by on Jul 3, 2009

Blizzard’s Tom Chilton on the future of WoW

Tom Chilton is Mr. WoW. Not only is he current game director of the phenomenally popular MMO, but he had a hand in the game’s original 2004 release and its subsequent expansions, The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, making him one of Blizzard’s main men. Here, in the second part of a mammoth interview conducted at the Warcraft Regional Finals 2009 in Cologne, Germany, last weekend, we discuss WoW’s future, including what the next expansion might bring. You can read Tom’s explanation of the changes Patch 3.2 will bring in the first part of the interview. When I interviewed you at Leipzig last year you told me that the goal is to release an expansion every calendar year. Is that still the case?

Tom Chilton: Yeah I would still say that’s the case. We’d like to hit each calendar year somehow. Whether or not that actually happens in the near term I don’t know yet. It’s safe to say there will be more expansions for WoW, and it’s safe to say we have long term things we’re working on right now. They get players excited and give players a lot of new stuff to do all at once so it’s really cool. Whether or not that actually happens a year from when Wrath of the Lich King came out, not likely! But we’ll see. We’re still trying to get it to the point where we’re able to deliver them more quickly than we were before. What kind of discussions and work is being done on the next expansion? Has brainstorming begun?

TC: Perhaps! You’ll just have to wait for more info on that! The first expansion was set in Outland, the second in Northrend, which was a little closer to home. Is there anywhere else left on the original map that can accommodate an expansion or does it have to be somewhere foreign?

TC: No I don’t think it has to be anywhere completely foreign yet. There are parts of the map that we have left ambiguous and unexplored. There are parts of Eastern Kingdoms and Azeroth that haven’t been filled out yet. Out there in the South Seas there are islands, there’s out where the Maelstrom is. There’s still quite a bit of land mass. We keep referring to the Emerald Dream, which is maybe not exactly in Azeroth, but is sort of tied to it in some way or another. But there are definitely places in Azeroth itself that are close to home that haven’t been filled out yet, so there’s more room for that sort of thing.

Tom_chilton_2.jpg What’s your personal philosophy on the implementation of new classes and races? Is implementing a new race easier than a class because a new class can create so many problems for balance?

TC: I would say that’s very true. It’s easier from a game design perspective. It’s generally harder from a production perspective. From the art, animations and that sort of thing, it’s a lot more taxing on that side of it. We have to take that into consideration when we make that decision. With classes, it’s a very design driven approach as to whether or not we do a new class, because we don’t feel that we can support the pace of adding a new class with every single expansion. We feel like we will dilute the classes too much if we do that. It will only be a couple of expansions before, I would say three, four expansions down the road, I would worry that our classes would become less distinct and interesting, and the new stuff may not feel as cool. If you implemented a new class with each expansion?

TC: Right, exactly. Or the classes would start to become more and more alike as we start to hybridise things more and more. I do think there are a limited number of classes the game can support with its level complexity. So we want to make sure that we choose wisely what the class is going to be and when it’s introduced, and not kid ourselves into thinking that we can just keep shoving them into the game without making a mess of the game. We saw the implementation of a new class with Wrath of the Lich King. Given what you’ve just said, is it unlikely that we’ll see a new class in the next expansion?

TC: It makes it less likely. Not impossible – there may be a time when we do two classes back to back and maybe we’ll do that. Maybe we won’t. We’ll just have to wait and see. Regarding new races, what possible new races are there left in the Warcraft universe that are suitable for being playable?

TC: There are a lot of them that we already know about that are creatures that are out there. I don’t want to give away too many of the things that we have going on in our minds for different possibilities. But there are certainly possibilities that don’t necessarily limit us to coming with completely new things that players will never have seen before. In fact one of the things that we learned from doing the draenei is that it’s important to seed the race in the world. It was harder for players to ‘get’ the draenei thing because they kind of came out of nowhere. They’d been referred to in previous Warcraft games but nobody had really ever seen or dealt with them. So it was a little harder to do, whereas with Blood Elves it was a lot easier. What we learned from that is we do wherever possible want to seed that potential, even if it’s in a small way. An example I could throw out there would be, in Blackwing Lair we had the drakonid race. We always looked at those and said, oh that would be a pretty cool player race – it would be cool to play as one of those guys. There’s not a lot there as far as, where did they come from and what are they? But they are in the world and it wouldn’t be completely inconceivable that a player would end up being able to play that, and we could continue to expand on the depth of that race and that sort of race. So it would be fair to say that there won’t be any more aliens arriving in a spaceship?

TC: Yeah! It certainly could happen, but wherever possible we’re going to try and make sure we introduce and pre-seed the races before we actually use them as player races. Another thing I asked you when we spoke last year was about the graphical issue. You mentioned then that Blizzard games tend not to be focused on graphics, more on gameplay. Does that mean that there will never be a need for a Warcraft sequel? Will you be able to make do by iterating on the game with expansions that slightly improve the graphics each time?

TC: I don’t really know the answer to that yet. I don’t feel like right now would necessarily be the right time to be creating a World of Warcraft 2. There may well be a day when that’s the right thing to do. For now the right way to approach it is for us to continue doing that iterative improvement. And I also don’t think that the right way to necessarily do it is with a big graphical overhaul expansion. Like we’ve talked about before we’ve seen other games do that and not do very well, because just making such a radical visual change to the game in the middle of its history, it’s very hard to pull off.

Tom_chilton_3.jpg WoW’s five year anniversary will come this November. Are you planning any celebrations?

TC: There will definitely be something in-game. I’m sure that at Blizzard headquarters we’ll have celebrations too! There may be drunken people, but we’ll have to see about that. We certainly plan to have some in-game stuff too. It’s definitely very cool. In a lot of ways it’s cooler for us than maybe a lot of the players. I would say a lot of players aren’t necessarily even cognisant of the fact that it’s been around for that long. We’re not going to try to shove it in everybody’s face too much, but it’s cool. You were there from the beginning. Did you know at launch that in five years you’d be kings of the MMO industry?

TC: Near the end of development I felt like, I really think we have the best MMO. But as far as how successful it would be? Pff – no I never would have guessed how successful it’s been. I definitely would have guessed it would be around for as long as it has. Other games previous to WoW had been around that long. When WoW was released games like Ultima Online and EverQuest were on their sixth, seventh birthday, and they still had, even if they didn’t have communities that were at their peak, they still had substantial communities, at least for what was considered substantial at the time. It doesn’t shock me that WoW has lasted as long as those have. There’s a lot of history behind MMOs, and even MUDs that pre-date MMOs, that indicate that the games tend to last a long time. How long can WoW last?

TC: I don’t really know. Does anyone know?

TC: I don’t think anybody really knows. I could easily see it going… I really don’t know. It depends on what you consider how long it lasts. Between the day we finally shut off the servers, which will happen eventually someday for sure! At least that’s my prediction. I’m willing to guess that someday the servers will be shut off, but it will probably be many years from now. When that might be I don’t really know, but I think it’s going to be quite a while still. I recently interviewed Ryan Barker, the lead designer on EverQuest, and I asked him if WoW’s subscription numbers could ever be beaten. He suggested a Facebook-inspired MMO would eventually dwarf WoW’s numbers. What’s your feeling on that? Could that happen?

TC: You can draw arbitrary category lines wherever you want. I certainly believe that there will be online communities bigger than WoW. You could argue that there are online communities bigger than WoW right now. But is an online community an MMO?

TC: Right. That’s where it becomes arbitrary, and I don’t know that any answer is the correct answer. To me, for the purposes of what we’re doing as a game company, as Blizzard Entertainment, I don’t really think of Facebook as an MMO. To me there would need to be game elements and all that kind of stuff that are a little bit more traditional, if you want to compare them apples to apples. Also subscription fees, that kind of thing. It’s hard to compare games that have subscription fees to games that don’t have subscription fees. They’re really apples to oranges as far as saying which one’s bigger. But I definitely do think there will be some MMO at some point that beats WoW, that’s bigger than WoW. Hopefully we’re the ones that make it, but whether that happens, I don’t know. Certainly back when WoW came out, nobody felt like EverQuest could be beaten. A lot of people felt, I don’t know if anybody’s ever going to get bigger than EverQuest. Certainly that happened.

Top50lich.jpg It’s interesting that you don’t think you can compare a subscription-based MMO with a free-to-play MMO. Does that mean you don’t consider Free Realms to be in the same category?

TC: I certainly would consider Free Realms to be an MMO, but as far as how do you measure the success of Free Realms versus measuring the success of WoW, it’s very difficult to do that. Even if they got more subscribers than us, you could still make the argument that they’re not really all paying. Is that really more successful? I don’t know. It’s a nebulous land of whoever wants to feel better about saying that they got the best. At the end of the day it’s all about whichever company is making the most money will claim that they’re the best, but whatever – as a game designer and developer that doesn’t interest me that much. What it’s about for the guys on our team is we just want to have a lot of fun and make a game we’re proud of. Will WoW always be subscription based? Could it ever have a micro-transaction/free-to-play model?

TC: I certainly think it’s possible that we could do some kind of micro-transaction stuff. Whether or not World of Warcraft ever goes the direction of, I guess like Anarchy Online has gone the direction of going free-to-play with micro-transactions. Whether we ever shift to a free-to-play model is really too hard to say at this point. Anything I say now could easily five years from now end up seeming like, oh my gosh, that was an incredibly dumb thing to say, how naive! You mentioned that one day an MMO will beat WoW, and hopefully it’s one of your own. You’re working on an unannounced MMO. I’ve seen a blue post from Blizzard confirming it’s going to be a new franchise. Is there any update or hints you can give your millions of fans on that game? I’m sure being who you are you must have some indication of it.

TC: Yeah, certainly I’ve gotton to see a lot of what’s gone on. I’ve been participating in it for a long time now. But it’s definitely not anything that I can talk about. It’s not anything I can give any insight into or any hints or whatever. You’re actually involved in the development?

TC: Yeah I’ve been involved for years now. It’s been in development for years?

TC: To a certain extent yeah. On a very small scale. How about if I ask you whether Blizzard’s fans should be excited by the game?

TC: I certainly hope so. I’m excited about it so hopefully they will be too.

Patch 3.2 Call of the Crusade will be ready when it’s ready.


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World of Warcraft

on PC

MMORPG set in the Warcraft Universe.

Release Date:

11 February 2005