You don't need reminding, but just in case you're that man I saw on a Channel 4 documentary with a fifteen second memory: Mists of Pandaria launched last night, introducing WoW players to a new world, a new class, a new race, a new batch of features and systems and pet battles and updates. All that excitement was enough to make us want to sit down with Darren Williams, WoW's Senior Gameplay Engineer and Scott Mercer, the game's Senior Game Designer and discuss how the grubby conflict between Alliance and Horde is corrupting Pandaria, why WoW will stick to its traditional questing guns and exactly how to launch an MMO without a server room catching fire.
PCGN: Blizzard have described Mists of Pandaria as being something of a ‘palate cleanser’ for WoW players - do you think players have grown exhausted of destruction, apocalypse and drama?
Scott Mercer: Heh, there’s definitely something behind that statement. We definitely intended Mists of Pandaria to be a much more light hearted expansion. We’d just come off Cataclysm, where the world had literally been cracked open, but when you get into Pandaria the feeling is very different. It’s a land of mystery, so exploration is a huge component of the experience, everything is very fantastical. When you come to Pandaria, the Pandaren are a peaceful race. They love life, they love to eat well, they fight hard, but it’s a very different expansion in tone. We really enjoyed working on that as a team, and we think players will enjoy that as well.
PCGN: Was it a challenge for your artists to make that gear-shift in style, swapping out all that red paint for blue paint?
Scott: Our artists really embraced it. When we first discussed what the next expansion would be, one of the reasons Mists of Pandaria rose to the top was actually because of that art style. Our artists were really keen to work with Asian themes in a land that no one’s seen before. So you’ll see a lot of crazy buildings, unique monsters, lands that are very fertile, lands that are very scary, you’ll see all kinds of different things.
PCGN: Guild Wars 2 abandoned the traditional form of fantasy MMO questing to introduce player-driven events. Can you speak out in defence of traditional quests? Why are they so important to WoW’s core appeal?
Scott: Our questing experience provides players with a very directed experience that really embraces the story and serves as a storytelling device that takes you through the lands of Pandaria. Because Pandaria is so steeped in lore and because it feels more like a mysterious place we really needed the device of the WoW quests to take you through it and explain it to you to a way you can understand.
PCGN: Would you say Mists is especially lore-focused?
Scott: Well, lore-focused, but at the same time one of Blizzard’s over-riding values is 'gameplay first'. We really think that the directed experience should always gives players something to do, so they never have to ask "well what’s next?”. We're always there providing you with another piece of the mystery of Pandaria.
Darren Williams: For the explorers and the lore buffs, there’s so much in these quests. Players will find out so much about about the backstory and the 10,000 year history of the Pandaren. There’s something for every type of player: the explorers, the story-buffs, pople who like to raid, collectors - there’s a new pet battle system for that - we’ve added scenarios, which are small group quest type instanced experiences, in which you might revisit your favourite place in the world and say, defend it from an army. So even those tell some stories.
PCGN: Do you guys have a dedicated team working on the pet battle system now?
Darren: Oh yeah, the pet battle system involves a big group of people, from artists and designers. There's a lot of engineering work in that as well. Companion pets have always been a part of WoW — having those cute little pets following you around and adding personality to your character — so people can now take them, battle them, team them up with their other favourite pets, and then go out into the wild and find hundreds of new wild pets that have been added to the world and tame those. The battling itself is a tactical turn-based game, which is quite different from normal WoW combat, it’s something quick and fun you can do.
PCGN: Is the plan to continue to develop the pet battle system along with the rest of WoW?
Darren: Yes, there’ll be more pets added. I mean, we’ve already got something like 300 pets in the game, hundreds of wild pets, it’s something we want to keep building on.
Scott: There’s always room for more!
PCGN: Do you think WoW's declining subscriber base places any pressure or restrictions on designers?
Scott: As a designer, we really don’t even think about subscriber numbers. It’s not something we pay attention to. We’re really just focusing on what will make World of Warcraft the best game possible. That’s all our thinking, that’s what’s guided us through all of WoW’s development. You know, we never really paid any attention to marketing or whatever, we’re just geeks making awesome games. So with Mists of Pandaria we only thought ‘what will make this expansion even better than previous expansions?’, and we expanded on the types of content people can play, especially at level 90, once they’ve gone through all the awesome quest content. Darren mentioned pet battles and scenarios, but there are also challenge modes, a new way to play through our dungeons.
We tried to make the challenge modes more of skill-based system, where we lock your items to a specific level that you can’t go higher than, then players try to finish a dungeon as fast as possible, competing with other players to see who can get the best time. That’s a different type of content that we haven’t had before. And keeping with the idea of giving players an overwhelming amount of stuff to do, we’ve got over three hundred daily quests, we’ve got additional factions the player can work through for rewards like Cloud Serpent mounts. There’s just a huge amount of things to do in this expansion.
PCGN: What would you personally recommend players do first? Start a new Monk character? Or just start exploring the expansion zones with an existing character?
Darren: Personally the first thing I’ll be doing is levelling up a few pets so I’ve got my pet team ready to go. Then I’ll go to the new world and have my pet team battle people in PvP. I think the new experience for levelling a Monk, the Wandering Isle, the new Pandaren starting area, is a really awesome levelling experience for both new players and returning players. And of course you’re levelling a Monk as you do that, which is a really awesome new class.
Scott: Yeah, I’ll be heading straight into Pandaria. The very first zone, Jade Forest, has this awesome opening where you see how the presence of the alliance and the horde, who’ve been locked in a Cold War over the last decade or so, effects Pandaria. You see exactly how that conflict is beginning to transform Pandaria. The normal peace-loving Pandaren, they’re pretty chill, but we’ve brought all this hate and anger, and that emotion is transforming the actual creatures you end up fighting. They’re one of the major villains you see you Pandaria, you’ll want to get straight into that.
PCGN: Was the move to introduce account-wide mounts, pets and achievements designed to ensure fewer players would hesitate to start a new character in Mists?
Scott: That’s just something we wanted to do for a long time, and Mists of Pandaria is where we finally decided to do it. That’s all it really came down to. Certainly, the pet battles put more emphasis on collecting pets, and the account-wide achievements just mean you can play with different characters and not have to worry about ‘oh, do I have this achievement with this character or this one’ and so on. It just makes things a whole lot easier.
Darren: It means it’s more flexible, you can just play whichever character you want and not have to worry about those kinds of things.
PCGN: You’ve committed to try and slow down some raid progress by unlocking the raid zones a few weeks after launch. Is that a deliberate attempt to try and stop players burning through the quest content so quickly?
Scott: No, I think it’s more about a very dedicated group of players where raiding is their complete focus. If we opened up raiding immediately then the way that they would play through the game would change, and we really want to give those players an opportunity to enjoy Pandaria before they turn to working on progression and raids. It’s actually more a matter of making the experience more interesting and more fun for them, than actually trying to slow down the rate of content. We’re not worried about that so much.
PCGN: Can you explain the logistics behind launching an MMO? How do you prepare for and predict server loads? How do you respond to problems, who turns the big switch at midnight?
Darren: Well, that’s our server team, they’re a great bunch of guys. So they set up the war room in one of the conference rooms, basically people from all sorts of different departments as well as the server team are in there monitoring the health of the servers, people logging in, looking for problems, getting a jump on various things like that. We’ve done this for a number of WoW expansions now, the procedure is pretty solid and there’s a lot of experience there, in anticipating logistically anything out of the ordinary.
PCGN: How has the tech behind WoW changed in the development of the last expansion? And what’s occupying your time now?
Darren: There have been a couple of big graphical upgrades. The lighting model in the world has changed significantly, so you’ll notice that the colours are a lot more vibrant, especially when you enter Pandaria, you really notice the difference. WoW’s always had a vibrant style but now the lighting really makes it pop, there’s way more contrast. To go with that we now have screen space ambient occlusion in the engine, which draws that out even further. The new Pandaren models have a much more detailed animation rig too, so you’ll notice the fluidity in their improved animations. Those are the big things that have gone into Mists. For the future, well that’s really up to our artists, the character team, the environment team, they’ll drive that. It’ll be about what content’s coming up, and what we think will help that to shine.
Scott: Another cool technological improvement is the introduction of cross-realm zones. So previously if you started a new character and were going through low level zones, you might not see many players, but with cross-realm zones we can bring in characters from multiple realms into one zone to play together, so you really get that experience of being in a massively multiplayer game. I think that will definitely change the experience of new players for the better.
Darren: We’ve also included the Battle.net Battletags system, so you can friend players from other realms, and if you group with them later and go to a zone you’ll automatically be cross-realmed together. So you can now make friends outside your server. There’s an algorithm behind the scenes that determines when to merge zones like that, a lot of it comes down to factors like whether you’re in the same party, and not in an area that can’t be cross-realmed, like the PvP areas. We’ve got a large number of servers, and they could all potentially be cross-realming to other different servers at any given time. It’s really just up to load.
Scott: Our hope is that players don’t really notice anything different, except there’s just more players.
PCGN: Phasing seems to fallen out of favour with you guys a bit; I’ve seen a few quotes where you talk of it as something you want to use very carefully. What happened?
Darren: I think there’s a couple of things with phasing. The main concern among players is that when they’re phased from their friends they can’t see them. They’re on almost the same quest but they’re out of phase. So that kind of broadstrokes phasing is used less, we have more personal phases now in which you can still see other people running around, but when you’re on a quest you only see what’s relevant to you in that quest. Phasing as a story telling mechanic is a powerful tool for the quest team, and it still exists, but less so the broad phasing.
Scott: We’re being a little more surgical with its use in this expansion, but you’ll still see some radical changes in the world due to phasing as you go through Mists of Pandaria. It’s definitely still being used, we’re just being more careful around the issues Darren mentioned.