Like many of Blizzard’s senior development team, lead World of Warcraft world designer Cory Stockton – the guy in charge of rebuilding the game for the incoming Cataclysm expansion – has been working on the IP so long he talks about the virtual world and its denizens as indistinguishable from the real one. The matter-of-fact tone in which he discusses the game’s protagonists and locales is exactly how you’d discuss the latest football result. It’s not the same as the rehearsed patter of producers pressed into media duties, but rather indicative of the time he and others have invested into this game over the past half-decade plus.
Not that Stockton has trouble differentiating reality from gaming. As the lead content designer in an expansion that focuses on ripping up parts of a game world populated by over 10 million subscribers, it’s going to be pretty hard to avoid all manner of “grounding” feedback in the coming months.
We sat down for a chat with Stockton to see where Blizzard’s content team is at with Cataclysm, and what it’s hoping to accomplish – and the one design trait Stockton attributes to the MMO’s ongoing success.
VG247: Cataclysm features massive geographical upheaval in the game’s original environments. What kind of challenges from a design perspective comes from pulling apart a game world so familiar to so many players?
Cory Stockton: I wouldn’t say it’s the challenge of pulling it apart, it’s trying to decide what we actually want to change. In most cases, we’ve changed way more than we thought we would. Originally we thought we were gonna make a large number of changes to a certain amount of zones. We were going to pick the zones that needed the most changes…
[Laughs] As we’ve progressed and gone through, it’s turned out we’ve made a large number of changes to almost every single zone. Zones that we thought would only get a week worth of work – of quest rework – have ended up getting five weeks worth of quest rework. I think that just comes from the Blizzard mentality and it catches us. If you redo this zone and you go to the next zone, you see the quests there are six years old, you feel weird. It doesn’t feel right. So you gotta go in and make changes.
I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve ended up changing way more than we thought. But I think it’s all for the good. We’ve kept nostalgia – things that made sense that players really loved – and in most cases made that stuff better, you know, modified those quest lines. I really don’t think people are going to feel like they’re missing anything; if anything I feel they’re going to get a better version of what they remember.
When we last spoke you said Cataclysm’s demolition of parts of the game world was [Blizzard’s creative head] Chris Metzen’s idea. Were there any other solid contenders for central themes in this expansion?
Cory Stockton: The other biggest theme was the South Seas in general. The idea of maybe going with something more Azshara-based, her being one of the big crazy bosses like Arthas [Wrath of the Lich King] style. We talked about going really heavy in the pirating with a South Seas type of thing. We did do some research into that and got kind of far into it – but it never really lead to anything that was huge, you know, that really grabs you and would make you feel like “what’s gonna make you play this expansion.”
A couple of new islands, some pirates – that’s cool: but what’s the hook? And from that we kind of developed and kept going to the idea of “who is the protagonist going to be?” and Deathwing [Cataclysm’s bad guy] came up. He’s such an old character. You know he’s been around forever, but he got owned way back in Grim Batol and nobody had ever heard from him ever since. He’d gone crazy and so the idea of bringing him back and having him be empowered by old gods was just a huge, cool thing.
That never came around until we played with the old god idea so much. With Cthun and Yogg Saron – they corrupted these great leaders and that’s what you’re seeing here with Deathwing. The Twilight’s Hammer is that invisible connection between the old gods and Deathwing.
WoW’s well over half a decade old. How much longer can you hold the long term player’s attention?
Cory Stockton: I think what we’re doing now could hold a player whose done it from one to 60 five times, easily. The experience is completely different. Not only are you playing through entirely different quest lines, but the zones that have a completely different flow. You’re not going from zone to zone to zone to zone. We’ve closed off areas that lead to old zones; a zone like Hillsbrad Foothills is Horde-only now. Southshore isn’t even owned by the Alliance any more, for example. Barrens has been broken into two zones – northern and southern. So, you’re going to see a different flow that’s going to feel completely different. The quests – that’s going to feel completely different; that’s a given.
Besides that, Cataclysm’s easily the biggest change we’ve ever made to our classes by far. The idea of the mastery system coming in and the way the new talent trees work (where you get all your passive bonuses come from the amount you’ve spent in the tree), we’ve been able to remove all those passive talents; the 5 percent crit, the 5 percent defence. You know – the ones that aren’t very exciting, they just give you a percentage. We’ve been able to pull all of those out, and put them into the mastery system and replace those with ones that feel cooler.
I feel like that, combined with the whole new game experience is going to really feel different. It’s not going to feel like just the world has changed; the way that you play your class all the way through will feel very different. And I think that’s going to be compelling for… number one, I feel it’s going to be better for new players or new players that we might have lost at some point along the way – to feel more compelled to get all the way through. And then players that have already done it multiple times, I would hope, will see the new race and class combinations. That to me is one of the bigger things that would draw people in. A Tauren Paladin, you know, an Undead Hunter, a Gnome Priest… all those kind of things that people have always talked about – like a Night Elf Mage – being able to make that class and do that fantasy, along with everything else I think will be big.
What would you say if you encountered Sceptic A on a message board asking, “Why don’t I just pay for a race change and skip the new levelling flow?”
Cory Stockton: I think if they want to pay for a race change that’s totally fine. [Laughs] We don’t really have any issues with race changes. That’s why we offer it.
Our idea is hopefully the content is compelling enough that you would want to go through it, just because you think it’s going to be good. My impression is if you’re still playing WoW five years later, and you upped on day one when the brown box came out, you love WoW.
In that case it’s pretty hard to look at what we’re doing with Cataclysm and say, “I’m going to ignore it”. I think that’s a pretty hard decision to make especially when you’re going to have a guild full of people that are rerolling and telling you about these quests that feel different or, “Holy crap, what’s going on, this is different”. I think that word of mouth alone is going to make people want to experience some of that new stuff.
Do you think WoW’s player-base gets spread too thin across the game’s content?
Cory Stockton: Do you mean it feels empty [in some zones]? Definitely. And that’s one of the biggest reasons that we thought to go to the old world and change it. In something like Northrend [Wrath of the Lich King] when you rolled a new character like a Night Elf, there’s not many people in Darkshore. Or in Ashenvale. When you work your way through, people don’t really attack Crossroads in the Barrens as much any more, because you don’t see a lot of new players going through that content.
So hopefully – and I know this all sounds like the same thing – the idea is redoing that content would get people that even have level 80s to go back and redo some of that stuff. I think the biggest place you could see an issue like that is some place like Outland [Burning Crusade] – you know where Outland is still going to be in the same kind of spot that it was, and we know that. We’re thinking about what we need to do with Outland in the future. Nothing’s going to happen obviously any time soon, but we’re going to watch Outland pretty close over Cataclysm and see how people transition into it. If that feels weird or if it feels good – that’s something we’re going to have to watch.
Do you think there’s a risk of people will skip much of the new content by constantly queuing up via the game’s random dungeon tool?
Cory Stockton: Totally, I think it can happen now. Like you could roll a new character and level up all the way through that [tool].
Is that something you – as a world designer – would like to see?
Cory Stockton: No, we don’t want to encourage that. And so one of the new things we’re doing in Cataclysm is you can’t actually queue for a random dungeon until you’ve done that dungeon for the first time. So when you see the list of dungeons, they’re all going to be locked. When you go to Wailing Caverns and you walk in and it says “Wailing Caverns”, it’ll unlock it with a little message saying it’s unlocked. Then you play it.
So you at least have to travel there to be able to do it. And I think that alone – considering the number of dungeons you want available to have enough to level in – is going to hopefully discourage that somewhat.
It’s something we should have had originally, to be honest. Because a lot of people will have never been to a dungeon and they don’t know how to get back from the graveyard [if they die]. They would die in the Icecrown five-man dungeons and have no idea where the entrance was on the side of the tower. So that was another one of the reasons, you know, to have people find it first.
Approaching this as an outsider, what areas in the world would you think depict Blizzard’s style the best?
Cory Stockton: Oh, the Death Knight starting experience by far. It’s probably our best questing experience until the new [Cataclysm] stuff – the Gilneas and the Goblin stuff are probably going to be the things that are actually able to top that. But from a quest standpoint, that by far is the best.
I think as far as the game goes, from a story standpoint and just looking at what you’re seeing, a zone like Icecrown. If you put someone into a zone like that, which is just filled with so much story… Like you look at the zone and you know what’s going on right away. You see those big aggressive walls, you see the Scourge everywhere, there’s this gigantic looming tower in the background. I think when I describe WoW… the biggest thing we always say is “play don’t tell”. It’s a huge thing around here for us and I think that’s a zone that really does that. You get there and “whoa – the Scourge have clearly taken over this place, I need to help deal with this”. You’ve got Vrykul on one side, you’ve got the Ebon Hold on the other side, and that’s where the Death Knights are – it’s where all that stuff just plays out.
I think another great example of that is Zul’Drak, where you progress through the story. Up that staircase, all the way to Gun’Drak and then kind of finish it out there. Those are examples of the kind of things we want to see the zones feel like. I don’t want them to just be come into the zone, I want to get my level, and I’m out. The idea should be when you play the new Barrens, Barrens has a reason why things are happening there. There’s a tonne of new stories in Barrens that feel very different to the old stuff. You’re not just finding Mankrik’s wife laying on the side of the road and killing x number of giraffes. Now, granted, we will still have kill quests and stuff, but the idea is that we want to carry you through a storyline.
Do you take into account specific player traits or tendencies as part of the design process?
Cory Stockton: Oh, we totally do that.
How do you capture player traits?
Cory Stockton: Sometimes it’s from us playing the game. I mean you get feedback from that, but the biggest thing is the internal instinct from our guys.
Our level design team is up to 11 people now; they all actively play. Like, where we put road signs to drag you into places, we do things like when we build towns we make sure there’s a big tall building in the town that can help guide you to that spot. There’s all kinds of little stuff like that. Everyone hates it when their camera bumps into stuff when they’re fighting things – they’re all things you learn over time. Fences look really cool around a town – but they’re really annoying for players, especially if they can’t jump over them. These are all things that are hard to know unless you’ve learned them from experience.
Hypothetically speaking – if you were to be working on a new MMO title for a large game developer (based in Irvine), what elements or features would you personally consider to be essential?
Cory Stockton: The number one element would be the best quest system ever. To me that’s the driving element of WoW. I think the idea that that quest system can work to get a player from the beginning all the way to max level by himself. A quest system that can support that. Because that’s easily to me the key, defining, “secret” element that’s made WoW as successful as it is: it’s a game that is 100 percent driven by questing. And that questing can work for a single player.
A lot of times that can give a gamer that wouldn’t think that they’re MMO gamers – “I’m a console gamer”, “I play FPS shooters” – or whatever, and they do that by themselves, right? So they think that an MMO [means] “I have to party up”. But I think WoW broke that whole mode right open. We were the first game to say, “Well you don’t necessarily have to [team up], you can level up by yourself all the way.” And I think that’s still an element we look to now.
So, going into a new game, to me that’s the core element of what we would have to do.