For a game that isn't even available yet, World of Warcraft is remarkably popular. Indeed, when Blizzard decided to open up beta applications to Europe earlier this year, the developer received ten times the number of expected sign-ups.
Perhaps as a result of this, Europe is now a key consideration in Blizzard's strategy for World of Warcraft - Europe will have a full local team in place shortly after the game launches simultaneously in the US and Korea this winter, all the support and infrastructure will be hosted in Europe (the servers are in France), and the game will initially support English, French and German languages, with the possibility of more being added at a later date. During a recent stress test of the game, designed to give Blizzard an idea of how the servers performed under strain, up to 3,000 players were playing concurrently - and the ongoing US beta regularly enjoys 2,000 concurrent players.
Speaking to the assembled hacks on a recent press tour stop in the UK, Blizzard producer Chris Sigaty confirmed that the long-awaited European beta could kick off as soon as this week, and said that in terms of future support, the company would "patch all regions simultaneously," so Europe wouldn't be left lagging behind. There is still the issue of players from the US and Europe being unable to play together, but as this was a design decision Blizzard is considering ways to let the hardcore world-spanning guilds get round this.
Seated comfortably in a rather grand old house somewhere in the leafy English countryside this week - well, outside London in any event - we had a chance to talk to Sigaty, accompanied by Blizzard PR coordinator George Wang, at length about the forthcoming European launch, some of the problems inherent to running a game of this type and how Blizzard plans to deal with them, the benefits of the stress test, and Blizzard's stylistic approach to games in general. Oh, and since Sigaty also acted as producer on Warcraft III, we decided to sneak in a question about what that team's been up to since then. We'll get slapped for that, but it was worth it.
Eurogamer: Do you have a planned European release target at the moment?
Chris Sigaty: We're saying right now winter. We hope to do it as soon as possible after the initial launch, but we don't even know for sure when we'll launch in the US and we are trying to do a simultaneous launch in two regions currently - the US and Korea - and with all the interest from Europe we actually think that the ramp-up is going to be extremely quick, and the closed beta should start any day. We're not going to run that for anywhere near the length that we ran the US beta, because really a lot of that was getting the balance down and all that - that's not going to be necessary - so we expect the game to go out very shortly after the US does, and we're currently saying we're targeting this winter.
Eurogamer: Is it really up in the air?
Chris Sigaty: It's not that it's so up in the air, it really has more to do with when we do launch in the US, so we're shooting as hard as possible - everybody's at work, and I don't even know if I should be saying these things [shoots a look and a smile at George], but everybody's working literally seven days a week there and we are trying to get this game out this year if possible.
George Wang: Actually we're hoping it's going to be launched in the US and Korea this year, and the European launch is coming a few months after that.
Eurogamer: So early next year?
Chris Sigaty: That's what we're shooting for.
Eurogamer: Do you have any idea of the subscription costs at this point?
Chris Sigaty: That's still totally being discussed. My best guess is that it'll be something similar to other games, but I have no idea - I haven't been involved in those decisions and I know they haven't been made yet.
Eurogamer: Blizzard traditionally has a history of not showing much leniency to cheaters. Is that a policy you plan to uphold with World of WarCraft?
Chris Sigaty: Absolutely, yeah. It's extremely important to the ideals we're going to try and uphold with our community support and live teams. We fully intend to, in all regions, to take care of griefers, that sort of stuff. And when they're identified, if there are people that are ruining the experience by cussing and being racist, whatever it is, we'll get rid of them, but also people that are cheating or are going and doing things in the game that we didn't intend. Now there are some grey areas where there are things where maybe they figure something out that we didn't intend but it's not necessarily a cheat - they're just doing something - that's something we'll evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
Eurogamer: So you'll probably have a very rigid terms and conditions document and a list of things that people shouldn't really be doing...
Chris Sigaty: Yeah, stuff will come up that we just don't anticipate or whatever, and we'll just say 'okay, we're going to end that, you're not to blame for doing it, because it was our thing'. So whatever it is - if they find some herb that fetches a ridiculous price of something, I dunno, something really crazy, then that's our [fault], but we'll deal with it and we fully intend to do that across all regions; the idea is to have an environment that is fun for everybody, and certainly griefers and cheaters can ruin that.
Eurogamer: How do you plan to ensure balance with the classes? For example if the Alliance proves a lot more popular than the Horde?
Chris Sigaty: Well, it's not really fair to look at our beta for it yet, because of how things ran there and how you choose classes and all that.
Eurogamer: But in general if that were to happen...
Chris Sigaty: If that were to happen we'd try to make exciting things possible on the other side. It is important that we have a well-balanced game.
Eurogamer: Would you consider doing something like the world pass system in Final Fantasy XI Online, where you were bound to a certain server, but it was possible to buy a 'world pass' to give to your friends on other servers so they could join you?
George Wang: Actually with us, with the Horde and Alliance split, right now since the first city we created was Stormwind, it had a lot more features than any of the other cities and the beta players were drawn to Stormwind just because it had a lot of character and a lot of testing put into it, but we're putting a lot more into Orgrimmar, and in case characters pick Horde more on certain servers we're going to probably be offering different incentives.
Chris Sigaty: And another thing too that's not there - there's still a lot of polish and balance that we are aware of, that we're sort of fixing right now. Like I said these guys are working seriously seven days a week pretty much 24/7 on it, but things like various balance issues relating to how good particular classes are and then also some of the classes are specific to Horde or Alliance or more kind of friendly to that side and so if that's the case it does throw the balance off a little but we're going to close in on that and minimise that.
Eurogamer: You've said before, as a company, that you view the community aspect as a real feature that adds value to the product. What sort of things will you be doing to nurture the community with World of WarCraft?
Chris Sigaty: As far as community support goes, besides the actual in-game and offline support which is tech support or whatever and billing support and finally in-game GM support, we've actually hired community support managers in every region and they're there to monitor websites, add content up there letting players know what's going on, go through forums, help direct play and also create events specific to regions. Stuff like, on Bastille Day in France or something, we might have some event in-game and also we might have some online things that are specific to it, or even live events somewhere. Essentially just the involvement, and another thing is our live teams, although they aren't specifically catering to any one region we do expect that those teams of people like the community support teams and community representatives will facilitate different support into the game that's kind of required regionally. So if we get a strong cry from a very small area that says 'it would be great if we had something like this, players have been crying for it,' then our live team can add that in the next patch. That sort of stuff is really what we see as supporting the community at large.
Eurogamer: In artistic terms you've said that you wanted a game that was cartoony because it's more fun to create, brighter, and the characters are more dynamic - would you say that pretty typical of your attitude to your games in general?
Chris Sigaty: Yeah, I think we're definitely more... Blizzard kind of follows the path of being more stylistic than realistic. I'm not an artist, but I personally prefer that, because I like the environment of it, it puts me into... [Suddenly smiles] There was this great post - this is horrible, I don't want to mention any other game, but - there was this other MMO, and it showed, I think it was a post in one of the forums or something, and it was a link to these two different pictures. One was these guys on a raft down a river, and it was a real picture, and it said 'realistic' underneath it, and it was like these guys in German lederhosen pushing a little raft down the river and it was super-realistic; and they had another picture that was like an older picture of these guys on this raft and waves were coming over and it was a drawing, but they're out there and they're fighting the waves, and it was a very stylised artistic painting, but that's kind of what we're trying to capture. It's not more lifelike but it has more epicness to it and it has a certain style and flavour that I don't think you get with the super high-poly. You always want to push technology, but we haven't stressed technology on the graphics side over style. And we always try and meet requirements that are reasonable for as many users as we can, as we do want to try and support the lower-end systems.
Eurogamer: Ever since WarCraft your games have been narrated with more depth and authority. Are you worried at all about effectively handing that process of story development over to a realm full of massively multiplayer gamers?
Chris Sigaty: Um, not really because I think we still direct a lot of it. Sure, they're going to contribute to that story to some extent, but we're still directing it, like the quests and their direction, and it also unfolds it to players so they understand it more. You don't have to go read through massive bibles of back history and that sort of stuff, you can just play the game as you do quests and you take the time to read through the stuff, and pay attention to where you are and what region of the world then you'll learn it. And, although they control it in effect, we're not concerned that it will break our story element.
Eurogamer: How beneficial has the stress test been?
Chris Sigaty: Phenomenally beneficial. Had we not had an opportunity to do a stress test I think it would be a nightmare. We had discovered so many things. The launch was very successful, we had a large number of players going to games very quickly and creating characters very quickly. The best thing was the actual numbers on the servers themselves, looking at memory, looking at how the database was handling everything, and all of that, and we were able to do things when we had thousands and thousands of players connecting like take down all but one server and see how that one server deals with it. If we did that in the live version we'd be absolutely hammered. So it's been really beneficial.
Eurogamer: Didn't you feel a bit bad for the guys making themselves ill trying to hit the top spots to qualify for a position on the closed beta, given that you extended it a further two days just as they were all about to be wheeled into hospital?
Chris Sigaty: Yeah that was a bit of a concern for some of them. I think really just the opportunity to play for free to those people is still huge.
Eurogamer: Even if they wind up in hospital.
Chris Sigaty: Oh I think some did... Nah I'm just kidding.
George Wang: Even though we did extend the time and extend the contest, we looked back and we originally said seven days and a lot of people were aiming for the seven-day mark so we decided that since we decided to extend it - it was mainly for testing reasons - we took the seven-day mark and whoever was highest - I think the top 24 - and we're giving them betas, and the extra days whoever comes top will also get betas, so we're adhering to the original seven-day mark.
Chris Sigaty: Yeah, so we gave it to them at seven days anyway, and the biggest thing is, sure, there were people really striving to get into the beta with that, but the other thing was it was a good opportunity for people to just play it and look at it, and there were so many curious people there who were saying 'please, please give us a chance,' so that was kind of a chance, a nice little glimpse into it, and we thought that was pretty cool.
Eurogamer: Do you think it's something you might repeat?
Chris Sigaty: We're talking about it. Time may not allow us to do it again. It's possible, but I would say the chances are probably very slim.
Eurogamer: Finally, while we've got you here, can you say anything about Diablo, StarCraft, WarCraft 4, any of these things?
Chris Sigaty: Well, the team I'm on - I'm actually from the WarCraft III team - we're actually working on an unannounced project right now, but it has definitely been interrupted by World of WarCraft and us trying to do this massive launch. But yeah, we've got stuff in the wings, but I can't say more than that.
Eurogamer: Is it WarCraft 4?
Chris Sigaty: [Smiles] I can't, I really can't, because it's unannounced at this time. But I think people will be excited eventually when we get around to it.
For more (oh so much more) on World of Warcraft, consult our massive preview of the game here, and if you're on the European beta, watch out for us. We'll probably be some sort of woman.