If you're a World of Warcraft player, Greg Street is Important. He's the 'lead systems designer' of WoW: the person responsible for maintain some semblance of balance across all of WoW's classes and subclasses. That makes him the go-to man for WoW players to complain about their/someone else's class/spec being over/underpowered.
What’s odd is how open Greg is: he’s active on the Blizzard forums and twitter, ready to answer player’s questions with a level of detail, depth and earnest honesty unmatched in the industry.
He’s also quite funny.
We caught up with Greg to chat about the launch of Landfall: World of Warcraft's Patch 5.1. In a wide ranging chat, we had a chance to talk about the launch of Pandaria, WoW's weird role as an eSport, WoW's review scores, and more.
Tim Edwards: Well done on the expansion launch. An obvious first question: what's gone right with Pandaria and what's gone wrong?
Greg Street: We have a lot of players back, they're engaged with all sorts of activities. We have players raiding, we have players taking care of their Tillers farm's (a Harvest Moon-esque mini-metagame introduced in Pandaria), we have players working on their pet battles, we have players trying to earn the reputation from different factions. Just in terms of diversity of different activities, we have engagement - the expansion has been really well received. We're thrilled about that.
What went wrong… I think there have definitely been some concerns from players about, ironically, having too much to do. I think that we might have overdone it a little bit with the daily quests. When you're a player who is, say, half way through their progression through Golden Lotus, but also trying to do Klaxxi and knowing too there are a couple more factions about to come unlocked… it feels like you're doing 20-30 daily quests a day. That's probably too many. In the patch 5.1 that's just come out, and one of our future patches, it'll be a smaller number - we'll target it at 10-20 daily quests a day.
That will feel better in the long run.
TE: So: there's an obsession within the media of reporting World of Warcraft's subscription numbers as benchmark for Blizzard's success. I wondered what numbers mattered to you, day to day.
GS: Even though the media and the outer world tend to focus on subscription numbers, we tend to look at concurrency - how many players are playing at one time. We look at how long are their play sessions, how frequently are they logging in. We look at what activities are they doing? Is this a player who logs in, checks their auction house, and logs off, or is it a player who's going to be spending their Saturday afternoon playing World of Warcraft. Figuring out what players are doing, whether it's because they enjoy the content or because they feel we are forcing them in that direction really help us make decisions about what systems and features we should work on in the future.
TE: So, how is Pandaria doing when you look at those engagement metrics?
GS: I don't think there's a number: we can't say "engagement is 95%…" I think that it's more of a feeling based on the response we're seeing from players, based on how many people are online.
What we saw in Cataclysm is that a lot of people hit maximum level and they tried to do some dungeons, maybe they tried to raid, but didn't really have anything else to do. Then the risk was that they just stopped subscribing altogether or they would log in, do a dungeon, do a raid, and then just log off to the next week.
With Pandaria, we added a lot more activities for players so that if they finished their dungeon, they could maybe think about doing a scenario, or do a few daily quests. Or working on their pet battles, or working on Cooking, or trying to find some of the rare spawns that we've hidden around the world. There's just a lot more activities to do - as a result we think that the players who are playing - even though they're at level 90, they're still playing.
TE: There's no raid in Landfall. That seems a bit unusual for your expansion.1 patch. What's changed?
GS: We have a lot of raid bosses in the shipping version of Mists of Pandaria - our players are still in the raids, they still have plenty of bosses to kill. Coming out with a raid at this time would have been very premature. On the other hand, we wanted to send a message to all of our players that said "look, content is going to be coming out faster than it has before. So then, just as you begin to say 'I'm kinda done with Golden Lotus, because I'm either finished with it or I'm just burned out, here are some new and very different types of quest. Here are some new mechanics to try. We want to physically give players more to do, but also send the message that World of Warcraft is going to be updated frequently - they shouldn't have time to get bored before we have new content for them.
There will be a new raid in the next patch, the 5.2 patch, and we'll try to alternate between having a bigger patch and then a smaller patch.
TE: Are you prepared to commit to a schedule for your patches? Can you say how fast you'll update Pandaria?
GS: Oh, I mean it's hard for us to commit to anything. We have a plan, but that plan could change at a moment's notice when something becomes more technically challenging than we previously thought, or our players turn out to be looking for a type of content that's different to what we were developing…
Our high level plan is to come out with content frequently; every few months if we can manage it, and to alternate these big traditional patches that have a new PvP season, a new raid, new gear for players with these smaller patches that have a few new scenarios, a new battleground, and things like that.
TE: I've seen a lot of quotes from players that say that Pandaria is the best WoW that you've ever done - but then the Metacritic score for the expansion is sitting at 82%. That is by far the lowest score of any WoW expansion. That suggests there's a disconnect between the reviews of it and what players are thinking. I wondered if you could speak to that, or whether it was something that might worry you.
GS: I think there are a couple of things going on there. I've always felt that massively multiplayer games are very hard to review. We tend to have reviewers that are bought in, they love World of Warcraft and they can't wait to see what comes next. And then there's the reviewer who gets boxes and boxes of games that they have to play. Going into an expansion like Mists of Pandaria it's hard to just sit down and… honestly I don't know how long those guys have to play games before they can put out review scores but… 10, 20, 30 hours with an MMO - it's not all that much in the grand scheme of things. It's probably inconceivable that they would get to the endgame, that they would participate in that stuff and see how the game feels overall.
By the way, we couldn't be happier with the expansion. I personally agree that this is the strongest one we've done. It's such a great package, it works so well together, there's a lot of content, it feels very polished… I feel this is the standard for what we want to do with expansions from now on.
TE: It's a lovely place to be. When I first played WoW, the memories I have are of a quite bouncy, happy, funny and silly place. I don't think you're ever going to be able to recreate that exact moment, but there is a chance of recreating that sensation: where you come to a new place and explore…
GS: I really didn't understand how important it was to have a new continent to explore for an expansion. When we did Cataclysm, we had all these new zones, and they were pretty cool, but they were very scattered around. You were kind of teleported from place to place. Psychologically I didn't realise what a difference that would make but it really does. The fact that you're in Pandaria and you can travel on a kite, or on a mount from the Jade Forest to the Valley of Four Winds, and it feels like it's connected - the ecology of the system makes sense - that's really important to the World of Warcraft experience. I don't think we'll make that mistake again.
TE: You've just finished your Arena competition at the Blizzard World Championships in China. It seems like a big event… but it was very strange to watch. I get the impression you've never really understood what to do with WoW as an eSport. Is that fair?
GS: I think it's pretty fair. Look at a game like Starcraft. That was designed from the ground up to be an eSport. They knew what they were getting in to, they knew what the audience was expecting. They designed a game that was really good for shout casting, it's really exciting to watch, it usually comes to a dramatic conclusion.
The original PvP for World of Warcraft was Battlegrounds. They're fun to participate in, but they require a lot of people, they can run long, and it's hard to organise teams of 20 to 40 to participate.
Then we added Arena.
We didn't add Arena with the intention of: hey, now WoW is an eSport. We added it with the intention of it being a fun thing for players to do. There are a lot of players who really, really love arenas. But the arena gameplay is very fast. You have to understand all these rules about the game: about what diminishing returns work with what, about what abilities a Frostmage has vs a Shadow Priest, it's hard if you're not a very expert WoW player to understand what is going on. You would hope that I would know almost everything there is to know about World of Warcraft class design, and I'll say "wait, what just happened there," and I'll have to pause it and go back and look at the combat log to understand it.
I think if we want to make improvements in the eSport field, a big thing we have to tackle is the readability of the game for the audience. On the other hand, I think something that we've stumbled in to is the PvE side of WoW as an eSport. We've done live raids before, and we've just added Challenge modes. We did a lot of that at BWC, and that's something we'll continue to explore. I think players can understand seeing five characters beating up on a boss. It's just more of an epic experience, rather than seeing three gnomes running around in an arena trying to ice-lance each other. That's from an audience point of view - we know our players really enjoy arena.
TE: The WoW annual pass thing is starting to come to a close. It's just about ended. How successful was that for you guys, and is there a worry for you internally about what those players do next?
GS: I think the annual pass really appealed to players who thought they were going to stick with WoW but said, "I really love WoW, but I'm going to take a break and play Diablo for a while."
What Annual Pass would allow them to do is say "Oh, I can play both games, but I don't have to make the hard money decision which one to play. I don't know for sure, I'm talking about of my ass a little bit, I don't think a lot of players got annual pass because they thought "Oh, I'll see what World of Warcraft is like and here's a great time to try it out. I think those players would more gravitate to a one month subscription or a trial or something. I feel like with Annual Pass, it was about reaching the players we already had and stick around, and try Diablo."
TE: Is it something you'd repeat?
GS: I think, given the right circumstances… I don't know that it's the kind of thing we would do with the Starcraft launch… maybe… I think it worked out well for us, but we don't have anything we're about to spring on players.
It was a lot of fun - I was sitting with Mike at Blizzcon when we announced it. I remember when we said "Right… now…" We started watching the numbers go up from that moment.
TE: Raiding is quite the commitment. As someone who's got a house, a baby, a mortgage and everything else - doing the raiding thing doesn't match how I can live my life… But I want to keep involved in WoW. I imagine that's a common thing. Your audience is getting older and there is a sense that those high-time sink activities can't necessarily continue in the same way. Is that something that worries you?
GS: We think about that stuff all the time. When you look back at Vanilla WoW and Burning Crusade… raiding was not something most players did. It was for very elite, very committed players, probably young or they didn't mind sacrificing a lot of their time. Over time, particularly in Lich King, we picked up a lot of raiders. Suddenly, instead of being this elite, hardcore thing that only the top end could consider, suddenly, it became something almost everyone could try. With the Naxrammas raid, even the soft core found themselves in there getting epic gear, killing bosses and having a fun time.
Counter-intuitively, the raiding population grew over time, even though I agree that a lot of our player base may be getting older and have more demands on their time.
Overall, I think the trend in gaming is for shorter games, handheld, things you can do in a more casual environment, then there's this huge commitment to World of Warcraft.
The thing that really bridges the gap for us is Raid Finder. It allows players… the numbers are incredible for raid finder. We no longer consider raiding a hardcore activity that's open to a small percentage of the population. We assume that just about everyone with a remote interest in raiding is going to go into raid finder, or kill a World Boss, like the Sha of Anger. It's ridiculous the number of players who have defeated that World Boss. Even super-hardcore PvP players go out and kill that boss because it drops PvP gear.
For all those players who thing raiding is too much of a commitment, which is totally understandable, Raid Finder is a great way to handle that. You can make it a goal to run raid finder every week, because that is the most efficient way to get loot, or we know some players do it a few times to feel they've seen the content.
TE: Pet Battles seem to be very successful - I've always wondered about the possibility of a mobile implementation of Pet Battles - it seems like such an obvious fit. It's that something that's ever really considered.
GS: Oh totally. There are a lot of developers here at Blizzard that would love for nothing more than to see that game being able to be played on mobile devices. I think it's just a question of resources and when is the right time to do that. And, how many people do we take off other projects to do that… is it free, is it a 99c app. But yeah, totally agree, it's totally obvious that system will work on mobile systems.