Five Years of Warcraft: J. Allen Brack and Samwise Speak Out

John Funk | 17 Nov 2009 15:21
Interviews - RSS 2.0

To celebrate WoW's fifth anniversary, Production Director J. Allen Brack and Blizzard art mastermind "Samwise" Didier sat down with our sister site The Escapist to talk about microtransactions, Cataclysm, and what the hell is up with the Pandaren.

This is a full transcript of the interview - to read a summary of the juicy bits, head over to The Escapist!

I asked Rob Pardo this question a few minutes ago, but for you guys, too: Five years ago, where were you imagining that you'd - by that I mean Blizzard and the game - would be right now?

J.: I don't know that we had a vision of the future in that regard. The best vision of the future anyone ever painted before we launched was Allen Adham, one of the founding members of Blizzard. After E3, he got the WoW team together and was talking about how great it had looked on the floor, how great the game was, and about how we had something special on our hands. And one day, he said, we were going to have a million subscribers.

The team thought it was very nice of him to say, it was very cool that he said that... but we did not believe him in any possible way. We knew that no game could ever have a million subscribers, EQ was the big one and it didn't even have half a million. And he was probably the most optimistic person at Blizzard in terms of how things would go.

Samwise: We knew it'd be a Blizzard game, and so a bunch of players would really love it. But WoW gave us Street Fighter status. And by that, I mean... everyone has all heard of those games, Street Fighter, Mario and Sonic, so when someone finds out I work here, and they go, "Wow, did you make WoW?" I'm all "How did you know about that?" "Oh, my son plays it." It really propelled us into the mainstream.

What do you think WoW's biggest contribution has been to the MMO genre?

J.: I think there's several different things. Everyone has their own personal list. The biggest contribution I think... prior to WoW, whenever MMOs came out, they always had a lot of problems. They were very buggy, very hardcore games - ultra hardcore games, even - and you had to invest a huge amount of time just to understand how to play. When WoW came out... well, certainly the more you put into WoW, the more you'll get out in terms of time, but it's a game that tries to be much more accessible and forgiving, it doesn't treat itself as an MMO and have a really low quality bar. We wanted WoW to be a Blizzard quality game, with the Blizzard polish, and the Blizzard experience. We wanted to get away from the psychology in the gamer world, which was "Oh, it's an MMO, it's always gonna be buggy and problematic for a while."

Sam: The one thing that WoW had going for it was that it was a very simple UI. It wasn't too complex, and you didn't have to do too many things to get started. You could spend a while thinking of a name, or you could take a random one. You could take 10 minutes creating character and making him look just how you wanted, or just randomize their appearance. We gave very simple choices, and there wasn't any of this "Is my guy five pounds overweight? Are his eyes sea blue or sky blue?" Don't get me wrong, that sort of thing is cool, but we made a very simple UI and character creator, and that's one of the main things that helped people gravitate to the game. And the art is awesome.

Samwise, I have to ask: What's with the pandas?

Sam: What's NOT with the pandas?

They were the key to making WoW successful. If we'd just had them in, it'd have been really successful, not the little unheard-of game we have now. Actually, I'd done a picture of a Panda guy with his kids sitting up on a hill, and we incorporated it in an April Fools' promotion, saying that it was an announcement: Here's the new race in Warcraft III - we hadn't announced ... either the Undead or the Night Elves. we were expecting people to just go "Oh yeah, it's April Fools, ha ha," but people bought into it and added legitimacy to it, and really liked it.. So over the years we've been doing little bits to... like in the tabletop RPG, "Here's the Pandaren, you can play them!"

People really like the Pandaren, and I attribute this to - they're not as tough or as violent as Boba Fett, but everyone loved Boba Fett even though he just had three lines in the movie, because he was cool. The Pandaren don't have a lot of lore but they're like him, kind of mysterious. Actually, if there were billions in the game running around, I wonder how different it would be.

Will we EVER see Pandaren in the game, or is there truth to the rumor that you can't due to China?

Sam: I think there's a lot of reasons, but none we're going to pinpoint. But there's always that dream that there'll someday be Pandaria somewhere in a Blizzard game. Maybe a new StarCraft race - what do you think?

Are things like the Pet Store and paid customization harbingers of a WoW where microtransactions are common on top of the subscription?

J.: I've been asked that a couple of times over the last few weeks. We don't think about it that way. Actually, we've had a lot of paid services in WoW for a long time. We've had the paid character [server] transfer for ages, and you could say all of these services are a type of microtransaction. We think of those services as just providing things players want, especially providing things that allow players to play together, with their friends - the paid faction change is the same thing. WoW is much more fun a game if you're playing it with your friends, and these services make it easy to do that.

With the pets, they're things that players are interested in and excited about. Where I think the worry is, is people who are wondering if we're talking about "Hey, do you want to buy the level 80 epic sword for $5?" We're absolutely not talking about doing that.

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