Pondering the Cataclysm with Blizzard's J. Allen Brack

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.