The Thunder King, patch 5.2 for World of Warcraft has just been released, and brings with it more raid content and more stuff to do than in any previous World of Warcraft patch. We sat down for a chat with Blizzard’s Dave Kosak, lead quest designer on the game, to talk about storytelling, solo scenarios that work for all classes, and how they can keep aggressively pushing out more content while making sure it doesn’t suck at the same time.
If you’re looking for 5.2 patch notes, find them here.
GON: As lead quest designer, can you give me a quick overview of what your job entails and what you’d do on a day-to-day basis?
Dave: So I lead the quest team — as you’d imagine, from the title — and the quest team is responsible for the outdoor content, so everything in the game world. We pretty much start with an empty map and then all the NPCs, all the monsters, all the quests, those all get spawned in, and put together.
As lead quest designer I’m also one of World of Warcraft’s principal story guys, so I try and figure out what the narrative is going to be for the expansion and the subsequent patches, and work with the rest of our story team like Chris Metzen and Tom Chilton and try and make sense of the narrative so that there’s a nice, continuing, satisfying story throughout the game experience.
GON: In terms of that overarching narrative, where does the Thunder King fit into that, and how do you see it advancing the metaplot f the whole game?
Dave: In concepting the Mists of Pandaria expansion, we wanted to roll out patches on a more frequent patch cycle. We wanted to have alternating patches with a whole lot of cool raid bosses. So patch 5.1 was a lot of daily content, a lot of story content, the focus shifted towards that whole Alliance-Horde conflict that established Mists of Pandaria, and with 5.2 now we have another raid patch.
We are kind of returning to Pandaria’s local problems and attempting to solve them. In the process we’re going to learn a lot about the history of Pandaria, where the Mogu came from, where the Sha come from, and that’s going to inform what’s happening going forward, and it’ll all come together in the climactic raid that will end the patch.
GON: When you have a really raid-heavy patch like this, do you find it harder to drop in more direction about where the story is going, than when you actually focus on story-drive, solo play stuff?
Dave: We are always looking at how best to tell stories. We know that generally when you’re engage in group content, like a dungeon or a raid, you don’t have a lot of mental space to absorb a lot of story there. If an NPC starts talking to you, you’re like “Shut up! Shut up you, I’m moving on to the next boss.” You don’t pay much attention. So obviously we can’t do a whole lot of story in the raid itself. But! If we’re doing our job right, we’ll be able to set all that up outside the raid.
Keen players in the original 5.0 expansion will already have seen the remains of the Thunder King, seen him resurrected by the Zandalari, heard about his deeds in the past — or fought his agents in Pandaria. So we set it up there. Then in patch 5.2, there’s a whole lot of content in the island that, just by the nature of the island itself, tells you a whole lot about the relationship between the Thunder King, the Mogu and the Zandalari. You’re learning a lot about the raid and who is in it, even before you set foot in the raid. It’s a challenge, like you say, but it’s no different than any of our other story challenges.
GON: Storytelling in MMOs has always traditionally been one of the weaker aspects of game design, and generally I think you guys have been doing an excellent job so far, but… would you say this is the payoff, then? For people who paid attention in 5.1?
Dave: Definitely. I think that there’s a lot of story threads that we’ve been continuing through the patches and building up, and so far the player response has been pretty good. I’m glad to hear you say we’ve been delivering on the story, because it’s always tricky. We want to deliver on gameplay first and then get as much story as we can in there.
Certainly in 5.1, we really built up Lor’themar which is really cool because Blood Elves never really knew who their faction leader was! (laughs) We really carried Jaina’s story forward, which players had really wanted to see happen after Theramore and then that story carries right into 5.2. The events of the story in 5.1 cause a lot of 5.2, the main factions on the island represent that split in Kirin Tor, that split in Dalaran between the Sunreavers and the Kirin Tor, so those are the main factions. And actually, players that play through all the way to unlock the entire island, there’s a very cool showdown that happens at the end between Lor’themar and Jaina. And of course that sets up the next event down the line, so all kinds of things are happening.
GON: So when you think about 5.3, are you going to move away from the raid content and back towards the sort of stuff we saw in 5.1, and alternate on this schedule?
Dave: Yeah, exactly. The alternating schedule allows us to have… I mean certainly our team is already hard at work on all the raids in 5.4, so we’re already building THAT content, while a second group of designers is working on 5.3. So 5.3 won’t have any raid content. But we will have some scenarios and some story things and a few events that’ll carry the story forwards, so we can see what’s been happening. Again, with the Isle of the Thunder King, we’re kind of focusing on Pandaria’s local problems, but then we’re going to pull the camera back out again for 5.3 and see what’s happening in the rest of the world.
GON: It’s pretty clear that Mists of Pandaria draws heavily on Asian mythology — are there any particular myths or legends that you drew on for the Thunder King?
Dave: I can’t name one specifically. The Thunder King… you know, we did have this idea, if you look at early Chinese history the first Emperors, who founded the first dynasties, they accomplished a lot. They unified China. They weren’t necessarily well-liked, because, well, they unified China, unified the language, the unit of measure, built this Imperial system which was very powerful but not necessarily well-liked. We liked that idea, we gravitated towards that idea. It was the Mogu that crushed everybody else, and I thought that was an interesting story angle, and then… what if he comes back? What is he going to do again? It gave us a lot of lore to tie into, like, if everybody was enslaved, who led the slave rebellion? It gave us a chance to really develop the monks.. if they’re slaves, they couldn’t have weapons, they’d have to learn to fight with their fists.
So going with that kind of early Mogu history informed a lot of other histories that tied into the game and into the game mechanics, which is a big win. That’s sort of the angle we came from. There’s bits and pieces of Asian folklore that you can see in the game. We always kind of scramble it up, we put the White Tiger to the north, and I think in folklore the White Tiger is always in the west. So we messed it up a bit, we made it uniquely World of Warcraft, which is important to us. We also have some cameos, like the Monkey King, a very important figure in mythology, and he plays a small role in patch 5.1, kind of has a cameo where you can see him briefly.
GON: I don’t think World of Warcraft would be quite the same without cameos from popular culture and mythology, no…
Dave: Right! Right.
GON: Let’s talk about the Legendary quest line in 5.2. You’re getting a bunch of new stuff in there, I assume the Legendary quest line is of particular importance to you as lead quest designer!
Dave: Yes! It’s one of the things I am personally implementing, a lot of that feature is mine.
GON: Well, let’s talk about your baby then! Can you tell us about the new solo scenario, what’s going on in there?
Dave: Yeah! That was tricky. The solo scenario is very much a skill test, we want to make sure that you are earning your Legendary. If you’ve been cruising along half-playing your class, and sleeping your way through, hoping you’ll get a legendary, this scenario is going to separate the men from the boys. But it was a challenge to build. Because we wanted to make sure that you could play as a healer, or a tank, or a DPS. It’s difficult to build that content. And I think the class team that helped us to build the actual mechanics for that fight, they did a great job of doing some really innovative things.
For instance, as a healer… there’s one part of the fight where you have to defend the celestial blacksmith while he creates the next artifact for the legendary quest, and he’s got a celestial protector with him, this enormous titan construct. Totally badass. So the defender starts at 50% health, and he has a slight damage buff, and if you heal him all the way to full health he has a 300% damage buff, and he starts wrecking things for you. So as a healer your strategy for that fight is to dance around, mostly you’re as much as possible healing up the celestial, and when things get too hectic you can click on an anvil to nuke the whole room. But that will also reset the celestial and you’ll have to heal him back up.
It’s quite a challenge for a healer but it’s kind of unique, so a healer will attack that scenario very differently to, say, a DPS, where the celestial will be helping you out but you’ll be focused on doing lots of damage yourself.
GON: Does that scenario change if you change class? Is it unique to each class, or is it just one scenario built to cater to each class?
Dave: It’s basically the same scenario, the encounters are the same. But your strategies are going to be very different.
GON: Alrighty. Can you tell me about Tortos, and why you decided to make an entirely turtle-themed raid?
Dave: Haha, yeah. We had these really cool looking turtle models, but of course it’s World of Warcraft! So you don’t just want to look at them, you want to fight them! So our encounter designers put that encounter together. That turtle is stuck in a wall, so you’re sort of fighting this enormous turtle head, and then they added some great sort of Super Mario mechanics where there are these mobs you can kill, and then you can kick their shell at the boss, it’s excellent. I… don’t actually know why we’re so brutal to turtles, we’re nice to the big turtle at the very beginning of Pandaria, of the wandering isle! We saved that turtle’s life, and he’s a big turtle, so I guess we got a lot of turtle karma out of that so we can beat up the little turtles.
GON: He’ll be back in the next patch as a new raid boss, turned evil?
Dave: That’d be an interesting raid boss! Fight a whole zone of turtles.
GON: I’d play it.
GON: Is it true that you’ve banned all mention of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Blizzard’s offices, as a result of this new company crackdown on turtles?
Dave: (laughs) No! No. In fact, I think in the Dalaran sewer there are four baby turtles, and a rat called “Shredder”.
GON: Can you give us a bit more information about what new mounts you’ll be bringing in 5.2, that’s-
GON: -still blanked out. Okay! Dinosaurs. I like dinosaurs. How many dinosaurs?
Dave: Awesome dinosaur mounts. You can get one dinosaur from… actually the easiest dinosaur mount to get, if you can get to Exalted with the Kirin Tor or Sunreaver factions on the island they’ll give you a pretty awesome dinosaur mount. There’s also some rare drops in the raid. We have — and I’m really excited to see how this plays out — we have the Isle of Giants, this whole zone off the coast of Kun Lai and it’s all group content, all elite dinosaurs in the wild, and there’s a quest to collect a lot of dinosaur bones, so if you can stockpile a lot of those there’s some great mounts that you can get that way.
GON: Just like in real life.
Dave: Yes! If you want tame dinosaurs you’re going to need a dinosaur taming manual and you can only get that on the Isle of Giants, so get a big group together and start farming some dinosaurs. It’s a pretty brutal zone, but it should be a lot of fun for big groups.
GON: Where does 5.2 sit in the overall WoW release schedule? Obviously you’ve got Titan in development, you can’t talk about that, but with that coming up are you approaching a sort of ‘endgame’ for WoW content? Or are you still planning for the next expansion(s) beyond Pandaria?
Dave: Oh we are definitely planning FAR ahead for WoW expansions going forward. In fact our goal is to come out with these expansions faster. We’ve been working on a two-year or longer development cycle for these expansions, and that really isn’t cool for players. You get a lot of, well, for instance fighting on Deathwing’s back for 8 months. It’s a cool encounter, but it’s not 8 months of cool. People really want more content.
So the aggressive patch release schedule is part of our plan, we are already thinking ahead to the next expansion and working on that, and there’s going to be an expansion after that and an expansion after THAT. World of Warcraft is a very strong product and has a lot of active players and I think if we have more frequent content, especially content of the quality we have in Pandaria, there’s absolutely no reason we’re not going to have players five year, ten years from now.
GON: Do you have any concerns that this aggressive, increased level of production will result in a decreased level of content per expansion?
Dave: Is that a concern? Hell yeah! We don’t want to come out with content only to have that content suck. There’s a real challenge in ensuring that we can grow the team, but also keep that culture that is working so well right now. It’s definitely a focus of ours. We’re not growing for the sake of growing, and we’re not shipping patches faster for the sake of shipping patches faster. The trick is to be able to maintain that quality bar and that’s definitely our highest priority. We’re aware of that and I think — and this is my personal opinion — we’ve shipped two patches on a two-month patch cycle, and I think they’re both extremely good patches with tons of great content.
(Blizzard’s PR points out in the background that 5.2 is “probably the biggest patch we’ve ever done.”)
Dave: Yeah. It’s a massive raid tier. I’m not sure of the exact quest number, I think it’s close to 100 quests on the island, there’s a LOT to do, not just quests but minibosses, and summonable bosses, and the Treasure Room scenario — have you seen the Treasure Room scenario yet?
GON: I haven’t!
Dave: Well there’s these rare keys that allow you to sneak into the Vault of the Thunder King and you have five minutes to loot as much treasure as you can. It’s a really crazy encounter where you have to really use your classes’ abilities to move around and cheat the fight so you can get as much treasure as possible and get out of there in five minutes. It’s huge, it’s awesome, and I think if 5.2 is the level of quality that we’re going for then everybody is going to be happy to see patches come out a lot faster.
GON: Thankyou very much Dave, and best of luck with everything!