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World of Warcraft lead systems designer Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street talks Cataclysm, the future of WoW, and whether any other new MMORPG stands a chance.

At BlizzCon 2010, The Escapist sat down with Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street, the lead systems designer on Blizzard’s mammoth MMORPG World of Warcraft, to discuss the state of the hugely popular game – which will see its third expansion, Cataclysm, hit shelves this December. The interview in full is below:

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The Escapist: Was this BlizzCon at a weird time for the WoW team since there’s not really much to announce for you guys and Cataclysm? You already revealed the intro and everything.

Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street: Yeah! Not only that, but we were in the middle of actually shipping Cataclysm, and there’s still a lot of stuff I want to do, so it was a little awkward. “Hey, can we … cancel BlizzCon?” and they were like, “No.”

TE: Yeah, “I need to be back at the office working on things.” So 4.0 just came out. How have you seen the players reacting to “Everything’s changing, OMG”?

GS: It was crazy. We had a lot of fun logging on as soon as the servers came up, and just sitting in the cities and watching what people were talking about. Hunters talking about “Where’s my Volley button?” and paladins asking “Why’s my UI look so different?” It was amazing the number of players – and this probably shouldn’t be amazing – that hadn’t heard of any of this stuff. “They gave us no warning that this was changing!” They didn’t know, they were logging in for the first time. It was crazy.

TE: You say that, but do you think there was any sort of weird communication problems between the developers and the players – or are the players just not reading up on what they should be reading up on?

GS: I do think there are probably communications problems. We have millions of players and not all of them read the forums or visit the news sites. We have casual players and they don’t go to the news sites ten times a day like I do; they just want to go in and play the game. We should probably figure out better ways to communicate to players. We tried a lot going into this, to announce major things, but we can do better.

TE: From the perspective of a player and not a developer, do you think it’s odd to have the rug pulled out from under you, to have everything you’re used to just change?

GS: Yeah, totally.

TE: How do you think they’ll cope with it and adjust? Do you expect they’ll be just fine?

GS: I think eventually, yes. We really tried to emphasize that change was coming. The whole theme of the expansion is change – that’s what Cataclysm is all about, all this stuff is going crazy. Also, one of the things we learned was that players want something, anything to change. We had a few classes that we thought were in pretty good shape, we thought we’d solved them, and the player reaction was, “Well, I know, but I was waiting for my talent revamp, when’s it coming?” and I’d be like “Dude, you’re fine, you don’t need it, we’ve fixed all these issues.”

We used to say change for the sake of change is a bad thing, but I think for an expansion – to an extent – that’s what the players are looking for. The players want to see something different that they have to understand and learn and master.

TE: So, as long as they feel like they’re getting something – that isn’t even a fix?

GS: Yeah. Even something that’s just different. “Well, we used to use this spell, now we use this spell and it least that’s keeping it fresh for me after playing my mage for four years.”

TE: “I used to shoot blue bolts, now I shoot red bolts.”

GS: Yeah, sometimes that’s all it takes.

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TE: Has the player reaction been positive?

GS: It has been. Some of the negative reaction we really deserved because some things weren’t as polished as they should have been, and someone’s damage dropped a whole lot more than they – or we – were expecting. I think we’ve turned around quickly most of the serious problems, and now we’re in pretty good shape. People can ride out the rest of level 80 until Cataclysm hits.

TE: As we saw in the Class Q&A, people have very strong attachments to their particular classes.

GS: *Laughs* They do. I say this is a rich man’s problem: When people care that passionately about a game, you know you’re doing something right. It’s when they stop caring that you’re in trouble.

TE: Like you said, Cataclysm is very much an expansion oriented around change. It’s also a change for the better, you’re fixing things that didn’t work in WoW. I did an interview with Bill Roper about a year ago when they were launching Champions. And he mentioned that when you’re launching a new MMO, you’re not competing with WoW at launch, you’re competing with WoW at launch, plus 5 years (at the time). Do you think it’s possible for a game at launch to compete with you guys and 6 years of developing and running this huge MMO?

GS: I don’t actually think it is possible. No developer is going to be able to take six years – the four years it was in development, and the six years afterwards – you can’t take 10 years to make a game. I think the only viable strategy is to come out with something really, really well and then, if you can keep the players, expand upon it.

That’s exactly what we did. We didn’t have Battlegrounds at launch, we added those later. We added a lot of stuff later on and so I think – I don’t know why I’m giving advice to our competitors *laughs* – but what I would do is do something really, really well and, assuming players like it and you’ve got something there, then you can start adding everything else.

TE: Recently, Turbine changed LOTRO and DDO both from subscription-based games to free to play. You’d think that – I’ve heard suggestions that WoW may not just be the most popular MMO, but the only subscription-based MMO that can exist right now, just because it’s so popular. Do you think that’s true?

GS: Certainly the business model is something that’s working for us and it’s not something we’re going to mess around with. It’s amazing, it’s remarkable to me that players still care this much. Going to BlizzCon and going up on those panels and seeing thousands of people that care this much – how can we care this much about a game that’s this old? There’s so many other games that have come and gone in that time.

I know – I wasn’t here – but I know the original WoW wasn’t designed for that kind of expandability. They had no idea it would go on this long. And now when we design a system, that system has to be viable for at least five expansions because we may be doing five more expansions. We may be here at BlizzCon talking about expansion number ten where everybody’s level 220 because the game is still going. Even if we lost 50 or 60 or 80 percent of our subscribers, we’d still have a really big number of people playing the game.

TE: More than any other MMO.

GS: I think the game’s going to be around for awhile. It’s hard, every time we talk about a new expansion, “What are we going to do this time? We gotta shock people.” You don’t want to hear “Well, this is the ‘jump the shark’ expansion.” No one wants to be on watch when that happens.

TE: So do you guys ever think that you’ve painted yourselves into a corner at all?

GS: Every day. We do that constantly. I had no idea how were going to add three new abilities for level 81, 82, 83 for every class. Now that we’ve pretty much done it … most of them are pretty good, but there are some okay ones. Now we’re thinking “Okay, if we do 5.0 and we have to add new abilities,” we’re thinking “Okay, how?” What can we possibly give a warrior or warlock that they don’t already have? That’s a huge challenge. We’ve definitely locked ourselves into a corner there.

TE: So you’ve painted yourselves into a corner just by having too much paint?

GS: Yeah, exactly.

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TE: I know right now the RTS team is hard at work on finishing StarCraft 2, and then we can wait for the next ten years or whatever. But do you ever think this could be a lead-off point for a hypothetical Warcraft 4?

GS: Honestly, it’s not something we talk about a lot. Personally, the thing that I find appealing is that we were able to tell so much story in Warcraft 3, and a lot of the events that are going on in WoW are still going on because they were established in Warcraft 3. That’s where players met The Lich King, that’s where players met Illidan. The lazy designer part of me thinks that a new RTS would give us a lot of fertile ground introduced quickly that we can then exploit in the MMO part. I don’t honestly know what the plans are post-StarCraft.

TE: You’ve managed to introduce a lot of new canon into the Warcraft universe via WoW, like Varian Wrynn and Garrosh Hellscream, who never appeared outside of the games at first. But, it’s very interesting – there’s a TV Trope “All There in the Manual,” which is like what we have here, where Varian’s backstory was heavily explored in the comic. Do you wish you could have somehow said all that in the game itself?

GS: If there’s a way to say it, that would be cool. The tricky thing is we try to show, not tell, and we don’t want to bury players in dialogue and cutscenes. Exploring that kind of history in detail works out very well in outside sources. It would be very hard to introduce a character with as much depth and backstory as we can do in other ways. We are getting better at it. There’s a lot of cinematics in Cataclysm. There’s Archeology, which lets you explore a little bit of the history that we are normally not able to do.

I think it’s only unfortunate if players feel like they missed out on something. Like – “Oh, when did this happen?” “Oh, that happened in the book,” “Well, I didn’t read the book! It should happen for me, too.”

TE: I had a friend who never read the comic say “Oh, Varian’s kind of a dick.” And she read the comic and said “Oh, I understand it now.” That’s the sort of disconnect that you want to avoid.

GS: I agree. I think we could have done a better job with Varian, but I think that Hellscream comes off really interesting in Cataclysm. I think players start off thinking “Oh, he’s an asshole, he’s going to ruin the Horde, this is going to be terrible.” Then you start to play through and think “Orgrimmar’s looking pretty good.” And he’s got the Alliance on the run in parts of the world like Ashenvale and the Horde has completely retaken – they won the Tarren Mill battle. Maybe it’s not so bad. He’s kind of doing a lot for the Horde, where with Thrall his people were living in the desert, starving, being on the run from the Alliance.

TE: But on the other hand, people have these huge attachments to characters like Thrall and Jaina – especially Thrall since he’s going off and doing his own thing. Are there any plans for epic homecomings?

GS: *laughs* I think it’s obvious that one of the reasons we set this up is to have a lot of fun in the eventual “What’s this all going to lead to?” We have this rivalry now between the two Warchiefs, and how is this going to get resolved?

TE: Is that resolved in Cataclysm or is that down the line?

GS: Not sure yet. It depends a little bit on what the stories are that we have to tell. Obviously, Deathwing’s coming at the end. We have a little time before that. Ragnaros is coming back. We just have to figure out how much time there is and if that’s something we need to save for the future.

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TE: Talking about storytelling in a multiplayer game. You built these characters, you built these storylines. While you have structure, they’re fairly – they’re more like general guidelines. Do you think that encouraging players to follow this storyline rather than making it mandatory – what I am thinking of is The Old Republic. It’s heavily voiced, there are dialogue options, all decided ahead of time. Where’s the impact of your character? How does your character impact a story that has to be pre-told, that is in a multiplayer context?

GS: I think the quest designers have gotten really, really clever in doing that. In the new Undead leveling experience in Silverpine, you’re still really low level but Sylvanas has selected you – you’re obviously someone that’s going to do a lot in life (or death, or whatever). She takes you under her wing, and you’re running missions for her and fighting alongside her at points and it’s a pretty epic experience.

If you play WoW, you understand why that’s a big deal, and even if you haven’t played WoW, she’s a pretty charismatic character and so it’s cool to feel important at such a low level. The quest designers have gotten really good at making you feel heroic at low levels – and it’s not just about killing boars, and it’s not about just doing something important, even then.

TE: So many games start you off killing boars. On the other hand, there’s the argument that so many people want to start off like they’re living in a realistic fantasy world where sometimes you have to kill boars. Do you think that it’s more important to provide a heroic experience or to provide a fleshed out, believable fantasy world?

GS: I think that heroic experience is more important. Even at low level. One of the worst things that can happen in MMOs is that you’re playing it and you’re not having fun and your friend is like “Oh, it will get better in about 36 hours.” Dude, I do not want to play this game for 36 hours to find the fun, it needs to be fun immediately. So, the human start zone now in Northshire Abbey has minions of Deathwing coming in and – they’re not Twilight Dragons, but they’re orcs – and you feel right away like you’re involved in the conflict. You’re not just tending the farm.

TE: Not just “You no take candle, smash.”

GS: Yeah, I don’t think there are any kobolds left around Northshire.

TE: That’s good to hear. Do you think it’s hard for a player to know “OK, Sylvanas has taken me under her wing,” but I see this new level five Undead, and I know they’re going to be under her wing too – do you think that’s hard for a player? Do you think that’s a big deal?

GS: There’s definitely a disconnect. That kind of weird stuff happens. It’s part of how clever you can be, and in zones like Silverpine and zones like Redridge, we do a really good job of sending the player from place to place so they feel like as the story is advancing, they’re moving. So, not only is the story moving along, but they’re moving geographically too. So, if you see Sylvanas in this camp, and then in this other camp, you see a sense of progression instead of always running back and seeing “Oh, there’s that guy that’s on the quest I was doing an hour ago.”

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TE: I know you probably hate this sort of question. Of all the zones that have changed, which zone do you think has gone through the most improvement? What zone is “I hated going there, but it’s actually pretty awesome now”?

GS: Silverpine is a big one. Hillsbrad. Ashenvale. Darkshore. I think those are all really good. Stranglethorn is now more than just killing panthers and gathering pages for a book. There’s a really epic moment where the Bloodsail Pirates attack Booty Bay. And when I say attack, I mean there’s the ships sailing in now. That kind of stuff we just never did before.

Western Plaguelands we’re really worried about because it’s basically been reclaimed from the Scourge, they’re kind of in retreat a little bit. OK, so now we have this zone where all the bad guys have been driven away. What on Earth are we going to do with it? What are the quests going to be? Kill bears? But they got it. Now that the Scourge is gone, there’s a power vacuum, and now here come the Alliance and the Horde trying to reclaim it. The Horde says “[It’s] close to Undercity, so it should be ours,” and the Alliance says “[It’s] close to Undercity… it should be ours!” The undead have moved out, and the Alliance and Horde moved right into places like Andorhal and now they’re fighting over it.

TE: In Cataclysm, there’s this renewed tension and fighting between the two factions. Do you feel that they were getting too buddy-buddy?

GS: Absolutely they were getting too buddy-buddy. We said a few times that we want to get the war back into Warcraft. The two factions was always a huge point of the game. Sometimes yeah, they do need to cooperate to deal with the Old Gods or something like that, but they were getting a little too friendly. It seemed like the fighting was gone and they were in a Cold War, and we always wanted to get back to open armed conflict.

TE: They were just playing capture the flag.

GS: Yeah, in a zone like Ashenvale, you see – actually, Ashenvale’s cool because you end up doing some pretty horrible things as Horde to Alliance players.

TE: Players or NPCs?

GS: NPCs. I mean, there are players too, but they’re mostly for NPCs. And Hellscream just shows up and he’s like “This isn’t how we do things in the Horde. I know you think you’re doing the right thing here, but this isn’t how we do it. You’re becoming a butcher. At the end of the day, we’re about honor and this isn’t it.” That’s a pretty pro-Garrosh moment.

TE: So, you’re going to have these moments woven into the storyline, like “Pet the Dog” moments?

GS: Yeah.

TE: Like you say, Ashenvale is very changed – the Alliance is on the run. Have you updated the old battlegrounds like Arathi Basin or Warsong Gulch to account for this, or are they living off in time?

GS: They’re living off in time. We did not give the graphical updates to those battlegrounds that we did to the rest of the world, so it would be a good thing for us to do. Battlegrounds are very, very sensitive to geography changes and you have to be extra careful that there’s not a bump or tree stump that’s going to block movement or create any unnecessary imbalance.

TE: You’ve been running Alterac Valley, haven’t you?

GS: The new battlegrounds – you have no idea! – we measure every little thing so often. “OK, what’s the run time from this graveyard to this exact point?” If we don’t, it’s a huge headache down the line.

TE: Thanks for your time.

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The Escapist last caught up with Mr. Street back in August to talk about how he and the WoW team are destroying the world they’ve spent a decade building. Deathwing’s catastrophic rebirth is imminent, WoW fans – are you prepared for the end of the world?

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