Steve’s back from BlizzCon, an event which went less than smoothly for him. Still, he emerged with an interview with Jeffrey Kaplan, Lead Designer on World of Warcraft, also known as Tigole. The interview is available as audio and you can find both it and the transcript after the jump.
You have been given ten minutes to interview a lead designer of the number one online game in the world. What questions do you ask?
This was not merely a rhetorical exercise for me on the second day of BlizzCon, as I had thirty minutes’ warning to prepare myself to interview Jeffrey Kaplan, better known online by his nickname, Tigole.
In order to ensure that this did not turn out to be both the site’s first and last interview with Blizzard, I opted to take the middle road between all-out hard-hitting investigative journalism, and softball obsequious pandering. Having said that, I will let the questions speak for themselves.
Press the play button to listen to the interview.
The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those of our readers who may be unfamiliar, tell us a little bit about yourself, and what it is you do for Blizzard.
Jeffrey Kaplan: Of course. My name is Jeffrey Kaplan, I’m a lead game designer on World of Warcraft. We have two lead game designers on World of Warcraft, one is Tom Chilton, the other is myself. I’m responsible for the world side of game design for World of Warcraft, that includes things like quests, dungeons, raids, and everything that goes along with those things, and then Tom handles things such as PvP, game systems, and class balance.
The MMO Gamer: On the subject of raids, I obviously don’t know the exact numbers, but there are rumors floating around on the internet that only something like under two percent of players in WoW actually make use of the end-game raiding content. How do you respond to the notion that you are catering to a small, vocal minority, while ignoring the large majority of casual players?
Jeffrey Kaplan: I think that’s kind of a misconception that we’re only creating content for a small group of players. First of all, our statistics show that our most popular instance is Karazhan, that’s getting done by more players right now—each day we get statistics that show what our most popular instances are, and each day it comes back Karazhan, so a lot of people are doing that. We’re coming out with Zul’Aman in direct response to the popularity of Karazhan.
Now, in regards to some of the more difficult raid content, like Naxxramas, or like Black Temple, I think there is some validity to what you’re saying, that not enough people are getting to see the content. In direct response to that, we want to take Naxxramas, what we felt was possibly one of our best dungeons in terms of game design, in terms of cool encounters, great art, it had some of the best music out of any of our zones, and a lot of people missed it, and I think they missed it for a couple reasons: One, it was super hardcore, it was our hardest dungeon of original World of Warcraft, the other reason is that it came only a few months before The Burning Crusade. I think a lot more people would have gotten the chance to experience it if they had the time to progress, but since they didn’t, they missed it.
So what I want to do in Northrend is to take Naxxramas in all of its glory, scale it down to the 25 man raid size, and then take the difficulty and retune it—obviously we’d tune for level 80, it would no longer be tuned for level 60, since that would be a little silly and it wouldn’t be a lot of fun for people at that point—but I want to put rewards in there that are very exciting to level 80 players, but make it the entry-level raid, very accessible, tune the encounters so that there’s something for everybody to do, and let the majority get a chance to see that content that they hadn’t seen before.
The MMO Gamer: Also on the subject of raids, I’d like to give you an opportunity to respond to some of the criticisms that you have been receiving on the [WoW] boards. You were obviously a successful guild leader in EverQuest for a number of years, and during your time there you were, shall we say, highly critical of what you saw as inferior design or poor implementation of end-game mechanics.
Yet now, some on the forums have turned around and accused you of implementing some of those same mechanics that you had so harshly criticized years ago. What would you say to them?
Jeffrey Kaplan: Well, there’s a couple parts to your question: One, I was often very critical of what I felt were poor design decisions back then, but I also was a huge fan of their raiding game, and there are particular encounters that I thought were simply brilliant encounters in EverQuest.
Their encounters at the time that I was playing were not as complex as our encounters are in WoW these days, but even with simplicity they had done a lot of very elegant encounters in my opinion. Straight down to the Avatar of War which was just incredibly tuned, and it was an endurance fight and very fun, and there was encounters like Sontalek, which was one of my favorites. And I’ve actually tried to pay homage to some of those encounters in WoW. Patchwerk is actually a direct response to the Avatar of War, which I thought was great. And, Sontalek was actually the inspiration for Vaelastrasz the Corrupt.
Now some of the mechanics that I was very critical of had to do with player collision, and I don’t feel like we’ve made some of those same mistakes. The player collision in EverQuest was very fun, as far as being the top guild leader on our server. We were very competitive, very ruthless, and a lot of my guildmates actually reveled in the joy that was the player competition, the raid game…
The MMO Gamer: I can relate to that.
Jeffrey Kaplan: As the guild leader, though, I actually got a lot of tells that made me feel pretty bad about other people missing out on the content, and there were a lot of nights where I felt that even though my guild was successful, that meant that another guild missed out on a night of fun. And I felt like well, within the game they were blaming me, the guild leader, or my guild as a whole, and I really thought it was the design of the game that was at fault.
An example is somebody once wanted to learn how to kill the Statue of Rallos Zek, so they put in that trigger to spawn the Avatar of War that was a direct clone of the Statue of Rallos Zek. It had no loot on it, so that way there was no reason to kill it unless you wanted to spawn the Avatar of War. Well, one time a guild killed it to practice, and we got into a big sort of debate over it, and I felt like there was some decisions that they made that were pitting players against each other in a way that was not natural, or there was no sense of resolution.
So, I don’t feel like we’ve actually done the same mistakes that were made in EverQuest, I’d like to think that we’ve learned from them. I think that what players are often critical to me on the boards directly is of some of our new mistakes that we’ve made in WoW, and I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve had our share, but my big hope is that we’re proving over the years that we’re learning from mistakes that we’ve made, and trying not to repeat the same ones again.
The MMO Gamer: Let me ask you a hypothetical: Let’s say you walked outside of the convention center right now, and there was a DeLorean with a flux capacitor in the back waiting at the curb. You have the opportunity to go back in time to when you first began working on WoW. What would you do differently the second time around, and how would you do it without creating a time paradox that could destroy the entire universe?
Jeffrey Kaplan: Well, I can’t promise about creating a time paradox and destroying the entire universe, but there are definitely some things that I would do differently. One thing that we’ve often talked about—that we could never change in WoW, but, I’d like to revisit the concept of in future games—was not locking the action bar in World of Warcraft.
We definitely didn’t want to have the constraint system that EverQuest had, with very few spells and abilities, we wanted players to have a lot of spells and abilities, but I think we should have limited the overall amount of buttons that were on the screen, I actually think it would have been a benefit to players. I actually think as new expansions come out, new abilities, new clickable items, we’re getting to the point where it’s actually a lot of clutter on the screen, and I would have liked to have locked the action bar.
There are other things that are sort of adverse that came out of this, an example is we never intended for Mages to have point blank AE stealth detection, but because any Mage can just put rank one Arcane Explosion on his bar at any time and just spam it any time he thinks a Rogue is in the area, it’s given the Mage an ability that we didn’t actually intend them to have, but because we don’t limit what you can put on your action bar there’s no downside to doing that.
So that’s one example. I don’t have a large example, there’s not one thing that I could point to and say I would change this huge system, or I would never do this or that. It’s a lot of small decisions along the way, I think that’s where great game design ultimate comes from, is a series of small very important decisions that no one decision is the make or break for the game, it’s all the little choices along the way.
The MMO Gamer: This will be our final question. WoW obviously holds an enormous deal of appeal for a great number of people. A good friend of mine’s seventy year old mother, who had never played a game before in her life, until she picked up a copy of WoW, now has a level 70 Druid in a raiding guild. Everyone has their own theories as to the source of where this appeal lays, but what do you, as the lead designer think?
Jeffrey Kaplan: I think the source is the focus on fun. I think a lot of people got carried away with the concept of an MMO from a very high level of community management, or community manipulation, or an MMO as a social experiment. But what we did when we were working on WoW was focus on the fact that it was a game, and if one person played it all by themselves the game should be fun, and not to rely on traditional MMO thoughts of the time, which was forcing people to interact with each other, forcing a slow progression, and being overly punishing on the players. We just wanted to make an experience that was fun whether you wanted to play it by yourself, or with other people.
Make a really deep game, in a really rich world, and then later, focus on, in the later stages of development, how can we make that as accessible as possible through smart user interface choices, and really sort of simple gameplay at first that introduces you to the more complex mechanics the more into the game you want to get.
The MMO Gamer: Thank you very much for joining us, and we look forward to speaking with you more in the future.
Jeffrey Kaplan: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
The interview was thus concluded. As we stood up to shake hands and say our farewells, he asked me, “Were you a guild leader in EverQuest, too? I assumed that’s what you meant when you said you could relate.”
“No, actually,” I said, “I was the leader of the top guild on my server in WoW.”
“Ah. So, do you still play WoW?”
“No,” I admitted sheepishly. “I quit about a year and a half ago. I took one look at the patch notes with the requirements to open AQ and said to myself, ‘I’m getting the hell out of here.’”
To his credit, the smile that had been on his face from the moment we had been introduced didn’t so much as flicker at this as we went our separate ways.