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GameGeex - Game Geex interviews Mists of Pandaria lead producer We sat down with the Jon LaGrave and asked the hard questions about WoW's next expansion.

You know your life is good when you find yourself sitting in an office at Blizzard Entertainment across from Jon LaGrave, lead Game Producer for Mists of Pandaria. I got the chance to ask him a few questions about what we learned last week, and brought the answers back for you to enjoy.  We start out by talking about other games, because it always fascinates me to know what game developers play when they can just be gamers.  Going through this I have to wonder, who was interviewing whom?

Hit the jump to read the interview and learn more about this mist-erious expansion.  Warning,  it's a long one, but worth it to find out not only how Blizzard keeps the game fresh, but also how they were inspired to create the Pet Battle System.

Game Geex:  The first question we always ask is, what games do you play in your spare time?

LaGrave: Well right in my spare time now I'm playing Star Wars: The Old Republic.  

Game Geex:  What do you think about it?

LaGrave: Well, I'm enjoying it. I've got a level 27 Maurader and a level 25 Bounty Hunter.  I don't have a lot of spare time.  Life intrudes; work intrudes, but I've enjoyed a lot of what they've done.  There's some really cool storytelling that they're doing. What are you playing in your spare time?

Game Geex:  I don't have spare time.  I'm expecting my first baby in September, so when I'm not working on the site I spend most of my time sleeping.  Art is playing through Uncharted 2 right now, and I'm so glad I didn't give up on it just because it's an older title. We wanted to experience the whole storyline before we got into the third game.

LaGrave: Yeah, you are Indiana Jones.

Game Geex:  It is brilliant.  I wish my dad could see this game because I think he would really enjoy it and it would give him a better sense of what gaming has really become since he doesn't really understand what we do.  

Our next question is talking about the length of WoW as a game.  EverQuest had seven years before SOE launched the sequel EverQuest II, but WoW has reached eight years with no sequel in sight.  You have no plans for a sequel, and you're still rolling out expansions for the first game.  How to you plan to address the issue of player fatigue so that they keep excited and stay playing?

LaGrave:  Well that's an excellent question.  Yeah, when do we reboot WoW.  I'll channel Mike Morhaime:  We reboot WoW everyday.  So the attitude is this -- and this is the great thing about working at Blizzard, I'm so blessed -- We get to do whatever we want.  We have smart people who look at what we do and say 'are you sure you want to do that?'  But we get to sit there and say, "Is this interesting and fun for us?"  I play WoW; I've been playing WoW since the start, I raided last night. We have a bunch of gamers that play our game.  It's a very unique situation in that we have developers that are fans and gamers.  

So how do we keep it fresh?  We keep it fresh because we want to keep it fresh for ourselves. We want it to be interesting.  What's entertaining?  Is it entertaining to have your pet fly up and follow you around?  Yeah, it's funny, and they do all sorts of crazy animations, and you have one called Mini Thor he goes up and flies around and does all sorts of neat crap and that's great too.  How about if we added it in so that your Mini Thor and Lil Kel'Thazud could fight?  Well crap, that would be fun too.  The way we keep it fresh is that we look at what we're doing and ask 'are we having fun with this?  What would also be interesting?'  Like I said, we're very lucky in that we have a group of gamers that own us, that are saying 'Yeah, that sounds like fun too -- we think that's a great direction to go in.'

So WoW 2.0?  Yeah, not happening.  WoW Expansion X?  Absolutely.  Take it where you want it.  Is it enjoyable? Yes.  Does that fail?  Then throw it out and do something else.  

Game Geex: How will 85 to 90 feel compared to 80 to 85 as far as leveling is concerned?

LaGrave:  The questing, and Dave talked a little bit about this, the questing is going to be a lot less linear.  So one of the very valid criticisms of Cataclysm, and one of the things that drove me nuts because I level lots of alts, is that it was 'Find this guy who's phased,' and there's a bug in phasing and you can't find him so you're stuck and you're putting in a ticket to find the guy.  You're doing that for your third character and you know it's bugged and you hate that quest and you're doing everything you can to avoid that quest to get past that point. So one of things that we're absolutely doing in our questing is making it a lot less linear.  You can go ahead and do another quest hub.  It's not phased out so you can't do it, it's not invis'd so you can't hit it. So that's going to be very different.

I did something very strange that probably no one else did, in that I actually leveled my mage through Archaeology from 80 to 85.  People leveled characters through the Looking for Dungeon system as well.  Some of those things are still going to be available -- you'll still be able to get your experience from doing your fishing dailies or what have you.  Those different dailies are still going to be there, and you'll still get experience for it, and you'll still get experience from increasing your Archaeology.  But literally the questing experience is going to be a lot less fixed, a lot less on rails. 

Game Geex: You mentioned non-linear.  Are there other aspects of the game that are being focused toward more open gameplay?

LaGrave: Well you could argue that the world PvP is more open gameplay, but it really isn't because you have to be at level 90 before you can be part of it so you would absolutely have to be there before you experience that.  The dungeons really aren't -- I mean we're going to have more dungeons and all that kinda stuff.  But not really, it's really in the questing where you have more flexibility.  And then your daily, what you do at level 90, that will be more open.

Game Geex:  This was covered in the presentation, but I would sure love to get more information:  Cataclysm obviously shook the old world in Azeroth quite literally.  How much will Mists and its subsequent patches affect the old world?  

LaGrave: A lot less.  That's a great question. We are focused on experience that new continent, right?  So there's not a giant dragon erupting out -- and I've revealed this now -- erupting out of Pandaria that's now going to affect the rest of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms.  That's certainly not going to be the case.  Deathwing coming out and that eruption was our chance to redo a bunch of bad zones, a bunch of bad quests, actually make it flyable -- all that stuff.  But that's not happening in Pandaria.  Pandaria is really about exploring the new continent, choosing that new race and that new class, and having that experience.  It's really not about 'oh now there's no Thousand Needles.'

Game Geex: So this would be more like The Burning Crusade or Wrath  in that it's a satellite expansion where you go off and explore and then return to Azeroth?

LaGrave: Yeah, it is like going  to Northrend, but the nice thing is that this is more adventuring than Northrend. Northrend was a known quantity in that you knew Northrend from whatever -- from WarCraft III, you knew that storyline at least in part from previous exposure to games or novels of what have you.  Pandaria is new. Pandaria is for adventurers.  We didn't call it Mists of Pandaria because it was all clear, right? You're going into a world that you haven't explored before.  You are that player that is going in there to see what is this new place, who are these races, and see what the Horde and Alliance do to this land. 

Game Geex: Since Wrath and the Death Knight starting area, and moving on toward the Goblin and Worgen, and continuing on to the Pandaren starting area we've had this definite design decision to have a more linear story that introduces the players to the culture of those races, but at the same time it cuts off the players from others for X number of hours. Is there an option to skip this starting content for those who have gone through that storyline once?

LaGrave: No, but it's a good question.  One: We're comfortable with isolating players for a few hours.  Two:  New players need the isolation.  It's very important that you, at level one who has never experienced World of Warcraft before, have a very gentle experience to the world.  That's why we don't let you get PvP'd until level 10 no matter what.  There's a lot to learn about WoW.  People say it's a very simple game -- that's pretty naive.  It's actually pretty daunting to people who are not experienced gamers. We want you, that player, to come into the world and say 'What does that mean when there's a giant yellow exclamation point over a guys head? I don't know what a quest bang is. What do I do?'  We tell you in the tutorial.  'Oh you have to left click on that guy.' We need to do that because we can't assume you know what is going on.

Now you the very experienced player, do we look at you and say you have six level 80s, or six level 85s or whatever, should we let you skip the experience?  Well no, because we have egos.  We have designers that say 'I'm trying to tell you a story.  I'm trying to explain to you why Pandarens wander the world -- why they all don't just stay on the island.  I want to tell you that story, and it's important for me and my ego to let you know these are the things that I've done, and I want you to experience them.'  So that's why we don't let you sit there and just hop.

That may seem contradictory because you say 'But Jon, what about Scroll of Resurrection?' Well we look at the Scroll of Resurrection as this:  You have experienced World of Warcraft. You have chosen for whatever reason to stop.  Fine. But we expect that you meet certain criteria to receive the level 80. We don't want to take the naive player and just give them a level 85 character.  You won't know how to play the  character, you won't know what's going on. You will feel overwhelmed and everyone will make fun of you in your LFD, and they will sit there and mock you mercilessly.  We want you to experience those things.  The Death Knight was great -- you had to have a max level before you could create your level 55 Death Knight, and now we want to tell you the story of why you, the gnome, can become a Death Knight.

Game Geex:  Let's talk a little bit about the class design changes and the talent system.  Can you talk about the changes in design philosophy between Cata to this new expansion?

LaGrave:  I definitely want to recommend you talk to Greg Street about that.  Ghostcrawler will give you a really good answer, I'm going to give you a very superficial answer.  We're redoing the talent system again, we're streamlining it because of the fact that it is too cookie cutter.  I love the notion -- and we'll see how it works -- that you're gonna sit there and you're going to choose a talent and you're going to decide 'You know for this boss fight it's better at this tier to have this talent.' And take your Clear Mind Tome and wipe it out and replace it.  Now that's interesting.  That really does mean that you're not cookie cutter character, you're somebody that's saying 'As a Holy Pally I need this not this, and I'm different.'  In this case less is more.

If you look at the original talent system and it was all about 'Let's give you lots of choices.'  That was flat out the case.  In the end you're like 'I don't know what to do, I have no idea what's the best way to go. So I will go on that website and get a build.'  And it didn't encourage you to experiment by having that many choices. I think it's awesome, I really do. We'll see how it plays out.  We've had so much "success" with talent systems -- and I put success in quotes -- it's certainly a better way than we have now.

Game Geex: I definitely want to talk to you about the new Pet Battle System and why that is being added to the game now as opposed to earlier or later in the scheme of things?

LaGrave:  Well a couple of reasons: We didn't have this in the books six years ago that we were planning for.  Pet Battles, the idea came up about a year and a half ago.  And Pet Battles is involved.  It's involved enough that we don't want to just stick it into a patch.  We're taking a realtime game and put a turned based system into it.  We gonna add AI so that if you want to play  the computer the Pet Battle system responds well.  We're going to set up a queuing system so that if you two wanna pet battle you can do that -- you can teleport into a spot in the world and do your Pet Battle.  We gotta create a Journal where you can store all your pets and decide how your abilities are and what you swap out.  We've gotta sit there and devise the system of wild pets and decide how we want to exactly have the qualities of a random pet and what makes them reasonable.  That takes a lot of work and requires a lot of iteration, so if you put that into a six week PTR are you going to nail it?  Well maybe, but probably not.  So we look at this like as an expansion feature.  It makes sense to put this into beta and get people to give us a lot of feedback.  We benefit vastly -- and I don't maybe it's recognized -- we benefit vastly from our beta player base data, you know, letting us know what's working and what's not working.  There's a lot of startling revelations in beta.  

So that's what we're doing now.  We didn't know. We didn't have this sitting in Wrath or Burning Crusade and saying 'Hey we're going to do Pet Battles.' We certainly looked at pets and said 'Hey those are cute, let's do this with them.'  And then Dave Maldenado who is an awesome designer -- he created the Darkmoon Faire -- he's a very funny, fun human being.  And Dave who is always like, 'Hey, you know, you have the Murloc Space Marine.  Wouldn't it be cool if when you get the Space Marine and the Zergling together they fight?'  We looked at that and said 'He did this a while ago and it really makes a lot of sense to do that, and you have 150 pets and I have 120.  Let's do it.'  So it's that kind of idea, it's been germinating, the idea's been there, but really having the fleshed out idea hasn't been there until recently.

Game Geex: Has there been any discussion on this feature being Kid Friendly?  The presentation mentioned that there won't be emphasizing losing at all and it seems a much more casual feature.  

LaGrave: It's a lot more casual; Tom talked about it as well.  When you're queued up in a pet battle you're not going to be able to see that you're facing player X and they can't say all the crappy stuff  that players say to each other and garbage.  So it is a lot more Kid Friendly, but for me it's a lot more player friendly because I don't like being yelled out.  Sometimes it's necessary, and maybe I should be yelled at, but maybe not so much in a friendly game.  This is a game where my panda cub and your zergling are fighting and they beat eachother up and maybe you got lucky or chose better set of skills, and so you won.  And it doesn't make you a better person, it doesn't make your character a better character -- it's just a fun thing to do. So for a younger player it should be a pretty enjoyable experience.

Game Geex: And our last question:  If you could erase one item, feature, or quest from WoW what would it be?

LaGrave: What's the most annoying thing in WoW?  That's a great question.  What do I really dislike?  There's so many.  So last night we were fighting Hagara at the top of Wyrmrest -- this is stupid.  And we've done the fight before and you know you get the electrical charge and we have to discharge each of the amulets around.  For whatever reason -- and I'm raid leader so it's really my fault -- we're moving too tight as a pack and we're not removing the electrical charge.  And I'm calling for everyone to move tightly, so it's really my fault.  Really, the thing I would like to remove that experience, that would be ideal, since we wiped like twice and it was directly from my fault.  

There's lot of things, like there's been quests that were frustrating in the past.  I used to hate group quests, and it's the great thing about Scenarios is that we've removed group quests. And what we have not is scenarios.   Group quests sucked.  You just sat there at level 60 and you had fifteen of those things and you were like 'Well if I could ever get people together with me we could do that.' And then you had ten player group quests, do you remember those nightmares? Like in Eastern Plaguelands? 

Game Geex:  Yeah Blightcaller, and Araj, that was the other one.  We always used to do them with like six people when we weren't supposed to because we couldn't get the full group.

LaGrave: Well what would you remove?

Game Geex: I didn't come up with an answer.  Well particularly playing other MMOs and then coming back to WoW, you find an ease of gameplay because so many clever design decisions have been made along the way.  And then a lot of tweaks that have been added, like Cataclysm, or the mail system, or I remember having to fly from point to point to point.  It's like adding an elevator when you had to take the stairs the entire time.

LaGrave: Linking the flight points together so that you can fly from Undercity to Kargath.  That was HUGE!

Game Geex:  it was amazing. Definitely a life changing experience. Or the Dungeon Finder.  Although I did like being able to walk to those places yourself because that is an experience in itself.

LaGrave: There's plenty of arguments for going back to walk to those places.  And I'm a big Have-Group-Will-Travel fan, but I understand why they say 'Hey, it shrinks the world, it doesn't let you understand where things are in relation to the story to be told.' 

Game Geex:  I finally thought of one.  The revamp of Alterac Valley.  I loved those six hour battles because I felt like I was in WarCraft.  You're at Snowfall and charging up that hill and it takes two hours to get that flag.  And then all the grinding you're getting to get your crystals to summon the boss -- I love it.  

LaGrave:  You are perfect for having a child because there is a lot of pain in that.  If you saw the code to AV.  It's so complicated and so awesome.  We've done three major revisions to AV.  If you ever saw the scripts.  There are whole blocks of code that we say 'Don't touch this because we have no idea what it does.'  There is such a desire to clean that up but I don't think it will ever happen.

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