We sat down with Production Director for World of Warcraft, J. Allen Brack, during our busy BlizzCon, and asked about everything except the new Pokemon-like pet-battle system coming for World of Warcraft.
On the schedule it has you down as JAB, why is that?
(laughs) That’s weird. It’s how I sign all my emails, but that’s not really what anyone calls me.
What’s your role at Blizzard?
My title is Production Director for WoW, but basically it just means I’m kindof the chief project manager.
What does that entail?
Um, so I have a partner, Tom Chilton, who’s sort of the Game Director and between the two of us we run every aspect of World of Warcraft. So that’s developing the game, deciding what the next expansion’s going to be, deciding on the, uh, what the schedule’s going to be, deciding how we’re going to handle all the individual design problems, how we’re going to, y’know, whether we’re going to put Raid Finder into 4.3 or 5.0, um, how license products for WoW work, how we’re gonna handle some marketing stuff, how the WoW / Diablo III promotion is gonna work.
Were you excited to be showing Mists of Pandaria at BlizzCon this year?
Very excited! Um, y’know, BlizzCon is a super-awesome.. it’s the time that we interact with the fans the most. Game development is kind of a strange business in that you very rarely touch your fans. You touch them in remote ways, you touch them on email, on customer service, on forums – but y’know, seeing their excitement about what you’re doing is kind of a rare, special treat for us. And so, sitting in the crowd where no-one knows who I am, um, and kind of hearing their reaction as they watch the stuff on screen is awesome.
What did you think of the reaction of the announcement to the expansion?
I think it’s been super positive. Everyone’s been really, really excited and I haven’t had anyone, say anything other than super-happy about it.
Do you have any kind of timeframe for the expansion’s release?
None whatsoever! (laughs)
So when it’s done?
Why Mists of Pandaria specifically?
Y’know, thinking about the success of Cataclysm, and then how we set up Northrend, and Outland, we really felt like, having everyone kinda concentrated in this zone flow overall was a little bit more successful than the kind of Cataclysm where we had you bouncing around all these different places. Um, I think Cataclysm was still very cool, to kinda have these centralized portals and have you unlocking all these portals for these zones, but it felt better as a player to kind of start at Hellfire Peninsula and work your way across and then head up into Terrokar Forest, or whatever you ended up deciding to do.
It was mentioned that Mists of Pandaria would have certain engine enhancements. Can you elaborate on that?
Um, a lot of stuff we’re still working on. One of the main things we want to do, is integrating some cloth simulations and some hair simulations. I’m really excited to see some physics in WoW.
What’s your favorite feature that’s being added with Mists of Panderia?
PvE Scenarios. So the idea behind that, is group quests that you can do that are not highly tuned where you gotta have one tank, two healers, 3 DPS, or whatever. They’re just very much “three of us go, we wanna have fun in a scenario”. There’s the “rescue the Goldshire from the invading Troggs” scenario, y’know, PvE battleground kind of stuff could be another scenario.. whatever the design team can come up with that the think is a neat, little bite-sized story piece that players can enjoy.
Will Mists of Panderia be Incorporated into the current World of Warcraft “free to play” trial system?
With every expansion we’ll have stuff that’s kind of just free, rolled back into the base game, and then we have stuff that’s specifically for that expansion. The pandas and the one-through-ten experience, is gonna be part of the expasion. Similair to how the Worgen are part of the Cataclysm expansion. But there will be features, like the new Talent System, everyone is gonna get that automatically.
Do you find it difficult to have to work on a project that is so iterative, kind of never-ending?
Totally. It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, the game never sleeps, it always needs more, it always has things we need to do to take the next step forward. Um, this is very different from a boxed product, where you make the game and then you go on vacation for two months, and then you come back and you’re working on the next thing. That’s the disadvantage. But for me, I’ve been working on all my games for more than 10 years, it’s my favorite kind of game to work on. And the reason for that is, is I can have a problem today, and have it solved tomorrow. I can see something that we want to do in the game now, and by the end of the week it’s done. Um, and that level of “hey, this hasn’t worked out how we wanted to, well, let’s fix it” is not something that you get from most games. Most games you put it in a box, you’re done, and on to the next game. Y’know, we’re still talking about stuff like hey, we want to improve fishing, what’s that look like. It’s not an advantage a lot of other games have. I love it.
For people who have never played World of Warcraft and are considering Mists of Pandaria as a starting point, what you would suggest to them?
Y’know, I think, we’re gonna have our best level one through ten experience that we’ve ever done in World of Warcraft, it’s gonna be the most focused, the most fun experience that we’ve ever made. We’re really excited to see how the Monk has come together, something that’s a little bit more of an action-based class compared to what we’ve done before. We have several action-oriented classes, but this is even moreso. It has a martial arts theme, which is geared to a lot of people’s hearts, what they enjoy… um. So, y’know, rolling up a Pandaren Monk the day the expansion comes out is something I’m looking forward to doing myself.
For people who are going to be returning to World of Warcraft, or are thinking of coming out of retirement for Mists of Pandaria, what do you suggest?
I’m really excited about the PvE scenarios, the one kind of “land” in terms of the levelling experience players are going to have, I’m really excited about the challenge mode dungeons, the idea behind this is we normalize your gear, everyone comes into those dungeons exactly the same, and it’s very much a time-trial race that you and your team have to do in order to kind of get the various reward levels. Um, and that’s really exciting because some of the most fun I’ve had with the game, like the first time I got my zul’aman bear, was just like, wow, it felt so incredible.
Will there be any changes to the guild system?
Yeah, we haven’t figured out everything we’re going to do with that, we haven’t decided how much that’s going to change, but it is something we’ve started talking about.
So like, more guild levels, more perks…
We may have more levels, we may change some perks, we may have the same number of levels and just rework the perks a little, but we haven’t really figured it all out yet.
Do you feel that the new guild system has worked out thus far?
Um, one of the things we wanted to do was reward players for, y’know, playing the game and get more powerful as a guild. In that sense it’s been successful. Players in a level 25 guild have a lot of neat little things on the side that kind of make it exciting to stay with that guild.
Exactly. Heirlooms, disenchant items, resource gathering boosts.. if you have a relatively active guild you never have to pay for repairs, there’s gold in your bank… they’re not game-changing, but they’re nice.
Where do you see World of Warcraft in five years from now?
Uuuh.. well. (laughs)
Where would you like to see it in five years?
I don’t really know, because we don’t really think about… when we think about what we’re developing, we’re focusing on 4.3, our next patch, and Mists of Pandaria, our next expansion… don’t really know what comes after that. We have a couple of ideas for the Mists of Pandaria patches, and that’s as far as we made it. So we don’t really think about, what is the next two, three expansions that we’re going to do. We just started figuring out what Mists of Pandaria was a little over a year ago. So it’s relatively recent in terms of how long we’ve been thinking about it.
Anything you’d like to add?
Y’know, World of Warcraft is a huge online role-playing game, based in a fantasy universe, that is really about cooperation and cooperative play with your friends.
What would you say sets it apart from other MMOs or makes it special?
One of them is certainly, that we don’t treat WoW like an online game, we treat it like a game. The rule used to be for online games, well these aspects of the game are crappy because it’s an online game. Blizzard threw that away and said we need to make a great game that also happens to be online. Um, so the online part is important, it’s a key part, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to let things that you take for granted in other games kind of slide. That’s probably one of the biggest things that sets it apart. Obviously it’s a huge, popular game. We get better as game developers, making WoW the best thing that it can be, um, and a lot of us are avid players here, seven years ago.