Tobold's Blog
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Interview with J. Allen Brack

One major purpose of me applying for a press pass for the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2008 was to get a chance to interview somebody from Blizzard about World of Warcraft. And my thanks go to secret PR guy (who wishes to remain anonymous), who made it possible that I got an interview with J. Allen Brack, Lead Producer for World of Warcraft. So here is the interview, word for word, just cleaned up a bit:

T.: J., what is your job title, what do you do?

J.: I'm the Lead Producer for World of Warcraft, so I'm the spiritual advisor, the solver of problems, I help control when patches and expansions come out, help getting them tested and ready to go, I'm remover of roadblocks great and small to all manner of programmers and artists and designers.

T.: That is already a very good introduction to my most important question, on the roadmap for World of Warcraft expansions in the future: In the next ten years, will there be 5 expansions or 10, or how do you see that?

J.: Great question. I don't know exactly how many. So we have kind of a stated goal releasing expansion once per year. But much more important than that is our commitment to that whenever a player actually buys the game and installs it they have a great experience. I guess we announced that we had the goal of doing it once a year about a year-and-a-half ago, and obviously it hasn't happened. It's been more than a year than The Burning Crusade came out, and we are not exactly yet happy with where [WotlK] is. The most important thing for Blizzard is that you have the best experience possible when you install it. And whenever Wrath of the Lich King gets to that point, that we feel you will have a great experience, we will release it. And that will be the case for the next expansion as well, whenever that happens to be. I don't know if that answers it or not.

T.: Well, the goal is there for one expansion per year.

J.: It's the goal, but it's more important that you have a great experience.

T.: In your mind, if you are scheduling a path, again for the next 10 years, will that be every expansion 10 more levels, one more hero class, a couple new features, maybe one more crafting skill?

J.: It might be surprising, but we don't actually plan more than one or two expansions ahead. So right now we have this expansion that we are working on, and we have started to talk about ideas for the next expansion. And that's it. We know that we have tons of ideas for other expansions, that come after the next one, but have no idea what actually will be in those expansions. We have no idea really even what will be even in the expansion that will come after Wrath of the Lich King. Right now we are just starting to talk about what would be some of our top cool ideas that we would want to do.

T.: Would you still be thinking about things like expanding lower level content,

J.: Sure.

T.: or introducing player housing?

J.: Sure.

T.: Those things are on the table, but we don't know what expansion they will be in?

J.: You don't know, and actually I don't know. The way Blizzard makes decisions like that is, when it comes time to do something like that, we'll put up all the ideas that we think are great for the next expansion. And we go "okay, that'll take us 5 years to make, way too long for players to wait for the next expansion. Let's talk about what the big, really solid ideas for the next expansion are". We did the same thing with the Death Knight. We knew we wanted to introduce a new class, and we talked about what are the various class options, and then kind of worked it down from there. Whether the Death Knight is the strongest option. You know it's a tank, we would like to add more tanks to the game. It's very lore centric with the lich king and Northrend, so that helped the decision get made. But we always talk about what are all the good ideas, and then figure out which ones are the best to take for each decision.

T.: Okay, lets follow up on you want more tanks in the game. You just need 5 minutes in looking for group chat to know that everybody wants more tanks and healers in the game. Do you think you can solve that by adding another tank class, and then you get more tanks, or do you think there is some underlying reason that people like the damage dealing classes more than the group classes of tank and healer?

J.: Yeah, tanking obviously is a very big responsibility. I think two things. Definitely I think by adding another tanking class there will be more tanks in the game. I think also in the past we had a tendency, if you take the protection warrior, it was the best tank, but it wasn't really useful for other things. So one of the kind of changes that we are going to make with tanking in Wrath of the Lich King is tanks, even protection tanks, will still do some amount of damage that contributes towards the overall raid or dungeon, or whatever you happen to be doing. Before their damage used to be near zero. Now we are going to actually make it a more meaningful contribution. I think that will actually help as well. Because a lot of warriors felt like they could tank or they could dps, and they just had to effectively do a talent change every time they wanted to switch. Now, you're not going to be the best dps'er whenever you are in your protection spec, but you are still be able to contribute meaningful.

T.: And that also would include changes to the warrior class, or is that just true for the Death Knight?

J.: No, no, that's all tanking classes. So we want all tanking classes to contribute meaningfully to damage.

T.: That is the reason for abilities like Titan Grip? [New warrior talent that allows you to wield 2-handed weapons in one hand, with a speed penalty. Yes, this time it's in!]

J.: Sure, yeah.

T.: And what are you planning for healers?

J.: Well, I actually play a healer.

T.: Me too.

PR guy: Me too. [Lots of laughter.]

J.: So that is dear to my heart. I play a holy priest. So we obviously have ten new levels and talents for healers to enjoy. Not really ready to talk about necessarily how that works. We feel tanking is the number one kind of shortage and then way further down is healing. So we introduce this Death Knight and see how that goes, and if we need to make changes or introduce a new class at some point later in the future maybe we will make that decision.

T.: You're not promising a healer hero class in the next expansion?

J.: That is correct, I'm NOT promising. We are very much a let's see how this goes type of thing. So we'll introduce the Death Knight, and we'll see how that goes, and if it's really successful then we'll talk about doing another hero class at some point in the future.

T.: Okay, lets talk about hero classes, Death Knight. There were earlier plans where you had to be 80 and do a quest, but now you basically removed all the requirements. You just have to have on level 55 character and you can make a Death Knight, and you can make him of any race.

J.: Yes.

T.: This will basically guarantee you that you will get a huge number of Death Knights.

J.: A huge number of Death Knights. Absolutely.

T.: Don't you think that you will have then the other problem, like 4 Death Knights shouting for a healer to go to a dungeon, if that even would be working?

J.: I think that will definitely be an issue on day 1. When we actually launch Wrath of the Lich King you'll be faced with a choice of whether to create a Death Knight and start that process, or to take your main and level it up to level 80. We saw kind of the same thing with Burning Crusade. We didn't introduce a new class, but we let the Horde play Paladins, and we let the Alliance play Shamans. In the first few months we saw huge numbers of Paladins and Shamans of the opposite faction. But now, or 6 months later, or 3 months later after that, you saw reasonable numbers of both, or what we feel is a reasonable number. And I think it will be the same for the Death Knight. Lot of people will start it, lot of people will create one, lot of people will level it. How many people will make it their main? I think some normal number of people will make it their main. The intent of the Death Knight is for it to be epic, but equal. Sort of feel like an epic experience, but it's not going to be any more powerful than any of the other classes. So some people will make it their main, and that'll be what they are playing, and other people will say "hey, I've done this for a while, and it's great, but it's not for me", and that's okay.

T.: Warriors will definitely feel somewhat threatened.

J.: Sure. Definitely.

T.: So what can you do or say to calm down the warriors?

J.: One thing we're doing is, you know, each kind of tank has it's own specialization. Every tank can tank, any dungeon and any raid, but certain classes are better [for certain situations]. Paladin is obviously a great AoE tank. Focus of the specialization for the Death Knight is going to be spellcasters. We don't really have a tank yet that is specialized for an anti-spellcaster role, and that is going to be the role of the Death Knight.

PR Guy: I hate to do that, but last question. J. has a panel and needs to be backstage in 10 minutes.

T.: Okay, then last question. The Death Knight starts at level 55. Every other class starts at level 1. Do you think that at one point you will introduce the option for other classes to start at level 55? Because if somebody chooses to make a new character, that might be a big factor in his choice, maybe he doesn't want to level up again.

J.: Sure, that's a great question. One of the things of starting at level 55 is kind of that epic but equal part of the Death Knight. We have talked about potentially having you, if you have some character that is a certain level that maybe you can create another character at a higher level, different than 1. We also just made a big change in patch 2.3 where you can much easier level up from level 1 to 60. So we are always looking at easier ways for you to level up. One thing we just announced for the next patch, that is 2.4.3. that we are changing the level at which you get your mount. It used to be level 40, now it’s going to be level 30, with a corresponding gold cost decrease. We definitely want you to play at the high level with your friends. And we are always looking at neat good ways for you to get up to the high level. So we will continue to look at thinks like that.

T.: Thank you very much for the interview, J.

J.: Thank you so much. It's always nice to talk with people who obviously very much like the game.
nice one, reporter Tobold:)

quote "and we are not exactly yet happy with where [WotlK] is"

that doesnt bode well...
The interview does seem to explain where some of the mudflation, more of the same, etc. issues come from, with the "not planning very far ahead" responses.
Definitely I think by adding another tanking class there will be more tanks in the game

I just lost all hope that they ever pay attention to anything.
Great interview, Tobold, and congratulations on completing your rite of passage as a bona-fide journalist.

Again, no great revelations from Blizzard -- hardly surprising considering their reputation for being extremely tight-lipped.

I'll just allow myself to speculate on future expansions: they haven't got any significant resources committed to anything beyond WotLK, and it may very well be the last major expansion to the aging game. The go-ahead for the next expansion is mainly contingent on how well WotLK sells. Beyond that, Blizzard will look at how WoW subscription numbers change in response to new MMOs entering the market and at how close to completion Blizzard's own next-gen MMO is in determining whether to develop any more expansions for WoW.
This is exactly why I do not play WoW anymore. The lead designer has no clue that the tank problem has more to do with the insane power of ms warriors in pvp than damage being done by the tank on a raid or in a group.

The answers also clearly illustrate that the game has become unmanageable from a design perspective and duct taping here and there isn't going to satisfy the hundreds of thousands of customers who have had their classes shafted in pvp.
There may be some hope for retnab pallys lol. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the new content will be worth buying the expansion.

But then again, this guy is who we can blame for the tainted taste of post WoW-vanilla. Fooled me once already lol.

Well, after all - there must be some significant changes at class design to let make a prot warrior do some resaonable damage (just change the items will do nothing, because others can use them too and will put obvisously the prot tank at the very end of the "damage dealed list").

I think we can expect some trial and error to fix these kind of problems (which may be good or bad - as usual).

From this interview I would expect, that Blizzard will support WoW not more than 2 or 3 expansions - I do not see any serious effort to fix the basic problems.
The lead designer has no clue that the tank problem has more to do with the insane power of ms warriors in pvp than damage being done by the tank on a raid or in a group.

First of all, J. is lead producer, not lead designer. And I don't see what the PvP balance of MS warriors has to do with the tank problem. Except that dealing damage is more effective in PvP and solo, and then you need to respec and reequip to tank, which is exactly what was discussed in that interview. So how does he have "no clue"?
Nice job mate :)
Nice interview, thanks.

I'm not sure if I'll ever go back to WoW. The End game for me was great for a time, but easy to get burnt on. I have no desire to team up with 24 other mates to raid 4 nights a week just to have a slim chance at a purple.

I wouldn't mind going with a new class if the expansion would put in a new patch 1-60. I've done max with horde & alliance, now need something new. I'll most likely just casually play WAR.

I'm also hoping for a Starcraft MMO announcement in late 2009 for a 2011-12 release.
As i posted before i think this "and we are not exactly yet happy with where [WotlK] is" was the most telling remark for me.

One could interprete this as 'we are nowhere near finished yet', like they are really struggling, despite the wagonload of money that comes rolling in each month. Guess you cant buy creativity.

The longer it takes though, the less enthousiastic i become about this the point of considering giving up on wow altogether.

In that case i hope WAR can deliver on its promises; what ive seen sofar looks good. I kinda like the cartoony visuals (strangely enough i prefer these over the more realistic AoC graphics), and the few new twists on ancient mmo mechanics.
comon tobold. How is adding another tanking class going to fix the tank shortage? There is no shortage of tank capable classes now. Just people willing to tank.
Add that to the fact you get to end game and there are a lot less tank slots than tanks wanting to tank. A new tanking class will fix none of the design problems that make being a tank undesirable for most. It sounds to me that they think that Deathknights will be so cool everyone will tank. You've predicted yourself most deathknights will be dps.

Yeah I"d have to agree i'm not seeing any attempt from blizzard to actually figure out whats really broken or to try to understand thier players. They just seem to be throwing darts at at the wall and trying to figure out what sticks.

Maybe not having a clue is harsh.
How about haven't understood thier casual playerbase at all since thier unexpected success?
I am someone who hasn't played WoW for a while and was considering giving it another try. I only every played a dwarf rogue (got to level55) and so there are many classes/regions/factions/races that I would like to try.

I liked hearing in the interview that the new player experience is still a priority for WoW, moving forward. I can play WoW ok on my computer but all the other new MMO's out there would require me to buy a new computer which I refuse to do.

My only reservation about WoW has been that I feared they had abandoned the new players but it seems like in the interview that that is not the case.

I'm going to have a deathknight banker alt!!!
The "we're not happy with WoTLK" comment isn't as significant as people make it. All he's saying is it's not at the point where it's good enough to release. Which is actually saying nothing, because obviously if it was good enough for release they'd have set a release date already.

Also, any one who thinks that they are somehow close to the end for WoW is delusional. Everquest is still going, Ultima Online is still going. WoW isn't going away any time soon, even IF it starts lose subscribers. The cost to maintain an MMO is tiny compared to the cost of developing a new one, so as long as a few hundred thousand people will pay for it, you'll see it live on and have expansions.
It seems like they just don't get it. He keeps talking about contributing more dps to the group? What tank or healer is complaining they aren't doing MORE for the group?

When I play my priest I only like playing when I'm in a group and healing. I like overcoming challenges with groups. Nothing else in the game is fun for me on that character, except maybe social things.

That's why I haven't logged in on my priest for about 4 months now. I did not plan on it it just gradually happened.
Nice interview Tobold.

I found Blizzard's admitted lack of foresight and planning quite disturbing. For a game like this, shouldn't they have a long-term development roadmap?!

It's possible Grak that they're thinking about a sequel more than another expansion... dun, dun, DUN!

Seriously, at the rate it's taking them to release expansions a sequel with all that they've learned might be a better option if we're talking another few years out.

But then again, it's Blizzard... a sequel if started today wouldn't be out until 2013.
Looks like I need to polish my resume to target a “Wanted: Long-term MMO designer” job ad from Blizzard.

RE: Shortage of tanks

I tend to agree with Sam - there is no shortage of tank-capable classes. And the hope that Death Knight will result in more actual tanks is treating the symptom, but not the cause. Therefore IMO it is likely to result in lots of Death Knights - but not more tanks.

And I agree that PvP is a factor in the tank shortage problem. IMO Russell hit quite close. Tanks have essentially one gear upgrade path: PvE instances and raiding. And when one can get relatively easy gear upgrades through PvP, then one will probably PvP. Why pay a high repair bill, or shoulder pressure to hold aggro or pull a mob off the healer or take the blame for wipes - when instead you can play a dominant PvP class & spec on the way to some of the best itemized-for-PvP gear in the game?

So to fix the problem, Blizzard must address these issues.

First, in the expansion, the designers must consider strengthening the tanking capabilities of the paladin and druid classes, or weakening their healing capabilities, or both.

Second, the designers should consider making available PvP-purchased gear that is useful for PvE tanking. And they should make some crafted gear for tank-capable classes that is genuinely useful (think along the lines of the DPS Frozen Shadoweave set, Spellstrike set, etc). IMO Blacksmithing is currently a sad profession that needs a complete overhaul, especially for tanks (for example, the top Armorsmith chest seems to not be able to decide if its for PvE or PvP).

Finally, I would add that I have come to the conclusion that TBC real-time experiment with resilience resulted in a stat that did what was intended, but broke the game - or more correctly, split the game into PvE and PvP.

Resilience essentially made raiding gear inferior to resilience gear for PvP. The problem is that the stat created two battle environments, which is quite artificial. I don my PvE gear to raid, and my PvP gear to PvP - that is, IMO, a bad design. The more resilience I stack, the larger the divide between the PvP game and the PvE game. But I don’t see Blizzard undoing that error, especially since they seem to think they are birthing an e-sport.
"we are not exactly yet happy with where [WotlK] is"

Yikes! So how far into 2009 are we going to be waiting for WoTLK?

I really hope WAR and Spore happen soon. I'm bored with BC.
A very good interview, Thanks Tobold.

But very very sad to hear that blizzard has no idea of what is really wrong in the game as it is now. So many classes and builds have left the game, some for other classes and builds, many just giving up hope of any balancing of classes. Yes if you have the latest pvp uber gear, you play a balanced char, if not, well, a lvl 65 hunter in greens can cut down a warlock 70 in purples easy, shamans own most classes, basically if you can wear plate/mail, you are on the win. If not you are bumps on the road.
And now they are talking about making the game even easier to lvl in, cool even more players with out any clue whatsoever on how to play. And I thought we had enough already.
I likely see this happening :
Player1 buy's wow, spends 1 month begging for boosts, spends 1 month leeching for purple on bg, then he/she thinks : now Im ready for big dungeon. Spends 1 month getting kicked from every guild after pulling wrong mobgroups and so on.
Quits game after 3-4 months, blizzard then asks why : answer : the game was to hard and it takes to long to become uber.
Blizzard goes : hmm lets make it easier to lvl then.
result : more people quits faster.
I am Looking forward to war aor.
Great interview.
I recently re-activated my WOW sub and started on a PvE server.

Stopped playing a little after the BC release because I was so burned out from raiding and didn't want to start it all over again.

But lack of decent games made me come back. Enjoying it as a casual now. Rerolled on a PvE server and my character is almost ready to go into the outlands.

However, when WAR releases and it triggers my sub-interests I will cancel the WOW sub permanently.

WOW is by far on of the better mmo's I played, but it is my belief that TBC and WOTLK is just to much of the same.
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