To celebrate WoW's fifth birthday, we sat down with Production Director J. Allen Brack and Blizzard art mastermind "Samwise" Didier to chat about microtransactions, the game's art style, and what the hell is up with all the pandas.
WoW turns five next Monday (the 23rd), and to celebrate the occasion, The Escapist spent time chatting with a few of the people who call the shots in the world's biggest MMORPG. Last time, we spoke with Blizzard's VP of Game Design Rob Pardo, but this time, it was a two-for-one deal as we sat down with the game's Production Director J. Allen Brack, as well as former WoW Art Director "Samwise" Didier (now on the StarCraft II team, but Blizzard's resident art guru nonetheless).
The two echoed Pardo's sentiments about how WoW's success caught them unawares - as Samwise puts it, "WoW gave us Street Fighter status" - with Brack relating a story about the wildest dreams of company founder Allen Adham, the man most optimistic about the game's success before its launch: "After E3, [Adham] 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."
Brack spoke about the recent hot-button issue in the WoW community, namely the Pet Store as well as the ability to pay real-world money to change a character's appearance, gender, race and faction - seen by many as a sign that WoW will adopt a microtransaction system atop the monthly subscription fee. "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 ... WoW is much more fun a game if you're playing it with your friends, and these services make it easy to do that."
The concern, says Brack, is that people are wondering if - and worried that - WoW will become a game where you pay $5 for a level 80 epic sword, but "We're absolutely not talking about doing that."
While Samwise has been responsible for much of WoW's unique visual aesthetic, Brack fielded his share of art questions, too. In Burning Crusade, the equipment that players received while leveling had mostly unique models, but that resulted in a very ugly, patchwork feel to characters' outfits. In Wrath of the Lich King, the team went the opposite route, reusing item models and graphics to create a more cohesive look - but with the problem that players complained they didn't feel unique. In Cataclysm, said Brack, Blizzard was probably going to stay with the Lich King model even though he recognized that there were "definitely challenges with that approach."
"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."
Another art question the team was wrestling with was the current state of character models. Burning Crusade's Draenei and Blood Elf player races looked better than the original ones, and the Goblins and Worgen look better still - leaving the original eight looking rather dated. Brack said that updating the character models was certainly something the team wanted to do, though perhaps not in Cataclysm, and that too had its own difficulties:
"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 ... Even though things would be better with new models, we'd probably spark a lot of player outrage." One solution that the developers were mulling over was giving players the ability to choose between the original models and the updated one depending on their preference, but it wasn't likely to come as they remade the world.
Though Samwise bemoaned the loss of his beloved Barrens - his favorite zone in the original game - Brack said that the remade Azeroth of Cataclysm is "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."
But does the "WoW [the developers] always wished [they] had" include the fan-favorite Pandaren race? According to Samwise (who originally created the East-Asia-themed race as an April Fools' joke for Warcraft III), part of the race's popularity is the fact that they've never been really involved in the main Warcraft storyline. "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."
If there were a billion Pandaren running around Azeroth, then would the fans still like them as much? Still, even if they might not be showing up in WoW anytime soon, says Samwise, "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?"
To read the full interview with J. Allen Brack and Samwise Didier, the transcript is posted on our sister site WarCry!