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Mists of Pandaria: Dave "Fargo" Kosak interview

Michael Sacco

Dave "Fargo" Kosak, lead quest designer for World of Warcraft, sat down with us at the Mists of Pandaria press event for an interview. We talked about the Horde/Alliance conflict, voice acting, pop culture references, Mists' accelerated production schedule, and more. Check it out!

WoW Insider: I guess I'm just gonna start off with some basic stuff.

Dave Kosak: Basic stuff is good!

Let's start with your overall philosophy for Mists of Pandaria.

Well, we're constantly experimenting with quests, and in Cataclysm, we created some pretty linear zones, as I'm sure you might've noticed. Some really big story arcs and big finishes. Certainly like in Mount Hyjal, we phased a huge amount of the zone, which worked because it was a pretty linear zone. A couple drawbacks, though: It was a shame that on your second or third time through, you had to play it exactly the same way. You know, you kinda lose some of that open-world feeling, you lose a little bit of that exploration when it's linear like that. But we loved the storytelling, so what we wanted to do with Mists was keep that kind of storytelling but make sure that you have the opportunity to go out and explore and experience the expansion differently, so ... let's see.

We have kind of a lot of non-linearity in the zones that are in the middle of the expansion, particularly Kun-Lai Summit and Valley of the Four Winds. We still have very strong storytelling, and we try to do it with groups of quests that share this main plot arc, but you can do those quests in almost any order. They're all thematically related to each other, so the zone has a really strong theme, but you can kind of pick and choose ... if you're playing on another character, you can do just the ones you really like, or if you want to explore, you can run around and find some stuff. You haven't been able to do that in a while, you know? It feels really good.

I think another one of the big things we're trying and tweaking is when and how often we use phasing. We have a lot of powerful storytelling tools, and phasing is what I like to call our "story sledgehammer," you know? That's the big bomb, right? The downside of phasing is that it splits up the players; the upside is that it changes the world when you do stuff.

So looking at that, we really wanted to split up players less in Pandaria, so we're reserving phasing for those big, huge story milestones that really matter -- so, like with the big dragon statue in the Jade Forest. Alliance and Horde war in that zone really climaxes there; the statue gets destroyed, and there are consequences from that clash that really ripple through the entire continent. So we're using phasing there for sure.

But for your day-to-day questing through the zone, we try to avoid phasing because it makes your experience a little janky, particularly in your max-level zones with your questing and dailies; we like to keep people together so you can group up and do those. We have a lot of tricks up our sleeves when it comes to cosmetic phasing, which we employed heavily in, for example, patch 4.2.

The Sentinel Tree in the Molten Front.

Yes, exactly. You saw the whole hub kind of change around you as you progressed, but we never kept you from interacting with other players.

Right, you had your own little "you place."

Your own progression! We liked how that felt a lot and we didn't separate players there, and we do a lot of that in Pandaria, where the world changes but you're still out in the world, not alone.

A lot of other triple-A games have embraced lots of voice acting for quests. What's your take on that for WoW?

Sure, yeah. One of benefits of our "ancient" text-based quest interface is that we can iterate right up until the very last second, and we're constantly iterating to make sure the quests flow well and the stories play out in a way that feels right, and voices make that difficult because of the turnaround time.

I also like that our questing is very fast-paced. We build our quests under the assumption that you can not read the quest text if you want and you can still complete the quests just fine. That's fine, right? That's just how you wanna play. My team, we make sure we still have really good writing, that if you take the time to read the quest text, you're getting a lot out of it.

But our game is a really fast-playing game. You can zip through a hub, particularly if you played through the zone before. You want to play it again, we want to have all the replay value of the combat, but you don't need to read the text all over again. And WoW lets you do that really quickly, very fast-paced. Other games that do the voice acting and lots of decisions in the dialogue, well, you do a lot of standing around. It's a different kind of game -- nothing wrong with it, but we like what we have, with the ability for players to engage with the story as much or as little as they want or skip it entirely if they want and get to the combat.

People who play the game have strong thoughts either way on the amount and variety of pop culture references while doing zones and questing. What's your take on it? How do you find the balance?

The thing about pop culture references is that, more than any other Blizzard game, we can get away with it in World of Warcraft. People spend a lot of hours in World of Warcraft, and after a while, you're on there with your guild and your friends and it's not so much about being immersed in the world, it's about being immersed socially with your friends. So if there's something we can reference with kind of a nod and a wink, it's fine, because the game is just about you with your friends. So we have a lot of flexibility.

So I try, with references, to make sure that it fits perfectly in both ways. It has to describe what's happening perfectly, but it's also lyrics to Duran Duran's Hungry Like The Wolf -- but it's about hungry wolves! We always try and make sure it makes total sense so it isn't immersion-breaking, it's just a little extra jolt of something.

So, in the case of Uldum, a lot of players felt that just playing through the plot of an Indiana Jones movie was a little different or maybe less fun than just playing through a more original WoW story.

We got a lot of different reactions to Uldum. Players overwhelmingly named it their favorite zone ...

Yeah, we saw that poll!

Yeah! It's because you can totally relate to it. Harrison Jones, adventure, and all that. We used a lot of tricks in Uldum I feel we may have overused, cinematics and stuff, enough that it didn't really feel like WoW as we know it after a while. Going through, it felt like Harrison Jones was the hero, too, and not your character, so we're making sure when you're playing a quest line, your character is the hero, not someone else. I think people who respond negatively to that are like, "Wait, I thought I was the hero here?" And that's Harrison Jones' schtick, where he thinks you're his sidekick.

So going forward, we're putting more the focus on the player, but we do definitely like the experience of having an adventure with a particularly cool character. Like in Valley of the Four Winds, there's Chen Stormstout, you do a lot of adventuring with him. You do a lot of stuff, you get to learn a lot about Chen, meet his family, and all that. But you're the hero of the story.

You were involved in creating some player-favorite characters like Mylune from Hyjal. Quite a popular gal!

Someone dressed as Mylune at BlizzCon! It made my day!

Do you have any characters you created for MoP that are personal favorites or that you became very attached to?

Well, you know, now that I'm lead quest designer, I don't get to do a lot of hands-on character creation anymore, so it's my job to get down in the trenches with my team and make sure that lots of cool characters are making their way into the story. So, I had an idea for a character you might have seen in the Wandering Isle: Jojo Ironbrow, until you bring him the item he cannot smash with his head and that becomes his new, beloved weapon. So I didn't get to personally make him, but I made sure he got in -- "Hey! I got this guy, with a head! And he smashes stuff!"

We have a lot of really interesting characters. There's a comic coming out called Pearl of Pandaria, and in it, we meet Li-Li, who's Chen's niece, and in the comic she goes out into the world with Uncle Chen and starts exploring with him. And in MoP, you get to meet her and adventure with her and her uncle.

Prince Anduin has always been a really compelling character -- his whole history and development and just how much is asked of Prince Anduin so early in his life. I just thought it was really compelling, you know: In vanilla WoW, you walked into the throne room, and there's this kid! Who's this kid, you know? So I did quests with him in the Alliance part of Twilight Highlands. He's actually a major character in Pandaria; he's shipwrecked there, and the Alliance characters are looking for him.

The "White Pawn"?

He is the mysterious White Pawn that everyone's looking for! The king's son, lost on Pandaria. Anduin gets to do some really cool stuff. And he's a priest, so we get to see him do a lot of cool priest stuff. At one point, he uses the priest Mind Control spell to "Jedi mind trick" himself out of a bad situation. We had a lot of fun with that character.

It's been pretty clear from the level of content that's done today, and even based on what we saw at BlizzCon, that this expansion was created a little faster than previous expansions. How did you deal with a more accelerated process?

We're being smarter and more efficient and we're developing our teams so that we kind of piggyback off of each other. So while some of our teams were working on the outstanding dungeons and raids that were in 4.3, the others were working on the content for Pandaria. We have this patch plan so that all of our teams can roll out content faster, and we're just trying to be really smart about how we build content such that we can provide more content. We're committed to providing more content to players, so we're being smarter about our development time and our man hours.

A main focus we saw for MoP was the Horde/Alliance conflict. Can you tell us about how we can expect that to play out while questing?

It's interesting because in the box product -- you know, you probably saw it -- but you're not arriving on Pandaria with a huge army. It starts with a shipwreck and a small crew that you kind of adventure with, and you're trying to make use of everything about you. Most of the Alliance/Horde conflict is about that, small groups using the environment to the best of your ability, biding your time.

And in the patches that follow, in the patch plan, that's when things really start to accelerate. In the first patch, that's when the ships roll up on the beach, and then the tanks roll out of the ships, and then there's open warfare. And there'll be other events building up to this -- what's happening with Wrynn, with Garrosh, such that in our final raid, everybody has a reason to kick down the gates of Orgrimmar and take down Garrosh.

And that's exciting! There's that whole story arc we have planned, and I'm not sure how it'll take shape, with how many patches it'll take to come across, but we have these plans to tell this story about the Alliance and the Horde and the pandaren and their cultural exchange and what happens to Garrosh, leading up to the future.

The Cataclysm zone revamp ended up being a bit more exhaustive than you first intended.

(laughing) Yeaahhh.

Slightly more! Some zones still didn't quite find --

Wait. Is this a Silithus question?

No! No. You can keep Silithus the way it is forever; I don't want to go back there. But in terms of zones like Theramore, Arathi Highlands, stuff that has real story hooks, do you ever plan to go back and touch some of those?

(laughing) Theramore will be touched. But we're not really eager to jump back into Arathi Highlands at this point. Maybe in the future. There's still a lot of story hooks dangling there in the old world. Sometimes we have the opportunity to revisit it, like in Twilight Highlands with the Dragonmaw and Grim Batol. So when an excuse comes up to do that, we're happy to. But I wouldn't expect many old-world revamps for a while.

This is about you, really. You're a fairly new addition to the team ... fairly?

Kind of, sure. I joined during the Wrath patch cycle. Two, two and a half years now?

When you joined, what was your goal with the WoW story? What did you want to accomplish with it?

I certainly wanted to become more involved with the WoW story, and certainly with Pandaria, I'm involved heavily with Metzen. I'm involved with making our stories playing out across all of our comics, web stories, and in-game. What's important to me is making sure that our external books and stories are tied into our game heavily, that there's a tighter connection there. That's my main goal.

I also want our franchise to develop this overall story arc that makes our games compelling. I love what we're doing with Garrosh. I can't take credit for it, but we set up that character in Outland when we first met him. You helped him find himself, and then by Northrend, he's a war leader, and then we saw him take command in Cataclysm and take advantage of the Cataclysm to kind of drive the Horde forward. But he also started to alienate certain parts of the Horde. And now we'll see him alienate even more of the Horde, kind of drive a wedge in it, and we'll see him reap what he's sown. And that'll cause all kinds of trouble world-wide until finally we take him out. And that's really compelling, that arc, and we think it'll keep people coming back.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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