Community heroes is our ongoing series of interviews with some of PC gaming's greatest heroes – the pillars of the community who have devoted huge chunks of time and love to make the PC a better place to game. Tom and I interviewed Shaun Yelle, Wowhead's current director, and former director and co-founder Guillaume Cournoyer, to ask them a little bit about what it's like building and running the slickest and most popular World of Warcraft resource on the internet.
PC Gamer: Wowhead started off as quite a nifty talent calculator. Did you always plan to host a huge database of quests, items, and abilities? Did you feel like there was a gap in the market you wanted to fill?
Guillaume: The talent calculator was purely a fun project I was doing during classes with a friend. Being an avid Diablo II player, I had been thinking about doing a calculator tool for that game in the past, but never got the chance. In December 2005, about a year after World of Warcraft had been released, we started playing around with coding a talent calculator for World of Warcraft. The challenge was to make one that was faster than what was available at the time.
The World of Warcraft database idea came in the month that followed the calculator's launch, as we noticed how popular the tool was getting. While I've always admired the original database sites for their core concept, I wasn't entirely satisfied with their implementations. So we simply applied the same recipe we did for the talent calculator and tried to create something we thought was better.
PC Gamer: There was a time when it seemed like everyone was using Thottbot for this sort of stuff, but now it seems you guys are far more popular. How do you think that happened?
Guillaume: I originally thought that Wowhead's success was only based on the fact that we had something better to offer, and how we were relentlessly improving the site, adding new features and polishing the content. It certainly didn't hurt, but that alone wasn't enough. At the time there were new database websites sprouting almost every day. The major game changer for us was the fact that World of Warcraft players were starting to look for an alternative to the database sites that existed at the time – and luckily, we were also working really hard to have the best offering. Our most significant traffic increase happened during the release of the game's first expansion, The Burning Crusade. With all the new content in the expansion, many players were looking for a reliable database to assist them. It was really about being at the right place at the right time.
Shaun: I remember searching for thorium veins on Thottbot back in Classic WoW because I was trying to farm Arcane Crystals. I got really frustrated when I viewed the maps. They had tons of squares all over the place appeared to be a haphazard manner that was correct only part of the time. They told me general areas where I could find the veins, but not specific places. These maps didn't help me come up with any kind of farming route at all. For my purpose, they were useless.
In my frustration, I typed 'thorium vein' into Google and saw a link to "Wowhead". After pondering the weirdly-named site, I clicked the link. A page loaded with a map of the Burning Steppes (now it shows you Un'Goro Crater instead) and little yellow dots at precisely the points where the veins spawned. I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped. I immediately signed up for an account, downloaded the client, and started uploading data.
I think if you asked our users, their experiences would probably be similar. In its day, Thottbot was quite popular. If the overall design and data of the site had been better, I don't think Wowhead would have become popular. People are a lot less inclined to try a new site when they one they use serves their needs completely. If fact, there are a group of people for whom Thottbot still serves their needs, so they continue to use that site. However, it would seem the majority of people were looking for something else, so when Wowhead appeared on the scene it was readily-accepted.
PC Gamer: Today you're collating user-collected data in a massive way. I certainly started using the Wowhead upload client after using the site myself, but how did you convince users to start the first wave of user-uploading?
Guillaume: We didn't have much to offer users that would convince them to contribute to the site. All we did was promote the Wowhead Client application through a small promotional piece of text on the site's homepage. Many players responded to the call, and started helping us simply to try and make the site even more complete. I'm very thankful for the impressive amount of contributions we received. It still surprises me.
Shaun: Our initial users needed little-to-no convincing at all, actually. When I found the site, I did it voluntarily simply because I wanted to help the fledgling site become more popular. In my eyes, the site was really focused on the user experience and it made me feel like the WoW data was really second to ensuring the user found what they came to the site to get. That endeared me to the site pretty quickly, and our early users felt pretty similar.
PC Gamer: Guillaume, you mentioned on Twitter that you were still checking the site a hundred times a day after you left. Have you let go yet?
Guillaume: Yes, thankfully. I was very worried about having withdrawal symptoms and not being able to stop being overly passionate about my "baby," but it turned out just fine. The Blizzard folks have been keeping me very occupied since I've joined their ranks, which helped considerably. I still visit the site once a day or so to keep up with the latest updates.
PC Gamer: Shaun, how much of your data is collected by users these days? If the entire database was wiped, how long would it take to build it back up to something respectable again?
Shaun: If the entire site was wiped, we'd be back pretty quickly simply because we back up all that data. However, you were asking something a bit different.
We certainly try to get as much of the data as possible through our own game play on live and test servers, but the users are still a very important part of filling new data into the database. We're also very lucky to have a large community of users who upload on a consistent basis, so I don't think it would take much time at all to build our database back up.
Of course, that only makes up a small part of our site. By far, I think the most important part of each database page is the feedback left by users. If we were to somehow lose all of those awesome comments and screenshots and not be able to restore them, I think that would be a worse hit to the usability of our site than anything else.
Next page: What can Blizzard learn from Wowhead?
PC Gamer: I really enjoy World of Warcraft when I have resources like Wowhead to fall back on, but I think without them, I'd often be lost and frustrated. Do you guys think you're making up for a flaw in the game, or is it right that this info should be left to external sites?
Guillaume: I don't think sites like Wowhead are making up for a flaw in the game. World of Warcraft is always evolving to include more features that improve the gameplay and make things more convenient for players. For example, one of the recent patches introduced the ability to display quest objectives on the in-game map. That said, the game's complexity and its unique, immersive world are some of its greatest strengths. It only seems natural that resources were created to document that massive world and assist those who enter it. Things continuously evolve and trends change, so there might be a day where all MMOs will have a fully integrated database with filters and comments. In the meantime, I simply see Wowhead as an optional companion to use while playing the game, and as a reference for when you're not playing.
Shaun: Blizzard has shown a tendency to take popular add-ons or site features and incorporate them into their games. The quest objective tracker, for example, is something I believe came from the conclusion that WoW players want tools like that to make the gameplay less like work and more fun overall. However, I wouldn't call these types of features 'flaws' so much as 'enhancement opportunities'. The game isn't broken without a quest objective tracker, but it's easier with one. I think sites like Wowhead likely help identify these opportunities for enhancement. In addition, a small website like Wowhead has the ability to be more agile than a larger company such as Blizzard. The result is that external sites will usually develop tools and features that the community wants a lot faster than Blizzard. After all, they have the game to concentrate on as well.
External sites also lend themselves to a bit of statistical analysis that you likely won't see in-game. For example, I think it is less likely that Blizzard would develop some tool within the game that allowed players to figure out what their next natural upgrade should be. Let's say you're a Fury Warrior is who is already hit-capped and feels like you also need a bit more stamina to increase your survivability and who favors strength over attack power since the latter doesn't scale with Blessing of Kings. Your life is much easier if you can just enter your criteria somewhere (such as our Item Comparison tool or our "Find Upgrades" functionality in the Profiler in conjunction with weight scales) and have it return a list of items that suit your needs.
PC Gamer: Do you get any cool data from your filtered item search tool? Are you seeing lots of searches for anything in particular?
Shaun: Most of our current searches revolve around newer content: Ruby Sanctum and Icecrown. As for interesting data, most of the funny stuff we see ends up being uncategorized spells that we find with new patches (one of my favorites being " I can't drive 55 "). There are also some interesting items that come up when you search for items that are not available to players.
PC Gamer: Wowhead has a lot of well-oiled features, but it's also really well presented - item info that pops up when you hover over a link, searches that populate as you type - was presentation a focus from the beginning?
Guillaume: Presentation was definitely an important aspect right from the beginning. The very first mockups all sported the same simplicity and cleanliness that Wowhead is known for today. That said, most of the efforts in this area were unconscious. I never studied web design or colour theory, but I'm a perfectionist—or so I've been told—and I tend to not be happy until every pixel is in its proper place. I would just stare at the end result and tweak instinctively until I was satisfied. Most features and design elements on the site went through this process, which seems to have been pretty successful.
Shaun: Definitely. We had this joke for a while that Guillaume was never happy if even one pixel was out of place on the site. The joke started when he stepped back from coding and took a more administrative role with the site. We'd be discussing new features or he'd be reviewing the user interface in general and he'd point out some element that needed tweaking. In a few cases, it was something that might have needed to move over a few pixels on the screen. No one else noticed it, but he did.
Every staff member here has always loved the presentation of the site and it's a focus of both our general design as well as testing. After all, it's what brought many of our users here and we want to keep them around.
PC Gamer: When Guillame left to work for Blizzard, how did the remaining team feel about it? Have you kicked out the blood elves and started building black metal gates yet?
Shaun: Actually, surprisingly little has changed. The site has grown a lot since I started managing the development team. We've hired more staff and have moved from a sort of basement project to one that follows better design/development practices and standards. I've also always worked pretty closely with the content team and much of our earlier development was aimed at making it easier to get content on the site without having to involve the development team. Overseeing the content team changes the dynamic between Casey and I a little bit, but overall things are still the same. In fact, I still get emails from Guillaume when we misplace a pixel.
PC Gamer: If you could give Blizzard one piece of advice based on what you've collectively learned working on Wowhead, what would it be? What if you could change one thing about WoW?
Shaun: I don't know that I'd have any significant advice. Sometimes I look at how they structured their data and I wonder what that specific programmer was thinking, but overall I think they're right on the money. They've developed the most popular MMO out there. They've shown themselves to be innovative yet and willing to change their ideas based on user feedback. They make good decisions on what should go in the game and what should stay out, and they're willing to correct things when they become a problem.
Finally, they don't rush things. That's always been my largest complaint about games. I feel like a lot of recent releases by other companies got rushed out the door and resulted in a mediocre product. Blizzard has always taken their time on a product to make sure it meets their goals and expectations without sacrificing quality. When you take into account that their MMO has more players than any other and that StarCraft II sold 1.5 million copies in its first 48 hours, it makes me wonder why other companies don't follow suit.
I think the largest complaint I've had about the game overall has been having to have 9 other friends available to experience end-game content. Since I prefer to know everyone with whom I party, large guilds and pick-up groups aren't really my thing. I had a guild of 10-15 friends for a while, but it was always a hassle to get 10 of us available at once to go into Naxx or Ulduar. Inevitably, we'd end up taking random people with us. I would love to see all raids have a 5-man version. They could decrease the amount of loot and its quality to appease the hardcore raiders and it would allow more casual players to experience end-game content (such as Icecrown). Plus, it'd serve as a good 'proving ground' for hardcore raiders and would allow people to develop and test strategies with fewer people before complicating things with larger groups.
PC Gamer: What's your favourite thing about PC gaming?
Guillaume: That's a good question. I've been a PC gamer since the age of 5, and I've seen consoles evolve and get features that were previously PC-only. Consoles have keyboards, hard drives, and Internet access now, so the line is getting blurrier every day. One thing I like about PC gaming is the flexibility when it comes to getting and playing games. You can download retail games from the Internet; you can download free games; you can share and develop mods or even create your own games. Steam has been my recent favorite for its convenience, great features like cloud support, and its hard-to-resist prices. I've abused their holiday and summer sales so much that my "to-do" list of games is long enough to occupy me for many years to come!
Shaun: It's hard to choose. Certainly, a compelling story helps keep me wrapped up in a game and I enjoy any opportunity to play a video game with my friends. However, I think the most fun I ever have with video games is almost independent of the story or the social aspects. It's when I have to solve a puzzle or develop a strategy to accomplish a task. My solution might work or it might fail horribly, but the exercise of iterating through multiple strategies until I find the most efficient one has always entertained me. It can be a curse, though; I've been told to mind my own business on more than one occasion when watching my girlfriend play a campaign on StarCraft 1 with a stockpile of several thousand minerals.