What started out as a passion for writing and reading science fiction and fantasy novels as a kid, became an experience for creating adventures in Dungeons and Dragons.
Unbeknownst to Kevin Martens at the time, those Sunday evenings spent at the kitchen table as a DM was his game design experience. This led him to BioWare in Edmonton, where he did design work for a decade before becoming the Principal Game Designer at Blizzard Entertainment.
Kevin Martens sat down with CGMagazine for an interview about how his journey influences his current work, the exciting features in Battle for Azeroth, the journey of beloved World of Warcraft characters who appear in the current expansion, as well as what’s next for the game overall.
CGMagazine: What was the transition like when going from Bioware to working on Diablo 3, and now to a Principal Game Designer at Blizzard?
Kevin Martens: It was actually very similar. I actually had a harder time adapting to American culture as a Canadian than I did moving from BioWare culture to Blizzard culture. Both of them are very design-driven companies. I would say that Blizzard is more systems-oriented. Those stories and characters are a huge part of it, especially in the cinematics. BioWare is more story-focused, but, of course, systems matter there as well.
Blizzard has a really strong culture. So moving between the teams is actually fairly easy. The Diablo team and the Warcraft team are very similar, and there’s often many people who have done many of the projects. We have Diablo people making Hearthstone now, we have Warcraft people making Hearthstone, we have Hearthstone people making Warcraft.
CGMagazine: Does that explain all of these Hearthstone shenanigans and references we’ve been getting over the years? Like with the Cow Level and Medivh’s eccentric character in One Night in Karazhan?
Kevin Martens: Yes, yes. Because the person that did that worked on the other version of it in World of Warcraft. I think that was either Dave Kosak or Pat Nagle — also known as Nat Pagle in the game — they did tons of stuff in Warcraft and it’s easier for them to make references because they know exactly what happens.
CGMagazine: How have these decades of experience influenced the way you design video games?
Kevin Martens: I think my experience has allowed me to hone designs down to sharper points sooner. Basically, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes, so all the things that we messed up in the past has taught us lessons that I try to apply and do now. Maybe you could use the common phrase, “Work smarter, not harder,” which is sort of what the goal is at this point.
If you start making something and you see where it’s going, can you see what it might feel like in two years? Can you see if it’s going to be boring? If it’s gonna be broken? That’s the main thing you learn from experience. Usually, after making broken and boring things in the past, I go, “Okay, what can I do to make it better? What did I learn? What does it look like? How can you plan for another game?”
CGMagazine: We kind of saw these improvements in Diablo 3. Can you share some examples of how you’ve applied your experience in Warcraft, in particular?
Kevin Martens: Sure. Zone design is interesting in World of Warcraft, because it serves so many goals. I think some of the zones we did in this expansion are really, really tight zones and they tell very good stories. They have nice flows, so that’s ultimately your ideal goal. — That every zone has a nice, encapsulated story in and of itself.
The other aspect of that is that it has to flow with all the zones around it. We have people making these things really quickly. One of the jobs of someone in my position is to make sure that there’s some meta story where all of it feels consistent like it’s all made by the same person when it’s actually made by a lot of people. In this case, we have two continents, we have three zones each, and each of those zones have individual teams. We have just a couple of people trying to tie all of that together, so it feels like one nice flow. We also made it so that you could do the zones in any order. It doesn’t matter how you played it, it still came to a conclusion at the end.
And then we have new features like War Mode and open PvP. When you’re trying to do something and you’re having fun and you’re getting into the story — and then some Alliance players come over the hill and they attack you — but everything still flows nicely after that. That’s really the main goal.
CGMagazine: On that note about the meta and the story flow, when we first saw the Battle for Azeroth trailer, Sylvanas did her Banshee scream, Anduin cast aside Shalamayne and decided to use his Priest powers to resurrect the Alliance. What was the mandate going into this expansion, and what was the core idea behind bringing these characters to life for players who have followed their journey and players who are new to them?
Kevin Martens: World of Warcraft is fun, because we have a huge cast of characters. We don’t usually kill people off — we do sometimes, but it is important that the world changes over time. There’s a lot of people out there who take a break for one or two expansions, and we bring them back.
Jaina and her story regarding her father and her mother is a story that started in Warcraft 3, for example. We’re now finally wrapping that up. We do that a lot. Like you said, with someone like Sylvanas and Anduin, when a new expansion comes out, a bunch of new people who have never played Warcraft before join and more people come back after not playing for two or three expansions. They might not even know that Sylvanas is the Warchief and never heard of Anduin. When we show those movies, they have to get a sense of who those characters are at a glance. Everything from the character design to the voice actors that we choose for them — you’re supposed to know what those archetypes represent just like that.
For Sylvanas, burning the tree and doing things like that represents one side of what the Horde could be, might be, or is. But we also have someone like Saurfang representing the other side. A new Horde player could be like, “Whoa, I don’t want to burn the tree,” or “Yeah, burn the tree.” They have two champions in the story for that. There are millions of players out there, and each of them are supposed to feel like it’s their story as well. Since we don’t know exactly who they are, we still show them in some of the cutscenes, which we do more and more now.
In Nazmir, in the beginning of the zone, Princess Talanji is with you and you see the blood troll threat. There’s this big valley with an old pyramid that’s got thousands of blood trolls in it. They start throwing arrows and spears at you, and you both run away to the safety of the camp and try to take them down. We’ve got to make these characters sing, but we also have to make sure that the players feel like the story is about them. That’s a difficult challenge — especially when all the millions of players need to feel unique and special.
CGMagazine: What can players look forward to in the future in terms of these more realized characters that the fandom has really been enjoying?
Kevin Martens: Bwonsamdi has more to do in this expansion, for sure. I don’t want to give out any spoilers, but for Horde players, they’re going to find out more about what happened to Vol’jin after he died, because the spirit is very integral to troll culture. The Zandalari Empire is the centre of troll culture. It may have been a long time, but this is where they originated.
Bwonsamdi is one of the old gods to them — not to be confused with the Old Gods. He’s one of the most powerful Loa. He’s not the most powerful, because he kind of gets everybody in the end in a very classic death motif there, but in a charming way. I really think the voice actor really came through. It was super fun, and the designers did a good job. I’m sure you’ve seen like when you die, sometimes he makes fun of you, sometimes he sympathizes with you, sometimes he fishing with bones, sometimes he’s doing archery. He’s busy out there in the world. That was one of the most fun things to do with him. So, he’s got more to do.
The new troll character from the Saurfang cinematic — we introduce several new characters per expansion as well, and we don’t always have their stories happen right away. I’m not sure if we will see more of him immediately, but we’ll definitely see more of him in the future. There’s still time for us to change our minds on that, so we’ll have to see.
CGMagazine: We’re also seeing characters make small cameos in the form of flashbacks and a mention in quests here and there. There’s Arthas, Garrosh, Yrel, and even Vol’jin. What does this all mean? Will we see a return of an old character like we did in Warlords of Draenor with Gul’dan and Grom?
Kevin Martens: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, we return to old characters. Because of the rich spirit world, sometimes you can interact with these spirits of dead characters. Sometimes, they’re just gone, and we kind of don’t explain where they will be in the future. In other cases, like with trolls, you kind of know where their spirits go, so you could follow a little Vol’jin quest line that’s happening. You can get to it now, but I think you have to be Revered with Zandalari Empire to see it.
We have them in our back pocket and sometimes, even though we know exactly what their arc is, it’s not always the right expansion for it to happen. So yes, more of that will happen, too.
CGMagazine: Does the team have favourites?
Kevin Martens: It changes a lot. For example, in Battle for Azeroth, some of the brand new features like Warfronts and Island Expeditions are both PvE and PvP-feeling. So in islands, you can actually play a PvP version of it. For any of your readers who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s essentially — Azerite is the lifeblood of the planet. When Azeroth was stabbed by a giant space demon [Sargeras] — long story — the planet’s bleeding to death. And you, as a champion of the planet, are out there trying to get that blood back into the heart of Azeroth, which you wear as an amulet. You basically feed it back to the planet and keep her alive.
So the islands — the archipelago between Kul’Tiras and Zandalar, where a lot of this is happening — the way the feature works is this race to get the most Azerite versus an enemy team. Let’s say you are on an Alliance team. There’s an enemy team of Horde players out there that are actually A.I. players. They could be real players if you choose PvP mode with this. We did a lot of work on the A.I. and we did some randomization for the spawns. The A.I. would even camp your corpse, so you can’t revive. Which, by the way, works great against them as well. A lot of people love that feature and especially since we’re experimenting with a little bit of randomness. I think Warcraft’s the best when you can practice something and get better at it. Like in a dungeon, you can be more efficient. It’s nice to have different ecologies and different side quests.
Warfront is a massive battle. It’s supposed to feel like the old RTS battles, except you’re down on the ground. In Warcraft 1, 2, and 3, the scenario feels very much like those concepts. You have this base, you’ve got to establish the base, build an army, and go attack the enemy base. It’s that, but at the ground level, and you’re a hero when doing it with 19 other heroes. So a lot of people love that feature as well.
I also think that many of our developers were very much looking forward to exploring these two continents. Kul’Tiras and Zandalar are places we’ve wanted to visit for a long time. To get them both out in one expansion was very exciting.
CGMagazine: What was the process of adding more to these two continents like?
Kevin Martens: We have a lot of quests in these two zones, because the team was very excited about these stories and these areas that we’ve never been to, but we’ve talk about forever. Everyone had a specific quest or quest line that they wanted to make. So when everybody made them, the areas became probably the most quest rich zones we’ve ever had. You know, I haven’t actually counted everything, but man, there’s a lot of side quests out there.
CGMagazine: Do you suggest players run up to NPCs and just accept every quest?
Kevin Martens: No, no, do it in parts. Do the local area that you’re in. For example, every expansion, has a dwarf hunter quest line. He’s always fun. We have one of the most different ones in this expansion, and it happens in Nazmir. I definitely recommend people check that out and sit in an area called the Preserves. We haven’t done anything like this with questing before, and it’s a very fun quest.
CGMagazine: On that note, what is something you would love to share with players of Battle for Azeroth and Warcraft as a whole?
Kevin Martens: What’s fun about this one is, like Legion, we’re releasing content in several pieces. Warfront is starting, PvP season has begun, Mythic Quests and the Mythic Dungeons are back again. The first wing of the raid is opening up as well. A lot of new stuff is coming up, so if you haven’t picked up Battle for Azeroth yet or you’ve caught up, the endgame is really opening up.
The other thing I want to draw attention to is it’s really fun to go to the enemy contient. To go out and try to do quests. There’s way more enemy players out there and more hostile forces overall. It’s a really different feeling. This is an expansion, in particular, that I recommend playing both sides. You know, if you don’t normally alt, this is a great time to try both Alliance and Horde characters, because to see two sides of the same story is really neat.
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