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From Guild Leader to Game Director Part 2: WoW's Cutting Room Floor

by Daniel Tack on Mar 31, 2016 at 09:50 AM

This is part two of a three-part interview with Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan. Find out more about Kaplan's gaming roots and how he began a career at Blizzard in part one here! Check out part three, all about Overwatch, here!

GI: As you said, back then (EverQuest) going into a dungeon could be scary and intimidating and the content was not for everybody. That’s really changed in MMO design philosophy over the years. How do you feel about that? Do you think some magic has been lost as MMOs became more accessible and more mainstream?
JK:I think it’s something that I’m fascinated with. I look back in hindsight, and you try to catch yourself, and you really ask yourself, “Am I going into ‘the grass is always greener’ mode here?” Meaning do we remember it from a nostalgic standpoint much more fondly than the experience actually was? I do think that there is a danger in video games as they become more mainstream, not just MMOs, to overly streamline experiences. On the other hand, I think if your game is too punishing, and I like to separate the words “punishing” from “hardcore,” I think it goes against the nature of trying to create a fun experience for people. 

I look back on some of the WoW dungeons that we did – and I haven’t worked on WoW since Wrath of the Lich King, so I don't really want to speak for it post-Lich King – but speaking from my experience of early WoW to Lich King, I think there were some things that we did really well and that I’m proud of, and there were some experiences that we overly streamlined. Like if you look back to vanilla World of Warcraft, at a dungeon like Lower Blackrock Spire, I actually think that was a pretty hardcore dungeon experience that gave some people that feeling of, “Wow, it’s kinda scary to go in there, but we can explore, we can find shortcuts and we go out of our way to create little ledges so if you try to jump down in lava you could get out of it.” Players thought they were shortcutting the dungeon, but we were doing that very deliberately so that players could have that sense of, “Wow, we’re really finding new areas in this dungeon.” And as we moved into Burning Crusade, I look at Auchindoun, and while there’s a lot I like about Auchindoun, I do think we made some mistakes in streamlining it. Like we had the four wings of Auchindoun, and when I look at the wing that was in the Sethekk Hall system…

Oh yeah, I remember it.
Yeah, it was all the bird people and it felt a little bit overly streamlined. There wasn’t a lot to that wing where you could really explore and get a sense of it as a place. It felt kind of like a linear tunnel, and you were just going to fight through and there were bosses pasted throughout. And we tried to get back, after I feel we learned the lessons of overly streamlining some of the dungeon experiences in Burning Crusade, but I definitely think some of that magic is hard to get back without creating a punishing, confusing, or tedious experience. So it’s a really fine line.

Let’s move on to World of Warcraft. You did work on Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. What was the favorite dungeon that you developed for either one of those expansions?
I think the best dungeon in the Burning Crusade and probably my favorite was Karazhan. Karazhan had a storied history to it, and I mean that from a development standpoint besides the lore of the game itself. That dungeon, one of the largest dungeons in World of Warcraft, was completely – from the ground up without a single asset saved – rebuilt three times. It was a very painful experience because we’d built it a number of times and we’d sort of gotten it wrong. The first time was very early in World of Warcraft development when we were using a different toolset, so it was actually built in a tool called QERadiant, and it was just an asset mismatch that we didn’t even use eventually because WoW was built with a proprietary tool. The second time we built it we had built the whole dungeon, and we started reviewing it and we realized the whole thing was off in terms of scale and flow; it was sort of a train wreck. And then finally we rebuilt the dungeon, and the two level designers were named John Staff and Aaron Keller, it just took them months and months to get that thing right. And then we had a designer named Scott Mercer who designed most of the boss encounters and really oversaw the design of the dungeon as a whole, and it was a very long and painful development process, but one of those ones where you really feel like it paid off. 

It just felt like there were so many different areas to the dungeon, it had some really cool themes, some really cool characters – my guild used to always laugh at Shade of Aran and the voiced lines that he had; he was hilarious. This guy, he was just like a mental train wreck, but he was hilarious if you go back and listen to his voice-lines. And then there was that epic ending where you realize what has gone on at Medivh's tower, like what is this alternate dimension and he’s obviously been tapping into magical energies too much. You had Malchezaar out there, and it was just a really cool, really fun dungeon. I really enjoyed Karazhan.

Yeah, speaking from many, many years of WoW, I can honestly say it’s my favorite dungeon. I’ve got to ask about the dungeon that was sort of underneath Karazhan, that didn’t ever get populated with anything. I’ve always been super curious about that; I used to die and respawn behind the walls so I could go check out what was in there, and I always found that to be a fascinating area that just never got used. Do you know the story behind it?
Yeah, absolutely I know. So when we first started building World of Warcraft, most of our dungeons were huge spaces like Lower Blackrock Spire. In fact, originally the Molten Core, Upper Blackrock, and Lower Blackrock Spire were all one dungeon. And we sort of realized – we started with the Scarlet Monastery – we realized these dungeons were so big that there was no way players were ever gonna get to all the content in one run. And that’s when we started to distance them differently. We saw that first with Scarlet Monastery by instancing the wings differently, it also allowed us to put different level content in each one. So, we sort of had shifted from building these monolithic dungeons into winged dungeons. 

Our vision for Karazhan, if you can believe this because you know how big the dungeon is – was actually that it was going to be three wings. The main wing was obviously the tower itself, which is the dungeon that we all did, and all love. The second part of it was when you go out to the demonic area. At the very top of the tower, there was a whole huge demonic floating rock – I don't even know what to call it, but you basically transcended into this demonic portal world. We had built the whole thing; we hadn’t populated the bosses out there, but the dungeon geometry was completed for this whole demon netherworld that existed out there. And the third wing was actually supposed to be kind of the noobie wing, or like your intro wing before you did the tower and the demon area, which was the dungeon underneath Karazhan. There’s actually a lot of stuff like that. Another example is there’s a portal that people have asked about in Stormwind – I don’t even know if it’s still there anymore. But you know we had the Stockades which was kind of a lower level dungeon in Stormwind. And then out in the canals was another portal that we had a closed gate in front of, and we were going to open that door up, and that was supposed to be a high-level demon dungeon, where they would keep the common criminals in Stormwind and lock them up underneath into the stockades. But if they were like magical or demonic, they would lock them up in the special magical dungeons beneath Stormwind. There were a lot of spaces that we never fully explored in WoW, but it’s been pretty awesome that we planted a bunch of seeds and that players always ask about, and at any time we could always revisit and make those areas, which is also pretty cool.

Did the other Stormwind stockades get used for the Violet Hold later on, or was that completely different?
It was a very similar idea. When we went to do Violet Hold, it was that exact same idea. I mean I think they were definitely different places, so we could still revisit it like the same equivalent where you can’t just take some sort of magical being and put him in a normal-type prison. I think that could still exist in Stormwind too.

Along that line, what’s the coolest thing that you designed or developed for WoW that never made it in the game?
You know, I had two ideas that I was very excited about when I was working on WoW, and the funniest part is that we have an internal tasking system, and the tasks are still in there. So some of those are over 10 years old now, which is really funny. I had a waypoint system where players could not only set a waypoint for themselves – so they could look at their map and set a waypoint and navigate to that waypoint with an in-game UI – but that they could also set a waypoint for a friend or somebody else. Like a common thing that would happen with WoW in the early days, and this is before the mods had really taken off, if you would teach somebody in general chat, say like, “Hey, I don’t know how to find Stormwind,” and we’re standing in Goldshire, the system would allow you to send the guy a message, and he could basically click a link, and it would put a waypoint on his map to get to Stormwind, so you could show him where to go. So that was a system that we never really got to.

Then the other idea that I was always very excited about and we were going to pursue was this idea of – usually you want to come up with a better name for it, this is like the internal working name, so I just want to warn people on that. But, I always called it “the dungeon scoreboard,” but basically what it would be is at the end of a dungeon run, I always felt like we could celebrate the moment more and sort of go, “Here are the bosses we killed, here are some stats on how the players performed in that dungeon run, here is the cool loot that we got.” You end the dungeon and you just kind of zone out and it’s like a load screen. I always felt like we could actually celebrate what would happen in the dungeon a little bit more. So, that’s an idea that a lot of people on the WoW team were still very excited about, so I hope something happens with it someday.

So like the end-of-game Overwatch screen basically.
Yeah [laughs].

Come back soon for the third and final chapter of our interview, focusing on Blizzard's upcoming first-person shooter, Overwatch.