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.