It's been two months now since Blizzard unveiled the next expansion pack for World of Warcraft. Or, more accurately, since the Internet unveiled it - but the official announcement still caused a stir amongst the hardcore fans who made the pilgrimage to BlizzCon.
But despite its impressive fanbase (nine million players and counting), WoW is facing tougher competition than ever before. Some players have defected to the Lord of the Rings MMO, while others are taking a serious interest in the development of Warhammer Online. WoW is three years old now and the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, left some players wanting more.
That's what Blizzard intends to provide with Wrath of the Lich King. As previously announced it will raise the level cap to 80 and introduce a new Hero character class, a new trade skill and extra tools, amongst other features.
But is that going to be enough to keep WoW's momentum going? Our friends over at Eurogamer.fr spoke to lead designer Jeff Kaplan and lead character artist Chris Robinson to find out.
Eurogamer: There were some flaws in The Burning Crusade, such as the difficulty of accessing certain instances and other elements which caused concern for hardcore players. What did you learn from that?
Jeff Kaplan: I fully agree with you, we did learn many lessons from The Burning Crusade. We've already fixed the access issue with recent updates. I can't tell you a lot about the progression system in Wrath of the Lich King, but we're exploring new paths to make this add-on accessible to everyone.
For example, we could imagine some open content for a server rather than for a specific guild, like we did with Ahn'Qiraj. We could even push this basic concept a little further. You could also imagine a system which would allow you to grant access to all your characters once you've unlocked it with one of them. It's a very important matter for us; we don't want to remake what I personally consider a mistake in the Burning Crusade.
We want to re-examine all the trade skills one by one. For example, the leather craft in the Burning Crusade was interesting only in the first level of the add-on. It became rather obsolete later compared to the objects you could take from the monsters, get as rewards for quests or find inside dungeons. In the Wrath of the Lich King, we want everyone to be satisfied with the trade they choose and we want it to be rewarding. Therefore we're going to analyse everything we did with The Burning Crusade and previously to work out what was good and what was missed out.
Eurogamer: You've previously stated that Lich King will let players customise their avatars to a greater degree than ever before. Why have you waited so long?
Jeff Kaplan: The customisation of avatars is one of the key points of an MMORPG which enables players to identify with their characters. Development-wise it involves a huge amount of work, since you've constantly got to ensure the customisation options won't break the whole balance of the game. It's pretty hard to master.
We felt it was the right moment since if we'd spent more time on these elements before, we couldn't have used that time for things we considered more important gameplay-wise.
Eurogamer: How much time will it take an average player to progress from level 70 to level 80?
Jeff Kaplan: While we design some elements of WoW for hardcore gamers who spend a lot of time playing, we mainly aim at average players. Theoretically, it takes as much time to progress from level 70 to level 80 in Lich King as it did to progress from 60 to 70 in The Burning Crusade.
But I'd say we didn't think in those terms. We mostly worked on creating a new territory with enough areas, quests and instances to allow for constant progression. The continent we created is really cool and full of new stuff. It was designed to match the progression curve of the player, so the game experience would be constantly enticing and unique.
Eurogamer: What can you tell us about the new heroic class, Death Knight?
Chris Robinson: Firstly, the word heroic doesn't mean it will be more powerful than the other classes. As yet, we don't know which level it will be possible to acquire it on. It might be between level 55 and 70, but that's still to be determined.
When your character reaches the required level, you can unlock the Death Knight and create a new character from your existing one. The Death Knight uses runes from three different schools of magic (Blood, Unholy and Frost) and he can enhance his weapons with six of them. These runes enable the player to cast spells, to call on powers or to invoke creatures. The choice is entirely up to the player.
Also, Death Knights will be granted access to specific quests, and their progression through the game towards level 80 is likely to be slower than the other character classes.
Eurogamer: Don't you worry everyone will want to give up their former characters to become a Death Knight?
Chris Robinson: : Not really. Firstly, the Death Knight will be a totally different character from the former one and I'm not sure most players are likely to give up an avatar they've patiently shaped up for three years. Though a majority of players will probably try this new class, I don't think a lot of them will end up making it their main character.
Furthermore, the Death Knight is subject to some restrictions. As I said before, the progression will probably be slower. The range of available weapons will be restricted to swords, possibly axes and may be some others. Nothing's certain for the moment.
Eurogamer: Will it be possible to play as a Death Knight from level one to level 80?
Chris Robinson: No, it's definitely a high-level class. For example, if you eventually need to reach level 55 to create a Death Knight, then he'll begin at level 55 too. That's a deliberate choice we made so as to offer players new content. We want them to spend time exploring what's new in the game and not replaying what they've already done.
By equipping the Death Knight with tank-like skills, don't you risk alienating players who have spent ages building up Warriors or even defence-specialised Paladins?
Jeff Kaplan: The right balance between the various character classes is certainly harder to set in this kind of game. We definitely don't want any player having chosen to play as a tank or a defence-specialised character to feel like giving up because of the introduction of a new character class.
Therefore as soon as a Death Knight appears on one of our servers, we'll take a special care to balance his skills in terms of resistance, DPS et cetera so that each character class and specialisation can keep all of its importance within the game. We're perfectly aware that's something the players might worry about and we'll take care that no class should be devalued.
Eurogamer: Could you tell us more about the new voice chat tools?
Jeff Kaplan: We've just started implementing the voice chat on the test servers. It's an important evolution for WoW. Lots of players are used to running that kind of system using software like Team Speak or Ventrilo. Now we want to implement this in WoW for many reasons.
Firstly, we want vocal chat to be available to every player, including those who don't have the technical knowledge to install and set up that kind of software. We also wish to ease the lives of players who constantly have to alt-tab to switch between their software and WoW or play in a windowed mode.
In the system we're testing, the interface flashes and a window containing the name of the player who's speaking pops up. You can set this window anywhere on the screen so that it doesn't hinder the flow of the game. As an example, when a member of your actual party asks for cure you just click on the window and the appropriate spell to help him.
We want to offer a service which is fully integrated within the game and user-friendly for newbies. The hardcore gamers will get something more out of it thanks to some more specific settings. For example, it will be possible to get the sounds of the game through loudspeakers and redirect the vocal chat only to headphones. Or you can set the balance on the loudspeakers so as to decrease the level of the ambient sounds when someone's speaking. We're highly excited by the development of that kind of tool.
Eurogamer: What can you tell us about the dungeons in Lich King?
Jeff Kaplan: As was the case with The Burning Crusade, there will be dungeons to fit each level from 70 to 80. In fact, fans of that kind of gameplay will have been able to level up simply by playing through instances.
We're going to offer more ten-character party instances from the start. Some of them will feature different areas depending on the level of the players. For example that's the case with Utgard Keep, which has a wing reserved for level 70 players and another one for the level 80 - as well as an instance for a 25-character raid.
There will also be a return to the Caverns of Time where you'll find a Stratholme inspired from a mission of Warcraft III called The Culling. The players will have to set Stratholme on fire so that its zombie inhabitants don't contaminate the rest of the kingdom.
Eurogamer: In the Burning Crusade you introduced a new PvP system. How will Lich King take this further?
Jeff Kaplan: The presence of open, large PvP areas is one of the main innovations brought in by the Wrath of the Lich King. These won't be instances, they'll be integrated within the various territories of the add-on and those not keen to participate won't be obliged to do so.
We're going to place siege weaponry within these areas and buildings or other elements these machines can destroy. That's definitely a huge novelty in the PvP game.
We're thinking of extending the concept of the Alterac Valley, which consists of retrieving marks on the enemies' corpses to exchange them for bonuses, but we still have to rack our brains to work it out.