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Blizzard interview: J. Allen Brack on World of Warcraft

Kevin Kelly

J. Allen Brack is the lead producer on World of Warcraft, and he's not just a guy working at a job -- he's a hardcore fanboy as well. If you need proof, check out his open letter to the Star Wars Galaxies community, back when he was a producer on that game. In it he mentions that he's getting married in a Star Wars-themed wedding. That's hardcore.

He joined Blizzard in 2005 to work on WoW and its expansions. We sat down with him at BlizzCon to talk about the new World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, and to find out how much life the title has in it. Read on after the break for the full interview, and to find out some of what's going on in WoW's biggest expansion to date.

Gallery: World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (BlizzCon 2009) | 29 Photos

So, WoW keeps rolling along. Expansions keep it alive. Are you sort of already internally thinking about an end date? Or do you guys think, "Well, gosh. This could go on for years." Feasibly it could go on for 10-15 more years, or do you guys think there is a certain life left in it?

I fully expect WoW to be around for at least 10 more years.

Wow. We don't really think about that. I mean I think we focus mostly on just trying to deliver the best experience and keep the players enjoying what they are doing, keep creating great content. We don't really think about the end in really any kind of formal way. I have said, internally, and I think externally as well, that I fully expect WoW to be around for at least 10 more years.

With that in mind, are the novels tied to the game at all or do the writers that are given those get free range to explore things?

In the past we had a little bit of a different philosophy and it was kind of a little more of a free reign, kind of go off and create a kind of a story in the world. More recently we have been doing a little bit more connection between the novels and sort of what is going on in the game. So we just released Rise of the Lich King, which is sort of a look back at how Arthas became the Lich King. And it kind of filled in a lot of those gaps and kind of where he came from and what his story was. And that obviously closely parallels with what is going on in Wrath. So that is sort of the philosophy we follow.

At this point, do other RPGs influence WoW at all? Like, if another game has a system that people seem to love ... will you consider it? Do you guys even look at other games?

We are gamers first and WoW players second.

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean we are gamers first, right, and WoW players second. So we play a lot of games, not just RPGs. But I come from an action game background, so I play a lot of action games. I play a lot of shooters. That is true across the entire team. So it is not just RPGs or just other online games. It is any kind of game. We released achievements on Steam with Wrath of Lich King and I think the Xbox really popularized that. Steam really popularized the achievements. They have been around for a while. And of course we did our own take on it, but it is certainly something that had its roots elsewhere.

The results of the Cataclysm affect the entire world. At what point did you all decide you wanted to do something like that, versus just kind of opening up another area or another instance where people start from there?

It was a big debate. And whenever we start talking about what the next extension is going to be, we come up with a lot of, "What are the big ideas? What are the things we think are cool?" And we start to kind of talk about each one and figure out what seems like the strongest thing to do at any time. And this time we decided ... we have learned a lot about shipping the original game. We have definitely iterated on our quest process, our quest flow, with Burning Crusade and Lich King.

And so the idea of taking some of that learning back into the old world, updating it, and doing a lot of stuff like that is really appealing. It also gives us the opportunity to kind of explore things that people have wanted us to explore, like Greymane Wall. People have always wondered what is behind Greymane Wall. Well now we are going to tell you. People have always wanted to know what is to the south of Ahn'Qiraj. Now we are going to show you. So that is pretty compelling.

We heard someone during the World of Warcraft class panels talking about the Worgen and saying maybe the question isn't what they are but when they are. So is there some sort of time travel element here or something?

Yeah. So we want the starting experience to be a highly narrative, very compelling experience, very similar to what we did for the Death Knight in Lich King. And so one of the ideas is we actually want to show you how you are actually going to start out as a human if you roll a Worgen. And we are actually going to show you how the Worgen curse came to be, how you got affected by it, and there is an element where we will flash forward in time to kind of more present day when you actually have been affected by the Worgen curse.

And once you are a Worgen, it is permanent. There is no sort of reverting back and forth.

There is no reverting back and forth, but at any time you can change between your human form and your Worgen form. But that doesn't go away.

With each expansion, does it get tougher to bring in new players? Or what do you guys do internally or anything to combat that, because some people say, "Oh gosh. This is like the fourth expansion. I am so far behind the curve. Do I even want to jump in at this point?"

We have actually made it easier for you to level as time goes on ...

Sure. Well I think us going back and doing kind of a new level up experience and two new races is kind of to appeal to that and help that situation. We also adjust our leveling curve on a pretty regular basis and say, "OK. What is the right amount of time it takes you to go from beginning to end?" We have said that one of our philosophies is the amount of time that it took for you to get from 1 to 60, that is how much time we want it to take. And it doesn't matter whether it is 60 levels or 85 levels. We want it to be the same amount of time. So we have actually made it easier for you to level as time goes on and made the leveling experience faster.

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