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.
"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."