In late October, Preach took to the skies in a nearly 20 hour journey that would eventually take him to Irvine, California. The result of months of discussion and planning, he was there to take a deeper look at a game he had played for over 15 years, and the company behind it. With PG Team member Nupss flying in as cameraman and audio wizard, they were ready to meet with several members of the Warcraft and Blizzard Entertainment team to put together an (almost) Access all areas look at Blizzard and WoW. To look at what went wrong, what changed, and what the future holds.
In the first of our Interview Articles we’re going over some of the main points from our interview featuring Associate Game Director Paul Kubit and Lead Quest Designer Maria Hamilton.
Paul has worked on a number of cool features you’ll be familar with, including Withered Army Training, The Brawler’s Guild and the 1st iteration of Torghast.Maria has a long career in gaming and has worked on several much loved games before joining Blizzard in 2019.
One of the first things Mike wanted to know from Paul and Maria was how much autonomy they have in the design process, and it appears the questing team is given quite a bit of freedom in making content. They know what the main cultures, enemies and themes for each zone are and they pitch ideas around them, splitting up into individual zone teams that then come together to ensure that each zone is telling their own unique and interesting stories.
Ideas, Maria and Paul are quick to point out, are not in short supply, and they encourage humour, fun, and telling new stories, with members of the team bringing ideas inspired from their background or tales from their youth that ‘ all comes together as the soup known as World of Warcraft’. They get a huge variety of ideas, but as Maria tells Mike:
“Ideas are super easy to come by, but you have to decide what to pursue, what to prototype and where best to allocate your time”
They also have to be mindful that gameplay comes before everything. They want to tell the story through the gameplay and ensure it matches the story being told. Maria explains that ‘its world of warcraft, you need to be killing stuff’ and they need to find good moments for those periods of ‘killing stuff’ to happen.
A topic through most of the interview was how having wildly different types of players impacted the quest design process. Players are unpredictable and a clear message that Paul and Maria reiterated was there is no average wow player. There is no vast majority. Some people love to read all the quests and get immersed with the lore, whereas others prefer to move past them to get to the content they want, whether that be PvP, Mythic plus, or something else.
Their challenge is finding a balance that works for all types of players, and their goal is that players seeking out the lore are engaged by the story the quests present, and that at the same time the people moving past the quests get at least a basic understanding of the story.
Where World Quests are concerned they understand that certain people can only play on certain days. They want to find a balance that makes sure everyone has enough content but that also ensures you don’t feel like you’re missing out if you can’t log in every day. A way they tried to address this in Zereth Mortis was by giving you outdoor gear with outdoor powers. Something that Maria thinks worked well.
Not only is the question of Why people play World of Warcraft important, but also how people play the game. Paul and Maria are both quick to point out that players are unpredictable.It is generally pretty hard to predict how content will land on players, and to understand what people will do. Exiles Reach may seem like a pretty straight-forward place, but one new player saw an NPC with the yellow quest marker and then completely ignored it in favour of turning around and jumping straight off a cliff. It can be very easy for returning and new players to fall completely off the rails and have no idea how to get back on them, and the team has to account for that.
This isn’t news to Paul and Maria of course, they’ve learnt to expect that players will behave in ways they couldn’t see coming, and they had plenty of stories to share. Maria mentioned that years ago when she was working on a different game, the team had made a variety of skin colours for their player characters, however they noticed that practically all of them picked the same one. Thinking this was some UI mistake they delved into it, only to discover that because of the way harvesting in that title worked, harvesting an item would check the hues of colour around it to determine what material you would get for harvesting that item. One of the skin colours they had chosen for the player character had the same hue as one that would register as wood, and so players would pick that colour and ‘harvest’ each other over and over to get wood.
In the same way that the new player didn’t reply to the quest giver in the expected way, players in general can respond to content in ways the team just don’t predict. Sometimes you’ll put some cool easter egg in the game and the team willl eagerly scroll online to see if anyone has found it, only to find the players are all fixated on some small detail that was never meant to be exciting in the first place. This is the same in their internal testing, says Maria. Everyone has a different thing they thought was amazing, and sometimes they didn’t realise people would feel that way about a particular moment at all.
In the same way that players differ in how they act in game, players also differ in the choices they want to make. There are small choices like choosing which Torghast power, and others perhaps a little more substantial like the choice between the Phalanx or the Larian in Bastian, or deciding between Altruis and Kayn as a Demon Hunter. Then there are bigger choices like deciding to stand by the Banshee Queen Sylvanas or not. Maria for one, is a fan of informed choices, where you understand what will happen as a consequence. Sylvanas provided valuable experience and they’ve been paying close attention to player feedback. The biggest problem with player choice in a game like WoW, they explain, is a fear of missing out as a result of your choice. Will you miss out on a reward, will you not be able to play with your friends?
Overall, Maria explains, they think the Sylvanas choice worked out okay. Looking to the future and the possibility of more player choice, Maria revealed they are investigating tech that would be able to let players complete quests by doing one of several things instead of there just being one way to complete it, but they aren’t there yet.
With so many various ways people play World of Warcraft the team are always trying to bring players together. They do this through various methods, including adding what they call Hotspots, places where something big and exciting will happen. Looking at Dragonflight you can see this in places like Iskara where the community will come together, flying in on their drakes to make soup. You also saw this in places like Korthia where the addition of rares dotted all over the map had people creating roving groups to take them down.
That isn’t to say you can’t do these things on your own, both Paul and Maria state. You can absolutely go hunting rares by yourself, but there is a general idea that doing them together is better. The Brawler’s Guild, one of Paul’s creations, can be done solo, but ideally it is made to have about 8 people in at a given time, allowing you to spectate their matches and put down a gamba or two. Fishing is another great example where you can absolutely choose to do it solo, but you can also group up with friends for an afternoon in-game fishing expedition. In dragonflight they’ve added Ice Hole Fishing where if you want to fish you’ll all be grouped around this small fishing hole, and it creates a natural social experience in game.
Another hugely social aspect that takes place mainly out of game are secrets. Working out how to access hidden chests, how to get a secretive pet or obtain an obscure mount. Discords full of people sharing their theories and progress. Maria acknowledges they are not something they always go in knowing they are going to add, but that they add them for fun, because people enjoy them so much “Its more of an Okay lets make something cool for that community”.
Changing things based on how the community responds to them is a big part of the development process for both Paul and Maria. They are constantly looking not only at what players say they like, but also what they did. In design its always about iteration. They test something to see what people think, tweak things to see how people react. They also sometimes ‘float ideas’ “Like a seed” explains Maria.
A great example would be another of Paul’s creations, the Withered Army Training. It was fun and in Paul’s words “it was kinda held together with duct tape”. Built with tools they had at the time to make a fun, repeatable, roguelite experience. The player’s reaction to that helps make things in the future when they have better tech, so they can build bigger and better “Like the death of Chromie or Horrific visions” says Paul. If Withered Army Training hadn’t been so fun they may have gone in a different direction and tried something else.
Working on a live product, says Paul means “You can change something or learnt from it and make new content which springboards off the mistakes of the past”
You can catch the full interview with Paul and Maria, and many others, on the premium section of our website!You can also find the two videos going in-depth about our trip to Blizzard HQ and what we learnt on our Youtube Channel!
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