions of your character, but this could pull us away from that one-shot territory where you're walking along, and before you know it, you're dead," Hazzikostas said.
It's almost comical, if you think about it. After more than a decade of making a game about progression, levelling up, and power, the WoW team now has to disguise all of that. The counter-intuitiveness of it isn't lost on Hazzikostas.
"A lot of it is uncharted territory, and it's not even necessarily sound design advice," he said.
"You're creating an RPG system, and you want a sense of progression. Well, OK, how does it scale over 13 years? It's not a normal, sane question to ask, but it's one that we have to at this point, and we do on a regular basis."