World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Interview

Gamasutra has posted the results of an interview they conducted with World of Warcraft lead world designer Alex Afrasiabi about the MMORPG behemoth's upcoming Cataclysm epxansion pack.
That's certainly something MMOs struggle with -- are people going to bother with the text? It seems like with Cataclysm, that's got to be almost the whole point of the expansion almost. A huge part of the experience as the player is seeing how everything has changed. Can you talk about any design tools or methods you use to strive for that?

AA: Absolutely. It's actually interesting. Initially, we created phasing as a bug fix. It was used to fix a bug with the Blade's Edge quest. That was it. Case closed, right? There was this bug, we couldn't solve the problem, and one of our programmers -- a brilliant guy -- implemented this system. Nobody thought twice about it.

[Expansion pack] Wrath [of the Lich King] rolls around, and we're in early alpha. We're getting feedback from the team, and one of my friends on the team is talking to me about [the] Howling Fjord [zone], and he's irate. He's saying, "I can't believe this. I go into [capital city] Valgarde, and I keep getting trained by these [native enemies] Vrykul. I killed them, and I did the quest. Why do I keep running into them?"

It seems really kind of innocuous. "Yeah, of course. That's how the game works. There's an event playing out. Even though you've done the quest, these events don't stop." But that's kind of what got me to start to more seriously approach it. It was almost a blow to the gut. I was aware of it. It was almost a challenge at that point. How could we change the world for the player so that it actually dynamically alters, so they can actually say, "I did take that quest to kill those Vrykul, and once I did that, guess what? They're gone. They're no longer there."

That was all the fire that was needed. From there, it was experimentation. It's funny. If you really break down how Lich King went, the way we tackled zones, we did Howling Fjord, Borean Tundra, and Dragonblight, in that order essentially, during development. Once you get to Dragonblight, you start seeing some of those effects. You start seeing a lot of invisibility -- not phasing -- because at the time, that phasing thing still hadn't clicked. But you start seeing more and more of it. When you get into Wintergarde, you rescue captives or villagers first. Once you bring them into town, the town actually changes.

After that, we went onto [the then-new] Death Knight [class], and it was almost a proof of concept at that point. How can we do this? This obscure bug fix just popped up. We were thinking, "What about that? Could that work?" Sure enough, we did a quick run through with a test, went through from one phase to the next, and we said, "Wait a minute. This actually did change, and it totally worked. Okay. We might have something here."

From there, phasing was born, essentially, in its current [form]. It became a great tool for us, to be able to tell stories like the battle for the [Undead capital] Undercity. You go to [Orc capital] Orgrimmar, and it's completely phased out into another phase, and you have all these [undead] Forsaken refugees pouring in instantly. You don't need to read anything. You just look. Forsaken refugees are on the floor, begging you for help. The Horde are all rounded up. Shops are all closed -- just straight up just closed, can't use them. Guards direct you to the other cities. It's exciting. That was a big one.

So our tools have essentially gotten better. Using phasing is one example, but there are many advancements like that. Vehicles have taken a lot of flak -- some good, some bad. For things that are used for that the player never actually controls, they're actually a very powerful tool for us. An example of a vehicle is the Kologarn -- that's a boss where you have the arms separate from the body. Just using the vehicle tech, he's actually technically just one big vehicle with two passengers as his arms. Again, it allows us to tell this greater story. It's no longer just that boss -- his arm breaks off, and then his other arm breaks off. The technology is definitely improved, and it's helped us tremendously, I think.