Eurogamer: You've got a couple of fairly heavyweight competitors launching this year - Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. Those games both have a heavy focus on PVP in the endgame. Do you think you might lose quite a few PVP players to these games?
J. Allen Brack: We don't really think about it like that. We don't make games in a vacuum, we don't just play World of Warcraft, I love online games, I play a lot of online games, and I'm really excited about those games coming out because I want to play them. I think that's fairly common across the board.
I think there's room for all three of those games to be successful. I mean, the worst thing for our industry is for online games to come out and fail. They cost so much money to develop, and it's so difficult, and it's such a huge labour of love to launch an online game, for it to fail is sad for everybody.
Eurogamer: Do you think WOW is ever going to need a complete overhaul of the engine?
J. Allen Brack: That's actually something we talk about every expansion. It's interesting, two games have really tried that before, Ultima Online tried it and EverQuest tried it as well, and in each case it was only somewhat successful. In each case a lot of people continued to play with the original client, because it was faster, or they preferred it, or were just used to it or whatever. And so for me as a game developer, the idea that we would spend so much time and energy on something and have people go, "meh, that's not really for me," that's not very exciting.
So I don't think there's really a clear model as to how to do that successfully. The model we have with Wrath of the Lich King allows people with high-end machines some additional graphical effects, and then we'll have some kind of fallback for the people who don't. Will we need a graphical update from the ground up at some point? Yep, probably. And I'm positive we'll talk about it next expansion.
Eurogamer: MMO players love to complain about "grinding", and developers love to say they don't include it in their games. But do you think most players really do dislike it?
Jeff Kaplan: I think grinding can be tuned poorly. I don't think players hate it. I was a big EverQuest player, and EverQuest had insane grind in there, and there were moments of that grind that I loved. There were Sundays when I would spend four hours in a dungeon, where we would never move because of the way EverQuest worked - you'd camp your spot, and your puller would run out and bring creatures to the group - and I enjoyed it. I was basically using the game as a chat-room at that point, and my character happened to be making some progress during that chat. [It was during these chats that Kaplan first spoke to Blizzard's Rob Pardo and ended up getting hired - but that's another story.]
I think grinds can be horribly mis-tuned and leave a really sour taste in players' mouths. But at its core, an RPG is about character progression, and when it's done right players call it "progression", and when it's done wrong, players call it "grind". I think for a game to have a lot of breadth and depth to it, it's impossible that every moment of gameplay would be entirely unique. There are some elements that need to be repeated.
Eurogamer: And some people actively like repetition.
Jeff Kaplan: Yeah! A core part of gameplay is mastering repetition. Making sure that there's some variety to that, a sense of progression and reward, is important. I don't think grind is inherently bad, I just think poorly tuned grinds have put players off, and rightly so.
Eurogamer: Do you really think WOW's success is good for the MMO industry as a whole?
Jeff Kaplan: I think it is healthy, believe it or not. I've heard the counter-argument that we're making it hard for other MMOs, but the way I like to see it - I'm not a believer that WOW is untouchable and no one will ever beat it. There will be a game that comes out that's great that players will prefer to play over WOW.
But what I think WOW has done, is that when that game comes out, it's going to be really, really good. I don't think players should settle for lousy MMOs. Just coming out with a game and saying it's an MMO and having some content isn't enough. We really need to raise the bar on what we're putting in front of people. And that's not just an MMO thing, it's a games as an industry thing.
No hard feelings when a game comes out and beats WOW, it's going to have to be a great game.
Tom Chilton: What I really hope is that we've expanded the market, that we've increased faith with publishers that it's a viable genre. I'm sure it's taken more seriously than it was before.
J. Allen Brack: I can't see how it's bad. I'm a lover of online games, I love the social experiment that they give, I've been playing and making online games for many years now and don't really want to make any other type of game. WOW's success in that has really put a spotlight on this type of game, that it's really the future - I don't necessarily mean MMOs, but co-operative play. It's a no-brainer, Xbox Live has built this entire concept around their console of "people like to play together". Well no kidding, it's not rocket science. But I really like the focus that it has given gaming in general.
Eurogamer: WOW does present a problem in the short term, though, for other games to muscle their way into the market alongside you.
J. Allen Brack: Really, you think so? Because people said that about EverQuest as well. "There'll never be a game as big as EverQuest, it's got half a million subscribers!" Something will come along and WOW will be like EverQuest, a great game I played back in the day.