Building heroic scenarios, tweaking valor, and reduced XP: We talk to Blizzard’s Ion Hazzikostas about WoW 5.3

World of Warcraft

By on May 20, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Late last week, we sat down with Blizzard’s lead encounter designer, Ion Hazzikostas. Aside from having an awesome superhero-style name, Ion also manages the raids, scenarios, and other encounters that make up Mists of Pandaria’s patch 5.3.  Read on for all the details of the new scenarios, why Blizzard are cutting the XP required for the final five levels, and how he feels about WoW’s recent drop in subscriber numbers.

GON: I spoke to Dave Kosak recently about 5.2, and he said that Blizzard were hoping to pull the camera out a little with 5.3 and show what’s going on with the rest of the world, rather than just Pandaria’s local problems. Can you talk about how you’ve achieved that and give us a quick summary of how the overall global storyline in 5.3?

Ion: There’s definitely a strong focus on Horde and Alliance storylines, much as we saw back in 5.1, where we had a focus on the developments there. What we’re seeing really is the Alliance coming together, and the Horde falling apart. There are a lot of tensions among the factions that comprise the Horde, after the events seen in the Dagger in the Dark scenario. Vol’jin is clearly not happy with Garrosh’s direction and the way that’s going, the trolls in the Echo Isles are in open rebellion, and so players are going to see this story unfold through new scenarios in 5.3 and the outdoor world.

We have scenarios that focus on what Garrosh has been up to, and some of the questionable things that he’s been doing, and we also also have some outdoor content, some quests for Alliance players to go behind the lines of the Horde as spies working with the Alliance spy groups, to see the fortifications that Garrosh has been building up and some of the sketchy activities he’s up to. There’s also a bunch of outdoor quest and event content in the Northern Barrens, which is quickly turning into a battleground with Garrosh’s Kor’kron in open conflict with the other forces that are there.

GON: Now you’ve got an impressive four new scenarios in 5.3, as well as the Heroic modes for existing scenarios. Out of all of the four new scenarios, which is your favourite and can you tell us a bit about how it was designed?

Ion: One notable feature in 5.3 is that back in Pandaria there is an excavation happening, in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Garrosh and his forces have drained one of the lakes in the vale and been mining, deep beneath the surface. He’s hired a bunch of goblin mercenaries to dig in search of the secret rumoured to be kept down there. This scenario basically takes players alongside a goblin member of this expeditions, running into various horrors down there that make it very clear there’s some dark force that is being unearthed — coagulated dark oozes, things along those lines. And it turns out that at the depths of the mine this excavation has stumbled upon a sealed titan chamber that predates most of Pandaria’s history. And inside they find a box, and the not-necessarily-wise member of the goblin expedition that you’re with in this scenario opens the box.

GON: Of course.

Ion: Right, and so a very dark power is released, and players will see the events that unfold there. It’s doing a lot to set up what is going to be the continuing story arc of Mists of Pandaria going ahead into patch 5.4, and it’s cool to let players play through the story so that they really experience it, and understand what’s happening, and feel like a part of it.

GON: So that’s your favourite out of the four scenarios?

Ion: I think so, yes. I mean it’s hard to pick a favourite, they all have very strong story and gameplay elements, but that’s definitely a particularly interesting one.

GON: What’s the process for creating a heroic mode for existing scenarios, and what balance concerns do you have to address?

Ion: It’s not a huge deal, but it definitely involves a lot of playtesting. There are two main differences. First off is simply the gear level to which they’re tuned. Our regular scenarios which have been updated to heroic modes were originally designed for fresh level 90 players who may be wearing item level 430 or so gear. And they needed to complete it by groups in that gear so that they could gear up. Obviously players right now are literally twice as strong. So the old scenarios, the normal scenarios, really don’t offer any challenge, and that makes them potentially less interesting than they otherwise could be. The simple part of it is just cranking up the numbers accordingly.

But then, one of the big differences, and one of the things that is exciting about heroic scenarios, is that we know there’s going to be some environment of communication and cooperation among members of the group, whereas regular scenarios randomly assemble individually queuing players into a party of three, so you don’t really know the people that you’re playing with. You have to queue for a heroic scenario with a pre-formed group of three, so we can assume there’s going to be a bit more in the way of coordination, maybe some crowd control, pitching in to help each other out — which basically lets us have mechanics that call for those responses, and hopefully create more interesting gameplay. Since really, that sort of cooperative gameplay is the essence of MMOs, and what makes them fun.

GON: Have you had a good response to these new scenarios on the PTR?

Ion: So far yes — people seem really excited about them and to be enjoying them. We’re looking forward to people giving them a shot on live. They also give a very large amount of valor points, so players looking to get their valor points to upgrade their items using the new upgrade vendors that are returning in 5.3, will find that heroic scenarios are a really great way to do that.

GON: I was going to ask, because I’ve seen some players express concerns — well, players are always yelling about everything — some concerns about the amount of time it takes to get sufficient valor points to gear up with vendor epics. Now you’ve just said these heroic modes are a great way to get valor points, how do you feel about the current valor situation, and do you feel adding more heroic scenarios is going to soothe these concerns?

Ion: I think that we definitely look at the rate of valor, it’s something that we’ve increased since 5.0. We found that at the start of the expansion, where many players were doing dungeons to get gear, and daily quests to get their reputations on a regular basis, valor was just kind of coming in incidentally and it wasn’t something players really had to worry about actively, which kind of masked some issues with the ratios at which different activities were awarding valor. The intent was always that you should be able to pick the activities you enjoy most, you can play with your friends, and you can get valor playing solo, in a group, in a large raid, whatever you prefer.

So over the course of the last couple of patches, we’ve increased the amount of valor awarded by various activities and that’s going even further in 5.3. Valor from heroic scenarios, and then we’re actually DRASTICALLY increasing the amount of valor awarded from challenge modes, such that doing a challenge mode dungeon, even if you don’t get a stellar time, just bronze or even no medal at all, will still give you in excess of 100 valor for one dungeon clear. So players who are just looking to try out new types of content with their friends should have more options than ever before. We don’t want to make something that feels like a chore, but clearly if we get the numbers wrong it could veer into that territory, and that’s when we have to make an adjustment.

GON: I’ll come back to that in a second — for now can I ask about the 5.3 world event. What’s going on there?

Ion: It’s a lot of dynamic, outdoor quests and event-driven content. It’s a slightly different type of outdoor content than we’ve had before, it should have a more event-driven feel, where there are random things happening — there could be a caravan crossing the Barrens that comes under attack, and any players nearby could go and defend it, and if they successfully defend it, everyone nearby will share in the reward. So it’ll have a slightly different feel to regular WoW quests, where you go and talk to an NPC and they ask you to go and perform a specific task, and you go do it, and return, and the hope is that it’ll create a place for players to adventure and, on our PVP servers, to come into conflict with one another.

GON: It’s only available for a limited time this event, with the story set to continue in 5.4, is that correct?

Ion: Yes.

GON: So how long to players have to complete it?

Ion: Until 5.4. Obviously we haven’t announced the date for that, but there should be a fair amount of time for players who are interested.

GON: As an encounter designer, are there timed events like that where you’ve made, and you feel sad that they’re going away — you’ve spent time on them and now they have to be shelved and nobody will ever play them again?

Ion: A little bit! But I think on the flip side it’s actually one of the cooler parts of a massively multiplayer online game like this, it’s a reminder that the world can actually evolve and change, and we’re always a little bit sad as designers to lock our work away and not have people experience it in the future, but the flip side of that is that the world is actually going to be different tomorrow to how it is today. Which is a really good reason to check it out today, but also a reminder that there’s an evolving story, that the player’s role is actually changing the world around them.

GON: If we can jump again to pet battles — they’re being tweaked in 5.3. Can you explain why Blizzard is tweaking the stats behind pet battles, and how player responses have been in general to this feature since the introduction?

Ion: I think the pet battle feature is one that we view as a huge success. A lot of players from a broad spectrum of previous game playing styles, from casual solo questers to hardcore raiders to high-end arena players have had a lot of fun just doing pet battles, and collecting and using that to fill their time as they explore Pandaria. We’re not viewing it with as fine a balance as… we’re not trying to balance it the same way we do our PVP or our classes, but we are keeping an eye on the evolving metagame, pets that seem overpowered, some that are dominating the high-end matchups, and we will make adjustments accordingly to make sure that people feel their pets can be competitive. It’s something that a lot of players spend a good amount of time doing, and care a lot about.

GON: Do you have any plans to expand the pet battle system in any meaningful way — tournaments, something along those lines?

Ion: No concrete plans for any kind of massive expansion, I think we see ourselves continuing to incrementally add new content. All options are on the table for different directions we could take it in, we’re very happy to have a popular and exciting system like this, but there are a lot of cool places it could go for sure.

GON: Earlier you said you didn’t want to have any content that felt like a chore. Now I guess that ties in nicely to a big change in 5.3 where you’ve reduced the experience required on the final five levels by a fairly impressive 33%. What’s the rationale behind this?

Ion: Ultimately it’s to make it easier to level alts. There’s a certain pacing to the game as a whole, particularly when the expansion is new, there’s a lot of things to see, to do, to explore, and once you get to max level there’s a whole new process that begins there and a whole power curve, beginning back then with scenarios and dungeons, because things like Looking For Raid weren’t open at the time. So there was just a very different overall pacing to the content, whereas at this point many if not most of players playing Mists have at least one max level character, and they’d like to get multiple alts caught up so they can also experience that content, and we’d just like to make it easier to do that.

GON: In a broader MMO sense, comparing WoW now to how it used to be at vanilla launch for example, how do you feel the ‘value’ of experience points have changed? A lot of old, old-school WoW players who have complain the game is too easy now, but a lot of new players are definitely enjoying it and a lot of established players are enjoying, as you say, the ability to rapidly bring up an alt.

Ion: I think we’re continuing the direction that has been the case for years and years now. We initially began adjusting the levelling curves from one to 70 in the Wrath of the Lich King timetable. Originally in vanilla WoW I think it took me something like 13 or 14 days play to get my character up to 60, and that while effective at the time, also created a tremendous barrier to entry for players who are coming to the game anew or returning after time off and want to play with their friends that are max level. And one of the values that’s important to us is that there shouldn’t be too many barriers to getting back in and playing with their friends. Reducing the max experience required is just one of the steps we can take towards that end.

GON: Do you have any plans to address the people who are clamouring for new customisation options, hairstyles, etc? You don’t have to look far into a WoW patch notes thread to see somebody angry about the lack of new haircuts available… what’s Blizzard’s timeframe on this? I know you’ve been working on redesigned character models.

Ion: Nothing concrete to announce at this point, but we’re definitely aware that players love the ability to customise their character, as an expression of themselves and their aesthetics. The transmogrification feature is one that’s been extremely popular and we’re well aware this is something that players want, and it’s something we hope to be able to offer, but nothing solid to announce just yet.

GON: In terms of actual workload and resources, is developing new hairstyles and that sort of a thing a big deal, is it something you could work on but you just don’t have the manpower at the moment?

Ion: I think the reality is that it’s a question of prioritisation. We would like to do that, but there are players who also, for example, want new models for the dungeon bosses and raid bosses that they fight, and don’t want to see just a reskin of an old model. And it’s the same team of character artists that are doing all of these things, so it’s just a question of what’s more important. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care about it, or that we don’t want to do it, it’s just a question of what has to come first. And so the core features, such as new creatures and things along those lines have to take priority.

GON: We saw recently that WoW subscribers had dropped to 8.3 million. Now that’s obviously still the biggest subscription MMO by a long shot, but what I want to ask is — in your day-to-day job, do you have to consider subscription number fluctuations like this? Are you or the studio ever given direction to change the content in accordance with these numbers, in order to maybe recapture them or aggressively grow them?

Ion: It’s not about the numbers per se. I mean clearly we want to make content that as many players as possible will enjoy. And we pay far more attention to our forums, our fansites, to what our players are saying to us directly, and to what we ourselves are experiencing as we play the game, than we do to abstract numbers. Because that gives us more guidance to be gained from direct feedback. Ultimately we just want to make the best game possible and the game that is the most fun possible to play, and we’re confident that if we meet those objectives, subscriber numbers will follow.

GON: And you have no concerns about the majority of the loss being in the Asian market?

Ion: I think there are certainly business considerations. As an encounter designer, I have no reason to believe that players in Asia have a different definition of a fun dungeon or a raid boss than players in North America or Europe, and in fact the feedback comes back very similarly. So our focus is just on creating fun experiences, epic encounters, and that’s what we try to stay focused on.

GON: Thanks very much Ion for your time.

Ion: No worries, my pleasure!

Patch 5.3 releases tomorrow.

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