In between releasing StarCraft 2 mods and churning out the Diablo 3 beta, Blizzard Entertainment still has a World of Warcraft team that's hard at work on making content for the biggest MMO in the world as fast and as well as they can. WoW, which is about three years short of a decade old, is coming up on patch 4.3, subtitled Dragon Soul. With this patch, Game Director Tom Chilton and his team are planning to close the book on the latest expansion and its big baddie, Deathwing.

The centerpiece of the patch is a set of three five-man instances that lead up to raid content that takes place all over the world of Azeroth. Unlike most of WoW's bosses in the past, "Deathwing doesn't just kind of sit around," Chilton says. "He doesn't have a throne to chill on, just waiting for people to show up and throw down the gauntlet."

Deathwing's going to be tough to bring down; players will have to go forward into the future, then back into the past, ultimately climaxing on the dragon's back, as players pull off the monster's plate armor even as he spins down recklessly into the Maelstrom at the center of Warcraft's world.

It's that kind of scale that's still amazing even to Chilton and his team, as they try to wring every last bit of excitement out of a game and an engine that players have already seen every corner of. "We certainly never really imagined we would be doing this," Chilton jokes, "back when we were making a couple molten giants standing there in the Molten Core."


Transmogrification and You

Outside of the raid content, patch 4.3 will bring a couple of inventory features that players have been asking about for a long time. "Transmogrification" is the first one, and it will allow players to finally customize their gear, though with strict limits: Players who own older raid armor and other rare gear will be able to make their current gear look like the old models, without changing the actual stats.

"It's something that we've been talking about for a long time, dating back to early Wrath of the Lich King, when we first started thinking that this would be a good idea," says Chilton. "Already by then, by the end of Burning Crusade, we were starting to feel like our model for players looking like what they had accomplished in the game was starting to break down." Wrath of the Lich King opened up the raiding game quite a bit, leading to lots of players looking the same at endgame anyway.



Chilton also says coding the feature look less time than expected: "We recently didn't think it would be in 4.3, we thought it was going to have to be a feature for our next expansion. Until we happened to have our programmer actually work on it, and discover that it's a lot faster for us to do than we originally thought."

Storage Done Differently

The other big non-content feature for the patch is the addition of a "void bank," a special new inventory storage area that comes with a few limits of its own. Players have long wanted more space to store collected items in the game, but more space in the full bank is still an issue. "More than anything else," says Chilton, "the reason we're doing void storage rather than just a bigger bank, is technical limitations for storage space. Item storage takes up a ton of database space, believe it or not, but we knew that with the addition of the transmogrification feature that people were going to want to hold on to a lot of that stuff."

Void storage, unlike normal bank storage, will remove any extra gems or enchantments from stored armor, which presumably means that Blizzard is simply storing a default version of the item -- a checklist of items rather than the items themselves, to save on memory. And Chilton says the team is going out of its way to make sure players know the difference between the two banks, sending them to a separate NPC and using a completely different interface. "The functional difference is part of what helps communicate to the player that gems will be gone, enchants will be gone, that kind of thing."

The Fight at the End of the World

After the inventory is all settled, that's when players will really jump in and explore the new content. The event centers around three instances, all part of one big questline that leads up to the final confrontation with Deathwing. The first instance is called "Endtime" (a name that the team had come up with shortly before we chatted with Chilton), and will send players forward into the future, to see with the dragon aspect Nozdormu what a Deathwing victory will mean. "And so you go into this grim vision of the future," says Chilton, "and essentially demonstrate to Nozdormu that this is what's going to happen if you don't send us back to the Well of Eternity after the Demon Soul to be able to have a chance against Deathwing."

That leads to the second instance, where players will go back in time to the "Well of Eternity" instance, where the legendary Thrall is able to grab an item called the Demon Soul, in order to use it against the dragon. Finally, players run the "Hour of Twilight," and escort Thrall back to Wyrmrest Temple (a location in the Wrath of the Lich King continent of Northrend), where is where Chilton says the final battle beings. "So at that point, you get to Wyrmrest Temple, and that's where the raid essentially starts. You take on six different bosses, they're all Deathwing's minions, and eventually, you take on Deathwing himself."


From there, the battle goes mobile -- players will chase Deathwing across the world, and eventually land on his back. "He starts to try to escape, he's getting away to rebuild strength and get himself healed," says Chilton. The fight sounds chaotic: "You're peeling off his armor plates, and all of these different lava creatures that spawn out through his armor plates." Chilton also said that there will be a sort of balance, mechanic, where players will have to try and stay in place even as they fight. And near the end of the fight, Deathwing, corrupted by the Demon Soul, falls off into the Maelstrom, where the final showdown takes place, with players fighting on floating islands surrounding the famous vortex.

All that is taking place using an engine that was never designed for its first boss fight, much less a world-crossing confrontation like this. "It usually starts with us jury rigging stuff," says Chilton, "and then the programmers getting really mad at the designers for jury rigging stuff they shouldn't be jury rigging, and then they build actual code and tool support for us to do it in an intelligent way. And then we use that technology to do new things that we couldn't before, and then we jury rig new stuff with that technology -- that's kind of the repeating pattern." Chilton says the game's designers have been "hacking" the engine ever since the classic Onyxia fight. "When you fought Onyxia in the air, that was a huge amount of us jury rigging. That involved all kinds of stuff like spawning invisible bunnies on the ground that she could use to actually cast her Deep Breath on, stuff like that. Basically us trying to find ways to use the tools and the engine to get the effect that we wanted."

The Future and Beyond

Patch 4.3 should be on the game's public test realm, according to Chilton, in the next few weeks. And he says there's still plenty more content in the pipeline for World of Warcraft, even as Blizzard plans to release at least six games over the next few years and then some. In fact, he wants to do even more. "I still feel like we have a long way to go, in terms of getting ourselves to a pace where we're adding content and new features that I'm happy with and that a lot of the team's happy with," Chilton says. "I think one of the things we need to do is continue to evolve the gameplay, so that people who have played the game for many years at this point, find fresh and new interesting things to do, and aren't just hit over and over again with more of the same types of content."

There's definitely another expansion planned, which we'll presumably hear about at this year's BlizzCon conference. And while Chilton agrees that a Diablo-style auction system using real money is probably not in the cards for WoW, even he doesn't know what will happen next. "I know that WoW will continue to evolve over time, and it's difficult to predict what long-term impact the Auction House will have on the that players approach games and the way that we approach games as a result of that. But certainly, there are no current plans."