Gameplanet: What were your design goals for encounters in Mists of Pandaria?
Ion Hazzikostas: When it comes to crafting the encounters in particular, one of the things we’re trying to do is provide exciting and engaging content for all types of players, regardless of how casual or hardcore they are, how skilled they are, how much time they’re looking to invest on a daily or weekly basis; whether they prefer to play with a couple of friends, whether they prefer to play solo, or whether they prefer to be part of a larger organised raid.
To that end, we have more end-game content than ever before, for that entire spectrum of people. We have 18 raid bosses that are in the 5.0 patch. 15 of those are in raid zones, two in the outdoor world. Those will be available in the Raid Finder as well as Normal and Heroic modes for organised guilds.
We have nine max-level dungeons, we have the scenario system, which is a smaller type of encounter, a setting for groups of up to three. Also the challenge mode system at the more hardcore end of the spectrum for more organised groups of friends and guildmates that really want to return the more coordinated, guild-intensive elements of five-player PvE content, and so forth.
Gameplanet: What are some of the key difficulties you come up against when designing encounters, and how do you overcome those?
Hazzikostas: I think maybe this is a little redundant, but one of the great challenges is catering to a playerbase that can vary so much in terms of things like skill, and creating content that’s going to be challenging to that broad spectrum of players. In Cataclysm, for example, one point of feedback that we heard from our players was that many using the Dungeon Finder system found our Heroic dungeons to be frustratingly difficult. Their experience would be that they’d queue-up, get in a group, and maybe through no fault of their own but because of the people they were matched with, they had a very hard time. That was frustrating.
We’ve responded by really recognising that our Normal and Heroic dungeons need to cater to, and be designed for people who are randomly match-made, that is to say they’ve never played with each other before, and will likely never play with each other again. We need to tune that content to a different level to content designed for organised groups.
So as you’ll have seen we’ve been adding different difficulties. Going back four or five years, we just had raids. Then we had Normal and Heroic raids, then we had Looking For Group Normal and Heroic. Similarly on a dungeon front, we have Normal, Heroic and Challenge.
Gameplanet: When you’re thinking about doing a new expansion, you have some ideas, key concept art and zones: what’s the process for taking it from idea to instance? How much is driven by lore, and how much license do you have to bring your own team’s ideas?
Hazzikostas: A tremendous amount, particularly with Pandaria: the team had a lot of freedom to really invent and explore the history of this content, to create a new mythology and new races that previously hadn’t been seen before – it’s a land that’s been shrouded in mist for thousands of years. We came up with entirely new participants such as the Mogu, the Hozen, the Saurok, and so on.
In terms of the raids of Pandaria, the initial step was the overall planning for the lore of the continent: figuring out who the main villains were going to be, who the main antagonists were going to be. So we have the Mogu, who are an evil, warped, tyrannical race who ruled over the continent thousands of years ago, before their empire fell into disarray, and now the remnants of the Mogu are working to regain power. You have Mantids, the insectoid race in the western half of the continent, that are being kept at bay by the large wall. Then there are the Sha, a manifestation of the negative emotion that is released by the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde as they arrive on land.
We knew these were our major players, so that led to a Mogu-oriented raid zone, and Mantid-oriented raid zone, a Sha-oriented raid zone. From that point on it was just a lot of meetings, a lot of brainstorming with the encounter team, balancing out ideas between the encounter team and the quest team and so forth, and asking ourselves, “What would be cool things to have in these zones?” So in the Mantid zone we have the Speaker, who is the voice of the empress. He’s a great orator, and he controls people with his voice. That kind of developed into a whole concept and a whole set of abilities around that. There are giant siege tanks – almost, they’re living creatures, not mechanical constructs, they’re huge, huge, huge, insectoid monstrosities – so let’s have one of these as a boss.
So piece by piece we assemble what the bestiary of a zone is going to be, and then we drill down further from there into specific abilities, and then implement.
Gameplanet: The mechanics of raid bosses have changed a lot over the years. What kind of new challenges or tasks are you setting players in raids that perhaps they haven’t seen before?
Hazzikostas: One example of a new mechanic featured in one of our dungeon fights and a couple of our raid encounters is the ability to push and pull players around. So imagine a powerful gust of wind that, if you’re not touching your keyboard, will blow you away from a source, or towards something dangerous. You have to fight against it, so if you’re fighting against it, you’ll slowly move against that force, but if you move with it, like a conveyor belt, you’ll go much faster. That opens up a lot of doors for us to look at new types of things that players haven’t seen before. That’s just one example.
Gameplanet: Are you planning more work outside of Pandaria?