Interview with Ion Hazzikostas, WoW Lead Encounter Designer
The folks at Blizzard were kind enough to extend us the opportunity to interview Ion Hazzikostas (also known as Watcher), World of Warcraft's Lead Encounter Designer. Naturally, we accepted. Lore spoke with Ion about Tier 14 raids, Blizzard's plans for Legendaries in future patches, Challenge Modes, Scenarios, Proving Grounds, and more! Read on:
Lore: So to start off, what all do you do as Lead Encounter Designer? Obviously encounter design, but from my understanding of how Blizzard works I'm guessing you're involved with a lot more.
Ion: As Lead Encounter Designer, I'm in charge of the group of designers that primarily makes the dungeon and raid content for the game. Most of our focus is on the actual instanced content, but that extends to combat tuning and abilities for a lot of creatures, major quest bosses, and scenario bosses. Things like that. The team as a whole are specialists in multiplayer PvE combat. So that's what we focus on, and as the lead of that team, I just kind of help guide things, help make sure that everyone has the resources that they need, and that progress on all of the different tasks that we're working on is proceeding as desired, and guiding the instances and raid ideas that we have from ideas and concepts on paper to the actual dungeons and raids that players are going to explore and adventure in. And separately, as lead designer on the team, all the lead designers have input on and help guide the macro-level big picture direction of the game. Features we're going to focus on, what the next patch is going to be, what the next expansion is going to be, that sort of thing.
Looking at tier 14, there's 16 bosses plus another 2 world bosses. So, quite a few bosses. Do you have to change up how you're designing the encounters when dealing with a larger tier like that? I remember when we were looking at Firelands and Dragon Soul with 7 and 8 bosses, part of the reason for the smaller tiers that the team was talking about then was to make sure that each encounter was unique and exciting.
I think that we still feel that all 18 of our encounters are unique and exciting. We're moving towards trying to deliver larger tiers of raid content, as a goal. And I think that we see the look of tier 14 as a whole and the raid content in the 5.0 patch as simply a step forward from how things were in Firelands and Dragon Soul. We're trying to deliver quality and quantity. Players have very fond memories of raid zones like Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel, and those were larger tiers. We're trying to deliver both: large tiers, but also looking ahead to future patches, large single raids as well.
There are a lot of advantages, both for us as designers and for players, clearly, from having large tiers. There's room for more variety in terms of balancing things. Different encounters are going to tend to stress different elements of player strengths and weaknesses, and just because there's one or two fights where, okay, the whole raid's clumped up, so Resto Shamans are the best healer by far, or there's a couple fights where you're fighting two things stacked on top of each other, so people with really good cleaving like Blade Flurry are dominant. When you have a smaller zone, those imbalances or those biases can really skew things very heavily in one class's favor or disadvantage, whereas when you look at the way that, say, tier 11 played out, and other larger tiers we've had in the past, the ups and downs on individual fights are kind of smoothed out, and every class and every spec sort of has their moment, and their chance to shine.
So with how the new talent system is set up, there's a lot more utility focus on the talents. So talents that a PvE player in Cataclysm might have looked at and said, "Oh, that's just a PvP talent, I'm not so worried about that," that's now the sort of thing that a lot of players are going to have. How do you have to adapt the design of the encounters in the raids in Mists of Pandaria to account for the fact that now everybody has so much easier access to, like, a stun, or a survivability cooldown and so on?
On some level it makes our lives a little bit easier in that regard, in that when we know that an entire class has access to something versus just one spec, we can design mechanics that really benefit from the use of that tool without worrying that, okay, you must have this one specific spec if you want to make this happen. Like, okay, AMZ (Anti-Magic Zone) for Death Knights is amazing on this fight, well now you have to have Unholy DK's. If any DK can bring that, that's helpful.
Also, we've done some of this in the Mists design, though obviously the 5.0 raids were designed kind of in parallel with the the talent system (the talent system was evolving and changing quite a bit while our raid encounters were being designed), so we have some of it in 5.0, though looking forward, we really do want to try to play into the new talent system as much as possible and offer players opportunities to really feel rewarded for the choices that they've made, and utilize a lot of the mechanics they now have access to.
You guys have been talking quite a bit in sort of bits and pieces here and there about the legendary gem in patch 5.0. So first question I guess, just for confirmation, that is something that everybody's kind of working on at the same time, right? It's not a question of "who gets the first one" and so on?
Correct. It's a personal quest, and parts of that quest will lead you into raid zones for the objectives. If multiple people in the raid group are on the quest at the same time, and one of the emblems drops, everyone in a normal or heroic raid can loot that emblem. So if you have 17 people out of your 25-player raid group that are on that step of the quest, all 17 can loot it. In Looking for Raid mode, it's just part of the personalized loot system, so every individual person on the quest has a chance to get the token drop. It's our expectation... I mean, this is step 1 of what's going to be a chain of quests that spans the entire expansion. Realistically, it's our expectation that, particularly in progression-oriented hardcore guilds, a few months from now, every single person in the raid group will have a legendary gem, as long as they have the weapon to put it in.
And so, like you said, that's part of a longer chain. So is that kind of the idea going forward for any other legendaries that come up over the course of the expansion? It's still going to be that sort of personal quest?
Potentially. That's something we decide on a case-by-case basis. We've taken a lot of different approaches to how legendaries work in our game. We're trying another here, but odds are pretty good that we're not going to stick with the same single approach for terribly long when it comes to legendaries, if past history indicates anything.
During the AMA that you guys did on Reddit, you were talking about Challenge Modes, and one thing you said was that Challenge Modes is the feature that you're most looking forward to in Mists of Pandaria. So I thought, if the lead encounter designer is saying that, there's gotta be something to that. Could you elaborate a bit more on what exactly it is about Challenge Modes that has you so excited?
It's a return to what I think of as some of the most pure and fun PvE gameplay in an MMO, and that's just the sort of 5-player dungeon crawl, with crowd control, and assisting, and the tank protecting the healer from adds that are coming in, and really quick target swapping. Some of my fondest moments as a player go back to things like the Shattered Halls Trials of the Naaru run, or doing Zul'Aman when that was new. Realistically, our normal and heroic dungeons at this point are primarily designed with an audience of Looking for Dungeon players in mind. Most people who are experiencing that content are doing it with a random matchmade group of people that they don't know and may not play again with ever, and in that setting, the standard mechanisms of failure, learning, reinforcement, and then finally applying that knowledge at mastery, that just doesn't work because you don't have repeated players. I may have wiped 3 or 4 times to a boss and learned what to do, but that doesn't mean that next time I run that dungeon, the other 4 people in my group will have the same knowledge. And so that can lead to a frustrating experience, which is a lot of what we saw at the start of Cataclysm, with players' reactions to dungeons there. The Cataclysm were initally really designed and conceived before Looking for Dungeon existed in the wild. I mean, Looking for Dungeon was added in 3.3.5. And so we were designing those dungeons still kind of with a guild or group of friends target audience, and weren't quite quick enough to pick up on how that was shifting with the advent of LFD.
Challenge Modes, though, are really the outlet for that type of gameplay. Challenge Modes will give you more Valor than doing an LFD run, so even if you're not looking to set a gold medal or break any records on your run, with your friends and guildmates, after your raid or just on whatever evening, when you're looking to get your Valor points, you're going to be better off doing a Challenge Mode run versus a regular run. And of course, if you really want to push yourself to beat the clock, then that's taking the experience to a whole new level. We're just really excited to be able to offer that type of gameplay again, and to have a really cool rewards structure based around it.
Obviously with the leaderboard system in place, there's a strong competitive PvE aspect to it. Do you see that sort of taking over as the go-to hardcore PvE content, and sort of supplanting heroic raiding as a result?
I think it's an alternate track. A lot of the people that I've talked to that have been most excited about Challenge Modes are actually retired hardcore raiders. People who were hardcore raiders in Burning Crusade and Lich King, but they've moved on in life, and don't have as much free time. They don't have the ability to commit to a hardcore raiding schedule, but this is something that they can do kind of in their own time, but still requires an extremely high level of play and skilled coordination. So I think it's just a parallel track, the same way that you have Arena vs Rated BG's and whatnot.
That said, we've also noticed that there's a lot of interest in some aspect of competitive raiding. We've looked at events that people have put on, including our own race at Blizzcon that we had through Firelands, but there have been community third-party sites that have hosted races through Dragon Soul that have drawn tremendous interest in the community. So it's certainly something that we're also open to exploring in the future, applying some of the timed run concept to a raid setting as well.
I think that'd actually make an amazing way to make farm content a bit more exciting than just clearing through everything again.
Yeah, something to help guild leaders motivate their raiders to actually pay attention for two hours, instead of just snoozing through something that you've already done dozens of times.
Do you have any plans yet for how challenge modes will transition into the next expansion when it comes along, and we obviously gain more levels and get whatever sort of systems reworks are done, that would kind of mess with how the old leaderboards work?
Theoretically, at the level cap goes up, one thing we could do is we could scale players levels down to keep them forever fixed at level 90 for purposes of these challenge modes. Something we may explore in the future is also the concept of seasons of challenge modes, the same way you have a PvP season. Maybe at the end of the season, the leaders on the leaderboards are the ones who kind of "won". People can still go back and get their gold medals, but that is sort of frozen in time, and maybe the challenge mode race and the competition moves on to a different set of dungeons, whether they're newly released dungeons, or going back and, for example, updating Burning Crusade heroics as level 90 challenge modes, or level 95 challenge modes, or whatever the max level may be at the time. That's something we can always do.
You mentioned the possibility of scaling the player down to a lower level to go back and do the old challenge modes. Would there ever be the possibility of seeing something like that for old raids? For example, scaling down to go do Molten Core like it was when everybody was level 60 and undergeared, and so on?
That's definitely a cool idea. That's something we'd explore. Right now we have the ability to scale items. The scaling down level is something that we can't quite do yet, but that we want to be able to do, and I think there are plenty of cool applications for the ability to do that that we'll be exploring in the future.
Looking at Scenarios, kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum from challenge modes. Someone said recently, I think it was Tom Chilton, that he expected to be a really big game changer for Mists of Pandaria. Looking at them myself, and a lot of other people who are perhaps more involved in the hardcore community, we kind of just see them as group quests that you queue up for. So I guess my question is, what are we missing? What's the big game changing thing about scenarios that makes them so cool?
Understandably, I think from the hardcore raider perspective, it wouldn't surprise me if scenarios aren't that exciting game changer for you. I think one of the main advantages of the scenario format -- and really, I think it's important to judge the entirety of the breadth of level 90 scenarios, and not just focus on the one Battle of Theramore that people have access to right now -- but I think a key part of it is because there's no role requirement, it's just something that you can log on, queue for, and do. There is no matchmaking that's trying to assemble a specific group that has 3 DPS, 1 tank, and 1 healer before you can get right into the event, you can just hop in and do it. And the gameplay in the scenarios, particularly at level 90, and there's a greater variety there, it allows players to use a lot of abilities that really don't fit into the traditional trinity style of tank/heal/DPS gameplay in instances. You find yourself using a lot of defensive abilities, defensive crowd control. You know, Psychic Screaming mobs off of you. Kiting. Doing all of that type of stuff, because there isn't a tank holding everything in place while a healer heals the tank and the DPS slowly chips away at everything.
So, gameplay-wise, there's a lot of cool space to explore. We think that we can use these as a storytelling vehicle, and they can largely supplant some of what group quests might have been used for in the past. We can do a lot more in an instanced setting, in terms of letting you change the environment around you, having phased events, having waves of attackers, things along those lines that just don't quite play out in a public setting with player collision. But ultimately, the scenario system is one that's a new feature that we're continuing to explore. I mean, we have plenty of additional scenarios in the pipeline, and we're going to be watching very carefully to see how players are using the content, what they like, what they don't like, and making adjustments as we go forward based on what we've learned.
Another feature that you talked about in the Reddit AMA was the Proving Grounds feature. It sounded like something similar to Scenarios, but with leaderboards, but very challenge focused. Is there anything you can tell us about the Proving Grounds feature, and why that might be something we'd want to be looking forward to in a future patch?
Yeah, it's a feature we were originally hoping deliver in 5.0 but it's going to take some more time to polish it, so it's something we're hoping to release in the future. I think in the Reddit AMA I made an analogy to the challenges that are available in Starcraft II. There were some very basic ones that shipped with the game that just taught you which units to use to counter other units, or how to build a base to defend against a rush, and then they released master challenges in a later patch that were really tuned for the very hardcore high-end player, with a massive amount of multitasking and micromanagement involved. I think the hope is that Proving Grounds could similarly cover that entire spectrum. It's, on the one end, a chance for someone to be able to say, "I literally am the best healer on the server. Here's a link to a website that says I'm the best healer on the server. And if any of you disagree with me, try to beat my score." And that's kind of cool.
On the other end, it's a chance for someone who wants to tank to practice and learn some of the skills involved in tanking without making 4 other lives miserable in the process, and having people tell them that, you know, they're a terrible tank who can't hold aggro. Realistically, solo questing in the game primarily is all around DPS. Even if you're a Prot Warrior, you're not holding aggro on things, you're running up and using Shield Slam to kill mobs, and making the transition from solo gameplay to group gameplay, there's no great way right now to acquire those skills except by actually just jumping in and doing it. The hope is that this feature will allow players on the lower end of the skill and experience spectrum the chance to really acquire and practice these skills before they actually jump into a real group environment, and that's probably in the best interest of everybody.