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Patch 5.3 and more with Ghostcrawler

Anne Stickney
May 20, 2013

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In case you hadn't heard the news, patch 5.3 is set to hit live servers tomorrow. While 5.3 doesn't include a new raid, there are a host of different new activities, including four new scenarios, heroic scenarios, a ton of pet battle changes, and of course the advancement of Mists of Pandaria's storyline as the heat ramps up between Alliance, Horde, and an outlier faction of Horde rebels. It's back to the Barrens again -- and this time, Crossroads isn't the area of contention.

But on top of all of the new content comes a ton of different class and content changes as well. We sat down to chat with Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street about patch 5.3's changes, as well as some upcoming changes for patch 5.4, response to subscription losses, Vengeance changes, that big unannounced feature we've all been dying to hear more about, and much more.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
WoW Insider: Why the change to Vengeance in raids - and why did you determine a 30% cap for 10's and a 50% cap for 25s?

Ghostcrawler: Oh you're talking about that tweet I made the other night! The main problem we're trying to solve is situations where tanks do silly things in order to get their dps and survivability very high. One example is standing in a fire. Because hey you're taking more damage, that's going to increase your Vengeance, and makes your healers mad. We're actually solving that one in a different way, we're just going to flag certain types of damage as not causing Vengeance. But another thing players can do is single-tank a boss that was really intended for two tanks, because the Vengeance provided is so massive it can actually help that tank's survivability.

Sometimes it's fun to single tank, particularly when you're outgearing the content a little bit -- we're not trying to remove the fun factor, we're just trying to remove the pressure to tell the off-tank that hey dude, we really just need to single tank this because it'll actually be easier for us. So by putting some kind of cap on Vengeance, we hope to keep it from getting out of control that way.

And in retrospect, I realized I didn't provide any context to my tweet -- it's something we'd been talking a lot about, and I'd kind of assumed players would understand right away what our goal was -- but of course that wasn't a fair assumption on my part. Really the goal was to stop any aberrant or silly behavior to artificially inflate Vengeance. People who are just playing normally shouldn't notice a big difference -- and if the numbers we picked are too low, we can certainly increase them a little bit.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
Item upgrades were removed in patch 5.2, but they're returning in 5.3. Can you talk about that system - what made you decide to bring it back?

We really liked the system overall, it's a cool way for players who are -- you know, to have a little bit of progression without the hassle of having to re-gem and re- enchant and reforge everything. You know, you have an item that you really like, and you can increase your tank, healing or dps a little bit kind of overall. The idea first came to us back was like Icecrown or something, one of our programmers said that his guild was on a certain boss, and they could never kill the boss. And with the item upgrades, they know that every week they'd be just a little more powerful, and they could eventually do it. So our original idea was to have item upgrades be the only thing to spend valor on.

But we thought that players really needed valor as a way of getting some starter gear to get into endgame content when Mists launched. So then we got into kind of this goofy system of "Oh, the valor upgrade dudes went away, now they came back, and they went away!" Our current plan for 5.4 (which I'm probably not supposed to talk about at all yet) -- is that there won't be valor vendors, and the upgraders will just stick around. There will still be some alternative ways for players to gear who don't want to go into raids, but we'll see. That's our plan for now, we might also have them go away again when 5.4 launches, then come back again.

Item levels and armor were kind of a mess at the end of Wrath of the Lich King, due to the different loot and different difficulties of the raid encounters. Is there a concern that item upgrades and Thunderforged gear might lead to that same issue?

Yeah, and certainly once you throw things like Thunderforged and non-Thunderforged into the mix. At least players are really aware of ilvl now. It's something we used to hide, and now it's very prominent. So people can make pretty educated guesses about "Is this item from LFR that's upgrade twice better than this item from normal that's Thunderforged," and you can generally just look at the item level and figure out where you're going. So we're not too worried about it.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
You guys changed the LFR loot system between Cataclysm and Mists. Having seen it in action for a while now, do you think the change was a successful one?

Oh yeah, overall. We still get requests once in awhile from people who are very generous souls and say "I don't really need this item, I'd love to be able to give it to someone else," but overall I think having personal loot really helps lubricate the social interactions between players who are effectively strangers. We like that, the way that feels, a lot I think. It's not a great system for groups of actual friends, but it works pretty well for groups of strangers.

Do you think 25 man raiding has stabilized at all, or is it still in decline? Are you guys working on anything to address that?

I don't know -- overall, I haven't looked at the numbers in awhile -- my hunch would be that it's still in decline honestly, because there aren't a lot of -- it's just entropy, that 25 man guilds collapse into 10 man guilds, and it's really hard for a 10 man guild to decide "Hey, let's recruit a bunch and become 25!" We do like 25 raiding, it offers some -- what we think are cool advantages over 10's. I think personally, 25 feels more epic, you have a whole army of characters assaulting an enemy base. It's a great opportunity to bring in new players to raiding, or you know, your friend who maybe isn't super skilled but wants to see the content.

When you have 10 players, every single slot is pretty precious. You can do things in 25's like kill a bunch of players and they can still succeed, where if you kill five players in a 10, it's probably a wipe. And just what I said before, that 25 has somewhere to go -- if it starts to fall apart, the guild can reorganize itself as a 10, or often a 25 will recruit again to fill the ranks back up, whereas all the time we see 10 player guilds that start to fall apart just fall apart. It's hard for them to back-fill their ranks and keep the guild going. We're worried that the path from 10 is 10 to exit, rather than 10 to a different guild to raid.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
There's been a lot of discussion on the ramp-up of difficulty in raid encounters over the years -- encounters are far more complex now than they've ever been before. How does this affect balancing for LFR?

I mean overall, when you look at the encounters, particularly back in Molten Core -- there just wasn't much going on. The community of players was so unsophisticated, compared to what they have now. A 40 player raiding guild was like ... people with a pulse, you know? Nobody knew what the right rotation for a warlock was, because there certainly weren't things like AskMrRobot or even a WorldofLogs -- it was really hard to figure out even how to play your character.

You had the 15 really good people, and the rest were mostly filler.

Yeah! Or even if you had like, one really good raid leader who kind of knew, "Look, you have to dispel on Lucifron, that is the key to this fight. Dispel dispel dispel." I mean nowadays, if we made a fight that was, that the entire key was to remember to dispel? It would be trivial. Like ... people could five man it. So as players have become more sophisticated, and to some extent as we've given characters more tools, we've had to add more mechanics to encounters to kind of keep them at a certain difficulty level.

Because at some point -- encounters can be difficult because of number tuning or because of mechanics. And with the numbers tuning, at some point you just can't physically win the fight unless every single hit is a crit or something astronomically impossible like that. So I think it's totally fair that we've increased mechanics over time. Now, I know that there's an argument out there that raid finder should just have fewer mechanics overall because people can't handle it.

That kind of leads into my next question -- LFR for Throne of Thunder seems to be far more challenging than ever before -- players in LFR have a tendency to ignore mechanics in favor of simply plowing through content. This tends to put a lot of stress on healers and tanks. How do you balance mechanics around players that tend to ignore them?

It's tough, because if we let players ignore the mechanics too much, the first thing that happens is that the boss encounters don't feel very exciting anymore, because it's just a big bag of hit points. And then the second thing that happens is players feel like "That encounter was kind of lame, I had no idea what was going on and the big turtle just died and I didn't realize what was happening." So we do try to make sure that you have to pay some attention to the mechanics. We make them pretty forgiving to where if you don't, you know, you don't kill every single bat immediately in LFR you're probably going to be fine. And we allow for quite a bit of error there to make sure the group can still function.

It's always been a challenge to make sure that that learning doesn't fall on the backs of healers. We try to do things like "Your damage is debuffed if you stand in the fire," rather than you just taking lots of extra damage. A little of that goes a long way though, and we don't want every single fire to be a damage debuff, because that starts to feel a little contrived. I agree it's a challenge, at the same time we look at the success rates, and they're really not any different for Throne of Thunder than they've been for earlier raid finder tiers.

The first week or two that a new boss is open -- particularly one like Lei Shen -- it's going to be challenging, you probably don't have a lot of normal raiders in there to kind of teach people the ropes, a lot of people have no idea what's going on, and wipes will happen. Typically that clears up after a few weeks as you get enough of a critical mass of people that know what's going on and can kind of help lead the other players through there.

I think it was both Lei Shen and Durumu -- Durumu killed a lot of people!

Yeah, Durumu, particularly with the whole issue with the graphics on the maze when it first went out, was harder than intended just because we weren't communicating it very well, and players couldn't understand the maze mechanics because the graphics were so bad. I think it feels a lot better now.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
With patch 5.3 we've learned that there will be no additional heroic dungeons for Mists, and instead we've gotten heroic scenarios. Is the sun setting on the 5-man dungeon? Do you consider it likely that you'll continue to add additional heroic scenarios in the future?

I don't think the sun is setting on the five man heroic dungeon. Dungeons are really cool, we like them, we know players really like them. The challenge we faced this time was -- the last time we introduced dungeons with a raid outside of the expansion itself was Dragon Soul, we did those three dungeons, which were really cool. But we felt like the raid suffered as a result. And as awesome as dungeons are, they just don't have the staying power that raids have.

A really dedicated player may run a dungeon 20 or 30 times if we're being super generous, but they could do that in just a few days, and then they're kind of done and ready for new content. Whereas to run a raid 20 to 30 times could take 20 or 30 weeks -- most people aren't gonna keep going that long, but certainly raids have longer lifespans than dungeons. Overall I think we really need to get to a point where we can deliver a really epic raid the size of Throne of Thunder and an additional dungeon or two on the side. That's going to mean growing our team even more -- we're trying to grow it right now, and trying to make some smart production choices to make sure we have the bandwidth to do dungeons and raids simultaneously.

I don't want players to think that they're getting heroic scenarios instead of dungeons, though. They're kind of different teams working on them, scenarios are much easier for us to make, so it was more of extra content we could give players rather than trying to do a bait and switch of "Yeah, I know you like dungeons, but we're gonna give you this scenario instead."

Besides the two-player difference, what's stopping heroic scenarios from morphing into the same difficulty and niche that 5-man heroic dungeons hold?

They certainly could be as difficult, and anyone who's tried the new heroic scenarios -- they're fairly challenging. The first time we ran some, we would just run in guns blazing like we do normal scenarios and we all died. And that happened to us two or three times and then we were like, "Okay. We need to pull one at a time, maybe we need to sheep someone along the way." It felt much more like a dungeon. But I think there's still a difference.

Dungeons come with the expectation of new architecture, and some new art, and mechanics like that. I don't think players would be satisfied if we just took, say, the Tomb of Forgotten Kings and said "Hey, this is our dungeon now," even though it has the basics of a dungeon, you know, it has a tomb you're going down into and monsters and things like that. But I still don't think it feels like a dungeon the way Gate of the Setting Sun feels like a dungeon.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
The Barrens content in 5.3 is a move away from daily quests and toward a more dynamic type of activity. Is this the direction that Blizzard would like to take WoW in the future?

It's an experiment! We added all the daily content in Mists to get players into the outdoor world more. One of the things we heard loud and clear from Cataclysm was that players were getting tired of sitting in cities, queuing for dungeons or arenas.

I got so tired of Orgrimmar.

Yeah -- we had made all these great zones and no one saw them -- as an aside, when I say that it makes it sound like we're being all grumpy because people aren't seeing the stuff we worked hard on. It's not that, it's just that that's supposed to be content for players, and they're not getting to see it, which leads to this feeling that everything's the same. So in Mists we made this big effort to get people out into the world, there's things like the farm, there's also Klaxxi dailies and Golden Lotus dailies. And that worked, for the most part, but I think we overdid it on the daily quests, something I think a lot of players said.

So we're trying to explore other ways of providing outdoor content that isn't just, you know, kill these eight mogu every day for the rest of your life. The Barrens content is an attempt at that, there's going to be even more of that in 5.4. We'd like to support a little more group content, because what we hear from some players is "I don't mind being outside of dungeons, but I want to play with my friends," and usually when you group up to do dailies, it can slow you down because you know, there's not enough drops for everyone, or the guy you want to kill is already dead or things like that.

So yeah, we're really anxious to see how players react to it and if they say this is cool, we'll mix it in with some of the dailies and we'll try to do more of that going forward.

I kind of like it because it feels almost like you're incorporating some of those elements from large-scale world events, like opening the gates of AQ, only with more of a purpose.

Yeah! Just providing a purpose -- it's doesn't take much, just a little bit of item drop and valor and lesser charms and things like that. And now players feel like "Oh, I have something to do that kind of feels like back in the day," like when you go to Tyr's Hand to farm for Crusader Orbs or something like that.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
Patch 5.3 will be the first since WoW's drop to 8 million subscribers was announced, and there will be a lot of eyes on this patch as Blizzard's initial response to the decline. What, if any, effect do you think 5.3 will have on the subscription numbers? Further, did the decline in numbers (including any internal projections you have) influence the patch's development?

We always try to look at reasons for why players stop playing, whether it's they're telling us why, or just trying to infer from their behavior. Certainly as we look ahead to 5.3 and 5.4, we try to address things that players say they're not happy with. How much that affects subscriber numbers is always a little hard to extrapolate out. Overall, our business model tends to be that people come for the expansions and stay for the patches. We don't -- I wouldn't really expect 5.3 to be an awesome win-back opportunity for us. Expansions are really what drives that.

That's why we've stated that we're trying to get expansions out faster and faster, because that's what really keeps players engaged. 5.3 will be awesome for people who are still having fun with the game and are just looking forward -- you know, if they're starting to get a little tired of the Throne of Thunder dailies, or maybe a little tired of the raid, they'll have some new stuff there. I don't think it's going to be some kind of massive, you know, "Wow, the game feels totally different than it did last week!" The next expansion will hopefully offer more of that.

What ever happened to the RealID offline option? Is that still happening at some point?

It's still in the plan -- without throwing anyone under the bus, we have to work with a lot of outside groups on that, particularly And they have a lot on their plate right now with all of our other games. It's hard for us just to go insert code like that ourselves -- meaning, ourselves on the World of Warcraft team. Things that require outside dependencies, even within Blizzard are a little harder to pull off. But I don't believe -- to my knowledge the idea hasn't been abandoned, it's just not happening for 5.3.

Herbalism and mining are changing so that they can be leveled entirely in Pandaria. Will this extend to skinning also?

I don't know. Our desire is to provide catch-up mechanics for all of the professions, we did it originally with cooking, and then with engineering and blacksmithing in the latest patch. We really like that feeling of if you've neglected your professions, or you want to change professions, you don't have to go all the way back to Westfall and start killing very low level mobs there to get those professions up. It's just a matter of how much time do we have to add all of those mechanics at once. But we'll eventually get to all the professions.

Why did you decide to reduce the XP needed from 85-90 in patch 5.3?

It was just starting to feel like it was time. As people were leveling their alts, you can kind of rocket through the level 60 and 70 content and then you'd hit Jade Forest and it would really slow down. We want to make sure -- I know the topic of alts in Mists has been a super controversial one. But we do want people to be able to play their alts, we just don't want them to instantly catch up to where the main is, and it felt like in this case it was taking too long for people to get through the new Mists content.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
Druids now work on a 4-spec system. What are your thoughts on expanding this system to other classes?

It's a neat idea, and something we consider a lot, we have to consider what would be the impact on the game to players. Because now, everyone out there has to remember that there are additional specs, perhaps with additional roles, for all the existing classes. So when you're in PvP, you have to remember that that warlock could be Demonology, Affliction, Destruction, or spec X, and what does that mean, and all the new spells that come with that.

It adds a lot of -- bloat is probably too mean a word, but it adds a lot of stuff to the game that we have to balance, that players have to learn, that we have to support with set bonuses and all that other stuff. So I don't want to say never, but it's not something that's going to be right on the horizon. It's a big change to the game. It might be easier to do it slowly, a couple classes at a time, or something like that.

There are a lot of people still curious about that big unannounced feature. Are we going to see it in patch 5.4? Any hints on what it might be?

It is on the schedule for patch 5.4, I think it's likely that we'll get it in. I think players will know it when they see it.

So far, every expansion has seen a major talent tree revamp. Mists was easily the biggest change. How do you feel the revamp has worked out?

We're really happy with it, to be honest. We're looking at a lot of feedback right now because in patch 5.4, we want to take another opportunity as we did in patch 5.2 to kind of look at underutilized talents, talents that aren't delivering on their promise, or also mandatory talents that players feel like, you know, "I love this other one, but I just can't give up this one. I have to have it." There are definitely some specific choices for some specific specs that haven't yet lived up to the promise, but there are also some that are great. And players say, "You know I have three choices, I use them all, they all feel good." We really like the way that feels. And I think this talent tree's a keeper for the foreseeable future.

I think it is fair that the game needs some kind of reward for leveling -- that you miss that now, that talents used to provide. At the same time, this is just one of those areas where WoW has been a victim of its own success, and now that we're looking at 90 levels of character advancement -- there's just no reasonable way to provide a cool reward every single level for 90 levels. I mean, nobody wants 90 buttons on their bar. That's just crazy. We need to think of other ways to make leveling feel cool or to reward it that aren't tied into a new button that has to be managed.

Patch 53 and more with Ghostcrawler
PvP is undergoing some major changes with resilience and the introduction of PvP power. How do you feel that's working out so far?

Well hopefully it's working out good, it's a 5.3 change, so we haven't seen it in action on live servers yet. Really excited about the idea though. It -- we just realized more and more than resilience is survivability, and you need some level of survivability to even set foot in PvP. And the issue was, it wasn't fun for people to lose battleground after battleground or arena after arena just to get enough points to get gear, to help them compete. So everyone's going to be a little more survivable, and then as you get better PvP gear, your throughput -- your damage or healing -- will go up as the reward instead. And we think that's going to feel a lot better.

What do you think has been the biggest challenge so far this expansion?

I think the simple answer to that is the caps on things like Valor Points. And what I mean by that is, we add those caps to kind of give players a reason to feel like they've finished. If valor was uncappable, the motivation might be to just play forever -- or players that felt like they couldn't earn enough valor points -- and it could also be lesser charms, or daily quests, it could be whatever. We feel like we have to have those caps at some point to just kind of stop ridiculous behavior, and to stop people from feeling like they can't compete at all. But as soon as we put one of those caps in, players feel like the intention is that they're supposed to reach it.

We never intended for every player out there to max the number of daily quests and rep gain and lesser charms and valor points and everything else, every single week. But because players saw that cap, they thought that "This is how you're supposed to play World of Warcraft. I'm supposed to fill up that bar, every single week," and it gets to be, you know, for some players -- that's just not fun for them. That's not interesting for them. We were hoping it would be that some people would earn 500 one week, 100 the next week, maybe cap once in awhile, some weeks they're on vacation, they earn 0, and that's okay -- they're still making progress overall.

But it didn't work out that way, in the end, and for a lot of our players, they felt like we were -- you know, once the bar was there, it was their duty to fill it, and if they couldn't fill it, rather than being happy with whatever progress they could make, they just wanted to bail on the entire progress at all. So I don't have a good solution for that yet, it's something we talk a lot about, about giving players ways to keep playing as long as they want to without making them feel like the only way to stay competitive is to play as much as they possibly can.

It's supposed to be a game, not a job, and we don't want people to feel like you have to commit ridiculous hours in World of Warcraft to have fun with it. That has been a struggle, it continues to be a struggle, we don't have great solutions to that yet -- we're giving players a lot more variety in earning valor and charms, and just gear in general, in patch 5.3 and 5.4. And if we can hit a sweet spot there, then that's the model we can adopt for the future.

Thanks so much for your time!

Any time!

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