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.