A massive success: 10 years of World of Warcraft (Q&A)

Can a game really offer something for everyone? With the latest expansion about to launch, WoW lead game designer Ion Hazzikostas discusses the history and the future of the game.

Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
Seamus Byrne
12 min read

Watch this: World of Warcraft hits its tenth anniversary

It's the Methuselah of video games. It launched in a world without iPhones, Facebook or YouTube -- and when AMD Athlon 64 processors were beating the pants off Intel's Pentium 4.

It's been with us long enough that people have met through the game, married, and had children who are now old enough to play. World of Warcraft is about to celebrate its 10th birthday with the launch of its latest game expansion, Warlords of Draenor.

As part of pre-anniversary celebrations, CNET caught up with World of Warcraft lead game designer Ion Hazzikostas, to talk about the history and the future of the landmark game. Read on to hear about making something for everyone, the value in special "had to be there" moments, and how the new garrison features could see your Troll become known as the "Gnome Slayer".

Q: What's your perspective on World of Warcraft's ongoing success? There's more competition than ever, but the player base seems to be growing again as the new expansion approaches?
Hazzikostas: I think there are two key things. First, we've continued to increase the breadth and accessibility of the game over the years. We've recognised our player base has changed over the years. The person who picked up the game in 2004 who was a student with tons of free time is now a career person with a family, and they're trying to fit in 60-90 minutes of game time after the kids go to bed at night. The game that they want is not the same game that they played 10 years ago.

At the same time there's a new generation coming in. So we've had to increasingly expand the ways in which you can interact with the game. We still offer content that is still very much aimed at the hardcore organised player who wants to sit down with guild mates and spend four hours a night banging their heads against an encounter. But then we also give you a way to see some of the same content at a lower difficulty level like through something like our raid finder system for raids where you can jump right in.

We also offer new things to do, whether that's collecting mounts or pets or the new toy box feature for cosmetic and fun items. There's the achievements system, all these other dimensions to interact with the game in your downtime so whether you have 20 minutes or two hours to play, whether you are just a collector looking to complete and tick things off the list, or whether you want to prove that you're the best. There's something for everyone.

The other thing about this thing called World of Warcraft is that it is also a testament to our players. Testament to the bonds they have formed. One of the cool things with BlizzCon coming up is that it's always great to have this opportunity to meet so many of our fans in person, but also to see people meeting each other face to face for the first time. There [are] guild mates who have played together and know each other's voices and now they're putting faces to names. You see that repeated over and over again throughout the convention halls. You see spouses who met playing the game and are now married. In many ways it's greater than the sum of its parts because of that extra ingredient which is the awesome players that bring that to the table.

Once upon a time people wondered if or when we'd see "World of Warcraft 2". Clearly, after 10 years, Blizzard believes in constant change rather than releasing some new, separate game?
Hazzikostas: It's a smooth curve. It's clearly not the same game it was 10 years ago, right? The engine is different, all the graphical assets are different, a lot of core combat mechanics have changed. It's hard to pinpoint one turning point when it changed, but we definitely have taken an incremental approach to the pressing problems the game has that we feel we need to solve and what we can add to it that will make it better and deliver the most value to our players. That's what we do each step of the way. You take small steps and then you look back and see you've come a long way.

Shadowmoon Valley World of Warcraft
Shadowmoon Valley, a new zone to be explored in the latest expansion. Blizzard Entertainment

I can't speak to all the technical details, but the gist of it is we provide new features whether it's reflective water or better shader support or whether it is god beams or whatever else, taking advantage of the new graphics technology that high-end cards offer, while still preserving the ability for people to keep playing the game on lower spec machines. At the end of the day that's essential. We don't want a new game expansion to come out and for someone to realise they just can't run the game anymore. In fact, in Warlords of Draenor that's been a real priority for us. Improving client performance across the board but particularly at lower levels.

I think that too often we had our minimum spec on the box and you could certainly play the game in the outdoor world just fine, but if you went into a raid zone or went into a battleground with 20 or 30 people around you, performance was not as good as it should have been. So that's something we've actively taken steps to address, to optimise the engine, to do things like filtering out excess noise, those extra particles that are being drawn on screen. You actually don't need to see all 20 little fel bolts coming from your allies' imps that are scattered around, that's not important information, particularly if it is causing your frames per second to dip into single digits.

In the lead up to the last expansion, Mists of Pandaria, the introduction of a pet combat system was divisive in the community. A few years later how has that element settled into the game?
Hazzikostas: That's the philosophy of breadth, you know, it's totally fine that some people looked at that and thought "That's not for me." Some of them may have changed their mind later. I know some who did. Others may have checked it out later and said, "No, definitely not for me." And that's completely fine. We have a game played by millions of people who often have diametrically opposed desires and viewpoints, and we're just trying to offer something for everybody.

Is there a new stat or concept coming in the new expansion that has been the most fun for you so far?
Hazzikostas: One that is not so much exciting as just a great cleanup is something like Hit Chance. Something that, in game design terms, it turned into the opposite of what it should be. We like things to be bonuses, but it was exclusively a penalty. It was a fun tax. You need to have this much Hit or otherwise you don't get to have fun playing your class, because really our game is designed around the idea that you probably hit with most of your abilities. If you have some core rotation [a standard sequence of abilities or spells] that has you put 'Spell A' up on the target so you can then cast 'Spell B' and A misses, everything just falls apart and it had just turned into this requirement that never felt good. It just felt bad when you didn't have enough of it, and it felt bad when you had too much of it. So very happy to be getting rid of that.

On the more exciting and creative angle I think the addition of tertiary stats coming onto items. Maybe it will let you run a little faster or take a little bit less area of effect damage, or make the item indestructible. This random property that an item can have that gives you a little extra excitement to look forward to. Maybe you already have the item but here you could get a better version of it. I think that's going to add a little extra excitement.

Siege of Orgrimmar art
Warlords of Draenor follows on from the Siege of Orgrimmar events at the end of the last expansion. Blizzard Entertainment

With this expansion everything about it screams "milestone event". The story goes right back to the very early history of Warcraft itself. How big a decision was it to play with the timeline?
Hazzikostas: Coming up with "What is the next WoW expansion going to be?" is as big a decision as they come. That is not easy, there is a tremendous amount of pressure, we know we need to get it right every time. In many ways we see World of Warcraft as driven by setting first and foremost. So the big question for us was "What world do we want to explore next?" From there we can tell the story to get you to that world and to make that world come alive.

We were just coming off Mists of Pandaria which, though it had its conflict and tension and the shadow beneath the surface, on its face it was a very tranquil happy land. So we wanted to contrast with that very deliberately. We went from Cataclysm, where the world was ending, to a lighter note with Pandaria, so we wanted to go back to "What is the existential threat here?"

In kicking around ideas something that came up was going all the way back to the manual for Warcraft 2, from 15 years ago, there's this paragraph about the world of Draenor. And there's a map next to it in the instruction manual and it lays out all of the zones that will sound familiar to you today. If you haven't seen the Draenor map, go back and look at it.

That became a point of brainstorming. What are the stories we could tell if we could go back to a world where the Orc origin story occurred, the Draenei origin story occurred, where villains like Gul'dan and Ner'zhul were still alive and kicking. We'd really mined out most of the major Warcraft 3 story points in prior expansions and that really ended in some ways with the fall of the Lich King at the end of Wrath. Warcraft 2, though, there's actually a ton of lore, a rich tapestry that we'd laid out that we really haven't had much chance to deal with at all.

So it was really exciting to get to do that and once that idea started making the rounds we knew there's always danger whenever you do anything a little time travelly. It's not an uncommon thing in media, with the Star Trek reboot and the X-Men movie recently; comic books have been doing it forever. But we deliberately wanted to not focus on time travel. This isn't a time travel expansion, we don't get into any weird timeline continuity stuff, you're not going back and changing the course. No. It's an alternate universe, it's parallel, the threat they pose is that if we don't stop them they're going to march their army through the Dark Portal and kill us all, so we need to go there and stop them. Once you're there, there's a whole new world to explore, characters to meet, things to uncover.

What surprises are still tucked away in the new expansion?
Hazzikostas: There's so much. All of the different garrison functionality [WoW's new housing system]. I think garrisons in particular are a bit of a black box for people. Particularly if you're just going off our BlizzCon presentation from last year, where it seemed like this cool base building mini game, where you send followers out, they complete missions for you while you're offline, they deliver rewards and loot to you, oh and you can build some buildings.

Well, we built that into the choices you make while levelling your garrison, going from 90-100, will determine your questing to some extent. But then each medium and large building you choose has a large chunk of gameplay associated with it that is almost a mini faction.

WoW Horde Garrison
Garrisons are a guild housing system that will offer new adventures. Blizzard Entertainment

If you build the stables you unlock this whole section of the game where you can go to the different zones and capture and track legendary beasts of Draenor to tame and break them and get them as mounts. If you build the Gladiator Sanctum, you unlock this PvP quest line where you declare a racial nemesis in the opposite faction, you could say you're going to be the Gnome slayer and you're going to hunt gnomes and you can collect trophies from all the gnomes you kill and if you get enough you can burn a gnome effigy and you get a title so you can walk around as "Gnome slayer" or "Gnome bane", which in turn gets you invited to this fight club where you can queue up for a 25 player free for all among people who passed this trial to win some cool loot and another title. And that's just one building! And there [are] a dozen buildings. I don't think most people have a clue about how deep the rabbit hole goes there and I look forward to people finding out.

Right now we're seeing a temporary world event building up to the expansion launch. How do create special one-off game moments without making those who miss the event feel excluded?
Hazzikostas: That's always the tricky balance to strike. The same logic applies when we make old things inaccessible. For example, the legendary cloak you could get over the course of Mists of Pandaria will no longer be available once Warlords of Draenor unlocks. The Challenge Mode dungeons in Pandaria that you could do went away with Patch 6.0. Some things are limited time availability. Ninety-nine percent of the world is there forever, but I think there is value in carving off little segments of it as things that you had to be here, at the right time, and you have some keepsake -- a mount, a title, a memento -- that proves that you were there and there is inherent value in that. As long as we don't do it too much. As long as we don't make it feel stressful, that if you ever took a few months off the game you're going to somehow miss out of things you can never get again.

When we announced that those Challenge Modes were going to go away, we made that announcement about five or six months ago. There was an initially a huge outcry, there's still some outcry, because players don't like the prospect of losing content. At the same time it caused this tremendous resurgence of interest. There were tons of people I know who never even thought they'd be able to do it. I had co-workers who didn't think they were the audience for that content, they thought it would be too hard. They got groups together, they completed it, they got all the rewards and they had a wonderful time, a satisfying and rewarding experience, but it required that little push. If we had never announced their removal, so many of those people would still be sitting back saying "Oh, I'll get around to it, eventually."

It seems like balancing approachability against hardcore difficulty has defined the second five years of WoW. Raid finders, tools to experience more content, the idea you can try more serious content now.
Hazzikostas: Exactly, that has very much been our philosophy. Increasing accessibility, letting people experience content in their own way, without it coming at the expense of people who still have an established and entrenched play style.

WoW Deathwing art
More players than ever faced off against expansion boss Deathwing in 2011 thanks to the accessible raid finder system. Blizzard Entertainment

If you look at the course of the game, Kel'Thuzad at the end of classic World of Warcraft, at the end of the classic version of Naxxramas, was killed by something like 3,000 people in the world. Illidan was the signature initial villain of Burning Crusade, with the famous trailer with Illidan standing atop Black Temple saying, "You are not prepared!" Turns out most actually weren't prepared, because if you didn't have 24 friends, you weren't going to kill Illidan. And if you didn't have 24 very good, organised friends, who committed to a fixed raiding schedule, you weren't going to kill Illidan. You weren't going to see Illidan! Whereas, with raid finder, millions of people killed Deathwing. They saw the end of that story.

Is there still a clear distinction between the accomplishment of those people and the accomplishment of the hardcore raiding guilds that killed heroic Deathwing? Of course! And no one thinks twice that that is not the case, but at least people feel like they got to see the lore and the big moments. We rely on stronger power items, prestige items like titles, mounts, things like that to distinguish high achievement from just the experience player, but that doesn't justify denying them the experience in the first place.

How far in the future do secret plans extend these days? Does 20 years of WoW feel ridiculous anymore?
Hazzikostas: I definitely can't tell you what our 20th anniversary is going to be. I can tell you there is definitely going to be one. I have no doubt saying that. We're definitely planning into the future, talking about what the next expansion is going to be, and what the one after that is going to be, just in terms of big picture storylines, how can we start setting things up now, where do we want the game to go. Ultimately it's all one step at a time.