Saturday, June 28, 2008

Interview with J. Allen Brack

One major purpose of me applying for a press pass for the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2008 was to get a chance to interview somebody from Blizzard about World of Warcraft. And my thanks go to secret PR guy (who wishes to remain anonymous), who made it possible that I got an interview with J. Allen Brack, Lead Producer for World of Warcraft. So here is the interview, word for word, just cleaned up a bit:

T.: J., what is your job title, what do you do?

J.: I'm the Lead Producer for World of Warcraft, so I'm the spiritual advisor, the solver of problems, I help control when patches and expansions come out, help getting them tested and ready to go, I'm remover of roadblocks great and small to all manner of programmers and artists and designers.

T.: That is already a very good introduction to my most important question, on the roadmap for World of Warcraft expansions in the future: In the next ten years, will there be 5 expansions or 10, or how do you see that?

J.: Great question. I don't know exactly how many. So we have kind of a stated goal releasing expansion once per year. But much more important than that is our commitment to that whenever a player actually buys the game and installs it they have a great experience. I guess we announced that we had the goal of doing it once a year about a year-and-a-half ago, and obviously it hasn't happened. It's been more than a year than The Burning Crusade came out, and we are not exactly yet happy with where [WotlK] is. The most important thing for Blizzard is that you have the best experience possible when you install it. And whenever Wrath of the Lich King gets to that point, that we feel you will have a great experience, we will release it. And that will be the case for the next expansion as well, whenever that happens to be. I don't know if that answers it or not.

T.: Well, the goal is there for one expansion per year.

J.: It's the goal, but it's more important that you have a great experience.

T.: In your mind, if you are scheduling a path, again for the next 10 years, will that be every expansion 10 more levels, one more hero class, a couple new features, maybe one more crafting skill?

J.: It might be surprising, but we don't actually plan more than one or two expansions ahead. So right now we have this expansion that we are working on, and we have started to talk about ideas for the next expansion. And that's it. We know that we have tons of ideas for other expansions, that come after the next one, but have no idea what actually will be in those expansions. We have no idea really even what will be even in the expansion that will come after Wrath of the Lich King. Right now we are just starting to talk about what would be some of our top cool ideas that we would want to do.

T.: Would you still be thinking about things like expanding lower level content,

J.: Sure.

T.: or introducing player housing?

J.: Sure.

T.: Those things are on the table, but we don't know what expansion they will be in?

J.: You don't know, and actually I don't know. The way Blizzard makes decisions like that is, when it comes time to do something like that, we'll put up all the ideas that we think are great for the next expansion. And we go "okay, that'll take us 5 years to make, way too long for players to wait for the next expansion. Let's talk about what the big, really solid ideas for the next expansion are". We did the same thing with the Death Knight. We knew we wanted to introduce a new class, and we talked about what are the various class options, and then kind of worked it down from there. Whether the Death Knight is the strongest option. You know it's a tank, we would like to add more tanks to the game. It's very lore centric with the lich king and Northrend, so that helped the decision get made. But we always talk about what are all the good ideas, and then figure out which ones are the best to take for each decision.

T.: Okay, lets follow up on you want more tanks in the game. You just need 5 minutes in looking for group chat to know that everybody wants more tanks and healers in the game. Do you think you can solve that by adding another tank class, and then you get more tanks, or do you think there is some underlying reason that people like the damage dealing classes more than the group classes of tank and healer?

J.: Yeah, tanking obviously is a very big responsibility. I think two things. Definitely I think by adding another tanking class there will be more tanks in the game. I think also in the past we had a tendency, if you take the protection warrior, it was the best tank, but it wasn't really useful for other things. So one of the kind of changes that we are going to make with tanking in Wrath of the Lich King is tanks, even protection tanks, will still do some amount of damage that contributes towards the overall raid or dungeon, or whatever you happen to be doing. Before their damage used to be near zero. Now we are going to actually make it a more meaningful contribution. I think that will actually help as well. Because a lot of warriors felt like they could tank or they could dps, and they just had to effectively do a talent change every time they wanted to switch. Now, you're not going to be the best dps'er whenever you are in your protection spec, but you are still be able to contribute meaningful.

T.: And that also would include changes to the warrior class, or is that just true for the Death Knight?

J.: No, no, that's all tanking classes. So we want all tanking classes to contribute meaningfully to damage.

T.: That is the reason for abilities like Titan Grip? [New warrior talent that allows you to wield 2-handed weapons in one hand, with a speed penalty. Yes, this time it's in!]

J.: Sure, yeah.

T.: And what are you planning for healers?

J.: Well, I actually play a healer.

T.: Me too.

PR guy: Me too. [Lots of laughter.]

J.: So that is dear to my heart. I play a holy priest. So we obviously have ten new levels and talents for healers to enjoy. Not really ready to talk about necessarily how that works. We feel tanking is the number one kind of shortage and then way further down is healing. So we introduce this Death Knight and see how that goes, and if we need to make changes or introduce a new class at some point later in the future maybe we will make that decision.

T.: You're not promising a healer hero class in the next expansion?

J.: That is correct, I'm NOT promising. We are very much a let's see how this goes type of thing. So we'll introduce the Death Knight, and we'll see how that goes, and if it's really successful then we'll talk about doing another hero class at some point in the future.

T.: Okay, lets talk about hero classes, Death Knight. There were earlier plans where you had to be 80 and do a quest, but now you basically removed all the requirements. You just have to have on level 55 character and you can make a Death Knight, and you can make him of any race.

J.: Yes.

T.: This will basically guarantee you that you will get a huge number of Death Knights.

J.: A huge number of Death Knights. Absolutely.

T.: Don't you think that you will have then the other problem, like 4 Death Knights shouting for a healer to go to a dungeon, if that even would be working?

J.: I think that will definitely be an issue on day 1. When we actually launch Wrath of the Lich King you'll be faced with a choice of whether to create a Death Knight and start that process, or to take your main and level it up to level 80. We saw kind of the same thing with Burning Crusade. We didn't introduce a new class, but we let the Horde play Paladins, and we let the Alliance play Shamans. In the first few months we saw huge numbers of Paladins and Shamans of the opposite faction. But now, or 6 months later, or 3 months later after that, you saw reasonable numbers of both, or what we feel is a reasonable number. And I think it will be the same for the Death Knight. Lot of people will start it, lot of people will create one, lot of people will level it. How many people will make it their main? I think some normal number of people will make it their main. The intent of the Death Knight is for it to be epic, but equal. Sort of feel like an epic experience, but it's not going to be any more powerful than any of the other classes. So some people will make it their main, and that'll be what they are playing, and other people will say "hey, I've done this for a while, and it's great, but it's not for me", and that's okay.

T.: Warriors will definitely feel somewhat threatened.

J.: Sure. Definitely.

T.: So what can you do or say to calm down the warriors?

J.: One thing we're doing is, you know, each kind of tank has it's own specialization. Every tank can tank, any dungeon and any raid, but certain classes are better [for certain situations]. Paladin is obviously a great AoE tank. Focus of the specialization for the Death Knight is going to be spellcasters. We don't really have a tank yet that is specialized for an anti-spellcaster role, and that is going to be the role of the Death Knight.

PR Guy: I hate to do that, but last question. J. has a panel and needs to be backstage in 10 minutes.

T.: Okay, then last question. The Death Knight starts at level 55. Every other class starts at level 1. Do you think that at one point you will introduce the option for other classes to start at level 55? Because if somebody chooses to make a new character, that might be a big factor in his choice, maybe he doesn't want to level up again.

J.: Sure, that's a great question. One of the things of starting at level 55 is kind of that epic but equal part of the Death Knight. We have talked about potentially having you, if you have some character that is a certain level that maybe you can create another character at a higher level, different than 1. We also just made a big change in patch 2.3 where you can much easier level up from level 1 to 60. So we are always looking at easier ways for you to level up. One thing we just announced for the next patch, that is 2.4.3. that we are changing the level at which you get your mount. It used to be level 40, now it’s going to be level 30, with a corresponding gold cost decrease. We definitely want you to play at the high level with your friends. And we are always looking at neat good ways for you to get up to the high level. So we will continue to look at thinks like that.

T.: Thank you very much for the interview, J.

J.: Thank you so much. It's always nice to talk with people who obviously very much like the game.

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