With the next World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, well into beta testing and due out before the end of the year, we've been poring over the details - the spectacular Death Knight starting zone especially - for some weeks now. We've also been pondering the implications of the absurdly generous new friend recruitment drive, as well as theAchievement system, and how it relates to Blizzard's new company-wide Blizzard Accounts. We caught up with co-lead designer Tom Chilton and producer J. Allen Brack in Leipzig - where Blizzard unveiled the Lich King cinematic - to canvass their views.
Eurogamer: The Death Knight starting area is very different to anything you've done in World of Warcraft before.
Tom Chilton: Absolutely. We felt like that was part of delivering on making the Death Knight feel like a hero class. Really what that means, more than anything else, is that your start is heroic. You end in the same place as any other character class, for balance, but we wanted to make sure that the start felt very different, not only with level 55 - but because of the level, we can assume more about the player, we know they know something about the game, so we can do more with them than we'd be comfortable doing to a level 1 player that's never seen WOW before.
There's also the lore aspect - we wanted all Death Knights to start as servants of the Lich King. So how does the player become a Death Knight that's a free agent with their own agenda? We had to answer that as well.
You're also using instancing quite a lot more... the world changes dynamically as you move through the story.
J. Allen Brack: It's actually not instances. What we do is we have different world states, and depending on what quests you've completed, it changes what world state you're seeing. It's also broken up between Horde and Alliance... because until you finish that quest, we don't really want the Horde and Alliance conflict muddying what's going on. The Lich King doesn't care for PVP.
Eurogamer: Is that less static world something we're going to see more of in the game proper?
J. Allen Brack: Yes, we actually have used it in several places in Northrend, what we call the phasing technology. There's quests that you do when you arrive at a town that's overrun by Scourge, it's like a "Choplifter" quest, you have to fly in and rescue villagers. As you bring them back to your quest hub, those villagers are there permanently for you, whereas if somebody who hasn't done the quest shows up, they don't see them.
When I talk to players who aren't in beta about the Death Knight, and explain its abilities, they simply can't understand how it could ever be balanced. [Laughter.] How do you do that? Is the Death Knight's overpowered feel all smoke and mirrors?
Tom Chilton: At the end of the day, if the DPS [damage per second] output of the class and the tanking mitigation stats add up to about the same, then we're going to be okay. They have a couple of signature abilities, like the Death Grip, that help them feel very different as a class. But I honestly think that balance-wise, they're coming along pretty well.
Eurogamer: So what makes a hero class different, in terms of design?
J. Allen Brack: To be honest, as far as the overall class design goes, we really treat it like just another class. Where the hero part of it really comes out is in that starting experience. But when we're approaching it mechanically as class designers, we create it like any other class. Optimally, we want every class to feel overpowered... The phrase that we use for the Death Knight is epic but equal.
Eurogamer: The new recruit-a-friend initiative has some pretty amazing incentives for fast levelling, both for new players and veterans. Isn't it just a multi-boxer's delight, and ripe for exploits?
Tom Chilton: [Laughs] Well, we actually are perfectly content to endorse multi-boxing to some reasonable degree. If a person wants to go out and buy a second account and power-level themselves, we're okay with that.
J. Allen Brack: Also, part of the point of the system was to get everyone to the point where they could actually take advantage of Wrath of the Lich King. We want to make sure that when the expansion comes out, new players can roll a Death Knight and be ready to go.
Eurogamer: Do you feel like you're still reaching out to new players? The game hasn't plateaued yet?
Tom Chilton: Absolutely. That was the primary goal. We feel like the best way to bring in new players is for people to get their friends to play, through word of mouth.
J. Allen Brack: And you know, the levelling curve in the game, we don't feel it's incredibly brutal, but when you say to someone "you're going to have to level up 70 levels in order to catch up with me so we can play together", that can be pretty daunting. You can use it as an excuse as well: "we can beat the system, it won't be like normal, it won't be slow like you've heard".
Eurogamer: You're faced with a situation where you feel like you're doing your best work, but for a new player, that work lies behind many, many hours of older content. Is that frustrating at all?
Tom Chilton: Absolutely, and that's why with this expansion we try to speed up the levelling curve. We do feel like the content in Northrend is better than what we've done before.
J. Allen Brack: That's an axiom of game development - the best thing in the game is the last thing that you worked on.
Eurogamer: Do you think it's possible for a first-time player to get something like the experience that so many of us had four years ago? Or will it never be the same again?
J. Allen Brack: I do - I think that sometimes the experience gets distorted when somebody gets power-levelled by a higher-level character. That's why the recruit-a-friend is designed to motivate you to play alongside your friends as a similar-level character. It makes the experience much better, it's challenging, exciting, it's not like some other guy's towing you through the game.
Eurogamer: Are you confident that [open-world player-versus player zone] Lake Wintergrasp, and the new battleground, can do something new with the PVP side of the game?
Tom Chilton: Well, certainly it's very new. We've done a lot of internal testing on the siege engines and destructible buildings and it certainly feels different. The battleground is a little bit more limited in terms of how different it is; it doesn't have the same level of depth that Wintergrasp does.
But I think the most difficult thing with Wintergrasp is going to be giving players the experience that they imagine when we have no way of controlling how many players show up for it, and how balanced it might be in terms of how many players there might be on one side versus the other. We're building in safeguards, things to help when your side has fewer players, and trying to design it so it scales reasonably well between 200 people or 30 people. So hopefully those things will work out, but I would definitely say that it's the biggest unknown in the expansion, because world PVP is by far the most unpredictable thing for us.
Eurogamer: What about the Arena side of things?
Tom Chilton: We have two new arenas that are actually now complete and will be in the next beta build or two that comes out. The Arena maps are very cool - I think those are more of a known quantity. The most bold thing we're doing is having some moving geometry that will throw a little bit of a wrinkle in in terms of line-of-sight-breaking objects and that kind of thing.
Eurogamer: What player feedback or behaviour from the beta has surprised you most?
J. Allen Brack: The thing that surprised me - I'm constantly surprised by this type of thing - the number of people that got their beta key, had their level 70 copied over, logged in and immediately ran over to Eastern Plaguelands on a PVP server, waited for those 55 Death Knights to pop out and... BAM. [laughter]. It's like, you've got a beta key and this is how you're spending your time? Just ganking level-55 Death Knights? It was amazing. Deviant behaviour.
Eurogamer: But that's MMOs: people will always enjoy them however they want to.
J. Allen Brack: Oh, absolutely. I was surprised that it happened as quickly as it did, but I wasn't surprised that it happened.
Eurogamer: The Blizzard Account system that unifies Achievements across all Blizzard games - what impact is that going to have for WOW players specifically?
Tom Chilton: Well, I do believe that a lot of our players are Blizzard gamers. We really felt that, by tying it in, if you stopped playing WOW and started playing those other games you wouldn't feel like you'd lost all of that accomplishment. Also, to give you a reason to come back when an expansion pack comes out and get some new Achievements, increase your Blizzard score.
Eurogamer: Are things like the Armory going to be integrated with Blizzard Account profiles?
J. Allen Brack: I know there are definitely plans to do a lot of website integration... Right now we have your inventory and your guild bank that you can look at if you log in. But the big fear that everyone has is that we're going to say these characters are associated with this WOW ID or Blizzard Account, so I know what all of your "alts" are... we've no intention of doing that.
Eurogamer: When it comes to Achievement design, are your aims to encourage people to play the game in a different way, or just to get more reward for playing the way they do?
Tom Chilton: It's a combination of both. We want the Achievement system to serve as a record of your accomplishments, yet at the same time it's definitely a motivator to go back and do some of those things that you always thought about doing, but never really got around to. It could be something like "win Arathi Basin 2000 to zero", or "kill all the bosses in Scarlet Monastery within 20 minutes".
J. Allen Brack: There will also be a list of things that players will never have considered doing, more of a to-do list; like you log in to the game and go, "I don't know what I want to do today, I'm going to pick a random Achievement and go get it". Also just different play types, like we'll have hardcore dungeon and PVP things, but also more whimsical type things, like exploring all the pieces of the maps or getting haircuts or falling certain distances.
Tom Chilton: We are very cognisant of trying not to design Achievements that encourage really deviant behaviour, or even just excessive gaming behaviour. We don't want it to turn into a "you must play 24 hours a day, 7 days a week" kind of thing. We're very wary of Achievements that feel extremely grindy, or really motivate players to do things that they probably shouldn't.
Eurogamer: Some of your rivals are quite happy to admit that they're encouraging that in their Achievement systems...
Tom Chilton: Right, "kill a million of these!" We're not going to have that.
Eurogamer: What was behind the decision to bring Achievements in? Was it just that you had to keep up with rival MMOs that are including them?
Tom Chilton: It was more that as gamers ourselves that have been playing a lot of games that have Achievements in them, like on Xbox Live and such, and just really enjoying it, we thought to ourselves that it would be really cool if we had something like this.
J. Allen Brack: We also looked at the things that we didn't like, in true Blizzard style, in the systems say on Steam and Xbox... So we don't have hidden Achievements, with the exception of very rare Achievements called Feats of Strength that are worth no points. We also have progressive Achievements that you can click on and see what you need to do to get that.
Eurogamer: You're at the stage where the game's getting a bit older and you've got stiffer competition out there, certainly than when Burning Crusade released. Do you feel under more pressure this time?
Tom Chilton: Well, we are definitely trying to one-up ourselves. I feel that in a lot of ways, we're doing that - I feel very confident about the quality of the zones and quests, the fact that we're introducing a new class that seems to be going over pretty well. But there's definitely pressure, no doubt about it, and I'm sure that's going to continue to mount, year on year. But at this point, we're feeling pretty good about it.
J. Allen Brack: But I think the pressure that we feel mostly is not necessarily from outside, but from ourselves and our fans.
Tom Chilton: We actually put that pressure on ourselves throughout the process. At Blizzard, every several months each team demos the game to the rest of the company: here's what we got, we put it on stage. There's a lot of pressure to meet the expectations of people who work at Blizzard.