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Thread: J Allen Brack & Alex Afrasiabi Interview

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    J Allen Brack & Alex Afrasiabi Interview

    Lore and I were given the opportunity to speak with Alex Afrasiabi (AA), also known as Furor, the Lead World Designer of World of Warcraft, and J. Allen Brack (JAB), the Production Director for World of Warcraft. We tried to keep focused on subjects important to the five-year anniversary and the long-term challenges and successes they've dealt with.


    Can you expand a little bit on what your roles are in the ongoing production of World of Warcraft?

    [blizzard] AA: Yeah absolutely. I am in charge of encounter design, quest design, and everything that falls in between those two things, which is spawning creatures and dungeons, and essentially the story and feel of the world.

    JAB: I'm responsible for the production and operation of the game. I have a partner, Tom Chilton, who's the game director, and between the two of us we effectively run World of Warcraft.[/blizzard]

    What has been your biggest thrill during the development and release years of Warcraft?

    [blizzard] AA: The biggest thrill for me was in Lich King with the advent of the Death Knight starting area. Seeing that come together and seeing that format actually work.

    JAB: For me, it was shipping Wrath of the Lich King. I felt like it had a really strong story element. It had a really strong interplay between Warcraft 3 so it was a long story we'd been telling from a Blizzard point of view. Launching that game with the Death Knight starting experience and the experience with Arthas and the dungeons was just an awesome achievement.[/blizzard]


    What major goals did you set in the first year of World of Warcraft?

    [blizzard] JAB: The first major goal after ship was to get the service stable and up and running and allow people to actually play the game.

    AA: That was our primary goal. We had the content, we had a fun game experience that I think everyone really enjoyed, but the biggest challenge by far was getting enough servers up and getting the service available to players.[/blizzard]


    What do you feel are the biggest successes you've had with increasing accessibility to newer players since release, both in leveling and in raiding?

    [blizzard] AA: We've changed our model a few times. Leaving Burning Crusade we had, talking about raiding, Sunwell. Sunwell was something that really was the territory of the top 1% of our playerbase. We spent a lot of time on Sunwell. It was kind of a cold realization, even though we'd felt it before, we spent a lot of time, we had a lot of very passionate, talented individuals working on the game, and they love the game and they want players to enjoy the game as well, and that was one of those ones where it was, "Sunwell is awesome!" It really was an amazing instance and we would have really loved for more people to see Sunwell.

    So what we really went into Lich King with was, first and foremost, that we want our players to see our content. We want our players to be able to experience our content if they so choose: if they're a raider and they want to raid, we want to let them raid; if they want to do dungeons and heroics, we're going to let them do those. That was the big win for us, because Lich King did do that, and we think Lich King has done it well.

    JAB: I totally agree with that. I think the popularity of Karazhan was kind of a moment for the team, because for a certain amount of time Karazhan was probably the most popular piece of content we had ever made. Just the realization of how excited people were about 10-person groups and 10-person raids was really a big philosophy changer for us on the team. That definitely led to the 10 and 25-man split on all Lich King content and all future content, because we want players to have the ability to experience content at the raid size that they want.

    Those two decisions really go hand in hand.[/blizzard]


    Are there ways you think you can improve on this for Cataclysm?

    [blizzard] AA: I'm gonna guess we'll surprise you. I think there's always ways to improve upon -- one of the great things about working here is we're allowed to make mistakes, and we do mistakes, clearly, and learn from them and improve upon, so I think we'll take whatever mistakes that we've made -- and there are a few -- and use those going forward with our raiding and dungeon philosophy into Cataclysm, and hopefully make it a better experience for the players.

    JAB: Yeah we're trying some stuff with Icecrown, specifically in regards to looting, that is sort of an aberration from stuff that we've done before. Everything we've done is just a revision of what we've done before in terms of that stuff and I think that's going to inform a lot of the decisions we make in Cataclysm in terms of itemization and loot and how that works together.[/blizzard]


    This question comes from Xav of Premonition: How important high end raiding competition is to the overall health of the game, and how has it affected its growth over the years?

    [blizzard] AA: I can tell you high end raiding is what birthed raiding in this game to begin with. Jeff Kaplan and Rob and myself and a few others were huge huge raiders in Everquest, and so that was a playstyle that we all really loved, and it was something that we wanted to see in WoW. The social aspect of it was really one of the big things there. You'd get all these people together and they'd cooperatively work towards a goal and the end result was very gratifying. And so, yeah, that's part of it right there. But we continue to honor high end raiding by continuing to have it. We try, I think with the splits now and the heroic difficult, we try to cover our bases now. We try to cover the lower end tiers and allowing access to all content, but at the same time, if you're a hardcore raider like Xav is in Premonition, we do provide the challenges for you as well. You can pick and choose what you want to do. You can get in there with the Lich King in under 15 attempts and hopefully take him down and we'll see how that goes.[/blizzard]


    What are the hardest decisions you need to make with new zones and cities in Warcraft?

    [blizzard] AA: I think the hardest decisions is always... You don't want to stop. We love what we do and we want to always improve on things, and especially when you're going back through Cataclysm trying to bring up the old world and make all these great changes, the hardest part is knowing when to stop and knowing when enough is enough. It's good enough, it's great enough, but designers want to redo everything! It's not feasible, unfortunately, given timelines, but that's the hardest part for sure.

    JAB: Yeah, we always want to do the greatest thing we've ever done. Since we want to make every zone the best zone we've ever made, that gets to be a problem when you're talking about the number of zones we've made and the number of zones we need to work on.[/blizzard]


    How do you keep making the new zones fresh and interesting, rather than "just another desert zone" or "just another mountain zone?"

    [blizzard] AA: We have a lot of brilliant people here, honestly. I mean, we have a lot of passionate people. One of the things, it's interesting, is that all of our designers play the game. It might sound strange to hear, but it's something that does become a problem at times. They play the game passionately, with multiple characters, through multiple factions, and they all know what needs to be done. It's a strange thing, but it's wonderful working with them. We definitely have an eye out for 'the new,' you know, so if we're going to put a desert zone out we want to make sure it's a desert zone you've never seen before. So while we're not prevented from doing that, we want to make sure that you're going to get something amazing every time.

    JAB: I don't think anyone ever comes to the table with the idea of, "I've got an idea, let's do a desert zone!" They come to the table with, "here's this one piece" of something completely awesome that they want to see in the game, and it goes from there. People will come up with ideas for individual little pieces that will eventually become a zone. We've always wanted to do an underwater zone: one of the things we've talked about with Cataclysm is Vashj'ir, the sunken city of Vashj'ir, how that's going to have a significant underwater component. We've always wanted to do that. People bringing up concept art, or different ideas of, "hey these are the things I want to see in the zone" is really... It's about those moments, those cool experiences that you want players to have, much more than it is about "let's create a desert zone."[/blizzard]


    How much do the concept artists inspire you guys to create something brand new... how often does that happen?

    [blizzard] AA: Very often.

    JAB: Yeah, all the time.

    AA: It's very common. I mean, our concept artists are amazing, and I think it's a give and take, honestly, that we inspire them and they inspire us. It's a beautiful little circle.

    JAB: You'll have the artist who comes in and says, "I have tried to envision this as you've described it," and wow, that's awesome, and we take the ideas to the next level. We'll have pieces come out that are with very rough, high level direction of "this is the idea for this zone, these are the kinds of things that we need to do, go off and create some neat concepts and let's see what comes back and see what we're excited about." That's a big part in it. We'll also do iterative concepts as things are coming together. We spent a lot of time doing what we call paintovers of Dalaran, where we take a screenshot of what Dalaran is today, and then artify that into a concept art format to give us the next step that we need to be reaching for.[/blizzard]


    After we've been adventuring in Azeroth for five years, what made you decide to blow it all up in Cataclysm?

    [blizzard] AA: Blow it all up? [laughs] We're not necessarily blowing it all up. Certainly, yes, there are places that are blown up in a part. This was an easy decision for us. Well, I won't say easy, but it was a decision we went in with happily. It's the old world, it's wonderful in its own ways, but we've ... since the old world, since Burning Crusade, even since Lich King... we've elevated our design style to new heights. As we go through the old world and we play it -- like I said, we play a lot -- it becomes really obvious to us that it would be awesome if the old world met the standards we've set today. That was one of the big reasons going back, we wanted to make sure that the entry play experience -- the first 60 levels, or 50 levels, or whatever it might be -- are as good as Lich King, as good as playing through Lich King or even Burning Crusade. That's the big pull.

    We'll blow things up when we need to. A lot of places have regrown due to certain issues and variances and things coming about with this Cataclysm, and we'll see a lot of that, too.

    JAB: One of the first decisions we settled on was that we wanted to do two new races. And then the idea of having those two new races level up in the five-year-old level 1-60 experience was not very appealing. That also played into the decision, along with everything that Alex said.[/blizzard]


    What would you two like to see in the next years of Warcraft?

    [blizzard] JAB: Interestingly, we don't really plan beyond the next few patches and the next expansion. We started the design for Cataclysm as we were wrapping up Lich King. Over the course of the next few months we figured out what the patch plan for Lich King was going to be and that's where we are right now. Right now we have a pretty good idea of what Cataclysm is going to end up being and we have some ideas for what some potential patches could be, but that's really about it in terms of stuff we've nailed down.

    The real reason for that is because we're going to be much smarter about what the players need, what the game needs, and what the right decisions are once we ship Cataclysm, or once we get a lot more of the Cataclysm development done. Why go through the effort to make a 2-year, 5-year, or 10-year plan, or whatever, when you know it's going to get thrown away, because we're going to be so much smarter tomorrow than we are today. That's one of the things we say around here a lot is, "I don't know today, but I'll know... whenever we ship 3.3, we'll know how that turned out." And we'll be able to make smarter decisions about what the next step is.

    AA: Yep. What he said. Totally true. Absolutely. [laughs][/blizzard]


    Do you operate as a single team as you develop each new patch and each new zone, or are you split into subdivisions?

    [blizzard] JAB: A lot of online game companies have done it different ways. The way that we do it and the way that we've really always done it is one team. We've got one team that's working on 3.3 right now, and we've got some people on that team that are working on Cataclysm stuff, but the idea that we have is that we want to have one set of leadership that's sort of making the overall game decisions because we're not making patch content and Cataclysm, we're making World of Warcraft. We want everyone to be tuned in and dialed into that experience on both the patch side and the expansion side. Everyone is in the same boat, as it were. [/blizzard]


    As a franchise, Warcraft began as a real-time strategy game with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. After three Warcraft games it moved onto the MMORPG genre. What do you feel the next step for the franchise is? Is there a possibility that it may return to its RTS roots?

    [blizzard] JAB: We're really excited about the Warcraft Text Adventure. That's going to be followed up by the Turn Based Strategy Game. No...

    The teams that we have help decide what it is that they're excited about making. The Real Time Strategy team that we have is currently working on Starcraft 2. Prior to that they were working on Warcraft 3 and the Warcraft 3 expansion. What we call "Team 2," which is the World of Warcraft team, started out actually making a different game called Nomad, and the team really got excited about making an online game, and making a Warcraft online game, so that's how World of Warcraft was born.

    At some point, some team may decide, "Hey, we want to make a text adventure! Or a turn-based strategy game or something like that, and we want to use the Warcraft franchise, and this is how we could do it." Or the guys who finish Starcraft 2, they're working on that and they've got a couple expansions that we've announced for that, they may decide, yeah, it's time to return to the Warcraft franchise and start thinking about Warcraft 4. That's a decision for them to make, and is obviously years in the future.

    The answer to your question may be a little vague, but it's really up to the team. The teams get really excited about stuff and when the teams are excited, great things happen. It's much more of a "what is the team excited about" as a decision maker as opposed to someone from on high saying "we will now make a Warcraft turn-based-strategy game. Go, excecute on that!"[/blizzard]

  2. #2
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    We've just developed a dedicated article system which allows us to keep permanent homes for these articles on the site. The link for this particular article is:

    J Allen Brack & Alex Afrasiabi Interview - TankSpot

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    interesting read, good stuff eh.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ghostcrawler View Post
    I'm on a shark

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    Interesting read, I enjoyed it. That and I had no idea the developers actually played the game that much. Next time some random person says they are a dev in game, there actually is a possibility it might be true lol.

    This is cool, more articles would be awesome.

  5. #5
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    Awesome read. One of my questions kind of made it in!
    Execute for show, tank for dough.

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    Quote Originally Posted by eazo View Post
    Interesting read, I enjoyed it. That and I had no idea the developers actually played the game that much. Next time some random person says they are a dev in game, there actually is a possibility it might be true lol.

    This is cool, more articles would be awesome.
    I seem to recall the point where they're 'done' is when they're spending much more time playing the game rather than fixing niggles.

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    I'd actually play that Warcraft text adventure. I'm not sure how successful it would be commercially, though...

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    Great interview. Looks like I will be in the business of leveling again for the first few weeks of release. It sounds exciting.

  9. #9
    Interesting, really want some insider-access to see how everythings made.
    The Ashbringer...

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    Great Interview...I still relish the idea of another slot or 2 per realm to allow for the new race/class combos rather than erasing and rerolling anew...Ahh to dream

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    Great questions, and the answers were really thorough. The only thing I wish they'd elaborated on more was Xav's question about high end raiding competition. Didn't sound like they talked about the "competition" part of raiding, which I think soured for a lot of people with the gated release of ToC bosses. Then again I could be totally wrong.

  12. #12
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    Can't find a complaint about this interview. I think more than anything I'm proud that they took the time to talk to Tankspot. It really does give a feeling of importance to this site, knowing that some devs took the the time to talk to us.
    The questions are on spot, and weren't to the point that it's watered down. All in all, great stuff!
    The most stressful, yet provides the most gratification..
    Tanking <3

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