BlizzCon 2010: Interview with WoW Lead Game Designer Greg Street

One of the most striking things about Blizzard is the level to which fan feedback gets consideration when it comes to the company’s games.

This is sort of common knowledge — World of Warcraft players put their two cents (and often considerably more) all over Blizzard’s forums, and those complaints and questions are often heard and effect future patches and expansions. But even at BlizzCon 2010 last weekend, it seemed like player questions and suggestions were leading to new gameplay decisions right then and there.

“I made a lot of notes just talking to players and things players have said,” said Greg Street, WoW’s lead game designer, after two days of sitting on World of Warcraft panels and helping to answer fan questions. “I found out at one of my panels that they were sad we removed this brutally hard Feat of Strength called Insane in the Membrane, where you have to get exalted with all these different factions. I was like, ‘Guys, this is painful – why are you so excited about doing it?’”

The panel, which was the WoW Open Q&A, concluded the question with the panelists stating that they’d look into creating something equally difficult for players to struggle to accomplish.

“It’s this crowd in particular, these are the most hardcore players we have,” Street said. “And it’s interesting to know that they want things that are really, really hard to do.”

Also among the ideas staffers seemed to act on was the lack of a new Legendary weapon specifically geared toward magic-users. A player asked a question about the item at the Quests and Lore Q&A panel that featured Vice President of Creative Development Chris Metzen and Lead World Designer Alex Afrasiabi.

The pair responded: “You got it. It’s coming.

At Saturday’s Open Q&A, Afrasiabi told the audience the developers had talked about the staff Friday night, and it was on its way.

A lot of things seem to go that way. Street talked about the major changes to the way World of Warcraft works that were made in Patch 4.0, which altered several of WoW’s major gameplay systems. Chief among those was the Talent Tree, which is a series of options that players use to customize their characters as they level up. Street said Blizzard spent a huge amount of time revamping the system to make it easier and more meaningful, but the concept developed from a relatively small interaction.

“That change came about pretty quickly in an e-mail conversation that Tom Chilton, our game director, and I were having one weekend and we were like, ‘You know, if we could do it all over again, we would just make fewer talent points overall and more meaningful choices,’” Street said. “And after we talked about it we were like, ‘Dude – we could do that.’”

But it wasn’t anything big that spurred the change — just a nagging desire to try the Talent system in a different, hopefully better way.

“We had no idea (we’d make the Talent change) at the last BlizzCon.”

I asked Street a handful of questions about other changes that have been rolled out to go with Cataclysm.

FileFront: I’ve read that a lot of the sort of streamlining and simplification changes that came out with the Cataclysm patch have been geared at recruiting new players. Was that a big part of your design philosophy?

Greg Street: Definitely getting new players is huge to us. Growing the base is great. But a lot of them were made because what we had was just getting to be too much. The way we changed the badge system we developed for Wrath of the Lich King made a lot of sense at the time – “Oh, every tier’s a new badge. What could be wrong with that?” And then you realize you have four kinds of badges and all these old badges from Level 70 and these PvP currencies too, and we were like, the game would be better without them. And we can solve that problem. We can have fewer techs and points for players to manage, and that’s not something that’s going to affect new players. They’re not going to see that for months and months and months, and by that point it’s hard to call them newbs anymore.

FF: What about Cataclysm do you think will make players that have maybe been holdouts for the last six years say, “You know what, maybe I’ll give this a try?”

GS: Hopefully we have improved the lowest-level game. I think before there wasn’t always a lot going on. I think the classes themselves didn’t always function well at lower levels. To use one example, the Rogue has this combo point system but creatures didn’t stay alive long enough to actually use the combo points. You’d stab it a few times, the creature would die. You have all these abilities that are geared toward the end game that we sort of give you really early on, and I think it just kind of felt weird. A couple of the classes were really painful to level. Warriors had a lot of downtime, Paladins were hardly ever hitting buttons, they were just auto-attacking everything – so we made a huge effort to make sure that all the classes felt fun at low level, particularly with the signature ability that you get at Level 10 that now really makes you feel like, “I am now a Shadow Priest. I’m only a Level 10 priest, but I’m a Shadow Priest and I can play that way.”

[They did improve the lowest level. Check out our hands-on time with Cataclysm's new Worgen race and its opening quests.]

FF: A lot of higher-level gamers have had to kind of relearn how to play with a lot of the changes you guys have made. What’s the response been like? Has it generally been positive?

GS: Yeah, it is generally positive. One of the things that took me by surprise a little bit doing this is that, as a game designer, you always say, “Change for change’s sake is bad. You don’t want to solve problems, you just want to change things.” But it kind of turns out, in a game that’s been going on this long, players want a little bit of that. They want to say, “You know, my mage has stayed the same for six years. I’m ready for something new.” They’re okay with just totally lateral change – to some extent. You don’t want to overwhelm them. They want something to keep it fresh a little bit.

FF: Why did you guys decide to extend the level cap by five, instead of by 10 levels as with previous expansions?

GS: A couple of reasons. One is, we found that in the last two expansions, a lot of players had hit maximum level before even reaching the last couple of zones, so we were like, you know, we’re making these zones that players aren’t even seeing, we could just make the same number of zones and players would hopefully get to the end. We also thought, 85 is a pretty big number, and I don’t know what World of Warcraft’s going to look like at Level 270, so we’re just trying to delay that as long as we can. Slow it up a little bit. Mostly players are cool. You know, leveling is a lot of fun for a lot of different people, but there’s some also that, it’s a little bit of a burden. “Now I’ve gotta quickly get through this content so I can play with my friends at max level again.” I think five feels like a good number now. I don’t know if we’ll do five or 10 next time.

…We talked about, could we make an expansion with no levels? But I think to do that, we’d have to come up with something better – something that’s more fun. We haven’t come up with it yet, so we’ll stick with levels.

Final Thoughts: It seems like, despite any complaints World of Warcraft players have (and my WoW-head friends had a few regarding the big changes Blizzard has made), Street and Blizzard seem to have their heads on straight with the decision they’re making. Six years on, Blizzard is finding ways to make the game better — and mix things up.

But even for players who are unhappy relearning raids and rethinking their talents, it’s nice to know that guys like Street are, in fact, paying attention to those concerns. BlizzCon had a lot of ultra-specific comments from players, but it also was full of good ideas: and Greg Street and the rest of Blizzard have been listening.

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