GDC 2011: Remaking the World of Warcraft Through Cataclysm

Tom Chilton – Game Director

-          Who is This Talk for?
o   Anyone creating sequel content, or adding or rejuvenating MMO content
-          At the Start of WoW Cataclysm…
o   Concepting for the expansion began at end of the Lich King cycle
§  Blizzard as a studio tends to do projects one at a time – no “bunny hopping” – this ensures consistency since it’s just one set of people going from one game to the next
o   WoW content was aging (Lich King expansion was about 4 years old)
o   Core systems were piling up and becoming more complicated over time, and were in need of pruning
o   Team generally felt that their newer content as a studio was better than older WoW content (so wanted to make new content)
-          Where to Start?
o   Had to consider “donut theory”  - idea that there are more casual players than hardcore players (something like the ratio of the inside of a donut to the actual donut)
o   Decided that overall, leveling content affects and benefits the most players – it would be the most meaningful to impact leveling content
o   Should strive for the theory of thirds: 1/3 old content, 1/3 improved content, 1/3 new content
o   Need to capture what made original special
o   Also there is the idea of “feeding the beat” - highest level players needed new content.
-          Zones
o   The world WoW’s strongest asset
o   Azeroth is charming, it draws people in. There is a strong sense of wonder about what’s over that next hill, which is largely what makes the game work so well.
o   Zones are also the greatest area of danger to change – mess with them too much and you might lose the soul of the original
o   Zone content/mechanics showing their age
§  They were essentially all kill, collect and fedex quests
o   A lot of zones had poor flow
§  They generally felt as though they were haphazard, they had no good master plan when they were created
·         Initially, designers had just jammed out quest ideas and went off on their own to make them – there was not a good sense of top down design
·         Because of this, players generally got sent all over the place
o   They had done a poor job of showing vs. telling in terms of the story experience
§  There were lots of walls of text
§  There had been a gradual philosophy shift at the studio that this doesn’t work well
-          Revamping Philosophy
o   1) Prioritize zones
§  Can’t tackle/redo the entire world! Use the philosophy of thirds, or else the game might never ship
o   2) Retain soul of original
§  Put designers on a zone that they care about
§  (For example, you can’t just hire non-WoW players off of the street – you need people that understand and care about what made the game successful)
o   3) Improve mechanics and flow
o   4) Advance the story
§  Updating NPC actions and dialogue in response to the cataclysm
§  The world needed to reflect changes from the cataclysm
-          How Revamping Actually Went
o   Prioritization
§  To prioritize zones, they used color-coding on zone map (red/yellow/green) (“yes, even Blizzard devs run out of time”)
§  Ended up not having a lot of green zones…
o   Cascading changes
§  Lots of small changes lead to unexpected cascading changes
§  Change terrain, then creatures change, then quests change (since they lead in and out of other quests)
§  A lot of the time, ended up being so far into cascading changes that it would cost too much to back-pedal and had to finish them
o   Improved mechanics and flow
§  1st approach to quests was very casual for designers, started to develop processes later
§  Now do flow chart for zones (vizio chart)
§  Having these flow charts made teams in parallel work together (used to have item designers come in later, learn it, come up with stuff)
§  Can clearly see when there are problems with flow
o   Advance the story (but beware of volcanoes)
§  Ran into tendency to try and put big volcanoes or cracks in ground in every zone
-          Desolace – Old
o   Desolate landscape, had been ravaged by centaur war
o   Zone problems – monotonous and oppressive
§  Centaur war was too narrow
§  Burning legion presence was more annoying than threatening – intended to be scary but really just guys standing around
§  Poor hubbing, flow & travel – any quest required you to run all of the way across the zone
-          Desolace – New
o   Visual update
o   Story progression with Cenarion (druids) regrowth – trying to fix area
o   Updated mechanics flow and travel
§  Quest designers made significant improvements
-          In the end, was it the right way to go?
o   Maybe lost a little bit of its soul, maybe should have stayed desolate – instead changed whole vibe – could have still been oppressive (just not monotonous)
o   Really keep soul of original in mind – if you’re going to change it, make sure you’re doing it for the right reason (made it green, other zone next to it was also green)
-          Westfall – Old
o   Strong kit/vibe in original
o   Culmination of Defias storyline (good!)
o   Great visual transition from Elwynn forest
o   Limited visual changes that they could make (core part of WoW feel – having this seamless transition)
o   Some of oldest mechanics and flow
§  Sentinal Hill inadequate – nothing there
§  Monotonous? Terrain of zone, was the same, ended up deciding to keep since it’s a small zone
-          Westfall – New
o   Retain overall look
o   Minor cataclysmic terrain changes
o   90% of quest is different
§  Improved quest mechanics and progress storyline
§  Used Defias brothers storyline – they disappeared, mystery finding out what happened, what is next plot?
-          Overall – right decision?
-          Talent System
o   A choice system so characters of one class would feel different than another
§  Beta character customization feedback (had rudimentary +1 strength stuff
§  Players wanted to feel different
§  Important for longevity – choice for endgame, as well as leveling (not just leveling, endgame)
§  Really didn’t have endgame in mind while designing – in retrospect, choice at endgame was important
-          Progression mechanic as secondary benefit
-          Talent system bloating over time
o   Knew it was going to happen
o   Were originally going to keep making trees bigger – can’t do this forever
-          Cataclysm seemed like good time to stop it – wall of text tool tips – long descriptions for talents
-          Larger possibility space was deceiving – false idea that more choices = better – 95% combinations = bad, easy for player to lose out in their choices
-          Overwhelming for returning and new players (most people just didn’t pick anything) – barrier to entry
-          Brainstorming solutions
o   Automatic choices? Not good way to go
o   Is talent system working as a choice system?
§  Sort of. Similar to Diablo II, better than it
§  Are there better systems out there?
·         Yes! Modern Warfare 2, for example
·         Primary, secondary, choose 3 perks (4 choices)
·         Constrained, but understandable
·         In Modern Warfare – everyone thinks their build is the best (what you want), and people are using a huge spectrum of options
§  Would WoW be better  off with different system?
·         Pruned it down, so could still feel like WoW
-          Word of caution – if you take WoW’s system for other MMOs, you inherit the same problems
-          Some players howled about it, but there are the same number of viable builds in the end
-          Conclusion –
o   Have deep seeded understanding of what was great about original
o   Pick battles carefully! Optimal design not necessarily optimal design – choose what’s right for your game
o   Don’t stray too far from the rule of thirds – it makes you more likely to carry things forward that were good about the original
-          Q&A
o   How do you address invested players who are resistant to change?
§  Can’t let forums rule your decision-making
§  Have to have a thick skin about what you’re changing
o   Do you run out of colors?
§  Don’t have to make every single zone completely different, just have to feel different and spread it out
o   Q clarification - Run out of distinct visual cues for players?
§  Something Blizzard struggles with. Tendency to try to make everything stick out, but you can’t. Need to prioritize what is most important information for the player.
o   Team structure?
§  Dev team is 145 (including producers) original WoW ~65. 45 designers, 45 artisrs, 30-40 programmers, 12 producers.
§  Dungeon – 1 designer on encounters, 1-2 artists.
§  Zone – 2-3 designers, 2 quest designers
o   Was there a place where it seemed that player frustration was part of the identity of the zone? Example is LoTR online = is there room for frustration as part of the experience?    
§  Sometimes you need to frustrate the player a little. There is a line, it’s hard to identify
§  Another good example is mounts – players want to be faster, but we don’t want the world to feel smaller. Need to figure out how much travel time is the right amount to keep the world interesting
o   Focus more on new or old gamers when designing new content?
§  When creating content or systems, the 1st thing we do is identify who it’s for
§  Depends on specifics of zones – starting areas, can figure that new players will be here, make it for them
o   Desolisk – how would you recommend noticing when something is going downhill?
§  Pay attention to what your team is saying. If you hear a lot of “what are you doing?”
§  Sleep on decisions for 24 hours – meeting, make decision, meet on it again and decide again. Lets you think through the implications of your decisions (also avoid group-think)

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