Blizzard had two things to say at last week's Mists of Pandaria showcase. The first was that the Pandaren and their lost island haven't materialised out of nowhere. “We've been talking about pandas for so long it's borderline crazy”, says World of Warcraft producer John Lagrave. “We look at the story we're trying to tell in Mists of Pandaria and it isn't a left turn. We wanted to add in a new race, and we wanted to add in a new class. We wanted to tell the story of the wandering pandas. We don't want to tell you anything until we're ready to reveal, but we've been chewing on pandas for a long, long time.”
For the dedicated WoW player, however, where the pandas came from is of less interest than what they're going to bring to the game. The second thing that Blizzard wanted to stress is that they're listening to the community, particularly with regards to Cataclysm's weaknesses. “One thing that we know we didn't do well with Cataclysm was create enough endgame level 85 content” explains lead content designer Cory Stockton. “I think people were expecting a lot of new stuff and they got to 85 and they got more raids and more dungeons and more item levels, which is very similar to what we'd delivered with [Wrath of the Lich King's] Northrend.”
Blizzard are taking this complaint seriously, and one of the most exciting things about the expansion is how much variety is being injected into the endgame. Getting a character to max level in WoW will no longer necessarily mean a series of take-it-or-leave it raids: if you'd rather solo your way through evolving PvE content, gather lore, or start a farm, you can do that too.
Daily quests are being used extensively as the basis for Mists of Pandaria's endgame, with Cory Stockton claiming that the expansion will include between 120 and 150 quests at level 90. Many of these are clustered around the Golden Lotus faction in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. The Golden Lotus are priests and warriors that defend a familiar-looking Great Wall against the corrupted mantid, and their quests are based on Cataclysm's Molten Front zone. “Molten Front was a big kind of experiment,” Stockton explains. “We learned a lot from it.”
It'll take a while to earn the Golden Lotus' trust, but the rewards for earning reputation are much more substantial - the quests you can go on and the Golden Lotus' fortress will change substantially as you rank up. “More people show up there for you,” says Stockton “the dungeon that you go into - a whole other wing opens up when you earn revered, and that whole wing is full of whole separate quests. It's not just 'oh I'm revered, I got a tabard.' It's 'I'm revered, I have new content to do.'”
This new content will, understandably, be aimed at solo players - but the rewards for multi-stage daily missions can be shared with players at different points on the reputation scale. “When you kill a boss everyone in the area gets credit.” Stockton says. “If you come in and they're on step 4 of the 5 part thing, but you're there for 4 and 5 you'll get credit. The idea is to not make it feel like if you did do it in a group it was a penalty.”
WoW's Dungeon and Raid Finder queuing systems have taken the stress out of finding other players for group content - but as yet there's been no comparably easy way to find allies for open-world PvE. Scenarios - phased group content that is encountered in the wild - are a way of bridging that gap.
Finding an NPC in need - on Pandaria, these will chiefly be wandering Brewmasters - can trigger a series of rolling objectives within a phased-out version of the zone. That means that, as in an instance, players who aren't in your group won't be able to see what's going on: but it does allow Blizzard to be more creative with their encounter design.
One scenario sees you putting out fires in a camp under attack before battling the invading saurok - savage lizardmen created by the evil mogu - back to a Pandaren temple, where their leader is causing havok. We saw images of the saurok climbing buildings and tearing down architecture, set pieces that weren't possible through the old system.
Another major feature of scenarios is the lack of a need for a balanced group. You'll still be able to queue to join a scenario in progress, but it doesn't matter what class you are. While the initial scenarios will all be for five players, Blizzard envisage expanding this in the future - so freeform raid-scale battles are a possibility.
Challenge mode is a new way to play through existing dungeons and not, as some commenters feared, an additional layer being added to them. Opting for challenge mode sets you and your group against a timed version of the instance, and your gear stats are normalised to prevent equipment from factoring in. The focus entirely is on skill, and the planning and preparation necessary to post a fast time. It's WoW's first sanctioned competitive PvE, and it won't interfere with the way normal dungeons work.
What it does offer is a way for the very best players to distinguish themselves. Achieving a full set of silver medals will earn you an exclusive set of armour, and gold gets you a flying mount inspired by a Chinese Shishi lion. More importantly, your times and the names of all your group members are posted to server and guild-wide leaderboards. If you're unable to score world-first kills on the latest raid bosses, Mists of Pandaria will make it possible to prove that you're the world's fastest.
While timed raids aren't confirmed yet, Cory Stockton won't rule it out. “If we really feel strongly about it we'll open it up - just like dungeon finder turned into raid finder.”
Time has been chosen as the metric for competitive PvE as opposed to other measures like DPS or healing. “We had a number of ideas on the way but it turns out that balancing that is just a dreadful nightmare” explains Stockton. “Time is really that best metric. People are going to learn if they can skip a pull and save x seconds, that's going to become common knowledge. We kind of like that, that builds community. People release YouTube videos of how they clear [dungeons] and we want to leave some of that stuff in there. Time just gave us the easiest way to reward it in a way that felt fair.”
Blizzard have apparently created 15,000 years of new lore for Mists of Pandaria, explaining in detail the history of the Pandaren empire, its enemies, and its mythology. You'll be drip-fed some of this as you journey through the continent, but fans may want to dig a little deeper. This is where the Lorewalkers come in: a faction of Pandaren historians that will perform events from Pandarian history in return for historical artifacts.
'Perform' is right: rather than simply dumping a chunk of text on the player, the Lorewalkers host short plays in their temple in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. It's looking like a fun way of telling the stories that won't fit into the flow of ordinary play.
When Blizzard like a game, you can tell - usually because it winds up in World of Warcraft. It happened with Plants vs. Zombies, and now it's happening with console farming sim Animal Crossing. Joining the Tillers faction in the Valley of the Four Winds will let you open your own farm and raise your choice of crops. Farming will be phased, and as you progress you'll unlock extra plots of land which gives you more options of what to grow. You'll even be able to buy supplements and sprinklers to improve your harvest.
The system is tied to a series of daily quests at the local farmers market. Every day, different merchants show up to buy and sell different crops, and figuring out how to meet demand is how you'll earn the respect of the Tillers faction. “It's a pretty deep system” says Stockton. “It's definitely the kind of thing that could you keep you logging into WoW. There's a whole economy because people on the auction house are going to want your vegetables to earn faction, but it's completely optional and I think that's what's important.”
Stockton is keen to stress that bonus extras like this don't infringe on the development of core parts of the game. “It's important that we can build stuff like that, but that it doesn't take away from challenge modes or from dungeons. That's key for WoW - we've got to make sure that that core content is there, but keep expanding it.”