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AusGamers Talks WoW: Cataclysm with Alex Afrasiabi - Lead World Designer
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 12:43pm 08/12/10 | Comments
AusGamers chats to World of WarCraft: Cataclysm Lead World Designer, Alex Afrasiabi. Read on for the full interview...

AusGamers: Thanks for joining us Alex, what we wanted to do with this interview is talk a little about the series’ lore, but for the first part of the interview, I really wanted to talk about what’s changed in the game-world for players that may have played WoW at some point but have now dropped off, or even for new players looking to get into WoW for the first time - will they miss out on all that initial lore and world because of the devastation?

So, can you run us through, in short form, the devastation as a whole and what that means for Azeroth?

Alex Afrasiabi: Absolutely. So Deathwing has broken out of Deepholm and devastated the world. So, for the most part, what it means from a story and lore perspective is that the world has changed - it has been demolished for the most part. What we did is we took this as an opportunity to advance the timeline of the world, so what you’re seeing now in current day Azeroth is Azeroth four or five years post-ship. So it’s like what Azeroth was when you first started playing World of WarCraft.

So it’s allowed us to advance a lot of story and character, character arcs as well as introduce a lot of new things to the world. So you go into Westfall, for example, something that people who play humans are very familiar with and what you see is Westfall five years in the future (or current, obviously), and it’s evolved. But at the same time, to point to your other query, we’ve made great attempts at preserving the overall storyline, which is the Defias Brotherhood.

Now this was no easy task because of course the Defias Brotherhood was defeated in vanilla WoW; VanCleef’s head was given to Gryan Stoutmantle and you were shouted to the zone that you were a great hero, so it actually took quite a bit of story work to actually get that to work, and I think what we ended up having is something better than the original, believe it or not.

So we did that for pretty much every zone in the game (laughs). So you get a brand new levelling experience; one to 50 that is better than Lich King, basically. Much better.

AG: Is it safe to say then that, apart from the physical destruction of Azeroth, everyone’s questing that happened... you kind of mention it before, but to clarify further, that there’re actual end-game results now - so if you’ve done these quests countless times in the past, now you’re finally going to see definitive game-world changes as a result of the outcome of said quest (which was never really shown in dynamic form)? And does that apply to all of the major quests?

Alex: It really does. There are certainly some zones that received less treatment, and I’ll bring up something like Arathi Highlands that didn’t get as much treatment, but even that zone you’re in a post-assault upon Strongguard - the Horde is actually trying to go back and reclaim the Troll Beam weapon - even a zone like that, that didn’t much in comparison to a red Ridge or a Silverpine with a revamp, the story was at least updated... so absolutely. Yes.

AG: In terms of the actual design of the world from a gameplay perspective, did you guys create entire new paths? Obviously people can fly anywhere now, but from a design perspective how much has the actual devastation affected criss-crossing the land and those types of progression? Will people immediately see new areas that have been revealed through this devastation, and will these be entirely new visual vistas?

Alex: Totally. Like, an example of this is if you go to Stone Talon Mountains - you get into Stone Talon in the reverse of where you would previously, so you enter in through Windshear Crag and your questing line will take in through East and South, but if you head towards the West of Stone Talon, the area that was once known as the Charred Vale has been completely, um... it’s essentially been blown up. And so it’s now open to the sea, so that whole area’s been opened up - you see this all over the place; you go to Desolace, an area that was was desolate, surprisingly, and the whole centre of the zone is lush with flora and fauna and all kinds of greenery.

So you absolutely get a whole... this is what Cataclysm allowed us to do as designers is open up all these new vistas and allow us to regrow where we wanted to or destroy where we wanted to; but to create something awe-inspiring and awesome for the player to see.

AG: Now a lot of talk has gone on about the new races, and we’ll get to those guys in a minute; their affect on the current races, but something that hasn’t really been touched on, at least that I’ve seen, is the actual ecology of the game. Are there new critters now? You know, small enemies to fight if you’re coming into the game for the first time? Are Boars still around, or are we seeing different versions of those or...

Alex: Boars are like cockroaches, I think you’re going to see them forever. There will always be Boars. But yeah, absolutely, depending on where you go, of course, some areas the creature population has changed dramatically, some not so much - if you go to Northshire, for example, that whole story line, the one-to-five human is now heavily revolves around Black Rock Orcs. So that was something previously not seen there, but now that’s all you see; Black Rock Orcs and Goblins and they’re bringing down the Orchard and so there’s all kinds of craziness there. So you will absolutely see new critters and creatures all over the place.

AG: In terms of the two new races - what do they bring to the fray? First of all, the Worgen, what’s different about them that might entice new players to jump in and give them a go, and then I guess the same for the Goblins?

Alex: So Worgen bring something to the Alliance that has not existed, which is more of a monstrous race - a monstrous silhouette. Of course they’re steeped in lore, at one time they were Gilneans, well actually they still are, and at one point in time, Gilneans had a tie with the Alliance. But what’s attractive, I think, and personally for me, with the Worgen is that they have a human aspect, which is of course their Gilnean form and then they can shapeshift... and you know, that’s just cool - they transform into a big, burly warrior and who doesn’t love a big Worgen?

And Goblins bring something incredibly unique to the Horde, which is a small race. Whenever we’re designing creatures or classes for player races, one of the things that’s really important to us is the silhouette - what does this creature, this player, look like against the backdrop of the Horde, or the backdrop of the Alliance? And something that was missing from the Horde is a Gnome, right - the shorter race. And so what better race to fill that gap than the Goblin?

Historically they’re an ally of the Horde, or were an ally of the Horde and they hate Gnomes, with a fiery burning passion, which is awesome for us, and they’re something familiar, which is again something very important for the Worgen and the Goblin in that they’re familiar to the players - it’s a lot easier to a player, at least a returning player, to digest something that’s known as opposed to something alien. At the same time, both of them are just really, really cool - so for new players coming in, they can just decide: do they want to pick cool little green guy, or awesome, burly wolf guy?

AG: Just on that, this is something of an apocalyptic event, and I was at BlizzCon and one of the things I really gleamed from that is that the world of World of WarCraft has come along way in terms of maturity in its humour, so while all of this devastation is going on and you’ve got this really catastrophic event, what sort of new elements of humour have you guys injected into this?

Alex: Dude, if I had a nickle for every piece of humour we injected into the game... there’s a lot of it, honestly. I’ll give you an example of Red Ridge. Alright, Red Ridge Mountains is well known to Alliance players; it’s a very grindy zone and one that most Alliance players really didn’t like. You go into the zone and get 15-20 quests at once and it was just basically a bunch of kill/collects. So what we did with the zone was we took one of the existing characters of the zone, Corporal Keeshan, and the theme of the zone became a Rambo-esque feel, so Keeshan became the John Rambo of the zone and you were helping him kind of find himself and get his squad back together. And while this is somewhat serious, of course, it’s also hilarious; if you do the quest you play with his Bravo Company, and you play alongside these guys and you interact with their banter, they have a lot of banter; a lot of Horde hatred - they’re also kind of out of it because they’ve been captured as well and you participate in releasing them, they join you and then what you’re doing is you’re actually fighting a lot of Black Rock Orcs, which is something familiar to players in Red Ridge but now with these Black Rock Orcs, under Deathwing they’re organising to assault Stormwind, so with the help of the Bravo Company, you take out all their installations, you fight them on the front lines and at the very end of it you get this great battle with a Black Dragon under Deathwing and you defeat him, and of course before you defeat him, he takes out the entire Bravo Company and John J. Keeshan saves the day along with you and so Red Ridge is saved. And of course the Alliance is saved because Deathwing’s forces won’t march on Stormwind.

So this is a zone that has a ton of funny moments, but it’s a very serious zone.

AG: That’s an awesome example. I actually remember that area quite well... So getting back to some of the smaller changes that are part of the overall haul, what kind of new crafting opportunities are there - mining, farming; what kind of changes have you made here?

Alex: There’s a whole five new levels worth of that, so... at the moment all the names escape me but there are various new mining minerals, we have all-new herbs, we have new skinning, new fishing, new everything... the trade skills received an upgrade as well right, so we have five levels worth of trade skill as well, actually more than that really - there’s a full tier. So you’ll see all that stuff in the new zones and the 80-85 zones for Cataclysm.

AG: So I have a bunch of WoW players I work with, and I’ve asked them to throw me some questions to ask you, so I’m gonna throw a couple of them at you, I don’t know if any of these are serious, or if these guys are just being dicks...

Alex: (Laughs)...

AG: One of them is definitely serious and it’s “Ironforge and Stormwind - are they/will they be destroyed in Cataclysm”?

Alex: Ironforge is not destroyed, it was further away from the main destruction and it’s certainly undergone some wear and tear, but definitely not destroyed,

Stormwind, the Park District is completely destroyed, and there’s definitely some damage in Stormwind, and one of the things we’ll discover as we introduce content patches is why - why wasn’t Stormwind destroyed? You know we have that big cinematic and at the end Deathwing essentially flies over Stormwind and knocks down the statues and destroys a bunch of buildings and [the question is] why doesn’t he just destroy the whole thing? And that’s actually something we’ll get into and reveal in content patches. There’s actually a reason.

AG: Yeah right... actually before we get to the other silly questions, in terms of the content patches, will you be rolling more of those out now post Cataclysm release? And will we see more story updates like the one you just mentioned, more frequently to coincide with this overhaul?

Alex: Where and when it’s relevant for us, we will absolutely do it. You know, we don’t wanna do another huge cataclysmic overhaul of course, but there’s definitely going to be some maintenance to content; it’s a world that’s not fully dynamic, but we do like to keep it updated, so we’ll see that.

AG: So back to the crazy questions: “Is there a Level 100 Epic Murloc King, and can we fight him”?

Alex: (Laughing) not yet. We’ll consider it...

AG: And: “Is it true there’s an Easter Egg that allows you to remove all clothes from the Night Elves?”, which I’m sure there isn’t but...

Alex: (Laughing even more) no, not to my knowledge...

AG: If there’s enough demand for something like that, could it happen? (Nah, I doubt it.)

Alex: (Literally LOLs).

AG: Okay, back on serious track, coming back to the idea that Cataclysm is going to invite a bunch of older players back or newer players in, can you run us through some of the early quests that are now on offer? And what we can expect in terms of difficulty (is this scaled any differently after what you’ve learnt from previous expansions, and the original game itself)? And have you leaned towards making it more exciting, or more engaging (instead of just grindy)?

Alex: Yes. All of that. Honestly, we’ve learnt so much. We have a strong veteran crew of designers here; they all play the game fanatically, and absolutely you will see amazing things. One of the big things we want to hit on is the one-to-five, one-to-10, 10-20 experience for each race is assigning to them a sense of identity - who you are in the world and what’s your purpose in the world and I think we’ve come along way in doing that with Cataclysm. I think it’s a big step from collecting bear asses to walking along side by side with Syvanas (Windrunner) as she tells you the story of the forsaken.

There are hug strides and huge leaps in storytelling and immersiveness and identity.

AG: Is any of that in place to help newcomers who might come in and just solo for w while, not knowing what a Guild is, or not knowing how to join a Guild or what to do with one they start themselves... because it can be intimidating?

Alex: Not necessarily. The reason it’s in is because we wanted to make kick ass content. The whole Guild aspect of the game, while an awesome aspect that has a whole lot of detail and depth, is totally different. It’s totally separated. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of new players come in to join a Guild for example, or even know what a Guild is. But they’re going to have a great time levelling up and it’s completely independent of each other, so not necessarily.

AG: Alex, can you tell us what your favourite part of the whole expansion is? From Lead World Designer - what’s the one thing you’re most proud of?

Alex: The one singular part?! That’s super hard... You know, there’re so many awesome things... I just re-rolled a Forsaken Hunter - because that’s a new race class option for Cataclysm - and I’m going through our revamped eastern Kingdoms and, you know, I’ll be damned if there is a single bad quest out there - the team has just done such an aamazing, phenomenal job on bringing the world to life and making it feel, not only like WoW - you know, what WarCraft is - but to really bring the player into the story. And that’s what I’m most proud of that this team has accomplished - it’s just unbelievable, it’s phenomenal and I’m really, really proud of those guys.

AG: In terms of the end-game content from the previous expansion, how much of that is reflected in the advanced lore here?

Alex: It’s absolutely part of it, it’s referred to... You know, if you go into Westfall, for example, they’ll totally talk about the fall of the Lich King, and why Westfall is the way it is, is because of the fall of the Lich King, right. Because Varian diverted all the gold, the economy in Stormwind, to military, and in doing so displaced a lot of farmers and various other types of workers and now Westfall is full of homeless - this is all embraced within the story; it’s a post-Lich King world and you can absolutely feel that.

AG: Now you guys ran the Beta for quite a while, in terms of what you got out of that, was there any one major aspect that kept coming up in feedback you went in and had to change, or was it just a bunch of balancing and tweaking? And also, did you find among the more hardcore players who participated, that any of them disliked the direction of the lore or story overall?

Alex: In terms of lore, strangely enough, not so much. You know, if you read the boards now which you’ll see, I think, is unanimously praise for what they’re seeing in the game. I think in the original WoW there really wasn’t that much [lore], you know, there were bits and pieces but most players just had nostalgia to hold on to and we’ve taken a lot of their nostalgia built it into the lore now, so whatever memory they may have had is now part of the world. So we didn’t really hear much in the way of gripes - it was a really, really positive beta in that regard in that the players were so, so stoked and happy in what the world was becoming, it was really cool.

No with that said, the hardcore have opinions and so do casual players and core players and what have you and... we can’t please everybody 100% of the time, but we’ll damn-well try.

AG: I love that you guys added the Wildhammer Fact Checker; was that just you guys being ‘you guys’? Or was it a push from the fans?

Alex: No that was just us being us. You know, I think I got back from BlizzCon and that was the first thing i did. I was, like, this has gotta go into the game.

AG: okay Alex, one last question - this is obviously a monumental undertaking, even for a company as big and renowned as Blizzard, how large is the Cataclysm team? And how many writers did you have on board to write all of the material?

Alex: We don't really have writers. That might sound strange to you, but the lore and the story of the game has been written and preserved by essentially the quest team and part of the creative dev for the past seven or eight years. Like I said it might sound strange, but a quest designer, for example, isn’t necessarily a writer, but they know how to write, though that is not their primary function. In terms of numbers, there are, or were... a lot of people; eight or so quest designers... I don’t know what our numbers are for the entirety of the team, but I think it’s 150 or something like that.

AG: Thanks so much for your time Alex, and get to work on that Epic Murloc.

Alex: Thanks a lot Steve, and yep, level 100. And get into Red Ridge.

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