After four expansions, how can Blizzard possibly keep it fresh without making it daunting for returning players? We spoke to Blizzard to get some answers.
By Alex Walker on March 11, 2014 at 3:17 pm
I’ve always had a strange and antisocial relationship with World of Warcraft. Unlike the hordes – quite literally hordes – of players who spent weeks, months leveling up one or more toons, and running through instances, dungeons, battlegrounds and journeys over the past decade, my interest lies in the world itself.
World of Warcraft was, and still is, remarkably vibrant, even if many better-textured games have been released in the decade since. Entering new zones often felt like entering a whole new world, such was the contrast of colours, the clash of character. Hopping on a zeppelin or a boat felt like travelling to a new world, helped in no small part to the enormity of the vessel and the brief delay before the loading screen.
It’s that sense of wonderment that creative director Alex Afrasiabi implies the team is hoping to channel with the gold standard for MMO’s latest expansion, Warlords of Draenor. “If you’re a former WoW player, you’re going to get hit with some crazy nostalgia,” Afrasiabi explained, describing the setup behind Draenor and the basis for the Iron Horde’s mass invasion of Azeroth.
“it’ll be a prolonged event where we’re basically fighting off these Iron Horde war machines … and doing everything we can to stop it but nothing seems to work,” he outlines. “We’re trying to blow up the portal, we’re killing them, they don’t stop, it’s endless. So it becomes dire, the point where these guys are actually marching across and gaining ground through Azeroth, which gets us to launch day.”
“Instead of giant demons marching up to the gates and we were fending them off, now it’s going to be you and your army and what you see is a scene of just fifty thousand [orcs], just orcs everywhere.” It’s a very deliberate, narrative-focused setup, one that mirrors the Burning Crusade, and something Afrasiabi channels a lot during our talk.
“This becomes a Death Knight-like experience in Wrath, or even now, you go through a one and a half hour experience, it’s very custom tailored to the death knights,” he says. “We’re going to put you into this experience, where its 40 to 45 minutes and we really amp up the action, the suspense, the drama, we show you those guys, we really make you see the face of your enemy, we make you interact with them, we make you understand why these guys need to be stopped, why the Iron Horde needs to be stopped.”
In my brief time in Draenor, it’s immediately apparent that war is afoot. Skirmishes between the Iron Horde and, well, whatever could be graciously described as an alliance. There’s plenty of minor battles and mobs to savour, but the first order of business is cutting down the grappling hooks adorned around the fortress walls.
Blizzard established template level 90 avatars for the journalists at the event to make life easier, so the actual starting point was, as always, the character creator screen. “Every character is going to get an upgrade, but what we have now is the gnomes, dwarves and orcs,” Afrasiabi explained. I asked later on if all the models would be ready for launch: the creative director replied with a respectful “our goal is to do as much as possible”.
“We know, we don’t think we can hit all of the models [by release] but most,” he added, although it’s also true that not all of the models require the same degree of touching up.”
There’s been a lot of touch-ups to WoW over the years and the engine has enjoyed many tweaks of various sizes. I wondered out loud whether the performance of low-end machines was a concern for the team. It’s certainly not unusual for players who lavish so much over the one game to put off hardware upgrades for longer than your average enthusiast, after all.
Afrasiabi, as you’d expect, agreed. “One of our foundational tenets as a game is that we’re accessible and that this is how WoW became so big,” he said. “It still is and it could play, back then, on really low-spec systems. And so we dedicate tremendous resources to making sure that [is] always true.”
“OK, your machine doesn’t have the memory to be able to render all the character models, so we’re just going to use ones, because we can do that … we as designers are always trying to keep ourselves honest.”
But honesty doesn’t work without facing some hard truths. One such problem that Afrasiabi spoke about at length was the difficulty of getting older players to return to the game. It wasn’t the subscription model, aging textures or a comfortable design that provided the stumbling block though: it was good old fashioned psychology, which forms the base logic behind the level 90 character boost.
“But it’s integral for this expansion, it’s integral for WoW at this point,” he explained. “One of the problems we’ve seen over the years is that as the game gets older and better, but older and bigger, and just more content, and we keep adding levels – we can’t stop! – it becomes more and more difficult to get back into the game if you lapse.”
“It happens all the time, but you might be, “Hey, this new expansion looks awesome, I wanna come back”. Then you log in, your bags are full of shit that you don’t know what to do with, you don’t know how to play your class, because things have changed, and you gotta get like 15 levels. That’s actually a problem.”
It wasn’t until later that Afrasiabi’s example became clear, although I’ve no doubt he rather enjoyed witnessing it live. I hadn’t played WoW for years and, as a result, had lost the foresight to realise that I’d need to spend a few minutes setting up my character’s skills once it was created.
When you initially jump in, your toolbar will be largely blank, your talents unselected and skills a completely blank slate. Afrasiabi could have thrown me a bone, although I’d give him the benefit of the doubt – it was the end of a day, a long day particularly for someone who’s effectively been presenting for several hours straight, and you can’t deny a man the enjoyment of watching someone wander into a mob of enraged Orcs only to realise the stock-standard auto-attack isn’t sufficient for the job at hand.
Before this slight embarrassment, however, I asked whether alternative measures had been looked into. Why not, for instance, improve the bonuses received from things outside of questing? Why not make archeology or even pet battles more materially rewarding?
“We did look at that stuff,” Afrasiabi replied, but “even doing that wouldn’t be enough”.
“Interestingly though, the psychology is so strong, especially if you’re someone who’s just not in the loop of WoW, that you just see 15 levels, and even though the 15 levels might take you – what’s a reasonable amount of time? It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. The person looks at that and just very, understandably, it’s daunting,” he said.
“You could certainly quadruple the current already multiplied experience rates, but it does also come to a point where it’s kind of ridiculous, you’re dinging five times off a kill, like, what purpose did that serve? It doesn’t quite work out for us, I think, it just makes the game feel sloppy, like you’re playing through this super accelerated game. We may as well give you a button to press to ding you.”
Upgrading to level 90 for free (provided you purchase Warlords — boosts aren’t available unless you own the expansion) – with a $60 cost for every boost thereafter – isn’t exactly the same as hitting a button to level at will, although there’s an uncanny irony between the two. Nevertheless, it is, as the director described, the “cleanest” option to overcome that psychological hurdle.
Finding clean, or simple, solutions to problems becomes a challenge over the life of an MMO, especially when they’re problems posed by existing systems. Towards the end of our interview, I asked about a quote I’d come across where it was hinted that looting would become a more enjoyable experience in Draenor. Afrasiabi took the philosophical approach.
“There are certain things that it’s almost like it’s an artifact of the game at this point, where it’s like, why do we drop gray loot,” he asked. It is, after all, entirely worthless. You don’t get rich off trash. But while the director wasn’t able to give me any real detail as to what changes were afoot, there was no doubt as to whether inventory management, items and item loot was on the agenda
“There’s all kinds of weird white items that end up going into your inventory and making your inventory a nightmare. And for a player that’s playing WoW right now, that avidly plays, that’s generally fine. It’s something you become accustomed to, it’s not the greatest thing, but you deal with it. But it becomes worse when you haven’t played for some amount of time and you come back and then it extends to things beyond those white items,” Afrasiabi said.
“But we don’t know if that’s going to be something we make for ship. It’s something we want to shoot for, better inventory, better inventory management which will make looting better by proxy. But we’ll see. We really want to do it though.”
A feature that will definitely see the light of release day, however, is player housing, otherwise known as garrisons. But don’t let Blizzard catch you using the former moniker; in Afrasiabi’s eyes, it’s far too insufficient for its impact on gameplay.
“You’re building this garrison, you’re fortifying it, you’re upgrading it, you’re building more buildings and armaments and so on and so forth with the express purpose of kicking the Iron Horde’s ass.” He went on to explain the basics of the follower system – “We have the ability right now to give you a follower as a result of practically any condition” – and even talked about future related changes to professions, revealing that you could build blacksmith buildings within your garrison that provide “certain perks and benefits”. This is on top of the already announced ability to recruit followers of all shades and stripes to your garrison.
None of the garrisons were viewable in my short time with the code, although MMOs are rarely well served without several weekends of playtime. That’s a wonderful advantage for a developer though: it means they have lots of content to tease over the coming months.
Many questions lie over what changes the Iron Horde’s invasion will bring. Just how beneficial can your garrison be? What end-game content beyond the shutting down of the portal will there be? What form will professions take post-Draenor? And, most importantly of all, when exactly will the expansion launch – and will this be the last one?
Only time, a colossal Freudian slip, or a concentrated hack by Anonymous, will tell. For now, the warlords and Azeroth’s fate, can wait.
games.on.net travelled to San Francisco for this event courtesy of Blizzard.