PC Interview

World of WarCraft: Cataclysm with Tom Chilton

We grill the lead designer

I may have recently broken my PC cherry by reviewing StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, and I may have even increased my limited knowledge of Blizzard's product portfolio during this morning's Diablo III question and answer session at Gamescom. But facing World of WarCraft lead designer Tom Chilton with trembling voice recorder in hand, I hoped he'd be gentle as I attempted to gather information on upcoming expansion Cataclysm while asking whether it's ever too late to join the Horde alliance?

Hi Tom, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. How are things shaping up with Cataclysm?

Things are coming on very well. We're doing lots more changes for the Cataclysm expansion than we ever have before. There's tons of new content, and lots of revamping of old content to bring it up to our current quality standards. There's still a lot of polishing and the fixing of bugs left to do, but I think it looks like it's all coming together pretty well.

Strong feedback from the community?

Oh, absolutely, we always get strong feedback. (laughs)

Okay, how about positive feedback?

Yeah, definitely a lot of positive feedback. People really seem to like the zones where we've kind of gone back and redone, and also the new content we've introduced. And then there's good feedback on the changes we've made. Plus there's always, you know, pretty good feedback like "I'd rather this be changed like this," and "or that to be like that." That's all stuff we need to hear as part of the process and we need to react to and iterate on.

Can you tell us as a little about the new races introduced in this expansion?

Absolutely. We've got the Worgen and the Goblin races. The Goblins are intended to add the smaller, more comical race to what is normally the big, brutish Horde faction. And the Worgen are the werewolves, the wolfmen, that are kind of intended to do the opposite for the Alliance faction, where they bring the ferocity that the Alliance doesn't have right now. Not only are they intended to counterbalance each other, but also counterbalance the factions they are going to be a part of.

What other major new enhancements and improvements have been made for Cataclysm?

Well, not only do we have the new content that we're adding to the game, to get players from level 80 to level 85, we've also gone back and essentially redone the vast majority of the level one to 60 traits, because over time we've gotten better and better at making more enthralling content and have a greater understanding about what the game's all about and how it plays. We've also, over time, gotten better tools and access to better technology than we used to.

The content we're making now tends to be a lot better than the content we were making six years ago. So, taking this opportunity to go back and redo a lot of that stuff we made six years ago and bring it up to today's quality standards - it should be another one of our major features that's really compelling for players.

We're also introducing new guild and rated-battleground features, which are essentially for players who've been playing the game for a long time. They are new ways for them to experience the game and new ways for them to compete against each other, stuff like that.

What led to the decision to only increase the level cap from 80 to 85?

Any time we raise the level cap, we have to make sure that we also raise it in a way that makes sense for the amount of content we're creating to go along with it. And, in this situation, we took more of a two-pronged approach, where we're adding to the end of the game but also revamping a lot of the stuff we've done in the past.

Because of that we went with adding the five levels instead of adding the 10 levels we've added in other expansions, and then we focused the rest of our efforts on improving that early game experience so not only is it more fun for players creating new characters for the second, third, fifth time, or whatever - tenth in some cases - it's also a more compelling experience for people who haven't played the game before and are starting to get into it.

What's the deal with the new Archaeology feature and Mastery stat?

The Mastery stat is a new stat that we can give to characters, it's just another way to make pieces of armour and equipment different from each other. There are different statistics that players look for in gear and we just got to a point where the game was ready for players to add one more thing into the mix - at least at high levels, because the Mastery stat only gets introduced at high levels.

Then as far as Archaeology goes, it's what we call a secondary skill. It doesn't make your character any more powerful, it's just a fun secondary activity to do if you're looking to kill some time. Players can go to different dig sites within the game and they can lay down a surveying tool and essentially play a triangulation mini-game to zero in on where an archaeological artefact is. There's also a collection game within that where you try to collect archaeological remains, and when you do that you get different achievements.

With such a massive user base populating the game world, do the activities of WarCraft's inhabitants ever help influence Blizzard's design and creativity?

Absolutely, absolutely. And that's the case in terms of what the players' actual behaviours are within the game, and then also in terms of the feedback they give us about what kind of content they like and what they didn't like, and what they'd like to see in the future.

And then sometimes it's our response to things that even inadvertently happen within the game. We had, at one point several years ago, a bug that essentially allowed players to contract a plague, which then got spread to other players and started killing large numbers of players in the cities. It was completely accidental and was never actually meant to happen that way, but it did happen and it was really interesting the way this plague spread and got among other players.

A couple of years later we ended up introducing a zombie plague, deliberately this time, where players would contract it and cities would become infected by zombies, which would then spread it to other players by attacking them and biting them. It spread more and more and then we held this two-week world event where the zombie invasion essentially took a grip on the world and turned players into zombies for a while (laughs).

System designer Greg Street recently said it sometimes feels as though WarCraft has grown to the point of having its own ecosystem. Would you agree with that?

Yeah. I mean, you can consider a game's economy to be a lot like an ecosystem, where it's very difficult to plan it all from the top down and really, just like a national economy, it's very difficult to know exactly what effects changing something is going to have on everything else. And so, in that sense, I would say it's very much like changing an ecosystem. You know, changing small parts would have very complicated, unpredictable effects on other parts of the game.

Is the World of WarCraft universe easy to get into this far into its existence?

Yeah, yeah, I think it's a lot easier to get into than people give it credit for. Certainly, the entire genre has a reputation for being intimidating and complicated and has all this social stuff going on. But the reality is that World of WarCraft is a very simple experience to first get into. It's a very low time commitment to get into... to experience levelling up, building up your character, figuring out how to explore parts of the world and doing quests. It's very easy to do that in relatively small segments.

With Cataclysm, one of the things we tried to do was go back and make sure we improve on that even more, make the early game experience more understandable and simplify parts of the game that we felt were excessively complicated. I totally understand that it's all very, I guess overwhelming, and that's one of our main goals with Cataclysm is to simplify the experience and make it more digestible for those who haven't played.

For those who've never sampled WarCraft, is it as appealing from a single-player perspective, or is it more obviously geared towards multiplayer?

No, it's totally the opposite.

Duh, I feel so stupid for even asking.

(Laughs) No, no, it's totally okay. These are common perceptions people have about the genre as a whole, because they do perceive it as a multiplayer genre and its all about millions of people and you've got to do everything with millions of other people.

Really, World of WarCraft was built from the ground up so you could play solo the entire way through. That's still true today, in fact it's probably more true than ever before. You can start the game and, if you don't want to, you don't really ever have to talk to another person in the game and, kinda, just work your whole way through to the highest level alone.

Finally, does Mr. T really play World of WarCraft?

(Laughs along with the Activision PR guys in the room) I actually have no idea. That's a really good question.

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