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World of Warcraft Interviews: Ghostcrawler on Thunder King and Azeroth’s Future

By William Murphy on March 15, 2013

Recently, we caught up with Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street, Lead Systems Designer on World of Warcraft to talk about all things past, present and future of WoW. We chat about the new stuff in 5.2, how the team is focused on recapturing the magic of Vanilla WoW, and what the future holds, even hints of the next expansion.  If you want to listen to the interview, you can catch our podcast here.  Otherwise, we’ve transcribed it below!

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MMORPG: Hey everbody, this is Bill Murphy, Managing Editor of MMORPG.com and I am here with a very special guest today for Game On: Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street of Blizzard Entertainment and World of Warcroft Warcraft... let’s try it without a British accent. Let’s get right to the questions: Thunder King is out, living and breathing on the live servers.  Have you slept yet, or is 5.3 right there on the horizon?

Greg Street: Always more to do, and once we ship a patch as large as 5.2 there’s always more to fix. There’s always more to do, and everyone behind the scenes is still pretty busy, and that’ll probably keep going for the next couple weeks until everything is running smoothly. 

MMORPG: What sort of things have cropped up that you guys have noticed, which need fixing, as it were?

Greg: There’s a million things. Like, a certain dinosaur is not dropping the right loot table, or a piece of loot is flagged wrong for the raid, or a boss encounter needs a little tuning, or a DPS class needs a little tuning, just stuff like that.  There are a million little bugs, and you can never rest with a job like this.


MMORPG: I’ve heard that more often than you can imagine, probably. Let’s talk about some of the goals with 5.2 and the Thunder King: to entice players to come back and see what the team’s doing to bring back the old WoW flavor. Can you give us an overview of how you did that?

Greg: For starters, it’s just a gigantic raid. Think probably the largest we’ve ever done, with a whole bunch of different bosses, and we wanted to get that epic old world feeling that people really missed.  And we packaged it up with this island of trolls and dinosaurs, lots of little hidden secrets: summonable bosses, rare spawns - we didn’t want players to feel like “Oh yeah, I’ve seen it all in a week I’m done.” If someone wants to spend a little time in the game there’s something they can find to do.

MMORPG: It’s a massive patch, with tons of content all over the place, right?

Greg: Yeah, this is probably the biggest patch we’ve ever done.

MMORPG: To that end (bringing old players back), do you think it’s working? No numbers necessary, as I know I couldn’t squeeze them out of you if I tried.  But how have former players responded? What have been the chief likes and dislikes?

Greg: Well Raid Finder wasn’t open until yesterday in the US on this one, so for some players this will be the big new feature that’ll get people to see the new content. I actually haven’t seen numbers either to know what’s going on, but anecdotally, when I run around there are a lot of players out there (Thunder Isle). 

MMORPG: As well there would be, because it’s a lot like Quel’Danas from The Burning Crusade. The new dailies, the way they’re unlocked... what made you want to revisit that system with this patch.

Greg: We try to vary the daily quest system so that you’re not doing the same exact ones every day... we did too much of that when Mists first shipped.  5.1 stepped away, and 5.2 goes even further.  We like how progressing through these dailies worked in Quel’Danas and the Sunwell patch, and on top of that having the Horde and Alliance in the same space encourages some open world PVP as well.

MMORPG: I was just going to ask that.  World PVP on Thunder Isle, is crazy right now across the board.  Was that intended?

Greg: Yeah, that’s always been the goal with the Pandaria expansion.  There’s this pristine unspoiled world, and then you get in there and spoil it and then start going at each other.  We knew that having tight questing space, no flying, and PVP quests would encourage that kind of fighting.  That was our hope, and it seems so far like it’s working out.

MMORPG: I remember at the last Blizzcon when (Chris) Metzen was up there, roaring to get the crowd going: the idea was to recapture those battles from places like Tarren Mill.  What’s the ultimate goal with this war? Can you talk about making it Warcraft again? Is this all part of that goal?

Greg: Yeah, absolutely. We felt that, like, every time there's some great evil the Horde and Alliance have to get together... that’s cool, but it’s not like the original genesis of Warcraft.  So there’s this really big climax coming up outside the gates of Orgrimmar, and we wanted to build up to that a little. We haven’t left the Mogu or Pandaria behind yet, but that’s coming.  

MMORPG: We’ll talk more about Orgrimmar in a little bit, let’s talk a bit about the World Bosses, as it’s one of the best parts of 5.2 in my eyes.  Why decide to enable open-tagging on these mobs now, and why not open it up on all mobs?

Greg: There’s, well, the positives of it are pretty obvious. When you come over a hill and someone already has tagged the mob, you either help them to get your own spawn faster, or you sit there and wait. That’s pretty lame either way.  The risk of going too far in the other direction is the lazy player mentality, where someone just lets everyone do all the work, while reaping the rewards.  So we’re experimenting a little, kind of want to see how it feels. We don’t want to turn it on across the board yet, but it’s an experiment.

MMORPG: So it’s something we could see further down the road? Fully open tagging?

Greg: Yeah, it works really well for the bosses.  They take time to kill, and their health scales with the more people in the area and hopefully they’ll still feel somewhat challenging.

MMORPG: And that’s interesting too: the health scaling, that’s a first in WoW or something downplayed previously.

Greg: Yeah, we had it in 5.1. That’s where we first tried it out, and we thought it felt pretty good.  It was always weird to see players grouping up to do something and the content just crumbles under a group of players.  It’s too easy. There’s not even a moment to appreciate it. It’s efficient, but not “epic”.

MMORPG: That’s one of the best things about these world bosses, the scaling, the open-tagging... is that, it kind of leads to the community interaction.  You see it happening and you join in.

Greg: Exactly.

MMORPG: Okay, but Thunder Isle isn’t the only new place in 5.2. Can you tell us a bit about the Isle of Giants, and why you decided to downplay its existence in this patch?

Greg: We downplayed it for a couple of reasons: we liked the mystery of it. We focused on Thunder Isle, and got players out there.  But Isle of Giants was again hearkening back to the old WoW when there were these areas that were just kind of out there, and you weren’t directed to go there, but it’s there... if you want to explore and see what’s in store. It really came from our Galleon, our first 5.1 world boss.  He was the hard world boss.  Coordinated effort was needed.  But what happened with him was that because he spawned in a high-trafficked area, we realized we needed to take the “hard” boss, and stick him on an island where you can’t fly, where he’s surrounding by elite mobs.  You can’t just take your little gnome out there and do away with him, it’s gonna take an effort to go out there and bring a group.  And when Undasta shows up, it’s going to be a really crazy and epic event. Not just zerg him down.

MMORPG: That’s kind of one of the big things about this patch. Somewhere along the way WoW kind of lost that sense of um, danger and exploration.  What made you go back and say “We should make this, some areas, a little difficult, and encourage grouping?

Greg: It’s something Tom Chilton (Game Director) was pushing from the beginning of Mists. Um, in his opinion, which makes a lot of sense.  In Vanilla, and even Burning Crusade, we had pretty crappy quests.  Because we just didn’t have the technology or the experience to do really clever things.  So the entire game was based around combat being more interesting, and you had to be careful, and have help from friends. And as we got better at making quests, and could do things like vehicles, escorts, and phasing...we got really powerful storytelling techniques, which let us get a little lazy with the outdoor spawning. No we didn’t need a really interesting fight, because the story was cool. And that was true, and it carried us for a few expansions, but we started realizing that players weren’t engaged with the combat.  So we tried in Mists to balance things a little better.  We still do cinematics when it makes sense, and epic questing moments... but we got back to interesting combat, risks, and elites.  Even really skilled players are used to dying again when out in the world.  It adds to the exploration, the threat, and keeps you on your toes. Rather than just feeling “Oh, I got these daily quests and it’ll be no real big deal.”

MMORPG: One of the chief complaints from our forums is that WoW got too easy. And I always say, “You should try it again.” It’s still accessible, but there are definitely a lot more areas now in the later game that make you pay attention again. Isle of Giants being one of them.

Greg: Yeah, for sure.

MMORPG: You said in a recent IGN interview: WoW is 8 years old, a decade is just around the corner, um and despite our hardcore readers looking mostly at Azeroth through a rearview mirror, there’s no real sign of the game slowing down. You’re still the biggest game in town.  My question for you then, how do you see WoW fitting into the MMO landscape in the next five years. As more and more new games come out, even Blizzard’s next MMO... where is WoW going to be standing?

Greg: We talk a lot about three types of players these days: our core audience, players who are “with” us. We can’t afford to take them for granted.  These guys have been with us for so long.  Then we have brand new players, these are players who were too young when it first came out, but are our potential audience.  Then there’s a third category: which are players who used to play, and quit for whatever reason. We know they liked the game at one point, and we know that if we make the right decisions, maybe they’ll come back.  But a design that works for one of those three groups, doesn’t necessarily work for the other ones.  You can attract new players, but you might turn off existing players.  We’re focused on keeping players who are playing the game happy.

It’s a long-winded way of saying we could totally design the game to appeal to a new wave of players, or other MMO players in general, but then we’d risk losing what’s so special about WoW. That’s not going to benefit us, or our core audience.

MMORPG: You go too far the other way, and suddenly it’s not Azeroth anymore.

Greg: Totally. I don’t think we’ll ever be at the point where we’re going to revolutionize WoW’s gameplay. Hopefully we’ll keep coming up with exciting ways to make players want to check out what we’re going to do next.  We’re always going to deliver epic raid bosses, we’ll add new features where it makes sense and there’s a demand for it: pet battles are a good example of that. Something that’s a side feature, but doesn’t fundamentally change the way you’re playing.

MMORPG: It’s fluff, but it’s good fluff.  People like that sort of thing.

Greg: Yeah and we’re really focused now on adding new features, without fundamentally changing the game that players know and love.

MMORPG: How can anybody fault you for that? My next question then, with the wave of F2P games, and WoW being one of the last bastions of the subscription. Where do you see the industry headed, and do you ever see a time when WoW opens up more F2P options.

Greg: I think WoW’s in an unusual place.  In that it’s had a subscription and people are used to it.  If I was working for a different company, or making a new MMO, I’m not sure I’d try for the subscription model. It seems a really risk proposition to jump into that nowadays. 

MMORPG: Because WoW’s established, you guys can get away with it a little more. It works for you.

Greg: Yeah, it works for us. I don’t, I won’t say that we’ll never explore other business models.  But it would have to be more successful than our current business model, and that would be a hard argument at this point.  It might not be the case several years from now, but it’s not going to be something we’re announcing imminently. 

MMORPG: Do you personally think there will ever be a time when subscriptions come back to the industry, or is it all about Hybrid and F2P now?

Greg: You could be a millionaire if you knew the right answer to that one. It’s hard to say: I look at a lot of F2P games, mobile games, and I play a lot of those... but overall, they’re just not very good. But there’s potential there, and you can see that someday those games are going to be amazing. And so I think, um, I haven’t found many F2P games I stick with religiously, but there’s a core of an idea there.  And you can see if they make the right decisions and have the right features, that would be a viable model. I wouldn’t write it off, but I think it’s probably in its infancy, and has a long way to go.

MMORPG: MMOs are too, right? In their infancy. And you guys one of the first. 2004, people are going to yell at me for saying that.  But that’s the truth: WoW is one of the first MMOs to really make it big, and now we’re seeing everyone piggyback. So it’ll be interesting to see where it all goes.  Let’s talk a bit about your gaming habits some more thoug: are there ever times when you see a new game and think: “Man, I wish we could do that.” Active-dodging, classless progression, action combat... housing? There’s always that desire for people to do it.  Do you ever want to do stuff like that, or would it be stretching it too far?

Greg: We’re super jealous of stuff like that. When a game comes out with a stellar feature, we’re like “I wish we had that in World of Warcraft.” Um, it’s just hard to add.  As much as an active combat model would be fun, would 9 million people think so? It’s just so risky to change an existing game, and core combat is one of those things we’d rather not alter too much.  That said, any decent game designer is at heart a thief... we’re always looking for many ideas we can put our own spin on.  There are many examples in all three of our big franchises, where you can see we learned something from the advances of other games.

MMORPG: It’s not just you guys, right? It’s everybody. Oh that was good, Public Quests were awesome, let’s do something like that.

Greg: Yeah, why wouldn’t you learn when the genre is moving in a direction, why just try to innovate for the sake of innovating, instead of doing what works and what players have grown to like.

MMORPG: And going back to your players, a lot of them wanted something to do with their pets, outside of just having them run alongside you... and so Pet Battles were born. Along the same token, a lot of players want housing. Is that something you think we’ll ever see in WoW?

Greg: There are two challenges to housing. The first is the content: in terms of like it takes a lot of art to make a house really cool. The expectation is you can customize it, get rewards. The farm in Pandaria touched on that a little bit, but at the end of the day they all upgraded the same way and looked the same.  So that’s the easier problem to solve.  At the end of the day, it’s just art. We could crank out a ton of it, over time.  But the more difficult challenge is “what is the design of the house?”

We like that WoW is a multi-player game where you see other people.  We worked really hard to make sure it centers around Orgrimmar, or the Shrines in the Vale, that you see other players. That people can socialize, feel like other people are around.   The fantasy of the house, that’s where I spend my time now, and you’re not seeing other people. And anything we stick in the house to make it cool, a mailbox, where your tradeskills are done, it’s all one less thing you’re doing out in the world. I think it’s a solvable problem, it’s just a very difficult problem: what’s the subset of features that you do in your private space, and what’s set of features that you do in the world at large.

MMORPG: Absolutely. I was just going to say make us a giant zone that’s basically our neighborhood. This way nothing’s instanced and we’re all together. You go ahead and get on that, and we’ll see it next week right? I mean, it’s a very trivial undertaking.

Greg: Yeah, very trivial, we’ll get it done. [laughs]

MMORPG: Okay, so WoW’s 8 years old, getting up there.  But it’s aging well.  Water, the new expansions each manage to look really good despite the game’s age.  But what are you doing to try and keep it looking young? Style can only do so much for so long. You’re working on a model overhaul for the other races, right?

Greg: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the art style itself, is picked because it’s timeless.  It has that cartoony fantasy look that could still look cool 10 years down the road.  Then there’s the upgrading: lighting on buildings, plants and life on the ground.  Even the Northrend areas look dated compared to Pandaria now.  Better lighting effects, better fog effects, the trees can have more leaves, etc.  We can keep adding and tweaking as it ages.  And we are working on updating all of the player models. 

The Pandaren is kind of the example of where we want to go with that.  Where they have facial animations, their eyes move, mouths move.  Their fingers are individual and not just one big mitt like the old models are.  It takes a lot of work, it’s a brand new model, with new animations that have to match. Unlike the Pandaren, we can’t take say the Tauren and make it a brand new race.  At the end of the day, they have to still look like Tauren. It still needs to feel like it’s your character that you’ve had for eight years.  They’ve got to have the soul of those existing races.  It’s a long term project, it’s going well.  We don’t yet have an ETA or how we’ll roll it out though.

MMORPG: As long as my Dwarf looks prettier. That’s a good thing.

Greg: It is coming, and the new dwarf is very pretty.

MMORPG: Really briefly, can we talk about Defense of the Alehouse, the sort of Dota-inspire PVP map that was discovered not long ago on the Public Test Realm?

Greg: So the way our development process works, we don’t really have private builds.  We put them up on the PTR, and once it’s up there... it’s difficult to hide things.  Players find it.  Like many things, that Battleground is a work in progress.  It’s an experiment that some of the guys are working on. We actually haven’t made much progress on it in the past few weeks or so, I don’t know if it’ll ever turn into anything or when players can expect it out there um, we’re working on some other Battleground ideas that will probably see the light of day sooner. 

I guess my message would be that just because you find something in the game, doesn’t mean that it’s imminently coming. There are a lot of half-baked experiments going on all the time.

MMORPG: Moving pieces, always moving pieces. But let’s talk about 5.3. I know you said you’re still ironing out 5.2’s kinks.  But the rising tensions between the factions is bringing us back to Orgimmar. Can you tell us a bit about it, and what it’ll entail?

Greg: For starters, it’ll be smaller than 5.2, more like 5.1.  It won’t have a new raid tier, or a new PVP season, but it will be followed up by another big patch more akin to 5.2. In terms of why we’re going to Orgrimmar, we’ve been pretty up front with who the final bad guy of expansion is (Garrosh Hellscream) and that’s where he lives.  There is going to be a big siege, it’s something we’ve been working on and we want to make sure it’s super epic and that it’s something players, that there’s a story that makes sense between 5.2 and 5.4. So we’re focused a lot right now on how we get there.  We know what we’re going to do, we just want to connect the dots.  People who played through 5.1 saw where Garrosh’s head is at right now.

Players are going to see more and more of Varian bringing the Alliance together, pushing the Horde apart. 

MMORPG: That’s great. I loved the story of the fight between the Horde and Alliance, and I want that back.  But this is even further along down the line, and I’m going to shoot for it... so how close are we when it comes to the next major expansion if we’re almost done with Garrosh’s story?

Greg: So we’ve gotten a lot better on working on things in parallel. For a long time it was just “holy crap, we have to get more content out” and that actually kept up for a long time. All the way through to the Lich King, it was just “let’s not even think about two years from now, let’s just get stuff out there for players to have more to do.” And we finally caught up enough to where we can finally take a longer view. We now think about not only what’s the next expansion, but what’s the one after that, and the one after that? So we can kind of start sewing the seeds a little bit in terms of story. In terms of gameplay and mechanics, we know where we’re going to go, and we can start working early and try out ideas while we have time.

So we’d already started working on the 5.2 and 5.3 patch before 5.0 had even launched.  And we had already started laying groundwork for future expansions so people could start working on it, with a little more overlap so we hopefully don’t have problems sticking with the final patch of Mists of Pandaria for a really long time.

MMORPG: So, “SoonTM”, right?

Greg: I know that was about as vague as I can get.

MMORPG: I know there’s this big Blizzard convention thing coming up in November... just saying. Thank you for your time, Greg.  It’s always a pleasure.  I’ll see you at Blizzcon!

Greg: Thank you! We certainly missed Blizzcon last year, and it’s going to be a good one this year.  I think we’re going to have a lot to talk about. 

Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.  

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