It's been a momentous week for US developer Blizzard. On Monday the studio announced it had surpassed the eight million subscription mark for its insanely popular MMO World of Warcraft in an attempt to drum up interest in the release of what is probably the biggest game expansion ever: The Burning Crusade.
And now, after thousands queued long into the cold winter night to get their mitts on the game at midnight openings across the world, millions of Warcraft players are enjoying the new continent of Outland and embarking on the long journey to level 70.
To mark the occasion, Pro-G sat down with Jonathan LeCraft, game designer on the character class team at Blizzard, who has been working on The Burning Crusade since the World of Warcraft was released over two years ago, to get the low-down on the most anticipated expansion ever.
Pro-G: You've had a heavy involvement in The Burning Crusade. With eight million subs, how much pressure does that put on the team to satisfy the famously vocal fanbase?
Jonathan LeCraft: It puts on a lot of pressure. Sometimes we'll make a change and we have to think, "wow, this is going to affect eight million people." Sometimes it makes us think twice or three times, but in the end it doesn't really change our philosophies.
Pro-G: Are there any particular examples where you've had to think twice about a feature because of how players might react?
JL: Mainly with the big changes, like how we changed the item system. Now you have to use a rating system versus the percentage based system. We knew that was going to be a big thing, but it was necessary. Also things like the honour system, and things that we changed to make them better going forward. We have to be concerned about everybody who's used to them the way they are.
Pro-G: Was there anything left out of The Burning Crusade the team had hoped would be included?
JL: There were a few systems that we weren't able to complete that we did think were going to be good; for example the hero quest was something we wanted to put in, but we just didn't have the resources. But I can't think of anything off hand that didn't get killed pretty early that we got very far with and said no; not that we haven't done that previously, I just can't think of any Burning Crusade specifics.
Here's an example. With Hellfire Peninsula, basically the entire thing was quested and all the monsters were put down and we just ripped everything up and did it again because we weren't happy with it. And then we did that again. We got to point when we were working and we were just like, "no I don't think so." If we're not happy with something, we'll just keep iterating on it until it's good.
Pro-G: That's something Blizzard is famous for, not feeling the pressure of a release date and just saying, it will be ready when it's ready.
JL: To a degree. We don't want to ship anything until it's absolutely ready, but certainly there's a time near the end where there's still a lot of pressure. Once we've decided, we have to make sure that everything we have decided on is going to work.
Pro-G: How much of an advantage is it to be able to continue to refine the game after it has come out?
JL: It is an advantage of an MMO, in that if it's really bad or we do something that we really hate we can always change it.
Pro-G: There has been some criticism from high level players that TBC is trying to attract casual players, with, for example, the reduction of the 40-player raid limit and how easy it will be to get good quality items. What was the thinking behind that?
JL: All those were very conscious decisions, especially the 25-man raid limit. That was made for more than just casual appeal. We tend to be able to make better encounters for smaller groups of people just because it's a more controlled group. We can do different stuff with a smaller group.
With the better items available as quest rewards, when you first enter Hellfire (the first new area in Outland) you're going to see some of those quest items and be like "whoa where'd this come from? I can't believe this is a quest reward!" but the stuff at the end is still awesome; it'll still be worth it. You'll feel like it was worth it to go down the dungeons.
Pro-G: You don't feel there will be any hard feelings from hardcore high level raiding players who have put days upon days into getting great equipment?
JL: It depends, because when they have put in all that work some people were thinking that this is the end and whatever I get I won't ever need it again, but that all changes when we increase the level cap and that's kind of inevitable. I think dealing with that realisation will be there, but at the same time people who have raided and have tier two, they won't need new equipment until level 70, until they start doing the new dungeons. They're not going to look at the quest rewards and go, "wow, that's amazing in Hellfire," they're going to be set and definitely going to have an advantage levelling up. You will replace your gear obviously, but not until the end game.