For a game that doesn't even have an official release date, World of Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King feels awfully close. So, with that in mind, we invaded the Activision Blizzard (still feels weird to say that) booth at Leipzig Games Convention last week to quiz lead game designer Tom Chilton and production director J Allen Brack to get the inside scoop on probably the biggest PC release of 2008. Or 2009. Ah, screw it...
VideoGamer.com: We read a recent report from an interview here in Leipzig that the game might slip to 2009. Is that true?
J Allen Brack: That's completely made up. We never give releases for anything.
VideoGamer.com: The headline was the game might slip beyond 2008.
Tom Chilton: No-one from Blizzard would ever say that.
JAB: We never give release dates so any time anyone says it may ship here, it may be that, someone made that up.
VideoGamer.com: Is there even a round about release date for the game?
JAB: There is.
VideoGamer.com: And what's that?
JAB: It is the first Tuesday when it's done.
VideoGamer.com: Blizzard's mantra, that you only release when it's done, has stood you in good stead down the years. Is that something you have ever felt pressure to change from above or is that something Blizzard will continue going forward?
TC: Certainly in the time I've been at Blizzard we have not felt any pressure to change that. We certainly do our diligence to try to get the products out when we feel like they need to be out from a customer point of view. Certainly with our expansions people don't want to wait forever before they get the next expansion. So we try to make sure the amount of content we create is doable for what we think is a reasonable schedule.
JAB: Blizzard has been owned by a lot of different companies over the years. Frank (Pearce, senior vice president and co-founder) and Mike (Morhaime, president and co-founder) and Paul (Sams, COO) all have a good talk whenever a new boss comes in, and say well these are our corporate values, this is our culture, this is what's served us really well. The guys who are in charge of the company always seem to get that. That's really important and that's what we want to keep doing.
VideoGamer.com: And your fans appreciate that, so they know when you release something that it's going to be top-notch.
JAB: That's actually our goal. Something we talk about internally is we want you to, when you install the game know you're going to have a great experience because it says Blizzard on the box.
TC: One of the things that Allen Adham, one of the founders of the company, always said was that nobody ever remembers years later whether your game made Christmas, but they'll always remember if your game sucked.
VideoGamer.com: The Death Knight is obviously the headline new feature. What was the reasoning behind that? Is there a feeling that players want a new class to play with?
TC: Yeah, for sure. Players had been heckling us for a new class for a long time. So there's definitely a lot of desire on the part of players to see new classes. For us we're conservative about it because we always want to make sure that if we introduce a new class that it doesn't screw up the game. It generally tends to be much easier for the fans to say, just do it! But ultimately it's got to be a class that we feel really good about. It's got to have a place in the game. We very highly value our philosophy of class distinction. There's no sense in introducing classes if they're all just going to end up in the same indistinguishable mess of classes, basically. We want to make sure that every class has an identity, has a role. So we're careful about doing it, but we feel like when we do it we want to do it.
VideoGamer.com: Why did you decide to allow players to start a Death Knight at level 55, rather than just say here's a new class that you can start at level one?
TC: Part of it has to do with the character itself. The Death Knight is such an iconic character in Warcraft lore that it didn't feel appropriate for it to start off at level one. It seemed to us that it would be kind of silly if there were level one Death Knights. Also in the context of our game, when we introduce a new class we really wanted to put a lot behind it in terms of giving it a really interesting introduction to the game world, we wanted to do this epic quest story. We didn't feel super comfortable doing that with a character that starts at level one because we have to assume that at level one you know nothing about the game. So we're not very comfortable putting you through an epic quest line that might expect a lot out of you. But at 55 we know you're pretty comfortable with the game's mechanics. We know you're familiar with the process of levelling up and how talents work and all that kind of thing, so we can throw a lot more at you.
VideoGamer.com: The expansion will have prettier graphics than the previous expansion and the original game. How far can you go with that? Is there a cut off point where you have to make a new World of Warcraft with much better graphics?
TC: That's certainly possible. A lot of different online games have taken that approach. You can debate how well that's actually worked out for them, which is why we're taking the approach a little more organically, deciding what the graphic features are we're going to release on a per patch or per expansion basis. This time around we've got new shader technology to allow the terrain to look better, more realistic ice effects. You can actually see much further than the game previously allowed you to. We've also introduced a new shadow system, so you can have character shadows or object shadows, things like that.
VideoGamer.com: So how many expansions before you need to do that reboot?
TC: It may never be necessary. It may be possible that just through constant iteration that we're able to keep the game looking fresh enough. I mean for us it's never been a priority to have the highest tech game on the market. It's never been a priority. For us usability is a lot more important. We want to make sure that our game runs very well on low system specs. We want to make sure that our engine supports our stylised look. So for us it's really more that kind of iterative improvement works a little bit better for us. So, at least that's the approach we're going with for now.
VideoGamer.com: Do you guys expect a drop off when Warhammer Online comes out?
TC: It's hard to say. We haven't really experienced any meaningful drop-offs in the past.
VideoGamer.com: So Age of Conan didn't result in a drop-off?
TC: Yeah. It doesn't seem to have affected us very negatively. And we're still growing. Obviously it's impossible to predict, well what would you have had if they had not? But it never really had significant impact. But that's not to say that some other one in the future won't, it could be Warhammer, it could be some other game. It's definitely a possibility. It doesn't do us much good to sit around and worry about that. We just make the best game we think that we can make and if people like it that's great, if people want to play something else then that's how it goes.
JAB: If it's a good game then I'm excited about playing it. You know I'm a gamer, so I hope that's a great game because that's more fun for me to have with other games.
VideoGamer.com: So will you credit all the developers who worked on the game then?
JAB and TC: (Blank faces).
VideoGamer.com: Have you seen this online?
JAB and TC: No.
VideoGamer.com: Oh. Earlier this week Shacknews had a story with quotes from some people who worked on Warhammer Online who aren't going to be credited on the game and aren't very happy about it.
JAB: So they don't work on Warhammer any more?
VideoGamer.com: Not any more but they were saying they had a sizeable input in the game.
JAB: For us, anyone who worked on the game we try to credit appropriately. Even if we had people leave. We actually had hardly any people leave so we didn't really have to deal with that. But just from me from a philosophy standpoint if someone left, they have no idea what happened after they left, they have no idea whether they had to get rid of their stuff or re-work it or anything. They lose the right to complain if they leave. It's a weird thing to be angry about I guess.
VideoGamer.com: Fair enough. Back to WotLK. Apart from the Death Knight what are the other headline features?
TC: Well we have the increase of the level cap from 70 to 80. We have the whole continent of Northrend that supports that. Brand new zones. We have all new instances, five man instances as you're levelling up from 70 to 80. We have the level 80 instances, the level 80 raids, both 10 and 25 person. We have a new battleground, two new arenas, a new world PvP zone, we have vehicles, destructible buildings, a new profession...
VideoGamer.com: So not much then! I played the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, and found that I levelled from 60 to 70 quite quickly. Is it going to feel as quick this time?
TC: I couldn't really gauge whether or not it would feel quick. But our starting point was actually the same amount of time it took in The Burning Crusade to get from 60 to 70. That was how we balanced the Northrend level curve initially. However we ran into a problem where because Northrend has a lot more quests than Outland did, people were getting to level 77 before they even finished the second zone. So what we ran into was the reality that people were out-levelling the content. So we slowed it down. Turns out we slowed it down too much. It got to the point where it just didn't feel good. It just felt really kind of grindy and slow. So as of our last beta push we then sped it up somewhat. It's going to be longer than the 60 to 70 was in The Burning Crusade. But hopefully, I don't feel it will really last a lot longer. It will take a little longer.
JAB: We're trying to let the content help guide us on that. The content density for Wrath of the Lich King is much higher than even The Burning Crusade.
VideoGamer.com: So tell me about Arthas, the game's poster boy. Obviously the end encounter is going to be a mega event. Tell me how that's going to work and the story behind that.
TC: There is quite a bit of story that leads up to it. You experience some of that story when you create a Death Knight. Your very first quest comes from the Lich King. There's also a cinematic moment that nobody has got to see yet in the beta. It's at a location called the Wrath Gate, so there's going to be an event there, and a lot of quests that players do lead to that, and players get to see this cinematic storyline unfold. In-game cinematic, not a CG cinematic. Then in addition to that we'll have the Arthas encounter. But we're not actually going to have players encounter Arthas until the final content patch before our next expansion.
JAB: By encounter Tom means fight. You'll encounter Arthas it's just you won't fight him until then.
TC: Right. So that fight won't happen until near the end because we want a big climax of the expansion. If he's available in the early raid tiers then it kind of feels weird that you kill him, and after that it's like, where are all these other guys? So that's how that is going to progress. But we haven't released any information yet about how the actual fight against Arthas is going to work.
VideoGamer.com: But it'll be epic, right?
TC: It'll be epic!
VideoGamer.com: I remember playing The Burning Crusade for the first time and going through the portal, it was an OMG moment, with a war happening in front of my face. Will it be a similar thing when you first arrive on Northrend?
TC: It is a little different. It's not quite like you've arrived on this huge battlefield. It's more like you've arrived at these strongholds that the Horde and Alliance have created on Northrend because the Horde and Alliance are making an assault on Arthas. So unlike The Burning Crusade where you're entering a world that is being assaulted by the Burning Legion, you're entering a continent where the Horde and Alliance are trying to take the fight to the Lich King. So it is a slightly different feel, but it's very cool because there's more architecture in place, there's a lot of base camps and things like that. All in all Northrend looks really incredible.
VideoGamer.com: It looks like you're going for an expansion every year. Is that something you'll continue going forward?
TC: It's a goal that we have. We haven't really got to that point yet. First and foremost what we do is we sit down when we decide to make an expansion, we decide what features we need to make a Blizzard quality expansion. Once we decide on that feature set we then go figure out how long it's going to take us and take it from there. So we're hoping to get to the point where we can deliver a Blizzard quality expansion in a faster amount of time, closer to every year. Whether that actually happens for the next expansion, I don't know.
VideoGamer.com: A lot of the new content is aimed at high level players who are more hardcore. Is there anything in the expansion for more casual WoW players?
JAB: We've got several features that are going to go for pretty much all levels of player. The biggest one I think is the achievements system. So the achievements system is a record of your past glories. It also can act like other things that maybe you haven't thought about doing. We'll have achievements for dungeon bosses, for high end achievement things, for killing Illidan, for killing Arthas. But we'll also have more social, more whimsical achievements. Achievements for each of our world events, like Hallows Eve, like Wintervale. Achievements for barber shop, getting a hair cut. We'll have exploration achievements for exploring certain parts of the map. So really different types of achievements for all different kinds of players.
VideoGamer.com: Will players be able to check out other players' achievements?
JAB: Yeah. It's actually called compare achievements. So just like the inspect, another option is compare achievements and you get a side by side view of your achievements and their achievements.
VideoGamer.com: How many achievements will there be?
JAB: We have over 600 right now and there will probably be over 700 by the time that we release Wrath of the Lich King.
VideoGamer.com: And some will be incredibly hard I imagine?
JAB: Oh yeah. Some of them are very easy. Some of them are a lot more difficult.
TC: Part of our philosophy about creating achievements is that we're avoiding creating the kind of achievements that are just huge time sinks. We don't really want the achievements to create really abhorrent behaviour among our players. We don't want them to just decide oh well the game is telling me I need to kill a million bats. We don't find those achievements super interesting even though they've been done in some other games. So we don't really have that kind as a hard achievement. What I would consider to be something like a hard achievement would be win the Arathi Basin battleground 2000 to 0. So it's like, OK, well the Arathi Basin battleground is probably only going to take me 25 or 30 minutes to do, but it's hard to win it so completely.
JAB: The first achievement that we talked about was kill 1000 wolves. And we decided that's a bad achievement. We're not going to do that kind of achievement.
VideoGamer.com: Earlier I asked Frank Pearce about the possibility of bringing StarCraft 2 to console and he said if the chances aren't zero then they're close to zero, but it would be a completely different experience. Is it a similar situation for World of Warcraft?
JAB: Yeah, absolutely. World of Warcraft is designed as a PC game. It's designed to have a keyboard and a mouse. So the controls and the control scheme that you have are very PC centric. If you think about mapping those controls and all those different type of buttons that you have to a console without a keyboard for chatting, it's a very challenging proposition.
TC: It's really not that we have anything against consoles. I mean we love console games also. And I'm sure there will be a successful MMO sometime on a console. So it has nothing to do with that. It's just more like a square peg round hole thing for our game. It just wasn't designed with that in mind.
VideoGamer.com: Funcom with Age of Conan are implementing new technology that allows them to map everything to a 360 controller, and they're also bringing out a 360 version. So people are exploring the idea.
TC: We've actually had players who've found ways to map their controllers to be able to play WoW. And that's cool but we don't think for our game that it's actually a very good experience playing like that.
VideoGamer.com: Wonderful guys. Thank you for your time.
The World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King is due out for PC when it's ready.