It was eight years ago that World of Warcraft first set sail across a tumultuous sea of change, iteration and refinement. After nearly a decade spent negotiating such a rough and unruly expanse of H2O, I'd forgive the ship's helmsman for being all but ready to abandon ship. After all, the only thing I'm still as excited about after eight years is my own reproductive organ.
Fortunately for its devotees, Senior Game Designer Scott Mercer and Software Engineer Darren Williams are more dedicated creatures than I. Sat in the W Hotel, a stone's throw from London's Chinatown district, they've traveled across the Atlantic to give WoW’s fourth expansion one final shove before its launch.
The MMO landscape has changed considerably in the two years since Cataclysm released, and new features like the pet battling system, leaderboard supported challenge modes and arenewed emphasis on story and lore (not to mention its Far Eastern flavours) appears to be a direct response to all that has happened in the meantime. Including, perhaps, a troublesome slump in subscriber numbers.
Strategy Informer sat down with the two WoW developers to talk all things Mists of Pandaria.
Strategy Informer: What it is about World of Warcraft that has kept you interested for eight years, both as players and developers involved with the game from its genesis.
Darren Williams: As a player, I love all the different classes, learning about them, leveling the different characters and mastering that class. There's so much depth there and I always find new things in the quest content.
Scott Mercer: For me, I really enjoy going through the quests and learning about the story and the lore. I'm in a lot of those conversations and meetings and playing through I still get geeked about it because you can talk about it, but actually putting it in the game and seeing it as a player is a completely different thing.
I've been working on dungeons and raids for eight years, but even after all that time it still feels like there's creativity, there's still things the player hasn't seen because the settings are different, the themes are different. There are still challenges for us as developers and it's still a lot of fun making these encounters.
Strategy Informer: Leading on from that, how do you keep quests interesting for people who have been playing World of Warcraft for nearly eight years? Is there more dynamism to the events and quests in Pandaria, more to keep battle-heartened veterans interested for another year or two?
Darren Williams: People enjoy the quests for different reasons and one of the big things in Pandaria is this brand new self contained continent and the quests lead you to explore the zone. If you're the sort of person who likes story, if you read those quests in more detail there's a lot of back-story for the Pandaren race, the Monks and the new enemies on the continent. So, there's that, plus the way the quests lay out. In the past, in Cataclysm it was kind of linear how you followed the quest chain. We're offering a lot more freedom now so you can go off and explore smaller towns and do another quest chain there. We're using phasing a bit differently too so that you can still play with your friends even if you're on some big phase side quest. It's still friendly for playing with friends.
Scott Mercer: A lot of it just has to do with, it's a new world, it's an exciting place, it's gorgeous. As you're playing through you might go over a hill and see this thing and it's like, wow that's just gorgeous and you get excited about that. It's like 'hey, have you collected 10 pumpkins before?', yes you've collected 10 pumpkins before but you've never collected ten pumpkins like this.
Darren Williams: If you open your map up now you see an exclamation mark where there's something for you to do. So you can guide your own questing experience. You can open the map and think 'I haven't been over there', go over there and find a new town and get a whole set of new quests to do.
Strategy Informer: Has there been a sustained effort throughout the development of Mists to put more emphasis on story and lore than in previous expansions?
Darren Williams: I think the story's always been there but now there's a lot more. You can go explore and find out a lot of the history and backstory. There's a faction called the Lorewalkers. You can learn about the origins of the different races on the continent and I think there's a lot of players who are really interested in the story, so they'll get a lot out of that.
Scott Mercer: For us the history of Pandaria was completely new. We knew that Pandaria was out there but we hadn't explored it that much internally. Warcraft builds upon the RTS’s, there's a huge very involved world with a huge amount of history and this was something new. We enjoyed making it because of that and I think players will also really enjoy discovering that because they have no idea of what's waiting for them.
Strategy Informer: With that in mind, what can players expect from Pandaria the place in comparison to everywhere else in the WoW universe? It's obviously very different in terms of the way it looks and its inspirations, is that an attempt to recapture the magic of stepping out into Vanilla for the first time and that electric feeling of 'wow: this is all mine'?
Darren Williams: Oh definitely.
Scott Mercer: Definitely.
Darren Williams: It's a new continent. It's self-contained. You get there, you don't know what's going on and the questing experience really directs you to learn about this land. The conflict you've brought there, both the Alliance and the Horde land and they immediately want to claim this land for their own and straight up it really escalates the tension that already exists between the factions.
Strategy Informer: It looks fantastic but it also looks, from the outside at least, to be taking a more light-hearted approach compared to, say, Wrath of the Lich King. Is that fair and what informed that decision?
Darren Williams: It's fair. With Lich King we had Arthas trying to invade and destroy the world. With Cataclysm he successfully sundered the world and damaged all this stuff. There's definitely a change of pace here where (the focus) is more on exploration. Having said that, there are enemies to discover and the conflict between Horde and Alliance is foremost.
Scott Mercer: You don't always feel like 'if I don't do well, if I don't beat the Lich King,' or 'if I don't beat Deathwing the world ends'. It's a bit more cozy. It feels more personal. You're the one that's brought the problem here so it definitely ends up having a very different tone than our previous expansions. That was intentional. We wanted the sense of exploration. 'Mystery' was a word we often talked about during discussions and bringing back that feeling of not knowing.
Strategy Informer: The people who were perhaps six or seven when WoW came out, they're teenagers now. Is there an element of trying to cajole a new generation of gamers into the WoW universe with Pandaria and any future expansions?
Scott Mercer: For Mists of Pandaria we're not just trying to draw in a new audience. We have this amazing starting experience, on a floating turtle of all things, and you learn about all these important Pandarien characters, so there's that. But we're also trying to make it a really amazing game for people no matter what. So for the maximum level player we've provided huge amounts of new activities; pet battles, which is a means to expand upon the existing game of pet collection and the new scenarios for three players.
Darren Williams: We have challenge modes as well which take all the level 90 dungeons we've got and make an extra hard version of that with monsters that hit harder, the arrangement of the monsters are more difficult and you're racing against the clock to post the best time to defeat this dungeon. If your team gets a good time there's cool visual rewards and you get the bragging rights of being on the leaderboard. All of that goes with the exploration we mentioned earlier; the new story, the new Monk class. There's tons of new content for both new and existing players.
Strategy Informer: When you first announced Mists of Pandaria there was a vocal minority of players opposed to the Pandaren, have you seen that opposition peter out as you've inched closer to the launch?
Scott Mercer: I think it was just a matter that, people hadn't seen them yet, so they just jumped to the conclusion of "oh, they're going to be super silly." And it's like, no; these guys can be very serious. They can kick your ass if they really need to, if they have to protect their home or their family or their way of life. They can be deadly serious. And that's something that, when you actually get in and play and see, you realise there's more to it than just tossing one back, having a great meal and sleeping it off afterwards.
Strategy Informer: If you had to sell the new Monk class on one feature alone, what would it be?
Scott Mercer: Punching someone's face. In World of Warcraft you use swords and magic and everything else and we felt like we'd been missing that… 'I'm going to punch you in the face'. It seems very simple and strange but that fantasy speaks to a lot of people and you don't just punch their face, you punch their face with amazing animation, crazy spell effects. It's as epic a punch to the face as we could make it.
Strategy Informer: How do the daily quests differ from previous expansions? What is there to keep Mists going into the future?
Scott Mercer: There's just so many more of them. There's 300. Cataclysm didn't have that many and they were spread out. Here they've been designed with entire daily quest areas and some of them you have to work through and you'll unlock daily quests as you continue working with the factions. There's quests to train your own Cloud Serpent from an egg up to the point where you'll be able to use it as a mount. So there's a whole lot more structure to them and I think players will feel like there's absolutely more to them this time than just random quests.
Darren Williams: We've also removed the daily cap so with all these options you can really play how you want. There's an area where you can build your farm and do farming dailies. There's lots of stuff for different players.
Strategy Informer: Is there an element of, having provided so many different features over the years, constantly trying to provide for as many different types of World of Warcraft player as possible. In Mists alone you've got the pet battles, PVP, the emphasis on lore and exploration, the challenges and the leaderboards tied to those...
Scott Mercer: There's that, and then there's also just being able to provide a huge amount of things for players to do. I raid a lot, I do dungeons, I really enjoy that kind of thing. With pet battles and some of these other things, it's like: 'have you tried this?' It's not just about hitting players it's literally giving players more options, more fun things to do. Would you like more fun?
Strategy Informer: The choice of who to side with looks to be a big part of the expansion - the Pandaren being WOW's first playable neutral race - how much does the story change depending on who you side with?
Scott Mercer: It depends on the zone; there are some quests that both sides end up doing. When you first land you actually land at different points in the Jade Forest so the very starting experience is totally different between the two. There are other places as well but at the end of the day it's really about solving the conflict between each other and it's not going to get solved in Mists of Pandaria, it's actually going to get worse over time. So you'll see that in the upcoming patches, the tension is definitely rising.
There's definitely victories to be had within Mists of Pandaria, but the Alliance vs Horde it's not stopping. If anything it's getting worse. Without spoiling anything at the end of the Wandering Owl quest line you're provided with a problem and the choice between Alliance and Horde is how do you solve this problem. Do you solve with healing and compassion or do you use huge amounts of explosives. I'll leave it to you to decide which one is Horde and which is Alliance. There definitely are differences there and you see things from slightly different sides.
Strategy Informer: World of Warcraft has changed dramatically since it grabbed the gaming world by the throat eight years ago, is there anything so ingrained into the DNA of WoW that it can't be changed, but that you would love to change anyway?
Scott Mercer: That's a very deep question.
Darren Williams: We're always changing things and making things better. We're constantly playing and critiquing things and if we see a problem we'll go ahead and fix it.
Strategy Informer: So there's nothing at all you wouldn't try to fix?
Scott Mercer: I don't think so.
Darren Williams: The reason that WoW is what it is is that a bunch of decisions that we made 8-10 years ago, a lot of those are still good solutions to the issues at hand.
Scott Mercer: People love the base game, the mechanics of controlling a class and doing things. I'd say that's deeply ingrained in the DNA. I mean, that's what makes WoW WoW.
Strategy Informer: Thank you for your time.
Outside the W Hotel the line for the Mists of Pandaria launch soiree snakes up into Chinatown. Blizzard has promised its faithful the glitziest launch event yet: a live show as well as the chance to meet the developers behind one of the most popular and successful games on the planet. While the MMORPG landscape contorts and warps around it, the goliath of the MMO space marches stoically on. But Blizzard is surely banking on Mists to reverse the recent trend of declining subscribers.
A man strolls by the line of gamers: “Wow, is that the queue for KFC!?”