Feature Article

World Of Warcraft Devs On Updates, Balancing, And Micro-Holidays

With patch 7.1.5 out and 7.2 in the works, we talk with the developers about what these changes mean for the long-running MMO.

As promised last year at Blizzcon, Blizzards developers on World of Warcraft are working on what seems to be a constant stream of updates and patches for World of Warcraft. As we head into patch 7.2, we talked with several of the game's leads about their experiences in building 7.1.5.

The developers for this interview, which took place right after the launch of 7.1.5 include:

  • Adam Kugler -- Lead Class Designer
  • Jay Gill -- Class Designer
  • Paul Kubit -- Senior Designer
  • John Shin -- Producer

GameSpot: One of the things that I've been most surprised by is how much enthusiasm our community still has for the Warcraft. At least part of that is due, I think to the regular content we've been getting for the game. How has that been on the dev side--putting out this regular flow of content versus the droughts that we would get in years previous?

Paul Kubit: We were super excited about it. When working on WoW, we constantly learned from the past expansions--we learned things from Cataclysm going into Pandaria, Pandaria into Warlords, and so on. The big one that we learned from Warlords is we just need to do more patches. We need to keep the game vibrant with content, and the way we do that is by making sure, every couple months or so, we have something new to do. And that's the point of these .5 patches--it's to have, even if it's not the giant raid tier and outdoor farming zone, something new that you can play.

I think it's something that we've always wanted to do, when working on World of Warcraft, and finally, now we've put our heads down, and we're really happy that we're able to kind of get this better experience to the players.

Adam Kugler: Patch 7.1.5 is a microcosm of what our philosophy: with micro-holidays it shows these silly things that we can do, or time-walking which pays homage to things that players remember really fondly. Even micro-holidays calling attention to AQ; I love that WoW has just had so much content over the years and we're continuing in that tradition of providing things for players to do that are new that we're excited about.

Do you feel like this is sustainable--to be able to keep up this kind of pace of pretty extensive content?

Adam Kugler: So far. [laughs]

Paul Kubit: Yeah, so far. [laugs] Our team has grown steadily over the years, and it's also a matter of just working smart. We've learned how to make WoW over more than 12 years; some people have been working on WoW here for 15 or 16 years. So we've learned to be a little bit better at working on patches in parallel and of pairing large patches with small patches. Whereas 7.1.5 did not take as much time to work on as an expansion or a larger patch. So yeah, so far it's been extensible without too much rigor on our end.

Jay Gill: We know and remember well the narrative or the sentiment from Warlords, where people were very happy at the start and then after that, there were the concerns we heard, that you described, about droughts. It was a big goal for us going into Legion; we can only know how it's gone so far, but so far it's felt like 7.1 came at a time when players were very happy with it, and 7.1.5 came at a time when players were very happy with it. Then, despite those things coming out, we still have the raid zone Nighthold coming, I think, not feeling like it's too late at all. It's coming at a very welcome time for players despite all of the other things having been worked on and released in between.

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Having these regular patches come out, has that helped players stay more engaged? Around an expansion there's always a huge influx of players and that it feels like it slowly tapers off. Has this regular content helped stifle that effect?

Adam Kugler: One thing that we did in 7.1.5 is gave more ability for alts and new players to jump in so that they can catch up to other players and such--there's never been a better time to play. I think that any specific time that we have a new patch come out allowing other players to jump in, even if they didn't start at the expansion start, is something that we care very passionately about.

A new player can get their artifact knowledge up very high just by going in and syncing resources they don't have as much time getting as they would have. Your order progression is similarly cut down on time, so the resource cost is still the same to keep it fair to the players who have invested there. In general, not just allowing our players to play through all the new content that we have, but in addition to that, allowing the players to see the game though a new lens of maybe playing an alt or playing a different spec or something. We're breaking barriers down to allow players to experience the game in new ways and just keep it fresh consistently.

Jay Gill: What we feel most on a day-to-day basis is the same thing that you said at the start, which is that you can tell that players are excited about this. We hear it every day, the discussions that are going around and things that players are talking about now. Especially when Brawler's Guild opened up and people are talking about micro-holidays coming soon or talking about Nighthold. It seems very clear just in the sense of the feedback that we hear and engage with that it must be having an effect.

Talking of making the game accessible to a wide range of people, especially to newcomers, I think the way Legendaries have changed over the years is interesting. For me personally, as someone who isn't able to devote large amounts of time to the game, I love that feeling of accomplishment from earning legendaries, even if it's not terribly difficult.

But that can be a divisive thing within the audience--it may be a vocal minority, but some people feel Legendaries should be harder, if not nearly impossible, to get. How do you approach that balance--creating something that's accessible and attainable against making it feel special for those most hardcore players who want to accomplish things nobody else can do?

Adam Kugler: For me, I think that our goal with legendaries is to spice things up and promote the player to play the game as much as they can. When you do play a lot, you have that moment of, "Oh, I just opened my cache," or, "I just spoke to Blingtron and he graced me with an amazing legendary." That moment is such a great thing to capture, and having variability within there just adds to the texture of the game. I think that, at any given moment, players will think that one is the best or one is the worst. There will always be something like that, but, at the end of the day, it's how the players are all sharing in at least a little bit of that content, whether they play a little or they play a lot.

Paul Kubit: You mentioned that it is something that can be somewhat divisive. We have a pretty good community team, and on the development team as well, we always try to listen to that feedback from players. What feels good about this system? What didn't feel good? What was your personal experience and why didn't it feel good? We are an iterative team, and as we continue putting out patches and putting out content, we'll keep looking at systems like the legendary systems and find out if and make changes where necessary.

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Another question I see come up frequently is about realm balance; some players feel that there are either too many Horde or too many Alliance players in their specific realm. Is that something you're still trying to find the right balance for?

John Shin: We do take that into account, and one of the big things that came from Legion is our sharding tech. It's been this evolution ever since Mists of Pandaria when we first got cross-realms active in the game, and it's only evolved further from that. I think the game definitely feels way more lively today than it ever has. No matter what zone I go to, I'm always running into some people. Population wise, that's obviously something that's going to be realm specific from time to time. We're going to try and do what we can, but there's nothing direct to share on that front.

Adam Kugler: I do know that when I was at Blizzcon there was one fan that came up to me and was actually a little sad that we combined his realm with another one, because they used to say, "We're the holdout Alliance." One out of 45 people were Alliance and the rest were Horde, and they were the last bastions of protecting that. It felt really good to be in the opposite situation. It is a little bit to player taste, for sure, and there are definitely resources people can use to figure out whether you want to get yourself into that situation or not. I think players will always find the thing that they want to latch onto the most and sometimes it's actually being the underdog.

It's not a small topic, but as with every patch, there were a lot of changes to the different classes. Broadly speaking, what have you felt about the feedback regarding the nerfs and buffs each class has received this time around?

Adam Kugler: The high-level philosophy was to allow classes a bit more diversity in the things that they get to play. We did a a lotof changes and there's possibly more to come, but we did as many as we felt comfortable with and that's one thing that we will continue to iterate on and move forward with. Regarding tuning, Jay can probably speak better to that.

Jay Gill: Yeah, I mean our goal for 7.1.5 was, as Adam described, it was to look at either play styles of a few specs that we wanted to update in some way, but the biggest focus was on talent. It was on rebalancing talents within rows and trying to rehabilitate heavily underused or unused talents and I think we will see a lot of that borne out as people experiment with different builds on live.

It was generally not a goal to heavily buff and nerf specs overall in that process. The sheer amount of change made it inevitable that there's a lot of fluctuation, but we're monitoring the first few days of live 7.1.5 now to see where someone is far above or below where they were previously or where they should be. Will almost certainly be some adjustments coming out in advance of Nighthold.

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Adam Kugler: During Legion development, there was a large initiative to get fantasy first going forward for all the classes and that was everything from the mechanics that we have on the classes to how the spell visuals were done to how animations came out. It was heavily associated with our combat revamp initiative where we had basically Charge felt like actually a big, meaty charge rather than, "I'm just kind of running up to a guy."

With all of those changes just came a giant boulder that was dropped in the pond of development and we fully anticipated that so much had changed that we would have to iterate continually as we go forward, and as we always have. We were always trying to get to a better and better spot. It's very hard until we get the game into hands of millions of players to see the edges of how players want to break our game effectively and show us in good ways and bad ways what we've done. We learn from players just as much as we learn from ourselves.

How do you weigh the needs of the PvP community versus the people who are raiding, versus the people who just want a good PvE experience.

Jay Gill: It's definitely a bigger challenge than ever this expansion because of the sheer breadth of options and abilities and bonuses that each spec has. Even if we had done nothing in 7.1.5, there would've been the shakeup of new set bonuses, new talents, new legendaries, new trinkets as Nighthold opens. A lot of it is we, given how much of an initiative there was in Legion to introduce new talents to every spec, to have four or five rows of spec-specific talents, which there never was before, there're definitely far more combinations or possible class set-ups than anyone could ever test. There is quite a mix of extensive internal testing and data and seeing what happens when players get their hands on it. Some monitoring and response to live is probably part of the process for this expansion.

Adam Kugler: We like to joke around the office that we don't have 12 classes anymore, we actually have 36 because every spec is so different from one another, and even the amount of talent diversity that we provided in 7.1.5. Talents used to be shared a lot more across different specs and now there's very much a sense of having your own style, your own spin on what it is to be a mage or a hunter or a paladin. But I think the most important thing for me, in all of that tuning, is that every spec should have a place where they feel they can shine so that there's variety in where they go.

Trial of Valor is only about three bosses, but Nightfall is 10, so the number of cases you find yourself in will be a vastly different set than we've had previously. When people are analyzing specific sites where they have just the ranking of who's doing how much DPS, we recognize that and we see that but we also have to say, "Okay, this is actually an AOE-heavy encounter," or, "This is a spread out encounter," or whatever.

As long as we're aligned with who we think should be good in this situation, that's a large part of how we balance things as well. Making sure that every player feels like they have a place where they excel is just as important as making sure that everybody feels balanced year to year.

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How much of the content and the plan do you feel is clearly mapped out versus the types of content you create from feedback? Do you a rough framework of how you're moving the game forward and then are adjusting that based on how the community reacts and how just the development cycle itself is coming together.

Adam Kugler: I think the benefit of Legion development is that we had a very strong plan of having continued content and that's why 7.1.5 has all of the content that it does in terms of Brawler's Guild and micro-holidays and Nighthold. It's very much a continued effort to figure out what feels right for the time that we have and some of that is planning and some of that is just making sure that what our vision for what it would be aligns with what's actually happening.

It's really funny to see a change go in that we would've made, say, before launch and then all of the sudden 7.1 hits and it's like, "Oh yeah, we made that decision before launch happened." We always have to check ourselves along with what's going on currently, because we all play the game just as much as the players do. We can make our best guesses, but we also have to be reactionary, so it's definitely a healthy mix of both.

Paul Kubit: One of the things that we factored into our plans for Legion early on was we did plan that we were going to have a 7.1 and then a 7.1.5 and a 7.2 and we had a pretty good idea what were going to go in those; but it wasn't exact. We knew especially with patches, these in-between patches like the 7.1.5, the most important thing about it is that it exists. It's not actually critical that Brawler's Guild lands right now because that doesn't factor into the story of Legion. It's not critical that time-walking for Pandaria or micro-holidays landed in this patch but we did want to have something for the players here and, actually, it is kind of refreshing to have it be something which isn't so tightly themed around the Legion or the Broken Isles. It's interesting to either be taken back with nostalgia or with just reminders of the other parts of Azeroth, to those places.

Adam Kugler: Blizzard's had a long and storied history of "It's ready when it's ready," and it's really nice to be in a situation where "ready when it's ready" actually means that. Instead of delivering the five things that we really want to in this one patch, we can deliver four of them and save the fifth one for later. Previously, that would've been, "No, we really have to wait until the fifth one is done and then we have to delay so that everything feels like it lines up right." With our new, agile way of developing things, we can wait on something that we don't feel is quite ready and still get content that is finished into players' hands. I think that's going to be one of the big successes of Legion: the way that we can do our pacing is very much a much more agile sort of way than before.

Do you ever feel that some of the best content gets front-loaded, or are you confident that there's going to be enough in the coming patches that players will continue to be excited? And also that there's enough that you, personally, are excited to keep creating and thinking up the unexpected?

Adam Kugler: As Paul said, the team has been growing steadily for a while. I think we're at 300 strong now, maybe a little more. The nice thing is there's so many people that work on the team, and they're all working on something to make the game better, so they have their own spin on what's making the game better. Sometimes, when we're looking at what's coming up in the next patch, I'm like, "Oh, I didn't even know we were doing that." There's so many people that are making new content that I think that there's just a giant initiative for different directions, different plans of attack to come in and create a different style of content than any other person on the team, and that's what makes it so strong.

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Paul Kubit: Yeah, there's lots of different and exciting things that are being worked on concurrently on the WoW team. We work on different patches at different times, so there is some front-loading that goes on there, but it all goes to put together that plan that 7.0 was really just the beginning of the story of Legion, and it's grown since then. With the Suramar storyline in 7.1 and now expansions of the story in 7.1.5. With 7.2, you're going to see a lot of exciting stuff coming. We just shipped 7.1.5 and then we're going to start working on 7.2 now. There's just lots of exciting stuff going on.

Jay Gill: It's like the example before in your question of whether this was all front loaded--well, 7.1 and 7.1.5 came out, I would imagine, faster than players were expecting, which was something that we'd love to be able to keep delivering. Notwithstanding that sometime shortly from now, players will be still in Nighthold with 7.2 with more content on PTR and sort of seeing that it hasn't stopped even though there's already been multiple patches released since Legion.

Paul Kubit: A big part of the drive for a lot of these systems that we've put into 7.1.5 has been making sure that players are happy to see one another. We've done this a lot in Legion where we have tapping rules now--when you're not competing with other players on your faction to tap a creature, now you're happy to see other people because now you kill things faster. In the Underbelly area, pretty much anything which was purchased down there was a buff for everybody in the area. You could put down a feast or summon creatures which give you extra points.

In 7.1.5, we doubled down on that and Brawler's Guild, especially the Brawler's Gold currency in there, everything that can be purchased there is a buff for everybody. You purchase a graveyard and that benefits other people, so you're happy to see a lot of people in Brawler's Guild. Even if that means higher queues. That also means more people are spending Brawler's Gold and making the place a little bit more ergonomically friendly.

For a lot of the micro-holidays that we've put together, not all of them, but a lot of them, they're built with socialness in mind. There's the Salute a Guard Day, which is kind of hiddenly social, but the way that works is the number of the enemies you've slain as a guard is tracked. Enemies will periodically attack you while you have taken on the appearance of a guard for that holiday, but if you're standing together with a whole bunch of other people protecting the throne room in Stormwind or the Gates of Orgrimmar, then there's going to be a lot more invaders and you're all going to be feeding off of each other's potential as a guard there, so you're happy to see other players.

Another way of thinking about the kind of social activity is the Spring Balloon Festival holiday where, the way that holiday works is people will wait in line for balloons to take off, and they take off pretty quickly. Every balloon leaves with one NPC, who talks to you, but also three players kind of chosen at random. Not necessarily in your same party. You're treated to views of Azeroth or Outland or wherever you happen to be, which is neat in and of itself. But also you're up there with a couple strangers and the NPC might actually say a couple things which will encourage you to talk to each other. He'll say, "Here's a joke that I came up with, ha, ha, ha. Anybody else got any good ones?" Then he'll be silent for a couple seconds and maybe people will start talking.

That's been kind of a goal of ours too is just to make sure that we're not ever really forcing you to play together. If you like to play WoW alone, that's great, but if you are with other people, maybe the game bends you in the direction to say like, "Hey, there's other people in this game. Say, "Hi." Say, "Hello."

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Justin Haywald

GameSpot's Managing Editor and part-time stunt double for Elijah Wood.

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