VideoGamer.com gets the chance to sit down with World of Warcraft game director Tom Chilton, and art director Chris Robinson, to talk about gold farming, subscription drops, consoles, and the ever-elusive subject of Pandaren.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the new transmogrification feature? Can you transmogrify any item or only Legendary items?
Tom Chilton: No, you can transmogrify any item within certain limitations. So the limitations are that it's got to be the same armour type. So you can't take a piece of plate mail and make it look like cloth. And then you also can't make something look like the Legendary, so for example you can't use Thunder Fury and make your current one-handed sword look like Thunder Fury. And then when it applies to weapons, it has to be the same weapon type. So you can't make an axe look like a two-handed sword.
Q: With Diablo 3, Blizzard has decided to combat third-party goldfarming sites by introducing a cash-based player-driven auction house. Is that something that could function in this game?
TC: I think it would be very difficult to make it work in WoW. Because our item-model is so different. Like Jay [Wilson, game director of Diablo 3] mentioned in the interview, Diablo is very much about trading and that's why everything that drops in the game is not bound to that character, where as with WoW it's much more about the accomplishment of having beaten the content and then getting the items that are soulbound.
So right off the bat that sort of eliminates the possibility of using it the same way that Diablo 3 will. It's always possible to extend it in other ways, for example we could theoretically allow players to sell their characters. Although it's not something we currently plan to do, so that's just, like, a theoretical possibility of how it could be used! So it would definitely be different [to Diablo 3].
Q: Is gold farming as much an issue for WoW today as it was a few years ago?
TC: Oddly, that has changed but not necessary for a good reason or in a good way. The reason you see less gold farmers out there actually farming gold is because that's the hard way to get gold. The easy way for them to get gold is hacking people's accounts, to take their gold and sell it. That's something we've been actively combating. I guess the small up-shot is that you don't see these guys out in the world in their little box farming stuff.
Q: So how are you combating it?
TC: More than anything else we combat it with things like Battle.net Secure, which is our built-in, it's sort of in the background, the infrastructure. It looks at your log-in, your play history. It's a lot like credit card security where it checks abnormal behaviour. It can trip security measures to say "oh hey, you've got to validate this is you by unlocking your account in your email or whatever".
Q: Obviously at the moment we're seeing more and more alternative business models rearing their head, with microtransaction models and even Guild Wars 2 on the horizon. Is there any incentive to incorporate more microtransactional elements?
TC: I mean, we have to some degree. With the pet store and being able to buy super ponies and that kind of stuff. So there's a little bit of that but it's still not an emphasis for us with the business model - it may make sense some day, it's just that right now it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense from a business standpoint to change what we've been doing since it's been working. I think that, you know, you certainly see our change-over in the Starter Edition goes a little bit more in that direction, although I can't say truthfully that the reason we did that was to go to more free-to-play model. Really that was more about, it didn't make sense for the trial to expire on people. When we looked at the data we saw that most people weren't even getting to level 20 before the 10 days were up so they just kind of got cut short. So we thought "Why do we have this thing expiring after 10 days?" There wasn't really a very good reason.
Q: Can you still be competitive in the market without having free-to-play elements at this point?
TC: So far, yes. I don't know if that will always be true. But until it's not true then we'll stick with what we're doing.
Q: A lot of people are making a big deal about the recent drop in subscription holders. Do you think this is being overblown?
TC: To some extent, yes. It is to some degree cyclical, in that we have always experienced as a new expansion comes out, we get a spike in subscribers and then it steadily trails down until the next expansion comes out. And so far with each expansion the spike up has been a little bit higher than the previous spikes up, so, and with Cataclysm, one of the things that made Cataclysm a little bit more dramatic is that I think that the idea of a rejuvenated WoW with all the kind of old-school re-doing got more re-activations than we normally would get when we release an expansion. But at the same time those are players that are the most likely to re-activate, check it out for a little bit, see what was different, and then turn again. So you see a bigger spike and a bigger drop afterwards.
Q: So how do you get these players to stick?
TC: That's really hard to say, if I really knew the answer to that we'd be doing it! [Laughs]. But I think in some cases, when you get to the end game you can definitely make the argument that the end game didn't evolve enough to kind of keep them on. Some people had raided for years and they came back to see how the world changed but at the end game it's still, oh okay, I've raided for a long time and it's still kind of the same.
Q: Do you expect to see even more players coming back in the next expansion, if Cataclysm is anything to model the future on?
TC: We'll see, but it's awfully hard to predict. I think that Cataclysm may be an exception in that it had a powerful hook for people who had tried the game in the past and were looking for a reason to come back, whereas I don't know if the traditional expansion model would get that same sort of re-activation.
Q: Is there pressure to reach out to other markets that wouldn't necessarily reach out to MMOs, like console gamers?
TC: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And that happens almost inevitably. It's not like there's pressure for us to do something different. It's more that, it's one of those things that inevitably happens when the game continues to try to penetrate more people. So the types of players that we get now that are new to the game are very different than the new players we were getting five, six years ago.
And we definitely find with people who are entering the game now, they struggle with even the really basic concepts of moving the camera in 3D or walking with WASD. Because they've never used WASD, they've played console games. Or looting a creature after you kill it, doing a quest, turning in a quest. All those really basic mechanics, they're not familiar with.
Q: Getting to those different markets, would that necessarily mean bringing WoW to a different platform?
TC: No, not necessarily. I mean, if it made sense to do that then we would definitely consider it. We have in the past looked into "well, what would it be like if we tried to put WoW on a console?"
Q: Do you think you could even play WoW without a keyboard?
TC: You can play it on a gamepad, [although] it's not a great experience and especially when it comes to chat. WoW is a very social game there is a lot of chat interaction, and that's really awkward on a console without a keyboard.
Q: Are Pandaren too cutesy to be a playable race?
Chris Robinson: I don't think they're too cutesy to be a playable race, and it certainly depends on the artistic interpretation. I think that if you were to look at, you know how we did our April Fools thing with the Pandaren Express or whatever. I think that particular take on it is too cutesy, but I can see them being cool. [Laughs]
TC: Sure yeah, I think any new race we're going to do is going to need to fit into our current, you know. We're not going to do something that goes completely out of our style. And that goes for anything, if not Pandaren any race we're going to do.