It probably wouldn't be fair to say that Blizzard is worried. But with two determined attempts on its hegemony of fantasy MMOs coming this year (Age of Conan and Warhammer Online), last week's Wrath of the Lich King showcase at the company's Californian HQ was, at the very least, a firm reminder of why you might want to keep playing World of Warcraft. The timing, two weeks before Conan's launch, could hardly have been a coincidence. And the reminder was effective - the next WOW expansion impressed us deeply.
Blizzard has a reverential and protective attitude to its talent though, and there wasn't a sense that lead designers Jeff Kaplan and Tom Chilton, or producer J. Allen Brack, were feeling the pressure when we spoke to them. They are well insulated from it, on a roomy campus plastered with WOW art and crowded with fantasy figurines, piles of comics and Rock Band units.
Kaplan, a slight, unassuming man with a ruffled hair and a charming, far-off air, is responsible for questing, dungeon, environment and story design. Chilton, round-headed, close-cropped and thoughtful, a veteran of Ultima Online, has the unenviable task of managing player-versus-player balance and character class design. The towering, pony-tailed Brack is the man who organises their efforts and those of the rest of the WOW team: he came to Blizzard from Sony Online Entertainment and Star Wars Galaxies.
Eurogamer: It's a brave move, making all raid dungeons accessible to groups of 10 players as well as groups of 25. Why did you make that decision?
Jeff Kaplan: The first official 10-person raid - Karazhan - became really popular and was our most-done instance out of any instance in Burning Crusade, and we realised that players just love doing this content. After we made Zul'Aman [the second 10-man raid, released in a patch last year], we felt like we had proved that not only could we do a 10-person dungeon that was just as epic in scale as any of our 25- or previous 40-person stuff, but the level of skill required for Zul'Aman really proved that it wasn't a casual versus hardcore thing any more. There were guilds who could do Karazhan but couldn't do Zul'Aman, and I think we really showed everybody that we can do a progression on its own.
We'd rather you define your experience by your social group than anything else.
Eurogamer: It certainly means I'll be able to see more of the game than previously. But do you really want that? Do you want everybody to be able to see everything, or do you need a certain degree of exclusivity at the top?
Jeff Kaplan: I do want everybody to see all of the content, but I do not believe that will be the case. There'll be some exclusivity, just because by the time we get to the very ends of the raiding tiers, the content will be pretty difficult.
The point of this wasn't to make it so that all raiding was super-casual and everybody could do it. We wanted to preserve some of that hardcore raiding that exists - we have fully sponsored 25-person raiding guilds now, they're almost professional gamers at this point. So we really want to embrace those guys as a community as well.
But I think Burning Crusade was way too hardcore out of the gate, at the lower raiding tiers. Even the entry-level 25-person raid, Magtheridon, was way too difficult. I'd like to have the 10 and 25 both start off very accessible and understandable, so that players of any skill level who had hit max level would be able to have success, and then progress from there.
Eurogamer: So it becomes more about player skill than social organisation, in terms of moving through the game.
Jeff Kaplan: Later on, much later on. That's the thing - we didn't have any curve in Burning Crusade. We just had: "OK, welcome to level 70, here's a brick wall. Maybe you can climb it." Some players did and some players didn't. I'd rather have players start experiencing raiding and then decide for themselves if they want to keep progressing through it.
Eurogamer: I've recently been enjoying the Dustwallow Marsh revamp with a lower-level character. Have you got any more plans for reviving the mid-level experience?
Jeff Kaplan: That's a topic that comes up I would say daily around the team - which zones we want to redo, how we would redo them, which ones are more important than others. I think the Dustwallow example was a resounding success. I think that just worked out great, the zone is super fun, we got nothing but positive feedback, and it makes levelling up a pleasure when you hit that level range. The only bummer is when you do the final quest and have to move on! We definitely want to do more of those, though.
Eurogamer: Some of Wrath of the Lich King seems almost like a greatest hits compilation of original WOW...
Jeff Kaplan: For sure. You know, we spent a long time working on the original game, five years. We finished that and were really happy with it but I think we all needed to have that exploratory moment where, creatively, we wanted to push it as far as possible. That was Outland and the Burning Crusade.
Northrend's been kind of a coming home moment for a lot of us. We got it out of our systems, you know? Really just embracing the old world again, getting back to that core Warcraft storyline involving Arthas, getting back on the continent of Azeroth, and just being in familiar high-fantasy areas. It's been nice. This expansion is just sort of coming together, the team is really behind it and, like, in love with it. I really get that sense that everybody's making it for themselves, which is the best feeling.
Eurogamer: Burning Crusade felt like quite a sweeping change to the game. Do you think you can achieve that again with this expansion?
J. Allen Brack: Woah. I think in terms of the content, we'll meet or exceed Burning Crusade in every case, particularly the quests. If you look at the quests in the original game and Burning Crusade, no comparison, night and day, Burning Crusade is significantly better. We'll see a similar jump with Lich King.
It will be somewhat challenging to equal the jump in terms of the classes. You had some classes before Burning Crusade that really didn't see how they could work, and now are very functional. Paladin and druid tanking comes to mind. It's hard to compete with "you can't tank with a Paladin, and now you can". The classes are in a much better state than they were.
Eurogamer: Which aspect of the game is going to be moved furthest forward by Lich King?
J. Allen Brack: [Mimes pumping shotgun] Chk-chk, loaded question. Questing I think is going to be advanced greatly by the vehicle technology and the different ideas that the designers come up with. They've come up with some insane quest things that are absolutely amazing. No-one would have predicted that the bombing missions would be as popular as they were in Burning Crusade, and they've outdone themselves.
I think PVP is going to be hugely advanced. Dungeons? I think we have a pretty good idea about how to make dungeons. It's more honing the focus of dungeons to be a one-hour experience.
Eurogamer: The Death Knight is the first new class in the game since launch. That must be a little bit...
Tom Chilton: Scary? Definitely. One thing we know for sure is that balance at level 80 will be very different from balance at level 70. Hopefully the game will feel balanced, but certainly the classes and the environment in general will feel very different.
Eurogamer: And then there's Inscription [the new profession, which allows modification to spells and abilities themselves].
Tom Chilton: Right. But even just with all the new talents, new spells and abilities... all that stuff is going to change the environment so much that, whenever we create something new for Lich King, we can't think of it in terms of what it will do to today's balance. We have to realise that, we'll put a bunch of new stuff into the game and balance what the environment's like at 80. Inscription is almost like adding another layer of talents to the game; it's just kind of on a more tactical level than a class level.
Eurogamer: When it comes to building a new play mechanic for the Death Knight - one that's even more different to other classes than, say, the warrior, or rogue - is there still a basic kind of rhythm that you think is essential to WOW that you don't want to move away from?
Tom Chilton: Yeah, we think a lot in terms of how many buttons you push in a ten-second or thirty-second period. We want to make sure that that feels relatively consistent with other classes, warrior and rogue being pretty good examples - they have different pacing, but they still feel pretty good in their own ways. Certainly the Death Knight's resource mechanic is a little more complex, we felt like we could bump it up just about one notch in complexity, because we don't have to worry about level 1 players that have never played the game having no idea what's going on.
Eurogamer: Why has it been so long before adding a new class to the game?
Tom Chilton: Well, we have to be very careful. One of our core values is that we want the classes to be very distinct from each other. We didn't want to set the expectation that every expansion will feature a new character class, because that won't necessarily be the case, just like we aren't necessarily going to add a new race with every expansion. Part of it is expectation management, and we know that we can't add a new class every year without diluting the classes themselves, and also introducing balance problems far more quickly than we can solve them.
Eurogamer: When you're taking an existing class from 70 to 80, would you say you're trying to add more to it, or take it in a different direction?
Tom Chilton: Definitely some of both. We do feel like we have pretty well defined kits - here's what this class is about, here's what it does and doesn't do. We try to adhere to that, otherwise we risk hybridising the classes too much and they turn into this mess of sameness. At the same time, we need to make sure that you feel like you're doing new things with your class - 'wow, I've never been able to approach this problem this way before'.
Eurogamer: Is it fair to say that, since Burning Crusade, the balance of power at the top of the game has moved away from raiding and towards PVP?
Tom Chilton: I think - accidentally, yes, in a way. I certainly think from a reward perspective that's accurate, even though it wasn't really deliberate. The tuning of how quickly you can gear up through PVP at how much risk was easier than intended, relative to PVE. We've kept that in mind right from the outset with Lich King, and we do intend to better balance the two of them so they feel more equivalent in terms of effort and time investment versus reward.
Eurogamer: So far, you've struggled to get world PVP happening in WOW. Why do you think that is?
Tom Chilton: A combination of a lot of things. It requires the right reward - people have to be motivated to do it - and it requires critical mass. And the more different things you have for people to do, the more it tends to split them apart. What we can do is try to focus what players are doing, essentially move them around from spot to spot - we do that with the battleground daily quests, and we'll do that for [new outdoor PVP area] Lake Wintergrasp, award a meaningful amount of honour and that kind of thing.
J. Allen Brack: I think we've had a lot of world PVP, but it hasn't really felt like it had a lot of meaning. You know, it's felt like a lot of gankage.
Tom Chilton: The outdoor PVP that we've had, a lot of the mechanics have been pretty simple, there hasn't been very much depth to them, and that's one of the reasons why we haven't had as many people doing it. Another thing I would mention would be that, when we have the objectives scattered through the world, we have to be careful of how we involve people because some people might be unwittingly passing through. Wintergrasp concentrates the world PVP into one area - we know that if you're going there, you're going there with the intent to PVP, so we can build all the mechanics with that assumption in mind.
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.