GDC 11 – Interview With WoW’s Tom Chilton

Few game designers deal with the kind of responsibility laden on Tom Chilton. As the lead designer for the wildly popular World of Warcraft, he wields unspeakable power over the lives of some 12 million subscribers, and faces their wrath if he screws anything up. Thankfully for him, and all the denizens of Azeroth, he rarely does.

I first encountered Chilton at GDC while attending his panel, entitled “Remaking the World of Warcraft Through Cataclysm.” The hour-long talk proved to be a thoughtful and informative description of the design process that went into the gargantuan MMO’s latest expansion pack. Having created two brand-new continents  — Outland and Northrend — in previous expansions, Chilton and his team at Blizzard decided to spend their third expansion reworking the content housed by the game’s original two continents.

There were many reasons for doing this, but the first was centered around efficiency. According to Blizzard’s analysis, leveling content affects and benefits the highest proportion of players, regardless of their play patterns. Due to two factors — the need to get the game out the door at launch, and the constant need to satiate the game’s inexhaustible subscribers with new content (“It’s part of a process we call ‘feeding the beast,’” Chilton wrly remarked) many of the game’s low-level areas were in dire need of a tune-up.

At their core, these were the zones that made the game what it is today. “The ‘World’ part of the World of Warcraft is its strongest aspect,” Chilton opined confidently. “That’s what helped it go beyond being an ordinary game to being a huge success.” Despite these strengths, the designers considered many of these early zones fatally flawed. “Our original content had very poor flow. We sent people from one place to another for no reason,” Chilton admitted. The quest design was also lacking. “Pretty much all the content in the game originally was kill, collect and fed-ex quests.”

Having decided to revamp Azeroth’s original two continents, the first priority was not to change things too much. “We knew we needed to retain the soul of the original,” Chilton explained. “People had to feel like it was the same world.” In order to strike the right balance, the designers hammered out a useful maxim, attempting to ensure that the content was comprised of “one third old, one third improved, and one third new.” They also identified priorities, creating a color-coded map (shown below) that categorized zones based on how badly they needed changing. Red, obviously, means “quite badly indeed.”

After showing the above slide, Chilton honed in on two zones that he used to exemplify his team’s efforts. The first was Desolace, a barren, rocky zone on the west side of the Western continent, Kalimdor. The initial concept, he explained, was derived from the zone’s evocative name, and the story revolved around two themes: war between a variety of Centaur clans, and the presence of Burning Legion portals in the area that were disgorging demons onto the landscape.

Desolace was flawed for a number of reasons. The quests, to close legion portals, herd Kodo beasts around, and pick a side in the centaur war, were not as compelling as the designers had hoped. The desolate landscape, while atmospheric, was deemed too “monotonous and oppressive.” The war between the centaur clans was difficult to understand. The Burning Legion presence was “more annoying than threatening.” Maybe most importantly, the two quest hubs were at the extreme ends of the zone, meaning that you had a lot of running to do if you wanted to turn anything in.

In order to fix the zone’s problems, the designers decided to address the monotony first, by adding a dash of color and life to the zone. In Cataclysm, the Cenarion Circle, a group of tree-hugging Night Elf druids, moves into Desolace, creating a large, verdant area smack dab in the center. The designers also made significant upgrades to the player’s travel patterns, along with the quest mechanics.

Looking back on these changes, Chilton was rueful, deciding that the introduction of the Cenarion druids and their green thumbs changed the zone too much. “I’ll be the first to say I signed off on the regrowth idea for Desolace, but it lost some of its soul.” “If you’re reworking content,” he cautioned the other designers in the room, “make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.”

The next zone Chilton chronicled was a success story. Westfall is the second area encountered by most Human players, and it received generally positive reviews throughout the game’s lifespan. Its quests act as the culmination to a plotline about a band of criminals called the Defias Brotherhood that spans multiple zones, reaching a fantastic conclusion in a dungeon called the Deadmines, which features a Goonies-esque pirate ship in a cave. Still, the designers were not entirely satisfied. The terrain of the zone was very uniform, and the quest hub, Sentinel Hill, was basically bare bones.

Rather than making the same mistakes they made in Desolace, however, Chilton and his team focused on making very minor changes, tweaking the zone just enough to make it feel fresh. There was a particular focus on quest mechanics and the Defias story, which was approached from a clever angle: The Defias mostly disappeared! This enabled the quest designers to develop a mysterious, engrossing plot that asked the players to help find out what happened to them, and what they were plotting in absentia. The lesson, as Chilton pointed out, is that small alterations can have important effects, while also being much less risky. Dramatic changes, though satisfying if successful, can lead to remorse down the road if they are deemed ill-conceived in retrospect.

The final topic of the shaven-headed designer’s talk was the talent system. It was conceived initially, he said, to provide players with “a set of choices a character would make that would make that character seem different from another character in the same class.” This kind of choice adds to the longevity of the game  — “it was important for players to be able to experiment with their characters while leveling, and also at max level,” Chilton explained.

Though initially successful, after two expansions and their accompanying level-cap hikes, the talent system had gotten out of control. “The game has a tendency to become more and more complicated over time,” the designer pointed out, somewhat obviously. “We really didn’t have an end-game when we were designing this.” Most worrying was the fact that, although more talents meant more complexity, they didn’t necessarily offer more choice. The number of viable character builds remained relatively static.

Chilton and his team decided that Cataclysm was their opportunity to reverse this trend, and they dramatically pared down the talent options. In doing so, they were influenced by games like Modern Warfare 2 that had simple customization systems that nevertheless provided for a lot of player choice. At the end of the day, World of Warcraft players are still in control. “I assure you,” Chilton assured us, “that there are not fewer viable builds today than there were when we shipped Lich King.”

Having had a couple action-packed days to disgest his excellent talk, I sat down with Chilton in the dying hours of GDC to ask him some questions on camera. Please enjoy the video interview below!

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1 Comment on GDC 11 – Interview With WoW’s Tom Chilton


On March 14, 2011 at 6:00 am

“As the lead designer for the wildly popular World of Warcraft, he wields unspeakable power over the lives of some 12 million subscribers, and faces their wrath if he screws anything up. Thankfully for him, and all the denizens of Azeroth, he rarely does.”

This is a very personal opinion. He has screwed up the game according to many players, turning it into a boring grind (even more boring than it was before). As to classes he drammatically changed the warlock class, often without heeding the feedback of players, nor of his colleages.

If i remember well many wow developers who had initially developed the game and made it the beautifull game it once was, left blizzard following disagreement with him.