Blizzard’s Mythic Dungeon Invitational was a bold experiment for the game, and it may have paved the way for a whole new wing of esports action. 

World of Warcraft has strong roots in esports, with PVP Arenas taking the stage regularly, and returning at this year’s Blizzcon. Competitive PVE content like Raid races have been present in the community for a while, but the Mythic Dungeon Invitational has found a sizeable viewership that eclipsed recent PVP competitions. Thousands of fans tuned in over the course of the event, cheering along as it culminated in a tight best of five between teams Honestly and Free Marsy that went down to the wire.

With the success of the event, I sat down with Morgan Day, lead encounter designer on World of Warcraft. His work on Legion’s dungeons and raids helped shape the PVE world, so who better to recap the event and discuss what the future holds.

RN: Before we jump into the MDI itself, how did you feel about the state of World of Warcraft as an esport/position in the esports market before the MDI?

Morgan: Primarily, WOW esports has been focused on 3v3 arenas going all the way back to Burning Crusade. That was when we had lots of people running tournaments, and we’ve been kind of running with that as we go. This last year we’ve had a really big push to increase the amount of content we’re releasing for esports – weekly tournaments split between NA and EU, we just did the regionals for EU at Gamescom – so we’ve been really striving to create more consistent content to give people more things to consume.

This year we’ve also been discussing 2017 and Legion. There’s a lot of different types of players engaged in World of Warcraft, the game has so much breadth and depth to its content. There might be some people who love to PVP, but there’s also people who may just log in to fish all day, or to do pet battles or dungeons and raids. With so many different ways to play World of Warcraft we really were wanting to explore this year – what other things could we try?

RN: What inspired the invitational? PVE in World of Warcraft has always been in a way, competitive, through raid races etc, but this is something quite different.

It’s been really fun to see the evolution of this. I’ve been thinking about this lately, I went all the way back to like ‘what was our first competitive PVE thing we did on World of Warcraft?’. I think it was the Blizzcon live raid events, where different guilds would be invited to do head to head races – I remember watching Firelands back in Cataclysm. The first time I remember a head to head Dungeon race was was with the introduction of what was originally challenge modes in Mists of Pandaria, and we did this big exhibition match between our QA team and Blood Legion. They did this head to head dungeon race way back in Mists of Pandaria and we’ve kind of experimented a little with exhibitions since that.

I think the thing that really drove it forward was, with Legion, a huge goal of ours was to emphasise dungeons as something you do repeatedly throughout the expansion. With Warlords of Draenor, people did a tonne of dungeons on release and then it sort of dwindled off – you might do one a day for daily heroics, but we wanted to support it much more in Legion through the Mythic Plus system – adding scaling difficulties and things to keep it fresh and different like the keystone affixes, which have a twelve week rotation.

We did a small head to head dungeon race in the Legion beta to reveal Maw of Souls and Halls of Valour and that was received really well. We were surprised and happy with how well received it was, and we thought we have an opportunity – people often ask us ‘are you going to support competitive raiding’ and that’s really tough to support because of different regions getting raids at different times, plus a twenty person team is a lot of people to manage. With Dungeons, we realised we had a real perfect opportunity to try this – that’s kind of how we got there.

RN: What was the biggest challenge in getting this content ‘competitive’ for the start of the event? Were there any rulings/fixes the team had to implement?

Because of the nature of the system, we always keep a close eye on the health of each individual dungeon. We have a fantastic team who gives us a lot of fancy statistics on them, we can look at things like the hardest affix combo, or the hardest dungeon and success rates, so we always keep an eye on this for the health of the game. At the start of Legion people looked at Halls of Valour and made a point not to do it, so we’ve tried to make a lot of changes like removing trash and nerfing bosses or increasing the rewards at the end of it. That side we felt pretty good about.

We did have to take a look at it through a new lens with a competitive mindset though – asking if a team did this or that on broadcast how we’d feel about it. So things that we might not normally worry about, strategies and small issues, we looked at those again and made a point to fix a few we may not even have known about before this event.

RN: How did you settle on +17 as the sweet spot for competition? Was it borne from wanting to keeping it engaging and challenging but doable?

That bar is constantly moving in the live game. With the release of 7.3 we adjusted the key levels, and we were just looking for that sweet spot that worked for broadcast time – you have to look at how long these dungeons should take since you have to schedule a whole day of matches – on top of ensuring that it still feels challenging. Teams shouldn’t be pulling the whole dungeon all at once, but a lot of the challenge comes from the head to head element. We just wanted to mirror the live environment where we could, all while working around broadcast schedules. Our nightmare scenario was picking a high number where people couldn’t even complete it. We were constantly walking that line to keep it interesting for viewers.

RN: Throughout the event dungeon paths and mechanics were changed and kept universally identical for tournament integrity. How was this decided and was there anything you wished you had or hadn’t changed?

There’s a couple of examples here, I know on the arcway we had a route that was on live for a while that allowed you to go down the middle, where the dungeon should actually be shaped like a ‘T’ – you usually have to choose left or right then double back. We decided that one in particular, the run times and potential trash routes, were just too big of a discrepancy.

Things like that were, when we were developing Legion, really great for the Mythic Plus system. It was a huge goal of ours to keep them fresh, and arcway was the result of designing a dungeon with lots of different doors so you could configure the whole dungeon around which of these are opened and closed. For instance, the rat pack you see on the right hand side, in some encounters that trash pull doesn’t even get seen. When you’re looking at that through the lens of competition however, you can’t have that much discrepancy.

A thing we were talking about that we didn’t actually get the chance to change – while it did end up being okay – was the Vault of the Wardens. The second boss, Inquisitor Tormentorum, releases two of four creatures from cages randomly. As we were watching the broadcast we were like ‘oh, some of these actually do have some pretty big differences’. It was one of those things we were learning as we were going where we thought the Arcway’s routes would make a drastic difference but as we watched MDI unfold we saw how close some of these races were. Even if we’re talking a 7-10 second difference in which jail cell he picks, that could make a huge difference in results.

It was in one of the qualifiers, but we had a match that looked like a legitimate tie on stream, and it was down to the milliseconds that we had to look up. We thought this was pretty cool, but also something to keep in mind for the future when we make sure that we really look at all the differences within a dungeon.

RN: How do you feel about variety in class in mythic dungeons? While a meta obviously developed, very few tank and healer specs especially saw high level victories – are you okay with having this small pool viable for high end Mythic plus or do you think there’s changes needed to expand the pool?

We have had discussions around the office with the class team about how Mythic dungeons are almost a whole new progression path for our players – and a whole new element of class design that hasn’t been under the microscope as classes have been in the pass. With the success of the Mythic Plus system and the MDI things like ‘how many AOE burst cooldowns can you blow to kill a mob pack’ suddenly make Arms Warrior amazing at that. You don’t hear people talk about that in regards to a raid or the PVE world, so that’s absolutely something we know we need to talk about. It’s always a constant and evolving process for class balance, and we’re looking to improve it. This has definitely shed some light on class balance issues that haven’t had as much discussion in the past.

RN: Is there things that happened in this invitational that you weren’t aware of previously – bugs, strategies, ‘clever uses of game mechanics’ – that came to light during the event?

Here’s one example I’ve used before but I still think is awesome – it even threw the casters off, and they themselves are very talented wow players. When they saw something that they hadn’t seen before I thought that surprise was very cool.

In Neltharions Lair, Dargrul, the last boss has these really nasty trash pulls where there’s a scorpion and a disc thrower, which is really deadly. Those trash pulls are actually tied to the boss so if you pull Dargrul those two will come with you – the first time we’d done this way back in classic was in Scarlet Cathedral on Mograine, and if you punched that boss the whole cathedral would aggro, so you had to clear the whole thing. We call that Mograining, when you punch a boss and trash comes with it.

This one team had a hunter who punched the boss with those trash still up, and because it’s so deadly the casters are like ‘What are they doing? This is crazy – it’s more than aggressive, it’s just suicide” but the hunter pulled these guys away and feigned death, so the trash pull then reset at their spawn locations because they hadn’t engaged the main group – so the hunter was free to rejoin the group killing the boss.

I had never seen that – I didn’t even know it was possible; neither did the casters. That was probably my favourite example because our players and competitors were o creative – I wonder how long they actually knew that was possible or if they pulled that out just for the MDI.

RN: Obviously with so many abilities the UI question is a tricky one, and casters did well to explain abilities, mechanics and buffs/debuffs, what would you like to see added for viewership clarity moving forward?

*Laughs* Of course, I have a huge wishlist of stuff I’d love to see that’s almost more like features, but I can’t speak to those as much as I’d like – who knows when or if that stuff will get done. Some of the things I think we can certainly improve on though is the usage of space on the broadcast – we heard a lot of great feedback around dead space with the picture in picture thing going on, with a banner at the bottom and the timers with deaths off to the right. There was a lot going on and it was a fairly busy UI. That’s on the top of our list to discuss for future events – how do we improve the UI, how do we improve the viewer experience, and that’s the main thing I think we could do better.

RN: The results in the finals proved the competitive excitement that esports need. Free Marsy taking that boss damage lead and taking out the win undoubtedly shows that element of ‘anything can happen’ – did you feel this was a fitting closure to the inaugural event?

It was fantastic that the finals went all the way down to the wire. I actually thought the format of loser picks the next map worked out really well. While I don’t know the exact statistic I know a large percentage of our series went 2 to 1 or 3 to 2 like in the finals, and that loser being able to prepare for or come up with something they think is interesting for their dungeon composition that makes them think they can pull it off and the other can’t was really cool.

There was a Back Rook Hold run where one of the teams pulled the biggest pull in the whole instance – a whole open space at once – and that bought them so much time when they were actually behind. They ended up getting ahead of the opposition by doing that, and they obviously knew they could pull it off and probably practiced it who knows how many times. Seeing groups come up with those unique compositions was really interesting to see.

Also, in the finals, I’ll share something that we were concerned about. Seat of the Triumvirate was a new Dungeon that we didn’t have in the pool play for group stages but we knew we wanted to be showcased – it’s the new dungeon, what everyone wants to see, and the one everyone was still learning even on live. As a viewer, watching those really high level players progress through that instance hopefully spurred people to want to go home and on dungeon night take that same path they did in the MDI. Just for the finals we had this one dungeon that hadn’t been shown the rest of the time, and that was cool how it worked out. I don’t know if we can do that every time, but in this particular finals it worked out very well in that regard.

RN: From the response I’ve seen online a lot of people seemed to learn new ways/strategies to tackle these dungeons at a higher level. Do you see this sort of content as a way to engage the larger wow community in deeper PVE play?

Certainly, I think that’s a possibility. That’s part of the initial idea in that this is something that so many people playing the game are doing Mythic plusses every week. They probably have their small group of friends that they play with and probably have their own ‘groove’ and do the same thing most weeks. Seeing another group that might have the same composition or even things like gear choices (we ended up adding that to the broadcast halfway through) was really interesting for people to look at. The talent choices, gear choices, things like that.

RN: Is there any plans to develop this side of things – say with competitive style ‘tiers’ or seasons to motivate pushing keys within the regular Mythic plys system? 

One thing we have right now on our website is you can see the highest Mythic plusses that people have done on your server, so we do do some of that tracking as to the competitive nature of this stuff. I know one of the groups that were playing from Europe – – have a really cool website that a lot of people look at alongside our leaderboard to see what keys people are pushing, compositions and a place to see logs or videos. Things like that are always interesting, and I think there’s opportunities there for us to look at not only what the community is doing but what we’re doing and what we can improve on. So potentially yes, showcasing things like that on the client and not just the website are always things we’re talking about doing internally, but no there’s not any solid plans that I can share for stuff like that.

RN: What does the future hold for competitive PVE in WoW? Will we see more MDIs or evolutions of the formula?

I certainly hope so. I don’t want to speak for our esport teams, but I really enjoyed watching the MDI not only as a player of World of Warcraft but also as a developer on the game. It was really exciting to watch and to see the content that I’ve been doing for a while, but getting the chance to look at it through a new set of eyes as for how to approach this stuff. I think it’s absolutely something we’re going to talk more about with the success of MDI, and it exceeded our expectations. I think it went really well, so doing more of it in the future, to me at least, makes a lot of sense.

RN: Wonderful, I look forward to seeing what’s next for Warcraft esports. Thanks for your time!