World of Warcraft turns ten next month. Think about that for a second: not only have people been playing World of Warcraft for ten years, but Blizzard has actively supported it for a decade. While there's no lack of statistics pointing to a declining subscriber base, the truth of the matter is that even in decline, World of Warcraft is head and shoulders above its competition. Not to mention that subscriber numbers tend to peak in the lead up to a new expansion. With the promise of expansion releases at a steadier rate into the future, it's hard to imagine World of Warcraft going away soon.
Lead Game Designer Ion Hazzikostas joined Blizzard in 2008. I caught up with him during a trip to Sydney where he appeared at an event celebrating the game's tenth anniversary, alongside the November 13 release of Warlords of Draenor. We chat about what the ten year milestone means to Blizzard, and what the studio has in mind for the future.
PC Gamer: World of Warcraft hits ten years next month. Is there another ten years in it?
Ion Hazzikostas: Yes, without a question. I can’t tell you exactly what our 20th anniversary celebration event is going to be–maybe new content which hasn’t been created–but I can tell you there’s going to be one.
PCG: Has there been any notable shifts in the way both Blizzard and the community approach the series, since you joined in 2008?
IH: Yeah. There hasn’t necessarily been a clear cut point where things suddenly changed, it’s just a series of gradual changes among our community but also among us, as we respond and listen. Part of having a game which has run for ten consecutive years is that your fans and your players lives are changing, and you need to evolve with them. A lot of players who first adopted WoW in 2004 were students then, but now they have families and careers. Maybe previously they liked to stay up raiding, but now they’re trying to fit in 60 to 90 minutes after the kids go to bed, trying to keep in touch with this passion of theirs.
At the same time we don’t want to make the game exclusively like that, because new players are coming in all the time: people who are looking to be the best, to climb to the top of an arena ladder in PvP or to be the best raiders in the world. What we’ve seen over the years is a continuing broadening of our reach and focus. We’re not trying to focus on one play style versus another, but trying to focus on all playstyles.
If you like collecting, getting mounts and pets, then you can build a whole experience around doing that. If you just want to log on and see to the end of the story, you can hop into the raid finder and experience content which, seven or eight years ago, you’d need to organise 25 to 40 friends and dedicated blocks of time over the course of weeks and months to see. Now if you feel like it you can get the story payoff there. Really it’s about accessibility wherever possible, but not at the expense of depth.
PCG: Over the course of all the expansions, and given that some people have played for ten years, does it get more difficult to balance the needs of newcomers with the old school?
IH: Sure it does. I think the challenge there is giving existing players something that feels new and fresh to them, and giving them evolution. Particularly with classes, the characters they play, the new toys they want and new abilities, but without letting the game get to the point where it’s overwhelming and frankly bloated for someone coming in from scratch.
What we did in Mists of Pandaria we’ve gone further with in Warlords of Draenor. That is, where possible we've consolidated and streamlined those elements from the past. We want to keep the elements that are the best, strongest and most pure, while getting rid of the ones that are redundant, less used or less needed by the player base. A lot of the class changes that we’re making in Warlords reflects that philosophy. We’re looking back at ten years worth of class development, where often classes would get abilities just because other classes were getting new abilities (even if they didn't need them). As class designers we would sit around thinking to ourselves “well okay, does the Death Knight really need four new abilities? They’re kinda well rounded, they can do everything as it is, but oh well, I guess everyone’s getting new abilities so let’s come up with some stuff.” Some of them were good but some of them weren’t really needed. You layer enough of those on top of each other and you get to the point where a new or returning player is overwhelmed with the amount of options.
But it also means when we want to give you something new–something that is valuable and is meeting a gameplay need–there’s no room. People’s action bars are full and their keybinds are all tied up. So we’re constantly having to go back to do periodic housecleaning, streamlining, getting rid of things that are less used in order to make room for exciting new things.
PCG: Has that thinking influenced making the previous expansion sets free? What was the motive there?
IH: I think that’s in the same vein as the level 90 boost: trying to remove the obstacles that come with having ten years worth of content. We want to keep that richness and the depth, because it’s a ten year old game and there’s an amazing amount of content in there. But we don’t want you to feel that if you want to check out Draenor you have to buy this box and that box, or that you need to jump through all these hoops in order to play the content with friends. If you see an advertisement and you want to check it out, or if you have a friend who says “come raid with me” or “come join my guild” we don’t want people to jump hurdles to get there.
PCG: The new character models have been well-received. Are there plans to upgrade other angles of the game from a cosmetic point of view? Maps for instance?
IH: I think certainly in Cataclysm we did a large scale overhaul of the old world. We increase the level of fidelity that we design the game to in each expansion. We support newer features from the newest graphics cards and so forth. I think that’s something that we continue to push. I don’t know that we necessarily have plans to go back and retrofit and update old portions of the world. To some extent it’s a living timeline and history of the development of WoW which you can play through and which stands as a record of that time.
Part of the charm of what Outland, Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King content entails is that the way they look reflects how the game looked back then. As always where it makes sense and when it’s the right thing for the player we’re not going to shy away from something due to resources, but it also comes to the question of where we allocate that resource. Would it be better served if we took all that art time and instead used it to make extra zones in our new expansion content? The answer to that is probably yes.
PCG: But in terms of practical and appealing upgrades, has the studio discussed any possibilities?
IH: Well we have more work to do with the character models, and there’s also the things that players transform into: like the Moonkin for the Druids, things along those lines that are in the same vein, and are things you see on the screen all the time. Other things we’ve been exploring is adding additional visual depth to our armour systems, whether it’s cosmetic attachments like the hunter who can have a quiver, or more geometry to the armour to help you distinguish your silhouette from other players.