Lead encounter designer Ion "Watcher" Hazzikostas walks us through all aspects up the 5.4 Update coming Tuesday.
The World of Warcraft team at Blizzard has been pushing out meaty updates on a fairly regular basis since the release of Mists of Pandaria almost a year ago. The upcoming 5.4 update being unleashed on Tuesday is no different, with perhaps one of the most anticipated raids in some time included: the chance to kill maniacal Horde Chieftain Garrosh Hellscream in the Siege of Orgrimmar.
We chatted with lead encounter designer Ion Hazzikostas, who explained a lot of the thought process behind finally letting players kill off a prominent member of Warcraft lore.
"We are clearly sacrificing the future story potential of some of these characters, but at the end of the day, part of the fun of building up these characters is being able to do away with them," Hazzikostas said. "If you just build everybody up and never got to fight or kill these villains and these noteworthy characters, there wouldn't be much fun in that."
He added that the dev team knew well in advance that fighting Garrosh would be the culmination of the Mists of Pandaria expansion, much in the way they knew Arthas would end the Wrath of the Lich King story line. This allowed the team to make some advance preparations.
Enter the world of Azeroth and battle against the Alliance of humans, dwarves and night elves or the brutish orcs, trolls and undead of the Horde. World of Warcraft has a very large community of players with hundreds of servers and a myriad of endgame pursuits from raiding dungeons, questing, achievement hunting, PVP arenas, and now pet battles.
"We knew that the Siege of Orgrimmar was coming," he said. "Garrosh was the villain of this expansion, and there would be a lot of twists and turns before we got there, but we knew that was on the horizon. That let us do more foreshadowing than we otherwise might have done. Some characters, like his lieutenant Malkorok, that players saw in scenarios in patch 5.3 and earlier -- as well as other characters -- we were able to build them up, knowing always in the back of our minds that these are going to be future raid bosses for players to fight."
In addition, the Siege of Orgrimmar will reveal the Klaxxi Paragons as a boss fight, something players may not have expected. "One of the nice things about the way this has worked out is that even players who haven't paid a ton of attention to the lore are going to be familiar with the Golden Lotus Council or the Klaxxi," Hazzikostas said. "They're quest givers that players followed as they leveled up. There is something to be said for going into a raid and seeing a boss that you recognize as opposed to fighting a huge nameless troll that you can only find out who he is if you read a journal. It's nice to be able to put a name to the face you are fighting."
In addition to killing off big-name characters that have been antagonists -- or at least well-known -- for some time, the dev team seems to relish surprising players with game changing events. It happened with the transformation of many zones in Azeroth in anticipation of Cataclysm, and is happening to a lesser degree in update 5.4 with the destruction of a huge chunk of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Players will experience part of the zone's corruption as the first wing in the Siege of Orgrimmar raid instance.
"The point of making changes like this is to shake players up a bit," Hazzikostas said. "One of the cool things about the MMO as a genre is that you can participate in an evolving world and an evolving storyline. As the story is unfolded over the course of the expansion, it really hammers home just what brought the events to a head and what's led to the Siege of Orgrimmar when players see the complete ruin that has fallen over the eastern part of the Vale, which they have come to know as their home city and base for their exploration and adventures in Pandaria. One of the iconic things -- the two large statues with their halberds that are on the login screen -- those are shattered and destroyed. We are hoping that players that don't pay a lot of attention to patch notes or the forums or the official site will log in and be in for quite a surprise, like 'Whoa, what happened in the Vale?'"
Hazzikostas said there is a fine line between shocking players and causing problems with the flow of the game in a given zone, in this case, the Vale. "Ultimately we want to strike a balance between conveying the events that have happened and updating the layout of the area without being too disruptive." he said. "We kept in a lot of the daily quests in the west half of the zone, which I think were some of the more interesting ones. But the Lotus quests in the Eastern half of the Vale, players have had a good year now to do them and explore what was important. We are comfortable with the destruction of the Golden Lotus and how it plays into the story."
With the Siege of Orgrimmar comes a new raid format, the flex raid. Hazzikostas said the new format helps bridge the gap between Looking for Raid gear and the Normal raiding gear, as well as opening up options for people who are not hardcore raiders.
"One of the biggest things we hear from players in terms of normal mode raiding is that people's lives have changed significantly since they began playing and raiding Molten Core or Ahn Qiraj," he said. "They can't commit to a fixed schedule. Fixed raiding means you have to log on at a specific time every night and if you don't show up, you are letting everyone down. Ina flexible raid group, if you have 15 or 16 people and two people don't show up, no big deal. It's also possible to participate in your friend's raid without having a long-term commitment."
Another reason for flex raiding was the gap caused by the elimination of 10-man raiding. "There is a big distinction between a raiding guild and a group of friends who raid," Hazzikostas said. "A raiding guild recruits and kicks a player based on performance or a lack thereof, while friends that raid just want to go kill a big dragon. You're not going to kick your brother-in-law from the raid because he's not doing a lot of damage. The content that casual raiders are looking for is going to be different than what a raiding guild is looking for. So flexible raiding is designed to fill that gap. It takes the place of what 10-man raiding once did in Wrath of the Lich King."
It is also easier to absorb the loss of players in flex raiding, as the instance will scale on the fly, based on how many people are present at a boss. "You can be standing staring at the boss and as people port out, you see the boss's health drop by a percentage instantaneously," he said. The reverse is true if new people come in.
As for gear, the new system falls right in between LFR and Normal gear. LFR item level is 528, while normal gives you 553. Flexible gives you 540. And the best thing? The loot is personal loot, so no matter how many people you bring, no one is stealing your loot.