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'.
Q: Do you think that narrative is the future of virtual worlds, then?
DK: I think it's one of the things... A lot of people play virtual worlds for a lot of reasons. Some people play them for social reasons, other people play it because it's a very big challenge. It's challenging to get 24 of your friends together to actually defeat the Lich King. Some people see that as the main driving force of why they play games. And some people are going to play for a story. Not everybody is going to care about the story and some people won't care at all, and that's fine. There's plenty of room in our game for people who don't care about the story. But for the people that do, I think it's really strong to have that narrative because then that's what they associate with, that's what they pull out of the game.
Q: That seems to be the wavelength that many modern MMORPGs are on, what with The Old Republic and Guild Wars. Do you see yourselves as being comparable to them in any way?
GS: In my experience players, even if they don't care a lot about the details of the story, they want to have a motivation. They want to know, "Why am I out here doing this? " It's not just because the game told me to - I'm helping some cause or I'm exterminating wildlife because they've become aggressive or something like that. They may not need to know every little detail, and they don't need to be caught up with NPCs and world histories - that's just noise to them. But they want to know the context of what they're doing. It's kind of the difference between motivation and story detail.
Q: Do you see there being a conclusion to the WoW story?
DK: Well, being a persistent world the story is always going to be ongoing - though certainly parts of the story will wrap up. For instance, right now Deathwing is obviously a principle villain and is up to all kinds of things that are shaping the world permanently. At some point as players learn more about Deathwing and finally engage in Deathwing and defeat Deathwing, and learn more about other things that are going on in the world, we're going to be planting the seeds for the next expansion. And so I think the story will always continue and always go on as long as there's a game there. Characters have been introduced. Garrosh Hellscream was introduced in Burning Crusade and then sort of rose to some prominence by leading the invasion in Northrend. And nowadays if you go to Orgrimmar he's leading the Horde right now. So we've introduced this new character: you started to learn more about him through the gameplay, his story arc is going to continue, we're going to do more with Garrosh, and there are going to be other characters we're going to introduce and bring into the game. So it's always going to be ongoing.
GS: Yeah, we have some long-term arcs, particularly talking to Chris Metzen about where the eventual future is. He has ideas for - you know those Etherials we introduced in Burning Crusade? It was important to introduce them because they're going to play a big role later on. We're just not ready to reveal what that is. We like to drop hints that eventually foreshadow things that might not come to pass for years in real time.
Q: What are some of the issues the game had before this expansion?
GS: Oh god, it had a million problems. We're very critical of our own design, so we were constantly finding things that we weren't quite happy with, whether it was the role of dungeons or the level-up experience. Dungeons were always this dead-end. It was a lot of effort for players to get a group together to go into the dungeons, and they often weren't rewarded for the amount of effort it took. They could take hours to get through, say, the Scarlet Monastery, and end up with a blue item which is a good blue item, but they'll replace it in a few hours of levelling anyway. In Cataclysm we tried to make sure that with the new Dungeon Finder feature it's really easy to get into a dungeon. We've streamlined them a little, we've taken out a lot of the trash, made sure the rewards are useful so that players who go into a dungeon don't feel like they're wasting their time. They're getting an alternate pathway to questing and hopefully finishing some of the stories they were introduced to while they were questing.
DK: The thing to remember that WoW was released in 2004, but of course it was in development for years before that, so a lot of ideas about what the game should be and how much of the game should be questing versus roaming around, and how much of it should be discovered versus how much of your levelling up is just by killing monsters which was, you know, how it was done back in the day. And obviously the game industry has changed a lot since the launch, and so we have some different ideas about what questing should be and how you manoeuvre players through the game.
Q: Does the success of something like Lord of the Rings Online or Champions Online, both Free to Play games, put any pressure on WoW to change its pricing model?
DK: We have over 12 million subscribers, so I think our business model is working pretty well for us. You know, if that ever changed we might look at different business models but we're pretty happy with a subscription based one.
GS: Now what those games do a great job of is challenging us in the sense of, you know, what are they doing that's good? Are they, did they find out a good user interface model or were they clever about the way that they did loot? There are things that we can learn from any game, whether it's a casual online game or a handheld game or something. We're pretty voracious at taking good ideas and trying to put our own spin on them. I think all good game designers do that.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is out now on PC.