With World of Warcraft: Cataclysm literally tearing the world’s biggest MMO apart we thought it might be a good idea to sit down with some of the folks at Blizzard and discuss what the transitory nature of Azeroth really means for players.
Why do you think people get so immersed in MMO games and what is it about Azeroth in particular that draws so many people in?
J Allen Brack: That’s a really good question. On the first point I think MMOs have done a really good job of blending the elements of a good game with a social aspect, which kind of forms this co-operative sort of gameplay where you team up to defeat other players or the computer. It’s an example of where you can’t do certain things by yourself, you need your friends, and through that sort of comradery and triumphing over adversaries together you form really strong bonds with people online. So, I think the magic of MMOs comes from that mix of social plus good gameplay.
As for why Azeroth’s been successful I think it has to do with the history of the IP. Warcraft is 16 years old this year and it has a really long history through a lot of different games, and our ability to tell stories within the Warcraft universe has really grown over the years.
Tom Chilton I think that people get invested in MMOs because they provide a huge potential amount of entertainment time. If you compare it to a movie where you go in and spend your two hours with it, with an MMO there’s a huge amount of flexibility to how much time you spend playing on any given day. There’s a ton of content and hundreds of hours to play, and eventually as you play the game a whole lot and make friends you get very invested in the MMO as your main source of entertainment.
As far as World of Warcraft itself, I think that ultimately the biggest reason it’s successful because the world has a soul. It’s very difficult to play for only a couple hours because it’s very inviting and makes you want to explore more of the world. There’s a lot to see and do, and that gives the world its soul.
I think different things appeal to different players in general. The thing we’ve done with Azeroth is to try and keep a cohesive experience, particularly with Cataclysm.
What do you think of terms like “Virtual Resident” do you believe players can truly have another existence inside the MMO, or is it always just a game?
J Allen Brack: In the case of World of Warcraft it’s definitely a game. There have been a lot of different online-type environments that have tried to go more towards the virtual resident style, or what we imagine that experience is like for players. With World of Warcraft though, our primary focus is fun and a lot of times that is antithetical to what you’d expect from a virtual resident scenario.
With Cataclysm you’re dramatically changing the world of Azeroth. What does this mean for players who’ve already invested countless hours in the world that was?
J Allen Brack: I don’t think we’re changing it to something new or unfamiliar. I think we’re taking the best pieces of what there is and making them better. We’re taking what existed and making it better.
I know there has been some concern, and there was a lot of concern internally too. Did we really want to start down this road and were we killing our baby or transforming it in to something else? But, having put a lot of time in to it over the past year and seeing players’ reactions now that parts are starting to come online, I’m confident that no one is going to have that opinion.
The new content we’ve created is head and shoulders above what existed. The world now has this feeling where you’re walking through these new areas and new stories, but familiar themes and all the major players are there. It’s like a sequel to the book where all these things are very similar, but there’s a new story to be had.
Unlike previous expansions World of Warcraft: Cataclysm only features 5 new levels instead of the usual 10. How did condensing that end-game experience change the rest of the game?
Tom Chilton: Really, it allowed us to overhaul the 1-60 experience. Now, having said that it wasn’t a 1:1 trade. Obviously it took us a lot longer to redesign the level 1-60 experience than it would have taken to add an additional 5 levels and that’s part of why this expansion took longer to get out.
But, we felt it was something important to do for the game because we’ve gotten better and better at making content and we wanted to make sure the first 60 levels were up to the quality of our 60-80 content.
Really, that was one of the driving factors for us and what we learned was that’s not just for new players. The 1-60 content that we’ve redone is also very much for veteran players because players don’t just level up one character and call it quits. They often have a lot of fun the first time and go back and do it again with a new character. So, ultimately redoing that 1-60 experience is also for all those veteran players who like to go through it again a second, third, or fifth time.
Ray Cobo: The impetus for that decision really came from our desire to keep evolving Azeroth and keep the world moving. When we did Outland and Northrend in Burning Crusade and Lich King we learned a lot and the experience was really well done. We wanted to take that knowledge and apply it to the 1-60 zones and bring those up to snuff. We learned so much during the past two expansions this was really about creating a single cohesive experience.
For a lot of new players this post-Cataclysm world is all they’ll know of Azeroth. Is anything being done to preserve the history of the world, or is that loss just part of keeping a persistent changing world?
Ray Cobo: We have talked a lot about building that in to the quest lines, so there may be some references to how things used to be or what things were like before. But, the only way players will really be able to experience what things were like before is based on memory or what the fan-sites catalogue.
A lot of players have taken screenshots and posted them online showing the before and after, but otherwise it’s gone. The world has changed, and it’s changed forever.
“When we did Outland and Northrend in Burning Crusade and Lich King we learned a lot and the experience was really well done.”
J Allen Brack: The old world is lost, and going back the motivation for us to do this was that we started talking about creating two new playable races for players. We didn’t know it was going to be called Cataclysm or what the story was going to be, but when we thought of players leveling up through content that was over 6 years old that people have done many many times, it wasn’t particularly exciting. The best stuff that you do is always the newest, and the level of quest content we’d seen in the past two expansions was far superior to the old brown box.
Anyone that says “I want to go back to the old world, how it used to be”, you really don’t want to do that. The game we’ve made now is orders of magnitude better than the game that we had.
The addition of Goblins and Worgen as playable characters is one of the big changes with Cataclysm. How do they fit in to the lore and how do you inject them in to a world that’s already filled with so much history?
J Allen Brack: Well, neither of them are actually new to the Warcraft universe. Goblins have been a staple race for a long time, I think starting in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. They’ve been there for a really long time and they’ve been requested for quite a number of years.
As for Worgen we had them in the original game, in a dungeon called Shadowfang Keep as a mid-20’s level dungeon. For those who played the old content a lot of people thought it was one of the best dungeons with the way it was structured and the bosses. So, we kind of started with this idea of having a transforming race and figuring out the mechanics of that but the Worgen played in to that really well so we used them.
Ray Cobo: We’ve done a couple of things with these races that we’ve never done before. With the Worgen we’ve taken a race that’s more beast-like, aggressive, and darker and given them to the Alliance which is not like how it goes typically.
The Goblins are a little crazier, a little zany with this sort of crazy culture. As characters they’re a little more light-hearted and fun, and that’s not something you usually find with The Horde. But by no means are they just The Horde’s version of the Gnomes, they have their very own unique sort of flavour.
In terms of the 1-20 experience with each of the new races we thought a lot about how to make the experience easier. We’ve added a lot of new UI options and a lot of ways for players to get help along the way so the player has a much easier time figuring out where to go and what to do because the quest line helps them.
You just hit a big milestone with World of Warcraft’s 16th anniversary. Looking back at the game over the past 16 years and seeing how it’s evolved, what do you think has changed the most?
Tom Chilton: I would say that most of our core gameplay has remained true to its roots, so that hasn’t changed a lot. One of the things we’ve tried to do is make the content in more digestible chunks of time.
When we originally made the game we had several sections of the game that took several hours to finish, and while that has an epic feeling to it there’s also a limit on the number of people who can experience it. We want to make our content challenging, but challenging because the content is difficult to overcome. We don’t want to make it challenging by requiring a huge number of people at once and requiring players to manage everything. I think that’s where our philosophy has changed the most.
For new players or players who’ve lapsed – they used to play World of Warcraft and they dropped out for whatever reason – coming in to Cataclysm what do you want them to take from the experience?
Tom Chilton: A lot of the players who played the game, think they’ve seen it all and done it all, at one point they fell in love with something within this world. For whatever reason, they had a really good time leveling their old characters up and I hope that when they come back they get to experience it again for the first time.
While it’s true everything has changed, the game is very true to its roots and carries the soul of the original. I want these players to come back and play through it again fresh and have a really good time.
J Allen Brack: Honestly, I’m really proud of the reworked 1-60 experience. I think it’s the best World of Warcraft we’ve ever had. This expansion in particular focused on things for existing players and there’s a huge litany of awesome content for existing players but also for new players World of Warcraft has never been better.
We’ve spent a lot of time working on new player experience-type things. Done a lot of playtesting to find the pain-points of the game and fix those. We went in to this expansion with the mindset of “How do we make the barrier to entry super low for new players?” There has never been a better time to start playing World of Warcraft.