Blizz On World Of Warcraft’s Procedural Future, Warcraft IV

By most estimates, World of Warcraft is now 17 million years old. Typically, Internet scientists carbon date it by slicing open expansion packs and counting the rings, but there is some controversy surrounding that method. One thing’s certain, though: WoW’s been at the top of the MMO food chain since before man invented either food or chains. Its age is starting to show, and even Blizzard’s willing to admit that. And while WoW: Warlords of Draenor is working its time travel magic on the MMO kingpin’s dry, cracked landscapes, it’s still fundamentally the same game. But could that change someday? Well, WoW will probably never morph into EverQuest Next, but Blizzard told me that it’s definitely looking into procedural and user-generated content to revitalize its slowly withering world.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense for World of Warcraft to head down the same path as its more modern genre compatriots. Just look at Blizzard’s history: I imagine the main reason Diablo‘s invasions have never succeeded is actually because he’s horribly lost in his own randomized hell, and StarCraft‘s user-created maps (and even modes) have given the classic RTS an ageless youth shared only by the likes of Counter-Strike and William Shatner. So bolting those kinds of features onto its fantasy-flavored breadwinner? Definitely not outside the realm of possibility.

Procedural and how it’d work in WoW is totally a topic that we’ve talked about.

“People just burn through our content so fast,” lead content designer Cory Stockton lamented to RPS. “If we could build enough content, we would. Procedural content is totally something we’ve talked about. The conversation of procedural and how it’d work in WoW is totally a topic that we’ve talked about.”

That said, Blizzard doesn’t believe it’s sitting on a golden egg containing the next Minecraft or what have you. Even when/if procedural content goes in, World of Warcraft won’t lose its epic tale of orcs and humans and pandas and time travel (again) and whatever’s even going on anymore.

“I think a good way to look at it is as a supplement,” Stockton explained. “There’s a lot of games that do many things very well, but I don’t think any game can touch our handcrafted content. Our dungeons and narrative, for example. I don’t think there’s remotely any comparison. So I don’t think we’d ever want to replace that and say, ‘Now we can have, like, 20 dungeons!’ But they’re all, like, random.”

“I think what we’d like to do is say we can still have our seven or eight dungeons, but then over here we’ve got some crazy procedural supplement. Maybe the dungeon is random, maybe the boss is randomized with different [abilities] – how ever we could do that. But I think that’d be a cool supplement to the handcrafted stuff. Because I think that’s what sets us apart.”

Expansions, in other words, aren’t going anywhere. Blizzard told me that its already set a course well beyond Old Draenor, and that it’d like to get there sooner rather than later. Much sooner, actually – at least, relative to the glacial pace it set for previous expansions.

“Right now, we’re designing multiple expansions out, with the idea that we want them to come faster, and we want the storylines to meld,” said Stockton. “So characters you meet here, we’re already planning how we’re gonna use them in the next expansion.”

“I think we’ve always said we’d love to be able to deliver an expansion every year. That’s what we’d like to do. It’s just extremely difficult. The team is making its biggest effort ever to do that. We’re growing. We have people working on tons of different things – more than one at a time.”

But while procedural content and more expansions both probably lie in WoW’s near-ish future, other possibilities are a bit further out. That is, if they happen at all. I must say, however, that Stockton’s pie-in-the-sky ideas had me licking my lips the most. First up, player-created content, which – again – isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Blizzard.

“Procedural is the only thing we’ve really talked about, and I feel like that has to be the next step. We have to be able to make that kind of content, and then offer up the tools. But obviously Blizzard has a very strong history of [user-created content]. I mean, things like the StarCraft II editor are all about that. So I think that would be a natural step.”

Meanwhile, it’s physically impossible, illegal in twelve countries, and just kind of silly to not mention Warcraft IV in relation to the words “Warcraft” and “future,” so I dutifully pestered away about that potential avenue. Stockton replied that, while Blizzard doesn’t have anything in the works on that end just yet, he has some rather big ideas:

“Where I think about it, if we ever did Warcraft IV, I would want it to somehow play off this world that’s been made over the last ten years. I would love to see that if that’s what [the RTS team] decided they wanted to do. Heroes of the Storm is dominating that group at this point, though. But I’d love to see Warcraft IV take shape around what we did with WoW. Because so much of WoW came from Warcraft. Like, we were able to take a single map and turn it into a whole expansion. Stuff like that. It’d be cool to see them take our stuff and convert it back down.”

At this point, you might get the impression that WoW’s horizons are sunset pink and wide open, adventurous panda and cow people riding adventurous lion bird scorpions all about. Nothing, it seems, is off limits. And yet, oddly, Blizzard is still extremely hesitant to embrace the one direction that’s given nearly every aging MMO an at least temporary second lease on life.

“[Free-to-play] is not really an active discussion, to be honest,” admitted Stockton. “Number one, the subscription model, we’re still happy with the number of players we have. But number two, going free-to-play is a dramatic game design change. At that point, we have to decide what’s available and what’s not. At that point, there’s a lot of terrible examples of how that’s been done. Some are better than others, but you’re still compromising the design of the game to make the actual payment system of the game work. That’s the part that I think is most devastating to World of Warcraft.”

“That point could come one day. We could totally make that decision. I just don’t think we’ve even talked about it yet.”

Lead quest designer Craig Amai – who had, in fact, been there the whole time – added almost boastfully that WoW still, even with numbers steadily falling, has more subscribers than any other primarily subscription-based game. I noted that his response could be read as a form of complacency, but he fired back that it was nothing of the sort. Rather, there are many approaches that yield great games, but panicking isn’t one of them.

“It’s not a complacent thing,” Amai clarified. “It’s very much a matter of, we don’t need to freak out. We just need to keep making the best game we can make. That’s what it really comes down to. We have a good game and some great ideas on how to carry it forward. There’s no emergency light flashing.”

Not even the sudden implosion of Blizzard’s proposed WoW pseudo-successor Titan has managed to crack the blue giants cool exterior. Stockton added:

“I don’t think we ever looked at Titan as being connected to us in that way. Like, if something happened there, it would affect WoW. Obviously, we’ve had people transfer between the two teams, but the games were never connected in a way where we felt like, if something dramatic happened there, it would affect us. Our team has just continued to plow forward like we always have while they try to restructure and figure out what they’re doing with their project. It hasn’t affected us beyond maybe we get some people in the short term, maybe they go back to Titan in the long term.”

For now, though, Stockton and co are keeping their eyes on the prize and their noses to the grindstone. For better or worse, new handcrafted content is priority number one, and all hands are on deck. Procedural content, player-created alternatives, and even Warcraft IV are in the discussion, but ultimately, they all lead to the same end point: keeping players glued fingertips and eyeballs first to an MMO that’s coming up on its tenth birthday. It’s an order that’s taller than even a legion of Red Shirt Kids could make, but Stockton and co are game.

“I think we’re getting better,” said Stockton. “It’s definitely showing.”


  1. Wurstwaffel says:

    I will only ever care for WoW again if they make a single player Dragon-Age-like spinoff, which won’t happen as it might devalue the main game.

    As for Warcraft 4, that would be amazing, maybe. I just can’t help thinking they’d casualize the shit out of that.

    • sebmojo says:

      I had just the best time with WoW for so many years. I doubt I’ll play it again, but there is so much joy in there in my memories.

  2. Shooop says:

    Warcraft 4 will be a MOBA. I’m calling it now.

    • yhancik says:

      A roguelike MOBA that posts your progress to Facebook.

    • WarcraftIVPlz says:

      Warcraft IV a moba? Why would they make two mobas, please explain. There already making Heroes of the Storm.

  3. ChiefOfBeef says:

    User-generated content is something that should have been in place and then developed from vanilla onwards. The problem WoW always had was that the world was lifeless and static; Blizzard made a game, but not a world. It’s instead just impressive wallpaper for a massive chat lobby whilst queuing for an instance.

    It should have begun with the Crossroads and Tarren Mill battles. The key devs should have asked themselves “Why are these such flashpoints? Why on every server, of every type, in every region does spontaneous, emergent, player-driven fun-making happen right there?

    The crafting skills themselves should have been part of the process of user-content from the start, but they weren’t. Anyone remember when lumber-jacking was going to be a gathering profession to fuel a possible building profession? I remember it being on the WoW website when it first went up long before the beta after Warcraft 3 was released.

    Essentially what exists in WoW is only there because the devs put it there. I blame it on the influence of Jeff ‘Tigole’ Kaplan and I’m glad that he was moved to the other MMO project after TBC, allowing WoW to branch out from his ‘lets make it exactly like Everquest, that game I liked that is really outdated now ‘ design philosophy. It’s slowly being allowed to grow as it should have done, unfortunately in the latter half of it’s life and in decline.

    Remember when reputations were going to ALLOW you to choose to be an outlaw(even possibly changing to a neutral faction like the Cenarion Circle or Ravenholdt and Bloodsail Buccaneers)? When the PvP honour system was going to be meaningful? The game could have been so much.

    • goettel says:

      Yes… Tarren Mill. Crossroads. Raids on Stormwind.

      I tried shaman tanking in DM, just because I could – barely. Cats & orcs living together. Getting boozed up, online, and sitting on Orgrimmar rooftops talking crap in TS. Even random ganking and corpse camping was fun, in an infuriating kind of way. Emergent stuff. Stuff that mattered!

      Nowaydays, nobody bothers, just queing up, like you say. The world was exposed for the empty shell it is. Sad fucking panda’s. I’m gonna kill a kitten now, because…Blizzard.

    • darkath says:

      You sir deserve many internets, and cookies, and custard.

      Long i felt like i was the only old fool who had a grasp on WoW’s potential at beta/early release. I remember how excited i was about PvP and “contested” zones.

      IIRC, the plan was initially to be able to meaningfully “contest” those pvp zone and switch the ownership. The honor system was put in place to structure the aimless pvp that was going on at release, etc. And then a few month after came the instanced battlegrounds and all my dreams were shattered, the essentially concentrated all their old ideas into thoses but gated people into tiny groups separated from the main world. What a shame.

      Imo the real enjoyment in WoW was not finishing the last dugeon and getting the last item, but simply being there when 50+ people rushed into a capital city and started killing all the NPCs and the players who dared defend against them.

      • jrodman says:

        There is a problem though, with that scenario.

        As someone who was actually having fun doing lightweight pve stuff with some friends, finishing quests, following stories and so on, 80 people charging into a city, killing NPC was just wasting my time. It wasn’t exciting. It was just annoying.

        In other words, the game was built to handle fairly different people with different interests, then kind of didn’t know how to mediate them at all.

        The cordoning-off of PVP happened specifically because of that conundrum. And also because for every exciting raid on a city, there were 30 occurrences of some jerk repeatedly killing flightmasters just to be awful.

        • ChiefOfBeef says:

          Then they should have followed EVE’s example(the only MMO never to drop in subs despite an average lifespan of just 6 months for newbies) and allowed players to enforce the solutions there. Even then the solutions the devs could have implemented would have been rather minor, rather than changing the whole game and stamping out any player agency.

          It got worse that they allowed Molten Core to be in long before the PvP reward system was; PvP was the major emergent fun aspect, but then people got steam-rollered by players with items from MC. The only way to succeed in PvP was to do Kaplan’s awful hardcore PvE gimmick, but you couldn’t do the reverse and succeed in PvE through PvP. Throughout his time as project lead, Kaplan used the ‘popularity’ of PvE raid instances to justify diverting virtually all resources towards their development, at the expense of PvP, crafting and player generated content. It was a sham.

          • jrodman says:

            I’m not saying that the solution was the right one, I just talked about a conflict of game player expectations.

            I don’t personally think the majority of wow players were there for any of the things you mention, not the raiding nor the pvp nor crafting. And looking at EVE’s numbers I really doubt that player-run-solutions was really the right path either, though yes it would be more interesting.

            I think the numbers and general enjoyment came from wow’s smorgasbord of an accessible array of something-for-everyone. The array of quests (yes even those), dungeons, world, progress, competition, cooperation, social time, and other factors blended together into something that many people enjoyed varying subsets.

            That should be entirely uncontroversial.

            What I am saying that I think is somewhat controversial is that most players had no interest at all in pvp. Yes they *also* didn’t have much interest in the grognard raiding exercise, I agree with you. I just don’t think emergent pvp is a very big audience, and I think that audience was a nuisance for many other players.

            What would be much more interesting is finding a way for emergent conflict to be a non-nuisance for more players. Make it matter for more people in a way that doesn’t annoy them, piss them off, or prevent them from playing the parts of the game they like. That’s a design challenge right there.

  4. Malfious says:

    Do people really want 1 expansion a year?

    I really would just like more stuff to do in the form of patches, 1 year seems like a bit of a rush.

  5. Koozer says:

    The big problem with WoW now is that it’s designed for people to burn through 90% of the world to get to max level, then spend their days grinding instanced dungeons/raids. The sad thing is the landscape they’ve built is rather lovely, but it’s completely desolate unless it’s the first week of a new expansion.

  6. morbiusnl says:

    oh look, another “lets bash wow” item. You got your money’s worth on that blizcon ticket, right?

    • goettel says:

      Butt-hurt doesn’t make it so, Nathan ain’t bashing anything, even if some comments are, and those are mostly because of broken hearts.

  7. Bloodoflamb says:

    “If we ever did Warcraft IV, I would want it to somehow play off this world that’s been made over the last ten years.”

    Yeah, because WoW is such a masterful example of great story telling.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Procedural generation could actually increase the level of the game’s writing!

      The whole WoW thing reminded me of mediocre to bad D&D GM’s generic scribblings. And then it went downhill….

  8. Ross Angus says:

    A couple of years ago, Shamus Young wrote a thing which generated a World of Warcraft (larger, really) sized world procedurally. It’s open source.

    • Nevard says:

      I don’t think the main hurdle is the geography, it’s populating it with meaningful stuff to do.

  9. hemmer says:

    There’s a lot of games that do many things very well, but I don’t think any game can touch our handcrafted content. Our dungeons and narrative, for example. I don’t think there’s remotely any comparison.

    That’s…quite a bold claim. I hope he meant in the MMO market, and even then it’s a matter of preference. I personally loved the Mines of Moria dungeons to bits, especially (but not exclusively) the 3man ones.

    • WarOnGamesIndustry says:

      The problem with the handcraft experiance is that it’s only new and fresh once. Eventually it just becomes a choir if your grinding the same thing over and over again.

      • malkav11 says:

        The flipside is that my experience is the procedural content isn’t interesting even that first time.

  10. GROM says:

    You know what would get me to play again? people on my realm okay! It’s just dead and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna pay 3 transfers to fix a problem they are just too lazy too do something about. I’m keeping an eye on these realm connects, but so far they only merged my dead realm with another dead realm. way to go blizz, this has left such a sour taste in my mouth and I know I’m not the only one who will wonder if it will be too little too late.

  11. uh20 says:

    the large amount of user-created game modes in warcraft III made it one of my favorite early games (alongside continuum)
    the game split from its normal tactical gameplay to also having tower defense, hero wars, hero AND minion wars, hero-minion-tower wars, capture the flag, wolf vs. sheep, wolf vs. tower building sheep, etc.

  12. crinkles esq. says:

    “We TOTALLY have been thinking about procedural content and giving control back to players. No, why would you think think we saw Everquest Next and spilled coffee on ourselves in surprise? You’re silly. You’re a silly man.”