AusGamers WoW: Mists of Pandaria Developer Interview with Ion Hazzikostas
Post by Khel @ 11:39am 24/09/12 | Comments
Ahead of its official release, AusGamers was given a chance to chat with Blizzard's Ion Hazzikostas, lead encounter designer for their massive MMO. Read on for what he had to say...
AusGamers: Looking back at Cataclysm, what lessons did you learn about what worked and what didn’t work that you applied when building the content for Mists of Pandaria.
Ion Hazzikostas: Well, we’re constantly looking at feedback from our players and learning lessons. Sadly we’re not perfect in what we do but we try to improve and fix past mistakes. Just a couple of examples: in the older world, one thing that we noticed is that there’s a lot of potential in the use of phasing and the quest team used that to great effect to help players feel like they were part of the story and were progressing and advancing that story, but at the same time though, it can also serve to divide players. If I’m in a place and I have turned a fiery wasteland into a lush forest through my actions, that feels cool!
And it’s kinda cool when I can tell my friends, hey look, I changed this place. It’s less cool when I want to adventure with my friends and we’re both standing in the same spot on the map though, but wait, I can’t see you and you can’t see me, what’s wrong? So we’ve sort of learnt we need to use it as a tool more tactically and something the quest team has done really has been to make sure they save that tool for the most impactful moments; the most epic moments, and make sure we’re very cognizant of the ways in which it can divide up or make it harder for players to play with each other.
On a dungeon related note: one thing that we’ve clearly heard from our players at the start of Cataclysm is that many of them found our heroic dungeons to be too difficult and they had a frustrating experience as a result, and some of that was a product of the fact that we began making our Cataclysm dungeons -- and they were primarily designed -- before the Looking For Dungeon tool was live on servers, since the process for creating a new expansion begins well, well before players see it and Looking For Dungeon was only introduced in late 2010 in patch 3.3.5. So we were designing dungeons for the traditional audience that had always consumed dungeon content, that is to say groups of friends and guild mates. But it turned out by the time Cataclysm came out there had been a massive shift in that regard as a result of the Looking For Dungeon feature and most dungeons were being run by randomly match-made groups of people who were queuing individually and were playing with others who they had likely never played with before and likely would never play with again and that completely changes the dynamic of how you respond to difficulty and how you respond to adversity. I think when you’re playing with friends you expect that… “well… we struggled, we learnt, we overcame this challenge, but now we know what to do so when we come back next time we’ll have a much easier time and we’ll feel like we’ve mastered the content”, and that feels good. If you overcome and you learn, but the next time you go there’s four new people who all need to learn the same lessons you’ve already learnt, you just get frustrated and you feel like you’re failing through no fault of your own and that’s a very different reaction.
And so that's what we’re thinking now. Obviously we quickly changed the tuning of the dungeons in Cataclysm, but these are lessons we’ve learnt and taken to heart moving forwards when designing the dungeons for Mists of Pandaria. Players who were frustrated by the Cataclysm dungeons should find a much better experience at level 90 when they start running dungeons.
However, we’ve also introduced our challenge mode difficulty, for those groups of friends and guild mates. The same people actually who told us that they really loved the hard Cataclysm dungeons because they liked having to co-ordinate and strategize and really work together to overcome a difficult challenge. And really the challenge mode difficulty is going to be for them. Challenge mode is an even harder version of our normal heroic dungeons, with mobs that have additional health and deal additional damage but there's also additional enemies present in many cases and they have additional mechanics and abilities to really ratchet up the difficulty another notch. And then you combine that with a time-trial mode where players receive bronze, silver or gold medals depending on how quickly they’re able to complete the run. By getting multiple medals in all the dungeons in the tier they can earn unique prestige rewards, like a title, unique mount, or unique armour that is specific to their class that they can transmogrify their other gear to look like, so that when they’re standing around in town everyone will know that they’re incredibly skilful and that they accomplished a very difficult task.
AusGamers: So I actually had a question about the challenge modes, I was just wondering, you said they were a harder challenge, harder than heroics. How much harder are we talking though? Are they harder than Cataclysm heroics were at launch? Is a bronze medal something that everyone should be able to get or is even that first step up the ladder a bit of a challenge?
Ion: Even completing the dungeon is a bit of a challenge. Its designed for groups of friends and guild mates, you can’t queue for it at all you have to assemble your group and go into the instance. So there is an expectation that it is at least as hard as any of the Cataclysm heroics, but then you can also compare it to some of the Burning Crusade heroics back in the day.
Finishing it should be an accomplishment and the bronze time is really quite lenient. To give an idea of what the times might end up being: if the gold medal time for a dungeon is 15 minutes, the silver time might be 25, and the bronze would be 45.
AusGamers: So bronze is just about being able to complete it sort of thing.
Ion: Yeah, we expect that you may likely wipe several times but as long as you finish the dungeon and it wasn’t a complete train-wreck you’ll have at least the bronze medal to show for it, but its not meant to be trivial by any means.
AusGamers: With the previous expansions you’ve had a lot of pre-existing lore to hook into and a lot of big lore characters such as Arthas and Deathwing, but with Mist of Pandaria you’re creating a lot of new lore and a lot of new characters. So how do you make it relatable to the players and make them feel like they’re still adventuring in the World of Warcraft and not something that’s been tacked on the side? How does it blend in with the existing stuff?
Ion: I think that’s one of the great challenges, but also one of the great opportunities of this expansion, since we had something of a blank slate when it came to the continent of Pandaria itself. Really I mean, I think what we’ve done there is try to weave together themes of exploration and discovery with the more familiar Warcraft material of Horde and Alliance and the conflict there. So what brings you to the shores of Pandaria, it is this conflict, this big open war between the Horde and the Alliance. But as you arrive you’re introduced to and meet the new races; you meet the Pandaren, and you meet the Jinyu and the Hozen and you learn about the threat posed by other enemies like the Mogu and the Mantid. But while all this is going on, you still have the familiar reference frame of the Horde and the Alliance forces that you came with, and they’re setting up camps throughout the continent as well and the stories that are unfolding are very interwoven with that basic background.
At the same time, its definitely a journey of exploration and discovery and going to these places that look quite different to those that players have seen before. It was a conscious decision for us when we were planning out this expansion and deciding on what it was going to be, to go in a slightly different direction from the last couple of expansions. From Burning Crusade onwards there has always been like a grand existential threat to the world; it was, ok, the Burning Crusade is going to destroy the world, now Arthas is going to destroy the world, now Deathwing is going to destroy the world, and in every case you have to stop them and Alliance and Horde usually end up working together to prevent those threats. But in the original World of Warcraft, in vanilla WoW back in 2004/2005, there was no single villain on the box, it was just about exploration and discovery. A number of the places that were in the original game were of course direct references to things that had been seen in the RTS games, but others were largely invented. There’s no Silithus for example in Warcraft 3 but players had a lot of fun going through Silithus and learning about the Qiraji and fighting those threats.
AusGamers: There was a lot of talk when Mists of Pandaria was announced, about how you want to get players back out into the world again, how have you achieved this? What mechanics have you put in place to get people back out playing in the world again, instead of just sitting in a capital waiting for their dungeon or battleground queues to pop.
Ion: I think, some of this is just having important content that’s out in the world. There’s a lot of daily quests to do, we have nearly 300 daily quests to do at max level which are an integral part of the character progression and also really help unlock the lore of the different factions of Pandaria. But honestly I think the single biggest thing, and something that in retrospect is probably another mistake we made in Cataclysm, was in Cataclysm the zones that we added were so scattered that instead of having a single unified continent we had Vashj’ir off the south-west coast of Eastern Kingdoms and then we had Uldum in the south-west of Kalimdor and then we had Twilight Highlands in the North-East of Eastern Kingdoms and so forth. The content was so non-contiguous that it led to us giving players lots of teleports and means of moving quickly between them, because it would have been tremendously inconvenient otherwise. So that fundamental issue led to us having to make a lot of the decisions that led to players zipping around from point A to point B just using teleports. Whereas in a much more organic setting, like Northrend where you just had Dalaran like a central hub and everything else was like a spoke radiating off that hub, it just flowed much more naturally and we think that’s pretty much how Pandaria is going to work. We have the major cities in Vale of Eternal Blossoms that are going to the home base for max level players and from there its just a minute or two flight to the outskirts of the continent so we’re really looking forward to seeing players moving around and getting around in the new world a lot more.
AusGamers: You mentioned the daily quests, how there’s hundreds to do at level 90 and I believe you can also earn valor now by doing the daily quests. So my first question is, how do you manage that huge amount of content, like how do the players work through it? Is it something like you did with the Molten Front where there’s zones that are daily quest zones? And secondly, are they intended to be an alternate route of progression for people who didn’t want to run dungeons, is it an alternate way for them to get their valor for the week or is it just meant to be a bonus on top of that?
Ion: Realistically, people are probably not going to get their valor exclusively from doing daily quests, though some might, it’s certainly possible to cap valor by doing daily quests. What we’ve tried to do with valor is really to let players choose the way they want to play the game. Scenarios will give you valor, as well as dungeons, as well as challenge modes, as well as Looking For Raid so whether you prefer to play solo, a small group, or a large group, whatever you want to do on a given day you can do and feel like you’re progressing your character with the valor points that you need.
As for daily quest structure, a lot of it is similar to the Molten Front and we’re applying a lot of what we learnt there, that was a very successful chunk of content. What the quest team has done is to really build in a lot of randomisation and variation to the different quest hubs, so its not every single day when you go out you have to do the same set of daily quests. You go out and you’re both advancing a storyline, with respect to the specific faction that you’re improving your standing with, but there’s very varied tasks. It’s something we’re really excited about and something we think players are really going to enjoy.
AusGamers: With Mists of Pandaria, its launching with 16 raid bosses split across 3 instances, as well as 2 world bosses.
Ion: Yes, that’s right.
AusGamers: Is that setting a precedent for the amount of content we could see in future raid tiers for Mists of Pandaria? Could we even possibly see another Ulduar or Icecrown Citadel sized raid in the future?
Ion: I think we certainly could. I’m not going to set the expectation or the bar that we’re going to deliver 18 raid bosses per tier, there are some arguments from some players that, well, that’s too much content and how are we ever going to raid at all. But yeah we love large tiers, and we definitely look back fondly on instances like Ulduar and Icecrown. In general I think we know that having at least 10 bosses in a tier is a good number, in terms of variety for the players, in terms of being to have different types of mechanics, in terms of having varied and interesting loot spread across all those bosses; it makes everybody’s life easier when we have more. So that’s something that we’re really aiming for, whether that takes the form of a couple of smaller instances like this time around where you have six bosses in Mogu’shan Vaults and six bosses in Heart of Fear, or whether it’s a single instance on the scope or scale of Ulduar or Icecrown Citadel, that remains to be seen; it will all vary depending on the specific stories we are trying to tell in that patch.
AusGamers: Cataclysm had some pretty interesting and inventive boss mechanics and encounters. What are some of your favourite new mechanics or encounters that are in Mists of Pandaria? And do you have any plans to do anymore of the light, novelty sort of fights like the Chess from Karazhan or the Gunship Battle from Icecrown Citadel?
Ion: Yeah, ok, so favourite encounters, favourite mechanics, there's almost too many to pick so I’ll just name a couple that stand out in my mind. One new thing that we got, due to the magic of our engine and programming team this expansion, is the ability to have mechanics that exert force upon players. So we can actually have a wind that's really powerful and blows you in different directions. So if you’re not paying attention or your hands aren’t on your keyboard, you’re going to slide and drift in the opposite direction. If you run against the wind you’ll run slowly, but if you turn around and run with it, like you’re running on a conveyer belt, you’ll move faster. We use that in a couple of fights that have heavy wind-based mechanics just to give it an all new dynamic feel. It feels very visceral and cool when you’re kind of actually pushing against this wind that’s trying to blow you back, that’s just a cool thing that we’re able to do that we haven’t been able to do in the past.
Another fun mechanic, the Will of the Emperor encounter in Mogu’shan Vaults has some really interesting gameplay for tanks in particular as well as anyone else who cares to brave it. The bosses there have an almost console game-like attack pattern, where they have a series of telegraphed attacks. They’re large terracotta warriors with huge weapons, and they’ll perform an attack sequence where it might be a massive sweep in a left arc, then a forward smash, then a quick whirlwind, and then a right arc and these are all visually telegraphed based on its animations and its actions and players that stick close and dodge all of the attacks successfully get a massive bonus where they can exploit a weak point in the boss and do a lot of damage.
We’re constantly trying to come up with mechanics and different takes on mechanics that players haven’t seen before. We recognise many of our players have been raiding in our game for eight years now. And I think there was another question but I’ve forgotten what it is now...
AusGamers: Ah, just if you were going to do anymore lighter, novelty type encounters like Karazhan Chess in the future.
Ion: Ah right, I think certainly not every fight has to be the traditional “reduce the bosses health to 1 then collect loot and win”. I think as cool and as fun as they were though, I think it’s important for replayability that there be a bit more meat and challenge to the fights. Its fun when you do it the first couple of times, but when you’re doing it for the 8th, 9th, 10th time you want to make sure that you have to stay focused and that you’re at least challenged a little bit. We view the things like Chess and the Icecrown Gunship battle as successes in a certain regard, but probably not as well tuned as they could have been. But certainly that sort of thing is something we’d like to do in the future.
AusGamers: In Mists, each player can embark upon their own legendary quest line where you start with the legendary gem, and then I believe the plan is over future tiers you will continue the quest line and build up the legendary. Is that replacing the more traditional way of getting legendary weapons? Are there plans for any legendary weapons in future tiers that are acquired in a more traditional way? Any hints on who should be getting excited? Maybe a tanking legendary?
Ion: [laughs] Ummm, we don’t have anything specific to announce regarding future legendaries right now, it’s a definitely different approach but at the same time we’ve historically tended to vary the way we’ve handled legendaries quite a bit over the years. This is certainly intended to be the first step of what will be a massive arc over the course of the entire expansion, and the legendary gem that players are getting now is really just that first step. But yeah, in the future, we’re definitely not foreclosing the possibility of returning to or offering a more traditional legendary in parallel with or instead of, depending on how some of this is worked.
AusGamers: Just a question about 25 man raiding. 25 man guilds seem to be becoming more of a dying breed, with a lot of 25 man guilds now breaking down into 10 man guilds. Is that a direction the game is going in and 25 man raiding will just kind of be left to run its course, or is there plans to bring in some kind of incentives to make 25 man raiding more rewarding and more worth the effort it takes to organise and coordinate a 25 man raid guild?
Ion: Yeah, we’re not satisfied with the current state and the current trajectory of 25 man raiding. When we made this split into parallel 10 player/25 player models in Cataclysm with the same loot rewarded, it was our hope that players would just feel free to choose whichever side they enjoyed the most. Whereas before, many players felt forced into 25 player raiding in Lich King because it awarded so much better loot and there was no way to get the best loot in the game unless you were in a 25 man raid guild. However, I don’t know that we’ve really adequately accounted for a lot of the logistical hurdles that 25 player groups face and to really make it an even, equal and free choice there has to be somewhat greater incentive than what we have been giving to 25 player raids, and we know that. One small step that we’re taking in 5.0 is that 25 player raids, on both heroic and normal, will drop six pieces of loot per boss instead of five like they used to. So there’s a slightly better ratio of loot per person, getting six for 25 versus two for 10, when you go for the larger sized raid, so that’s one thing. Other things that we’ve seen players request in the community has been separate achievement recognition for those who are doing it on 25 versus 10, and that’s something that we’re open to and exploring for the future; it’s a topic that’s very actively discussed and debated. Many of us are 25 player raiders ourselves, and really enjoy that format, so there's definitely no intent to drive players out of one or the other and we’d like to see players ultimately do the format that they enjoy most. We know there’s a lot of players out there that enjoy 25 player raiding, we just need to make it a bit easier for the guild leaders and officers that handle the logistics and responsibility, to keep groups of that size together.
AusGamers: Finally, and I’m not sure you’ll be able to shed much light on this one, but I have to ask it because it’s the single most asked question by our readers: Is there any news on local servers for Australia?
Ion: Sorry, I’m just focused on the design side of things, so that’d really be more of a question for a producer on the production side of the game.
AusGamers: Yeah, fair enough. Well that’s it from me, thanks a lot.
Ion: Good talking to you!