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Afterwords: World of Warcraft: Wrath Of The Lich King

by Phil Kollar on Feb 17, 2010 at 12:35 PM

We normally publish our Afterwords interviews shortly after a game is released, but with MMOs, that concept doesn't quite make sense. These games continue growing and changing until...well, until another expansion is released. With the recently-completed patch 3.3, Blizzard's hit MMO World of Warcraft has finally reached the conclusion of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. We figured this would be a good time to check in with WoW game director Tom Chilton about some of the decisions made in the expansion.

Read the full interview to find out what hero classes almost got chosen to be added instead of death knight, whether or not we'll see any other new content before the Cataclysm, and how Blizzard is preparing for that next expansion.

I wanted to begin with a sort of “state of the union” question. How is Blizzard feeling as you wrap up the Wrath of the Lich King content and move toward the next expansion?

We’re feeling good. As far as wrapping up Lich King content goes, I’m happier with the way the Lich King fight and all of Icecrown leading up to it has turned out compared to anything we’ve done in the past. It’s quite a bit more epic than what we did with Illidan. It’s a cooler climax than Naxxramas back in the day pre-Burning Crusade. I’m happy with how that’s come along. In general, it’s been an awesome expansion. I think players have been pretty excited about it.

With as many death knights as there are in the game now, I sometimes forget that they weren’t there at one point. As the first hero class, death knights were a huge addition to World of Warcraft. What was the process like for introducing this new character to the game, and how difficult has it been to balance them?

Definitely a difficult process. Obviously a lot of that is because of the balance complexities that get introduced by creating a new class. We always knew that we wanted to add more classes to the game, and we had a variety of different ideas for what classes to do. With Burning Crusade, we felt that it was a little too early to introduce a new class. With our second expansion, it seemed like good timing.

When we knew that it was going to be a Northrend-based expansion, we started thinking about character classes that would make sense within the context of the expansion. Among those were the death knight, necromancer, and the runemaster, a character class from one of the Warcraft RPGs, pre-World of Warcraft. Those were our primary contenders.

As we fleshed out the concepts a little bit, it felt like the death knight had more going for it than the other two. It was going to work out better both in terms of how well it fits with the Lich King expansion and also in terms of how it fills some extra need in the game. Obviously, you can make the argument that there still aren’t enough tanks around based on Dungeon Finder queues, but I think it helped. There are people out there playing death knight tanks.

So you do still plan to introduce more hero classes at some point in the future?

It’s a possibility. We have that idea in mind still for the future. We know that we probably would not be able to support introducing a new class with every single expansion, just like we probably wouldn’t be able to support having new races with every expansion. It’s a good candidate for the future, but exactly when that will be or what expansion it might be in or what class it might be is too early to say.

Wrath of the Lich King also brought some graphical improvements to the game. I know you’ve always tried to keep a balance between looking good and being able to run on a wide variety of computers. I’m curious about how you’ve maintained that balance during Wrath of the Lich King, and, particularly as you move forward with an expansion that’s going to be re-doing visuals on a lot of the original game world, if you expect the system requirements to keep climbing.

I can’t speak for sure as to the final system requirements for Cataclysm. It’s too early to say. There’s a possibility that they could go up a little bit, although we would still be talking about machines that are many years old being able to run it at this point. We try to make sure that we support older machines, and we’ll continue to do so. But an older machine today is less old than an older machine when WOW first shipped or when Burning Crusade shipped. If you make that assumption that the system requirements will creep up a little bit, there’s more we can do visually, but we’ll see.

We know that we’re going to introduce things like the improved water. Water’s been one of those things that we’ve never been entirely happy with ever since the original version of the game. It’s what we were able to do with the system requirements that we were satisfied with at the time. As technology advances, it gets easier to do a better job at that kind of thing. We’re pleased so far with how that’s been coming along.

Like you mention, a lot of the old world will also get a facelift, not only for new technology but also for new techniques. Our tools and our level designers have just got better at making the zones. They’ve been doing it for a long time. They have a better idea of how to do things that look really awesome efficiently.

You added dual specs into World of Warcraft during Wrath of the Lich King, and various hybrid classes received some buffs. It seems like in some ways Wrath of the Lich King has made things tougher for pure DPS classes, just in terms of how much harder it is to get into random groups without a healer or a tank spec. And in a lot of cases, hybrid classes that are specced for DPS can do just as much damage as pure DPS classes. Do you think that’s an issue at all or something that will require more balancing?

It will always require ongoing tuning, although to be honest, we’re pretty happy with the way that balance works out right now. There’s not much question in my mind or the minds of our class guys at this point that the pure DPS classes do have an edge when it comes to straight DPS. They have the higher potential as far as we’re aware and anecdotally as far as our experiences in the game go. We have tried to tune classes like rogues and mages and warlocks and hunters to be a notch higher.

That can vary quite a bit from player to player just depending on their gear relative to the gear of the people that they’re playing alongside and just their individual skill as a player or even their connection. A player with a slower connection is inherently going to have a little bit of a disadvantage compared to somebody with a faster connection. Some of those things can confuse the results and sometimes give players the impression that their class does less than it should for being a pure DPS class.

But all things being equal, as far as those other variables go, we feel pretty good about where that is right now. There are some adjustments to be made. I definitely wouldn’t say that it’s perfect. If you’re talking about raid DPS, I could see bringing up warlocks a little bit, at least in certain scenarios. There are encounters right now in Icecrown where they shine because of the ability for DOTs to keep on doing damage even when you’re not fully active as a player -- when you’re having to run around or you’re stunned or whatever. So there are still some advantages to being a warlock.

All in all, there’s still some tuning to do, but it’s pretty close to what we want. We’ve been happy with the general philosophical approach of getting the hybrids to where they’re close to the DPS classes when it comes to DPS roles. Otherwise, those specs just turn into joke specs.

Well, my main is a mage, and I was just thinking that if you guys wouldn’t mind throwing in some sort of tank spec for me..

Yeah... [Laughs] Like the Gruul’s Lair fight in Burning Crusade.

There’s been some interesting PvP experiments going on in Wrath of the Lich King, in particular with Wintergrasp, which tried to introduce more world PvP. Eventually you had to go in and change it so that Wintergrasp now resembles something a bit more similar to what people are used to with Battlegrounds rather than open-world PvP. What are your feelings on the various iterations of Wintergrasp? Do you think it was successful? Are you planning to do another Wintergrasp-esque PvP zone?

I’d characterize Wintergrasp as a middling success in that in my mind it’s a clear improvement in terms of large-scale world PvP over what we had prior to Wrath of the Lich King. But it’s definitely not at the point yet where I would say it’s the awesome pinnacle of world PvP. There are a lot of issues, like what you pointed out. It brought out so many people that we had a really hard time supporting it on the servers. The player concentration was brutal. That’s something we want to continue to improve on in the future, at least with our new PvP zones. I don’t imagine that Wintergrasp will stay very populated after Cataclysm, so I don’t think it will be a problem in Wintergrasp itself.

In terms of the overall feeling of being a single person in a really huge battle like that – there were ups and downs to that part. If you’re undergeared as a PvP character, you still have a chance to contribute through vehicles, so that’s kind of cool. At the same time, there could be more depth and more to the vehicle gameplay itself to make that more interesting in the long-term. There was definitely some success as far as rewards go. The concept of Archavon and his buddies generally speaking was cool. It’s cool that a PvE instance opens up as a result of world PvP, and it’s cool that it’s tuned so that pick-up groups can get together and do it. After they win Wintergrasp, people can form up into a raid and dive right in to do that content. I also think the Wintergrasp rewards, the trinkets and various offset armor pieces, were successful. So there were definitely some highlights, some ups and downs to it.

One of the things we need to do a lot better is making it a live PvP zone in-between battles. We had this vision for Wintergrasp that when the battle wasn’t going, it would behave a lot like the Elemental Plateau in Burning Crusade. Back in Burning Crusade, players would go there to farm their primals, and there would be spontaneous world PvP that happened as a result of that. But that didn’t really play out in Lich King the same way that it did in Burning Crusade. It just turned out that farming for elemental fire in the Lich King wasn't as central to the game economy as it was in Burning Crusade. As a result of that, Wintergrasp PvP didn’t play out as we had imagined.

In Cataclysm, we’ve got that idea for Tol Barad, which is our new Wintergrasp-like zone. In-between battles, it will behave like the Isle of Quel’Danas, in terms of being a core daily quest hub. On PvP servers, it can have that same kind of spontaneous PvP that people had on Quel’Danas back in Burning Crusade, which a lot of people enjoyed.

Wrath introduced zone phasing, which allowed for more story-driven questing. Personally, I was a huge fan of how that system worked. But I know as the game progressed and people hit level 80 and cleared out their Icecrown quests, a lot of players struggled with some of the end-game quests that require grouping, because phasing closed them off to other people who had passed that quest already. Do you think the phasing system turned out well? Do you have any plans to change it in the future?

The phasing system was a huge advance in our overall ability to deliver quests that feel dynamic and story-driven. We’re really happy with how that came along relative to pre-Lich King. It definitely needs more polish. It’s exactly like you say. It’s really hard to share quests when there’s phasing involved. There’s awkwardness when you’re in a group with somebody who’s in a different phase than you.

For Cataclysm, we have high hopes to polish that experience and make it easier to share quests that involve phasing. We’ll have to see. We have work slated on that stuff, but I don’t know how much we’ll get done or how far we’ll get into that. It’s definitely on our list of things to try to address in Cataclysm.

The main plot arcs for Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King have involved wrapping up plot threads left over from Warcraft III. Of course, you’ve introduced some unique stories as well, but the focus of those expansions have been very much on these Warcraft III characters and stories. Do you feel like you’ve delivered properly developed final acts to these stories for fans of Warcraft who wanted to see how they played out?

I think so. Like I mentioned earlier in the interview, we did a better job of it with the Lich King than we did with Illidan. When it comes to the Lich King, we’ve done a really good job of closing that story while making it feel like players are a part of it and get to experience it first-hand. We gave him a fitting end. There are other characters from Warcraft lore that we continue to take advantage of.

Obviously, we’re digging up Deathwing for Cataclysm, so that should be big. Deathwing’s interesting in that he’s not a character that a lot of World of Warcraft players have prior experience with because he was in the earlier Warcraft games and not really the more recent ones. He’s a very central figure to Warcraft lore, but he’s not one that’s as well-known as the Lich King or Illidan, since they were Warcraft III main characters. But players will learn a lot more about Deathwing. They’re going to see that Deathwing is cool and different in his own ways and certainly super-duper epic.

Clearly you guys have learned a lot about story-telling in MMOs. I agree that the shift between original WoW and Burning Crusade and then Burning Crusade to Lich King was pretty huge. But it seems like in the future of WoW, as you say, you’re going to have to go for – not necessarily stand-alone stories, but you’re certainly drawing on stuff that more recent fans of the Warcraft franchise won’t be familiar with. Are you nervous about that?

I’m confident that we’ll be able to build up new characters and storylines. Part of that is because we’ve become better at it. If we were looking at ourselves five years ago, I think I’d have a lot less confidence that we’d be able to build up new characters that were as compelling as some of the Warcraft III characters. But as we’ve become a lot better at doing things like the in-game cinematics and even just the intro cinematics for the game and the way we make our quests more cohesive and let you interact with major characters on a more frequent basis, I think we’re better at developing those characters within WOW itself than we were before.

With Deathwing, you’ll see a good level of support for him in the intro cinematic. The intro cinematic for Cataclysm will help players understand what’s going on with Cataclysm and who Deathwing is and what his deal is. We’ll also have in-game movies like we did with the Lich King that will help players understand him better. At the end of the day, I think he’s going to feel very familiar, very real, and cool.

As part of that effort to introduce this new villain, do you think you’ll end up using more in-game cutscenes than you ended up using in Wrath of the Lich King?

It’s hard to say whether or not we’ll literally do more of them. We certainly plan to use them, but as far as exact number of them, it’s too early to say for sure. We have plans for in-game movies like that. We may end up doing more of them or maybe less. We’ll do whatever number of them seems right for the needs of the game. We don’t try to just conjure up opportunities to make them. We make them when we feel like it would really contribute a lot to the storyline.

Making end-level content more approachable has been another big change for the game. It’s easier to get more powerful badge gear, you created the Dungeon Finder tool, etc. I know there’s always been that hardcore versus casual debate that rages on the WOW forums, where some people hate that stuff and some people love it. How do you feel like the general feedback among WOW players has been?

The general feedback has been positive. We definitely plan to keep going in the direction that we’re going right now. We’re really happy with the Dungeon Finder. I’d like to find a way to extend that at the very least to 10-person raids at some point in the future. There are a lot of complexities with making that work, but anything we can do to alleviate the annoyances or pains associated with players having to arrange their own groups would be great. Being able to extend that into raiding would be awesome if we could do it.

We also have plans to continue making PvP more accessible also. It’s interesting that in Burning Crusade our raiding game was extremely hardcore, and in a lot of ways the PvP was a lot more casual player-friendly. Through the course of Lich King, those have flipped around. A lot of that is just because of the development in our PvE game. We had really aggressive development in solving the problems that we saw in PvE in Burning Crusade as far as making PvE more accessible and easier to get into and more rewarding. Almost simultaneously, PvP either stayed the same or got more hardcore in some ways.

Those flipped roles in Lich King, and we really want to balance them out better than we have before in Cataclysm. We want to continue to advance on that front with PvE, and with PvP we really want to make sure that it feels better-balanced against PvP as far as how much effort it takes to organize stuff and how much reward you get for your time and effort spent.

I wanted to ask one question about the 3.1 patch specifically. This is the patch that introduced the Ulduar raid. That seemed like a strange break in the main Lich King storyline. I know that Hodir had an extensive and interesting questline in Wrath of the Lich King, but the focus for all the other raids was a little more directly on the Lich King himself. How early into the Wrath of the Lich King process did you decide that Ulduar would be the first content patch? Did it concern you that you might be taking attention away from the main villain of the game?

Not much. I agree that they feel a little too disconnected. There is supposed to be a tie-in between Yogg-Saron (the boss of Ulduar) and the Lich King, and that’s how that was supposed to make sense – through Yogg-Saron’s manipulation of world events. I don’t think that was obvious enough to the players. It’s hard for them to draw that connection even though theoretically that connection exists. In the planning stages, that wasn’t much of a factor for us, because in our minds that connection existed and was clear. We just didn’t do a very good job of expressing it.

From an execution standpoint, or even from a philosophical standpoint, it’s okay to have content that’s a little bit of a break from what else is going on. If you look at Onyxia, that’s kind of a break. Obviously, we did her as part of the five-year anniversary as a retro look back. But it’s okay to have content like that that’s a little bit tangential as long as the main story arc continues to progress and make sense and it doesn’t feel like we’ve abandoned the main story arc.

More than anything else with Ulduar, I think it was just bigger than it needed to be and more hardcore than it needed to be. Those were the biggest lessons for us along with making the connection to the main story arc clearer if there’s going to be one.

For the final question, there’s been some rumors going around and I wanted to clear them up. You guys have wrapped up the main Lich King storyline. Icecrown is out there, which you guys have said is the final major raid for this expansion. But there are some rumors that there might be another content patch of some sort before Cataclysm releases.

That is a possibility. We can’t say for sure at this point, but we are looking into the possibility of having a boss in the Ruby Sanctum, which is another part of Wyrmrest Temple. It’s a little too early to have a lot of details on that, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a huge chunk of content. It’s not a patch 3.4 or anything.

Not a whole raid, but maybe just a smaller boss instance?

Exactly. I think of it more as an extension of patch 3.3.