World of Warcraft has a very open development process thanks to the PTR. This allows almost anyone to test almost anything that’s new in a patch or expansion so long as they have a PC that can run the game. It also means that those with the know-how, using tools and methods developed over the past decade or more, can dive into and extract everything inside - whether it’s ready to be public or not. How does that make the developers feel?
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Ryan Shwayder, senior game designer, says “as a content creator it is a challenge. There's always this pace you have in mind, this roll out of a story, of lore, of features that you have planned. [Those] best laid plans never survive contact with the community.”
They do have ways around this - obfuscating or encrypting certain elements so that they’re only discoverable when intended, but it can be a painstaking process. “I think it's frustrating sometimes, in particular when there's something that you actually had locked away, hidden from people and then, oh, there's one voiceover line from Khadgar that reveals the whole thing, that you forgot to mark as secret.”
Sound a little specific to be a theoretical example? Shwayder laughs, “No it is not a theoretical example. That wasn't me, but it is something I've done in the past as well. Khadgar, he has a mind of his own.
“So, yeah, as a [game designer] it is a little frustrating but it's also, y'know, kind of awesome that people are so interested in it that they're willing to go to great lengths to datamine, and to great lengths to discover things before we really want them to discover them. It's kind of a double-edged thing - it's really cool that people are that interested, but at the same time I really wish I could reveal something to you without you knowing about it first... someday.”
Production director John Hight has a different perspective - he’s trying to make sure the experience flows smoothly, that content can be released on time, and generally that the game gets made.
“It's really interesting because it does present some challenges for us - we want to have the content up and ready so that when we pull the trigger and a patch becomes available, everyone can jump in and play. But the fact that we don't want spoilers, we want people to experience it for the first time [in-game] means we do have to go through and comb things and try to be careful about what gets revealed and what doesn't.
“We live in a world where unfortunately there's going to be some degree of datamining and spoilers will happen and we just kinda hope that people will avoid sites that publish that information if they don't want the stories to be ruined for them.”
Of course, every so often, they get to flip it around on the community. One way is the mega-secret hunts which took the spotlight in Legion, using the fact that datamining happens to hide clues all over the world in patches, and letting players piece together a mystery. Hight explains another:
“One funny aspect is some of the datamining that takes place is on names that we actually give some of the assets in the game. Oftentimes we'll start with a name or a placeholder name, sometimes it's even comical in nature, just as we're getting things started for our own purposes. Because these assets and those names are never exposed to the public we don't go back and change them.
"There's been, not intentionally on our part but there's been some red herrings, in the part of the dataminers because they'll see something, they'll interpret it, they'll come to conclusions that are absolutely wronjg. We get a chuckle here, sometimes we even debate should we set the record straight with the community and we're like nah, we're just gonna play into it. Everything will become apparent when we mark things live.”