Blizzard likes to get things right. Whatever the game, if it has a Blizzard logo on the front end then the Californian developer won't let it out the door until it meets its own expectations - and frequently betters them. Indeed, only recently has the firm started to follow industry trends and farm out development of certain titles to other companies, and in doing so has been extremely cautious about who it works with, and equally mindful of their progress - you need only look at Starcraft: Ghost for evidence of that. So, in a sense, the "surprise success" of the American version of World of Warcraft - Blizzard's first MMORPG - has been nothing of the sort. The only disappointment, from our perspective, was that we were expected to wait several months longer in Europe than anywhere else in the world to get our hands on it.
Fortunately though the waiting period is drawing to an end, with WOW currently being beta-tested by the likes of you and us, and due out on these shores in the next few months. Pricing and packaging details are in place, it's all working, and, although Blizzard has been reluctant to discuss the reasons for its delay in releasing the game worldwide, WOW is undeniably still at the top of European MMORPG fans' wish lists. With that in mind, we spoke to producer Shane Dabiri about the reaction to the game in the USA and Blizzard's plans for keeping up momentum.
Eurogamer: World of Warcraft has been available in the USA for a couple of weeks now [well, it had when we penned the questions]. What has the general reaction been like so far and how does the response compare to what you expected?
Shane Dabiri: The response has been amazing! Our development team did a midnight box signing on launch day at a local computer store. We were thinking maybe a few hundred, or at most, a thousand people would show up. Boy, were we wrong. We had over 5,000 people show up, and they started lining up at 2pm in the afternoon. We were signing boxes until 5am in the morning the following day. We did some analysis of existing massively-multiplayer online games in the market and expected to do at least as well as the top three. But we didn't anticipate vaulting into the number one slot in just the first week!
Thankfully, we did have plans in place for accommodating growth; we just had to move up those plans sooner than we expected. We quickly ramped up, adding additional servers, upgrading hardware, and making sure we could meet demand. We're thankful for such terrific, loyal fans, and appreciate them giving us the time to perfect World of Warcraft and make it what it is today.
Eurogamer: You beta tested and stress tested the game exhaustively, making a number of changes to the way systems like Trade Skills worked in the process. Are you satisfied that you struck the right balance by the end, are there any things you feel perhaps need further tweaking, and what degree of alterations are you prepared to make to the game now that it's available at retail?
Shane Dabiri: One of the reasons why World of Warcraft is successful today is because of our beta testers' feedback. As developers, we can become so close to the game design that we lose some perspective on whether it is good enough or not. Putting it into the hands of the beta testers made us all very anxious. We were nervous thinking, "Are they going to enjoy it?" But we also had the excited feeling of knowing that someone outside the company was getting to experience it.
Of course, we couldn't implement every idea from our testers since so much feedback was generated during the beta test. But I feel we did a stand-up job of getting as much of their input in as possible. Are there a few things that I wish we could have had ready prior to release? Of course, as developers we always struggle with the "Wait! Just one more feature!" syndrome. Take for instance the PvP rewards system and PvP Battlegrounds. As much as we wanted to get them into the game, they just weren't ready and up to our level of quality for release. It pained us, but it was the right decision to hold them out so we could spend the additional time necessary to make them fun and polished. This is just one example, but we have many more things planned for the future of World of Warcraft. Recently, on our website we began posting some of these upcoming updates to give players a glimpse of what is to come.
Eurogamer: You've already had to ban a number of accounts because of issues like speed hacks and third party bots, and you're encouraging players to alert you to any new problems through your firstname.lastname@example.org email address. When you encounter something like a speed hack, what sort of measures do you have to take to undo the problems it causes, and what are your criteria for banning an account outright?
Shane Dabiri: I cannot get into too much detail on how we track these types of exploits, as it might give creators of such tools a leg up. I can say that we have monitoring tools and an exploit investigation group within our GM staff that responds to these alerts and tracks players in the game. We will only ban someone after we have verified through our exploit investigation group that they are in fact "botting" or hacking. We are taking a very heavy stance on these types of issues from the get-go. It is important for us to maintain the integrity of the game for everyone to enjoy.
Eurogamer: Conversely, you've also worked hard to accommodate and appease players who take to the game in the way it was intended, even going so far as to extend the trial period for people who were unable to connect when you endured early technical issues. What sort of events and incentives will you be introducing to keep the hardcore of players happy as they play it more and more?
Shane Dabiri: Our plans for continued content release will give casual and hardcore gamers alike more and exciting adventures to go on. For example, the coming introduction of the PvP honour system and Battlegrounds will open up many possibilities for players to experience another part of World of Warcraft. Next year, we will also be working on the Hero system, which will give hardcore high-level players additional class advancement options beyond their base class. These are just two examples of full game systems that are being implemented. Aside from the new features, we will also be adding new content such as zones, dungeons, quests, monsters, and many more items for players to discover.
Eurogamer: Meanwhile here in Europe our own beta test has taken off and people pre-ordering the game are being encouraged to join in. What are the benefits of having a separate beta test in Europe, and what sort of things have you learnt based on its progress so far?
Shane Dabiri: The public beta test in Europe has the same benefits as the one we conducted in North America. We get feedback from testers who can fine-tune the game. And it also lets us tailor the game for the European market, gauge their reception to the game and to ensure that our infrastructure can support a large-scale MMO roll-out in Europe.
Eurogamer: You've made it clear in the past that while you don't intend for European players to join in on American servers and vice versa that you will introduce ways for this to happen for gamers who really want it. How long will it be until we see that happen and how are you planning to handle it?
Shane Dabiri: As we have stated before, we will have an announcement on a solution after the game launches in Europe. At that time, you can be sure we will inform our audience just how they can accomplish that.
Eurogamer: At the moment you're targeting an early 2005 launch in Europe. Do you have a ballpark date for that yet, and what sort of factors is the final date dependent on? Do you think you'll announce it soon?
Shane Dabiri: We will be ready to announce a release date in the very near future. Please stay tuned to the European World of Warcraft community site for an announcement regarding the upcoming release date for the game.
Eurogamer: Now that the game has launched, how do you feel it compares to other games in the genre, such as the recently launched EverQuest II, or the perennially popular City of Heroes, which has recently entered a European beta test phase itself?
Shane Dabiri: We have a lot of respect for the other companies making games in this genre. Since working on World of Warcraft, we have become well aware of the commitment and dedication it requires from a developer to not only produce one, but to also support it for years to come. We feel World of Warcraft will help break MMOs out of their current niche market. With millions of dedicated Blizzard fans from our other games, we think World of Warcraft will not only draw in the hardcore MMO gamers, but newcomers as well. We've taken steps and designed our game to ensure that it is compelling and easy for anyone who has never played an MMO before. It is our hope to have the largest online community for a game of its type worldwide.
Eurogamer: Now that you can look back and reflect upon the finished game, what would you say most satisfies you about the way it turned out?
Shane Dabiri: The most satisfying thing is having worked with the 65 dedicated, talented developers that put their hearts and souls into delivering the most exciting online game I've ever played. But then again I might be a little biased!
Eurogamer: Finally, hopefully you'll forgive us but we do have to ask, have you had a chance to consider plans for expansion content and other additions, and what sort of timescale are you working on for their introduction?
Shane Dabiri: We have not made any announcements as to when an expansion would be released, but we are currently working on live content updates to be released throughout the year.