Pandemonium: Blizzard’s Lagrave on Mists of Pandaria

Tuesday, 8 November 2011 14:45 GMT By Nathan Grayson

Pandas in World of Warcraft. Are you freaking kidding me? Nathan Grayson gets the skinny chubby from Blizzard’s John Lagrave.

Mists of Pandaria

The fourth major expansion to World of Warcraft, following The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm.

Highlights a race of anthropomorphised pandas considered canonical for many years, but overlooked by many Blizzard fans.

Announced at Blizzcon 2011 to mixed reaction.

No release or beta date yet.

Back in my day, Warcraft had orcs and humans. Squishy, weak-willed, whiny humans who wouldn’t stop saying, “Moah work?” That was it. And now? Pandas. Warcraft has rotund kung-fu pa– [CONTENT REMOVED, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DREAMWORKS ENTERTAINMENT].

Sure, players saw it coming, but expectation and execution are entirely different things. During BlizzCon’s opening ceremonies, Blizzard roundhouse kicked fans’ perceptions of what Warcraft’s all about with warm, soothing colors, furry fists of fury, and heaping dollops of d’aaaaaaw. Folks weaned on bloodshed, angst, and cold, calculating strategy were understandably (and audibly) upset.

Are things really as bad as they seem, though? Will Blizzard’s behemoth be done in not by a giant apocalypse dragon, but by fluffy – and perhaps even wuffy – pandas? I sat down with senior game producer John Lagrave to get the full scoop. I quizzed him on everything from how Blizzard’s keeping Pandaria interesting in spite of its light-hearted nature, to whether Blizzard’s finally jumped the shark, to WoW’s recent subscriber leak, to – yes – a certain Dreamworks-licensed martial arts bear.

VG247: When Chris Metzen introduced Mists of Pandaria, he called it “the calm before the storm.” What is that “storm,” though? I mean, a freaking apocalypse dragon isn’t generally the opening act for, you know, cuddly bears. How will that even work?

John Lagrave, senior game producer: So, for the past three expansions, we’ve had these amazing villains that players have had to overcome. Horde and Alliance have united to defeat Illidan and Arthas. And so we’ve had the notion of neutral cities like Shattrath and Dalaran where you sit there and work in cooperation because you have this terrible evil to deal with.

Well, with Thrall healing the world and Deathwing no longer a threat, the notion is that those factions still don’t like each other. So you as a player – when you go through and explore Pandaria – you see this amazing place. And you start learning about the Pandarens and the lore of the area. That’s the calm, right? It’s a very serene place, and you’re learning about how this land works as you quest through. But that’s the calm.

At some point, you’re gonna be finished. And really, the problem is that there’s Horde or there’s Alliance, and [those other guys] suck. So that’s the war. It’s the storm on the horizon. That’s your challenge again. It really hearkens back to the original game where you landed in Hillsbrad because the Alliance were coming up and starting to fight. That spontaneous world PVP was happening. That’s the old war that’s coming back.

So how do you even get players excited about that? You’re billing it as “the calm.” Generally, that connotates to “not very exciting.” The point between the epic clashes. Those pages everybody skipped in Lord of the Rings where people started singing. How do you make people say “Oh boy!” about that?

Announcement trailer.

Right. Who cares about that? Who cares about Pandaria? Well, a bunch of different things. First of all, we do that through our questing system and the stories we tell within it. Also, we do that through art. I mean, there’s no two ways about it. We do it through great level design and the art we expose to players. So we’re telling a story that’s visually appealing. And that further drives people.

People often say, “Oh, I don’t read the quest text.” You know what? They do. They don’t read the quests completely, but they’re skimming it. They’re still curious. What I always find is I’ll be like “Do you know about this [story related thing],” and people will be like “Oh yeah!” And I’ll be like “Well, how do you know about it?” And they’ll be like “Uhhh, I don’t know.” Well, they had to have read at least part of the quest.

What you’re going to be learning as you go through Pandaria is about the Pandarens and the Mogu – who they are, what they do. You’re really going to be dealing with that notion of “What is that story? Why is this race here? Why is it being exposed to us?”

So I think [we’ll interest people] through really good story telling and the visual appeal. You know, people love looking through what we do. Which is really nice as well.

You announced the Annual Pass, which offers some stupidly great benefits. From where I’m standing, though, it also looks like a great way to make players stick around for the long haul. Honestly, was that your main motivation? To keep players from bidding farewell to WoW before things got interesting again?

Our main objective is to have people play our games [laughs]. OK, so I’ll tell you as a developer. Here’s what I care about: I care that you play my game, right? It ultimately means that we’re excited about Diablo III. I think Diablo III’s an awesome game. I’ve been playing it a lot. I’m not sort of a Diablo fan; I’m a huge Diablo fan. When I came into Blizzard, I came in as a Mac Diablo tester. When we were porting from PC to Mac, that’s what I was doing. I was QA testing it. When I wasn’t with Blizzard, we used to do LAN parties with Diablo. I’m a nutty, nutty Diablo fan.

And there are certain [benefits]. I mean, it’s been a long time since Diablo II, so it’s good to expose people to [the franchise]. It’s a great game. And I think it’s a win. We obviously like people playing WoW. I want people to play what I do. But yeah, I would love people to play Diablo III. So the Annual Pass makes sense. It’s vastly appealing. You’re paying for WoW anyway. Here’s Diablo III. Go have fun.

WoW’s developed this sort of expansion-centric cycle. Your subscriber numbers rocket each time an expansion (sometimes literally) sets your world on fire, but slowly plummet after that – until a new expansion swoops in to save the day at the last second.

It’s an ebb-and-flow.

Right. But do you think that speaks to a deeper problem with your game? That its core mechanics no longer entertain in the long-term? Or is it simply an issue of content that all MMOs – in some form or another – have to deal with?

Click to enlarge.

[Laughs]. That was a great question. It really was. So there is give-and-take. People come back to expansions and then trail on. What we try to do when we release an expansion is get you interested in what we’re doing, because we’ve tried to make something cool and worthwhile. We like to release those content patches so that you feel like you’re getting good value. We don’t want to sit there and have you feel like “Well, I played through the expansion. I got to the next level. Now I’m done.” We definitely want you to say, “Hey, Blizzard, are you giving me good content and good value for what I’m paying?”

And, you know, that’s a really legitimate concern for people to have, right? Money can be very tight. You should feel like you’re getting good value. That’s what we’re trying to do. So when we do our expansions, we’re saying, “Hey, we think we’ve got something really awesome for you to play.” And when we do our content patches, we think “Hey, these are pretty interesting things for you to do.” And we hope people play.

Yeah, it’s ebb-and-flow. It’s not cyclical. Things come in and come out. We seem to be doing OK on that. I’m not saying we’re resting on our laurels. We always try to one-up ourselves and do a better job at it. We’re constantly – I swear to god – trying to improve the game in terms of how it functions, how it looks. We polish all the time. We meticulously polish. We polish systems that are already established, because – you know what? – it just doesn’t work as well [anymore]. So we do that all the time. So there is a give-and-take there, but we’re trying to make it better.

I’ll say this: We’ve also been very fortunate in that people seem to like what we’re doing.

Do you think, though, that the “traditional” MMO formula is finally going stale? Do you think that’s the root of your post-expansion exoduses? Is there any desire to really change things up? Say, throw out the questing system or set the whole game in space?

Well, we did a fair amount of that with Cataclysm, right? I mean, questing could be pretty good, but did you play WoW classic [before any expansions]? Questing in classic kind of sucked. It really did. Like, there were some good quests, but there were also some quests… there’s the classic example of the quest in Ashenvale where you went back-and-forth to the same fucking dude, like, four times. It’s like “OK, can’t I have just killed the guy I was supposed to see and be on my way?”

What we did in Cataclysm was re-doing that whole questing system and how we told stories through it. What we did with phasing to tell stories – yeah, we’re absolutely willing to [change things up]. And we do that. So that’s a really good example of it. We’re not afraid of also doing a lot of work and throwing it all away. So yes, we absolutely look at stuff and say, “That’s shit. Let’s improve on it.” But we also say, “That didn’t work out. Let’s throw it away.”

So you got quite the reaction to Pandaria from the Internet Peanut Gallery. And I can’t blame them entirely. I mean, it connotates certain things… like a particular Jack Black film.

Really? That looks Jack Black-y – where [a nearby poster of a Pandaren kicking an undead character’s jaw off] is crushing his skull?

Well, insofar as the words “pandas” and “fighting” are involved.

“What we’re trying to do is say, ‘These guys can be badasses.’ These guys can be – at the start – badasses. These are warriors. These are fierce, awesome fighters. And they’re also hard-drinking dudes, too.”

Gotcha. And certainly it’s very valid. It’s like, what has been a huge exposure to the current generation of people involving pandas? Certainly that film. What we’re trying to do is say, “These guys can be badasses.” These guys can be – at the start – badasses. These are warriors. These are fierce, awesome fighters. And they’re also hard-drinking dudes, too.

So you mean you’re not trying to jump the shark? Shocking. Could the Internet be… wrong? No. Never. My whole world is falling apart. Seriously, though, what do you say to those people?

Well, I mean, try the beta. Try the game demo on the floor. See if we actually have jumped the shark – rather than relying on your initial reaction to something that we aren’t. Maybe you’re thinking about what something else is, and you’re thinking we’re doing that. But we’re Blizzard Entertainment. We try to do something much better. So try and give us a shot. Take a look at the panda and what we’re trying to do with the panda. I think you’ll find it very, very different from anything you’ve seen before.

You’ve eliminated auto-attack with Pandarens. That, of course, has been a pillar of every WoW class prior. Do you have any plans to give other classes a similar shake-up?

It’s possible. It’s always possible. Like, we’re going through what – our third iteration on the talent system? So we’re always willing to look at stuff and say, “This is working in part; this isn’t working in other parts. Let’s change it.”

For the monk, it makes sense to remove auto-attack. Just the notion of how you build up your Chi and how you want to have the light and dark – it makes sense to do it that way. Will we say that the Warrior will [no longer] have an auto-attack? Possibly. I don’t think so. But it’s possible.

The last thing you want to do is have a game that’s literally “Oh, I know exactly what they do.” I think we’re pretty good at saying, “Is this still interesting for us? Is this a worthwhile thing at all? Did we fail?” So it’s possible. We don’t have any plans at this time to sit there and say, “Hey, we’re gonna be changing the combat mechanics of all our other classes.” But we will look at what we do with the monk and we’ll respond to what people tell us. And we’ll possibly agree. Or we’ll possibly say, “That works if we did it this way.” Or we’ll possibly disagree.

It’s kind of a crappy answer, but it’s the truth. We’re gonna say, “Maybe. But right now, we don’t have any plans.”

You’ve announced a Pokemon-esque pet battling system, and I totally saw a Pandaren using Ryu’s spin kick from Street Fighter. Point is, WoW’s not afraid to be referential – sometimes blatantly so. When do you rein it in, though? How much is too much? Do you ever worry that you’re being too referential?

Are we too focused on other people’s stuff that we just copy and go? I think any creative group is influenced by the world we live in. What a surprise, right? [Laughs]. There’s some kick-ass shit out there. It may be referential, but certainly homages as well. There’s some awesome stuff, and we’re like “Yeah, that’d be cool to have, and we’d like to see it in our game too.”

So yeah, we do all that referencing. I mean, there are tons of pop culture references in our game. It’s also appealing to our customer base. They like to see that and get what that is. It also provides an anchor to what we’re doing – like “OK, I’ve got a reference to what that is. I understand where I’m supposed to be going with this.”

“When our bullshit meter goes off? When we go ‘Yeah, that doesn’t work. That’s kind of stupid.’ I mean, we’re our own worst critics, and we’re brutal to each other in our meetings.”

We also like to polish and modify. We’re like “Now that we’ve done this, we can do it in a much better way.” So yes, we do all that stuff. Absolutely, 100 percent, we do all that stuff. But we like to make our own spin on it.

When our bullshit meter goes off? When we go “Yeah, that doesn’t work. That’s kind of stupid.” I mean, we’re our own worst critics, and we’re brutal to each other in our meetings. Just, absolutely brutal to each other. Literally, it’s like “That’s too much. That’s ridiculous. That doesn’t work. I don’t get it. I don’t like it.”

The great thing about working on the World of Warcraft dev team is that – at any point – you as a developer can walk into my office as a developer and say, “Here are my thoughts on what you’re doing.” And it’s valued. It’s not rejected. It’s not “What do you mean – coming in and telling me that stuff?” Because I can do the same to you. We have a great give-and-take. It means you’re not the sole vision. We have 100 some-odd people that are the vision for our game. And that means we’re that much better.

What’s the current timeframe for the Pandaria beta?

We haven’t gotten anything announced yet. We obviously want to give it to everybody soon. Given our previous timelines, I think your readers can make some pretty educated guesses on where we are in development. Soon is all I can say.

So what about Blizzard’s desire to speed up the expansion production cycle? Has this one been faster?

It doesn’t seem like it, but yeah, we’re trying to be. You know, we really are an 800 lb ballerina. We think we can get up on point, but it’s tough.

But we do want to try and get it out faster. Yeah, I don’t have any dates. Nobody on the development team could tell you when the date is. We’ll work on it – and we’ll be going back next week and talking about it – but we don’t have a date yet.

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