On The Scene At The Pandaria Launch With Rob Foote

On Monday night, in an open air mall in Irvine, Blizzard celebrated the launch of World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria in fine suburban style. As things went, it was a full crowd, one that grew as things went on, and while it didn’t feel like the massive spectacle a Blizzard normally provokes (see our Blizzcon coverage), it was evidence that the fans are still very much in love with the people who brought them World of Warcraft. Even if Cataclysm made them kind of angry.

Highlights were plenty – inventive cosplay, the stage presentation – but for my money the most amusing thing about the evening was the bizarre dance off, involving dozens of dancers led by a man in a panda suit, set to Gangam Style. It had to be the 1,000,000th time a group of amateurs delivered a poorly choreographed approximation of 2012′s Macarena, and I’m pretty sure our Gangam Style reserves are about to be depleted. Still, it’s kind of heartwarming to see so many people embrace such a dumb, dumb song, especially at an event designed to celebrate the release of a game about… badass warrior Pandas.

We were on the scene to soak it in, and we had the chance to speak to Senior Game Producer of Art for WoW Rob Foote, about how the expansion was pitched, the incredible art of Pandaria, and of course, the Pandarians themselves.

The Pandarians are a longtime part of the lore of WoW, but it’s odd that Blizzard waited so long to develop them more fully. (Arguably, they were scooped by Kung Fu Panda; whether that hurts them remains to be seen). That seemed to be on Foote’s mind when we talked about the development of the artstic style for Mists of Pandaria. While that film never came up, more than once Foote was quick to reiterate the long legacy of Pandarans in Warcraft lore. “They’re iconic characters,” he told me at one point, “and whenever new races come up amongst our fans, they’re generally top of the list.”

That long history played a big role in how Mists of Pandaria came to be. Well, that and cosplay. “Our lead quest designer,” Foote said, “he pitched the story of Pandaria in character, as a pandaran.” And, as if to mock those of us who don’t get to work at Blizzard, it was apparently the best/silliest thing possible. “He was up there, and he had a staff, and he was telling the story of the Pandaran people. He was doing it very dramatically and very in character.”

This presentation got the WoW team “super jazzed” about making the expansion, but as Foote acknowledged, there was some pressure to deliver after the mixed reception Cataclysm received. Lessons learned from the Cataclysm era paid off, so he told me, with Pandaria. “The people who develop World of Warcraft are their own harshest critics,” he insisted. “I don’t think we pull punches amongst one another, we definitely listen to our fanbase, we pay attention to the forums, and we listen to our players. [And] hearing criticism and being able to adapt to it is something we did not just for Pandaria, but in [Cataclysm patch] 4.3. I feel like 4.3 was one of our most essential patches ever,” he continued, “and I think a lot of what we learned there we can apply to mists of Pandaria.” Among those lessons, he cited 4.3′s raids, which he said “appealed to the most casual of casuals, and the ability to jack up the difficulty if you want a more hardcore experience. “That’s one thing we wanted to do with Mists of Pandaria.”

Another thing they wanted to do is to get the setting exactly right. As befits a country inhabited by Pandas, Pandaria is obviously an Asia analogue, but slight Asian motifs have already been introduced to the game. The challenge, then, “was to differentiate Pandaria. We were looking for anything that would work,” Foote told me, “and for the environments in particular we were looking through photos references, trying to find cool stuff that looks really appealing. Every expansion gets more challenging because we have this palette of zones that already exists, so you have to make them different. You know, ‘how many forests can we make before they start to look the same?’.”

“Fortunately,” he said, “the real world is blessed with seemingly infinite numbers of natural environments. So looking through all the various countries of Asia, we’ll find cool stuff like a temple that’s overgrown, or a bamboo forest that looks really really cool. Really, we just pulled, and the artists just pulled, based on what looked cool to them.”

Foote’s favorite thing about the expansion? “I’ve been playing since vanilla, sitting at max level. The thing that most excited me about this game is there’s seven new zones worth of content, there’s hundreds of new quests, there’s dungeons, there’s raids.” But, he says, “the cool thing about this expansion is that, other expansions there’s an on the box bad guy, and that character kind of dominates the expansion. This expansion calls back to our roots. Pandaria is this awesome continent, and it’s been veiled for years. Then the events of Cataclysm happen, it’s now unveiled. It’s pristine land, and that creates a land grab. The Horde wants this land for themselves, the alliance is like ‘no way we’re going to let them take it’. The balance of power in the world shifts, it creates a Horde vs Alliance fight over this brand new continent, with brand new resources.”

Getting deep into Mist of Pandaria? Check out our cheats guide.

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