Life After World of Warcraft‘s Patch 4.3

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Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street from WoW talks about the success and failures of the latest patch, and what’s coming next.

Even though MMO players are likely fixated on The Old Republic‘s launch today, World of Warcraft recently had a launch of its own at the end of last month. Patch 4.3, dubbed “Hour of Twilight,” introduced the final raid encounter with the main villain of Cataclysm, the evil black dragon Deathwing. Other than a slew of dungeons and raids focused on putting the former Aspect of Earth out of his misery, Patch 4.3 also added features like Transmogrification – letting you change how your armor appears – as well as a Raid Finder tool which facilitated automatic grouping for tackling the high-end content.

We got a chance to sit down with Greg Street, lead systems designer of World of Warcraft but perhaps better known as the crab called “Ghostcrawler” on Blizzard’s forums and ask him what he thought about the patch, whether he thinks it will bring back the lagging subscription numbers for WoW and what the next expansion Mists of Pandaria have in store for us.

The Escapist: I just wanted to get your impression of Patch 4.3 and how it turned out from your end.

Greg Street: It was a really big patch for us and we’re pretty happy with the reception so far. We knew we were going to put the Deathwing raid and the dungeons in the patch. As we started development of [the next World of Warcraft expansion] Mists of Pandaria, we came up with the idea for the Raid Finder allowing almost anyone with interest to get into the raid content and see it. I remember this important meeting one day and we were like, “Maybe we should get raid finder done in 4.3 because it’s such an important feature, and will really give the non-hardcore raiders plenty to do with this patch” and somehow we were able to get it in on time. It’s a really big win for us. Players are going to be enjoying it.

The Escapist: Now that the numbers are in, are you seeing a spike in the raiding now that you can kill Deathwing?

Greg Street: Our target was to get 50 or 60 percent of players that had the gear to go into raid finder and do it, it’s much higher now, the high 90’s of eligible players that can use the feature.

The Escapist: Do you regularly check re-subscriptions when a major patches drops?

Greg Street: It’s probably too early to pass along those numbers yet. We have such a large audience that any kind of angle we can get to help us determine the future of the game and the direction we should go is really valuable. I think we’ve seen a jump, I don’t know off the top of my head what the numbers are.

The Escapist: How did the other features parse out? How did transmogrification and all those things work with the community?

Greg Street: Transmogrification was huge with the community. We kind of knew it would be, we were finally giving them the ability to really customize their characters and show off some of their old trophies. I remember the first time the patch went up on our test realm and I looked into the transmogrification room and it was just full all the players. And that’s just the test realm, it’s not even their real character and they just wanted to test out the feature. Then the first time I went on live and I’m looking around my raid and I’m looking around the cities, and I’m like, “Wow look at all this armor, I don’t remember some of this stuff. Where did those hammers come from? Look at that purple thing the rogue is wearing.” So it’s really been a lot of fun to see all that.

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The Escapist: That was one of the big complaints from other players when I was playing. People got up to max level and everybody’s armor looked the same. Has transmogrification made it look like a more diverse group of players?

Greg Street: Absolutely, it’s really cool that way. Traditionally in vanilla not many players have the endgame raiding gear, it was pretty prestigious, pretty exclusive and over time as we’ve broadened that feature more and more players participate more and more players look the same and every mage standing next to each other in a raid is probably wearing the same gear and that is a little lame. So transmogrification allows players to make their character look different than the other characters around them giving them a stronger sense of identity. Players loving when someone comes up to them asking them where they got that staff, things like that. One of our advantages is that we have such a lot of content to draw from, we have seven years of dungeons and raids and pvp and other sources of gear so it’s awesome to get that back into the game versus it being historical relics.

The Escapist: Is there anything that you would do differently with 4.3 now that it’s gone live?

Greg Street: I could always quibble with things, I feel like the way loot works in raid finder is a little unpolished. All of the rolling for loot happens in the chat window so it gets really spammy and the experience is pretty quick, you kill one boss you move onto the next boss. Sometimes the rolls haven’t finished and you’re wondering, “Did I win that? Or not?” The behavior seems to be beat on everything and when the raid is over you go back to your bags and see what you exactly won. I think we could put a little more ceremony around loot since it’s the base motivation for players to use that content. But that’s just one small thing I would change if we could do it all over again.

The Escapist: But that is something that you can fix with hotfixes and stuff like that.

Greg Street: We have a good ability to change stuff on the server on the fly. I’m thinking more of a loot window where there’s kind of ceremony around the rolling, kind of exciting to see who wins rather than 25 numbers flying through the chat establishing who [gets the item].

The Escapist: You guys are constantly adding to the user interface and making it easier for modders to make up their own features. Was there anything in this patch that you saw that was in a mod that you decided to put into the actual vanilla interface?

Greg Street: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. We try not to be in the business of just saying, “Oh wow, that guy made a really good mod, let’s steal it.” Really we look at what are players telling us that our interface just isn’t cutting it, a good example is the raid interface that we put into Cataclysm, we felt that we had heard from enough players that they couldn’t raid with the standard Ui and that just didn’t sound acceptable. It’s okay if players who want to customize stuff and want a very specific experience change things but you shouldn’t need an auction house lot to play, you shouldn’t need a bag mod to play. If players tell us enough that something feels mandatory we start looking into improving it.

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The Escapist: Have you seen any rogues that have gotten the final version of the legendary dagger set Fangs of the Fathers yet?

Greg Street: No, not yet. We kind of made it so that you can’t get it too quickly. There are definitely plenty of rogues who are along the path and are at the first stage so it’ll be a little while before we see the final pair.

The Escapist: And it’s only the final pair that has the ability to give you wings?

Greg Street: Yeah, yeah exactly.

The Escapist: That would be a sight to see. Someone getting ganked by that guy dropping on them.

Greg Street: In full Batman armor with the wings. {laughs]

The Escapist: He would have a nasty complaint on the forums I’m sure. Looking forward to Mists of Pandaria, do you have any major updates like this before that expansion releases?

Greg Street: This is the last chapter in the Deathwing story. We’re not going to try to do another raid or pvp season for this expansion. As we get closer to the release of Mists, we are going to have a traditional patch we do that updates for everyone, like lets players try out a new talent, for a few weeks before we unlock the new content.

The Escapist: Your release schedule for expansions has been predictable, it’s been two years between each expansion, do you think Mists of Pandaria will happen holiday 2012?

Greg Street: It’s not done yet so it’s hard for us to predict a window. Our goal is to get out expansions out faster than we’ve done in the past. So hopefully we can deliver on that this time.

The Escapist: There is a dungeon, you go back in time to get the dragon soul. The dragon soul was written about in the War of the Ancients series of novels by Richard Knaak. Is that the first time that you’ve taken content from a third party novelist and integrated it to actually dramatize it in the game?

Greg Street: We did a lot of that, even when Cataclysm was launching, where novels had covered some of the time period between the Wrath of the Lich King and the Cataclysm happening and we wanted it to feel consistent. We didn’t want two competing stories going on. The whole story of the dragon soul or the Well of Eternity was part of WoW lore for some time. The novel embellished that and added some details and we wanted to take that seriously and wanted players that had read the novels to say, “Oh yeah, I remember this scene.” I remember having meetings where we’re talking about, “Hey, could we name all the dragons that are flying around in the sky?” And the players were like, “Yeah, that made sense, that dragon was supposed to be here.” Or “No, that guy’s dead already so we can’t use him.”

The Escapist: Did you consult Richard Knaak at all? Was he at any of those meetings?

Greg Street: I don’t remember ever talking to him, we have such the exhaustive group of historians in our creative development department that they know all that stuff so we can ask them to think of a specific dragon or if we ever answered this question, they usually come up with an answer pretty quickly it was kind of amazing the storehouse of knowledge those guys have.

The Escapist: At Blizzcon 2010, there was the red shirt gentleman who pointed out something to head writer and Creative director Chris Metzen that he had wrong. Those little things always seem to slip in.

Greg Street: It happens. Chris, despite evidence to the contrary, is still mortal. He’s trying to keep the stories from three or four games straight in his mind. That’s why we have historians and librarians to kind of keep all that and if he could step off the stage and call them we would have all that information at our fingertips. That’s what happens at cons sometimes when you’re trapped up on stage.

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The Escapist: So was there anything, kind of mechanics-wise, with huge talent revamp after Cataclysm and then another one for the Mists of Pandaria, is there anything that you’re working on right now that WoW players are going to be really excited to learn about?

Greg Street: They know about the talent calculator and changes to the new class we’re introducing in the Mists of Pandaria, the monk, so those are the few things that we’re working on. They’ll probably be excited to know about the specific talent changes that we’ve made, we’ve updated our talent calculator recently and players pointed out, “Ya know, this one’s a little lame.” Or “This one competes too much with this other one.” So we’re going to, yet again, try to fix those problems. We really want players to be excited about the talent choices. Anytime players are like, “Eh, it’s okay.” We know we haven’t hit that mark yet. We’re going to keep iterating on that until we get something that we’re excited about and the players are excited about it.

The Escapist: How long do you iterate on talents before you show it to the world? Internally, you must write a talent and play with it for a while. How does that process work?

Greg Street: It’s funny, I would say class design is a gas filling any space we have. The class designers will usually iterate until the whole rest of the patch is done, and [laughs] sometimes after the patch is done for the live game. That part of the game never really finishes, we just keep trying to fix the problems and try to come up with cooler and sexier abilities.

The Escapist: The numbers of WoW subscribers are dropping and your response to that was to get out more content, like this patch, 4.3 and then also this expansion. Do you think that WoW is aging? Do you think that after seven years, after one or two more expansions you would sunset the game and then focus on a new game?

Greg Street: For starters, we’re kind of in uncharted territory because we don’t have a lot of examples we can look at of games that have gone on this long and stayed as popular. We haven’t talked about any radical changes to our plan. We’ll keep making expansions as long as the players that are interested in playing. It tends to be a little more cyclical than a lot of people give it credit for when I see players try to reconstruct graphs or stuff online it’s usually a pretty steady line, internally we know that a lot of people come back for an expansion and then when they finish the content they kind of move off again so part of our logic is, if we keep coming up with content more frequently then we won’t have these cycles. When players start to get tired of the content, “Hey, here’s some new content.”

The Escapist: Your desire to get expansions out quicker would go along with that.

Greg Street: That’s exactly the whole motivation there. Patches give us a little bit of a spike, expansions give us a big spike so as long as we can fill that gap. I don’t know what the magic number is, it seems to me that the players start to get bored with a raid three or four months after it comes out so we can have something waiting in the wings for when that happens, that would be awesome.

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The Escapist: Is Azeroth a sphere?

Greg Street: The world? Yeah, you can see in a few places in the game where there’s a globe that shows the world.

The Escapist: So that means there is an endless amount of continents that can be found.

Greg Street: Remarkably, we keep creating continents, whole plots, when we need new ones. And there’s a greater multi-verse outside of that one planet. We went to a different place in the Burning Crusade expansion and we can easily do that again, there’s other dimensions, the Emerald Dream to explore. We have the mechanic with the Caverns of Time we’re talking about what if we made an expansion that was all back in time. Let players play at the height of the Night Elf civilization, for example, that would be a cool expansion. So I’m not worried about running out of ideas any time soon.

The Escapist: I remember when Outland came out and that was one of the big selling points that you could expand into any other part of Outland and other dimensions. Having organizations like the Burning Legion that travels from world to world really does open up the story to anything happening but the caveat to that is that when you add in the Draenei there was a bit of a backlash that you were adding too many sci-fi elements to what was famously a kind of sword and sorcery kind of story. Do you guys worry about that as you’re designing these games going forward?

Greg Street: Absolutely. Shortly after Burning Crusade came out we were questioning ourselves a little about if we’d pushed it too far. If users were going to say, “This doesn’t look like Elwynn Forest with all these, Blades Edge Mountain and other stories, maybe it’s too high concept” – which is another phrase Chris likes to throw around. The more recent expansion took that and, “Hey there’s trees and birds and other recognizable earth landscapes.” But then more recently you start to see players with a little bit of Burning Crusade nostalgia, “Yeah I wanna see stuff that’s really fantastic, really crazy, blow our minds again.” So we’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time to do something really high concept again, really bizarre, blow your mind stuff. We did a little bit of that in the Deepholm zone where this underground realm where there’s nothing very recognizably human or earthlike and then in a different way. From just Pandaria, we made a zone that is entirely on the back of a giant turtle. Pretty high fantasy, that’s the type of stuff we’d like to keep doing. Blow people’s minds a little.

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