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Mists of Pandaria: Ray Cobo interview


Ray Cobo, one of WoW's senior producers, sat down with us at the Mists of Pandaria press event to discuss the development process, new game features, and more. Check out how an expansion like MoP gets made quickly!

WoW Insider: Mists of Pandaria, from everything we've seen, is on an accelerated time table. How do you, as a producer, make sure the process is going forward?

Ray Cobo: We 've learned a lot over the years about how to make expansions and how the game development of WoW has kind of evolved over the years, and so with each expansion, we get better at what we do. Our tools get better, our muscle memory from the team gets better in terms of how to make stuff. We have such a huge library of things now that we've built and content that we've made that we can actually pull from and figure out how to make that better or how to not do that again kind of thing and learn from those pitfalls or successes and try to get more efficient every time.

I think that's something the team has done for this one specifically is that each time it seems to get a little bit faster and get a little bit easier to some degree. There are still a lot of challenges in terms of curve balls that you get halfway through -- like in this one, it was recently decided to have two more zones. So it's like, OK, well, didn't have that in the plan but we'll figure out how to kinda get that in. Everyone on the production side and definitely on the dev team is very committed to make sure the content is great, so we want to make sure we give the devs time to iterate and explore and try to figure out what's going to make this game great and going to make the expansion great, because that's a core philosophy at Blizzard.

How do you divide the work between working on live content like patches and working on an expansion at the same time?

It can be tough sometimes, but we know the number of patches we want to do sometimes -- or most of the time, I want to say. Sometimes we will get a patch thrown in where it's like, "We really need to put something out that's really cool," but in general, we have a good sense of "Here's the scope of content that we want to do for the patches so we can block out time for that, and we kind of have a good sense of what the scope of the expansion is as well." So we try to carve out chunks of time.

We do a bit of hopscotching between different types of content, so we'll work on patch content for a little while, or some of the team will work on patch content and the other parts of the team will work on expansion content. And then we have an even different set of the team that is working on live content, making sure things are running well, things are bug-free, and addressing any issues that come up that are live at the moment.

People who like to complain on forums --

Wait, wait wait wait. We have people who complain on forums?

I know, right? They say that there is an A team working on expansion stuff and then a worse B team working on live stuff. I take it that that's not the case at all?

That's not the case at all. It's the same team. It's a very, very solid team that has a lot of experience making this game, and they are able to flex between current live content and future content and near and far future content. So it's all the same team; it's just a question of shifting gears between different segments of the team.

It's definitely a pipeline, to some degree. You have to have an order of operations -- you have to have certain things done before you can move on to other things. I think it just kind of varies along the way during the process. You might have the level designers, who are working on a particular zone or something, and the quest designers are working on either modifying quests that are existing in live or existing in very close patch content is coming out, because they can't really work on what the level designers are doing until those guys are done. It's kind of an order of operations thing. So we try to move people around so that it makes sense that they are working on the most important thing at that time.

You had sort of convenience features introduced in Wrath and then refined in Cataclysm, like you went from Dungeon Finder to Raid Finder to building up Dungeon Finder into something not only worth doing but kind of a core component to the game. In Mists, you have an absolute ton of features being added, way more than we've seen in previous expansions. How do you decide what features get tabled and what features stick around?

It's tough because we fall in love with just about everything that comes up. With that said, I think we are also our biggest critics. I think that we strive to make sure the thing that we're putting out fits into either the philosophy of a particular expansion or the general philosophy of "make it awesome, make it great" before it goes out, that kind of thing. There are a lot of features our design team -- you know, they're complete rock stars and they're very smart, so they come up with some great ideas, and we look at each on of those and try to figure out how they fit into the expansion that we're trying to make.

But it can be tough. I mean, it can be hard to say, "Well, that's an awesome idea. I don't know if we're going to actually be able to fully bake that or give it the love that it needs to get that out there into the world, so we might want to wait." But the beauty of this whole thing is that WoW is a snowball, right? It's getting bigger and bigger the farther it goes down, and if you can't put it in now, there's definitely an opportunity to put it in later -- and the evolution of the game makes it one of the most incredible games ever.

Features like Dungeon and Raid Finder weren't even core expansion features; they were stuff that were patched in later, which bodes well for the production process.

Yeah, and I think it speaks to the fact that Blizzard has a very strong relationship with its players and the fanbase, right? Some of those ideas come from the players and they're like, wow, wouldn't it be cool if we had this kind of thing, or if we had the ability to do this, or if I could play with my buddy that's on a different server? That'd be awesome, (that) kind of thing, you know? So we listen to all that and we try to figure out how to make that work with the technology that we have and how can we make that work in a way that's not going to disrupt the culture and the style of gameplay that we have, and really try and give the players the things they feel are going to bring them more enjoyment.

I tend to read WoW forums as part of my job, to see what people are talking about, ideas for articles, content for the site. When we were talking about this press event, not "we" and not me but other people had bets going about what feature talked about at BlizzCon was going to be cut before it got to press -- and a lot of people said Pet Battles. You know, they figured that was something that would end up Dance Studio'd, whatever. I was pleased to see it was still on the table and apparently functional. That's a pretty big undertaking -- it's less using in-engine assets and more like creating something out of whole cloth for use in the game. Cory said that this is really the first minigame, so how have you guys handled that process?

We look at the scope and the size of WoW, and there is definitely areas of WoW that are not widely utilized as other areas, and we felt like pets was one of those things because everybody collects these things. Everyone has pets of some degree or another, and it would be great to associate some sort of gameplay with those, so what did we have to do to make that happen? Our designers sat down and came up with some cool ideas, and we started to flesh that out.

And the more we played with it, the more fun we started to have with it, and so we thought "This is going to be awesome," and it's not something that is required for players. It's something that people can do on their side time or if they're waiting for a dungeon to start up or sitting around waiting for a guy to respawn. Then I think it's a fun little side minigame, and it's something that we haven't ever really done before, but it could be something players really enjoy -- and if it is, we will look for more ways to do something like that in the future.

What do you think about WoW's staying power? Obviously, with a game that's around for almost eight years and in development for much longer than that, there have to be challenges, and gamers are fickle types. Why do you think WoW has managed to be as big as it is for so long?

That's a great question. There's over 10 million people playing this game, and that number has definitely grown over the years. And I think that the strongest aspect of WoW is that not only the quality of the game and the fact that Blizzard really wants to make the content amazing and fun, but also just the player community and the relationship Blizzard has with the players and that sense of communnication and relationship in terms of making sure we're listening to what they want and they are aware of what we want to bring to the table with this new stuff.

So I think the biggest strength is that sense of community between Blizzard and the playerbase -- and then you layer on top of that just a great game. I think that's really the key to success overall.

What's your favorite addition to WoW in Mists of Pandaria?

I'm really looking forward to running some of those dungeons. I think they are going to be a lot of fun. I've felt like up until now, it's every expansion that I've played is save the world, everything is coming to an end, we have to kill this guy, this dungeon boss is gonna take us all down... I'm kind of looking forward to maybe saving the beer on this one. Kind of getting the brewery back working again and doing some of that stuff. I think the tone is a little bit different. There's plenty of conflict, there's plenty of vicious enemies that you'll run into in Mists of Pandaria, but I think exploring the new continent and the tone that we took with some of this is going to be a lot of fun to play through.

I was just recalling that my favorite part of vanilla WoW and especially in The Burning Crusade is that sense of adventure, somewhere totally new, being able to explore and interact with these new cultures and new architecture, stuff like that, and it really looks like Mists of Pandaria is delivering on that -- that same old-school adventuring.

We hope that's the case. We learned a lot of lessons coming out of Cataclysm too, and I think that we want to help players adventure and explore the way they want to do it, so we've opened up the questing world too so that you don't have to do things as linearly. We took out a lot of the phasing stuff we did in Cataclysm. It feels like the players will be able to go at their own pace and choose your own adventure thing along the way, so it'll be a lot of fun. Players will have a lot of fun doing it.

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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