Game Informer recently had a chance to interview Jeff Kaplan to talk Warcraft in celebration of the 15-year Warcraft and 5-year World of Warcraft Anniversaries. The interview is a fun read with some great quotes from Kaplan, and sheds a lot of light on why early design decisions were made, as well as the process of evolving the game to what we play now.
I've included some of the more interesting pieces from the interview below. While many know Tigole was one of the first quest designers on the game, did you know there were only two originally, working on many of the early zones? We also get word from Tigole that there will be a cutscene included with patch 3.3, likely related to the defeat of Arthas. Beyond that, Hinterlands was originally planned to be an endgame classic zone, while Burning Steppes was geared for level 30s!
On Kaplan's role
GI: You’re primary job with World of Warcraft was world design, right?
JK: That’s correct. I actually joined the World of Warcraft team as one of the two first quest designers, specifically to create quest content and to design that system. The other quest designer was a really great Blizzard veteran by the name of Pat Nagel. He and I worked in collaboration with the lead designer to design the quest system and start making some of the first quest content.
As WOW progressed from there, I got very involved with all things PvE with the game. When it came to dungeons, I helped formulate the vision along with some of the other guys as to what our dungeon experience and raid experience might be like. I worked very closely with our creative director, Chris Metzen, who was sort of the keeper of the flame when it came to the lore of Warcraft. I tried to apply his vision in a game design sense to world design and world building. I was kind of a medium between Chris Metzen and our level designers and our environmental artists.
On storytelling in WoW becoming more important with each expansion
GI: One of the things that I’ve picked up on personally that’s been improving with the expansions -- whether you’re looking at quests or instances or raids or anything -- storytelling seems to be a more and more important factor with subsequent patches and expansions. This stands out to me, because very few other MMOs have managed to create captivating narrative content, but it seems like you guys are really striving for that and often succeeding in World of Warcraft. Is that something you expect to continue progressing in future World of Warcraft expansions and future Blizzard MMOs, or will narrative always take a backseat to the grind in MMOs?
JK: It’s funny, because you said that narrative became more important, but I look at it a little bit differently. The story was always extremely important to us; I just don’t think we did a good job of telling it early on. What happened over the years as World of Warcraft progressed is that we had this very seasoned development team. Guys like Chris Metzen, our creative director, were partnering with guys like Alex Afrasiabi, our lead world designer who headed up the quest team. We’ve got the most experienced quest team in the industry. These guys are masterminds now when it comes to telling a story. They’re just much better at doing it than we ever were before.
They really wrapped their heads around the concept of letting the players experience the story first-hand rather than just trying to beat them over the head with text, which is something that’s really important. In the early days, we did a lot of quests where we put a lot of time, heart, and soul into designing them. If you go back and look at the “Green Hills of Stranglethorn” quests, for example, there’s a lot of text written, and there’s actually quite a bit of story there, but the players don’t absorb it, because they don’t experience it themselves.
If you fast-forward to something like the Death Knight starting experience, our story-telling team has really mastered or refined the art of delivering the story as first-hand gameplay rather than spraying you with the word hose, which is what we did in the past.
On the use of cutscenes in World of Warcraft
GI: I would agree that the game has gotten much better at showing rather than telling, but Wrath of the Lich King also saw the introduction of cutscenes to the game. It’s obviously much easier to tell the story in that, but you’re also taking the player out of the game. Do you think that those will keep showing up future expansions as well? Is it something you’ll use sparingly?
JK: Cutscenes will always be something that we use sparingly, yes. We never want to interrupt gameplay too frequently or for too long of a period of time. The Wrathgate cutscene was a big experiment for us. It was our first foray into in-game cutscenes in World of Warcraft. I don’t think we’ve fully refined how we want cutscenes to work with future World of Warcraft content.
We debate like crazy. We debate the length, we debate the frequency, and we have a lot of theories, but Blizzard is a really iterative development house. I think what’s going to have to happen is that you’ll see more cutscenes come into the game for us to really refine our strategy with them. We definitely have an eye toward more cutscenes, but at the same time, we don’t want to become just a cutscene game.
Even before Cataclysm, in patch 3.3, there’s going to be a really exciting cutscene moment that’s going to be our next experiment with that.
On the casual-vs-hardcore debate
GI: With the drop to 10-man or 25-man for all raids, another major change was the ability to run 5-man dungeons for badges that you can use to purchase equipment that would normally only drop from raids previously. These kinds of changes seem focused on appealing to more casual players, but I know that some hardcore players complain about them. How do you strike that balance in the Warcraft community between pleasing the hardcore fans but still making things accessible?
JK: It’s not even just a casual versus hardcore thing. It’s a play style choice. There are some players who just never want to experience the large raids. They’re not interested in hanging out with 25 players online. Some of those are very skilled, very hardcore players who play the game more than people who play 25-person raids. Between PvE and PvP, we have these separate paths to the end-game for people to pursue. The same goes for within a game type.
If you take PvE, we have to make sure that five-person groups or solo people or 10-person groups or 25-person groups, that everyone has access to really good gear and progression that they feel good about. We don’t want them to feel like Blizzard is only validating one way to play. What we like to remind the hardest of the hardcore 25-person raid groups is that at the end of the day, when it comes to the best of slot items, you’re still the only people with it. Just because we’re doing a bit of catch-up for everyone else doesn’t mean that we’re diminishing your accomplishments at all.
I think amongst the players, they also recognize the elite titles and Achievements that those hardcore players are earning. Being a former very hardcore raider from EverQuest, I understand that mentality. The thing those players want most is to attain something that nobody else has, which is sort of an interesting paradox in a game with an 11.5 million player base.
Check out the full interview by heading over to the Blizzard's Jeff Kaplan on Warcraft's Past And Future article on Game Informer.