Exploring the art and story design for World of Warcraft: The War Within

Tina Wang and Dani Merrithew discuss World of Warcraft: The War Within, and how new features are reshaping the team’s approach to art and quest design.
World of Warcraft: The War Within

Last week, Blizzard launched the Alpha test phase of the game’s next big expansion, The War Within, marking the start of a more public view on the big new features and stories arriving in time for the game’s 20th anniversary.

When the new expansion was announced last year, a lot of big new concepts were introduced – giving the impression that new foundations are being put in place to chart a course toward the game’s 25th anniversary and beyond.

Beginning with The War Within, the game is going big with its ideas – from multiple player characters unifying as a ‘Warband’, to new solo approaches, deeper content options through Delves and Follower Dungeons, and an epic three-expansion storyline that looks set to take players on a huge, revealing journey. So how does that impact on the work of actually making the game?

We spoke with Tina Wang, Associate Art Director, and Dani Merrithew, Lead Quest Designer, to hear their perspectives on building this new era for World of Warcraft – including what it means to work on the game for its 20th anniversary, how quest and story design are being reshaped by the new mechanics, and how it feels when side quests resonate with the player base in a big way.

>World of Warcraft: The War Within
WImage: Blizzard Entertainment

How are new features of the game inspiring the team, and how does The Worldsoul Saga bring a new approach to your design work?

Tina Wang: One of the key things as we go into The War Within is that, going deep underground, it pushes us into a really unique fantasy. We always try to create things unique – Dragonflight did lean a little more grounded, and The War Within going underground meant we wanted to make things that felt unique and different.

Zones like Hallowfall give us this visual break – a brightness and openness in atmosphere within the zone experience before you get to the depths of Azj-Kahet. It gave us a lot of potential for really dramatic visuals.

[When] outfitting a race like the Earthen – which is about the runes on their arms and the crystals – we really wanted to design some special outfits that expose these areas of their skin to emphasise how unique they are.

With things like Hero Talents, this gives the character team even more inspiration. Lately we’ve been creating tier sets that are based around evergreen class themes. But now we can think about a Warrior set inspired by Mountain Thane, or a Priest set inspired by Archon.

Quests will now flow directly into dungeons, thanks to Follower Dungeons and Delves. How does that shift your approach to thinking about the flow of quests and storylines?

Dani Merrithew: It’s opened us up to so many opportunities. Follower dungeons in general mean we can bring in players who don’t feel comfortable queuing for dungeons, they can just do it themselves.

We really love this idea and really believe in it, and want to bring it to more parts of content. We genuinely want to get feedback from players at this point on how they’re enjoying that and how it feels to go through that.

In The War Within‘s campaign you do go through a Delve. They’re smaller bite-sized adventures with Brann, the Indiana Jones of WoW. It makes sense that he’s the one guiding you through this. For PvE players, there’s a talent tree for Brann so you can make him more of a healer or a DPS.

The interactions we’ve designed through Delves are so unique … There’s a lot of really cool mechanics that are coming out of these. This has been our testbed for a lot of really interesting ideas, and then thinking about where else we can put them in the game too.

>World of Warcraft: The War Within
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

It feels like a lot of these new systems are laying foundations for a new era of the game beyond this 20th anniversary year. How do you feel about helping build this moment in the game’s history?

Tina: I’ve always been a big MMO player growing up and World of Warcraft was always my favourite. So it’s definitely a dream job for me to get to be part of this, and not even just on the art side, honestly. As a player I get pumped about all the different features that are going into this – so many of these quality of life things we care about.

When it comes into the Worldsoul Saga, it’s just great to be able to think about and commit to some really long term plans. We’ve always thought about these threads of where characters are going. But knowing this is the Worldsoul Saga, we’re making commitments to ourselves that certain characters are definitely going to be in the expansion after the next one, which is fun.

Dani: Similar to Tina, I grew up playing this game. I was 9 when I was introduced to Warcraft 2 through my Dad – I wasn’t allowed to play games, and he would say “let’s play this behind your Mom’s back”. When I was older and got a gaming PC I started playing WoW in Burning Crusade, and I’ve been playing ever since.

The cool thing with The War Within for people who have been playing forever, is that there are so many stories we haven’t really been able to dive into before. Learning more about the Earthen and the Titans, hanging out with Nerubians, and even doing a bunch of questing with Kobolds, which is so cool. Cultures we’ve built since way back when, and we’re finally able to dive in and hang out with those.

It’s a great time for players to come back and new players to come in, because everyone will learn about these old threads and how Azeroth is going to be moving forward. It’s a great chance for veterans to visit old favourite cultures and [see] how they’re progressing forward. It’s very fitting that this is for our 20th anniversary.

>World of Warcraft: The War Within
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

The questing experience can be under-appreciated by players in terms of getting the timings right, alongside levelling and bringing in side stories around the subzones. Tell us about the work that goes into that.

Dani: In general, especially with the Worldsoul Saga, we’re not just thinking about one expansion worth of story, but we’re thinking across three expansions. So we have to be really careful about which threads we end, which we continue through across the whole experience. There’s a lot to think about.

Our focus is on making sure that the main characters, Anduin and Alleria, are very prominent through this story and that they’re the ones guiding us through the different zones – that we learn more about them as characters and their motivations.

But for our side stories, that’s a really great opportunity for us to flesh out the cultures you’re going to learn about. On the Isle of Dorn, it’s about how the Earthen live and how they experience grief and what they go through. In Azj-Kahet we’re hanging out with the Nerubian people, and the team has done some pretty crazy things with some of the side stories there – some real horror focused stories, which are actually amazing.

Those ‘local stories’, as we call them internally, are where we are really allowed to be very creative. When it comes to the campaign, we work very closely with Chris Metzen and the creative director group on how to shape that out.

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It is a complicated process but designers are able to do what they want for the side stories and really flesh out the cultures, which I think is awesome and really brings the story forward.

No Charlie Day cork board maps required?

Tina: Luckily nowadays we have online collaboration tools that make it much easier to drag things around. No pins on cork boards anymore! There’s so many pieces where we’re even thinking about when we reach endgame – when the next chapter comes out, when the raid opens, do the timelines make sense when they’re experiencing the story in there? There’s a lot to fit together.

The ‘Stay a While’ quest near the start of Dragonflight was lovely and seemed to be well received by the community – no running off, just sitting and listening to a story of loss and memory. How was it to see that reaction from players, and how has that fed into how you approach other ideas for The War Within?

Tina: These are the kinds of stories created by a quest designer who is investing their personal emotion and history into it. That’s why we love to give this agency to tell these local stories and see what comes up through them. It was awesome to see – that’s what we hope for, right? When people are really investing themselves it resonates.

Dani: That quest in particular, it is just one of those ones that really ties in the beauty of the world with storytelling. It isn’t just about the quest, it’s about what you’re looking at and experiencing. The placement and the art and everything just hits you harder because of just where you’re sitting. It’s a beautiful moment. It goes beyond the questing experience and meets with the environmental storytelling we did through that too.

‘Stay A While’s are things we are looking at doing more, which is awesome. There’s going to be some really cool moments between Anduin and Alleria that you’re going to find out more. There’s a lot of cool characters we’re introducing that you’ll be able to experience those moments with them.

Back at the 5th anniversary, Tom Chilton and Jeff Kaplan said that as tier sets progressed the pauldrons would eventually cover one and a half zones. Where are our zone-wide pauldrons?

Tina: I’m going to have to send an email to Tom not to write cheques with the art team. But you don’t know, the Worldsoul Saga is going a lot of places. We might be playing on a giant pauldron? So hang tight and we’ll see what happens!

>World of Warcraft: The War Within
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Thinking big picture, how are you feeling about the flavour of what’s coming next, and what do you hope players get from it all?

Tina: I’m hoping they feel [The War Within] is a beautiful and interesting start to a journey. I’m excited for players to delve in with our characters and go deep. Dragonflight was overall a little lighter – with this one we’re delving deep, literally, emotionally with Anduin and Alleria and fighting their battles as well. Seeing what comes out the other side.

Excited, [for players] to discover the depths of all these cultures we’ve built so much in the world. The Earthen, the Arathi, the Nerubians. These are massive civilisations with so many incredible spaces I’m excited for everyone to check out.

Dani: It’s just beautiful and the cultures are so fun to dive into. Some of the cool aspects of this expansion too are Warbands, and how you’ll be able to level alts better through that – it makes the experience so much better. Also the Hero Talents are cool. Lots of fun things in The War Within we haven’t had a chance to talk about.

We want feedback – now is a prime time to send feedback about what you like about the game, what you don’t like, what you want to see improved.

World of Warcraft: The War Within is set to release sometime this year.

Seamus Byrne is a human content machine covering tech, digital cultures, and the future of everything. He first dabbled in games writing in ye olde print publishing era for titles like Hyper, PC Powerplay, and Atomic, before turning digital to work with sites like Gizmodo, Kotaku, and CNET. You'll bump into his voice on ABC radio, find his other writing at Byteside, or follow him on Threads, Mastodon, and BlueSky.