World Of Warcraft Interview: Patch 5.2, Next-Gen & The Future Of WoW
With World Of Warcraft receiving its most recent patch – Patch 5.2 Thunder King – we speak to lead systems designer at Blizzard Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street to discuss the future of the behemoth MMO.
We’ve had a little dip into the patch already Greg, it was pretty cool to see dinosaurs out in the wilds.
Yeah, dinosaurs were a big deal for us. When we were trying to figure out, ‘What can we do with the Zandalarian’s that makes them not the typical trolls?’ What we came up with was, let’s mix Roman, and Aztec and dinosaurs.
It’s funny you should mention the trolls, they always seem to make their way back into the world. Are they fan favourites in the office?
I think so, they are just really iconic in the World Of Warcraft universe. As players are leveling up, you find Trolls stuffed in the weirdest corners and zones and things like that.
They’re a little wretched; you always get the sense that the troll days of glory are behind them. So we really wanted to bring the Zandalarians and like okay, this is what trolls can be and this is the most epic a troll can turn into.
It’s been about six months since Mists Of Pandaria launched, how do you feel players have responded to the world now they’ve had some time to spend in it?
We feel like the reaction has been great overall. Pandaria has a really strong sense of place that I think was lacking a little bit in Cataclysm. Cataclysm was really spread out along loads of different zones. Pandaria has a feel and a spirit and a look that’s really strong that seems to resonate with players.
We always notice a surge in interest and excitement when a new patch or expansion is imminent, is it a struggle tailoring content to new, returning and existing players?
We do. You’re totally right about the level of excitement. It’s hard for us to recreate that outside of a really big patch like this. My own raiding guild, we had so many people come back ‘oh I want to raid again, I want to see the new content’.
It is hard for a patch like patch 5.2 to offer a lot to new or returning players. If they haven’t seen Mists Of Pandaria yet there’s so much there for them to do already.
But when we hit the big expansions overall that’s a great time to appeal to new or returning players, and we always do get a load of returning players every time we do an expansion and they just want to check out what’s new and what direction the series has gone.
In Cataclysm players would hit the end game, World Of Warcraft has always been a game about leveling up and more and more it was shifting to a game that focused on max level.
People would hit 85 in Cataclysm and say ‘now what do I do? I don’t have a raiding guild and I’m not good enough to PvP’, and they felt like there really wasn’t content for them.
So we made a huge effort in Mists Of Pandaria to provide lots of content for end-game players for all skill players and interests.
Are the Thunderforge weapons you are introducing in Patch 5.2 a response to the decline in 25-man raiding?
Originally the idea was one of the features of the Throne of Thunder raid is that it’s fairly linear and very big. There’s a lot of space in-between bosses, and we wanted it to feel exciting to players even say three months from now when they have the first two bosses on farm and they can’t get the last bosses. Traditionally nobody wants the loot on the first couple of bosses, everything gets sharded.
So we thought what if there’s a small chance of having an even better version of the item pop out, so people would still be excited in seeing the loot that came out from Jinrokh – the first boss – even months from now.
That was the original idea behind Thunderforge. And then they said, ‘Hey, what if we also have it drop more frequently in 25’s just so those 25 players feel like we haven’t forgotten about them.
That they’re still important and that we still try and give them a little bit of extra reward for all the logistical hurdles they have to face.
Do you feel that 25 player raids have become redundant in recent years?
Yeah I think it’s a logistical issue. It’s very easy for a 25 player guild to collapse, and just take 10 players and keep going. You almost never see the opposite where a 10 player guild says ‘hey, lets try to get more people and go 25’. So over time its just… entropy. The 25 shifts down to 10 and then no-ones back filling the 25’s they just start to go away.
But we really like 25 player raiding, we think it ultimately offers a experience. It feels more epic, there are more opportunities for players just starting out or don’t mind – there’s a crowd they can blend into a little better.
We also think the 25 man guilds are a little more resilient, they can loose a few people and get a few more people and keep going. But a 10 player guild that loses a key officer could totally collapse and those players just stop raiding – or even stop playing World of Warcraft!
While we’ve seen the introduction of Thunderforge weapons in 5.2, we’ve also seen the removal of Item Upgradeability. Does Blizzard view the feature as a failed experiment or as something you are likely to tweak and put back into the game?
I think there’s a good chance we will still bring it back, it makes more sense in the odd numbered patches where players have run out of gear.
To use the valor example, they’ve run out of new gear to buy with valor – they’re still progressing through the zones and accumulating this valor, and having more ways to upgrade this gear increases this chance to defeat the bosses that they are stuck on currently.
Otherwise you’ll keep banging your head against this boss and until your item level goes up you’ll never have a chance to defeat it.
I think the things we learned, the mistakes we made before were, it was very expensive to upgrade an item. We wanted it to be a big deal and kind of precious, but because it cost 1500 valor to fully upgrade an item, there was a lot of concern from players, and understandably so, about making mistakes.
They didn’t want to upgrade an item and then get a better item the next week and then be like ‘oh I just wasted 1500 valor and now I’ll never get it back.’
So the idea we are talking about now is to make it a lot cheaper, so you realistically can upgrade everything. And then when you get a new item you’re still excited to have the new item rather than sad that you have to spend more valor.
How do you feel the legendary quests are developing this time around considering any player can now get involved?
This is a very different design of legendaries than we’ve done before. Real expectation here is everyone can do it. Previously we tried to keep it fairly rare and very prestigious, but now we assume most players are going to be able to get those rewards.
I think the tuning has been ok. In 5.0 there was some frustration where the sigil of power would drop, but the sigil of wisdom wouldn’t. So you’d have players running around with too much of one and lacking the other one, which was a little frustrating.
And then in the 5.1 extension of the legendary quest, the 6000 Valor was just a little too much, it was kinda intimidating. I think in retrospect it probably would have felt better at 2000 or 300 valor.
Hopefully the part of the legendary quest in patch 5.2 and 5.3 will be a little easier to accomplish while still feeling really epic. There’s this great moment in the current patch, that of course nobody has seen yet, when you complete the first step of the legendary and you and Raytheon go into the Thunderforge and have to complete a solo event which is just you and Raytheon against a whole bunch of enemies.
It’s pretty epic, we worked really hard on it and nobody has seen it yet, so it’s going to be fun!
Warlocks have recently had the solo quest introduced to get green fire, can we expect to see similar quests to be put in place for other classes?
We will do it where it makes sense. We haven’t done anything like this for a long time because we were concerned of the reaction from like Paladin players, ‘where’s my daily quest – when is it my turn?” and we can’t develop to a quota that way.
So we thought let’s just do it sometimes and players will get excited to see and hopefully those players who don’t get to participate won’t feel too neglected.
We’ll do more of them over time, but I don’t want to make a long time commitment to eventually doing something for everybody.
Can we expect more Challenge modes to come in the future? How do you think they have been received by the wider community?
We love them. It’s something that many of us participate in, it’s a very different way to experience the game. We love the challenge and we love the pressure, it feels really cool.
We looked the other day at the participation rates and they are actually higher than we would have predicted, I was concerned early on that a lot of players had so much to do in WoW that they didn’t have time to challenge modes, but they clearly have the time.
We’d like to do more of them, it will take away bandwidth from our encounter designers for working on something else so I don’t want to commit to it, but there’s a ton of interest in the team of going back and hitting some old player favorites and turning those into challenge modes.
Looking back over the history of World Of Warcraft, what is the biggest lesson you have learnt? How much of the past influences the way you treat new patches and content?
Oh gosh, this is a thing we talk about all the time. There are so many lessons we’ve learned. We were talking before a little bit about the difference between new players, returning players and current players, and every change we make to the game has advantages to one or not the other.
For example; when we add new class abilities that’s very exciting for current players because they get some new mechanic in their class that they have to learn, but it’s very overwhelming for returning players.
They’ll say, ‘oh wait, I came back and now my fire mage has totally different buttons and some of the spells that I had before are gone and I have to relearn everything.’ And that is a big barrier.
If you think, there are a lot of examples like that in the game. We have to do something to keep it fresh for existing players but all of that just creates a bigger and bigger barrier for new and returning players. At the same time we can’t neglect our current players, it’s a huge challenge.
What do you see in the future for World Of Warcraft?
From a business model standpoint, we just want to get content out faster. That’s just something we have talked about for a long time and I feel like we are really starting to deliver on it now and we know players get bored when we go too long without a game update, so that’s a big commitment for us to try and get stuff out really as fast as possible.
We also need to keep the complexity down, we can’t keep adding new mechanics that just stack on top of each other. We need more mechanics that maybe fit within one expansion but we don’t have to continue on forever.
Just as one example, imagine that archeology had been a Cataclysm only feature and that once you’ve finished cataclysm you kind of put archeology behind you.
The farm in Mists of Pandaria is a good example because we don’t think players will have the expectation that once they move on from Pandaria to a new continent that they’ll have to keep going back and managing their farm all the time.
That way we don’t just expand the amount of content that we expect players to do but we can keep offering new and exciting different things.
It’s something we kind of stumbled into after making a few mistakes along the way. ‘Oh we just created a system like Guild Leveling which we will now have to support for every expansion ever’ [laughs].
In 5.2, Blizzard has introduced the Mogu treasure room for players to explore as a single-player scenario. Can players expect to see more of these scenario’s moving forward?
Yeah that was a great… I would say that was very serendipitous, that we were tying to figure out ways to have these epic experiences that sometimes… look World of Warcraft is a multiplayer game, but sometimes we can offer a really scripted tight experience alone.
We realised, wow, scenario technology will work perfectly for this. So for example the Warlock scenario, the Thunderforge battle with Raytheon that I mentioned and the treasure room that you mentioned are all examples of… really behind the scenes of the scenario was a one player scenario, you’re not grouped up and in some of those cases you only do it once (it’s not repeatable content) but it feels very special and very unique because you’re in there all alone.
We think the treasure room wouldn’t had the same vibe if you saw other players running around, and you had to worry about ‘oh well he’s going to get that chest so I shouldn’t even run over there.’
The treasure room is supposed to be about planning and quick reaction and trying to make calls of, ‘I see a chest there but it’s out in the open… I bet its trapped, maybe I should go and find another one instead’.
Speaking of the scenarios, which Blizzard have done so well with since Cataclysm, the Goblin starting area in particular was fantastic. In fact it’s something we’ve seen a little of from Bungie with Destiny – do you think there is more space for MMO model to move over to consoles with next-gen on our doorstep?
I would personally be very excited to see that, it would be a huge challenge to take something like World Of Warcraft with its massive hard drive footprint and its reliance on mouse and keyboard, I think if we were going to make a MMO for consoles then we might take it in a different direction.
Then again, if you take a look at what the Diablo team did with their console version, they just had to change some of the very fundamentals of the game to make it work differently. It can be done, it would just be a big challenge for a game like WoW.
So it’s something you’re interested in exploring? I know, as a player myself, it would be fun to be able to jump online with my friends over Xbox Live or PSN and easily share content between generations, and perhaps even platforms.
Yeah, it excites me. It would be something fun to work on just because of the design challenges would be kind of interesting to try to solve. Gosh, the next few years are going to be so interesting in this industry.
We get to see where do the next generation of consoles go and where do tablets and portable devices go, and what are players most interested in? I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know where it’s going, but I know its going to be a fun ride.
What do you hope players take away from Patch 5.2?
I really want players to get the message that this is a commitment of Blizzard and the World Of Warcraft team and this is the type of content players can expect year after year.
Sometimes, there’s the risk that players say ‘gosh, this games been going on for nine years, certainly its winding down or its something Blizzard is putting out to pasture and isn’t really going to support much anymore.
But this huge patch is our example of no, World Of Warcraft is alive and well and as long as we keep having so many players, we will keep making the best content we can possibly make.