Mists of Pandaria, the latest expansion to MMOdom's longest-reigning king, is just days away. We caught up with World of Warcraft lead systems designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street and talked at length about everything the new expansion is bringing to the table. Check out the full, mega-sized interview for answers to your most pressing, directly and tangentially panda-related questions!
PC Gamer: Looking back at Cataclysm, the previous expansion, what did you think worked really well, and what did you guys feel like had the most room for improvement going into Mists of Pandaria?
Greg Street: I'll start with what had room for improvement: having a continent to explore. We felt like the zone design in Cataclysm ended up being really good and really evocative, but you were teleporting around a lot. So like you were going to Deepholm or Uldum through a portal instead of crossing a zone border. And I think we didn't realize what a big deal that was, to feel like you're on a big continent, and you'd be able to see all of the zones from a mountain peak in the next zone.
And then another thing is, the content really has shifted its focus to endgame. Leveling up is still a big part of the game, but more players spend most of their time at maximum level now. And we spent a lot of effort in Cataclysm working on lower-level content that the game kind of needed. It was time for us to make that effort.
But it didn't pay dividends for endgame players who just wanted more to do. So we spent a lot of effort in Mists of Pandaria making sure that level 90 players have a lot of different types of activities they can engage in.
Level 90 Gameplay
PCG: That actually feeds into my next question, because there are a lot of us, you know, like the day one, November 2004 people. And we've gotten into this cycle of, "I'll come back for the new expansion to maybe check out the new quests, then unsubscribe and go do something else." What kind of stuff is there coming in Pandaria to keep people like us around longer?
GS: Like I said, now the experience should be, you level up, but you don't feel like, "Okay, I'm level 90. I'm done. I've gotten my money's worth out of the expansion." We have a lot of activities to do at level 90. For starters, the quest content continues on. We have a whole zone that's basically a max level zone with tons of quests.
We have daily quests representing a whole lot of different types of activities. From fighting off the bad guys of this expansion, to learning to ride a could serpent, which is our name for the big Asian dragons that you find flying around, to growing your own farm. So, really diverse activities there. We have a new way of playing with friends called scenarios - really small dungeons or group quests where you get together with two or three people and kind of bang it out in 10 to 15 minutes.
We have challenge modes, which are an entirely new way to see the dungeon content for players who want to real challenges. And there are just a lot of goodies around the world. There are these rare spawns that have rare loot that you can only find by killing that individual creature. And we also have the loot itself scattered around the world. So sometimes you'll just come across a hunter's shack or a sword in a stone, or some kind of lost Panderan item you can just pick up off the ground.
PCG: What's the reward system like for these max level quests, since you're obviously not getting experience for them?
GS: Doing those quests is one of the primary ways to earn valor, which is the currency players use to buy more powerful gear at max level. Also, the different factions in Pandaria have some really cool rewards as well. They have power rewards at the Revered level, and then there are cosmetic rewards such as new mounts [at higher reputation].
PCG: What is the diversity of quests like in the endgame? You mentioned there's one whole zone of just endgame quests. Is it more than we saw in terms of max level dailies in previous expansions?
GS: Yeah, usually max level dailies are kind of an afterthought. We took quests that seemed cool and said like, "Oh, you can do this quest every day." What we did [for Pandaria] was put some of our best quest designers just on making these endgame quests - instead of making a zone, these quest designers are making the endgame stuff as well. So it should be just as fun and compelling as any of the stories you get in the level up zones.
The one I'm thinking of in particular is the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, which is the center part of Pandaria. In the course of leveling up, you discover this valley that's been sealed away. And you're allowed to go back into it and, along with the panderan, repopulate the buildings that are there. And then what happens is one of the main bad guys in the story, the mogu, come and try to take the valley back.
So the quest experience is kind of repelling the mogu, trying to find and take out their leaders - every day, the mogu attack a different part of the valley. So you can collect quests that are like, today they're attacking this village, or they're up in the mountains attacking these shrines over here. It feels very diverse and really dynamic, but there's still a sense of progression over time. We messed with that a little bit in the Firelands daily quests, but I think we've done an even better job of it here.
Stats and Instance Design
PCG: I'm not sure if you guys have announced anything about this yet, I haven't seen it in the patch notes or anything. But you talked a while back about issues with damage numbers getting too large, both on the screen and from a computing standpoint. You talked about maybe converting to "mega damage" or doing some kind of a "stat crunch" of all the pre-Pandaria gear. Did you ever come to a conclusion on that?
GS: We had compressed all of the numbers, what we called the stat values, and had that working and in place, but we were really worried about what the reaction would be. It's so weird when you're using your Mortal Strike and doing 40,000 damage, and then suddenly you're doing 400 damage.
Even if you know in your mind that it's the same percent, and all the monsters have gone down as well, it felt like a nerf, and we didn't want players coming into the game and feeling underpowered. Particularly in an expansion where we're already doing dramatic things like overhauling the talent trees.
We still like the idea, and we still think it's a problem we need to solve. But in the short term, what we did was just try to be clever with use of commas and K and M [for thousand and million] to shorten our numbers down when they don't fit on the screen.
PCG: So the endgame raid progression design for Pandaria - in terms of previous expansions, would you say it's closer to how Lich King worked? Or Cataclysm? Or is it completely its own, new thing?
GS: Actually, it's more like Burning Crusade in that there's a "first" raid, and as you start to gear up through that raid, you're able to go into a second one, and ultimately a third one. We also have raid finder supporting all three of those raids. We've never had multiple tiers of raid finder before, and I think that's going to be a real game-changer.
PCG: Do you guys have a rough schedule for the raid tier releases for the expansion cycle yet?
GS: No, whenever we try to do that, we end up changing our minds or not hitting them.
PCG: Is it going to be a shorter expansion cycle compared to previous expansions?
GS: What I always say is we would love to do it. We have so far not done a really good job of pulling it off. I like to describe that working on this game is like steering a super tanker, and super tankers turn very, very slowly. So, we've put some processes in place to hopefully let us come out with content faster. We'll see if we can actually pull it off this time.
PCG: What kinds of things will Pandaria have in terms of dungeons and raids that will surprise people who have already done every single instance in every single expansion so far?
There are so many little thing we hid around somewhere. In one of the dungeons, which is the Mogu'shan Palace, there's this event where you find a secret door. And you see this creature called a saurok, they're basically lizard men. You see one fleeing away from you, and he's running pretty fast so he's hard to catch. And probably, a lot of players won't think anything of it. However, if you do manage to catch the guy and defeat him, he drops a key that you can use later on to open a chest and hopefully get a little bit of bonus loot.
We have these little easter eggs hidden around in the dungeons and raids that reward players who maybe think they've seen everything, but here's something they maybe haven't seen before.
PCG: What would you say is the number one thing you're most excited to see player reactions to in the expansion?
GS: I think for hardcore players, the challenge modes are going to be a really big deal. I think that's kind of been a sleeper feature for us, or people haven't focused on it a lot. It's really fun and it's a very different kind of experience. The players that have run through it tell us how exciting and stressful it is. That last breath when it's over is a neat feeling.
Our raid encounters tend to be more- almost methodical, where you fight the boss, then there's kind of a lot of down time, then you fight the next boss. The challenge modes are like, you're amped up the entire time you're in the dungeon without a lot of breaks. So it feels really different.
PCG: So the flip-side of that question: What's the one thing you're most stressed about seeing the player reaction to?
GS: Wow, that's a really good question. I always worry about- in Cataclysm, we tried to give players lots of freedom in how they did things. So someone who only wanted to play WoW once a week would still feel like there's plenty for them to do, and they could progress and kind of set their own schedule. And the response we got from that was sort of, you know, "I'm running out of stuff to do. I want to play World of Warcraft. I log in, but there's just not enough for me to do."
So, we've tried to give players lots of things to do. Now, there's kind of a razor's edge between something that seems optional and fun, and something that seems mandatory and like a chore. And we're not trying to turn our game into a second job. We want to make sure that players feel like, if they're interested in playing more, there's always more to do. But you're welcome to go play other games and have a life as well. You don't need to invest all of your time in this game to feel like you're making progress.
PCG: What do you see as being the main focus for PvPers in Pandaria?
GS: Typically, our hardcore PvP players are most interested in arenas and rated battlegrounds. And we do have two new battlegrounds that we're introducing. They have different rulesets, they're the kind of thing we haven't done before at all. And then we are looking at a number of PvP improvements that will affect the hardcore players as well as players just wanting to get into PvP.
PCG: Do you have any plans for this expansion cycle to do big, open world PvP again?
GS: We are trying to attempt it again. We've done a few different things here. One of them is, you can't fly on the new continent until max level, so you'll bump into players of the opposite faction a little more. We have two world bosses, and we know that in the past that world bosses were a great way to encourage and facilitate PvP between the factions.
We also have a new feature called the black market auction house, which you can think of as NPCs who put very valuable items up on an auction house that has no buyout system. So you have to bid on it. We took this black market and we stuck it out in the world. One of the ways you can defend your bid is to kill the opposite-faction players that approach the auction house.
We've also done some things like make the guards that defend the cities much weaker on PvP servers than on the PvE servers. So, they're a little harder to defend and a coordinated attack can take them out. In fact, the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, where the Horde and Alliance hubs are, we expect to see a lot of fighting. Because they're fairly close together.
PCG: So you're going more towards not having, like, a Tol Barad or a Wintergrasp that's the go-to place for open-world PvP? You just want it to kind of happen everywhere?
GS: Players have been telling us for a long time that they really want to see a return to the almost spontaneous, player-driven PvP like a lot of us remember from the Tarren Mill/Southshore days.
GS: So, we're giving that a shot. Tol Barad and Wintergrasp are pretty cool, and we might do that type of thing again in the future. We decided not to this time, but that doesn't mean that we hate the idea. They definitely are subject to faction imbalances on [some realms], which we would have to solve to do it again. But the cross-realm zones might be a good way to do that.
PCG: Talking about the monk class, you guys originally weren't going to give them an auto-attack, and then you added in an auto-attack. I'm curious what your reasons for that were.
GS: It was a few things. One of the very first quests as a panderan is you're attacking this bean bag target that your master tells you to go beat up. And without auto-attack, you'd run up to it and you'd hit one of your attacks, and then your character would just kind of be standing there, bobbing. And you could sit there for 10 minutes and you'd never hit the bag again.
It felt really weird for a WoW player that's kind of used to this fast-paced, interactive combat. From a lazy designer's standpoint, having auto-attack is the way to make sure that very skilled players aren't doing like quadruple or quintuple the damage of a new or unskilled player. Because we know that a certain percentage of your damage will come from your auto-attack.
PCG: Who would you say the monk is ideal for? Like, what kind of gamer, what kind of WoW player, is going to have the most fun with this class?
GS: The monk is really good at battlefield awareness. If you like moving around a lot whether it's to go find someone to heal as the Mistweaver or because you want to, like, leap into combat, throw some punches, and then fly back out again. It really plays very well to that.
It's a very visual class. We have a lot of new animations that are for the monk only. Almost every one of their attacks has not only the kind of spell effects players are used to, but a unique animation as well. So I think it'll appeal to the players who really like watching what their character does on the screen.
PCG: What class would you say has changed the most between Cata and Pandaria?
GS: It's definitely the warlock, yeah. There were a lot of aspects of that class that we thought weren't meshing well together. For example, in Mists of Pandaria one of the very different things we're doing, the different specializations have very different lists of abilities.
In the past, every warlock had Corruption, and they had to figure out how to use Corruption in their rotation. Now we might say, Corruption belongs to affliction warlocks only. That's not completely accurate, but you get the idea.
So we can define each of their rotations separately. Demonology is using different spells from affliction and from destruction. Each specializations of warlocks also have their own resource. We felt like warlocks were in a dangerous place where they just feel like a mage with a pet, and now destruction warlocks have a mechanic where, as they cast spells, they build up a new resource that visually shows them catching on fire. They're almost becoming unstable with this spell energy before they can release it.
PCG: I feel like I should speak for the Retribution Paladins of the world and ask: where are we going to fall on the "get laughed out of the raid" to "I am a god" scale this expansion?
GS: (Laughs) I really like how their rotation feels now. I feel like it had too many gaps at the end of Cataclysm, but we've tightened up some of the cooldowns now, and there's not a lot of down time. Holy power comes in faster, which lets them use more finishing moves.
We're pretty happy with the feedback we've gotten on that. We've had a lot of paladins say it feels good to them, which probably means they're horribly overpowered and we'll regret it. But for the moment, at least, everyone's happy.
Talent design and returning players
PCG: Obviously, MoP is bringing the biggest talent overhaul the game has seen so far. Would you guys say that you're still sort of progressing toward a system that you're happy with, or is this model kind of where it's going to stay?
GS: I think this is it. Usually, at this time in previous expansions, where we're just about to launch, we've already started thinking about, "Okay, what're we going to do next time?" But we think this is going to be the talent design for the future and on. It accomplishes what we always wanted, which is customization where players can differentiate their fire mage from another fire mage in their group.
Not only that, but it gives players the flexibility to say, "You know, I'm getting a little bored of this talent. I'm going to try something else." Whereas in the past, it would typically be sub-optimal to do so. We feel like there's a lot of choice for players now, which is cool.
PCG: If I'm a player that's just coming back to the game, and I maybe haven't played since early Cata or even before then, what's the first thing you'd point me towards in Pandaria to see how far everything has come?
GS: Well, the continent itself is amazingly beautiful. The amount of detail that the artists and the graphics programmers are able to get out of it, it's hard to believe this is the same engine that's been running for seven or eight years. When you see the vines draping on these trees in the rainforest, it's really breathtaking.
For a player that hasn't played in a while and is interested in coming back, we've added a new feature to the characters. One page is just called "What's changed?" where they can look and just say, oh, Rend isn't a button for warriors anymore - the learning curve for a player to get back into the game should be a lot less steep now.
We'd like to thank Greg for taking the time to talk to us. Mists of Pandaria is available for pre-order, and launches on September 25.