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Interview with Lead Encounter Designer Ion Hazzikostas

Michael Sacco

At the Mists of Pandaria launch event in Irvine last week, I had the opportunity to talk to Ion Hazzikostas, lead encounter designer for World of Warcraft, about Mists of Pandaria's raids and dungeons, lessons learned from Cataclysm and beyond, and the road ahead.

WoW Insider: State your name and position!

Ion Hazzikostas: My name is Ion Hazzikostas and I am the lead encounter designer for World of Warcraft.

What does that job entail?

I'm the lead on the encounter team, which is self-explanatory; we make the dungeon and raid content, primarily. We're specialists in multiplayer PVE combat. On top of the dungeons and raids, we also help with outdoor raid bosses, scenario bosses, things like that.

What would you say that your biggest goal going into Mists of Pandaria was?

Particularly on the dungeon and raid front, to provide content for everybody, for all kinds of players. And we recognize that there's a massive spectrum of millions of people who are playing and enjoying World of Warcraft - a huge range of skill, frankly, and time commitment, the whole casual-hardcore spectrum people always talk about. And one of the things that we've been doing over the evolution of the game is to add additional difficulties, additional ways of consuming that content. So, you know, we now have LFR, normal, and heroic raids, and now we've introduced challenge modes, a sort of new tier of actually legitimately difficult five-player content. It's one of the biggest differences from Cataclysm at launch; one of the things we heard from people who were in guilds with friends and they'd say "these dungeons are awesome, we're having a lot of fun" ... but the people who queued up in Dungeon Finder would have a miserable time.

And it's the truth that the latter type of player is now the majority. And that was an evolution that happened very quickly, over the course of 3.3 with Dungeon Finder. We had theories, but we hadn't really seen how it would play out with brand-new content. When we added it in 3.3, the majority of content was almost a year old and massively outgeared. One of the things that we discovered was that what we consider one of the core experiences of playing an MMO -- failing, learning from your mistakes, applying that knowledge, adapting, overcoming the challenge -- you feel good about that. But you also feel good about coming back next time and now you've mastered the fight! And you win! But that breaks down when you're not using repeat players. You're playing with a different group of four people next time; you learned the fight, but they may not have. So then you're back failing all over again while these other people learn. And that can be frustrating.

So we've recognized that, and the Mists dungeon content is tuned for the randomly-matched dungeon finder groups, so the people who were frustrated with Cataclysm launch dungeons should have a much better time this time around. And challenge modes are now there for people who have that group of four really skilled friends or guildies who are looking for a challenge.

We've gone back to a larger number of raid bosses available, at least in the introductory raids. Is this a lesson learned from Cataclysm or just a new design direction?

A little bit of both. I mean, we love large raid tiers, and it's something we hear from players constantly, reminiscing about zones like Ulduar or Icecrown Citadel, and that's something that we'd like to be able to deliver; not only in launch patches, but also in every raid going forward. We're aiming big. We have so much raid content that we felt that the most appropriate thing to do was to break it up into two tiers with a staged release. One of the things we heard from players in tier 11 content was that it was almost too much, too overwhelming.

And we actually had planned for tier 11 to be a staged release, or even a delayed release for Cataclysm as well, but the way the timing of that expansion worked out, releasing early December would've put the raid openings smack in the middle of the holidays. It wouldn't have been very good. So we scrapped it for tier 11, but we liked it, so we want to try again.

There's been some concern lately about the future of 25-man raiding, the basic complaint being that there isn't enough motivation or compensation for wrangling a large group of raiders. Some major guilds are splitting into 10s instead of recruiting for 25s. Any thoughts on that?

We love 25-man raiding. Many of us play in 25-man raids. It's something we talk about on a regular basis, and we're not really happy with the state of 10 vs. 25. The intent with that system -- the parallel reward structure -- was to allow people to choose what they preferred most. That wasn't the case in Wrath; people who maybe preferred to do 10s were obligated to do 25s because that was the only way to get good loot. But what we saw in Cataclysm was people who maybe preferred 25s being forced to raid 10s because the burden, the logistics of maintaining a 25-player guild is on the shoulders of the officers, the guild leaders, and they have to herd two-and-a-half times as many cats.

So we recognize that for it to be a really fair, equal choice, we do need to incentivize it. One of the things we're doing in Mists is upping the ratio of loot dropped in 25s to 6 pieces of loot, up from 5, so you'll gear faster in 25-man raids compared to 10s, where the ratio is 2 pieces per boss. From a pure selfish perspective, if you're looking to max out your character's power, 25s are the most efficient way.

Something we've heard a lot from the community is that they'd like some way to separate the achievements, to track it for each mode separately, and that's something we're definitely looking into for future patches. We could even do it retroactively.

So yeah, it's something we talk a lot about and we're likely to have more announcements in the near future.

What can we expect from future raid tiers? Will they be spread out like this tier, or single-dungeon?

It varies, honestly. I don't think we have a specific formula. It depends on the story we're trying to tell. I'll say that it's likely that our next raid content patch will be a single large dungeon, but from patch to patch, it'll vary depending on the major actors, the bosses, etc.

How long have you been working in your position?

I started just before Lich King launched, so I've worked on bosses in all of the raids and dungeons since then.

What were your favorite and least favorite bosses in that time?

Haha. Hm. Favorites are, again, kind of like picking favorite children ... for Lich King, I'd say probably Arthas himself. I think we delivered on a really epic experience there. For Cataclysm I'd have to say Ragnaros. Like with players, epic multi-phase fights are really popular with us. At the same time, it's important to know that not every fight can be like that. You compare Baleroc to Ragnaros and there's no contest, a very intentional difference in complexity and length. Historically we tend to relegate the most epic fights to the end bosses, so that's where a lot of my favorites are going to be.

Least is tough. I can pick a couple of encounters ... I think we have regrets, things that we would change if we could go back knowing how things would turn out. In Lich King, one of those was Sindragosa. There were a lot of cool mechanics in that fight, but the one that didn't work, I think, besides the voice acting and your magic betraying you, was the ability Unleashed Magic. The right thing to do for many classes was to stand in the corner and not play the game for 30 or 40 seconds, and that just wasn't fun for players. It should have been designed differently.

We try to avoid changing encounters once they're live, outside of fixing obvious bugs and so forth, so that was just one of those where we went "yeah, lesson learned." And something that comes up in meetings a lot when we're designing new bosses is "is that gonna cause a Sindragosa problem? Is the right counter to that ability to just sit by yourself and do nothing?" And sometimes it's okay; when you were the living bomb with Baron Geddon, you ran out, but that was the right thing to do. But it can't always be like that.

What fight specifically are you looking forward to people getting their hands on in Mists?

Almost all of them. One of the cool things about having such a large raid tier is the sheer amount of variety in encounters. There are fights that are high movement, fights that are steep DPS races, fights where you're AOEing, etc. A few that I think are the coolest are the Spirit Kings encounter in Mogu'Shan Vaults. It's a really dynamic, fun fight. It evokes the strongest parts of fights like Omnitron and the Assembly of Iron with different activations, stuff to watch out for ... it really keeps players on their toes.

Do you also work on scenarios, or is that a different team?

Scenarios actually are something that members of the entire design team can make. We have scenarios made by the quest designers, by systems designers like Greg Street's team, even yeah, my team. Scenarios are something that intentionally can be a little experimental. We worked in very different looks and feels and even tones for each of the scenarios so far, and that's cool because it shows the strengths of each of the teams.

Thanks for your time, Ion.

Thank you!

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