After waiting for over two years for the next expansion pack for the MMPORG behemoth World of Warcraft (WoW), it has finally arrived in the digital manifestation of Mists of Pandaria (MoP).
At midnight CET, players were able to roll a new race of Panderens, in a newly-crafted universe for the wider world of Azeroth, as well as levelling-up their characters to the new cap of 90. This is not just any expansion pack, it is one of the most highly anticipated Blizzard offerings in recent years.
With a new world, lore and storyline to be explored, IBTimes UK caught up with some of the masters of the WoW universe; Blizzard's Scott Mercer (SM), senior game designer and Darren Williams (DW), senior software designer.
Q: This expansion pack is like no other and it's been over two years since World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. In terms of development, how happy are you both with the lore and storyline with MoP, especially under the time pressure to launch this expansion?
SM: The lore and storyline construction has been incredibly exciting from a development point of view, as it has almost been like developing a brand new game from scratch.
It was a major challenge to create a separate and new history that hadn't previously been included in all the other expansions, but in a way it has really helped build something that will pull in old and new players alike.
DW: One of the things that was in really challenging but fun to work on was why these characters and their history was hidden for so long. We started with a clean slate and the creation of the backstory was just as important as the creation of the future gameplay and the personalities of the characters.
SM: Of course, there are going to be updates and patched over the next year or so, but we're super happy with what we've done. We've created 1,000 years of lore and history and why Pandaria has remained unscathed, living in harmony away from the battle between Horde and Alliance. Players will get to see how the story moves onto a Cold War between factions, to full blown war. It's really exciting.
As I said before, this expansion is like no other. But what is even greater is that there is more to come and the storyline does not end in just this expansion.
Q: Visually, MoP is like no other. In Cataclysm, development centred around destruction and broken worlds. How has it been developing characters, storylines and landscapes that is completely juxtaposed to this?
SM: Ha, that is true. It has been a challenge because in Cataclysm it was lots of lava and destruction and there is only so much lava you can create. So when we started on MoP, it was quite refreshing making a beautiful set of scenery or worlds to bring Pandaria to life.
DW: In a way, it was very relaxing. Creating this world was like nothing we had done before and the scope for creating new visuals, audio, races and gameplay was incredibly refreshing.
Q: Pandaria and new races are obviously a complete 180 degree turn from Cataclysm. On the box itself, there isn't even a 'big bad' or key boss that have featured on Cataclysm or Wrath of the Lich King. How difficult was it to come up with new dungeons and enemies?
SM: Indeed, as you said the setting to create new dungeons has had its hurdles, but we've managed to create some strong, scary and pretty awesome bad guys. Within this, we've been able to be ultra-creative in the new instances and dungeons and have had some fun with the dungeon bosses. Stormstout Brewery is a stand-out for me.
DW: Yes, Stormstout was incredible to develop. We managed to create a completely unique dungeon in an untraditional setting that would not have been possible without working on MoP. It's a crazy place with beer and evil monkeys flying everywhere.
Q: Evil monkeys?
SM: Yes, along with creating Panderens, we have created the Hosen, which are crazy evil monkey race. This dungeon creation has been very satisfying to create.
Q: Speaking of dungeons, there have been some criticisms over the difficulty of some of the dungeons in Cataclysm, which has been partly to blame for some players becoming frustrated and leaving the game. Has this been addressed in MoP and are there any stand-out developments players should look out for?
SM: In MoP, we did make a lot of adjustments to dungeon difficulty and essentially made it easier, but there's more to the changes than just that. It has been a great journey.
We've reinvented a lot of the fan's favourite instances and dungeons, like the Scarlet Monastery. We rebuilt a number of them from the ground-up, so for instance in Scarlet, we eliminated a lot of dead ends or bugs and reimagined a favourite setting with bigger and better versions.
Q: But are you worried that making the dungeons a lot easier will put off some of the more life-long gamers?
SM: No, as we've made some even more appealing changes for new players and old players alike. While the dungeons are easier, we have made a numbers of changes that have increased the re-playability, which should keep the pros coming back for more.
DW: We have put in incentives for gamers that want to be and prove they are better players. We have a difficult setting for those looking for more of a challenge, so the option is there.
SM: Yes, we've now got five player challenges and a difficulty mode that has time pressure attached to it. On top of that, there is a reward system for those who complete dungeons on this mode, with bronze, silver and gold medals. Performance in the dungeon is well rewarded, which is a great incentive for coming back.
DW: It's incredible for re-playability, as those who complete the dungeons will be put on a leaderboard, which gives another competitive element to the game. It's great to see in testing, how the incentive to be the best and beat your rivals has meant that people are looking to improve their gaming skills and overall become a better player, rather than just racing to level.
Another incentive is that there will be custom armour for each dungeon on different difficulty levels, accompanied by unique animation for each character and item.
Q: Moving onto the PvP aspect of the game, one of the issues people had with the battlegrounds was that there was an imbalance on each side, for instance one side would have lots of healers, while the other would have just one. Have the developers looked at how to improve this or at least create a more appealing way to do group activities?
SM: We haven't looked into that aspect, but with any random group, it is of course luck of the draw, which is what makes it exciting. You'll always play a better game if you cooperate and make the best out of what talents you have in your group.
However, we've added some new battlegrounds, including a railway cart one and the Temple of Kotmogu.
We've also made it easier to connect with other players and do group instances. There is not a 3-person 'scenario' which means that you don't need three people with the traditional group make-up of a tank, DPS and healer. You can complete it with group structure, which will make people enjoy these a bit more.
DW: We've created new content for everyone. Even some of the relative side content, such as levelling pets has proven a hit, even in beta testing. For instance, we saw more people working together just to level up their pets.
Q: And to round off, as a developer there must be dream projects or areas that you would love to work on in more detail. What would you say is on your wishlist as a developer?
DW: I'm an animation guy and I absolutely love working on effects. So in a way, it has already been a dream to work on the MoP Panderen monks with new spell sets and animation that naturally accompany that. Class designs are really engaging and custom making spells are always fun.
SM: Scenarios are always ultimately creative and satisfying to do. For us, we don't have to worry about the business aspect, our task is to create an amazing game that will make players happy. From the nitty-gritty details to the wider storyline, my job is to make the most awesome game possible.