World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has finally launched. Just hours before the game hit stores we sat down with two members of the development team, lead systems designer Greg Street and game designer David Kosak, to talk about the future of the WoW and the MMORPG genre
Q: So, why has it taken this long to bring in Worgens as a playable race?
Greg Street: We actually talked a lot about whether it made more sense to bring them in on the Alliance side or the Horde side. They felt kind of Horde-ish, but at the same time we felt the Alliance could really benefit from something a little more monstrous, something a little more edgier, maybe breathe some life into the Alliance.
Q: Where do you stand then on the whole 'Is the Horde Evil?' debate that fills every forum?
GS: [Laughs] The horde is awesome! Alliance is evil! No...
David Kosak: I think we like to explore that grey area where the Alliance can be pretty monstrous and the Horde can be pretty noble, but they can also be the opposite. And I think in some zones we’d really try and call that out - Stonetalon and Southern Barrens. It’s very fun to play Southern Barrens from both sides, because you’ll see the same events but portrayed very differently depending on what your faction is. You’ll go into the forums afterwards and see people debating what really happened. They’re totally biased based on what faction they were when they played through the zone.
Q: What exactly have you learned from the last few expansions? The game has changed quite a lot.
DK: Well, you know, we’ve learned so much - that’s kind of what drove this expansion. The type of content we were doing in Northrend was pretty cutting edge if you compared it to what was originally in the old world. [other areas] looked very dated and so we really wanted a chance to apply all that we’ve learned. You know, so when you ask what we learned I like to look at how we tell a story. We’re much better at keeping people engaged by telling a story through gameplay and showing your actions impacting the world and really kind of drawing you through a story as you play through a zone. There wasn’t a lot of that in the old world. It was kind of hard to fish out a story from some of the zones, whereas now it’s very strong, it’s very front and centre. You’re really kind of given a setting and a scenario, and you really play through it and you really have a nice old climax before the end of the zone.
Q: How do you tell a story in a persistent world?
DK: We have a few more tools now. Phasing is a great tool that lets you kind of see the world change, and we have to be careful how we use it because you don’t want to split up the players too much so we’re trying to find that balance. We have new technology in this expansion that actually lets us phase terrain, meaning the map can actually change. You’ll definitely see that in the Horde introduction to Twilight Highlands, for instance. You’ll see a Dragonmaw port as its been built by the Dragonmaw, there will be all kinds of fighting around there, all kinds of story that plays out. And then at the end after they’ve joined the Horde, the Horde moves out and fortifies the port - so that afterwards whenever you see the port it’s all built and fortified. You’ve gone through several chapters of a story and you’ve gotten to that point where you can see the result.
Q: Do you think that’s the best way of going forward in terms of bringing narrative to Massively Multiplayer games? As opposed to using something like cutscenes?
DK: We also have technology to do cutscenes, which I think is best done sparingly. You don’t want to take people too far out of their character, [but] we’ve definitely done a lot of those that you’ll see. But, you know, it’s hard because obviously you want to be able to tell a story and you want people to be involved in the story, but you don’t want to break up the playerbase too much by separating out where you are in the story. It means you can’t play with your friends, so we try and balance it and localise it and keep stories tight. But it’s kind of an ever-evolving art. We started out playing with it, but obviously we tell the story very differently now compared to what we did a few years ago. I imagine in a few years from now we will have some other tricks up our sleeve that will mean we're able to tell the story even better.
Q: In Final Fantasy XIV cutscenes were the primary way of getting the story across. Do you think its narrative was hindered because of this?
DK: I can’t really speak to that because I haven’t played that game extensively. I know that when we – that the problem with cutscenes is that you’re taking the control away from the player for a little bit, and so it’s good for really key kind of story moments or really spectacular visuals. But we don’t want to do it too often. It can be a good reward for really interesting scenes or especially when you can see your character doing something really heroic. But we don’t want to disrupt the gameplay too much by saying ‘oh now you’re going to watch a movie’.