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Mists of Pandaria interview: ready for panda-monium?

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is incoming - patch 5.0.4 went live today - and is set to shake up Blizzard's MMO in many ways. VG247's Dave Cook speaks with the team to learn more about the biggest changes.

"This new system is the culmination of progressive iteration that we've been doing on it over the course of several years. From Cataclysm to 5.0.4 we're moving from a 51-point talent tree to 31-point talents. We looked at the talent trees as they existed and, frankly, we found them boring."

The MMO market is an ever-shifting sea of change, innovation and volatility that only the strongest and most forward-thinking titles can navigate unscathed.

Even World of Warcraft - arguably the most successful MMORPG to date - isn't immune to the dangers of the industry, with dipping subscriber figures becoming a recent reality.

But big changes are coming with patch 5.0.4 - which launched this morning - and new expansion Mists of Pandaria, including new talent trees and a pet battle system.

VG247 caught up with Blizzard lead encounter designer Ion Hazzikostas and lead game producer John Lagrave to find out why these changes could be for the better.

Mists of Pandaria is out September 25. You guys must now be in crunch time fixing up loose ends and such?

John Lagrave: Yeah we're wrapping things up. Almost every bit of content from the game is in the beta right now for our players to check out, and to
tell us about.

We're at a stage of bug fixing in terms of development, so we're going through and just crushing bugs left and right. So we're very, very pressed. We're a month away basically from releasing the box itself to the public, so yeah, we're so close we can see it.

What have been the biggest trends from the beta, or the prevalent issues you have had to resolve in the run up to launch?

Ion Hazzikostas: One of the things we revamped was the intro zone in Pandaria as you're coming in. We redid both the Horde and Alliance starting zones to give you a better sense of where you are in the world, what the conflict is, what the different factions are, and how they're all interacting. That was a massive part of our revamp, thanks to player feedback

John Lagrave: These past couple of months we've been been doing intensive testing of all our raids on the beta servers, and we got a lot of positive feedback there, as well as iterative changes based on the conflicts we've seen out there in the world

We also released the pet battle system on the beta servers a few weeks ago, and the feedback there has really been fantastic. People have been going all around the world collecting pets, levelling them up and just experiencing the system.

The pet system isn't just confined to Pandaria either, you've rolled it out across the whole world.

Ion Hazzikostas: Yeah, it applies to every single zone in the world from Elwynn Forest through the Dread Wastes has actual pets that you can battle and acquire to extend your collection.

There's also a pet trainer quest line that sees your character training pets across all of the continents and using their pet's skills to overcome battles.

You're already on to a big franchise in World of Warcraft but it now it sounds like you just rolled Pokémon and WoW together. That's like a license to print money. Would you flesh the pet battle side out more if it sticks?

John Lagrave: The pet battle system isn't just this wild thing that we're going to abandon after its implemented. It's something we've put a lot of time into, we have lots of cool ideas for it. There was so much stuff we didn't put into it for Pandaria.

Ion Hazzikostas: Yeah, and the idea for the battles came from having pets in the game for a long time. Initially, we had a couple of dozen pets, but then we kept on adding more and more.

We noticed that players were happy to collect them all just to show them off, so we've always wanted to do something with the pet system. Players got really attached to certain pets, they perhaps farmed items for hours and hours to get a particular pet, and this seemed like a very natural extension of that.

It is a big change, just like your new skill system is a big change. Can you give us more insight into why you decided to overhaul such a fundamental part of the game?

Ion Hazzikostas: Sure. The new skill system is something all players from level 15 are going to experience immediately, and from when our 5.0.4 patch goes out, all players will be able to see those changes.

This new system is the culmination of progressive iteration that we've been doing on it over the course of several years. From Cataclysm to 5.0.4 we're moving from a 51-point talent tree to 31-point talents.

We looked at the talent trees as they existed and frankly, we found them boring. You know, stuff like adding plus 1-5% to the damage of your fireball. That just isn't interesting as a choice, unless you're like a fire mage and you're like, 'Oh, I cast fireballs all the time, this will make them that little bit better.'

But you wouldn't be different from everyone else because every Fire Mage in the game would have chosen that option. If you didn't you'd just be making yourself weaker than them, so that just didn't make for interesting gameplay.

What was the solution?

Ion Hazzikostas: So what we've done is, we looked at the talents everyone felt obligated to take and just gave them to you for free. With the Fire Mage, his fireball now just hits harder, or if you're an Arms Warrior and you're supposed to have Mortal Strike, we now saw, 'here, have Mortal Strike'.

We took the remaining things and what we often found was that - say you spend 33 points in one talent tree - maybe 29 of those were just power increases that felt mandatory.

Mists of Pandaria's opening CG.

The thing is, those last few points actually came down to some interesting decisions. Like OK, I've got all the 'mandatory' stuff, but now do I want to move faster or take a shield that protects me from damage?

What if you couldn't have both and that choice made my gameplay that little bit different from everyone else? That was the cool part, but the reality was that this only accounted for 5% of your actual talent points. Now it's 100% of your talent points.

So it's a matter of giving people less arbitrary choices but making those choices more impactful?

Ion Hazzikostas: Yeah, and we really have distilled our system down into six meaningful choices between three sets of choices that have been balanced against each other.

They're mutually exclusive, and what that means is, today, in a 4.3 environment, two Fire Mages probably have the exact same capability and talents, but after 5.0.4 there will be hundreds of possibilities when it comes to the talents they can have.

If people are currently putting in hours of play and grinding to simply receive a +1% stat increase, that could be putting players off. Is this new format an attempt to get players to stick around for the long term?

Ion Hazzikostas: It's an attempt to make a better system, and I think we've succeed in that.

John Lagrave: The cookie cutter approach of, 'I'm going to level up and take exactly what I need from this spec that every other player has chosen', doesn't make for a rich environment, and we wanted to move away from that.

We've tried repeatedly to do that, and I think we've got a much better format going into 5.0.4 with this new system.

It's that classic blancing thing isn't it? It's where people figure out the best, most powerful set up and people just start spamming it.

John Lagrave: Yes, exactly, and 29 out of those 51 choices were being made pretty much the same for every Fire Mage, and along the way there was maybe only two actually different, or interesting choices.

How much of this new 5.0.4 content will be available to free-to-play players

Ion Hazzikostas: At level 15 they're going to get their first choice, their first talent tree choice, and our free-to-play Starter Edition is up to level 20 so they will experience that.

Another choice will see Pandaren players pledging their allegiance to either the Horde or Alliance at some point too.

John Lagrave: If you're a neutral Pandaren, you begin your adventure on the back of a giant turtle swimming through the ocean. You're going to be learning about the Horde and Alliance, and finally as a culmination of what you've learned, you're going to make your decision.

At that point this neutral panda will then take on either side as well as either Horde or Alliance abilities.

How far will this choice impact on the Padaren narrative once it is made?

John Lagrave: Well at the start you're going to be making your way through the old world, through the Burning Crusade and Litch King expansions, and all of that content. That's all going to be the same.

Ion Hazzikostas: Just to add to that, one of the narrative themes in our expansion is that there's this massive conflict between the Alliance and the Horde that's coming to a head and it's sweeping all of Azeroth. Everyone has to pick sides, they can't stand in the middle because it sweeps up everything, and that includes the Pandaren as well.

Is it correct to say that Blizzard originally wanted a manual, almost hack n' slash combat style for the Pandaren race?

Ion Hazzikostas: That was for the Monk class, which can be played by any race besides Worgen and Goblin, so not specifically Pandaren players. But yes, we experimented with the Monk class in early stages of the beta, by not giving it auto-attack.

But it didn't feel right, so we took it out. It was one of those things where it didn't fit with how our combat feels. It didn't take long to fight a low level monster and it'd be down to 5% health and some people would just stop pushing buttons, thinking that they would just finish it off automatically.

So people would just sort of stand there [laughs], while this monster isn't dying. I mean, we thought it would give the Monk class a different feel from other classes, but that wasn't the right way to go about it.

It was a bit like trying to get a hack n' slash element in there. The Monk is a martial artist that attacks quickly, with a one second global cool-down which is quicker than most other classes.

In our designer's minds they thought, 'Maybe this would feel more visceral in that, every button I press will have a result, and I'll feel more of a connection with the combat.' The reality was it didn't fit.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is out September 25.

About the Author

Dave Cook avatar

Dave Cook


Living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Writing a game called Jettison and a book called Seventh Circle. Loves spicy food.

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