World of Warcraft is arguably the most successful MMO so far in the genre’s history. It generates volumes of conversation and pages of internet discussions from MMORPG.com to WoWhead to the WoW forums to WoW’s Reddit. It’s a game that has, in one way or another, captivated the world for nearly 15 years.
We had the opportunity to chat with World of Warcraft’s Executive Producer John Hight who has been with the team since 2016. We wanted to learn more about his background and his work on WoW. Read our exclusive interview.
MMORPG: You have an extensive background in gaming having worked on some huge titles including God of War, Neverwinter Nights, Command & Conquer, etc. How did working on such a wide array of genres and titles benefit you in your current position?
John Hight: During that whole time, working on all those games, I’ve always been a Blizzard fan. When I had just finished up work at 3DO, Warcraft came out, and I discovered it. I was the first person on my block that found it. And that led me to go to Westwood Studios. Warcraft and Command & Conquer are very similar games. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to go to Blizzard, but I always loved Blizzard games. Over the years, I had the opportunity to knock on Blizzard’s door a couple of times, but things, unfortunately, didn’t line up.
Over the years, there were times when I was told I didn’t understand the business side of game development and that led me to go to business school. Right before I went, I contacted friends at Blizzard that led to a lunch with Mike Morhaime. I’m sitting waiting for Mike for lunch and waiting and waiting. I figured I’d gotten stood up. I walked out the front door and there was Mike Morhaime sitting on a bench. He said he’d been waiting there for 20 minutes. We had lunch and he was a sweet guy, but I always felt that time it never went any further. So I went to business school and then learned the publishing side of things.
Later when Atari’s LA office was shutting down, I contacted Blizzard again and they had an idea they’d hire an executive producer to work with Blizzard North on Diablo and because I had been a designer on Nox, a very Diablo kind of game, they thought that might be a good fit. I interviewed for the job, but it was going to be a job that traveled a lot. At that time I was a single dad and couldn’t see myself flying to the Bay Area and taking care of my son so I passed on it.
So I took a job with Sony. I was literally in my second week at Sony and I got a call from Blizzard that said that they were going to bring Diablo down to Irvine and we’d like for you to come to talk to us about working there. I was like, “I can’t since I just took this job! Is this never going to happen?”
After God of War 3 shipped, my wife said, “You’ve always loved Blizzard and you’ve just shipped the game and a window is opened up so why don’t you go talk to them because this fits you.” I called Rob Pardo and said I was looking for a new job so he set up some interviews. We had a lot of conversations over a lot of months.
I’ve played WoW for 15 years. I played in the beta., I still raid twice a week. I just have always, always, always loved this game as a player. The thought of getting to work on WoW is just incredible to me even now. At the level of the job you’re doing sometimes, you rarely get the opportunity to get giddy about the game you’re working on. The thought for me to get to work on the game that I go home and play all the time -- it’s my go-to game, the one my sons and I play together -- it was just amazing. That first day walking into Blizzard was incredible.
I remember J Brack walking down the stairs like a little school kid with a bag of goodies to give me as a new employee and he just had this big goofy grin on his face and wanted to show me where my desk was. And we opened the doors and here’s World of Warcraft Development team and it was so cool. The hairs literally stood up on my arms.
MMORPG: What does an executive producer do?
JH: I get to be the caretaker of the World of Warcraft franchise. So literally all things that we do, all decisions that we make, whether it’s new things we want to go about or old things we want to resurrect, I get to weigh in on all of that. But more importantly, I get to work with the entire team. As a Production Director, you’re pretty centered on the development team alone, which is still significant. As Executive Producer, you’re responsible for the brand, the franchise, new projects that we take on, the scope of what we do for WoW. I get to make decisions about who gets to make things, who gets to pursue things. I get to weigh in on how we present the game, how we market the game.
My job is to represent the player experience to see that we at Blizzard are making decisions that are in the best interests of our players and that we’re always taking the long-term view on that. It’s easy as individuals to want to do something, to add something or subtract something from the game to meet the needs of what we feel capable of doing now or if it’s something within our charter. But somebody has to step outside that and listen to all the different and competing ideas and weave the thread of what’s the right thing for our players. It’s something I learned from J (Brack) and something he, in turn, learned from Mike Morhaime, that if you take that long view, that you’ll always prevail.
Having to compete with Blizzard? Some companies that didn’t always take that long-term view or that care for their players -- it’s the timing of the game. We’ve been here for 15 years. I’ve worked on games that attempt to compete with what Blizzard does and, while we all remember them, we’re not all playing them today. And the big reason is just that: There were people given these responsibilities who knew they had to be responsible to the players first and everything else second.
MMORPG: What are the biggest challenges being an executive producer on a game as huge as WoW? What are the biggest rewards?
JH: One case in point: When I came onto the WoW team for the second time (after working on Diablo console and Reaper of Souls), we were just about to ship Warlords of Draenor and as we got into it, we released 6.2, we didn’t really have much planned in terms of content updates for about a year. I kind of freaked out. I mean, as a player, I’m like, “What? Raid Hellfire (Citadel) and...that’s it?” I mean, I understand why. We had a lot cooking for Legion but it just struck me as, “This is bad.”
I think we were all reconciling as a team on how we felt about that. One of the things we took solace in was in what we were doing for Legion and that it’s going to be so awesome and it’s going to be OK. It’s not ideal, but it’s going to be OK because we’re pretty sure players are going to be super happy about it.
At the end of the day, it’s about the quality of the game. The epiphany that I had is that content is also an aspect of quality. Players having continuous engagement is super important for an MMO and so what we did is set about a schedule of content updates for Legion and we’d never really done that before. It was something the team had to buy off on. We had to believe this was the right thing to do and that we were not going to fatigue our players. So, we set about a schedule of doing these things and at no point was that schedule something that was set in stone. Naturally, the team made decisions in such a way that we could put significant updates out. Some were small. Some were big.
The really cool moment for me was when our players came back and were responding. They were going to the internet and were saying, “Hey check this out. They followed up 7.0 with 7.1”. I thought it was really funny when someone had written that they knew exactly when the next update was going to happen in Legion. “It’s 77 days because that’s how they’re releasing things now.”
But guess what? That was completely arbitrary. It just felt like 11 weeks was a good cycle for us to do some content, do some thorough testing and put it out. Completely arbitrary. Our fans had figured out what our cadence was back then. But the fact that our fans were so happy about it, that it resonated with them, that made me personally feel really good. It made me feel like, yeah, that was important and I’m glad we did that.
MMORPG: Being a nearly 15-year-old game, it seems as if it would be difficult to attract new players. What are your plans to grow the community with a new influx of players and to entice returning players? What plans are there for retaining players longitudinally?
JH: WoW has evolved over 15 years. We’re continuously upgrading graphics in the game, improving the look of the game, updating gameplay mechanics themselves to be more sophisticated and so that’s an important aspect. We have to keep adapting because our players are adapting.
When we first came out with WoW, there was no social media. The idea that you come together and you meet people online and you do a thing together was new and cool and it still is. But as WoW has developed, some really awesome games have also been developed -- some awesome RPGs, some cool games that are on the fringes of what WoW does, and so it’s challenged us to always make our game better. We invest pretty heavily in WoW. It’s not a game that we are putting in any kind of sunset mode -- if anything, it’s been the opposite. We’ve continued to build more and more.
All that being said, we need to have new players coming in, young players coming in. One of our greatest opportunities is with families. I just go from my own experience. My youngest son and I started playing when he was 13. The Lich King had just come out and it was this incredible bonding experience for us. For anyone who has raised a kid up until 13, that’s the transition point where they want some independence, they want to do their own thing and they can start to move away from their parents. That’s healthy and natural but in an era where kids are using technology and forms of entertainment that are foreign to their parents, it creates a division between them. I’m so thankful we had WoW to play together. We still play today. It’s something we have together.
I think that’s a great place to start. For parents who love the game and see how fun it is -- WoW is, at its core, about meeting people online, playing and doing things together, it’s not heavily competitive. There’s a lot of content about cooperative play and each of us taking on a role. So we can start there.
We are doing things today to make the game more fun for new players. That’s stuff that we’ll be talking more about later on in the year. It’s a lot of discussions now, there’s some development going on, but I think until such time as we’ve got things that we’re really happy with, we’re not going to make any announcements.
MMORPG: How do you make sure players understand your intent with WoW and some of the reasoning behind your decisions and how do you assure players that they are being heard?
JH: At the end of the day, and I tell the team this, first and foremost, our jobs are as entertainers. We aren’t making this for our own sake. We aren’t making this to pull down a paycheck. We are here to entertain our players. We’re here to fulfill the fantasy that we put out there when World of Warcraft first appeared on the horizon. The game is big. It’s complex. There is something for everybody in the game. You have to do your best to make sure that all those many voices are heard.
At any one time, there may be an area of the game that appears that we’re putting more love into than others. It’s just that sometimes we really do have to focus our energies and we need to make sure that, in big systems that have an effect across the game that we’re focused in on that more than in some other areas.
But in terms of expectations, I think we realize that we could have done a better job with some of the things that we did in BfA and so we’ve been stepping up that effort. If you go into the PtR and 8.2, you’ll notice on the softer side that we allow you to immediately report a bug or an issue or make a comment in the game itself. Those aren’t just going off into the ether. They’re all being collected into a database. We’re using some software to help us sort so we can find if a lot of people are reporting the same thing, we can cut through the noise and get to the essence of what that is.
That’s super helpful for us in the PTR so that things we’re trying out now, we want to make sure people are happy. Like with the essences -- it’s the thing we’re adding to Heart of Azeroth.
We heard. We heard about the “greatness that was the Artifact (from Legion)” and that Heart of Azeroth just didn’t feel quite as great. So we picked through all of that and figure out “ok what was it” because we were optimizing some things and we were removing some of the work and effort that players had negative feelings about in Artifact weapons...but probably too much so. We took away some of the fun that comes in those decisions and choices and active abilities that Artifacts brought to people. So how do we recapture that? That’s when we came up with the essences system.
So we’re really genuinely looking at people’s feedback on that right now -- how do they feel about it. We not only look at our own forum, but we look at all the supporting content that’s out there -- all the websites that support World of Warcraft and report on us, what the take is on the decisions we’re making. Obviously, some things we can make adjustments on quickly and some things take time, usually if we want to try and get it right.
We have a big responsibility. That’s one of the awesome things about the game. I literally get a report every day where I can see how many people are playing the game, what areas and where they are in the game, what kind of activities are they taking on and so forth. It gives us a pretty good sense of when we roll out something new, where are people putting their time in. But all the data in the world isn’t as good as being part of that experience so that’s why I log in every day. I play and some people know I am at Blizzard, but the majority have no idea. There are people I’ve done dungeons with, quested with and they have no idea who I am. Even if I see someone in Trade Chat complaining about some aspect of the game, I’ll often whisper them, “Hey you know, tell me more about that because I’m thinking about checking that out too. Why don’t you like that?” I’ve gotten some of the best feedback that way.
MMORPG: Thanks so much for your time!