Blizzard Producer's Personal History of WoW

Blizzard Insider brings us this interview with WoW’s production director, in which he explains how the development team has changed since the game’s release, and what lessons he and Blizzard have learned since. J. Allen Brack joined Blizzard Entertainment in 2006 as a senior producer for the Burning Crusade expansion pack for World of Warcraft. He eventually became the lead producer on the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and now that the latest expansion, Cataclysm, is in the works, he is the production director.

During the interview, Brack reveals a number of details about himself and the way production has changed since he joined the team. Two perhaps unexpected pieces of information include that new Blizzard employees have to stand up and talk about themselves in front of the rest of the 140-strong development team, and that Brack himself uses a murloc gurgle for a ringtone. One of the main improvements he points out about the team is that they have come a long way in terms of working on patches and new expansion development simultaneously – apparently when he first joined during the development of TBC, they were stuck in only one “mode” at a time. Also mentioned was that during the development of Outland, only one zone would be done at a time, and it was attempted to be made pixel-perfect in one long pass rather than iterated gradually. Hearing that, I am honestly somewhat surprised that they were able to get the expansion out at all.

Regarding the game design legacy that WoW will leave, Brack brings up an example that I have also found intriguing and important – the rest system. This isn’t so much the concept of the rest system, but how Blizzard chose to present it to the players after playtesting. Originally, a character would start at 100% experience gain, and would eventually drop to 50% gain after some time playing, because they became “tired”.  In testing, it was discovered that players felt this was very punitive, they disliked being penalised for playing longer. Blizzard’s response to this was to double the experience value of everything in the game, and change the system from starting at 100% and going to 50% to starting at 200% (after an appropriate time spent offline) before reverting to 100%. Objectively, this is completely the same level of experience gain, but it is now presented as a bonus rather than a punishment.

Also mentioned is that “when MMOs were in their infancy, we’d hear comments like, ‘it’s an MMO, so it’s okay that it’s buggy. It’s okay that it doesn’t make sense.'” Brack claims that “that excuse is gone” but I’m not so sure that things are different now. It may be that WoW can no longer get away with it, but I don’t remember a major MMO release in recent years that was not plagued by bugs and weird design quirks. Even as a strong fan of the genre, I often feel like I would be better off waiting for a few months or even a year before trying a new MMO, in order to avoid the worst of the glitches and oversights. At least the more mature games do appear to be attempting to set a higher standard.

More surprises come for me when Brack reveals that the race change feature was not predicted by Blizzard, as it seems an obvious boon to both player choice and game revenue, and that the team often hires new members to fill a particular player role rather than development position. What this means is that they have in the past deliberately hired PvP enthusiasts, for example, in order to get that particular viewpoint on the game. Upon reflection, this is not a bad idea at all, but it is a detail of the company’s practices I had never considered before. Brack also describes the implementation of the voice chat feature as being much more complex and time-consuming than had been anticipated, but this is no surprise to me. I happen to believe that the “number of mistakes in terms of how we did it” hound the feature to this day, as I don’t know of a single guild or even player that makes use of the in-game voice chat, instead continuing to rely on third party alternatives.

For those of you desperate for new Cataclysm details, I’m afraid you may be disappointed, as it is fairly slim pickings in this interview. However, it is those stories of Brack’s personal trials and triumphs in the game and his unique insights on what was done right and what was done wrong in the past that makes it an interesting glimpse into the life of a man representing a team that still seems very passionate about the game it is making. To read the full interview, visit the official site.