Since its announcement in November last year, World of Warcraft’s latest expansion has come under a fair share of criticism. Have players been left waiting too long for new content? Does Blizzard’s MMO still hold up after ten years at the top? Can it still hope to bring in new players as it once did? It’s feedback that the studio is certainly paying attention to: in a recent interview at Gamescom, game director Tom Chilton described what’s being done to address those concerns.
As part of the wide-ranging discussion, Chilton explained the steps Blizzard is taking to make it easy for former players to return to Warcraft. He also explained how converting new players to subscribers is harder than ever before, and why Warlords of Draenor has a new tutorial system as a result. Chilton also hinted at other changes that might come in the future, such as a revamp to improve the look and feel of combat. With a November 13 release date and Collector’s Edition freshly announced, plus beta already underway, it won’t be long before players are racing up to level 100.
MMORPG.com: It’s been an interesting year. How do you think fans will react to the release date news?
Tom Chilton: Inevitably, I think we all wish it were done by now, and that was our original hope. But certainly, staffing up on the team, the size of the expansion, that made it so we had to take some additional time to get it done. I think that we are better positioned for the future, as far as being able to release expansions more quickly, really with the focus being on shortening the gap between the last major content patch and when the expansion happens. It’s not the right thing for the players, for them to go through the same content for a year before the next expansion comes out.
MMORPG.com: How big is Warlords of Draenor compared to previous releases?
Chilton: I believe that it’s our most ambitious expansion to date, at the very least for high-level content. Cataclysm was probably more ambitious for the total amount of content that we did because of the old world revamp. But, as far as content that is relevant for people that are playing at a high level, the number of world chunks – that’s what we call it for how big the continent is – is larger; the number of quests is huge. We have the equivalent number of dungeons and raids with other recent expansions, bosses, and all that kind of stuff.
And then the content density in the zones is higher than it has been in the past, because there’s not just the main questing path, there’s also a lot of side quest content, all the rare bosses, the treasures, that kind of stuff. So the overall content density is really pretty substantial.
MMORPG.com: What will draw former players back to WoW?
Chilton: There are a couple of key things. One would be whether the setting itself appeals to people. That’s the most important thing – does the idea of the expansion appeal to our current or former players? I think for a lot of them that will be the case; it’s never the case for everybody, but there are going to be a lot of players out there who find appeal in visiting a place that they sort-of knew about, and they have some nostalgic attachment to if they played the Burning Crusade. Or, if they played Warcraft 1, they know who some of those characters are, they know a little bit about what this place is, so I think there’s appeal there.
Then there are all the potential barriers to getting into it. Certainly with our previous expansions, if you had dropped out somewhere leading up to that expansion, like prior to it, then you had the barrier of getting through all the expansions you didn’t do, to get to whatever the current one is. So we’re really trying to lower that barrier with the level 90 boost and make sure that, if you are excited by this, that you can jump right into it.
Beyond that, there’s the way we bring you back to the game a little more elegantly than we have in the past. In the past, if you did jump into even an existing character – let’s say you played a character up to level 65, and you were in Zangarmarsh the last time you played, and you come back to that character - you have a wall of abilities in your spellbook, you have a whole bunch of abilities that you’ve probably never seen before, that didn’t even exist when you played the character in the past. Other abilities have changed, your action bar is a complete mess, you don’t even remember how it’s set up. You feel like you have to spend an hour reading tooltips and just getting acclimated, so we’re just trying to make that a lot better.
When you boost your character to level 90, you literally start off with three buttons, so you learn the very core fundamentals of your character class, and then you quickly can get back up to speed with what a high level character would ordinarily have, kind of like the Death Knight starting experience.
MMORPG.com: On the back of that, are there any new subscribers left to find out there?
Chilton: Amazingly, there are. We still get a pretty large number of new subscribers on a monthly basis. They are much more difficult to convert to subscribers than they have been in the past, so that’s the biggest change that we’ve seen over the last decade. When World of Warcraft first launched, we had an incredibly high conversion rate, from people that tried the game, to people that became not just subscribers but long-term subscribers.
Versus today, we see way more players that are coming in have little to no RPG background, little to no control scheme familiarity in terms of WASD movement and mouse look. When we do focus tests of the players we are currently getting, as new players, we took it for granted that ‘the guy on the ground is sparkling, that means you want to loot them’, they don’t have any concept of ‘oh, you want to take things from the body of something that you’ve killed.’ That’s not necessarily an intuitive concept for people that haven’t played RPGs or MMOs, perhaps. So all these things lead to, over time, a decline in the conversion rate. And that, ultimately, impacts the WoW subscribership number more than the vast majority of other different things.
Contrary to what people may imagine, veterans players don’t quit in substantively larger numbers today than they did back during Burning Crusade – people always left the game. It’s just that the funnel to replace them is more difficult. So there are a surprising number of people out there that are still trying WoW, but it is harder to turn them into subscribers.
MMORPG.com: How are you responding to that? Is it building better tutorials? You recently ended Scroll of Resurrection.
Chilton: The scroll of resurrection, the last version of that program was tied to people who had left the game at a certain point in time, and getting a boost in character which is now kind of irrelevant in the light of how boosted characters work now. So it didn’t really make sense for that program, in its former incarnation, to continue. We’ll probably bring it back in some way or another in the future, although it’s still to be determined how that would work.
But yes, there are improvements for newer players. In Warlords of Draenor there’s a pretty significantly improved tutorial process – it’s not something that a lot of players have seen yet, but it is in there, and hopefully that will make a meaningful difference. And also, returning players are another funnel into the game, and really the boost and that process that we already talked about is designed to try to make that a better experience. Because we’ve certainly over the years, have seen an increase in the number of people that, when they return to the game, they spend about 30 minutes setting up their character, and say ‘Eh, this is taking me too long. Forget it, I’m going to do something else,’ and then forget all about it, and what do you know, they’re out of it again. So a huge number of people that come back would just immediately churn right back out.
MMORPG.com: Does it become more and more difficult to work on a game engine with such a history to it?
Chilton: Yes and no. We certainly still have a really health number of people that want to work on the game. Fortunately with a fanbase as large and passionate as World of Warcraft has, there are a lot of developers that are either lead or senior quality, or even mid-level or just getting into the gaming industry, that are super interested in working on it, so there’s definitely a lot of talent to pull from still.
Does it get harder from a content and creativity standpoint to continue to work on a game that has ten years of stuff in it already? Certainly. You might imagine that with each expansion it would gets easier: you’ve got it down, and it’s ‘stamp, stamp, stamp,’ but it really doesn’t work like that. Each expansion brings its own set of challenges, each one you’re trying to reinvent enough to where you’re making things feel fresh. But at the same time, you don’t try to stray too much from what’s tried and true, and that’s a very difficult and delicate balance to achieve.
It’s funny because Jeff Kaplan and I often talk about it, and he’s like ‘Most people don’t know, but we know, it gets harder. It doesn’t get easier.’