Third World of Warcraft expansion Cataclysm launched last night and, as has become tradition, Blizzard staff fanned out across the globe to field questions from the media and sign game boxes for excited fans at midnight launch events.
Yesterday, a freezing, foggy London played host to game designer Dave Kosak and lead systems designer Greg Street. Street is known to the WOW community as Ghostcrawler, the bullish, plain-speaking custodian of character class balance. In other words, he's the numbers guy, and the one who has to read all your moaning on the forums.
I met the pair to talk about the community's reaction to what must be the biggest, most fundamental revamp in online gaming history, whether they can make expansions more quickly, what fighting the new big bad villain Deathwing will be like, whether they consider Star Wars: The Old Republic a threat, and more.
Eurogamer: One of the unusual things about this expansion is that a lot of the work you've done, you've already released, effectively for free, in a patch: all the class revamps and all the new old-world content. How do you feel it's gone down?
Greg Street: Oh it's been great, yeah. It's been amazing. And we were fortunate that, technically, the rollout seemed to go very smoothly, so we're happy about that.
Eurogamer: Was the patch quite a big technical challenge?
Greg Street: Oh, it was gigantic. Before, we've always had new continents and the players would start in the old place and then go to the new place. This time we had to literally change it under their feet and hope that everyone got moved to a safe place and they didn't fall through the world or lose all their mail or their quest log or anything like that.
Dave Kosak: The response has been great. There's been such an emotional response. I was reading a blog and someone saw that Taurajo had burned [Camp Taurajo is a small village for low-level Horde players in the Barrens area], and she was crying...
Eurogamer: Do you know what, I did that quest yesterday and it did choke me up a bit.
Dave Kosak: Yeah, it's kind of meant to pull at you because people are familiar with these locations and they've got an attachment, and they've seen them destroyed. I love that, I love that we're getting that kind of a response.
Eurogamer: And as far as the class changes and the UI changes and so on go, does the community seem happy? Or have they already started moaning?
Greg Street: Well, with the classes they always moan about it, it's never done. But I think overall, the talent tree changes we did, particularly the focus at level 10, getting to pick your specialisation then and feel like, I'm an Elemental Shaman now, not 30 levels from now when I get all the tools I need... That's been very well received.
Eurogamer: Obviously online games are always changing and evolving, but Cataclysm really highlights the issue that, once you've made a change like this, the old game ceases to exist, it's gone. You can't pick it up off the shelf and revisit old WOW. Do you keep old builds of the game? Have you got a secret server where you can play classic World of Warcraft?
Greg Street: We do, we can go back and look at old builds.
Eurogamer: Do you feel any regret that players can't have those experiences any more?
Greg Street: Um... I think it's kind of mixed. On the one hand, the theme of Cataclysm is change, Deathwing coming out of the ground and destroying things.
There's two kinds of changes we did: one was to fix things and make them better and fix problems we had before. The other was to maybe shock players a little bit that something that was dear to them has changed or been lost. To make it feel like this was an epic event...
Dave Kosak: Nostalgia is very powerful, so you remember all these great things about the game. But if you actually go back and play some old content, there were some terrible things in there. There was a lot of work, there were a lot of quests that took you all over the world.
So now people will just have those memories and they'll be strong memories of the old content. They'll remember the good stuff. Hopefully.
Eurogamer: I don't think anyone would argue that the questing and storytelling haven't improved – they clearly have. But you mentioned travel – that's something people might miss. You now feel very much like you're being led through the world – there doesn't seem to be as much encouragement to explore as there used to be.
Greg Street: I think we still hide easter eggs and that sort of thing around. If players look, they'll find things hidden in the far-off corners. But we didn't want players to have to discover the fun.
It was never fun to be on a quest line and finish it and be like, well, where am I supposed to go now? We don't expect players to kind of mine the game for fun any more, we want to give them more direction. OK, you've finished this zone, the next zone is here; if you ever get lost go to the main cities and we have a big board telling you what areas you can go to now.
Eurogamer: Recently, I saw a supposedly leaked schedule of Blizzard releases for the next few years [via PC Gamer]. Now, I know you're not going to comment on "rumour and speculation", but I did notice that this schedule had roughly 18-month gaps between WOW expansions, whereas to date you've delivered them once every two years. Is an expansion every 18 months feasible?
Greg Street: It's certainly a goal, we would like to get expansions out very quickly because we know players respond to them very well, it keeps attention. We can't generate content fast enough for a lot of our players, so we would like to get expansions out quickly. Whether or not we can... It always comes down to the quality level, we're not willing to cut too many features or sacrifice quality to be able to come out quickly.
I think in an ideal world... We've talked before about what it would take to have an expansion come out every year, or something like that. We're not anywhere close to that now.
Dave Kosak: It would be a different idea of an expansion, it wouldn't be these giant lumps of content... if we did expansions every year. But we do think about it.
Eurogamer: Do you think you'd be prepared to make that decision? Or do you think the players would respond to it? Because now you've sort of taught them to expect a monolithic expansion every two years.
Greg Street: If we delivered on expansions more often, I think players would love that. The risk is that we try to come out with a leaner expansion more often and we end up cutting features or making it shorter and then still taking two years. That would be... we can't do that. So you either have to deliver on tons and tons of content or deliver on coming out very quickly.
Eurogamer: So you must have started thinking about the next expansion...
Greg Street: Oh, sure.
Eurogamer: Do you see it as another monster expansion or are you thinking about slimming it down a bit?
Greg Street: We're so early, still, on what the feature set means and what the content would mean... We kind of talk about it in two directions, if it's a quick expansion what we would put in, and and if it's the full-blown Cataclysm style, what the feature set would be.
Eurogamer: Back at BlizzCon, John Lagrave said that there was an idea for expansion four, that it wasn't locked down but that everyone was really excited. Is that idea locked in yet?
Greg Street: It's pretty close to locked in. It's hard, sometimes... Even on Cataclysm we had one direction and we ended up changing it along the way, we ended up going a lot more with the old-world revamp than we originally intended. We have a direction now but that's not to say that this is the one true path that we'll eventually deliver on.
Dave Kosak: And the team is very excited.
Greg Street: Oh, super excited.
Eurogamer: You've said before that you want the villain on the cover of the expansion [the huge dragon Deathwing, in Cataclysm's case] to be quite a prominent character and someone that you ultimately fight and beat as the final raid boss. How will the fight play out – will it be another big dungeon raid experience to get get to him?
Greg Street: You know, we've talked a lot about that. He's a very different type of creature than the Lich King – I mean, he's gigantic, for one. What does it really mean to have a character down here attacking his big toe? We've talked about different ways to handle that encounter and make it still feel epic.
We do still want to make sure that it's approachable to lots of players, we don't want to shut out more casual raiders by saying, "No, you can't see Deathwing, sorry, you're not hardcore enough," while still delivering a really epic fight for the hardcore raiders.
Dave Kosak: We do try and have appearances from Deathwing throughout the game, but again, it's a very different character from the Lich King, so he's not kind of over-exposed like the Lich King. He does fly over zones destroying everything in his path which is pretty scary if you get hit by him. And there's a couple of key story moments where he will appear and you will get to interact with him during the level-up questing.
Eurogamer: What's the process of inventing a new piece of loot or equipment? Where does that start? Who approves it? How does it work?
Greg Street: Well, it can start in a number of different ways. If it's, say, when we make a dungeon, a raid or a PVP area, we go through and we need to make sure, here is the mail caster bracer, here is the Rogue dagger – make sure there's a piece for everyone.
Then we allocate it, which is a little bit of art and a little bit of science... You want to make sure that the [first boss] doesn't drop all bracers, because that's boring, and you want to make sure that he doesn't drop all Warrior gear because then the Mages in the group are sad. You try to spread it all around and make sure it's all accessible.
Then we work with the artists to come up with what the art's going to look like, because that sometimes informs the name and the lore of the piece. A lot of the items, we put a few hours of thought into the name – but sometimes we go farther than that, we say what is the history of this boss, or a few times we've tried to acknowledge famous players in the community or things like that.
As far as approval goes, it's something that my team ultimately owns. And then we will respond to internal feedback – this item's stats are terrible, or I don't understand who's supposed to use this, or even the name is awkward. We had one not too long ago: "That name reminds me of a Pokemon character. We should change that. Let's add a couple more accents or something."
Eurogamer: The release of Star Wars: The Old Republic is looming pretty large now, and in terms of its budget and its licence and the stature of the developer it's probably the most serious competition you've faced... Are you concerned about it?
Greg Street: As players, we're excited about it, because we like MMO games and that looks like it's going to be a good one. So we're excited to be able to play it and get our hands on it. I don't think we're super worried about competition. Our game's been around for six years now, we've added a lot of features and a lot of polish and it's going to be really hard for someone new to come in and immediately challenge that.
Overall, having more MMO games tends to be good for MMO games. It draws attention, it builds mindshare in the public, and makes it more acceptable, understandable as a form of entertainment.
Eurogamer: It's interesting that you reckon you have an advantage being the older game. The way a lot of players think of it, a newer game will have better technology, better graphics, yours will look old-fashioned by comparison.
Greg Street: Yeah... If I was making an MMO game from scratch, I would start to list the features you need. Well, you have to have a good level-up experience, and then you have to have a good endgame, the PVP and raid experience, you have to have probably some type of rated battleground... And all of a sudden you have this really long list of features that... World of Warcraft couldn't deliver that at launch, we had to slowly build on it over time.
So any game that comes out now, their feature set is going to be compared to ours, which is now gigantic. They may excel in one or two areas and do really well, and we've seen some MMO games recently that tried to do that. "We're not going to focus on PVP, we'll have a really good dungeon experience," for example, or the opposite. But I think it's going to be really hard to compete with World of Warcraft in every single area.
Eurogamer: You guys got away with launching with virtually no PVP...
Greg Street: Yeah, which would be very hard to do now.
Greg Street is lead systems designer for World of Warcraft, and Dave Kosak is a game designer. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is out now for PC and Mac.