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Interviews: GDC 2011 - J. Allen Brack Interview

By Garrett Fuller on March 09, 2011

GDC 2011 - J. Allen Brack Interview

At GDC we got the chance to talk with J. Allen Brack, World of Warcraft’s Senior Designer. Jay had a lot to say about why decisions were made in Cataclysm and how they felt the game needed some changes and revamping moving forward after Lich King.

With Cataclysm, it feels like you reined the game in quite a bit, what was it like for your team to make that decision?

J. Allen Brack:

I think for us it was primarily looking at Lich King and realizing that when Lich King launched it was a little too easy. We made some itemization decisions that had a significant number of purple items in the game. So it was a tough decision to do a very hard gear reset. So no matter how far you progressed in Lich King, by the time you hit level 82 you were going to have to start replacing some of that gear. What that meant was everyone in the game got to level 85 with about the same gear level. So now we can fine tune the end game around that idea. We also wanted to make the game tougher with more reliance on class abilities, player skill, and crowd control, particularly in the heroics that was a very conscious decision by the team.


How has the reaction been from players? Are you now happy with where the game has been reset too?

J. Allen Brack:

It is definitely evolving. When we came out and the first decisions started to be seen in late Beta we realized that this is a lot harder. We got player feedback saying things like "Thank you for making my sap matter," stuff that really made players start to play the game better. It felt like the early days of the game again. I think we will look at individual dungeons moving forward and say, hey this boss is a little bit too hard overall and we need to dial things back. It is a significantly easier decision to dial things back than to make them harder.

In terms of the Cataclysm scope, you only added five new levels for characters. The leveling flow was much smoother than anything WoW had in past expansions. Are you seeing more players go back to their alts now and level them through the new content?

J. Allen Brack:

We do have a lot of people who had alts that were level 80 and are now 85, that might not have played the high level Lich King content. Of course we did the two new races to encourage people to do the new 1-60 and a lot of players have gone back and done that. I have been really surprised at the number of players who have gone back and done 1-60 again.

The new races really add a lot of flavor to the game, are you seeing a lot of people switch their races to the Goblin or Worgen?

J. Allen Brack:

The Goblins were actually an often requested race and so we decided to do it. We also really wanted to do a transforming race and that was how the Worgen came about. In the beginning the theory was to have Worgen on the Horde and Goblin on the Alliance. It was a significant idea to do it that way. It was like, if it is a warrior type race then it will be on the Horde. Yet we really wanted to add something a little darker to the Alliance, a race that has their own agenda, so it was a good departure for the Alliance. On the flip side we wanted something a little more light, a little more whimsical on the horde side so the Goblin was moved there. I am really happy with the ultimate decision to add the races where we did, but it was very difficult to get there.

Let's talk about the changes to Talents for a minute. Are you happy with the changes? Do you see players now switching talents with comfort?

J. Allen Brack:

It is interesting to see players make new choices with talents. The way it happened really took us by surprise. The class team had been working on the side with paper docs on certain new abilities and we were reviewing the talents and you would be surprised at how many new players did not know there were three talent trees per class. So we added new abilities and made these large trees and everyone logged in and were like "Whoa!" and not in a good way. So at that moment we said, we have got to do something this is just getting crazy. That is really how we got to where we are with re-shaping the trees. Tom mentioned that some players feel like we gave them less choices, but Tom is right when he says, we just took away the bad choices. It really bottoms out to one or two different specs per tree and anything else is wrong. So we really just tried to eliminate a lot of the bad.

I play a shaman and I definitely feel more comfortable making the switch in spec if I have too. Even in terms of gear it seems easier to switch.

J. Allen Brack:

Yes so a lot of the gear was about stat consolidation. It made it so you don't have to have the complete two sets of gear that you used to need before. A lot of that stuff you can carry over between specs if you are a healer or DPS.

Have you seen an overall curve now with players entering raids and progressing?

J. Allen Brack:

People are significantly less into raids than they were at this point in Lich King. Just because people were able to blow through the Lich King raids fairly quickly, like Naxxramus. We have seen a lot of the progression on raids be significantly slower which is as designed. I think it is a good thing for the game.

Talk about the decision to balance out 25 man and 10 man gear on the same level and just change the number of drops.

J. Allen Brack:

So that was one of the more controversial changes that we made, certainly outside of the team and within the team as well. Looking at the problems we were trying to solve we were looking at a situation in Lich King where you would go out and you would get your ten guys and work on a heroic raid and finally get the boss down. You do that all week and then on a Sunday raid you have others join up who barely play and do a 25 man raid and have the same thing drop that you worked hard on all week. Even though there were more players it did not feel like an equivalent effort. That was the source of that decision. How do we solve the problem of the effort put forth in a raid. I am sure that as time goes on and we add patches there will be some other new raiding philosophy for players and guilds. Right now we are happy with the decision to balance rewards in the raids.

What about the Instances, are they still a core part of the end game?

J. Allen Brack:

Yes, I think they really have been since Patch 3.3 when we launched the Looking for Group system. That was such a revolution in how people played World of Warcraft. For Cataclysm to launch with that system already in it, it really is great for players. It really is one of the things I am most proud of in the game.

What is your philosophy looking forward for the game?

J. Allen Brack:

Honestly I don't think we know what it is quite yet. I think it is still a little bit early in Cataclysm in terms of players and content cycle. I am really happy with the decision to go back and remake the world. Going back and reworking 1-60 was a very risky, very painful decision but it feels like it has paid off. The difficulty in the itemization and the raids, it feels like that was the right decision, also handling the gear between ten and twenty-five man raids, that also feels right. There are still mistakes and things we can do better, and I am sure the next expansion whenever we figure that out will incorporate all those lessons and changes. I don't mind saying that I really am proud of Cataclysm. It is a fantastic product and I really am super proud, I am not happy with how long it took us to make it. It took us a really long time to make and it left a large content gap between 3.3 in Lich King and the expansion. I am not happy with the gap either.

Let's discuss Archeology.

J. Allen Brack:

I do think Archeology has been a little bit slow as a profession, only because you can be successful without it. I think we had integrated fishing and cooking differently in the game. Archeology is something we will continue to work on and integrate better into the game.

Last of all, what is your personal favorite zone?

J. Allen Brack:

Keeping it to Cataclysm, with just the five zones from 80-85, in terms of looks I would say Deepholm is my favorite looking zone. In terms of quests, I would say Twilight Highlands is my favorite questing zone. I really love the story and the quests for that zone.