Pandaria began as a lark. For April Fools’ Day in 2002, one of the artists from Blizzard, Samwise Didier, created an anthropomorphic race of panda-men as a fake fifth race for the RTS Warcraft 3. Fans latched onto the idea though, and since then Warcraft lore has hinted at a mysterious continent, shrouded in mist, where the Pandarens live. Level-capped World of Warcraft characters will get the chance to adventure in those lands when Mists of Pandaria comes out on September 25th, but others will jump at the chance to play a brand new Pandaren character and try out a completely new class of martial artist – the Monk.

You can check out my video preview of the Pandaren starting area and the Monk, but I also got a chance to sit down with Greg Street the Lead Systems Designer for World of Warcraft – known as Ghostcrawler on the WoW forums -to pick his brain about Mists of Pandaria. You might be surprised to learn exactly why they introduced the new Pokemon-like minipet battle system, and some other neat additions to the continent of Pandaria that have flown under the radar by the WoW-press.

The Escapist: This was the first expansion you guys had developed a new class for levels one through 90. What was that like, going back to the drawing board, so to speak?

Greg Street: It was interesting, with the Death Knight [- the “hero class” from Wrath of the Lich King -] we knew we could throw a bunch of abilities to players right away but with the Monk we really had to think about, ‘Okay what does a level nine Monk have to do? And do we give them the ability slowly or quickly?’ I think for a long time players felt like they didn’t have enough abilities at low levels but anyone who jumped in and tried them at high level felt overwhelmed because they had to learn everything. It’s definitely a bit of a different process.

The Escapist: What did you think was the iconic abilities that said martial artist, or Monk, to you?

Greg Street: We looked a lot at the Brewmaster from the Warcraft RTS and then we also watched a lot of cheesy martial arts movies. Because we really felt like that was what we were going for, that was the kind of, we didn’t have a class that quite felt like that yet so we wanted to have a lot of animations of hands and fists, but also mystical almost Wushu style energy that they would have to do, things that felt magical but were done without using mana.

The Escapist: To me, the Roll ability, just being able to instantly roll forward is the thing that really set apart the Monk. That made the class feel really different.

Greg Street: Yeah, they have a lot of mobility. They have that higher level ability, Flying Serpent Kick, where they can go a long way and land when they want to and combining those two abilities together you really feel mobile.

The Escapist: How do you think those abilities will impact things like PvP?

Greg Street: So far, Monks had some abilities earlier on in PvP that were just too good. Their disarm was pretty radical and some of their crowd control. I think that we’re really trying to center around movement being a big thing for them. They can get into combat and get away pretty quickly as well.

The Escapist: Is that the kind of thing where you guys can iterate a lot within the team but then you know as soon as it has contact with the larger audience that it’s going to change?

Greg Street: It’s very hard for us to test PvP internally. We have a lot of internal tools that can kind of do automated testing for things like PvE damage but there’s no way to really try to replicate what a Battleground’s going to feel like without just getting a lot of players together. We do that a lot but Blizzard only has a couple thousand employees and that’s nothing compared to the millions of players who are going to start encountering Monks soon.

The Escapist: So were there things that you saw in the beta that made you kind of change the way you approached the Monk?

Greg Street: Not dramatically. We changed the resource model early on a couple of times. At first we had the the black force and the white force and you’d kind of juggle those two together. But at the same time we came up with a lot of unusual mechanics for the Monk’s abilities and we said, “We think the class can either support a complicated resource model or complicated abilities.” We went with the abilities because that was something we hadn’t done before, where each ability has a weird tweak compared to what players are used to.

The Escapist: How do you think it turned out? What’s the thing that you’re most excited about for the Monk?

Greg Street: It may be a lame answer but I love the animation. Our animators just went all out coming up with different stances for the damage dealer versus the tank and healer and all the way. When it’s combined with the Pandaren model, because they have so many bones in the model to play with, just the way they turn out their wrists when they’re deflecting an attack. It looks awesome to watch.

The Escapist: What about the Monk starting area? The starting area was something you guys had done really well for all the previous expansions like Burning Crusade and Cataclysm, so what would set this one apart?

Greg Street: The location was really different. When we did, say the goblin starting experience, we were thinking of those more in terms of advanced players, people who had played through everything in WoW and could handle something different. So the goblin start zone was really unusual. You had your car, it’s like a big city there’s not just boars running around to kill. We took a little bit of a step back with the Pandaren because we imagined that being a race new players to the game might want to try out. So rather than having a lot of unusual mechanics we based it mostly around the story and the big discovery of the turtle and what its injury was and the really breathtaking vistas around that starting zone.

The Escapist: Was that something that Chris Metzen (Senior Vice President, Story and Franchise Development) came up with? That the whole starting area is on this turtle or was that something that came with the writing of that zone?

Greg Street: That had always been, “Oh, by the way, the Pandaren live on a turtle.” That’s been around for a while, I don’t think that came up as part of Mists of Pandaria but I know Chris Metzen and our lead quest designer Dave Kozac spent a lot of time coming up with the history, the culture and the philosophy of the Pandaren because we had to create a lot of that from scratch. With the previous expansions we had a lot to go on for backstory but Dave, particulary, had to create a whole history and mythology, ten thousand years of Pandaren history. I think it was a lot of fun.

The Escapist: That seems like a very typical number that people throw out now when they’re talking about fantasy games: “We have ten thousand years of history!”

Greg Street: Yeah, everything in Blizzard games is like that. Nothing is two hundred years old, it’s ten thousand years old. Dragons aren’t twenty five feet long, they’re four hundred feet long.

The Escapist: Let’s talk about the big change in the talent system. How do you expect old players will receive it? People that had played WoW and then perhaps had stopped their subscription, if they come back for Mists of Pandaria and find that all the things that they had programmed are different, how will they react?

Greg Street: We’re finding two responses. On the one hand are the players who come in and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, all my talents are gone and I miss them, this is terrible.” Then, after playing with it for a little bit, they reach the second plateau of “Oh, there’s a lot of depth here, all the mindless talents I would look up on a website are gone but there’s really a hard choice. At level 60 which of these abilities do I want? and what are the best scenarios to use them?” and things like that. It was funny because the same thing happened in Beta when initially players didn’t get this then said “Oh, now I see.” Now that it’s gone live [with patch 5.0.4] we’re seeing that happen all over again to the players that weren’t paying close attention to Beta.

The Escapist: Have you guys thought about any ways to ease that transition?

Greg Street: We did some smart things to make the transition easier, for example with specializations, say you’re a Holy Paladin before the patch came out, you’re still a Holy Paladin with all of your abilities. We even tried to preserve the buttons on your action bar so that previously, when we came out with a big patch, players would have this pretty horrible moment of, “Oh my gosh I’ve got to go do all this research, I’ve got to pick out my talents, I’ve got to rebuild my action bars.” I knew we were on the right track, when the patch first went out, and I got a bunch of friends together and we were running a dungeon within ten minutes and it didn’t take any time to get up and go. Some people didn’t have all of their talents chosen but that was okay, they could chose them on the go, they weren’t missing a very critical ability they needed to function.

The Escapist: I read the document describing the talent changes and what each class was going to go through and it seemed like a lot of the notes were homogenization of the specs. For example, the Mage fire tree was always known as burst damage and that document says that “Well, we’re going to try to reduce that burst damage.” The frost mages were always good and strong in PvP and the document said, “Well we’re going to make sure that they’re strong everywhere.” It seemed as if you were taking away the very things that had defined the specs.

Greg Street: The way I would describe it is we tried to put all of the utility at the class level because when utility is at the spec level players feel forced to choose that spec. Oh, it’s a lot of crowd control in this encounter so I need the spec that has the best crowd control or I’m going into PvP so I need the spec that has the most escape mechanisms, that sort of thing. Instead we tried to focus each spec on the way they did damage. Fire mages still do damage different than frost mages, the fire mages have a lot of DOTs [damage over time spells] that’s built around when to use Combustion and Inferno Blast and things like that where frost is still throwing a lot of Ice Lances and trying to get their Shatter combos. But then you don’t have to worry about, “Oh you have to pick Frost because they also have Deep Freeze and they also have the Frost Nova and the best crowd control.” We tried to make that something that all mages had so the players could choose how they wanted to deal damage instead.

The Escapist: It also seemed like, and correct me if I’m wrong, it was an extension of the “Bring the player and not the spec” philosophy you guys brought in Cataclysm.

Greg Street: Yeah, totally. I just don’t think at the end of the day players enjoy so much saying in raids “Okay you have to be Beastmaster for this fight and the next fight you have be Marksmanship for the next fight a Beast again.” They just kind of wanted to say, “You know what, I really like the Marksmanship style of hunter just let me be a Marksmanship hunter all the time.”

The Escapist: As far as leveling, you guys have changed the curve so it doesn’t take as long. That was a change for Cataclysm, right?

Greg Street: Every time we come out with a new expansion we go back and speed up the old stuff a little bit so I think that one of the dark secrets of WoW is it’s always taken about the same amount of time to reach maximum level even thought the maximum levels keep increasing.

The Escapist: I’m experiencing a feeling that there’s less rewards for leveling up like there used to be, like getting a new talent point every level and getting a new spell every two levels. Was that the intention or was that because that time necessary to level up had been compacted?

Greg Street: You should still get a new spell around the same, we didn’t cut down that much the number of spells, they come about as often. Definitely there’s fewer talent points and we just decided talents either need to be about progression or they need to be about customization. We thought the game already rewards leveling a lot with getting new loot all the time, talents really need to be about customization and saying, “My elemental Shaman has different abilities than the other elemental Shaman.”

The Escapist: Can you talk a little bit why you removed the requirement to go back to the class trainer?

Greg Street: It had always been kind of a little bit of RPG tradition that you’re out adventuring and then ding, you get your level, and you go back to your trainer and learn your new abilities but I think a combination of us streamlining the questing experience and just the focus on the endgame, the players wanted to get there soon as possible. If you skipped visiting your class trainer for a few levels, that was okay, which meant that you were just delaying getting these fun abilities. We’d rather players did get the abilities right away and have the instant gratification rather than it being a choice of “Should I take time out of leveling to go get this ability which may improve my leveling or not?”

The Escapist: Do you find that player behavior is that they go back to town whenever they want to?

Greg Street: Overall, they try not to go back to town and we didn’t think it was a fun choice of is it more efficient to go back to town frequently or to never go back to town. You still need to go back to town sometimes to sell the stuff in your bags or get a new flight path or things like that, but the leveling could be so quick particularly when you stacked on things like guild benefits or refer a friend benefits or heirlooms or something like that. It just got to be a little silly that you would gain five ten levels without having gotten the new abilities that go along with those levels.

The Escapist: You guys have a lot of content that you’re bringing with Mists of Pandaria: the new class, a new race and the whole new continent. How did you balance the workload of getting those all done in the same timeframe as you did all the other ones?

Greg Street: [Laughs] I’m not sure we did in the long run if you look at the current patch 4.3. It lasted a lot longer than I think was ideal for the player base. It would have been great if we had had the expansion out soon and it’s just, it’s always a hard call of, “Do you want to put so much content in an expansion, because then the expansion’s really exciting or do you want to do smaller expansions so the players get them more frequently?” We’ve said for years that we need to get expansions out more frequently and we’ve just not been able to pull it off yet.

The Escapist: So was there a lot of corners cut that you needed to do that for? For example, a lot of the choices seem to be ways that would cut down on development time. You have one new race that can be either Horde or Alliance instead of two new races. Also, the starting zones for previous expansions typically had a Level 1 to 10 zone and then a ten to twenty zone whereas new Pandarens only have one zone and then you put them back in the world.

Greg Street: I would say that we find that players finish up the Pandaren starting area experience in between level 10 to 15 so it’s not super different. It’s probably a little shorter than the goblin one [from Cataclysm] which was quite long. The choice to only have one race was really just that we knew if we only gave the Pandaren to one side in a game like the this – with Pandaren [mystique] building for so long – that we would just really piss off half our players. So in that case we knew we had to give Pandaren to both sides.

The Escapist: The arguments that Blizzard favors the Horde would be too much.

Greg Street: Oh yeah, if we gave, for example, if we had done Pandaren for Alliance and say Ogres or Naga or something for Horde, a lot of Horde players would never have forgiven us because “Hey, Chen Stormstout was Horde!” We worried about it a little with Goblins in Cataclysm but we knew with Pandaren absolutely what it would be mean to limit it just half our player base.

The Escapist: What was the inspiration for the mini-pet combat system?

Greg Street: Players had been asking us for years, saying I like the collection game but I want to do something more with my pets. Mounts get you around in the world and pets were really just there for cosmetic purposes. That coupled with the fact we wanted a new system that we could add to the game, but we didn’t want one that infiltrated every other aspect of the game. What I mean by that is, when we added the professions Inscription, Archaeology and Jewelcrafting they have their hooks everywhere in the game to where this is something players are going to have to worry a lot about even if you have no interest in being a jewel crafter you’re expected to understand what gems mean for your character and to upgrade them and things like that. So if you’re looking more for a system that really felt optional, if you had no interest in dealing with the battle pets you could ignore it completely, you don’t have to worry about what this means for progression for your character or how if you’re missing out on player power.

The Escapist: That was where that came from? Or did you guys already have this kind of idea and then this fits perfectly.

Greg Street: No, it was a combination. We were sitting around feeling like we could use one or two more systems in the expansion but we don’t want anything that adds on a lot of complexity to the way characters grow. We didn’t want a new type of thing that felt like an enchant or a new type of thing that felt like a skill system players would have to learn and this really felt like it would be optional, it would be something people would intuitively get yet they didn’t have to worry about it if they didn’t want to.

The Escapist: Is there something about this expansion that you’re excited about but that no one has discovered yet?

Greg Street: The features I’m most excited about are things like challenge mode that have been talked about a lot. I’d say one thing that’s flown under the radar a little bit, it’s not something I’m super, it’s not a huge game changer, but it’s a kind of cool thing is we’ve hidden a lot of, we call them lost treasures around the world, in the new continent and a few achievements to support it. You find these if you look behind a waterfall or fly up on the top of a mountain there might be something cool hidden up there. It could be an actual item you could use or it may just be something you can sell for gold or some kind of toy like that. We really wanted to emphasize exploration because Pandaren is such a beautiful environment.

The Escapist: Are these analogous the chests that used to dot the world?

Greg Street: Yeah, they’re similar. Part of the problem with the chests was they would, players could exploit them by constantly camping it, coming back to the chests over and over again. You were constantly finding these chests that say like, two apples in them because another player had come and looted all the good stuff out of it. But the way most of these treasures work is they’re per player so once you find it you’ll never find that particular treasure again. Then another player can come along and find it.

The Escapist: What’s something about this expansion that hasn’t gotten the attention you thought it would?

Greg Street: Here, let me think for a minute. That’s part of the problem is places are so sophisticated at data mining stuff. We have a lot of rare monsters and many of them have unique treasure that you can only get from killing these monsters so I think they’ve probably data mined but I haven’t read a whole lot about it, there’s quite a few of these things and some of them are pretty hard to kill, they might take a group to defeat but then they have a chance of having loot that you can’t get anywhere else. Again, kind of playing into the “A new world to explore” and setting foot on this uncharted world that you don’t know where all the points of interests are yet.

The Escapist: So there’s a lot of that old silver dragon outline around the enemy? What are some of the benefits that you can get from killing these creatures?

Greg Street: Here are some examples:

Who: Korda Torros
Drops: Forager’s Gloves
What it does: Reduces the time it takes to harvest any Pandarian tradeskill node.

Who: Krol the Blade
Drops: Elixir of Ancient Knowledge
What it does: Increases experience gained from monster kills and quests by 300% for a full hour.

Who: Nessos the Oracle
Drops: Hardened Shell
What it does: Knocks an enemy player off of their mount.

There’s a lot of stuff to do in Mists of Pandaria. The zones that take your character to max-level tell the story of the negative energies the epic war between Horde and Alliance bring forth. The turn-based minipet battles are tons of fun in a Pokemon kind of way, not to mention the totally revamped talent system. One thing’s clear, there’s going to be a whole lot of kung-fu pandas running around Azeroth come September 25th and after my time playing in the beta test, I might just be one of them.

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