PC Gamer's Community Heroes: the Wowhead team

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.