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Editor’s Note: This is the full transcript of an interview between WoW Lead Systems Designer Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street and The Escapist. For the neat and concise writeup of the interview, check out this week’s issue, all about Cataclysm!

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John Funk, The Escapist: [JF]
So, what I’ve been wondering since the announcement was: How did the idea come up? Was it in a meeting and it slowly dawned on people, or did Rob Pardo come marching out of his office one day and go “Right, we’re blowing it all up!”?

Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street, World of Warcraft: [GS]
[Laughs] No, actually. You know…we start off an expansion with a series of brainstorming meetings. “What’s cool, what can we do next?” And this one originally started – we identified Deathwing early on, and we knew we wanted some kind of explosive thing coming out of the ground, but originally it was a whole new continent we were going to do. We had a couple of ideas for new zones and then we said “Well, let’s take this opportunity to fix some of the older zones, because they just weren’t holding up anymore artistically,” and the style of the quests was very different from the quests we do today.

So we said, “OK, we’ll have this Northrend-style new continent and then we will have a couple of old zones we’ll just kind of touch up.” As we started making a list of zones we wanted to touch up we realized, “Wow, that list is getting really long.” The more we looked at it, we realized the story we really wanted to tell took place in the old continents, and we could take our ideas for new zones and just work them in there, and have the whole thing take place in the old world instead of making a new one.

JF:
So, the idea to reintroduce this classic villain from Warcraft II came before the intent to remake the world?

GS:
Yeah, that came really early. We had so much luck with the Lich King [in Wrath of the Lich King] being the main bad guy in the end that players could identify with and kinda knew that he was coming. We knew we needed a very charismatic villain again to introduce early. We kind of thought with Burning Crusade having Illidan [Stormrage], that he was a really cool character but we just didn’t sell him enough early on, so that people didn’t really associate the whole story with him like they did with Arthas – and hopefully will with Deathwing.

JF:
So, the problem – well, not a problem necessarily – is after Cataclysm, you guys are pretty much out of villains from past Warcraft titles. So, do we just start moving forward into brave, new worlds from here?

GS:
Well, there are a couple of villains we haven’t tapped yet, but we’ve also had pretty good success with introducing major characters quickly. Like the whole King of Stormwind – he came almost out of nowhere, and now it seems he’s been around for awhile. It’s the same thing with [Garrosh] Hellscream for the Horde, so we think we can get characters introduced pretty quickly when the need arises.

JF:
OK, so going back to what you said about the quests. One of the major things about Cataclysm is that you’re re-tuning the entire 1-60 experience … [the leveling experience] in BC and Wrath is generally thought of as much better than the other stuff in “vanilla” WoW. What sort of things did you learn from the expansions that you didn’t know then, and that you want to bring back for Cataclysm?

GS:
Wow, there’s a lot. One of them is to kind of tell a story throughout the zone. I think the closest we got to this in the original game was something like the zone of Westfall, that built through the story of the Defias and then finally Van Cleef in the Deadmines. That zone did a really good job of that. Some of the other zones? Look at Redridge; there was this orc invasion coming on and some gnolls, but you really weren’t sure what the story was or where it was going.

I think what we got much better at – especially in Northrend – is saying, “OK, this is the story of the zone, this is what you’re going to be doing in the zone and we’re going to build toward that.” It can’t feel too linear because it still needs to be an RPG, but there’s definitely a sense that the player is kind of advancing along a plotline rather than just scooping up quests here and there and kind of doing them overall.

JF:
So, is it more that every zone is going to have its own story, or…? One example I thought did work well in classic WoW was the whole Silithid thing, which was introduced to Horde characters really early on in the Barrens – and then you had the Silithid hives and Ahn’Qiraj 40 levels later. Are there going to be more overarching stories like that, or will they usually be self-contained experiences?

GS:
No, they’re very overarching. We have a lot of major themes returning in Cataclysm. One, of course, is the return of Deathwing, and the prominence of the Twilight Hammer – this kind of cult organization that sort of follows him and the Old Gods. They’re kind of cropping up everywhere. They’ve been around for awhile, but they’re really coming to prominence now.

There’s also the escalation of the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. They have joined forces a couple of times recently to defeat the bad guys, but now both the Horde and the Alliance are led by leaders that really hate the other faction, so there’s a lot of conflict going on. Players will see places like Ashenvale, which have just become open battlegrounds – the same thing with the Barrens, where the Horde and Alliance are in open conflict. That’s another theme.

Then there are some ripples of things that have happened before – the fact that the Lich King has been defeated, and we kind of acknowledge that that fact does some interesting things to the world. For example, the Western and Eastern Plaguelands are becoming de-plague-ified because the Scourge is pulling back, while the Forsaken Underlady Sylvanas has gained an enormous amount of power because of what they were able to do in Northrend. Now Sylvanas is eager to expand her empire on the Eastern Kingdoms, and there’s also a kind of tension between the Undead and Orc parts of the Horde.

JF:
Oh yeah, like you have in Orgrimmar, Garrosh is pretty much kicking all non-orcs out of the city.

GS:
Yeah, he’s decided to align himself with the major powers, which he thinks are – you know, the Tauren are good for muscle but the Trolls, he’s not sure if they can contribute that much. The Trolls and the Goblins have kind of been moved to a ghetto on the side of Orgrimmar [laughs].

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JF:
When you go on the Forums, there are always 80 different threads about things like “Is the Horde evil?” Do you think this will throw more fuel onto the fire of “oh, this is the good side and the bad side,” or is there more ambiguity?

GS:
Oh, it’s very ambiguous. Horde players in particular are going to start out thinking “Garrosh Hellsceam is such an asshole, we want Thrall back.” But you know, quest designers were really clever in the way they tell that story, and you end up kind of finding yourself saying “Gosh, I kind of respect Garrosh and what he’s doing…” Orgrimmar has never looked better, and the Horde has kind of lived in this desert before – in the Barrens and Durotar – and didn’t necessarily have ample food supply. He likes to look out for his people, and the orcs are riding a wave here and are pretty excited about it.

Then you see Garrosh in action a few times and you’re like, “You know, he’s not the jerk I thought he was, he’s actually a pretty cool guy” So we’re trying to throw in a little of that, and as I mentioned already, Sylvanas is a very charismatic character, and there’s a lot of tension between her and the orcs. She’s more or less on their side but as soon as they turn their backs, she’s got a lot of machinations going on behind the scenes, too.

JF:
So we’re kind of seeing factions split within the factions that are more overt now.

GS:
We’re certainly hinting at that, and it may lead to something more exciting in the future.

JF:
That’s kinda cool. [laughs]

Going back to a more conceptual idea, you’re bringing a lot of stories in Cataclysm back that were from vanilla WoW. Again, you have Nefarian; the Goblins are a very classic Warcraft race, and the Worgen were there very early on in the Undead story. When was the story of the Worgen and Gilneas first concepted? The Greymane Wall has been there from the beginning, so were you originally planning to revisit them at a later date, early on in WoW? Or did that emerge alongside everything else?

GS:
You know, we definitely tried to sow the seeds of these future stories. Things like Uldum is another example, where we just walled off what appeared to be some cool stuff, and players are like, “Huh, I wonder what’s behind that big gate with the big ol’ statue in front of it?” So, they’re finally going to get to find out. Likewise, the big Greymane Wall, which was always there in Silverpine [Forest], is busted open now, and you can wander in and see this new zone.

And I think there was always this inkling that there were some Worgen down there and we knew Genn Greymane’s name, but we weren’t quite sure what the story was or how to use the Worgen as a playable race. It was not something that was conceived of from the very beginning, and we threw out a lot of ideas for various playable races that we could use.

JF:
So, again at the conceptual level: How do you plan the apocalypse? [GS laughs]. Again, you’re destroying something you’ve spend thousands, maybe millions of man hours creating? How do you decide, “OK this zone gets flooded, then we’re gonna blow up this zone, and we’re gonna set this on fire, and then we’re moving some encampments up here?” What kind of bible do you use when you’re planning the end of the world?

GS:
Well, I’ll tell you they kind of break down into three different categories. One is if it was just kind of a shitty zone – it needed a change. Something like the Barrens was wide open, it didn’t really have a big story, there was no real ‘flow’ for Horde characters to move from place to place so we knew we needed to kind of shake up that zone. Another category, I would say, was just bringing in the more modern style of making quests, and having lots of flight paths, and doing the whole “Fly to this little camp and do five or six quests there, and then advance to this next camp and do some quests there.”

We had a real challenge with a zone like Darkshore, that was very long and thin – and Felwood is another one. Those zones are really hard to quest in because you have your hub, which is Auberdine in Darkshore, and you’re supposed to go there and go out from there and then go back, and the further you go, the longer the travel time gets to get back to your town. So we needed to break that up a lot and kind of have a progression where you go from town to town to town with flight paths in between so that level 15 characters aren’t hoofing it back and forth all the time.

JF:
Yeah, I leveled a Night Elf, I know how that goes.

GS:
Yeah, yeah. And that zone is so much better now.

JF:
[laughs]. I’m glad to hear it!

GS:
We were trying to stage an apocalypse here, and we wanted some crazy things to happen, and we knew there were ‘sacred cows’ that might perhaps even upset or shock players a little bit. So we wanted to do some of that, to show – a portion of Stormwind has been ruined because Deathwing flew through there. I’m trying to think of another example … Thousand Needles has been flooded, and it wasn’t necessarily because it was a terrible zone, but we really wanted to show the impact of what happened. Life will never be the same there.

Westfall has fallen on really hard times too – a big chunk of the population is homeless now, and a lot of the transient and homeless people have been pushed out of Stormwind and are kind of squatting in Westfall now. So, that zone used to kind of have that pastoral, evening feeling and now it’s fallen on pretty hard times … it’s a place that’s very much in need of heroes.

JF:
This is obviously – as you were just saying – it’s an expansion with with a darker tone to it. Is that kind of why you, introduced the goblins? My coworker played through their starting race and he says they’re really wacky and zany all the time.

GS:
Yeah. You, the thing about being dark, is it makes a great story but it can also get really old, particularly in a videogame. One of the things that we do in all of our games – I mean you can see it in StarCraft II – is you want to inject a little bit of humor just to break the tension, and just for pacing purposes. And the goblins are just exceptional at doing that. There are dark elements to the story, but the goblins themselves are so hysterical. I was one of the people, at first, who was a little skeptical, ‘Are you going to pull this off?’ you know, ‘Aren’t they kind of just, like, annoying?’ but I think we really made them funny, which is sometimes hard to do.

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JF:
Like you were saying, you’re going to destroy some sacred cows here. And obviously, you know you’re going to upset some players, just who have loved the Warcraft story for 15 years now. It’s not just the story, it’s also a lot of the gameplay stuff. There’s only one other developer I can think of who has ever done something so drastic in changing their MMOG … and it was Star Wars: Galaxies with the NGE which – to be respectful of them – didn’t go so well. Obviously they’re completely different things; this has more of a direction. Obviously you’re trying to draw people back in, but are you concerned that such a massive change might drive people from the game who have been there a long time?

GS:
I don’t think so. What we’re really hitting hard in Cataclysm is the nostalgia factor for our long-term players, or maybe players who have put the game down and are kind of curious to come back and see it. We want them to see some cool things, you know? We want them to go into Redridge and be like, “Oh my gosh, they finally finished that bridge!” It’s stuff like that.

We have NPC’s that have been there forever, that maybe now are doing different things. Some of them have been murdered, some have now risen to prominence, so players can be like. “Do you remember that guy who used to just be this lowly quest giver, and now he’s so important in this zone?” So, I don’t think we’re doing anything that is going to shock people so much that they turn away from the game. I think they’re going to get sucked in the way you get sucked into like a really good story.

To make a good novel or movie, there has to be some kind of drama. There has to be stakes. And so the stakes here are this world that everyone has come to love. And you want to make sure that – you know, Deathwing calls himself “The Unmaker.” He is there to destroy the world, literally, and you’ve got to stop him.

JF:
One of the common criticisms directed at an MMOG is that by its very nature as a persistent world, it’s very static. You do this quest, you go kill those 10 orcs and then everyone in Redridge is like “Oh god, you saved us!” But then you know that the next guy after you is going to go kill those 10 orcs again. Now, obviously, part of Cataclysm is trying to make this world less static, to say “Oh look, time actually does pass.” Little Timmy isn’t going to be wandering Stormwind with that white kitten forever.

And you also took steps to address that with phasing in WotLK. Do you think that there’s always going to ultimately be this disconnect between trying to tell a story and a world that has to be persistent? The Old Republic is trying to do this similar thing as well with a varied story, and a different world. If you saw the Guild Wars 2 trailer they just put out, they say, “Yeah we’re going to have a varied story in a different world,” and this is something you guys have been wrestling with too.

How do you tell a multiplayer story?

GS:
We can do it with a couple of different time-scales. The one, like you mentioned, is phasing. And our quest designers have gotten really, really clever at this. You see it particularly in the goblin and worgen start zones; those zones actually progress as you do. And you can’t really turn back to the older time.

The goblin zone has a cast of reoccurring characters which include the class trainers, and they kind of travel with you, so you’ll see them over and over again. There’s one really memorable part, when they’re all leaving from one island to another one, and they’re all kind of lined up. And I thought to myself, “Man this is not something you ever see! Look, the NPCs have moved! Wow, they’re in a different location now.” You see it in Gilneas, if you go back and visit Gilneas – not as a low-level worgen – the place is ruined and being taken over by the Forsaken. That’s a very different experience from when you first start out as a level 1 worgen character. So, the phasing we’ve really been able to do a lot with.

And it’s not just the start zones, I can think of Redridge and Stonetalon – zones like that have a lot of phasing, too. And then on a larger time-scale, we’re not afraid to kind of advance the calendar a little bit. Like, when you go back to the old world, the Lich King is dead and everyone acknowledges that fact – that the Lich King has been killed and that has consequences, and so time advances as a result of that. And we have major characters who might die or change what they’re doing, or get a new job or change geographically where they are.

So, it can be a little bit of a disconnect, particularly if you go to Northrend as a lower-level character, the Lich King will still be there, and if you leave Northrend and go back to the old world, the Lich King is dead. But, aside from those continuity leaks in there, we think that it makes the players feel like they’re a part of a living world.

Something else we’re experimenting more with is trying to advance the story a little bit every time we do a major content patch. Like, for example, we hinted that the Argent Crusade was building a Coliseum and then in the next patch, there it was. We’d like to do similar things like that in the future, where things can kind of gradually emerge and grow over time so that we fight a little bit of that notion that the world is very static.

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JF:
OK. This is a mechanical question. One of the annoying things in Wrath was that if you’d done a quest and it phased you into the next world, you couldn’t go back and help your buddy who was on a 5-man quest. Are you trying to address that, so you can go back a phase and go help a friend who’s in an earlier phase of the zone?

GS:
Yeah, absolutely. A very simple thing we’ve done is just put on your character panel what phase you’re in. So that you can look and be like “Oh, so the reason I can’t see you is because we’re in different phases.” Long-term, we’re trying to work on a system where you can actually go back and forward a little bit. You might be able to scale your character down levels in order to go play with a friend, and even redo quests that you’ve done before.

Part of the reason we’re able to do that is because of the technology we originally developed for heirloom items, which are items that scale. And then for the Cataclysm expansion, we’ve changed spells, so they also scale with level. So instead of having ranks now, your fireball will just get more powerful as you gain levels. So since you can scale both class spells and items really easily, now we think we can actually let you lower your level down if you want to play with somebody else.

JF:
Oh, that is very interesting actually.

GS:
I kinda wanted to have that for Cataclysm launch, but it’s a feature we’re working on.

JF:
So do you think that’s saying that, like cross-server dungeons, it might be patched in before the next expansion?

GS:
Yeah. I mean, we gotta get this one out the door first to know how much we need to do for the patches that come afterwards, but it’s definitely in the long-term plan.

JF:
So, one of the primary criticisms about WotLK is that a lot of the hardcore players thought it was really easy. I think it was really notable that the expansion launched, and then three days later the top European guild had killed everything. You also made some very controversial changes in Cataclysm, like the removal of certain stats from gear, and the decision to completely overhaul how the talent trees worked. Now you certainly have reasons behind these, but are you concerned that these might make veterans feel a little bit disenfranchised, given that one of the things in Lich King that people complained about was that it was too easy, and that you were quote unquote “dumbing” the game down?

GS:
Right, let’s see, there’s a lot there to talk about. First of all, I mean, it’s always a concern. You know, we’re trying to appeal to a really enormous breadth of players. So we have the very, very casual players who may not have played a lot of videogames before and then we’ve got, you know, these super hardcore guys that have been with us forever. They raid constantly, they participate in high-level PVP and they’re able to handle a really sophisticated design and aren’t overwhelmed by it.

So yeah, we are trying to appeal to both those groups and Blizzard’s kind of strategy in general for things like that, is to have a design that is relatively simple but with a lot of depth. You can look at games like chess or go where the rules themselves aren’t very complicated, but the strategies are the kind of things you can take a lifetime to master. Even though we have simplified the number of stats on gear, we still think the decisions about “What are the stats that are right for your character?” are still going to involve, all of that theorycraft and debate and forum posts that players have always enjoyed with World of Warcraft. That’s part of it.

As far as the difficulty goes, what we wanted to do was enable more casual players to see more of the end-game content. The way we did that was having different strata of difficulty levels. Of the players that were saying “Yeah, yeah. It’s too easy,” very few of them were able to kill the Lich King until we put this massive buff in the zone. We have the numbers and we know that a lot of people struggled with that fight.

And even the guilds that killed the Lich King early on, literally took hundreds of attempts to make that happen. It wasn’t that they were able to kill him in three days, it’s that they raided nonstop for hours and hours and hours until they were finally able to beat him. And with a population as large as ours, that’s probably going to happen unless we make the content so ridiculously overtuned that it’s physically impossible to beat the bosses.

And to be fair, some guilds were telling us, “This fight is unbeatable! It is impossible to do!” and they still managed to do it. Even though a few of these guilds managed to do it early on, they’re in the upper, upper one percent of skill there, and there’s still thousands of guilds out there with no hope of beating heroic Lich King, even with the most massive buff we could put in there [laughter].

So, for our raiding game, and Cataclysm, I think we have one boss in particular that we are designing to be soul-crushing. It’s going to have a sign on the door that will say, “You need to be this high to fight this fight” [laughter]. It’s not for everyone; it’s for the people who say the game is too easy, and they can see how they do.

JF:
It’s for the people who went to do Algalon, huh? [laughs]

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JF:
On a similar level, one of the major things about Blizzard games is – especially in a game like StarCraft II – that they’re very technically-scalable. Now, WoW is six years from launch at this point, it’s been in development for a lot longer. Technically, the game is aging. How do you stay competitive on the visual side of things, and still ensure that the game is playable on this huge variety of machines? To make sure that someone who was playing on a computer that was “meh” in 2004 won’t be left out in the cold in 2010?

GS:
It’s funny, because I’ve been in this industry for a little while now, and, oftentimes, the attitude is, “Well, this game is getting old so let’s trash it all, and start from ground zero and build something up again, and that will be the new hotness and have all these sexy new features that the old game couldn’t support.” What we’re doing on World of Warcraft is … our graphics programs in particular, are very, very good at getting new features in without having to burn everything to the ground.

So there are some huge graphic improvements in Cataclysm. I was looking at it today, there are things like water that looks much more like water you see in brand-new console games, for example. Real-time shadows, we have what we’re calling the – I can’t remember what we’re calling them – the sunbeams that come down and kind of filter through tree branches and kind of go in parallax as you move. We have new ground shaders so that – I love the Barrens, but when you go to it live today, it looks like a desert, which wasn’t the intention. The Barrens was supposed to be an Africa-like savannah, you know, grasslands and lots of herd animals moving around.

Now, we are able to put so many ground objects there that it looks like a grassland and not like a desert. So, we’re not getting rid of our style; we have a very stylized game and it’s a style that players like, and we’re not going to back off from that. But we are able to put some more high-tech features in, particularly for players with really hot machines and huge monitors that can handle it. You’ll still be able to play it on a pretty standard machine as well.

JF:
OK. Is the desire to remake WoW in Cataclysm in any way related to the other MMO you have in development? Sort of like competing with yourself?

GS:
Hmm, I don’t really think so. I think it was just that we had people develop this game from the very beginning and they’re like, “Yeah, I made that hill my first week at Blizzard and I’ve hated it ever since, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to go back and make that hill look decent.” The guys that made the trees and rocks feel the same way. They can’t stand to look at the old work because they’re capable of so much better now. And the quest designers feel the same way, and the class designers feel the same way, so it is kind of the chance to go back and fix things in what was our kindergarten attempt in many ways – and we have a much better feel for what works now.

JF:
EverQuest 2 came out in 2004, which was five years after the original EverQuest in 1999. This is now six years after WoW so the timespan is greater there. Do you kind of feel that this is sort of a WoW 2 – even if you’re not calling it WoW 2 – like, “This is now where we go from here?”

GS:
I think our strategy is just going to be to constantly evolve the game. As long as we have 11 million or so people playing, there’s not a huge demand to blow everything up and start over. I mean, we are blowing some things up [laughter], for the purposes of this expansion, but overall, we have what we think is working, and players still enjoy it. So, I would say [Cataclysm is] the next step and if we do a [patch 5.0,] which I’m sure we will, we will kind of do the same thing again – advance things a little bit without destroying what it is that players love about this game so much.

JF:
What is the Cataclysm going to be like for players in the world? I’m assuming there’s going to be an in-game event like the Wrath “zombie invasion.” Will we get to see the Apocalypse if we log on?

GS:
Cracks will open beneath their feet and they’ll get sucked into the middle of the earth. [laughter] We actually have a producer that was campaigning really hard for, “Deathwing should kill everyone!” Like, you should log in to Cataclysm and your first experience should be, “Deathwing has killed you. Do you want to resurrect?” or something.

[laughter]

We talked him down from that, but, you know, it’s a challenge. There will definitely be some story events that will help count down to the start of Cataclysm and will start the whole thing a few weeks or months before he shows up. And then one day, players will log in and everything will change and the world will look different for them. And we’re going to do that shortly before they can actually go gain levels or go with us to the goblin or worgen experience.

JF:
Cool. Well, thanks a lot, Greg.

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