Patch 5.4, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|08.16.13

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Patch 5.4, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
Patch 5.4 is nearing completion, and soon we'll see the Siege of Orgrimmar and the fate of Garrosh Hellscream on live servers. But 5.4 has much more to offer than the raid itself -- we'll have plenty of other content to play through as well. Featuring new pets, new mounts, a new raid difficulty and much, much more, patch 5.4 is shaping up to be a substantial addition to an already massive expansion.

We had the opportunity to chat with Lead Game Designer Tom Chilton regarding all of the above, as well as plenty of other topics of contention in regards to both patch 5.4 and Mists of Pandaria as an expansion. Read on to hear what he had to say about Flexible raiding, the upcoming Connected Realms feature, the future of daily quests and the challenges of creating a raid out of a capital city.

WoW Insider: People are going back and forth on what the "big feature" is in patch 5.4. What would you say is the biggest feature personally for you?

Tom Chilton: Well, I think you have to put the raid up as kind of a cornerstone feature of the patch. I mean ultimately, that's really what drives and motivates players -- what the new content is centered around. That being said, there's obviously a lot of other big awesome stuff in the patch too.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
How do you feel patch 5.3 went? What worked, what didn't work?

5.3 I think was an interesting progression for us, in that we started to move more toward free form content, as far as giving players weekly goals and giving players a lot more freedom in how to go about accomplishing those. Obviously, we heard loud and clear from 5.0 that the world content, that the dailies felt too repetitive. So it's something that we've really been trying to solve, and evolve toward a model that feels ... still like it has some direction, but that players have a lot more ability to sort of determine their own fate, determine how they're going to go about accomplishing their goals for the week.

So 5.3 in a lot of ways was a testing ground for us to try out some of those concepts. I think there were some successes, in terms of just -- it felt like you had more freedom, it felt like there were events going on, you're out there in the Barrens and you see a boss light up. At the same time, it was easy to go out there and it would already be dead. Or a lot of times it felt like you were sort of at the whim of things popping up all over the place on the map. So we tried to take those things into account when creating the Timeless Isle, and make sure that Timeless Isle was kind of a more well-rounded experience.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
The Timeless Isle seems like an odd addition to Pandaria -- it's a completely new zone, and nobody really saw it coming. What was the purpose behind introducing it?

Well, more than anything else, we wanted to give players some new content to explore. Clearly if you look at the map, it's not much of a stretch to see that there are islands out there off the coast of Pandaria. We did something similar along those lines with the Throne of Thunder, although we kind of preceded it -- we had it showing up a little, sort of the edge of it, you could see it way off the coast.

But we really wanted to give players a place, because we felt like that the Isle of Giants worked out pretty well, but there was a lot more that we wanted to do with that concept and with the stuff that we were doing in the Barrens that we really needed a new place to be able to do that and it felt like it sort of made sense to have an island out there off the coast of the Jade Forest.

There's been a distinct absence of daily quests in 5.3 and 5.4. Is this type of content something you're moving away from altogether?

I wouldn't say that it's inconceivable that we will have daily quests again at some point in the future, but certainly not to the scale that we did in the past. In the past what we had tried to do was provide enough different daily quests that the game wouldn't feel, the content wouldn't feel repetitive. But at the same time, we lifted the cap on the number of quests that you could do. In the past, you could only do 10 daily quests and then you were done. If we had a limit of 10 different daily quests, but 100 different quests you could do out there, then you can sort of imagine there would be a little bit more choice in terms of which ones you would do, especially if we give you different reasons to do different ones.

But since we also wanted to support the ability for players to do more quest content if they wanted to, we got rid of the cap -- it had already gone up to 25, and once we went up to 25 we felt like the cap at that point was pointless, so we went ahead and got rid of it. But that really didn't mix very well with the quantity of the daily quest content that we had in the game, because it pressured players into feeling like they had to do it all the time. That really caused a lot of burnout.

And then you had crazy people like me that wanted to finish it all at once.

(laughs) Yeah, yeah, you really wanted to be like, maximize it and be done, you didn't want other people to be done before you, that kind of thing. So yeah -- it really pressured players into play habits that really aren't the most fun way to play the game ultimately. So for 5.3 and 5.4, we're trying to see what we can do without that, without the daily quests as a core part of it. And in the long run, it may be that we end up doing some mix of it, off in the future -- but I think we're heading in an interesting direction, and we'll certainly learn a lot from 5.4.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
The impression of daily quests on players has drastically shifted since they were introduced in Burning Crusade. How does this affect the design and development of future endgame content?

Well it definitely affects the design and development. There was certainly a time in Burning Crusade -- now Burning Crusade had the advantage of having the 10 daily quest cap. I don't think we can underestimate how much that helped players not burn out. But at the same time, I think that if we took those great quests, and we just had those quests, that set of quests, and essentially translated them into Mists of Pandaria, we probably would have run across some of the same problems.

The reality is that the audience evolves over time, and the game itself evolves over time. So some of the things that were popular in the past wouldn't necessarily be popular today. I think that's a lot of the reason why you really can't just go back in time in terms of where players were emotionally and mentally at the time. You have to continue to look forward and evolve the game in ways that are interesting to people today, even if those aren't things that are the same as they were in the past.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
Players have mentioned concerns about what happens to the Vale in patch 5.4 and the loss of achievements. Why not simply phase the Vale depending on what stage of the storyline your character happens to be in?

On some level, players tell us that they want to see a more dynamic world -- we hear that all the time, I think people say that, and everyone else tends to nod their heads and say yes, yes a more dynamic world would be cool! Sometimes they don't necessarily like the consequences (laughs) -- of what that actually means. At the same time, I think it's actually good for the game world to see change like that. I think the number of players that are actually truly upset that they will never have gotten to play the Vale of Eternal Blossoms content as it was is actually strikingly small. I don't see that as being a real problem, I see it as being theorycraft kind of a problem.

The reason not to phase it are in a lot of ways -- they're technical. There are implementation reasons that it's not really practical or feasible for us. The zone wasn't created initially with that in mind, and that has a lot of consequences for us. So we know that we felt like it was the right thing for the Garrosh storyline as that storyline continued to evolve. We felt like "Oh hey, let's do this and have the world feel dynamic." And if you got to do the content back when the Vale was whole, then cool.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
The Siege of Orgrimmar marks the first time we've seen an endgame raid on a capital city. What were some of the challenges of putting that raid together?

Certainly some of the biggest challenges were that Orgrimmar as a layout was never really designed to be somewhere that people fight -- same case with Stormwind or Undercity or anywhere else. We architected those way back ten years ago, there's not really a whole lot of thought that went into the layout as a raid zone.

I think with a raid in Stormwind, I'd spend most of my time falling in the canal.

(laughs) Yeah, no doubt. So there were really two big challenges -- one of them was that the layout wasn't designed for raiding. And then the second challenge was that we wanted players to feel like they were sieging a capital city, yet at the same time we know that players want to experience new content. If the whole thing were literally just a romp around Orgrimmar, it would feel like, you know we hear a lot of that "Oh Blizzard's just lazy, they just wanted to re-hash content, they didn't want to give us new stuff, blah blah blah" -- all that kind of stuff.

So we knew that -- and to be fair, players do want to see new stuff right, they want to see new environments, they want to be inspired by locations. It's really cool to have that epic dungeon crawl feeling in a raid. So we wanted to make sure we delivered on both of those fantasies -- both the raiding of Orgrimmar itself, and then also delivering a new section that they have never seen before, that felt really epic and awe-inspiring.

Will we see a different Orgrimmar when all is said and done, or will Hellscream's new interpretation of the city stay put?

It stays put, at least for now.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
Flexible raiding -- what is the intent behind it?

The intent behind that is really to fill a gap that we feel like we have not nailed well in quite some time, probably not since Lich King. Ever since -- when raids became more difficult in Cataclysm, we realized that oh man, there's a lot of guilds out there that haven't gotten accustomed to raiding during Wrath of the Lich King, that just weren't able to progress anymore. They weren't able to step up their game to the point that the raids were tuned.

At the end of Cataclysm of course we introduced the Raid Finder. We sort of imagined that that was the better way to replace the pickup group experience that existed back during Wrath of the Lich King, all the spamming in raid chat, that kind of stuff to find a group. We felt like that's just a really clumsy process, let's take what we learned with the Dungeon Finder and apply that to raids, and the casual raiders will be able to take their entire guild, they'll be able to go into the Raid Finder and have a great experience.

As it turned out, because a lot of these guilds don't really have -- they aren't necessarily 25 person guilds -- they aren't going and they aren't really filling out all of Raid Finder. They get in there, they get mixed in with a whole bunch of random people, and it doesn't really feel like the cohesive, social playing with friends experience that a raid would have felt like, like a 10-person Normal raid in Wrath of the Lich King. So we really still had that gap. We hadn't filled it well with the Raid Finder. Raid Finder did do a good job in terms of finding the player that doesn't have a guild and doesn't really feel like standing around in trade chat all the time the opportunity to see the content. but it didn't solve all the problems, all those gaps we had. We feel like the introduction of that Flex Raid really fills that final gap.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
Some players feel as though adding another level of difficulty muddles an already complex system -- now they have LFR/Flex/Normal/Heroic/Warforged gear to contend with in addition to Valor upgrades.

It's certainly a legitimate argument to make, there's definitely quite a bit of complexity in there, although I think that players are naive if they think that there weren't four difficulties in the past. Wrath of the Lich King, you don't hear people talking about four difficulties, but the reality is we had 10-person Normal, 25-person Normal, 10-person Heroic, and 25-person Heroic, and they were all tuned very differently, for different audiences. In a lot of ways, what caused some difficulties we've had in the past, the recent past, with satisfying the raiding player base is that we really went from four difficulties down to about two difficulties in Cataclysm, re-added a third with LFR, and we're just now getting back to four difficulties, where we were in the past.

Will we see other modes of raiding die out in the future in favor of just using Flex?

I would actually more expect for us to continue to apply the flexibility concept to other difficulties if it's possible -- obviously the next candidate would be Normal difficulty, to see if we can apply the size flexibility to that too. I don't actually expect us to eliminate a difficulty at this point. That's definitely not in our current plan. If we end up in a situation where nobody's doing something, then we would consider it, but we're definitely not there right now.

There's an audience for the 25-person raids, and they really like that content, it feels really good, there are definitely cool things about it -- if I could wave my magic wand I would put everyone in a 25-person guild and probably have them do 25-person content. Obviously that's not reality, but we don't want to take that kind of content away from the audience that really does enjoy it.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
This expansion saw the introduction of one race for both factions -- Ghostcrawler mentioned on Twitter that he wasn't a fan of it overall. How do you feel it went? Will we see something like this again in the future?

I definitely wouldn't rule it out for the future, but we just felt like it was appropriate for this expansion. The number one most requested race for us to do -- by a long shot -- it was pandaren, from various different ways that we gather information. It wasn't even close, compared to any other race. It felt like it would have been really dicey to only offer it to one side or the other, it really felt in the spirit of what Pandaria was and what the pandaren are, that it made sense for it.

Now we knew going into it that it would have the challenges of the silhouette, not having that distinct "Oh I see that and I know that's Horde or that's Alliance." But I think it added something cool, and I don't know that -- even if I were to go back in time -- if we assumed that we were doing Mists of Pandaria, I don't know that I would really advocate that we split it up and not have the pandaren be on one side.

Connected Realms - we won't see them introduced with 5.4. Why the delay?

Well, they essentially are -- I mean all of the technology is in patch 5.4 and once 5.4 is released and everything is presumably stable, we're going to start activating the Connected Realms. I think the only distinction there is the moment 5.4 goes live, we are not also going to have a whole bunch of realms suddenly connected together. It's just going to be a staged roll out, so that we can make sure that we -- we did the exact same thing with Cross-Realm Zones. When we introduced those, we did it over about the course of a month or so.

Patch 54, flexible raids, dailies and more with Tom Chilton
Will players know what realms they'll be connected to prior to the release of the feature?

No, there aren't really any plans to pre-announce that, because we're really going to do whatever seems right for whatever group of realms, in terms of -- we're going to try and make sure that any realm is part of some kind of healthy group of realms. So you've got enough players playing together, but not too many.

Some players have wondered if there will be any visual proof of the end of the war after 5.4. With the advancements made in phasing, is there any chance level 90 players could see areas claimed by the Horde in Cataclysm reclaimed by the Alliance?

We don't have plans right now to express that in the world in 5.4 -- there's an event that's going to be taking place between 5.4 and the next expansion, assuming there is one of course. (laughs)

Expansion or event?

There will be an event between now and then.(laughs) So players will have to wait and see how that shakes out.

Will we see a patch 5.5 before the expansion is over?

I don't know that it will be numbered that specifically, but yes, there will be something between now, and an expansion, should an expansion happen.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us!

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