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Greg 'Ghostcrawler' Street, Lead Systems Designer For World of Warcraft 175 175

As World of Warcraft prepares for the launch of its third expansion, Cataclysm, on December 7th, the design team is busily trying to finish all the new high level content, the destruction and rebuilding of Azeroth, and major changes to many of the game's systems and classes. At Blizzcon we spoke with Greg Street (a.k.a. Ghostcrawler), Lead Systems Designer for WoW, about Blizzard's goals for this expansion, the problems they're trying to solve, reasoning for the creation of a few new features, and why they aren't willing to simply throw more people at complicated projects. Read on for our discussion about World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.

Slashdot: With the previous expansions, it seems like one of the goals has been to make things more inclusive for raiders. Do think you've reached the end of the road in that regard? Are there still goals for the future?

Greg Street: We've got a lot of players into raiding now. I don't encounter too many players these days who say, "I want to raid but I'm not sure how," or "It's too hard." Particularly, the raids underneath Wintergrasp and soon Tol'Barad are super-easy for any group to just pick up and go do quickly. So I think we're doing a good job of being inclusive there. I think we need to, perhaps, pay a little more attention to the super-hardcore guys who felt a little neglected at times in Wrath of the Lich King.

Slashdot: These days the design team is working on solving social and psychological problems perhaps more than technical problems. What types of those are you working on now?

Greg Street: Something that has come up a lot is that cross-server battlegrounds and then the dungeon finder going cross server has eroded the sense of community within a server. It used to be, "I knew these guys," or "He was the best mage on the server," or things like that. It's much harder to identify that now. And another thing is the ability to hop from server to server so easily now. One of the things we're doing to work against that, a little bit — Tol'Barad will be like Wintergrasp, in that it's just your server, so hopefully you can get to know people a little better there. And then the big push we're making for guilds in Cataclysm. You're going to have achievements, and [you'll be able to] level your guild. It's something you can work together with your closest friends to try to accomplish.

Slashdot: Do you think that will supplement the permanence of guilds, making it easier for people to keep their guilds going?

Greg Street: I think the guild itself will mean something, and people will be reluctant to give up a guild they worked really hard on. I mean, it won't be impossible — we're not trying to fetter people too much.

Slashdot: For Cataclysm you're increasing health pools significantly, not to mention all the other numbers. Is mudflation becoming an issue for you?

Greg Street: We're pretty confident that the curve we have overall can keep going almost indefinitely. The numbers are solid in most cases. We used to have a problem where, say, critical strike rating can't go up any higher, because it's at 60 or 70 percent. The way combat ratings work now, I don't think we're in danger of the combat systems collapsing on themselves because of the numbers. I think we are at risk for them becoming hard to manage. Once players are saying, "I have 17,000,000 health," and everything just has so many zeroes on it, at that point we'll have to do something. I don't know if it's just lopping three zeroes off of everything, or what. I think the human brain loses the ability to parse numbers once they get beyond a certain size.

Slashdot: For heroic dungeons, are you trying to copy what you did in Wrath of the Lich King? How are those evolving?

Greg Street: I think the heroic dungeons will feel a little more like Burning Crusade. Hopefully it will be the best of Lich King and Burning Crusade. Part of what people remember about the Burning Crusade heroic dungeons was the "17 pulls of trash in between bosses," or something like that. Hopefully we can get through that a little quicker, but still have the bosses as a challenge, something players have to learn. We think that the encounters are a failure if players can go through a boss fight, and then when we ask them, "What was that boss doing? What was special that you had to do in that fight," and they say, "Well I didn't notice anything." Then we know that they're just overpowering it instead of having to learn the encounter.

Slashdot: You mentioned in the panel on Friday that a lot of that information — boss abilities, loot lists — are going to be integrated into the game. Where do you draw the line at what's OK to have in the game and what players can be expected to go on a website and look up?

Greg Street: I think the game needs to provide players the information they need to play the game. It's fine if they are trying to improve their damage-per-second (DPS) by one extra percent by visiting a fan site or a news site. It's very frustrating with boss abilities, to use that particular example... we've all been in dungeons where the leader says something like, "He's going to do some kind of fire thing, I think it's called.. Flame..something? I don't remember, but you'll recognize it when you see it." And everybody else asks, "What?"

I think in that example, the game is just hiding information from players that they need to function. Now, you can definitely take that too far. We could get to the point where there are mods that say, "Stand here! OK, now press this button. Now stand over here." And at some point, they're playing Dragon's Lair, or something, instead of having to do a real boss encounter.

Slashdot: Speaking of mods, Cataclysm is introducing some welcome changes to the UI. How do you decide what players need to look at and what you want to integrate with the base UI?

Greg Street: That's really tough, because we want World of Warcraft to be moddable, and we support the community — both the developers who make those mods and the players who use them. We try to look at when the players are saying something is essential. We made a system to manage gear because players were telling us, "I can't play without this mod, now. This mod is so important that you guys just need to offer this functionality." We did the same thing with the big raid frames. Too many players were telling us, "Your raid frames are just not at all functional. No reasonable person is going to do a World of Warcraft raid with the standard raid frames. We won't replace everything. The QuestHelper brand of mods are something else we looked at and said, "We just need to do more here. Clearly, players are asking for it."

Slashdot: Are there any UI elements that are on your radar right now, that you're thinking about revamping?

Greg Street: I think we could do a lot more with the Auction House UI. I think our mobile and cell phone Auction House is probably superior to our in-game version at this point. And there are some mods that have done a great job -- we don't want to automate that whole experience too much, but providing the information and storing it, I think we could do better at. We'd love, someday, to do a better version of Recount, or some of the damage meters. Now, when I say better — our version sucks, which is just the combat log you have to somehow have to keep track of. Players really like to know: "What was my DPS? What could I do better this time? What were my sources of damage?" We'd love to just build something like that into the game.

Slashdot: Yesterday's Live Raid was very cool. (Blizzard invited a well-known guild to participate in set of custom raid encounters. They spawned groups of bosses that were originally designed to be dealt with on their own and had the guild fight them in groups of four at a time. At the end, the main villain of the new expansion flew in, annihilated the raid, and then began nuking one of the game world's capital cities. Longer description, YouTube video.)

Greg Street: I'm glad it worked. That was scary.

Slashdot: Has there been any discussion on getting those events out to more players?

Greg Street: That would be very cool. They require a lot of overhead and testing. One of the things people in the audience couldn't appreciate was how our encounter designer up there was changing things on the fly. He was herding bosses, in some cases killing them, and respawning things, trying to keep it all working. Obviously we can't have a human running that stuff from behind the scenes. We'd have to make sure it's cool enough. But I love this idea that Orgrimmar is being attacked and you have to defend it.

Slashdot: Azeroth is getting a complete redesign. How long have you wanted to do that?

Greg Street: Oh, forever. A really big moment was when the programmers put in a way for the level designers to make cliffs that look like real cliffs. We did that in Howling Fjord, [a starting zone in Wrath of the Lich King]. And that was huge. Up until them, all the cliffs looked like — they would call it a scoop of mashed potatoes. It's kind of this rounded blob that doesn't exist in nature. So once they could make these very sheer cliffs, they said, "OK, we've got to go fix everything, now!" Because we couldn't do this before.

Enough things like that had piled up. Originally, for Cataclysm, we thought of hitting five or six zones that were either never very good — like, say, Hinterlands — or just hadn't stood the test of time well and needed some updating. But by the time we were done, it was hard to make Darkshore look awesome, but leave Felwood looking crappy. So we ended up just doing everything.

Slashdot: That seems like a lot of work.

Greg Street: It was a stupid amount of work.

Slashdot: Compared to the last two expansions, it seems like Cataclysm contains an expansion of similar size, plus all of that revamped content.

Greg Street: That's totally true. Probably, if we had more business sense, we'd have broken it into two expansions.

Slashdot: One of the Diablo 3 team's big reveals was the PvP Battle Arenas, which are clearly similar to World of Warcraft's PvP arenas. Are we going to see more integration for the WoW arenas with Battle.net?

Greg Street: We'll have to see. The big focus for Cataclysm, as far as PvP goes, is the rated battleground system. I think too much attention had turned to arenas, and it was defining PvP for a while. For a lot of people, Warcraft was about the war; it was about the Horde or the Alliance fighting over resources, not three gnomes chasing each other around an arena. We're still supporting arenas. We like them, and there's a lot of players that like them too. We'll just have to see how much rated battlegrounds take off. There are a lot of things we can do to improve the e-sports portion of World of Warcraft.

Slashdot: With Wrath of the Lich King, you tended to schedule major content patches several months apart. Do you have a similar plan for Cataclysm?

Greg Street: Yeah. We would like to get patches out as soon as we can, because players are just voracious for content. I think there's a sense that we finished Ulduar too soon. The 3.1 patch, we could have left on a little longer — 3.2 came out a little too quickly. Whereas the final patch, 3.3, has been going on almost a year. That's too long for players to have to deal with the same content over and over. Ideally, we could get patches out every four to six months. Or, eventually we may scale them down to make them smaller but come out more often. It's definitely something we're looking at. We'd love to be able to get faster at doing that.

Slashdot: Some of the quests and dialog in the beta contain content that's a bit edgier than what we normally see in WoW. Will those things make it to live servers. Are you trying to broaden the age groups the game is designed for?

Greg Street: That's one of the fun things — we do it a lot in quest design and then item naming, too — pop culture references here and there. That's something where the Warcraft world doesn't take itself too seriously. There are some really dark, epic moments too, but then there are places we can cut loose a bit. We know players appreciate it, because the remember it and they mention that kind of stuff. You can take it too far, I think. We've had people playing the game for six years, and it's hard to offer them things they haven't seen before. So, in that sense, we do try to be a little edgier.

Slashdot: Are there any systems in Cataclysm that you'd say have improved greatly over Wrath of the Lich King?

Greg Street: Many things. I really like the new end-game point system, both for PvE and PvP. I has the advantages of the Lich King system without being so confusing and having all these vendors, and down-converting badges, and all that. I think we're really happy with the way Glyphs have ended up in Cataclysm. The original promise of Glyphs is closer to what we're able to deliver now. Seeing that awesome new UI, with the list of glyphs that you can just apply whenever you want, we're really happy with that.

Slashdot: One of your goals seems to be separating the fun choices from the math choices in building your character. Are you where you want to be with that, right now?

Greg Street: I would give us a B+ on that. I think we can still do a lot better. We're at the early stages, still, of that revamp. There are some talent decisions in trees that I think are awesome, and there are some other places where it still doesn't feel great. It feels like the obvious choice is to get this one, and this one's the trap. "Don't take this dumb talent over here." There are fewer of those, for sure, but there are still some, and we eventually need to polish all of those, too.

Slashdot: What's the solution to that? Is it adding more talents? Swapping out the bad ones you have?

Greg Street: It's more of the latter, but sometimes a new talent is the answer, too. We just have to really ask: "We thought this was going to be a compelling choice; did it end up as a compelling choice?" "If it didn't, was it because the numbers were wrong, or was it because the encounters we put players into [made it wrong]?" To use a very contrived example: if there's a talent that makes you take less magic damage, and there's not a lot of magic damage being thrown around, that talent's not going to be exciting.

A lot of our survivability talents are based around the premise that healer mana is going to matter a little bit more, so you're going to care a little bit more about trying to keep yourself alive. If everything works out well at the end of a fight, people might post the damage-taken meter, and say, "Dude, this rogue, he took a lot of damage. He was a mana hog for us." If that doesn't happen, then all those utility talents look dumb, because you don't need them, and you could have gotten something else.

Slashdot: Can you talk a bit about why the Path of the Titans system was scrapped?

Greg Street: There are two parts to that. One is that Cataclysm was an unbelievably ambitious project, and we kept adding more and more to it. I mentioned the original glyph version, and at a panel earlier I mentioned the barbershop as feature that were cool, but we could have done a lot more with them. We want to try to limit that in the future. We didn't want to release Paths and then in 5.0 be like, "OK, now we're going to fix the Path system!" We'd rather just do it right the first time.

At the same time, it was tied into a lot of other features, like Archaeology and Glyphs. Those grew a lot on their own. We realized that we were using the promise of Paths to fix up the Glyph system, when what we wanted to do was just make that system actually cool. But we love the idea of some type of end-game progression that isn't item-focused, and I think we'll return to that in the future, sometime when we can get it right.

Slashdot: We're seeing some interesting new mechanics in Cataclysm — for example, the blind dragon, which relies on hearing and makes you moderate the noise your character makes. How much of that is thinking of a fun concept and going from there, versus trying to think of a brand new, innovative concept and trying to make it fun?

Greg Street: We honestly spend a lot of time on innovation. Players are kind of merciless — "Yeah, that was a fun fight, but we've done it before," or, "This is just like that other guy." So we really try to push the envelope there on things players haven't seen before, new systems. We'll have encounter designers say, "I was playing Final Fantasy last night, and it had a boss that did this, and I think we could make that work for a boss in World of Warcraft with these tweaks."

Slashdot: A lot of players, when they hear you talk about how you didn't have time to make a feature good, their question is, "Well, why can't you just go out and hire more people?"

Greg Street: Yeah. The mythical man-month.

Slashdot: Can you explain why you don't find that to be a viable solution?

Greg Street: The other example that gets used a lot is: if it takes a woman nine months to have a baby, then if you have two women, it'd only take four and a half! Our development process is hugely based on iteration and communication. It's more important — for, say, class design and item design — it's more important for me to have a small team that's totally in sync than to have a large team and have no idea what anyone else is working on. We would end up with Hunter talents working one way, the Priest would work a different way, and it wouldn't feel polished. It wouldn't feel good to players. Often, when we say, "We didn't have time," players say, "You shipped it before it was ready." That's not the way we look at it.

The way we look at it is: we are extremely critical of our own designs. We have very long lists of things we want to fix in the game. Some of these things have been around forever, and some of the things are new that we just added recently. If we waited until we addressed every single one of those things, we would never ship anything. It would be years and years before games came out, and that's just not realistic. That's not what players want; they're not going to wait six years for a new expansion. So, instead, we do what we can and we keep other things on the back burner. We've got Paths — this great idea. A dance studio — we're going to do it some day. Just not yet. We're saving it for the right time.

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Greg 'Ghostcrawler' Street, Lead Systems Designer For World of Warcraft

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