World Of Warcraft's upcoming expansion pack, Mists Of Pandaria launches at midnight tonight.
Ahead of the big launch we met with senior game designer, Scott Mercer and senior software engineer Darren Williams to discuss the future of Blizzard's veteran MMO.
Looking back at Cataclysm, what lessons did you learn and what fan feedback to you listen to the most about what worked and what didn't?
SM: I think a lot of the lessons we learned from Cataclysm were based around content. A lot of players felt, after they'd finished up the main quests, that there wasn't enough stuff to do in Cataclysm. That's something we've really tried to address in Mists of Pandaria.
We have a tremendous amount of exclusive content that we didn't have in Cataclysm. We have 5 player dungeon quests, pet battles, a raised level cap to 90... there's Challenge Mode which is this kind of timed dungeon experience and you compare your times against other players on an in-game scoreboard. There are also a ton of daily quests.
DW: We've also gone back to giving players a single continent to explore, so there's a ton of locations to uncover and new lore to discover. It's a more focussed experience overall than Cataclysm; the last expansion pack had all these new features, but it was change to the old world of Azeroth. Mists has a brand new continent and content to offer.
Since Mists was announced you've received a lot of feedback from fans. Is there any specific areas in Mists - in terms of new features, I mean - that you feel your community is look forward to the most?
DW: I think there's a lot of excitement for the overall experience to be honest. The community is passionate about a lot of different things, really. The Pet Battle system's gone over well - especially since the beta. I think a lot of players were a little unsure about that at first, but now they understand it's really about the collection gameplay. It's a fun little mini-game they can play; if they don't have a lot of time to play, they can dip into that - it's really engaging.
There's a Challenge Mode in there too, for the super-competitive types of gamers that can post their timed dungeon runs. You also have bragging rights in the form of armour rewards in that mode that make your character stand out more.
SM: I think a lot of players are looking forward to the 'Monk' character class. I think a lot of players have been waiting for a character class that allows them to punch someone (laughs). The Monk actually has a combat system made up of a bunch of fighting styles so players who have been looking for that now have a character class.
Given that WOW is free-to-play for the first 20 levels, did you have to cater to the newcomer demographic of gamers in Mists any more than in past expansion packs?
SM: Yeah, well, when we design an expansion for one of our games, we don't really think in terms of 'we want to hit a certain demographic' or 'we want to target a certain type of player'. We concentrate first and foremost on making a fun game for ourselves - we're all gamers - and making something that we as players are passionate and excited about.
With Mists Of Pandaria we just got really geeked up about it; the world, the Far Eastern themes, the new class and all the opportunities Pandaria would give us to tell an awesome story.
Some of our previous expansion packs had these huge strong villains or events that threatened to destroy the world. With Pandaria, the local population are pretty peaceful. They enjoy a good meal (laughs) - that's really what they're all about. You, as the player, in either the Horde or Alliance, are the antagonists who bring the conflict into their lives. It's a pretty different feeling to what we've done in the past.
Do you think the level cap on Free-to-play on WOW will be raised in the future?
SM: I really don't know the answer to that question. [Free-To-Play] is something we evaluate from time to time and we'll have to see what happens in the future.
Last month PC Gamer carried a story that WOW lost 1.1m players in 3 months. Does Mists of Pandaria have ground to make up in terms of attracting new players or winning players back? Or really, is this being made out to be a bigger deal than it actually is?
SM: Well, I think we as games developers don't really pay much attention to subscriber numbers a lot. We just focus on making the best game possible - that's really what we concentrate on. We feel that if we make an awesome game, we don't have to worry about picking up subscribers too much.
DM: Look, we pay attention to the kinds of players we have and we make sure that we make an experience that every one of them will want to play, from the casual players right the way to the hardcore. It's all about providing content that all of our players will find appealing.
You're casting a pretty wide net with that, aren't you? How hard is to satisfy the demands of your players across such a broad spectrum?
DM: Well, for new players you've got the ability to play a Panda (laughs) which allows you to experience the game's brand new content - you'll be able to play up to level 20 with a Pandarian. More established players will be more geared up for raids and dungeons that we've obviously put a lot of work into.
When we last spoke to (Blizzard COO) Paul Samms, he said that he knew what the next two expansion packs for WOW were as (Blizzard Story and Franchise Development VP) Chris Metzen had pitched him them. Has work begun on them yet?
SM: As far more expansions go there are certainly ideas for expansions, like say, story ideas. You'll see some set-ups for future story ideas in Mists Of Pandaria, in some of the storylines of major characters. The thing is, though, World Of Warcraft is a constantly evolving world and while might have an idea on where certain stories in it might go, we're very conscious of its changing nature so there's no real concrete answer about where its story and lore will go in the future. There's no wrong or right answer about what the future might bring.
Windows 8 is on the horizon and Blizzard's games are made exclusively for the PC platform. Will World of Warcraft be available on Windows 8?
SM: Yes. Certainly.
DM: We put our games on platforms our players are already on, so yeah, it will be available on Windows 8.
The reason I ask is that recently Valve president Gabe Newell said he is worried that the new operating system will lead to a more closed platform - is that a fear you share?
DM: Well, we haven't worked with Windows 8 directly yet, but we'll certainly switch over to it. I think that we'll go with the platforms that the most people are on. There's no particular fear we have of Windows 8.