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Exclusive: Joystiq interviews WoW's Jeff Kaplan

Joystiq Staff

Earlier this week, I sat down with Jeff Kaplan, lead designer for World of Warcraft, to chat about the state of the highly successful MMO and what was in store with the coming expansion, The Burning Crusade.

Jeff had some great things to say, and gave really good insight on what is going on behind the scenes at WoW. Take a look after the break at the full interview which includes some exclusives never known before about what's coming up.

Tell us why some new races were added to World of Warcraft in the upcoming Burning Crusade expansion?

One reason for the Blood Elves choice was obviously looks. You'd be amazed how many people will not play the Horde based purely on the fact that they're monstrous. So by giving an attractive race to the Horde, we feel like we're opening a whole new part of the game to the people who wouldn't experience that half of the game.

What went into the decision to adding a Paladin choice for the Horde (Blood Elves) and a Shaman choice for the Alliance (Draenei)?

Our reasoning behind that is we had a conflicting design vision going on with World of Warcraft. Our class design goal was that every class had to be completely unique -- really unique mechanics per class. And, we felt like our Shaman and Paladin were pretty unique, but as time progressed in the game, players would become outraged anytime you gave something to the Paladin and didn't compensate the Shaman.

The classes had a totally different vision behind them, but we tried to balance them out all the time and make them equal. It's not fair to the classes, they were becoming homogeneous. We really wrestled with the idea internally and we finally decided that the lore could justify with Blood Elves and Draenei putting the Paladin and Shaman on each side for the first time. We feel like because we made this decision, we're finally free to make the classes be what they were originally supposed to be. We wanted the Paladin to be more tank oriented, that holy tank that heals. And, we can focus the Shaman more on his DPS and utility roles.

Tell me something that hasn't already been announced that is planned for the expansion?

The PvP system is the first big change that our players have been waiting to hear about for a long time. Basically, we recognized the flaws with the existing honor system. Our goal was not to create a system that involved a massive amount of time investment, it's counter to all of WoW's designer philosophy. We've never been focused on trying to be a time sink. Our PvP system in its current incarnation is very much like that, so what we've done is design a new PvP system that will go live with The Burning Crusade. It has three core components to it.

The first is the arena combat system. You'll be able to join a team: 2v2, 3v3, or 5v5. There are two different modes you can play: One is called practice mode to hone your skills and the other is competitive mode, which is level 70 only.

Can other players watch?

We're still debating that. There's some technical issues with it because we want to allow for cross-server arena battles as well.

So, tell me how the teams will work?

So, say you have a partner that you want to team up with. You can make a team with someone not in your guild and name it and give yourselves team colors and because you're on a 2-on-2 team you can have a four-man roster. For 3-on-3 we allow six people on the roster and for 5-on-5 we allow ten.

What's the incentive for taking part in competitive mode?

You can get the best rewards in the game on par with the raid game. So, wherever the raid game loot is currently at, the PvP arena system will match those rewards. And, the arena system is a seasonal system that will last three months then reset with a new set of rewards each season. It's a competitive-based ladder that uses a rating system similar to the chess ELO rating. One of the key differences is that we require a minimum number of games that you have to play. Unlike in the chess system where if you're on top, you can just sit there, we wanted to ensure that the No. 1 guy can be knocked off his top spot. But, we don't require too many games. We'll require something around ten games.

Also, it can be Horde vs. Alliance or Horde vs. Horde or Alliance vs. Alliance and cross-server. With that, we anticipate there will be little, to no queues for this.

Are there going to be specific places you have to go to access the arenas?

Well, we'll probably make it accessible from all over the world. But, in order to make it feel like it's not a tacked on system there will be a few specific locations -- sort of like our PvP Battlegrounds system. We want it to feel like an integrated, natural part of the game. We also want to get world PvP flowing again in WoW. A lot of players missed it, so every Outlands zone was designed with a major PvP objective in mind, so that's the second of the big PvP announcements.

What's the third?

The third thing is a revamp of the honor system. We're not going to do away with the honor system, but we're going to fix many of the flaws with it. The first thing players will really care about is that your honor points will no longer decay. Honor points will now become the like the PvP equivalent of a PvE experience. Honor points are just something you accumulate and then we'll introduce gear to the game so you can purchase that by spending your honor points.

What are you guys doing to try and prevent ganking or griefing in the game?

I think the best we can do with ganking is put things in place to mitigate it and to not encourage it. There are a few things in place to discourage it already: There are contested territories where true newbs really have to go out of their way to get flagged for PvP and we also make sure not to award you for PvP with players much lower than you. We really explored a lot of PvP solutions and focus on punishing players for killing below their levels but there's also a lot of reverse griefing that can take place in those scenarios.

So, we wanted to make sure to have a system that felt natural, that didn't encourage ganking but didn't force so many rules on players that they could no longer understand what was happening. In fact, when you put so many heavy-handed rules in a game, you're going to encourage reverse forms of griefing.

So basically nothing is going to change?

For the most part, yes. Obviously, the best way to progress is through the honor system or arena system. Both, don't really involve ganking at all. And, when cross-server Battlegrounds go live in the next patch, we can start to look at ways we can do matchmaking differently. So, we hope in the future we can matchmake on gear and organizational composition. So, if you're a pre-made group, we know that and we can matchmake based on that.

Is cross-server implementation the way you're going to lessen Battleground queues then?

Yes, cross-server Battlegrounds in patch 1.12 will help alleviate queue times on a lot of servers. It's amazing how many PvE players want to play PvP, and because they're on that server it's harder for them to find PvP players to battle with. Our arena system, I think, will also really alleviate queue times because not only is it cross-server but also not side specific.

Is there any talk of implementing integrated voice chat within WoW?

We've been discussing it. There are a lot of technical challenges to go with that and some legal issues as well because of the different ways you can set up voice chat -- either on a person's IP or we provide the bandwith. We've been looking at voice chat options, but we're probably not going to have anything for The Burning Crusade, but it's definitely something that we recognize as an enhancement to the game that we'd like to add at some time.

What is the plan for expansions as far as time frames between releases?

There is a time table, but our goal is a little bit more ambitious than one every two years. We have to weigh that against the quality of the product and how much content we want to put into it. We won't put something out until the quality level is there. So, our goal though is to provide content quicker than we have been up until now. We've really beefed our team up -- we have about 100 now and when we started we had around 50.

What are you guys doing to prevent disconnects in high-population areas like Ironforge?

We are addressing those issues and in a number of different ways. In a previous patch we did an optimization code that dynamically spawns the NPCs based on priority and location. In the old way, it was just spawning in NPCs randomly. You might have seen some improvements from that latest patch. But, then we're also doing some design things in the expansion where we design the new cities with that Ironforge crunch in mind. In Silvermoon, for example, there are two areas that each have their own bank, auction house and inn in separate areas of the city. We tend to find that most players congregate in those areas. So, there are some technical solutions and design solutions there.

So, what other new ideas are coming down the line?

We will have a dungeon difficulty level setting. Party leaders for groups will have the ability to set the level with two different settings -- normal and hard. For example, a 60 to 62 dungeon on hard will turn into a level 70 dungeon with level 70 rewards in it. In a level 70 dungeon on hard, the enemies will be extremely dangerous but you will definitely be rewarded better for doing the harder difficulty mode.

Has there been a separate team working on the expansion?

No, and in fact that's something we're very proud of. The same WoW team that started has been working on both the patches and expansion. We wanted to make sure we had the same core people there working on it.

Tell me what went in to picking the new races for the expansion. Why did you pick these two versus other races like Panderens?

At our core, the development team of WoW are a bunch of geeks and we wanted pandas too, and goblins, and we just debated it. It was a hot and heavy debate as to what our favorite race was. Everybody was throwing their hat in the ring. But, as we developed the expansion more, we knew we were going to open up Outlands. And as we honed in on Outlands, Blood Elves and Draenei were the most logical. When you start to talk about Outlands and the lore, it just made sense and everything just clicked. Also, we wanted to have a pretty race on the Horde and that just fit with the Blood Elves. And, also we wanted a new profile for the Alliance and when you look at the Draenei they really kind of click.

Are you looking to add more races in the future and if so, how many could you possibly go to? Is there a limit?

I definitely think there is a limit, but we haven't hit it yet. So, we don't anticipate that with every new expansion we will introduce new races. Perhaps we'll introduce a new class instead of a new race. We're kind of open with that. But, there is a finite limit with the races. You have too look at when it starts to be too much. But, we still feel like there is room to add more races and we still debate it.

What other major new gameplay changes are coming with the expansion?

We are actually lowering the raid cap which is now at 40. All the expansion raids will be 25 or less. The reason we are doing this is that we can still make the raids feel epic and difficult, but we just wanted to take some of the logistical headaches out of it. We're also introducing a 10-man raid, as well.

What are you guys doing to counteract people from dropping their WoW accounts?

I think it's a multi-tiered approach. The problem is that everyone has a different play style and WoW is such a big game and so diverse, that there's not that one thing that people want. I think the revamp of PvP will be huge. I think a lot of people bowed out because of the PvP system. I think we will show people that we care about the PvP system and we want to make it how you want it to be. I think because we are doing this in such a big way it will be huge. I also think that the fact we are changing the raid cap and dungeon difficulty, will also add to gamers wanting to stay or come back.

And then there's the guys who just like to solo. They don't like to group or PvP or quest and for them it's all about raising their level cap. They just love showing off their character and gaining abilities. For those people the expansion itself is the big win because it's level 70 with massive Outlands zones and quests.

Why do you think World of Warcraft has been such a success when compared to other MMOs?

I think it has to do with the focus of fun in WoW. The game is much less of a social experiment at times and focuses more on core gaming mechanics that are just fun. When people sit down to play World of Warcraft we are providing them with a night of entertainment. We're not there to punish them or make them feel like they're working. They're there because they've chosen us as their venue to entertain them. We feel lucky that they chose to spend a night with WoW. We focus heavily on making the game fun.

We also have a split approach to development that goes for all our games. Some people say we're a casual MMO, but if you look at the depth of the game from our PvP honor system to our difficult zones, the game cuts through a solid slice of all the demographics. Yes, we did focus on making it accessible to casual gamers, but we did provide a lot of hard core content. It all goes back to the Blizzard philosophy of easy to learn, hard to master. If you don't have the hard core content there, you're not going to keep the casual player.

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