Five Years of Warcraft: J. Allen Brack and Samwise Speak Out


To celebrate WoW‘s fifth anniversary, Production Director J. Allen Brack and Blizzard art mastermind “Samwise” Didier sat down with our sister site The Escapist to talk about microtransactions, Cataclysm, and what the hell is up with the Pandaren.

This is a full transcript of the interview – to read a summary of the juicy bits, head over to The Escapist!

I asked Rob Pardo this question a few minutes ago, but for you guys, too: Five years ago, where were you imagining that you’d – by that I mean Blizzard and the game – would be right now?

J.: I don’t know that we had a vision of the future in that regard. The best vision of the future anyone ever painted before we launched was Allen Adham, one of the founding members of Blizzard. After E3, he got the WoW team together and was talking about how great it had looked on the floor, how great the game was, and about how we had something special on our hands. And one day, he said, we were going to have a million subscribers.

The team thought it was very nice of him to say, it was very cool that he said that… but we did not believe him in any possible way. We knew that no game could ever have a million subscribers, EQ was the big one and it didn’t even have half a million. And he was probably the most optimistic person at Blizzard in terms of how things would go.

Samwise: We knew it’d be a Blizzard game, and so a bunch of players would really love it. But WoW gave us Street Fighter status. And by that, I mean… everyone has all heard of those games, Street Fighter, Mario and Sonic, so when someone finds out I work here, and they go, “Wow, did you make WoW?” I’m all “How did you know about that?” “Oh, my son plays it.” It really propelled us into the mainstream.

What do you think WoW‘s biggest contribution has been to the MMO genre?

J.: I think there’s several different things. Everyone has their own personal list. The biggest contribution I think… prior to WoW, whenever MMOs came out, they always had a lot of problems. They were very buggy, very hardcore games – ultra hardcore games, even – and you had to invest a huge amount of time just to understand how to play. When WoW came out… well, certainly the more you put into WoW, the more you’ll get out in terms of time, but it’s a game that tries to be much more accessible and forgiving, it doesn’t treat itself as an MMO and have a really low quality bar. We wanted WoW to be a Blizzard quality game, with the Blizzard polish, and the Blizzard experience. We wanted to get away from the psychology in the gamer world, which was “Oh, it’s an MMO, it’s always gonna be buggy and problematic for a while.”

Sam: The one thing that WoW had going for it was that it was a very simple UI. It wasn’t too complex, and you didn’t have to do too many things to get started. You could spend a while thinking of a name, or you could take a random one. You could take 10 minutes creating character and making him look just how you wanted, or just randomize their appearance. We gave very simple choices, and there wasn’t any of this “Is my guy five pounds overweight? Are his eyes sea blue or sky blue?” Don’t get me wrong, that sort of thing is cool, but we made a very simple UI and character creator, and that’s one of the main things that helped people gravitate to the game. And the art is awesome.

Samwise, I have to ask: What’s with the pandas?

Sam: What’s NOT with the pandas?

They were the key to making WoW successful. If we’d just had them in, it’d have been really successful, not the little unheard-of game we have now. Actually, I’d done a picture of a Panda guy with his kids sitting up on a hill, and we incorporated it in an April Fools’ promotion, saying that it was an announcement: Here’s the new race in Warcraft III – we hadn’t announced … either the Undead or the Night Elves. we were expecting people to just go “Oh yeah, it’s April Fools, ha ha,” but people bought into it and added legitimacy to it, and really liked it.. So over the years we’ve been doing little bits to… like in the tabletop RPG, “Here’s the Pandaren, you can play them!”

People really like the Pandaren, and I attribute this to – they’re not as tough or as violent as Boba Fett, but everyone loved Boba Fett even though he just had three lines in the movie, because he was cool. The Pandaren don’t have a lot of lore but they’re like him, kind of mysterious. Actually, if there were billions in the game running around, I wonder how different it would be.

Will we EVER see Pandaren in the game, or is there truth to the rumor that you can’t due to China?

Sam: I think there’s a lot of reasons, but none we’re going to pinpoint. But there’s always that dream that there’ll someday be Pandaria somewhere in a Blizzard game. Maybe a new StarCraft race – what do you think?

Are things like the Pet Store and paid customization harbingers of a WoW where microtransactions are common on top of the subscription?

J.: I’ve been asked that a couple of times over the last few weeks. We don’t think about it that way. Actually, we’ve had a lot of paid services in WoW for a long time. We’ve had the paid character [server] transfer for ages, and you could say all of these services are a type of microtransaction. We think of those services as just providing things players want, especially providing things that allow players to play together, with their friends – the paid faction change is the same thing. WoW is much more fun a game if you’re playing it with your friends, and these services make it easy to do that.

With the pets, they’re things that players are interested in and excited about. Where I think the worry is, is people who are wondering if we’re talking about “Hey, do you want to buy the level 80 epic sword for $5?” We’re absolutely not talking about doing that.

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Art question: In Burning Crusade, many of the items had unique looks that resulted in a very patchwork feel. In Lich King, you went the opposite route and reused models, but people complained they didn’t feel unique anymore. Which of these philosophies will you be using moving into Cataclysm?

J.: Currently, we like the Lich King approach, but you pointed out the challenges with it pretty well. Given the choice between the two, it’s really a “pick your poison.” While the uniqueness is lost in the level-up, that’s not what’s important. You want a character you can take screenshots of, and that you think looks cool. So we really want them to have some kind of consistency, where your character looks like they have a coherent art style. But, like you said, there are definitely challenges with that approach.

Do you feel like you’ve written yourself into a corner? Since Azeroth is constantly evolving, does that make it impossible to do a Warcraft IV?

Sam: I wouldn’t say so. I think we have so many ideas that we want to do. I don’t see that as hurting us at all. The more story that we can create, it helps us make a cooler world. Then we’ve got all these ideas, we can go, “Oh, now that that’s happened, we can do that!”

J.: Typically it’s not a shortage of ideas, but really a shortage of ways to execute it. We’ve had lots of ideas for bosses, for example, but sometimes we couldn’t execute it.

Sam: With every new artist, designer, or programmer is another batch of ideas, so that keeps growing.

J.: We’ll never be able to finish the story.

Would you ever consider bringing a Warcraft RPG experience to a console? Perhaps as a single-player game?

J.: We have a reputation as a PC game developer – a very strong PC game developer. Some people ask if we dislike consoles, and that’s absolutely not the case – I have two consoles myself. We all play a lot of games, both PC games and console games, so it’s not a dislike of consoles or anything like that. We all like to play console games, and would like to play a Blizzard console game someday, but we haven’t been able to do that right. StarCraft: Ghost was kind of the latest console attempt that Blizzard made, and it didn’t feel like the game was where it needed to be.

But, we’ve used many of the concepts from Ghost in StarCraft II, so it’s not that much of a loss.

From an artistic standpoint, what’s your favorite-looking zone in the game?

Sam: The Barrens, actually! That’s where I kind of “grew up,” it’s home. In Burning Crusade, Zangarmarsh is one of my favorite zones. It just seems really out there, really just “fantastic.” That’s a really pretty zone. In Wrath… Storm Peaks is really fun, very powerful, there’s lots of Norse mythology you can find just running around in there.

J.: I really liked Tirisfal Glades, all the undead buildings and starting area. It has a creepy atmosphere but not an oppressive one. I also really like Un’goro Crater for some reason. I agree on Zangarmarsh for Burning Crusade – the idea of mushroom forest was one of the very earliest concepts we’d done for new zones after Hellfire Peninsula. In Wrath, I really like the look of Sholazar Basin and how it fits into Northrend, how not every zone is just cold icy tundra. Sticks out in that regard, and I like the storyline behind the Keepers and the Titans there, and how Sholazar ends up being a sister zone to Un’goro.

In Cataclysm, the Worgen and Goblins look better than the Draenei and Blood Elves, who looked better than the other races. Any plans to give the other races some visual touch-ups so that they look as good as the new races? Why would anyone choose to be a Human when they could be a Human who turns into a badass werewolf?

Sam: [Laughs] Exactly! Why would you ever be a human? You’re a human in real life! But J could answer that better. J, are there any plans?

J.: Yes, that’s definitely something we want to do, but I don’t know if we want to do it by Cataclysm. It’s something we struggle with – how much of the game do we want to change at any one time? Especially if it’s with the characters, since players identify their characters with themselves, and get attached to how they look, so we get into really serious trouble when we fix a weird bug with blinking or change a small animation with how players move, or tiny things like that. Even though things would be better with new models, we’d probably spark a lot of player outrage. So we’ve talked about giving players a choice between the classic models or the new ones, but it might not be something we want to take on at the same time as we remake Azeroth.

Is Cataclysm your way of doing WoW 2 without actually making WoW 2?

J.: We don’t really talk abut “WoW 2” because there’s so much that we feel like we have to tell, so many stories that people are excited about in the existing game. Other companies have tried sequelizing MMOs to some success, but for us it feels a litle weird to have 2 games running at the same time in the same world. So we’re not talking about it in terms of WoW 2, but the WoW we always wished we had. We’re so much better developers today than we were five years ago. It’s a really appealing idea as a developer, and we really think it’ll be cool for new players since they’ll get the full best experience possible, and it’ll be really neat for existing players who’ve moved on from Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms – they get to go home. They can re-level up something that feels familiar but has a lot of new elements so that it’ll still be fresh.

One last question: The Goblin mount is a go-kart. Are Tauren just going to get really big go-karts?

J.: [Laughs] That is … a very good question. We actually haven’t solved that problem yet. We have the go-kart model, but we don’t know how we’re going to solve something like that. We’ll make it work.

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