World of Warcraft Interview with technical director Marco Koegler

world of warcraft

Over the weekend IncGamers caught up with Marco Koegler, technical director for World of Warcraft.  For this interview we invited along Dr. Andras Becht – he’s an economist, and he has a PhD so he’s really smart – and Dr. Dana Herrera, an anthropologist. They’re both from St. Mary’s College in the Bay Area and they had many, many questions to ask regarding Warlords of Draenor and WoW in general.

Marco Koegler: Hi! My name is Marco Koegler, and I’m the technical director for World of Warcraft.

Dr. Andras Becht: We’ve heard that you like out-of-the-norm questions…

MK [Blizzard]: Out of the norm? I’m scared now.

AB: We’ll start with that. As a professor of economics, I’m very much interested in World of Warcraft economics. I’m putting together a paper right now, and what I use your game for (aside from getting to know my life partner and wife, and also getting a job in the United States and getting a Visa)… is to figure out what are the postulates which economics make, that are not in line with what we experience players do. So I’m looking at the player interaction side.

The question is – because apparently, we need to do that – do you have any insight in how the decisions for the financial side of the game are made? Money flows, those kinds of things.

MK [Blizzard]: A little bit. Some of it is from stories. I remember that the Auction House taking a cut was one of the best accidents that was made in terms of how the economics for the game actually evolved. And then in terms of things that we’re doing currently, we have a business intelligence group that does all types of reporting on where players get their gold and which elements in the game actually introduce the most gold, and that is something we look at carefully, because sometimes it actually highlights exploits that players are using (in terms of farming gold more efficiently than we intend them to) and sometimes it highlights things where we just made kind of a bad decision, and are rewarding something much, much higher than we actually intended to.

For example, the quest that gives you your three seals that you can use for your bonus rolls also gives you 50 gold, or something like that, and it turned out that’s one of the biggest sources of gold in the game.

World of Warcraft: Heroes of Draenor

AB: That’s also probably the reason you removed the lily-pad drop from the frogs, which were being farmed for the coins and they also sold for 100 gold, even though they didn’t do anything else.

MK [Blizzard]: Very likely, yes.

AB: Is data gathering happening on the server-specific side as well, or just for the entirety of the realm?

MK [Blizzard]: The server reports all data to a big database that then gets used to run whatever queries we require. We have realm statistics, we have global statistics… all types of data.

AB: I have one more question on this –

MK [Blizzard]: I can’t give you access to it, sorry! [Laughs]

AB: [Laughs] I wasn’t going to ask that! That’s what I’d like, but I’m not going to ask that. What I’m asking is – and I guess this isn’t your cup of tea, but – is inequality among gamers something that is a concern for designers? Like, some people getting extremely wealthy, while others are struggling to make repair costs? Is that something you worry about?

MK [Blizzard]: It’s always something that we worry about, but for some players, earning money is their game. For some folks – even on our team – playing the Auction House is the type of game they want to play, and it’s just more rewarding for them so we want to make sure that we keep those people happy too. Just because they’re able to get more wealthy than the average other gamer doesn’t mean we should make it harder for them.

AB: I myself have spent more than four million gold a month, so I understand that, but I do have raid members who are always begging for gold because they can’t make repairs, and that’s an awkward situation. Because I don’t want to give them money.

MK [Blizzard]: We’ve kind of addressed it with some of the guild mechanics and guild repairs, and discounts on repair costs, but… other than that.

Dr. Dana Herrera: I’m a cultural anthropologist, and my particular field of study in this area is looking at where World of Warcraft as an entire digital culture overlaps with so-called “real-life” – the real world – and how those two things mesh. As an anthropologist I’m really interested in groups of people. You now have an international focus, so broadly speaking, my question for you is: could you speak a little bit about some of the challenges in developing World of Warcraft for an international community? You strive very hard to make the game accessible, but what does that mean in terms of all the different populations around the world?

MK [Blizzard]: We see different player behaviour across different cultural playerbases. There’s even a different culture on gaming – I believe in Korea, in Asia, actually meeting up to play is something that’s a lot bigger than it is in Europe or the US. Also, gaming rooms and internet cafés are kind of a… a place where people go to play, so they’re more likely to play together with people they’re actually sitting close to.

In terms of planning for that, I think a lot of the social structures in WoW were more built around connecting people in the virtual world, and less about connecting them in real life. But nevertheless, many relationships have been started by people playing WoW. Many friendships have been forged. With other Blizzard games we’re starting to have more real-life events, like BarCraft or Fireside Gatherings, but with the way the gameplay in WoW works it’s a bit harder to achieve because you’re more in a persistent world, rather than doing a round-based game where it’s easy to come in and just play it for a little bit. Maybe that’s something that we need to look at more. Are there any recommendations that you have, on things we could be doing?

DH: DH: Very much so! But it also depends on whether or not you have data like for the monetary and economic aspects of the game. Are you, as a group, kind of noting some of these behaviours that you’ve seen cross-culturally? Like economists, anthropologists like to run on a certain amount of data, and big data is important to us, but also the personal human interactions. So when you talk about “we notice that there are some cultural differences”, do you have a list? Do you have any insights?

MK [Blizzard]: I don’t have them, but we rely a lot on our regional offices – who are usually staffed with people from that region – to highlight some of those differences to us. Some of those things are things that we can apply to World of Warcraft, and some of them aren’t. In Asian markets, being able to customise the look of your character is something that is taken to the extreme in a lot of the games that are available there, and we implemented transmogrification as a way to bring that to WoW. But we still want to put some limits on it. We don’t want… there’s a fantasy aspect and a lore aspect to the game that we don’t necessarily want to break, and that’s why we don’t allow, like, a tank to wear a tuxedo to a raid. In other games, being an individual might be about clothes or weird hairstyles. So it’s a balance, because we don’t want to create a version of WoW for one market and a version of WoW for another.

DH: I think that’s a challenge with any of these games, where you’re trying to speak to an international crowd but not make it so specialised that it loses what coheres us as a group. We can come here to BlizzCon and interact with people from all over the world, and we have that thing which unifies us and binds us.

Flux: You all hate the Alliance.

[All laugh]

DH: I appreciate idea of having the regional offices, but as a shout-out to my discipline I have to suggest at some point… in-house corporate anthropologists are popular in many companies, whether it’s Sony, Intel, etc. They make it their habit to go out and study in-depth player behaviour. Again, not to ask you to change your game in a way that we lose the fantasy aspect, but certainly… not only to understand the community inside the game but how it works outside the game. Maybe for promotional issues, PR, etc., having someone that focuses specifically on that and having this international perspective and how things come together. That would be one of my small recommendations for you!

AB: We do play on European servers. I’m originally from Hungary so I started playing there, and it’s very noticeable there… the grab-bag of a playerbase that happens in the non-national realms have a very interesting interaction. Especially when you get into a Battleground against a Russian group, and things escalate, and anthropology… pops out.

MK [Blizzard]: I started on a European server too!

AB: Oh, you enjoy the lag?

[All laugh]

MK [Blizzard]: No, no; I’m from Germany, so I started playing WoW from Germany and I saw the transition of the game. At first everything was in English, and then it all started getting localised, and suddenly the acronyms that people used changed. Like, “XR” for Crossroads suddenly wasn’t applicable anymore because it was some other word!

AB: I apologise for invading your German servers and capturing your rare pets.

World of Warcraft: Heroes of Draenor

AB: Alright, so you’re a technical game developer, so some technical game development stuff. This specific patch has seen – as many of you are claiming – the most changes since the game has launched. That’s your cup of tea, I think, more than the economy…

MK [Blizzard]: It is. On the technological side there’ve been a lot of advancements that we’ve had to put into the engine infrastructure as a whole in order to deal with, for example, the new character models. We can’t just go in and say “Hey, this 1,200 triangle human male is now going to turn into this 7,000 triangle human male” with over twice the amount of bones (the elements we used to animate those characters) and expect that to go faster.

Artists also always challenge us in that regard by saying that what used to be acceptable for a 3D model of, say, a tree… in order to push the visuals and keep improving the look of the game, they just need more resources. So we spent a lot of optimisation effort on the client side to bring that to life.

Then, in terms of server infrastructure and gameplay systems, we added Garrisons as a massive feature to the game. The concept of the base hearkens back to the strategy game roots, and in an MMO it’s something that we felt was very, very appropriate for Warcraft. The technological challenge there is that roughly 30 minutes after we launch the expansion, everyone that plays is going to basically go to their Garrison, and their Garrison is their own space. It’s their own server that will start up, and a lot of optimisation effort was also done to make sure that the hardware we have available to run the game and run all the dungeon instances and raid instances is actually able to also run all the Garrison instances that people are going to be spinning up.

There’s an interesting unknown there, as we don’t know how much time people are going to actually spend in their Garrison. That’s also something that’s very hard to predict; we don’t know what the behaviour of players is going to be, so those will be things that we’ll be looking for in three to four days. Player behaviour is obviously also very different on PTR and beta realms, which is a type of testing that we feel very strongly about, but… it’s going to be a big surprise.

Something that’s kind of a Garrison tie-in feature is that we improved the AI of the game. Instead of the AI being something that is very custom-scripted by the designers, we started introducing the concept of needs and behaviours, so that objects in the world start “calling out” to some of the followers that you have in order to get them interested in doing stuff. Expect to see a bit more emergent behaviour between the NPCs and the followers that we have in the game.

There are cosmetic changes to the way that we select units, which some players feel more strongly about than others–

AB: You’re talking about the outline?

MK [Blizzard]: I’m talking about the outline.

AB: It’s okay. It’s okay.

MK [Blizzard]: [Laughs] For some it’s really bad, so we have options to turn it off, but we feel that for selecting things in a group it’s actually a better visual indicator. But that was an engineering project that we had to deal with. And in terms of… there’s a lot of back-end work to allow us to deal with launch day issues, like in Blasted Lands which we ran as part of the pre-patch. We tried out a new type of technology that allows us to… if an area becomes very populated you can split up the demographic of the area–

AB: Like a new instance?

MK: It’s not quite a new instance, but it’s the ability to just load balance between multiple servers in the same area. And we hope that that’s going to make for a smoother launch experience, because we’re not just going to have 2,000 people trying to kill the same ten things, which is always one of those problems that we have on launch day!

We know that we’re an MMO and we try to make it look at least semi-broken so that people can appreciate the launch day frenzy…

[All laugh]

MK [Blizzard]: …but overall we want people to make progress and get to their Garrison.

AB: Which will break the servers and cause global warming as well, at the same time.

MK [Blizzard]: Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. It’d be bad for everybody.

[All laugh]

World of Warcraft: Heroes of Draenor

AB: Thank you. At this point I’m also a professor of strategy and business processes and one of the things that’s going to be a leading question – but you don’t know it yet – is how do things like the redesign decisions happen? As a random example: the boomkin rotation. At this point I think it’s the fourth totally distinct one. How does it get identified as something that needs to be changed, and what’s the process involved in terms of what the focus is, what the advantages and disadvantages are…

MK [Blizzard]: I can’t fully speak for class design, but… a large part of the team are still actively playing the game, so there’s always a lot of discussion about experiences that players have playing the game. We’re in touch with the community, the people that play the game, at a very high level, both the raiders and a PvP perspective.

For Warlords of Draenor we wanted to let go of some of the cruft, especially with respect to class design. We’ve been accumulating abilities on characters because whenever we add new levels to the game, there need to be certain rewards, and rewards are abilities. Since people have to level from 1 to 100, they’re going to need to be given out at a certain rate because those are rewards. We wanted to focus a bit more on what ability makes a class iconic, and then that shifts into… you’ll get a set of abilities, and it has to be worked into a rotation that feels natural.

Unless you’re playing the beta (which I guess isn’t available anymore!) at level 100, you’re also being exposed to the awkward pre-patch period where you’re essentially only playing with a 90% complete character. So how rotations are going to work out… it’s something that you really only get to experience at level 100. It’s also kind of hard as people are still figuring out optimal play; there might be bad suggestions out there. People are running simulations, we’re running simulations, so there’s always a discrepancy between the simulations that we see versus ours.

We use the game itself to run the simulation. We don’t have good automation in that regard, but it means that the numbers that we get are very true. But in the end, a designer chose a few abilities and decided what the optimal rotation is going to be, and scripted up a “person” performing that rotation. But it could be that we’re wrong! If you pick these talents, maybe somebody is able to find a bug or an exploit in the talent set… and that’s where people go.

We hope that by reducing the number of abilities we’re going to make it easier for people to find the optimal rotation for themselves, and not flood people returning to the game with a lot of abilities where they just won’t know which buttons they need to press.

 

AB: That’s specifically true for thirty of the specs out there. The reason I ask about the Boomkin – the thirty-first – is because it got a completely new redesign. It had to. It always had an awkward rotation and it has a new awkward rotation right now. For example, we’re the only class in the game who cannot put both of our DoTs on the same target within 20 seconds. We have to wait 20 seconds, because we have one button for two DoTs, which is an interesting design choice, but you kind of answered my question because it feels like somebody looked at it from a raid perspective, designed the rotation with a raid perspective in mind, and the fact that it’s going to be incredibly broken and underpowered in a PvP or in a world scenario, that doesn’t seem to be represented in this brand new rotation.

MK [Blizzard]: I wouldn’t say that they didn’t consider that. I think they made deliberate choices about what their perception is of where they intend the class to go, and they also have a bit of a longer tail in mind with some of those aspects. I can take your feedback and present it to the class design team!

AB: Do mention to them that a Sunfire button would make the few of us who actually still bother to try Boomkin PvP infinitely happier. One button. Sunfire. Thank you! Back to some more technical aspects, because this was awkward enough…

[All laugh]

AB: You have the technology to down-scale or down-level characters. You’ve built this huge world, which is vibrant! And beautiful! And lovely! And… empty. Players are always concentrated on the newest content.

MK [Blizzard]: Unless you’re levelling up.

AB: Unless you’re levelling up, in which case level 100s will gank you, which is a good experience.

MK [Blizzard]: [Laughs] Snark! I appreciate it!

World of Warcraft: Heroes of Draenor

AB: No no no no no! There’s a reason I play Druid! I can instantly fly and I can Prowl! That was design! But the question is – you have this tech, and other games have decided to re-use those areas. We talk frequently about that. I personally have always kept my characters at max level, and I haven’t experienced Elwynn Forest for… six years now. And I would like to. It’s great. So you have the tech, but is there any desire to make it applicable to some sort of off-content with downscaled characters? So I could go back to level 2 and kill sheep?

MK [Blizzard]: We’ve talked about it in terms of allowing you to do that for some of the older dungeons. A problem that’s always been there is the reward scheme – what happens when I get down-levelled to level 20? I finish a dungeon, I get a bag as a reward, and what’s in the bag? A level 100 item? Should it be an appropriate item for that level? We got rid of Valor points, so we can’t really give that. A similar question might pose itself for the old content – is an achievement enough of a reward? So I think it comes down to some of that. It would also increase a lot of testing effort, which is something that, with a game the size of WoW, we really heavily rely on beta testing and public testing to bring things we missed to our attention. It’s technically possible, but it’s a game-design decision.

AB: There just seems to be very little reason not to down-scale players automatically when they enter an old world zone… unless you want to propagate ganking?

MK [Blizzard]: Some people see it as a reward. They spent time to become max level and become powerful, and then they go back to an area and say “You! You, creature! You did a bad thing, and I’m going to punish you for it now!” When you say down-level do you mean it more in terms of the content itself, or PvP?

AB: Both, basically. I did play Guild Wars for a few weeks before I realised that WoW is better in every respect–

MK [Blizzard]: Thank you.

AB:but the good feature there was that at max level I could always decide that I feel like doing something in the older areas, and it was relevant content from a gold perspective. Or I could mine things, or pepper in a couple of daily quests in every zone… not something for Warlords, obviously, but longer-term.

MK [Blizzard]: Like I said, it’s definitely something we think about because there’s a lot of content that players aren’t experiencing anymore. We tried to reinvigorate it with the Cataclysm, and improve some of the questing flow, and lost some stories that people might’ve felt unmemorable along the way. But it’s… if we would have known that a game like this would be running for tens of years, I think that probably would’ve been a consideration of the initial design, where content is done at level, or content levels with me. Like, Elwynn Forest might just turn level 100. That’s the other way that we could go.

DH: I assume that you’ve been sitting here today listening to a lot of questions and a lot of comments – or at least during this entire BlizzCon. Is there something that you’d like to say that no-one’s asked you yet, or a final comment that you’d like to make that’s maybe been on the tip of your tongue?

MK: What’s really important to me is that we’re about to launch the next expansion for the game. It is the best opportunity ever to return. There’s no excuse for… maybe you played vanilla and you play Burning Crusade, but you might’ve skipped a few. Just re-sub, get a level 90 for free, and play with your friends. Because, ultimately, that’s what an MMO is about.

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