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Interview – WoW: Cataclysm’s Alex Afrasiabi on console MMOs, Hero Classes, Cryptic’s “mediocre” MMO comment, more

Friday, 29th October 2010 09:58 GMT By Nathan Grayson

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The funnest part of building a sandcastle? Knocking it down.

With World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion, Blizzard appears to be taking that philosophy to a whole new level. After letting players frolic about in its multi-million dollar sandcastle for nearly six years, the developer’s decided to shatter Azeroth into tiny little pieces and then put it back together again. The result? Suddenly, old is new, up is down, and Stranglethorn Vale doesn’t royally suck anymore. Needless to say, it’s an exciting time to be a WoW player.

Perhaps even more exciting, however, is being a WoW developer. To see years-upon-years’ worth of blood, sweat, and tears finally manifest into a complete experience has to be immensely satisfying, and speaking with lead world designer Alex Afrasiabi during BlizzCon, that was more than evident. It was kind of amazing, if we’re being honest, to see a developer so fired up over his own game – a game that’s been around for more than half a decade, no less.

Click past the break to hear Afrasiabi’s thoughts on the future of WoW expansions, why Cataclysm doesn’t have its own Hero Class, why MMOs and consoles don’t mix, why Cryptic’s wrong to call MMO content “mediocre,” moving the MMO genre forward, and tons more.

[Interview by Nathan Grayson]


VG247: Cataclysm’s a huge change to what’s essentially been players’ home away from home inside their own homes for years. How are players reacting to that? Are there any who think you’re messing with a Holy Grail?

Alex Afrasiabi: Zero. It’s amazing, actually.

I should preface this. There are certainly players out there that have the opinion that “oh, you guys are crazy! What are you doing?” There were some of us that initially thought it was a little scary. But after they play our game in beta, I have yet to see a single person say, “change it back.” Not one. And that’s pretty telling. I haven’t seen anyone go “you know what? I like the old Westfall better.” Nope. Every single one – to some degree – is like “this is incredible. This is amazing. Give us more.”

What I do see is, when we haven’t affected a zone, they get angry. It’s like “why is this zone not 100 percent revamped?” Because they go through a track like the human track; they’ll go through Northshire, Elwynn, Westfall, Redridge, and they might get to Dusk Wood. And Dusk Wood’s not a 100 percent revamp zone. It’s more like a 60 or 70 percent. So it’s the reverse now in that they want more change.

I think we’ve handled it in such a way that players not only love what we’ve done, they just want more.

Between the world nearly splitting apart like a giant spherical pinata and changes to level-up speed and whatnot, World of Warcraft has evolved into quite a different game over the years. Is there any interest in indulging fans’ mushy nostalgic sides and creating a few retro servers?

I don’t want to say never, because that always paints us into a weird corner. But it’s really unlikely. I mean, you said it: the game has “evolved.” And that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking to evolve the game and evolve the genre. And every expansion – every content cycle – we learn something. Every single one. You know, there’s always something to learn. It’s amazing.

You’d think by now we’d know it all, but we don’t know anything in relation to how much life is left in this genre. It’s a constant learning process and I think doing something like [retro servers] almost feels like you’re turning back the wheels of time to prehistoria. And that’s kind of weird. It flies against what we’re doing here.

I’ve seen the requests here and there, but I don’t really believe it’s that widespread. I think that people do want to see the game move forward and be dynamic and all those things.

What area’s undergone the most changes, in your opinion? Anything in particular that’ll just have players standing in silent awe, jaw nearly touching the floor?

Everything. It’s crazy. I don’t know how much of the beta you’ve played, but almost 90 percent of the world has undergone changes. Complete changes. It’s a tremendous amount of content. And, you know, if you read our forums, there’s this constant stream of “holy shit” moments all over the place. It’s not isolated to one zone. It’s any number of zones in any level range. And they’ll do something – whether it’s a quest or an event or a level design aspect – anything, and they’re really, really receptive to it all. I think that’s one of the amazing things about the expansion. There’s just so many of these big moments.

Why’d you only decide to raise the cap to 85 this time? Why only five new levels?

There’s a couple reasons for this. One of them is that we wanted to invest a lot of our time into redoing the old world. And for all things like that, there’s a slight cost in development and production. But that wasn’t necessarily the main reason.

One of the things we always have to be careful of when we’re designing games is making things feel obligatory. If we continue on this ten level track, it sets up expectations in a strange way. And we want to say, “You know what? We can put five levels in the game.” And those are gonna be the most epic five levels you’ve ever done content-wise. And then when you get to the end, it’s going to be the most epic ending you’ve ever done. And we’re gonna prove that. And we can totally do that, and we’re going to break that mold.

The next one might be ten. Hell, it might be 20. But we don’t ever want to paint ourselves into that corner. We want to make sure we have enough variance amongst the players. You know what? Maybe there’s going to be one with [no levels]! You know, it’s crazy if you think about it. But we firmly believe we can provide that content to the playerbase in a way that they’re going to love – and not make things feel so assumed or given. So that’s ultimately why.

Ever since WoW’s earliest days, players have been fervently chasing the promise of Hero Classes. With the Death Knight, you finally gave them a small taste of what they’d been hoping for. Now, though, Cataclysm’s filling WoW’s world with holes, and one of them is Hero-shaped. So, what’s the plan for Hero Classes going forward? Are they on the backburner for the foreseeable future?

It’s not about being a priority, honestly. It never was. Long, long ago in the design docs, it was there. For us, it’s always about what’s cool – what’s gonna be awesome. You played the Death Knight area, you played a Death Knight, and it was awesome. I mean, amazing.  I think the Death Knight area itself changed the way we do quests in the game completely. By itself.

And so, what it is for us, it’s about timing. It’s about when we feel like “you know, we could probably do with another Hero Class.” It could be cool to do this because of a whole series of things – interactions between the world and the story, this and that. You know, Death Knights and the Lich King are like “of course!”

So we haven’t abandoned them. I promise you one day we will return and there will be another Hero Class. I can’t tell you what that is because I don’t know. And I also wouldn’t tell you if I did. [Laughs]. But it’s absolutely something that we love doing, and we’ll do it when the time is right.

Earlier, I attended a panel where Jay Wilson and J Allen Brack briefly discussed Blizzard’s lack of presence on consoles. The gist of their argument? Blizzard’s not opposed to making a console game; rather, nothing in its current stable would be a good fit. In particular, do you think that holds true with World of Warcraft? What makes it so unsuited for consoles?

Just imagine the WoW of today on a console. I think that’d be difficult to pull off. You take any given class and look at the number of abilities the class has. Discount chat entirely, because that’ll be not-so-good. A regular console has what, seven buttons on it? Eight? Nine? Ten? I mean, you get into a place where it becomes very difficult to design around that. You know, if I want to use an ability, is it right trigger, left trigger, L3 – whatever it might be.

So there are huge challenges in doing that. I didn’t hear the press conference, but it’s one of those things that if the game presented itself well to a console, would we consider it? Sure, probably. But it’s difficult to get a game like WoW out onto a console. Or any MMO, actually. It’s not an easy thing to put on a console.

Speaking of, do you think MMOs as they are today have any place being on consoles at all? Or do you think we’re in dire need of a breakthrough change before it becomes feasible?

Yes. I think there needs to be a change – not so much in the core gameplay design, but interface-wise.  I think you need to see an interface change for MMOs to successfully be on consoles. And communication-wise as well. The fact that we have to chat through typing commonly is a consideration that can’t really be made on a console. And so, whether [the solution's] voice chat or whatever, there are a lot of things to consider when you want to bring your MMO game to a console.

And so, yes, something absolutely needs to happen. And I think it’s coming. I’ve seen a lot of MMOs slated to come out for consoles soon, and I’m sure there are brilliant people out there, and they’ll figure some stuff out.

You recently hit 12 million subscribers, but it’s kind of an odd time for that, don’t you think? WoW had allegedly stopped growing, and then boom, 500000 fresh faces. Did you just expand to some recently discovered island nation or something?

I wouldn’t even know where to begin. People have their own reasons, and we of course just launched Wrath of the Lich King in China, which had a lot to do with this. And yeah, I don’t know. WoW’s just one of those games that you can come back to, and it feels like home. It’s crazy, but it does. So yeah, I can’t pretend to know the intentions of man, but it’s a great game.

What’s the plan for Cataclysm’s plot line? Wrath of the Lich King, of course, rolled out new content over the course of more than a year. How long with Cataclysm run?

We’ll see. We’ll see. You know, it’s planned out, of course, but I really can’t talk too much about it. There are a lot of exciting things coming. It’s just those moments when you talk about it. And you know, [Chris] Metzen and I just both kind of sit there and get goosebumps. It’s like “are you serious?” “Yeah! Let’s do this!” And we get pumped up and crazy about it. Then we get it in the pipeline and start planning – get the team involved – and it’s coming. I can’t tell you how long or when or anything like that, but it’s going to be cool.

It’s honestly not been the best year for MMOs. Star Trek Online and FFXIV both launched essentially incomplete – as in, missing entire feature sets. Why is this happening now? Are developers failing to anticipate how long and expensive bringing an MMO to completion can be?

That’s an interesting question. You know, making MMOs is difficult. And making a good MMO is very difficult, and it’s also very subjective. I can’t speak for any of those games. I didn’t work on them; I don’t know the process. But I can speak for WoW, and I can tell you that there are a lot of factors and parts and things – all kinds of things that go into making a game like this. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to guess why or how it’s happening.

It’s one of those things that I’d say I don’t think is new to MMOs. I don’t think it’s just started to happen. You might roll out content incomplete or something. Again, I haven’t played either game. I can’t really comment on them. It’s difficult, man. It’s a tough racket.

Recently, the head of Cryptic decried most MMOs as “hundreds of hours of mediocre content” – as opposed to non-massive games, which focus their best ideas into a smaller, but razor-sharp experience. What’s your take on that? Do MMOs suffer quality wise because of their size and scope? Is there any way around padding your game out with – say – kill 30 boars-type quests?

Well, I mean, I disagree with that statement. I think that any time I spent as a player – whether it be in dungeon-finder or a raid or out mining titanium – for whatever reason, I enjoy that. And I’m not alone. There are 12 million people who enjoy that. I could certainly be playing a single-player game – and I do. I play tons of single-player games. But I think it’s the compelling gameplay that brings me back to play WoW. That’s the crazy part. So I totally don’t agree with [Cryptic's statement]. You know, I think that the gameplay is anything but mediocre. I think it’s amazing. I think it’s compelling, and I think it’s something that people want to do. And hence, they do it.

WoW attracts hordes (and alliances) of female fans, as does BlizzCon. Why? What makes Blizzard’s culture so female friendly, and what can the rest of the gaming industry – which has serious trouble with that – learn from your example?

You know, I don’t know. It’s a good question! It’s just one I don’t really have an answer for. I think I remember reading a study on this a while ago just in general – the percentages and whatnot within the demographics. And you know, I don’t know. We don’t intentionally go out there to design our game for males or females. We just want to design an awesome game. It’s the compelling gameplay. It always goes back to that.

But I can’t really give you an educated answer to that. I don’t really have one.

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