Lead content designer Cory Stockton spent more than a year designing the pet battle system, but he still had half an hour to chat with us about everything from farming to daily quests to raising your own dragon in the just-released World of Warcraft expansion.
You’re the lead content designer. What is your role specifically on the Mists of Pandaria team?
I kind of oversee a series of groups. I oversee the quest team, the scenario design team, the level design team, and I kind of co-do the encounter dungeon design group with Greg Street, we kind of share that group. So I kind of have my hands in a little bit of everything. The thing that took the most time here, I did the pet system, it was my pet project. I spent about a year and a half on that bad boy.
What sort of design space to scenarios fill in World of Warcraft?
For us, they really fill the gap between a daily quest and a dungeon. That’s exactly where we saw them. That’s why we thought three people felt great. You don’t need five, but if you want to do something with more than just solo play, that’s where they fit in. Difficulty-wise, they’re not difficult at all. We envision them to be something you could do in about 20 minutes, that’s about what we were shooting for. That’s why we wanted to have a number of them at launch. We’re launching with seven. Obviously we would like to continue to add more every patch but we think that’s a pretty good state to be in when we start. Gameplay-wise, what they are is a series of inter-connected quests but it’s all designed around sharing everything between those three players. So if there’s a thing to kill 30 guys on a wave, everyone contributes to that same goal. Imagine a group quest, right, but instead of everyone having the quest, there’s only one quest and it’s managed by that instance itself. And it just gives us the opportunity to do a lot of things we couldn’t do normally out in the world with elite quests. They caused people a lot of problems, they had to find other people, if you’ve done Dragonblight back in the Lich King days, you’ve probably experienced that. So here you can queue, and we don’t require any sort of roles. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a healer, a DPS, or a tank. You can get in there, queues are extremely fast because of that fact that there are no roles. That’s kind of the deal, that’s where we saw them fitting into the game.
Was there anything that came out of the design sessions or prototypes for scenarios that ended up somewhere else in the game?
Yeah, there are some things we worked on for scenarios that ended up getting changes. We’ve got some battlegrounds ideas out of the few of the scenarios we were talking about. We’re doing something in one of our first patches that we’re telling kind of story scenarios where we’re giving people a chance to learn some more story about big characters through the scenario system. Some of those things have turned into actual quests in the game as well. What’s cool about this system is that it’s completely expandable and open. You can have a scenario with one player or you can have a scenario with 40 players. We can really make it anything we want, and allow queuing and all of those things to work. So what I really think what people are seeing here at the launch of Mists is really the tip of the iceberg. We’re really hoping to expand them out and do lots more with them.
On the other side of the scale is world bosses coming back for Pandaria. What made you decide as a team to bring back world bosses after originally moving away from them?
We essentially solved what we felt were the biggest problems with world bosses. We’ve always loved the concept of them, but the problem is they’ve presented a number of issues that made it so most players would never get to experience it. You know [an elite] guild could lock that boss down 24/7 and you’d never have a chance to see it. The other big issue is, we essentially put some of the best gear in the game on those bosses, which made it so that if you didn’t have a chance with that boss you felt really terrible. So there’s a couple of solutions that we did. Number one, we have our new loot system that rolls individually similar to what you see in Diablo, where when players interact with the fight we don’t have to worry about loot stealing or that kind of thing that we’ve had happen in the past with rolling and things like that. We’ve really developed our loot system a lot in the past four years to get where we are now. Secondary to that, we’ve changed our philosophy on the loot that comes from them. We’re really going with more vanity-type stuff. They’re going to have loot but also both of our world bosses drop mounts, and the only place to get those mounts is from that boss. We really feel like that’s kind of an awesome thing to have because anyone who sees you on that mount they can obviously know that you’ve taken down that world boss. Separate from that we’ve just crafted the world to know that they were going to be there. So we left the space where Galleon roams in the southern Valley of the Four Winds open and we don’t have questing there specifically. Because we know that on PvP servers that place is going to be crazy. But we love that, right, because that’s what World of Warcraft is, that’s the point. Being that we’re really pushing for Alliance vs. Horde here, we just felt like it was a good time to bring it back.
By pushing the world boss out away from questing areas or places where you’re expecting more players to be, doesn’t it take away the point of the world bosses being this giant thing that you see and can beat up later with a group of friends?
100 percent, and that’s why we made sure to make them in a place that they are visible. They’re not going to make it so that when you’re a level 87 guy and you have to collect 14 things in Valley of the Four Winds that you don’t end up having to collect right at the spot where everyone’s fighting the world boss. It’s not like a big section of the zone isn’t quested, we just for instance did not put kill targets right near the world bosses. The Sha of Anger world boss that we have in Kun-Lai Summit actually spawns in eight different locations around the zone, and those locations were all definitely picked in a place to where anyone who’s questing through the zone is definitely going to see him and going to see a fight happen with him, and hopefully be encouraged that that’s something they can do one day.
One of the complaints in Cataclysm was that the quest series were designed so linearly that you could miss one questgiver out in the middle of the forest and be locked out of the rest of the zone. So how are you addressing those complaints and addressing the larger structure of quest flow to improve the experience?
That’s one of the biggest things we worked on going into Mists, knowing we wanted to give players a much more non-linear experience through the game. That’s a complaint we heard across the board and it’s something we knew about. Obviously it was too late, but we realized we were crafting something that wasn’t really going to feel different the second time that you played through it. So the goals with Mists were to offer players different paths through the zones. Not only by the fact that you can choose different storylines and things to do but by the fact that we have completely optional quest hubs that you’re not necessarily taken to on the normal flow. You might get a breadcrumb quest. “Hey, go check out this area over here.” You show up there, and there’s maybe 10 or 12 extra quests that have nothing to do with your main storyline quests. So we designed all of the zones around that concept. The zone that will feel the most linear to players will be the Jade Forest, our intro zone. That’s essentially because we’ve really got to lay the foundation for the story. We’ve got to let you know, why are you here, what’s going on, why am I important. You know, how do I be a hero, we’ve got to set all those things up. At that point, we kind of let it split up. You can choose to go to Krasarang Wilds, you can do Valley of the Four Winds, in any order you want. Our final two zones, Townlong and Dread Wastes, have the same kind of vibe. They’re essentially 88 to 89, and 89-90, but there’s a lot of overlap between them so you can choose to do half of one and head into the other. Or you can finish out Townlong steps all the way before you go to Dread Wastes. So it’s kind of up to you, versus a player coming into Cataclysm who had to finish all of Hyjal and kill Ragnaros before you’re able to go to the next zone. It’s definitely something we wanted to address.
Where have you settled on the best use of factions and faction reputation bars in overworld and solo content as a tool for building the world?
We love the reputation system. In general it’s something we wanted to invest time in for Mists. I think players are going to see that right away. I would say our underlining philosophy is that a reputation can’t be a bar on the bottom of the screen. We wanted you to actually see the world change. You do things that, you know, interact with your player. Things feel completely different. An example for that would be the Halfhill Market Farm faction that we added to the game. As you earn reputation with them, obviously you can upgrade your farm, you can get new plots, you can get new seeds, and grow new things. That’s probably the farthest end of something feeling pretty different. We’ve also added things like friendship with individual NPCs. If you do quests for an individual guy you can essentially earn faction but with that one specific NPC, thereby giving players a choice to not only earn faction for say, the Claxi, but you can earn faction for any of four different people who are offering quests within the Claxi. Those four guys offer four individual rewards so that you can kind of choose and say I want to do this guy’s quest or I want to do that guy’s quest. Along with that we really see factions as our endgame content that help us extend dailies through the game. In Mists of Pandaria we have over 300 daily quests that players can do, and the majority of those don’t even open until you hit level 90. It’s a massive jump over any amount of dailies we’ve ever done in any expansion before this. The dailies are all split up into different factions that earn you different rewards and different things. The game doesn’t end when you hit level 90, it basically is just beginning.
So with that big emphasis on dailies, how do you keep that from feeling “grindy?”
I think that’s where you can look at some of the things we’ve done historically and kind of see the direction we’re going. If you look at something like Firelands, the way that we offered multiple branching paths and lots of randomness within those dailies, we’ve taken that and advanced it even more. We have a whole zone that’s devoted only to max level players and an entire kind of daily reputation system. That’s the Vale of Eternal Blossoms where our two main cities are. That’s really an evolution of Firelands. Every day you go there and a different area is under attack that you have to do quests for. Not only does it mean that you’re fighting in a different area each day with different mobs, but the quests within that area also randomize. So it’s not like, “Oh man I’m going back to do the same thing.” You’re going to go back and different NPC’s will be there and different quests. We’ve also integrated big elite bosses that kind of wander through that area. On a certain day you might see a huge guy there that wasn’t there two days ago. Things like that go right along with things like the farm. Things like our fishing daily quests, things that allow you to earn valor. By doing our fishing dailies we give you the same valor points that you would get from doing a kill quest daily. It’s all about choice. With how far WOW is along these days, we don’t feel like we can force people into doing something we like. We have to give them options to do whatever they want. They’ve been playing the game almost eight years now. So the goal is if you like fishing and you want to earn valor points to buy gear, go for it. If you like planting seeds and letting plants grow, that’s awesome too. But if you want to go play your class and fight mobs and do quests, that’s also an option.
With the emphasis on valor points and giving those for a variety of different activities, do you feel like you’ve finally beaten the community into submission on the topic of welfare epics?
[Laughs] I think it’s hard to ever get away from that, you know? I think we will admit that we went way too far, and we know that looking back. The game got to the point that an epic just didn’t really matter, right? We had the achievement Epic for getting an epic in every slot, and at a certain point it kind of turns into a joke. You could get an epic but it wouldn’t even have good stats. So that was a big part of the reset that we’ve been doing here where getting an epic in Mists is actually a pretty big deal. It’s not like you can just go into a heroic dungeon and get an epic. Heroic dungeons only give blues. Really, with the expansion of [the Looking for Raid system introduced after Cataclysm launch] in the game, it’s really changed everything. It’s kind of amazing how much of our player base is actually doing LFR if you were to look at the same stats like that from something like Northrend.
On the topic of dungeons and raids, balance has gone back and forth between different expansions and even different patches in terms of what sort of baseline is expected of players in terms of skills and coordination to get through dungeons, heroics and entry-level raids. Where do you hope that Pandaria launches along that spectrum?
Burning Crusade was extremely difficult on the Heroic side and I think most players consider Northrend to be pretty simple in comparison to Burning Crusade. We realized that and went into Cataclysm saying, “The Heroics need to be harder; they were way too easy in Northrend and we should make them harder.” And it ended up being too hard.
We want something between where Cataclysm was and where Northrend was. Burning Crusade, we feel like, was pretty brutal. We were seeing the hours people were spending in dungeons and these long runs back and things. We don’t want to get to that point; the game is just too big for that at this point and we can’t do that to that many players. We want to create a challenge, and that’s why we created Challenge mode. Challenge modes allow us to give players that opportunity to be really crazy and try to get a fast as time possible and really focus on doing the dungeon, whereas with something like LFD if you queue and you wait your ten minutes to get in or whatever it is on your server we want you to be successful. But in that same vein we want you to feel like you used your class and you actually tried, so we’re always kind of trying to meet that goal and we have a mass amount of tools and analytics that we use. Beta test has been amazing; we have gotten so much awesome feedback and we track all of these things that happen in the beta and see everything. We can balance better now than we have ever been able to do it in the past.
On a personal, player-to-player level, what’s your pitch to a player like me to get me into Pandaria and back into the World of Warcraft?
The biggest thing I can tell you is that there is so much to do. I think I fall into a category of, like, obviously I played WoW all the way through. But I played Cataclysm and got to the end, and there was content to do but I felt like it really wasn’t that different. I could do a dungeon or I could raid. Introducing Looking for Raid later was really great at the beginning; I finished and then it was like, “Well, this is kind of the same thing.” It’s different content, but it’s similar, so the biggest thing going into Mists is that we have completely new things to do. You can do things like a Challenge mode and get a time and be able to increase that time every time you play and really have a goal to strive toward. Things like pet battles offer a really deep completely new game play system for WoW. Now granted, it doesn’t mean you have to be into pets. Maybe you just like collecting, maybe you just like turn-based combat, but it’s something completely new to do. Scenarios fall in that exact same category. Sometimes I don’t want to do something with five other people and wait and kind of have to focus too much, and I would rather just do dailies. I love scenarios because they’re right in that middle ground where I don’t have to worry about focusing as much as a dungeon, but also it’s not as mindless as doing a daily. It fits right in the middle and I got a lot of options for what I can do there. That was really our biggest goal, and for me personally that’s the thing: that I have something new to do with my character. Not only is there new content of things that you expect, but there is actual new stuff to do. The farm actually feels really fresh and something completely different for WoW; it’s got offline progression and things like that. It’s definitely kind of a test bed for us; if it’s successful we want to do more things like that. Those are the biggest things, and then you have things like the monk, a completely new class, new animations and a new race. [I] always get excited by things like that, I definitely want to try that out. That’s really the biggest thing for a lot of us that have been playing WoW for six or seven years – I think you need something new to do. You just can’t kill, collect, and run 5 man dungeons forever. We’ve got to keep evolving the game and coming up with new stuff.
What was the biggest surprise you got in the feedback that you got in the beta when you started opening it up a little more and letting more people from outside the company in?
Probably the biggest thing we got was our difficulty – some of the base things we were doing, the difficulty was way off. On the dungeons, originally, they were way too easy for what we had. That’s probably something we see every time, though, from a tuning prospective. Probably what surprised us is how much people like the non-linearity. We saw so much feedback on that.
What is your favorite long-standing player request that you have finally been able to answer with Mists of Pandaria?
By far that would be the “raise your own dragon” questline. It is so awesome. You could historically say we have done something similar with the raptor quest for the Horde down in Un’Goro and the Wintersaber in Winterspring for Alliance, but those are really just kind of dipping our toe into that. It’s a complete faction called the Order of the Cloud Serpents, and you can go up there and you get to actually start the reputation with them and you get to pick an egg, and you have to do a bunch of stuff with the egg, and the egg hatches and you get a tiny little cloud serpent – basically like a pet. And then you kind of have to do things with the pet and work your way through the faction all the way to exalted. It’s actually a pretty serious quest line to go all the way through. And at the end, the pet that you pick in the color that you picked becomes your mount. It just really feels awesome because you feel super invested in what you’re doing for that quest line because obviously you know what your reward is going to be but you’re actually riding on your reward. Like during the quest he’s out with you at certain points and you have to do quests from the actual cloud serpent and things like that, so its just a really cool vibe has a lot of story behind it but also just a lot of push because you know what you’re going to get at the end
What’s the first thing that you’re personally going to do when you cap out in Pandaria?
The first thing that I’m going to do is defiantly do the farming at the Halfhill market. You can start it but you can’t do the majority – you can do maybe 10 percent of it while you’re leveling, but about 90 percent of that entire faction happens once you hit max level. And that’s intended. But there is just so much there. We’ve got over 20 different seeds, and each seed can sprout in about eight different ways, so when you plant it in the ground it can end up having something happen to it that you have to end up dealing with it while it’s planted, and that can change the outcome of how much you harvest from it in the end. And you get to grow that farm and you actually upgrade it visually through our phasing technology. You can get a pet that you plant at the farm and you actually grow a little baby turnip which turns into a battle pet that you can use. There is just a lot to it.
I love the concept of offline progression. I play a lot of other games that have that kind of stuff on my iPhone, games like Pocket Planes and Tiny Tower and stuff like that. I love the idea that I can plant a bunch of seeds in WoW and it really gives me a driving factor to come back tomorrow and be, “Oh, this thing was bountiful so I got six instead of four. That’s awesome; now I can go and sell them on the auction house or I can turn them into food.” We really developed the whole cooking system around the farm. So I’m really hyped for that. I think it’s something that most players probably don’t have a lot of insight into yet, but when they see it I think it’s actually going to be very popular.