Designing World of Warcraft: Tom Chilton interview

Tim Edwards

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The Cataclysm is coming and PC Gamer will be there to watch the fireworks. We recently visited the Blizzard campus in Orange County to discover what secrets the next World of Warcraft expansion pack will deliver. There, we met Tom Chilton, the game's lead designer, and talked over the challenges and headaches that come from revitalising a game that has such passionate and devoted fans. Here is our conversation in full.

PCG: What lessons have you taken away from raiding in Wrath of the Lich King?

Tom Chilton: I would start with that we have to be very careful of letting people do both 10 and 25 man content. It started off without being a significant problem in Trial of the Crusader, because it was such a short instance that when people were doing 25 and 10 it was like: that's fine, it's still pretty lightweight in terms of time investment. But it became pretty brutal with Icecrown. We know we have to be pretty careful of that. We've learned a lot about our emblem system. We've learned that, at any given time, we want to have two tiers of currency. We want to have the top tier and the second tier, and not have it drag on and on. We've learned about making our raid locks a little bit more forgiving, because pick up group raids have become more popular than ever with Lich King, whereas that was really totally irrelevant in Burning Crusade and before that. The idea of being locked to a particular raid was totally palatable because, sure, how else are you possibly going to get a raid anyway?

PCG: When Lich King was in development I remember you saying “raids are awesome but not enough people are seeing them”. With Cataclysm is there a specific thing where you're thinking “this isn't living up to expectations, so we're putting our effort into that?”

Tom Chilton: I would say it's more incremental evolution of our philosophies and no radical departures. I think that we can continue to broaden the audience for raiding, and the things that we're doing are reasonable quality of life improvements. We don't have any thing as dramatic yet as a raid finder, like we introduced the dungeon finder. That's the next thing that, if we were able to make that work, that would significantly introduce a whole bunch of new people to raiding. We're just not at the point yet where we can make that work reliably.

PCG: You still need mods to raid. When your philosophy is making a lot of people join in, that still seems like a barrier to entry.

Tom Chilton: For sure. For sure. I think that the number of mods that you need to raid has gone down over time. I felt a lot more reliant on mods back before Burning Crusade than I do now. I think people are down to just using Deadly Boss Mods and even then it's interesting how the mods have evolved to broadcast important information to people who don't have the mods.

There are several cases where I've raided over the last six months or so when I didn't even have a mod installed, and I felt that I was able to do fine. Granted, that becomes less true as you're taking on more hardcore content, or, depending on role. I was playing a DPS role. If you're playing healer I think it's a different story.

With Cataclysm we definitely have a goal in mind of improving the healing experience and changing the gameplay enough to where you're paying more attention to the field and less attention to the mods, to where we can hopefully help that. I kinda doubt that we're going to completely solve it, at least with the launch of Cataclysm. Hopefully, with each patch we'll see continued improvement.

PCG: You're talking about continued improvement to the interface?

Tom Chilton: Right. Both continued improvement to our own interface, and improvement in terms of game mechanics to alleviate the need for the interface altogether.

PCG: I think one of the key lessons of World of Warcraft's success is that you always go for the big epic idea, but when that doesn't work you reduce it down that what is the most fun. So you went from 40 man raids to 10 man raids. Are there any more simplification... well, simplification's a really difficult word because people think it means dumbing down... Is there any more work you're doing to ease the burden?

Tom Chilton: A lot of the simplifications that we're doing are to do with our stats systems. We're trying to find stats that really aren't giving us a whole lot of bang for our buck, and simplifying those. We have a core philosophy that anything you add to the game, anything you add to the game at all - it doesn't really matter what it is, increases the complexity of the game.

What we're trying to evaluate in a lot of cases is whether you're getting a justifiable amount of depth out of that increase in complexity. An example would be: if we add a spell to the game, imagine we add a spell like dampen magic to the game, right? Then I think you can look at a spell like that and say it increased the complexity... people are putting it on their action bars, they're having to train it at some level, there might be a talent associated with it somewhere... if that spell doesn't have a clear role then it's increasing the complexity of the game but it's not increasing the depth. Spells without a clear function just adding complexity. We try to identify those things in any kind of expansion and as many as we can, as often as we can, we either try to eliminate it or find a way that it actually adds a justifiable amount of depth.

PCG: The splitting of 10 man and 25 man raid groups seemed to get less vitriol than I was expecting. Do you feel that?

Tom Chilton: I definitely feel that, but I was expecting it. I feel like a lot of people do 25 person raiding because that's where the gravy is, right? If there's one thing our experience tells us, it's that people will go where the rewards are. It's not necessarily because most people felt like 25 person raiding was the most fun experience. I think that, at least anecdotally, from talking to people on the team, talking to people in the company, players at Blizzcon, stuff like that, I think that more people find the 10 person raiding experience more enjoyable. If what this change means is that they get to do that and not feel like second class citizens doing it, then that's awesome.

PCG: I don't really feel like I contribute that much in 25 man raids, unless I'm tanking it which … well I'm not very good, so I tend to uh, avoid them... But in 10 man it feels more close and near, more friendly.

Tom Chilton: And there's less role overlap, I know that's a big deal for healers, right? In ten person, you've got two healers, one of them's healing the tank, and one of them's healing everyone else, it's very clear what you're responsible for. Whereas in 25 man, if you've got two people healing the tank, or three people, then it's like “tank didn't get healed in there, is that my fault, or your fault? I'm not really sure.”

PCG: Alex (Afraisiabi - World of Warcraft's Lead World Designer) said that one of the reasons he likes raiding is that because the systems that underpin it are always changing. Do you think that with the changes you're making to badge loot, with the two tiers of emblems, and the ten man lockouts and the heroic modes, that you've finally got the perfect mix for raiding?

Tom Chilton: (laughs) Yeah. Maybe. I think we've got it every time, though and then we end up being wrong every time. But I do think we're zeroing in on it. I would think that the number of significant mechanical changes that happen from tier to tier would slow down, but I don't know. You never know, we could be proven wrong on that.

PCG: During the presentation you gave earlier today, Greg ('Ghostwalker' Street) said that you'd like it if you didn't have to go to a website to find information to play the game.  He was talking about guild calendars and rosters. That seems like an admirable goal, yet you've actually built out a very complex website in the Armory . Have you ever considered putting the Armory in-game?

Tom Chilton: We definitely have. We've had ideas for being able to pop open an interface and see a lot of that armory information. We think that'd be really cool. Sometimes it's hard to justify, because it's the amount of work we'd have to do to to make that work vs. saving someone an alt-tab. You know, In some cases it's maybe not worth it. The armoury information isn't critical to someone's play experience.

Where we try to start is: how do we get information that's critical to improving somebody's play experience into the game? A lot of that is more around the kind of stuff that you would see on Wowhead, or whatever, and that's the kind of stuff that we try to get into the game first.

PCG: When sites like Wowhead started popping up, how did you feel about them at the time, and has your opinion changed at all?

Tom Chilton: It's interesting because I think it has. I think that as game developers our philosophies of what is good for a game and what isn't were more hardcore. Even before Wowhead there was Thottbot. We used to try to come up with sneaky ways to hide things from Thottbot. We'd say 'let's try and make it so they can't data mine the loot and stuff' because we thought it led to a better game experience for it to be a surprise to players. Over time I think that for the most part what we found is that those sites in a lot of ways add to the game, and a lot of times they just point out flaws in our game where we need to be giving people information that we're not giving them. The same can be said for UI mods.

PCG: What do you think the knock on effects to World of Warcraft's Battle.net implementation will be (Battle.net will, for the first time, allow cross-realm, and cross faction chat - Ed)?

Tom Chilton: There are going to be side effects that we didn't really image. If you look at the way that the group conversation system works in Battlenet, if you think about the impact that might have on things like guild chat and the other channels, stuff like that, it's kind of hazy as to how that's going to effect communication in-game. Some of that we're just going to have to fly by the seat of our pants and see how it plays out, and make adjustments as we go from there. But, all in all, I think that the fundamental concept of being able to talk to your real life friends regardless of what game they're playing and what server their on is a great concept.

PCG: The Battle.net stuff is bringing Facebook friends into Blizzard games. I'm wondering if you have any predictions about how it'll shake out?

Tom Chilton: I think a lot of times people's in-game friends end up becoming real life friends, especially in the Facebook friends sense, where there are a lot of people out there who use Facebook in the same social way that people experience WoW. A lot of times you come to consider someone a real friend even if you have very light, to no real life interaction. I think that those parallels might be a bit stronger than people expect. And then, ultimately, I think the people from Facebook that come into Battlenet will be doing it with the assumption that they're going to play some sort of Blizzard game, and at that point the become a little bit more part of the gaming community.

PCG: I always wonder if it's less about bringing your Facebook friends in, and more about getting your World of Warcraft friends out into Facebook.

Tom Chilton: Yeah, I think there's a combination.

PCG: What do you think's going to happen to Wintergrasp after Cataclysm?

Tom Chilton: Well, with Wintergrasp itself I think not much is going to happen. It's going to kind of stay what it is and not a whole lot of people are going to be there. Tol Barad ( the new open world PvP zone that will arrive in Cataclysm ) hopefully will be a positive evolution of Wintergrasp. The experience of fighting in Tol Barad should be better because we're trying to spread people out more, and not crunch everybody into a single focal point. And then what will hopefully be a lot more interesting is what you get out of Tol Barad, with it being the daily quest hub of the game. It's like the Argent Tournament of the game is there.

PCG: We haven't seen much of Tol Barad. So it's an Alcatraz style prison, yes? So presumably if you're spreading people out, it's separate islands that you go to?

Tom Chilton: Yeah, the island of Tol Barad has several major points of interest. It's a kind of domination style, like a giant eye of the storm where your team has to successfully hold all three parts of it.

PCG: At E3 we saw a massive push for 3D within games. Have you ever considered implementing 3D in WoW? Can you see 3D goggles in World of Warcraft's future?

Tom Chilton: That I don't know. That would be a long ways off for us I would guess. Granted, when Nvidia went through their process of doing 3D tech with glasses and all that, their stereoscopic 3D, they actually used World of Warcraft as their demo game, and it actually looks really good. It blew me away. I was highly skeptical when they came to us and said “hey, we want to use WoW as our game to showcase this tech” and we were like, “really, are you sure about that?” And they did it, and came and showed it to us and gave us the full demo and I was like “wow, this is a lot better looking than I expected”. But as far as how long it takes before that penetrates to become like a common household thing for WoW players, I don't know.

PCG: Does designing and developing a game take away the fun of playing it?

Tom Chilton: Not really, surprisingly because designing and developing the game is a completely different exercise. It's weird because in a lot of ways when you're working on the game it's almost like you're working on this theoretical game that exists in the future, versus the actual game that you go home and play. Sometimes there's a little bit more of a direct crossover, when you're playing the game and you're like “okay this is clearly broken, tomorrow I'm going to go in and we're going to get this hotfixed and changed.” That's when you really feel that connection, but the vast majority of my day is spent doing things about this theoretical future of the game that, in a lot of ways, feels very intangible.

PCG: Do you find yourself getting your hands dirty with pure design and encounter design and the rest of it?

Tom Chilton: It's a combination, although I would say that it's definitely less getting my hands dirty than it was in the past, which is sometimes a bummer, I like getting my hands dirty! But it's still enough to where it's a very fun work experience. It's not like I'm doing nothing but doing press interviews, you know? (laughs)

PCG: We've seen both Lord of the Rings Online, and Dungeons and Dragons Online recently go free-to-play. Do you play any free MMO's?

Tom Chilton: I have played several of the MMOs that are now free. I have not played any of the ones that since became free

PCG: Is that the only way you can compete with World of Warcraft, to give your game away at this point?

Tom Chilton: I actually don't know that they're doing it to compete with us. In a lot of ways I feel like they're doing it to compete with other games that are on a similar subscriber level that they were at. I imagine that when one of them went free to play it cannibalized some of their other subscribers, so they're kind of going back and forth on that similar level. I can definitely imagine that being the case with World of Warcraft. If another game comes along and blows us away. At some point it may not make sense for us to have a subscription fee, or maybe, further down the line when we have another MMO out, I don't know... but for now, for us, it's too early to say.

PCG: So it sounds like you have thought about the implications of it going free at least.

Tom Chilton: Yeah, vaguely, vaguely. It's just not something that's a reality for us in the near future, so we're not spending a whole lot of time thinking about it.

PCG: Do you think WoW is better in a guild? And are you trying to push people into joining guilds?

Tom Chilton: We're trying to look at it more in terms of, not that we're trying to push people into guilds, but have the game recognise that guilds are a big part of people's game lives, and trying to give an opportunity for the mechanics of the game to recognise that. I feel like a very large percentage of players that are max level are already in a guild, it's not like there's a whole bunch of people that we need to push into guilds. I think it's more about recognising guilds as being a significant entity, and as being more than just a shared chat channel.

PCG: There's a really irritating bug that I'd love to bring to your attention now. I'm really sorry, this is the nerdiest thing. We have a PC Gamer guild, which is very big. The problem is that the guild list can only display 500 people. My guild mates are constantly hammering me to get it fixed. I can't exactly do anything about it other than draw it to your attention.

Tom Chilton: [laughs] That will be fixed in Cataclysm.

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