Blizzard launches Mists of Pandaria, the fourth expansion for World of Warcraft, at midnight tonight at perhaps the most crucial time in the gargantuan fantasy MMO's seven year history.
With subscriptions down to nine million from a lifetime peak of over 12 million, it's clear WoW's immense popularity has suffered in recent years. The rise of free-to-play and the release of new games such as League of Legends and Blizzard's own Diablo 3 have taken their toll. But WoW remains the biggest subscription MMO in the world, and the millions it rakes in every month still mean a great deal to Activision Blizzard's bottom line.
No-one is talking about Mists of Pandaria saving World of Warcraft, but Blizzard will hope its new mechanics, increased level cap and high level gameplay will convince some of those lapsed fans to return to Warcraft's huge virtual world, and its Asian influence is surely an attempt to boost the game's popularity in China.
According to senior game designer Scott Mercer and senior software engineer Darren Williams, who Eurogamer chatted with this morning at a hotel in rainy London, Mists of Pandaria, with its reworked talent system and new zones, will rekindle the sense of exploration and experimentation those who were there when World of Warcraft launched still remember so fondly. And, the pair hope the new level 90 content will keep fans busy for months - something previous expansions have struggled to do.
Scott Mercer: They've been part of Warcraft lore for a long time. There was the Pandaren Brewmaster back in Warcraft 3. It's something we've always been excited about doing. When we had very early discussions about what the next expansion would be it came up. Everyone was just like, oh totally. We need to do this. Our team was very excited about working with Asian influences in a new land.
Once we decided Pandarens, Monks was a very easy choice afterwards. Everyone was super excited about that because we were like oh, we can do all these crazy martial arts things. It was very easy for us to get excited about. That was the major thing.
We always want to be working on what excites us as game players. We play our own games. We're super invested in them. We're just all geeks.
Once you made the decision to go with Pandarens, how did you flesh out how they would work and feel?
Darren Williams: In Warcraft 3 this character Chen Stormstout was established. As this panda character, this Brewmaster who travels the world sampling fine ales. He's all about living life fully. That was the basis for the Pandaren race. Everything they do, they live it fully, whether it be drinking or their combat as Monks. It influenced the whole expansion, from family and farming communities to these Monk societies of highly trained martial arts specialistis.
Scott Mercer: Our lead quest designer came up with this great story for the Pandaren history. They used to be enslaved by this evil race called the Mogu several thousand years ago. And then they developed these martial arts because they couldn't use weapons. They overthrew them.
There are so many rich things to work with across not just Asian themes, but themes of family and themes of the home.
Darren Williams: There's a lot for players to explore there. There's a whole faction about discovering the lore of the world for players who are really interested in that. You can discover the history of how the Pandarens you play on the starting area the Wandering Isle, which is this giant turtle, came about, and why they're separate from the main Pandaren continent and what the differences are between the different groups of Pandaren. For people who love lore there's a lot to explore.
Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm were both really heavy feeling expansions with these amazingly powerful villains. We really wanted to do something a bit more light-hearted - senior game designer Scott Mercer.
Scott Mercer: Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm were both really heavy feeling expansions with these amazingly powerful villains. We really wanted to do something a bit more light-hearted, something where the sense of exploration was paramount; this lost land that's appeared out of the mist out of nowhere. When players first get there it's this brand new beautiful land to explore. It's not all about, well, the Lich King is here and he's going to take over the world, or Deathwing's going to destroy the world. It's more about exploring and having fun.
Darren Williams: The conflict of this expansion is brought by the players, the two factions: Horde and Alliance. It's getting back to the roots of Warcraft in a lot of ways. They land on this land and immediately want to claim it for themselves. The player is embroiled in this. The player is almost neutral from this aspect, but you discover this new conflict between Horde and Alliance. And that brings about this negative energy that's been buried in the ground, the Shard, and they manifest negative emotions. You bring the evil to the continent.
So it's definitely a change of pace. But you still have the villains to fight and the raids and the dungeons.
You mentioned having a Monk class was a natural progression after deciding you would have the Pandaran race. But how did you go about creating it?
All the gossip from our trip to Blizzard HQ last week.
The art of war.
Scott Mercer: One of the first things we talk about is, what is the fantasy? If we say, this is the Monk class, what is everyone's fantasy of being a Monk? That's when you get into all the martial arts influences. We've seen all the movies and the fighting games. There's this huge amount of culture with regards to it. We're putting our own spin on it, but it still hits that fantasy of, hey, I'm doing these cool combination moves with really strong finishers. That's what we tried to do.
And when we work on a new class we try to add new mechanics to it as well. The Monk class is super mobile. It's probably one of our most mobile classes. They do these crazy rolls and chi torpedo through things. It's really crazy.
Darren Williams: It's also another true hybrid class - You can be a healer, damage dealer or tank - which is something we definitely wanted as well.
Darren Williams: Currently we have the Druid and the Paladin which can be everything. It's nice to have those options when you play. When you're levelling up you can join a dungeon and tank or heal. It's really nice to be able to mix it up. Not everybody wants to do those things, but it's nice to have the flexibility.
Scott Mercer: A lot of people really like that flexibility. It's pretty popular.
When you add a new class, how do you maintain the balance you've established over the course of the last seven years? I imagine it must be very difficult as designers to factor in all the permutations.
Scott Mercer: Yeah, certainly when you're adding in completely brand new mechanics, especially the crazier ones. As designers, especially for classes, we want everything to feel overpowered, but really it's not. That's the goal we've set for ourselves.
When you look at the Monk and you first look at the talents and the new talent system, you'll be like, oh that's crazy. How can that be balanced? Well, behind the scenes we've done a lot of testing and work to make sure, for example, the best healers won't necessarily be the Monks. It's all just a balance process.
Because of the new talent system, all of our classes have got a lot of work for this expansion. We had to rebalance everyone, and that's something through beta testing and internal testing we can iterate and iterate and iterate to get them as close as possible.
You brought up the new talent system. It was no small decision to get rid of a system that has lasted over half a decade. Why did you do it?
Scott Mercer: It goes back to the initial design for the talent system. The talent system was supposed to provide customisation within a class. You could say, I'm a Warrior but I'm a Warrior that's got these particular talents. It felt like after time so many of the talent choices weren't really strong choices. You could just go to another website and see this build and that was really really good. There was a lot of copying. We wanted to go back and say, these are cool choices for you. And what's cool for me as a player with my play style might not be the same for you. The motivation was thinking, what we're really trying to do here, let's hit that.
So, every 15 levels you get a choice of three different talents. A lot of them provide very interesting things. Some of them are very strong. You might see an area of effect stun, but we provide choices. So it's like, here's the area of effect stun, but over here is the area of effect fear. Things where it's like, in some dungeons this might be really good, but in this encounter this one might be good, or this one might be great in battlegrounds. It's providing that kind of choice for the player.
Darren Williams: You really do make meaningful decisions, and you feel like you have to think about it, not in a way that's overwhelming, but you may have a favourite ability for that class and it's going to change in three possible different ways. For example, the Warrior Charge, you can charge more often or there's one that makes it so you can charge twice in a row without any of the cooldown, or one that makes it so when you charge your opponent is stunned and knocked down. They're all movement related, but depending on how you play, the choices are pretty meaningful.
In the talent system we used to have a lot of fillers, like things that increased your crit chance. And you really needed to get them to have the best damage you could for your class. Now when you choose your spec at level 10 you get those. Everybody gets those. So there's no having to go and look anything up. It's just, how do you want to play that class? And then you can do some variety with your talents you choose. And those talents aren't tied to your spec, which is the other really cool thing. So something that was previously mainly only for tanks could maybe now be used by a damage class. That gives them very interesting options.
You've increased the level cap to 90. Why did you decide an increase of five levels was the right amount?
Scott Mercer: Building Pandaria was the driving factor. Before we even talked about levels we asked ourselves, how big did we want to make Pandaria and what kind of zones did we want to see there? When you first start out there's this huge Jade Forest and you go into Krasarang Wilds. We map out the different zones first, and then the level decision is something that comes later. What's the right number of levels to match the content we've got to get the right pacing to make players feel as they're levelling it's at a natural rate? We're just trying to hit those kinds of marks. There's no, we need to do 10 levels for this expansion, or we need to do five levels. It's a much more organic process.
Darren Williams: We did five as well for Cataclysm, but that's no reflection on the amount of content in Pandaria. There's a huge amount of content: new quests, seven new zones, at level 90 there are 300 new daily quests. There's some very dynamic daily quest content as well. There's all this exploration to do, which is a cool emphasis now we're on a singe continent again. I mentioned the people who like exploring the lore. There are plenty of people who just like exploring and there's so much stuff to do. So we hope the content that's there, we definitely know it appeals to all kinds of players.
Scott Mercer: If anything, we spent a lot of our time focusing more on what happens after you hit maximum level. He's talking about the 300 daily quests, but the new factions, challenge mode and scenarios are all things that provide you with lots of options for what to do after you hit maximum level.
As you're levelling it's a very directed experience. You're going through the quest line, getting to the new zones, new stories. It's after where we decided to blow out and give you all these options.
Players have burned through new content very quickly with previous expansions. Will Mists of Pandaria keep players playing for longer?
Scott Mercer: Yes. That's why we added in these new styles of combat with pet battles and scenarios. Scenarios are this interesting new type of content where you go in with three players and unlike normal dungeons where you have to have a tank, a healer and a DPS, you can go in regardless of what role you might be doing. It's a very quick and fun experience.
Challenge mode is for players who are more expert and more familiar with their class. They're very difficult time challenges. Unlike all of our other dungeons where the main goal is just beating the last boss, with challenge mode, because we're timing you and we provide medals at certain times, it's like trying to do the content as best as you can. We have a leaderboard so you can compare your times versus other people's. That's really exciting.
Darren Williams: A lot of people have fond memories of back in the day certain dungeons if you ran them and beat a time you'd get a special mount or something like that. In challenge mode you get your name on the leaderboard but you also get very special armour that's unique. These armour sets are really recognisable as challenge mode armour, and you can visually transmogrify your armour to look like that. They're got special animations on them, which is something new we've been doing. Certain spell effects may light up the shoulders. It's really cool. So you'll know people standing around in town who are top of the top.
Scott Mercer: But if you don't like dungeons there's so much daily content. There's one daily quest line where you train a dragon from egg up to something you can fly around on as a mount.
Darren Williams: Mounts are now account wide, same as pets. A lot of people might have many different characters they're levelling up. Now they can share all the mounts they've collected. The achievements are account wide, too. That's a nice thing for someone who likes to play a lot of characters and classes.
How much of a challenge is it from a design perspective to come up with new ideas and mechanics within the framework you established seven years ago? We have a set of rules we're used to and we like, obviously.
We play the game - maybe not as much as some of our players - but we play the game a lot.
Scott Mercer: Certainly it's getting harder. But at the same time there are always different themes to explore. There are different ways of presenting on these new mechanics. It's something we get very geeked up about and enjoy doing. We play the game - maybe not as much as some of our players - but we play the game a lot. Warcraft is such a rich world. There are so many different things to explore within it. We came up with Pandaria, this new land, exploring the Alliance versus Horde conflict, it's so rich with ideas that, yes, it's more difficult but at the same time it's pretty easy.
Darren Williams: There's a lot of passion and discussion about things and people bounce ideas off of each other all the time. There's a lot of energy on the team.
Scott Mercer: We're still very geeked up about the game.
Is the World of Warcraft expansion plan laid out for years?
Scott Mercer: There are larger story points. There are ideas out there about possible directions expansions might go. But as time goes on, we might come up with a better idea. We're very flexible about such things. Of course we're always listening to player feedback. We might end up saying, wow that was an amazing type of content and players really like that, and we should do more of that. Some of that will happen. There's some mix of planning and reaction. It's something we organically work through and just constantly re-evaluate.
Darren Williams: For the broader story we leave hints in the game of ideas we have. Players who are really interested in that can discover it. It's fun for them to try to piece together where we might be going.
Perhaps some hints in Mists of Pandaria to where you're going with the next expansion?
Darren Williams: Yeah. I'm sure there are.