Wowhead's Exclusive Interview with John Lagrave and Ion Hazzikostas
Today we have a special interview from Gamescom to share with everyone! Gazimoff from
was kind enough to conduct an interview in our stead. He spoke with both John Lagrave (lead game producer) and Ion Hazzikostas (lead encounter designer) about Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's future, and more.
Read on to find out what feature has been the most challenging for these developers, where they're drawing their inspiration from, and other exciting tidbits to tide you over until Mists of Pandaria's launch!
In your opinion, what was the hardest part of developing Mists of Pandaria as an expansion?
: I think overall, just meeting the challenge that we set for ourselves when we set out to create this, we set out to offer more content than ever before, in terms of breadth and depth. We have eighteen raid bosses this patch. We have well over a thousand new quests, over two hundred max level daily quests, as well as entire new systems - scenario system, pet battles, challenge modes.
We’ve said that we came up with a very ambitious feature list for ourselves, and just rising to the challenge and getting it all done to the standards we expected of ourselves, as well as our players ahead of us, that was a hard challenge.
: So for me, that’s all good, right, but actual work... (laughs)
Our pet battle system, which is the notion of you take your companion pet, and you face off with me, or AI, and our pets battle. It sounds trivial, but it’s actually incredibly difficult, because we’re establishing a turn based system into our real-time game, and we didn’t support any of that. The engineering work was tremendous, just a ton of work. We had several guys, full time on it for months on end, doing that work. And people are like “That has to be trivial, you just have two pets and one goes, the other goes. How simple is that?” Tremendous amount of work. There was a lot of sweat involved in that.
On the subject of pet battles, one of the commonly asked things is bringing it to mobile. It feels like such a natural thing to happen. Is that something you’re considering?
: There’s certainly been discussion on all of that. Of course, anybody I talk to is like “so when’s it coming out on mobile”. Right now, our focus has just been on getting it up, getting it functioning, getting it feeling good, getting all the bugs fixed, getting the achievements in for it, all that kind of stuff. Our focus has been on really getting it in-game and working. And so we’re sort of like this right now: “Oh my god, let’s get it done, let’s get it fun, let’s get it in!”
And it is fun. We showed it off to the public in early July, after – I’m not kidding – five months of development. We’d gone through many iterations where we were like “Well this isn’t really enjoyable, we’re not having a good time with this, let’s change this”. We wanted the battles to become faster they were too slow. Initially, we were only giving you one ability, and we were like “that’s really boring”. So we’ve just done a truck ton of work just to get it to the point where we think it’s a fun, enjoyable thing.
Pet battles are just that. It’s just a one-off, something for you and I to do while we’re waiting for a raid to get going or before a scenario or something like that, that’s just a fun thing to do at this point. And now we just want people to play it – we’ll worry about the rest later, just let me get it in your hands!
One of the things the whole Wowhead team has gone nuts over is the increase in vanity items. What inspired you to go down that route? Is there going to be a heavier focus on fun items in the future?
: Historically, those have been some of players’ favorite items, right? Oh, there’s this random quest reward that makes a rainbow, and that alone suddenly becomes something that people go after. Even historically in vanilla people would refrain from turning in quests because you could keep some item that would transform your character, and that was something they really had a strong attachment to. We love creating those items. We enjoy them ourselves as players, and we love putting them into the game.
One great source of them in Mists is we actually have numerous rare spawns or variants of rare spawns that are out in the outdoor world; we call them Champions of the different races of Pandaria. They spawn more frequently than historical rare spawns, you’ll see them every half hour or maybe forty minutes instead of a once a day type deal. They’re challenging, they’re soloable but they’re challenging, they’re elite, and there are 56 different ones across the entire continent, each of which has a chance to drop its own unique item, many of which have flavor effects, unique effects like that.
With achievement support for collecting them all, we think it’s something that players are really going to get excited about. It’s one of those things that you can really enjoy doing, and having unique things that flesh your character out.
This is the fourth expansion. What inspiration does Mists of Pandaria take from previous expansions? It feels for example like the two world bosses you’ve got are like Vanilla’s dragon world bosses.
It definitely follows as a successor to the prior expansions, but I think the analogy to some of the vanilla content is very apt. In many ways it’s a return to our roots, and we see it that way. In Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, all those cases, the players were presented with “OK, there’s this world-ending threat, whether it’s the Burning Legion, it’s Arthas, you must stop him, you must stop them.”
In classic WoW, really there was no single villain in the basic game, it was “here’s this world to explore, and to have adventures, and to see these conflicts play out, particularly between the horde and the alliance.” That is the star of the show in Mists of Pandaria. Its’ returning to the Horde versus Alliance conflict, doing it in these entirely new settings, undiscovered lands where, really, no-one knows what they’re going to find. Alight on these shores and players can explore and have a whole new adventure there.
I think also, to touch a bit more on it, we certainly learned from past expansions on our talent system. We’ve gone through and said when we first did the game, we were like “Hey yeah, lots of talents, lots of things to pick, right?” And then we said “That’s too much, let’s tone it down”, and we toned it down, then we toned it down again. Now we’re actually finally going “Absolutely have to have meaningful choices, some really hard, differentiating decisions for the player”, and that’s been the theme throughout expansions.
Conversely, on that point, is there anything you learned from all the feedback on previous expansions, which affected your development of Mists of Pandaria?
Yes, certainly. I think we’re always listening to players, we’re listening to what they have to say, and we’re adapting and evolving the game to give them the best experience possible.
For example, one criticism that players had was that the dungeons at Cataclysm launch were seen by many as too difficult, and people had a frustrating experience there. Some of that was a product – we were a bit slow in adapting and recognizing the effect of the looking for group system on our dungeon content. The dungeons shifted very rapidly from something mostly done by friends or guildmates, that were organized, often on voice chat or playing together on a regular basis, to essentially groups of strangers that were thrown together and going through this adventure.
There’s a very different level of expectation in terms of adapting, overcoming difficulty, learning from mistakes, applying that knowledge. And we had designed those dungeons still in a different kind of mindset. We quickly adapted and reduced the difficulty there, and have kept that up going forward into Mists. So I think players will find, if they were frustrated by some of the Cataclysm dungeons at release, that when they hit level 90 and queue up for dungeons in Mists, they will have, I think, a more satisfying experience.
That said, we still really love the coordinated group gameplay, where five people work together, they crowd control, they assist, they have target prioritization and so forth, and that’s really what the challenge modes have set out to deliver, as an experience that’s really targeted for groups of friends, for guildmates who are playing together on a regular basis, they know each other, they know each other’s styles. They know that when I mark star, the mage will polymorph star and that’s how it always works, and we don’t need to communicate beyond that.
Challenge modes are a higher difficulty of five player dungeon that offer prestige rewards as well as the standard achievements, titles, unique mounts, and customizable, transmogrifiable armor that has unique animations. A Gold Challenge Mode conqueror who’s a rogue, who has the transmogrification sets from that reward, whenever they mutilate, the dragons on their shoulders will actually breathe out clouds of smoke. Things like that are things that no other armor set’s going to give you. And everyone who sees that will know they’ve really accomplished something challenging. I think we have a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for that system.
You’ve got an explosion in the number of factions in Mists of Pandaria, and it all seems very thought out and planned. What were your thoughts on factions going into the expansion, and how did you choose to make them stand out?
As we were setting out to concrete the ecology and the landscape of Pandaria, we were asking ourselves “who are the players here.” These are races the players are encountering for the first time, and we had to work through what their culture was going to be like, what are their motivations, what types of interactions would they have with the players, what would you do with them, and so forth.
And again, we like how reputation played out in the past, probably actually more so than recently, and one of the things you see in Mists is the removal of a lot of the tabards, which just became a shorthand way of getting any reputation you want. So it’s “Oh, I want to get my reputation with this faction up, I’ll wear their tabard and go do a dungeon. If I want to get reputation with a different faction up, I’ll wear a different tabard to the dungeon”. But there’s no real connection to the faction, you’re just doing the same dungeon content, and doing it a lot to use the vendor.
By focusing on assisting those factions, whether you are working for the Tillers, restoring lands and farm plots that have fallen into disarray, eventually making your own farm. Or whether you’re helping the Lorewalker faction uncover fragments of the lost history of the continent of Pandaria as you learn it yourself. I think as you develop closer ties with them, your faction really reflects what you have done and experienced with that faction in a way that hasn’t been seen in quite a while in WoW, and we’re really excited about that.
Earlier, I asked what the hardest part of developing Mists of Pandaria. Would you say that factions are the area you’re most excited to have worked on, or is there a different aspect that really got you fired up?
The thing I personally worked on, that is most exciting, I would say is the talent system, and the overhaul as a whole. It was a wonderfully fun and challenging experience as a designer, taking what had come to literally be 80, 90 separate talents that some classes had, distilling that down into a 3 by 6 grid, of really interesting, powerful, meaningful choices, with so much iteration and tinkering.
We wanted to do that system as a natural extension of where talents have been previously. We had 31-point talent trees that we made in Cataclysm, reduced from 51-point trees in Lich King, trying to really concentrate the coolness of that system, but we still found, looking at what players were doing, that maybe they’d spend 33 talent points in one of their trees, but 28 or 20 out of those 33 were “Your fireball hits harder”, and “You have 2 percent more crit”, and they weren’t really choices. In some cases it was like “do you want 1 percent damage, or a 2 percent chance to proc this”, and someone else who’s smart does the math, and you would go read what they did, and that’s the answer. And if you get it wrong then you’re weak, and you feel bad for that choice. It really wasn’t fun, it wasn’t meaningful gameplay.
So what what we did was say “OK, we’re going to give the 29 points worth of power increasing ‘mandatory talents’ to the fire mage just for being a fire mage. You’re a fire mage, you have pyroblast, you have hot streak. Your fireball hits harder than a frost mage’s fireball, because you’re a fire mage. We know you want those things, those aren’t the choices. But then the more meaningful ones are “when you get hit, does that proc blazing speed that makes you run faster. Or do you put a barrier up to defend yourself from damage, and maybe stand in it and take it a bit more. What’s the right answer there? I guess there isn’t necessarily one.
I think delivering a meaningful choice to the player, it’s a system we’re very excited about, but it was also a lot of fun to work on as designers. And the evolution of the talent trees – if some of the talent trees that were previewed at Blizzcon for the first time, if people go back and look at those, and compare them to what’s in beta today, it’s often unrecognizable. I think it really is a testament to just how much iteration we do. Iterating, play testing, looking for feedback, going from there.
So do you think there’s still room for theorycrafting and theorycrafters, or are you trying to move to a “choose your gameplay” style?
Theorycrafters will always theorycraft. There’ll always be number crunchers trying to work out the best and worst options.
One of our goals is that there shouldn’t be a universally best or worst option. Given a certain situation, if you’re fighting a certain boss, which has certain challenges, say if there are creature adds during the fight and it’s really important to snare them to stop or reduce their movements, then talents that give you those strengths will be better for that fight. But that’s not going to be the answer for all encounters. Part of the gameplay is adapting your toolkit to the situation that you’re trying to tackle.
It feels like this is really the start of our journey through Pandaria. Is there any hint you can give me on what to look forward to in further updates?
We’ve talked a little bit about, when we brought press in to Blizzard Entertainment in February or March, Chris Metzen revealed that Garrosh is going to be a main antagonist in this expansion, but there’s a lot of story to get to before you sit there and deal with Garrosh.
Our first patch, we’ve already got that planned out and in the works, which will start giving more of a sense the world is at war, Horde and Alliance are doing battle, and it’s coming to Pandaria. It is going to be on that continent, it’s going to affect the land, and it’s going to affect the player as well. They’re going to see the effects of what the Horde and alliance have done, as they try to wrestle control of this land, and exploit it for their own needs.
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