The World of Warcraft game-time token and instant max-level characters might never have existed if that decision rested in the hands of the game’s executives circa 2004.
Blizzard Entertainment executive producer and senior vice president J. Allen Brack has been working on World of Warcraft for almost a decade. A lot has changed in that time, he says, including the audience for the massively multiplayer online RPG, its needs, and the company’s philosophy about what makes compelling gameplay.
We sat down with him recently for an interview about where Warcraft has been and where it’s going, as it takes its largest team ever into the upcoming Legion expansion.
How players have changed
World of Warcraft’s core audience has changed demographically since the MMO’s launch in 2004, he said.
“We’ve gotten older,” Brack said with a chuckle, but that doesn’t mean people’s in-game goals have changed. So players challenge the company by wanting the ability to progress through end-game large-group raid dungeon content and player-vs.-player (PvP) objectives — while maintaining jobs and families and devoting less time to WoW. The hardcore-versus-casual split is not changing that much, he said, especially recently.
“If we look at how WoW is today, it’s very similar to how it was five years ago in terms of that split versus 10 years ago,” he said.
So Blizzard does its best to include content for both groups. For casual players, there are collection aspects and pet battling and quick dungeons and the lower “Looking for Raid” difficulty for raid dungeons. For high end players, Mythic dungeons offer specific, often extremely difficult coordination challenges for 20-person groups.
“I think we have a lot of different kinds of content that’s very different for casual players,” he said. “I think the über-hardcore WoW player is still a very important demographic to us, which is why you saw us in this last expansion carve off this Mythic raiding tier, which is really for that level of aspirational kind of player both from a time perspective and from a skill perspective.”
Subscriber numbers, on average, have continued to decline since the game’s peak in 2009-2010. Many expansions have generated temporary spikes — the most recent Warlords of Draenor release brought millions back — only to lose them again over time after release. (The expansion saw a decline even larger than its spike.)
About 5.5 million people subscribe now, less than half of WoW’s peak numbers, and Activision Blizzard announced this quarter that it would no longer report those numbers. It still leads pay-to-play MMO revenues in the West.
Brack said Blizzard still works to gain new audience, not just appeal to that sizable chunk of players that have seen it at one time or another. He hopes that the World of Warcraft movie debuting next June will hook new players.
“It’s a very mature game, but there are people growing up all the time,” he said. “There’s a certain age of gamer that’s heard of World of Warcraft, and they’ve decided it’s for them and tried it, or they’ve decided it’s not for them. But there are people who are coming into the age of Warcraft every single year.
“We also think the movie is a huge inflection point. You’ve got people who potentially have not played the game, or they’ve played WoW in the distant past and it’s an opportunity for them to get re-introduced to the stories of Warcraft.”
Things Blizzard does now it might not have then
Brack said there were “absolutely” things the company does in game now that he would not have done at launch or at the subscriber peak. One of them is the instant boost for one character to max level Blizzard offered with Warlords of Draenor (and will offer again for the new Legion expansion next summer.)
“If you look back and see the character boost token — if you’d asked 2004 Jay, will you ever have people have this opportunity to just get to max level, it would have been like no, what’s the point of that? That defeats the whole purpose of the game!” he said. “But now, here we are, 10 years in.
“The philosophy of the boost token is that I’ve been telling Blake he needs to play this game. He’s always complaining about how behind he is, he can’t play with Jay and Heather. So hey, Blake, now’s the time, buy the box, you get a boost token, automatically catch up, and we’re all on the same page and all ready to go into Legion and have that same adventure together.”
Another example is the WoW token, which allows players to sell a monthly subscription token purchased with real cash for in-game gold. It essentially allows players to buy in-game gold for cash, or pay for their subscriptions with gold earned during playtime.
“The WoW token is something where, if you’d asked 2004 Jay, are you ever going to do something like that, I think the answer is no,” Brack said. “It’s really interesting the sacred cows that you have in the past that change over time as the needs of game change, as the player base changes, and the game industry evolves, frankly.”
That doesn’t mean he sees the token as a free-to-play experiment — or that he expects Warcraft to go free-to-play in the near future.
“We’re not working on that right now. I never say never. But it’s not something we’re actively considering or actively working on,” he said. “We’ve had unlimited [free] time to get to level 20 for a while now.”
When the token system went into the game, they also made it possible for existing players to revert to that free level, playing characters up to level 20 on an existing account (rather than making a new one.)
“In the old days, when you became a paying subscriber, you could never go back to being non-paying. That’s just not a friendly environment,” he said. “It’s not a free to play experimentation. We’re always looking for ways to make it easy for you to come back. There’s nothing to be gained from a player side or the business side to make it difficult for people to come in and out.”
Making it easier to play with friends in Legion
The upcoming Legion expansion introduces a number of substantial changes to Warcraft in-game systems, with an eye toward making it more fun to play — and easier to play with buddies who don’t have an identical schedule.
“One of the big things about that is the player agency we give to players to choose,” Brack said. One of those systems is a dynamic level system, where to players, monsters in the game’s zones appear to be the same level as their characters. That allows players to more easily group with friends who aren’t the same level they are.
That’ll give Legion players five zones to choose from, essentially, allowing players to join their friends at any point in the leveling process.
“It doesn’t matter if their friend is a different level, they can group together and make progress,” Brack said. “If we do our job right, you really shouldn’t notice. We’ll decide the mobs that you do the right damage to, that are the right strength for you, and the mobs that are the right strength and the right damage for (your friend) — irrespective of what their actual levels are.
“He will see it at his level, and you will see it at your level.”
The idea came from the pre-expansion events the company was planning for Legion, he said. They wanted players at all levels to be able to fight in the demon invasions that form the core of the pre-expansion festivities, but they didn’t want lower level players to be annihilated by high-level enemies.
“We’re doing some work because we want this to feel cool for level 1 people as well as level 100 people,” he said. “We did some work and said hey, we think we can extend this to a little bit further on. That was the original genesis of that idea.”
Other big changes to come
Brack outlined several other major changes, most of which Blizzard announced during the panels recently at its BlizzCon fan convention. One was a new progression PvP system, which will have talents and separate progression for those interested in battlegrounds and arenas.
“That’s not something we’ve done in a very long time: PvP-specific talents,” he said. “We’ve had talents that were primarily for PvP, but this is a very different philosophy, that no, this talent actually is for PvP and does not do anything in PvE.”
Professions are being completely revamped, and crafters will enjoy quests, levels of proficiency for each recipe, followers who can assist them with their professions, and other new features.
“You recruit a guy to help work with you on your professions. There are different things you can do to focus on your professions on a daily basis,” Brack said. “We’ve got more designers focused on crafting specifically than we ever have in the history of WoW — that’s something we’re doubling down on in terms of making that a more-integral part of the experience.”
The company is also working on better timing for smaller patches that bring new content, keeping it coming at a more-steady rate, he said.
“We’ve experimented with different structures to let people deliver smaller patches and not affect the overall cadence of the next expansion coming out,” he said, giving an example of current patch 6.2.3, which included the return of valor points to upgrade gear, a new set of dungeons for the game’s Timewalking system, and a new moose mount available for killing the game’s end boss on heroic difficulty or better. “It’s got a lot of stuff to make people excited.”
Warcraft’s largest team ever
That said, the focus of WoW’s developers is on cool new content, not just bringing in new or returning subscribers, he said.
“The team itself can’t spend a huge amount of energy focusing on, how can I get 50,000 subscribers out of this next quest that I’m going to do? It would be a terrible, terrible job,” Brack said. “This raid boss has got to retain people for three months. You just can’t operate in that way.”
Blizzard is listening to its gamers, he said, and combining that with the data they garner from what players do in game.
“The only thing you can do is learn lessons from the past, make the best game that you can, try to figure out how to continue to excite people and create new things for them,” he said. “That’s really the only thing you can do from either a player perspective or from a business perspective.”
The company is more committed to Warcraft than it’s ever been, he said.
“The team is larger than it’s ever been in the history of World of Warcraft. We’ve got about 250 people on the team,” he said. “The team is huge. We want to do more and we want to do it faster.”
That includes expansions. Interviews in years past speculated about the idea of shipping an expansion a year, but Brack’s chuckle suggests he’s not expecting to see that anytime soon.
“One of the things we’ve been pretty open about is this idea of wanting to ship expansions faster, being able to decrease the amount of time,” he said. “We’ve had cases where after the last content patch, it was a year until the expansion comes out. That feels like an eternity. I think people are ready for the next thing far before we’re actually able to deliver it.”
So is he ready to talk about what’s next after Legion, then? Not a chance. That aim of reducing expansion time is still very much a work in progress.
“I don’t know what the schedule for that is yet — we don’t even know what that is,” Brack said. “We’re focused on trying to get Legion done. But if you look at the time period when Warlords shipped and when we’ve announced when Legion is going to ship, we’re nowhere close to one year. We’re very far from one year.”