Pondering the Cataclysm with Blizzard's J. Allen Brack

Josh Augustine



It's a crazy time for WoW fans. We're all looking to forward to the Cataclysm expansion that's coming in early December, and this morning's patch will change Azeroth forever . To make sense of everything that's happening--and see how the development team is feeling with Cataclysm just around the corner--we sat down with J. Allen Brack, Blizzard's Production Director, earlier this week to find out how everything's progressing, where it's all headed, and why he just can't stop making boxes light up.

PCG: Let's start simple: what exactly is happening in the big 4.0.3a patch?

Brack: [Today] is basically the day that the world is going to change. So, right now, everyone has two copies of Azeroth on their hard drive. They have the copy of the world that they've been playing for many, many, many years, and then they have the differences between the old version and the new version. The big thing for 4.03 is to change what data we're using, what data we're referencing. When you get 4.0.3a and launch the game, you should get the new intro, the new login screen, and you'll log into the post-shattered world.

PCG: Even if this patch isn't bringing the new races and the new zones, is this patch--the reshaping of Azeroth--the bigger change for players, you think?

Brack: I do, because the number of zones that you're going to get, and the number of zones that are going to change is just hugely significant. You'll be able to experience that immediately. Additionally, all the new race/class combinations that we've talked about, those will go live with 4.0.3a and the shattering as well. You don't have to have the expansion to get those. So if you want to roll the Tauren Paladin or the Gnome Priest, then you'll be able to do that on the day that we release 4.03a.

PCG: So for you personally, is there a race/class combo you've been itching to try?

Brack: I've played a lot of classes and I've played Warrior, but I'm thinking of doing more Warrior stuff. Maybe a Blood Elf Warrior, because they haven't been able to be Warriors up to this point, and that's exciting. And obviously everyone is excited about the Night Elf Mage.

PCG: What do you think players are going to do first after this patch and after Cataclysm goes live?

Brack: Well, I think most will take their main character and start working that up to 85. You'll have some people that want to do a race change to either the Goblin or the Worgen, which we're not restricting on day one. And you'll have people who want to start a legitimate path to basically being the Goblin or Worgen, enjoying the new race experience. The new race experience for both those are the best new starting experience we've ever done, and that includes the Death Knight, which I thought was very cool. So, I think a majority of people will be doing the 80 to 85, and then there will be a second segment doing the new race, and the new race combos.

PCG: There's a lot of exciting stuff for players, but as a developer, what's the most fun part of seeing the patch and expansion go live?

Brack: Well, there's just an intense satisfaction whenever you've got something you've been working on--I mean, we've been working on Cataclysm for close to two years now. So the idea for players to actually get to start experiencing that… You have some of that in beta, where you get to sort of unleash it, and you get your fans and friends giving feedback. That's a great moment, but then actually having it on the shelf, and having people “doing it for real,” as the case is… that's a really exciting piece, and a really exciting time.

There's also, I think, one of the more appealing aspects for doing Cataclysm was this idea that we get to go back to the old world and make things right. Make them the best that they can be. Being able to redo Azshara, and making it really exciting and really good for once--that's awesome. Having the questing being triple-A in Darkshore is just incredible and awesome to think about.

PCG: Yeah, when we 've talked before you often mentioned that, as the developers at Blizzard, you were your own biggest critics, and you loved being able to go back and remake the world to make it greater. Are you content with it now? Is it as good as it can be, or do you still see things that you want to tweak?

Brack: Oh, there's never any part of the game that we feel is perfect. We always have things that we'd like to do. If we had five more years to go back and work on the old world we would do it, and it would be the best old world ever. But, would there be stuff that we could still do after that? The answer is absolutely. So, no game is ever what any one developer wants, and there are always ways to improve. Particularly at Blizzard, where our whole culture is based around this iterative development, based on working in passes and making things better, you know, there's always more passes you could take to make things better.

PCG: But you're pretty content with the way it is? You don't have any misgivings with putting it out the door the way it is now?

Brack: None whatsoever. This is the best expansion that we've ever done, and it's the best content that we've ever made by far.

PCG: So, when the patch is live, is that when players are going to start moving back to the old world, heading back to Orgrimmar and Stormwind instead of hanging out in Dalaran, or is that going to happen when the expansion actually hits?

Brack: Um, I think you'll see both. Certainly the big thing that's going to happen on 4.0.3a is the portals from Dalaran will vanish, and there will be an auction house there and trainers there, and that's true for Shattrath as well. So that's a pretty significant change, and that's one of the main reasons people hang out in Dalaran as much as they do. They have this easy access to everywhere. You will see people that still hearthstone there, because they have some last minute things they want to do in Northrend as they migrate back.

PCG: Which I'm very excited about – the new Orgrimmar looks incredible.

Brack: Yeah, it's awesome. Stormwind and Orgrimmar just got a crap-ton of love from the art team this time around, and a lot of other teams as well. Going through and making those cities flyable was a huge undertaking, and we're excited to see the player reaction.

PCG: Yeah, I can't even imagine. Was redesigning the capital cities one of the most difficult changes in the expansion?

Brack: I think those two cities [Orgrimmar and Stormwind] were the places that we spent the most time. We had multiple artists work for a year on each of those cities, just a huge amount of development time to work on just one thing. Certainly in terms of time that's where we spent the single largest percentage of it. But we're expecting those to be the new hubs, and so they need to be great, look great, and be really, really functional. It's time well spent.

PCG: I'm really curious how it works on a technical level: when you put in the new terrain, do you just throw everybody up in the air, generate the new terrain, and let them all drop down? Are we going to log into corpses everywhere?

Brack: Great question. We actually talked about that a lot. What we do, as part of the transition on the server, is move all the players to a safe location. The nearest safe location, and the nearest safe location we can move you to is a graveyard, because we know that it's a safe place. Every player will log in and be at their closest graveyard. They won't be dead, but that's where they'll be.

PCG: That's a much better solution. So, a few quick questions, with all the new flight paths being added and moved, will players need to run around and pick them up again? For instance, will a player who already had the Crossroads flight path have whatever the new equivalent of the Crossroads is?

Brack: Yes, they'll have the new equivalent. There will be new ones to learn, but the goal was not to reset the knowledge that players had, or create a giant pain for players in terms of where they were, and where they needed to go. We tried to transition a lot of the existing places to make it work.

PCG: Great. So what's the reaction been to the in-game events leading up to the Cataclysm so far? It seems like you're learning from the problems that players had with earlier events.

Brack: Yeah, that's really interesting, and it's a really kind of dynamic. In the zombie invasion for Lich King, for instance, we had some people who just wanted to play the game, and said, “This is just getting in the way, take it out.” On the other extreme, you had some people saying, “Holy crap, this is something completely different, I can actually turn into a zombie and kill guards and quest givers. I can grief other players legitimately; this is the greatest thing ever.”

There's a huge, different spectrum for those events for the different types of people, and riding that line is really tough, honestly. Like I said, we tried to do something that felt epic, like a real invasion, and certainly felt like it would cause the world to change significantly, but if you [don't want to participate and] just want to play the game because you're lower level, or just not interested, go right ahead.

PCG: Is 4.0.3a going to be the final step in the road to Cataclysm? Because it's right around the corner at this point. Will more things happen after that big shattering?

Brack: No, the shattering will be the big thing, and we'll let that stand on its own. The world has changed and there will be plenty of things to do right up until the box hits the shelf. We want to keep the time between when we did the actual shattering and when the box went on the shelf, to kind of be pretty close. We have like, a couple weeks between them, and then players will be off to the races with whatever they want to do.

PCG: So when the shattering happens is that when Deathwing is going to start burninating zones? Or is that going to happen after the box?

Brack: That will happen right after we release 4.0.3a.

PCG: I love it, because as soon as it was announced that Deathwing would insta-kill random zones, players didn't say, “Hey, I don't want to get killed, how do I avoid this?” It's always, “How do I rush in there so I can get this one feat of strength! I want to die!”

Brack: Yeah, exactly. It's a really interesting player psychology, on achievements and how those things work. In the old days, when you had the world bosses that would sometimes get dragged across the zone to the capital, people were very annoyed. “Why are you ruining my game time?” But now you've got achievement system, and there's stuff like that, and when it happens it's pretty cool.

PCG: Do you even try to predict what players reaction will be to things like that? I mean, half the time it seems so off the wall. It's like, “Wait, you want to be killed? You want this to happen to you?”

Brack: We do try, because we need to think about the outcomes we want to have happen. But, like you said, there's always players aberrant behavior, that's really hard to predict. Certainly the most famous one in my time with Warcraft is, how players are willing to do things that are not fun in order to achieve something great. “It doesn't matter that I had to bash my head against rocks for weeks and weeks and weeks because I got this thing at the end and it was totally worth it.”

I think about the old titles from the old battleground system. That honor grind was just insanely brutal, and yet people did it. Thinking about the way people got epics in Burning Crusade with the arena system, that's very strange. That constantly surprises me. Players are willing to not have fun for such a long time in order to reach some objective.

PCG: Oh yeah, I'm currently farming for the Firefly out in Zangarmarsh, so I know that feeling.

Brack: There you go--that's what I mean. Amazing. So, yeah, I understand that completely. I have a character that I decided I was going to go out and get all of the off reputations for Burning Crusade, and get the…

PCG: Insane in the Membrane?

Brack: *laughter* No, no, I didn't go that far. Getting the factions for the Sporeggar factions and everything you need to do for that, which is not super challenging by any stretch of the imagination, but it's definitely something you do just to get a box to light up. “What did you get for that?” “I got my box to light up!” “Ok, great, congratulations… me.”

PCG: So are achievements your vice in the game? Mine is vanity pets, I have to collect them. What is the one thing that you just can't resist?

Brack: I like vanity pets, but I'm not huge into them. I don't have the firefly pet, for example, and I don't know that I, as a player, would ever go out and get that. But I completely understand the psychology behind it. I'm much more of an achievement-type person. I have fewer characters than some of the guys, I'd rather have one guy and get as many of the achievements as I can.

PCG: So, what are you personally most excited to do once Cataclysm comes out?

Brack: You know, I think, if I didn't work here, the thing I'd be most excited about is learning the story of Hyjal. I played a lot of WarCraft III, and it's really exciting to have the opportunity to tell what happens after Archimonde's story, which I think is very cool.

Definitely excited about the new zones. Deepholm is an incredibly looking zone--I think it's the best looking zone we've ever done. High concept, very unusual, and I think players are really going to enjoy it. The Skywall dungeon and raid are the best looking dungeons and raids we've ever done. They're very cool, very visual, and they're going to be very exciting for players to see and for me to play. I do like the PVE of dungeons and raids, so that's likely the thing I'm most looking forward to.

And, of course, with the PVE and PVP aspect of the new levels, I get all these new boxes called “Guild Achievements” that I need to light up.

PCG: So many boxes to light up.

Brack: Exactly.

PCG: One thing that I'm really excited about that I don't see many people talking about, maybe because it's not as glamorous, is Archeology. How is that turning out? Are you excited about it with everything else going on?

Brack: I'm super excited about it. I think it's one of those things that we won't know how great or not great it's going to be until a couple of months down the road, but for the people who are hardcore lore guys it's fantastic. For the people who have their bar that they want to get to full, or the boxes they want to light up, it's fantastic. It really feeds that mechanic that players like to do, so I'm excited about it for both of those reasons.

But it's not one of those things that people have spent a lot of time on in beta, it's not something people spend a lot of time thinking about, so it will be interesting to see what the player reaction will be when you do it for real.

The achievement system is a really good example of how you don't play in beta how you play on live, and so we saw a lot of different reactions from players once the system was live compared to beta, particularly from a performance standpoint. It will be really interesting to see how people do the archeology stuff once it matters.

PCG: Was that the case with Reforging?

Brack: Reforging is on live [realms now]. And that's actually the feature that I think is the coolest that is the least talked about. It's a very simple mechanic, where you can change one stat for another, which doesn't sound like much, but the amount of customization that you get in your gear, and making your character a little more attuned to how you want it, it's just awesome.

Shon Damron, Blizzard PR: I spent over two hours on all my alts and mains at the reforger, just going through everything.

PCG: But now you're tweaked perfectly.

Damron: But I keep going back every time I get a new item!

Brack: Just in time for us to flush all of those items down the toilet. Good work, Shon. *laughter*

PCG: Is Runeforging something that you expect players to do as they're leveling, or is it more of an endgame thing--once you're getting epics and you need that perfect min-max?

Brack: I think it's going to be more of an endgame thing, very similar to how enchants are. So you'll have some people who do the crazy enchanting as time goes on. A good example would be if you got your weapon out of the Ring of Blood. Maybe that's something you want to spend some time on with Runeforging because you know you're going to have that for a while. Most will do it at max level, you run the dungeon, get the drop, and then say, “Ok, now I'll go Runeforge that.”

PCG: Right. Now, I love Wintergrasp, and it's great fun nowadays, but it's gone through a lot of changes. There were a lot of design hurdles that you guys had to overcome. Are you worried about Tol Barad at all? Do you have it nailed down, do you know what you need to do, or are you going to have to constantly tweak that as well?

Brack: Well, you know, we have the model and the design for Tol Barad was based on all of the lessons, and technology, of Wintergrasp. Whatever state we got Wintergrasp to, we already have that technology. We already have that queue solved, the balance problems solved. I think that there's going to be changes once people are doing it for real, but I think it will be a lot less technology-oriented and more about balances and tweaks, like we always do. I'm not expecting, and I might regret saying this, near the amount of technology development we required to make Wintergrasp viable.

PCG: The amount of technology that you guys have accrued in the past five years must have made everything in Azeroth so much easier the second time around, right?

Brack: In a lot of ways, yeah. We did a lot of work to bring dungeon finder to fruition back in 3.3, that's really given us a lot of flexibility to do the battleground group combination that we are rolling out to get ready for the raided battleground system. It has really helped the battleground queues, and we expect it to continue to help that even further.

We've got everything: transports right over to Tol Barad, and we're years ahead of the technology curve when it comes to Tol Barad, given the lessons we learned from Wintergrasp. There's a lot of stuff, the phasing technology we developed for the Death Knight starting area is lightyears beyond what it was for the Death Knight starting experience, and it gets used heavily in the zone, and it gets used heavily in the starting experience for Worgen and Goblins.

PCG: So now that you see that Cataclysm's launch is right around the corner, I'm sure you have a little paper you pull off each day counting down…

Brack: It's actually electronic. We have little displays all around the office that say, you know, “Number of days counting down.”

PCG: With MMOs, and WoW in particular, when you launch this game, you go right back to work. There's always more work to be done.

Brack: The way we talk about that is, whenever we launch our job gets harder.

PCG: I totally believe that. Are you going to have, at least a ceremony or something? When you flip the switch do you have people gather in the server room to cheer?

Brack: More or less, yeah. We have what we call a “War room” set up, and it's not a switch, it's just someone typing the command into a console. It's not very glamorous looking, in terms of the actual action to make it happen, but we'll be video conferencing with our hardware guys, our hardware monitoring guys, with the web team.

It will actually be one of our guys on our side that will mark the servers to be Cataclysm enabled. We refer to that as, “release the clamps.” There's a clamp right now that's preventing people from accessing Cataclysm content. We have a big giant meeting room where we'll convert for the week to handle launch.

PCG: I just picture Mike Morhaime in a dark suit in the dark corner, speaking like the godfather, “Release the clamps.”

Brack: *laughter* Actually, I think Mike will be at the signing event at the Fry's event [when this happens]. We're releasing the server clamp a little bit differently this time, so it's going to be released at midnight Pacific Time, whereas before we've done it at midnight East coast time. So we'll have people at the office to actually lift the server clamp, it'll probably be me in the dark suit this time, talking to one of the server guys saying, “Ok, let's do it.”

PCG: So with that just around the corner, are there any last minute changes that you really want to get in? Is there anything you're dying to wrap up, or are you looking to the next patch after launch?

Brack: No, we're still trying to wrap up. QA is still furiously testing everything that needs to get done. They'll find some problems, we'll find some problems that we want to make some changes to.

We're doing last minute experience level tweaks, last minute XP curves, looking at dungeon XP, looking at battleground XP, making sure that feels good. We have an internal QA team of over 100 guys working on finding problems, we have the PTR and the beta which are still up that are doing things that we're watching and making sure those are good. We have a raid team doing internal raid testing to make sure that all of the raid content and dungeon content is 100%.

So, there's still a lot of stuff to do. Pretty much everyone is 100% focused on the Cataclysm release. We have some artists working on the next patch and the next thing that needs to happen, but most of the team on the engineering and design side are focused on Cataclysm right now.

PCG: Very cool. Well, I'm personally very excited, I know our readers are very excited, and millions of other people are also excited for Cataclysm's launch. Thank you so much for your time.

Brack: Absolutely. It's great talking with you.

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