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WoW's J. Allen Brack On What Lies Beyond Pandaria

The Art Of More

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Whether you’re a sucker for their furry brand of kung-fury or not, World of Warcraft‘s pandas are officially here to stay. Fortunately, Pandaria’s mysterious de-misting actually revealed one of the better WoW expansions in recent memory, so life goes on – and quite merrily at that. But while fresh competitors like Guild Wars 2 continue to be the talk of the town, MoP didn’t quite take the world (Warcraft-flavored or otherwise) by storm. Slow and steady though the process might be, MMOs are evolving. Sure, WoW’s world is bigger than ever, but its every strained lurch is followed by a deafening creak. So what’s next? How does Blizzard plan to keep WoW relevant? Does it involve free-to-play? A return to the Horde vs Alliance glory days? More species of playable bear? During GDC Online, I sat down with production director J. Allen Brack to find out.

RPS: Mist of Pandaria’s finally out, and it’s quite good! But it didn’t sell as well as expected. I mean, it managed the same number in a week as Cataclysm did in a day. Why do you think that was? On a surface level, Cataclysm was a giant dragons and all these big apocalyptic things while Mists of Pandaria is… bears. Do you think that image dissuaded some people?

Brack: I do. It would be interesting to see where we are in another month, in terms of sales and how that comes out. There’s a percentage of people who are not necessarily excited about Pandaria or Pandaren. We didn’t really necessarily know what that was going to mean for the expansion. I saw some criticism about it getting kidded-up a little bit, which is not really what we were thinking about. But I also have heard that the word of mouth is probably better than Cataclysm.

You’re right: it’s really easy to identify with a giant dragon killing the world. That’s a very common, archetypal kind of theme that we have going on. It’ll be interesting to see where we are in another month. I would say that we’ve been pleased with how things have been going so far.

RPS: The plan is to focus on the Horde vs Alliance war again now, right? You’re kicking that off in the next patch. What’s the wider plan for that, though? How are you going to bring that battle back to the forefront in a way that really shapes the game?

Brack: The central theme that we explore with Mists and Pandaria, with the base game, is this idea that war creates the problems of Pandaria. There’s a lot of stories where the player is figuring that out. Patch 5.1 is going to introduce the vanguard of… Okay, now Pandaria has been discovered by the world. We’ll have the armies of the Alliance doing their land grab.

In the subsequent patches we’ll have other raid tiers, and then we’ll have the war escalate to the point where Garrosh [Hellscream] actually starts to do some things that are not necessarily in keeping with what you would consider to be honorable Horde traditions. We’ve already announced that we’re going to have him as the final boss of this expansion cycle. We’re excited to see how that goes. We haven’t actually figured out exactly how that’s going to escalate and all the various pieces of that, but we’re deep into talking about it.

RPS: The introductory blog post mentioned daily quests and stuff like that. That doesn’t seem like a giant, epic war to me, though. It just seems like more of what I was already doing, but with a different wrapper.

Brack: Yeah, totally. We’re trying an experiment where we’re going to do smaller… We’re going to change what it means to be a WoW patch. Every patch for the modern WoW era has been a raid tier, sometimes a dungeon, sometimes not, but a whole content for every kind of level.

We’re trying to make smaller patches and larger patches. We’re still going to have patches that are the giant raid tiers. We’re still going to have patches that are going to be what people traditionally think of as a WoW patch. But we’re also going to have very small patches that just have a few scenarios, maybe a movie or two that are little vignettes, and a round of daily quests. That’s what 5.1 is.

RPS: Do you think that’ll help cut down on the heap of canceled subscriptions that tends to follow once things have settled after a new WoW expansion?

Brack: We didn’t think about it that way. That’s going to potentially be something that would be awesome, but we didn’t think about it in those terms. It was much more about… We know that players come in and consume content. We know that they want more content. We know that we’ve been trapped in this cycle of what it means to be a WoW patch. We just had to make a decision about how we’re going to do these updates that are quicker. Because that is better for players, to get more frequent updates. So how do we do it? The answer is to create these smaller updates and larger updates, to try to stick to a more rapid schedule.

RPS: How hard is the team working on all of this? I know you’ve moved a fair number of people over to Project Titan…

Brack: Actually, the team is larger than it’s ever been. It’s at 165 people right now.

RPS: Wow. That’s a very large team. I imagine you have many name ideas for XCOM. At any rate, free-to-play. I know you’ve been asked about it a million-billion times, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t check in – especially given how many people absolutely swear by it here at GDC Online. 

Brack: We do look [at it]. At a lot of games have gone through this transition. We didn’t make WoW for a free-to-play market, though. Looking at the games that have done this transition and how they’ve done it, we’re trying look at how they do it. It’s not something that we feel like we’re imminently considering or working on.

You’re absolutely right, though. We would be foolish not to at least consider it from time to time, think about what it would mean. I don’t necessarily know what the right thing would be for WoW, if we were to consider that model. But we’re definitely trying to learn lessons from other people as we watch them do it. It’s a huge focus of this conference. It’s been a huge focus in MMOs over the last few years.

It’s amazing to us, the consumer mindset. The consumer mindset is turned off by this idea of a recurring subscription. $15 dollars a month is incredibly cheap. It is incredibly cheap. You can barely go to a two-hour movie for $15 dollars. But it doesn’t matter. Then you say, “Well, here’s a free-to-play thing…” You can spend $30, $40, $50 dollars a month on it and people have no problem doing that. It’s an interesting psychology for both types of game.

RPS: There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not the desire to stimulate the brain’s wallet cortex ultimately influences game design. Plenty of designers swear up and down that it doesn’t, but what do you think? I mean, you mentioned that WoW wasn’t created with F2P in mind. Do you think, on some level, that kind of consideration’s unavoidable?

Brack: Yeah. There’s a lot of companies doing it a lot of different ways. Certainly some companies have this whole… “We separate the monetization from the design people. The design people say what’s happening and the business people find some ways to monetize that and they’re successful.” I think there’s also the opposite side, and it’s also a way to successful, which is the business people saying, “Hey, we want to change this and monetize this, and have the game design support that.” Everyone’s done everything, right?

It’s just deciding what it is that you want to do, or what it is that you want to gravitate towards. I don’t really think there’s a right or wrong, necessarily. It certainly is plausible to me that you could have a game where the monetization aspect is separate from the design. The idea that we’ve got this game, we’ve got it monetized in this way, and we’ve got these various monetization points – where the business of it is separate from [design] decisions. But certainly not all of them.

I think it can make things messy. I don’t think it’s a rule that it has to. If you think about… This is not free-to-play, but it’s the same thing only different, which is the rise of DLC on the console. A few years ago there was no DLC. Now it’s ubiquitous with most games. A lot of games come out with DLC. Are they designing that game with DLC in mind? Maybe. Can you enjoy the game without it and just pay your $60 dollars and you have a good time with it? Absolutely.

It’s about the presentation. It’s about the design. It’s about where those points are. I think that’s key. You can definitely do it so it feels like “Here’s where we’re charging you,” and you as a player know that’s what it is. Then you can do it a lot more gently where it can be more cosmetic, or a lot more subtle. There’s a lot of options for that.

I don’t think the industry has figured out [a perfect model]. The industry is still flailing, right? They’re still figuring out what the right way or some of the good ways to do it are. Some people are very successful and some are not as successful. We’re still figuring it out as an industry.

RPS: The other major them I’ve seen from MMO devs at this year’s GDC Online is alternative approaches to MMO interaction. Many of them imply that players are tired of questing, raiding, PVP-ing, etc. Others outright say it. How do you respond to that, given that you sort of pioneered a lot of it – at least, as it is today?

Brack: The “player sophistication” is how we talk about this at Blizzard. The player sophistication is incredible today versus when WoW came out. It’s amazing to look at boss mechanics that existed in Molten Core, as an example. Here’s this boss. He’s got these two adds. The adds can’t be killed. You have to tank those adds. You have to DPS down the boss. That’s it. That’s an actual boss mechanic in Molten Core. We don’t have dungeon bosses that are that simplistic anymore. Players would see that, understand that, and have no challenge instantly. It’s amazing, the player sophistication, in terms of what they’re able to consume, what they’re able to do, the rise of the kind of player communication and everything that happens along with it.

Emergent gameplay is fantastic. I think emergent gameplay can be monetized a little bit easier and a little more transparently than content. If you think about… This is a terrible example, but… I want to go run Molten Core, that will be one dollar. That’s very much an in-your-face, “We walled off this content and you can’t have it unless you pay.” You put your quarter in the machine to go through the turnstile.

Emergent gameplay, it’s a bit more interesting. Maybe there’s weapon upgrades, in the case of PlanetSide 2. Different things like that that they’ve got that make it feel a little more… “You’re having fun. You’re doing well. Wanna do a little better? Here’s this store where you can do that.”

RPS: Do you think WoW could benefit from more emergent-ish elements?

Brack: Yeah. We’ve had battlegrounds in the game since 2005. We keep adding battlegrounds and new gameplay. We think that’s really good reusable, replayable gameplay that people have a good time with. There’s the honor mechanic on top of that. Arenas are much more of a niche, but they’re a similar thing. We’re always trying to do stuff like that.

I think WoW is a content-driven game. Right now that is the game that it is. There is certainly a player expectation of how they’re going to experience a story, how they’re going to experience the world. It would be difficult for us to get away from that. But putting things on top of that is always something we’re interested in doing. Pet battles are less emergent, but it’s a lot less content-directed than many of the systems that we’ve put into the game.

RPS: What about something more tangibly different, though? I mean, battlegrounds really shook things up back in the day, but they’re a genre standard now.

Brack: Whenever we’re talking about the next expansion or the next patch or any systemic change we want to make, we’re always trying to layer it on top of something that we probably already have. A good example of that for Mists of Pandaria is going to be challenge modes. You can run dungeons. You can run them in challenge mode. There’s rewards that exist for that stuff. It’s somewhat reusing existing content, but it’s a new slant on that same type of thing.

Will we talk about that for an expansion? We absolutely will. Every expansion, we talk about… “What is the story we want to tell? What is the land that we want people to adventure in? What are the systems we feel like the game needs or that player would like to have or that would just be cool ideas?”

RPS: So then, how many completely new things can you actually add? I mean, WoW’s tech first landed in players’ hands back in 2004. Is WoW simply too rooted in older tech to make sweeping, dynamic additions or changes to its core structure?

Brack: We can, actually. The team is larger than it’s ever been. The team was 60 people when WoW shipped, so now we have more than 100 more. It’s a huge percentage of people larger. We have a really talented engineering group. The server and the backend components have effectively been rewritten to do all of the server-type features we want to have. In 2004 with the existing server architecture, there was no ability to do instancing the way that we do it now. There was no way to do cross-realm. There was no way to do phases. There was no way to do the various looking-for-group pooling, looking-for-raid. All these things required us to completely rewrite the server. It was a one-year project. It was a huge investment in that. There’s nothing that we can’t do if we have enough time.

It’s just, do you want to take that on? Do you think that’s the right thing for the game? We don’t really think about, “We can’t do X-Y-Z.” We think about, “What’s a good game experience and how do we technically accomplish that?” And, “Are we willing to do different things?”

RPS: Even so, one of the main complaints I hear whenever people come back to Pandaria is “It’s really good content, but I still feel like I’m playing an older game. There are a lot of things that I can do in new games that feel more intuitive, and it’s weird to have them absent here.” What is your plan to evolve WoW and keep it relevant – both from a content standpoint and in terms of how it feels?

Brack: That’s something we consider as time goes on. There’s new things that we’ve introduced with Pandaria that we’ve never had before. We have new mechanics with the monk class that we’ve never had before. It would be very difficult for us to fundamentally change a lot of how certain classes operate. You can add new mechanics on top, but ultimately you’re not going to want the person who plays a mage, for example, or a rogue, to log in the next day and have a completely different way of operating. So there’s that piece as well. It’s a delicate balance.

RPS: You have been looking into modernizing certain aspects, though, right? Making the older races look more in line with the new ones, revamping lackluster Burning Crusade content, and whatnot…

Brack: Yeah. Every BlizzCon, someone will ask in our open Q&A about what’s the plan for that. That’s something we definitely want to do. Talking about it being a balancing act… I feel like changing players’ characters and how that works is very fundamental. It’s very core. It’s very dangerous. It’s very scary. My favorite story about this is, we had a… The human female. This is years and years ago, in the Burning Crusade days. We released a patch, and there was something different with the human female character model in the patch. The forums were on fire. “Oh my God! It looks so terrible! It looks awful!”

We looked back in the changelog because we didn’t even know what’s going on. What happened was, a tech artist had gone through and he had fixed the right eyelid blinking. The right eyelid would blink, and the lid would invert whenever it blinked. He changed it. He moved one vertice up just a little bit, so now it’s blinking right. Great. Fixed. Move on to the next thing. He didn’t think anything of it.

You’d look at the forums and you’d think we killed a baby. “Oh my God, they changed everything!” No, really, we changed one vertice that you probably can’t even notice. But it’s amazing how people gravitated on to that. Because that’s their character.

RPS: Yeah. It’s really fascinating. People spend thousands of hours with these characters, soaking up every last detail.

Brack: And it is them, in some regard, right? There’s definitely a kind of personification that happens for a lot of players. To change who they are is pretty serious. That is definitely something we want to do. It has all those challenges. It has all those problems. But it’s definitely something we want to do. You look at the pandaren, or even a goblin, and you compare them to the human, which is I think the first character that we ever made in the game, or the tauren… It’s pretty sad.

And then Burning Crusade, we’ve talked about that as well. There was a while where Burning Crusade was the best thing we’d ever done. Now it’s the worst thing we’ve ever done, because everything else has raised the level, with Cataclysm. It’s definitely on the list of things we’d like to do, but we haven’t talked about doing it quite yet.

RPS: So recently, everyone died.

Brack: Yeah, someone was using a hack. It wasn’t like something that QA screwed up or that we screwed up, necessarily. What happened was, there’s a scripting language. There was a way to spoof the server into running a script that ended up killing the player the script was attached to. We brought the servers down, we added a check to say, “Hey, are you allowed to do that right now?” The problem was solved very quickly. But it was an interesting couple of hours, to say the least.

RPS: Well, it’s World of Warcraft. It’s the MMO everyone knows about. I imagine you get a lot of people attempting to pull off stuff like that, right? But I don’t think a lot of people understand how much work you put into just making sure your game is defended.

Brack: It’s unfortunate, the number of things that we can’t do because of bad people. Because of cheaters. There’s a lot of energy and time that goes into exactly what you’re talking about. Sometimes we miss and there’s dead people all over the capital city. That’s a fun time. But yeah, it’s interesting, the amount of energy that has to go into stuff like that. People are always trying.

RPS: So you blew up the world with Cataclysm, and then the Pandaren – WoW’s last sort of “what if” race – joined the fray. To be blunt, what’s left? What options do you have left in the World of Warcraft after this?

Brack: In terms of stories that are unfinished, certainly the Burning Legion story is unfinished. There’s Sargeras and his guys who are bent on everything that he wants to do. Taking over the universe. That’s maybe one step above Deathwing [in terms of epicness]. I don’t necessarily think that’s the right next story for WoW, but it’s a story that we could tell.

There’s also a lot of local, homegrown people that we have. There’s thousands and thousands of characters. So don’t think that there’s a shortage as far as how we’re going to do it. There definitely is a shortage of Warcraft III [holdovers]. A lot of the Warcraft III villains, they’re past their prime. We’ll have to make new villains.

We wanted to take a break from the apocalyptic thing with Pandaria, so we invented a new villain to help that along and have it be a little bit more of a brighter, happier world. I’m happy with how that turned out. I think it was good for the players. Pandaria feels so much less oppressive. Even though there’s this malevolent force… You’ve also got, say, the dungeon with the drunk monkeys. When we first started talking about them, I said, “Well, that sounds kinda stupid.” But actually playing it and going through the beta, it’s super fun. It’s super whimsical. I started to laugh out loud a lot more with a lot of the things we did in Pandaria, which I think is good. I’m not worried about a shortage of villains. There definitely is a shortage of known villains, though, that’s for sure.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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