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Developer Interview with Brian Birmingham on Classic Season of Mastery
31.01.2022 um 16:00
Wowhead had the opportunity to speak with Brian Birmingham, Lead Software Engineer for World of Warcraft Classic, asking questions about Season of Mastery, updating old raids, and community concerns for Classic Era realms.
Brian Birmingham, Lead Software Engineer, World of Warcraft Classic
Season of Mastery
Wowhead: Who is the target demographic for Season of Mastery? Most of the biggest vanilla fans (that played on private servers) do like world buffs and are what are often referred to as “dad gamers”, that aren’t necessarily looking for sweaty difficult raids.
: We talked about this a lot leading up to Season of Mastery, and there were actually two different groups, with one thing in common: that they liked Classic but had criticisms about our initial “no-changes” release.
The first group was a vocal one. During all of our raid releases, following Classic’s initial release, they would ask for us to disable, disallow, or delay world buffs on the current raid. In essence, they were chasing an authentic experience rather than an authentic set of rules. 15 years ago, most raid groups didn’t stack world buffs for raids, and this group of players remembered that experience and wanted to re-live it.
Expanding that group a little, there were some people who complained with each release that the raids were too easy—that they were already “solved.” That was exactly our intent with Classic, of course, but their feedback was still valuable. They were communicating a desire for a harder, or at least more interesting raiding challenge in the Classic environment, and we wanted to deliver that.
The second group were players who enjoyed the sense of exploration in Classic, but after playing for a few early levels, quit the game and didn’t come back. They’re less vocal, so we had to work a bit harder and dig for that feedback. We asked around to find some people in that category, and they generally expressed a feeling that it felt like it took too long to level, and they were getting left behind.
We worked to find a way to accelerate their leveling a bit, without speeding up the fastest levelers as much, and that’s why we settled on additional quest XP. Speed levelers certainly do quests, but they have a carefully optimized route that does very specific quests often on the way to AoE grinding spots. So, by leaving the XP from killing creatures alone, and instead boosting quest XP, and to a larger extent dungeon quest XP, we hoped we could accelerate the experience for players who are playing the game “normally” as it were, without as much of an acceleration on speed levelers.
We also deliberately wanted to invite the “ironman” community to try the game. We were excited by this group of players who had long asked for an in-game way to verify the fact that they had never died, and one of the challenges in other versions of the game is that we weren’t always tracking deaths on characters in those other environments. The start of a new set of servers for the season gave us an opportunity to guarantee that we had all their deaths tracked. That’s been a little bit of a mixed bag for our other groups. It’s been pretty exciting to see that group take on the challenge, and their excitement at being recognized has been fun for us to see.
Wowhead: When looking back at the decision to move Dire Maul, Dungeon Set 2, and the Honor system at launch, does the team still feel like that was the right move? Many players have chosen to just ignore Molten Core and focus on PvPing for gear.
: In general, yes. Our goal was to give people more options for gearing at the start, to match the faster raid introductions, and we accomplished that. Having PvP gear as an option certainly helps in that regard, and we always expected that people who were willing to devote a lot of time to PvP would choose that route. That’s not for everybody, though, as it still takes a significant time commitment, and only the top participants earn the highest ranks.
If you look at highly dedicated players who devote a lot of time to the game, such as streamers, it’s really no surprise that they’re able to earn the top ranks and get excellent gear from PvP, but players who are trying for Soul of Iron, for example, can’t use that route, because PvP deaths would ruin their run, and that’s why we made the other gearing options available early as well.
That’s not to say that we’ll always make the same decisions with any potential future seasons, but overall, we wanted to give players lots of options for early gearing, including through PvP, and we’re happy to see that players were able to earn it.
Wowhead: Speaking of PvP, Alterac Valley has such high honor per hour in comparison to the other battlegrounds, that at one point in Season of Mastery for North American Realms, there were 15 AV games open, and 0 WSG and 0 AB. Is Patch 1.5 Alterac Valley completely off the table for future Seasons?
: I’d never want to rule anything out entirely. It wasn’t highly advertised, but we did roll back some of the latest changes to Classic Alterac Valley in Season of Mastery. There were a large number of NPC guards that were removed in the original 1.11 patch, and we re-enabled those guards with the start of the season, because it was a low-effort way to try to move the needle back in the direction of earlier Alterac Valley versions. We know the dream of 1.5 Alterac Valley is something a lot of players are excited about. Frankly, we are, too. But it’d also be quite challenging to accomplish. The changes to Alterac Valley across all the content patches were pretty extensive and were connected to other systemic changes, such as battleground holidays, so we’d have to plan out what to do with those related systems at the same time. It’s something I’d like to get to, but we don’t have any immediate plans for it, and if I’m being honest, I don’t know if we ever will.
In terms of the rewards for Alterac Valley, I suspect a large part of the draw was also the excellent reputation rewards that are available at exalted reputation, such as Don Julio’s band. Even if you aren’t planning to reach a high PvP rank, the reputation rewards for Alterac Valley are amazing, so it doesn’t surprise me to see a lot of focus there, especially early on.
Wowhead: The Honor system is one of the most outdated systems in Vanilla and the team faced some challenges with updating it to be double Ranking Point rewards in Season of Mastery. Is the Honor System something the team will revisit or change in future seasons?
: It’s always on our radar. It was probably the most controversial thing that we resurrected for both technical and design reasons. From a design perspective, it’s always been an oddity that it essentially makes you compete against your own faction. There’s something kind of cool about that unique aspect of it, but that doesn’t keep it from being odd, and driving weird behaviors.
From a technical perspective, it’s unique in how it runs, and how we deploy changes to it, which is why we had trouble updating it to run double honor. We resurrected the original scripts and they’re unlike our modern PvP systems, so our deploy process wasn’t what we were used to, and we made a mistake. Fortunately, we had already updated it to have better logging about its actions, which made it easy to detect the error and correct it after the fact.
For now, we’re happy to leave the unique design, and slowly modernize the technology behind it, but I wouldn’t totally rule out the possibility of future changes. We’re finding a lot of freedom in the seasonal model to try new things and see what fits and what doesn’t, and its certainly something that’s come up more than once. I think the big question is, what would we replace it with? If we come up with something we want to try, a new season might give us a chance to do so.
Developing New Content for Classic
Wowhead: When updating a Classic raid for Season of Mastery, what is the development process like? What challenges does the team face updating 15 year old raids and trying to “keep it classic”?
: Initially it was pretty ad hoc. We kind of had an idea that we might like to try new boss mechanics, but we were wary about introducing a bunch of changes to an audience that had historically been opposed to them. I think many of us had ideas brewing in the backs of our minds, but we were sort of holding ourselves back from proposing anything too radical.
Initially, we focused on what actually made the bosses mechanically easier in Classic’s release than they were when they first came out in 2004. The biggest mechanical change wasn’t to the bosses themselves, but to the power available to players. We focused Classic development on the 1.12 version of the game data, and that had the most polished and up-to-date talent builds, and the best gear itemization, which overall contributed to players having much more power than they did when Molten Core was first released.
So we started by saying, “What if we just increase the health of the bosses to offset the dramatically higher DPS that players are able to muster?” We imagined that higher boss health in combination with disallowing world buffs would keep players from blowing up the bosses and would allow the bosses to demonstrate their original mechanics.
When we showed that on PTR, however, players were quick to say that this was not what they expected. They were directly asking for new and interesting mechanics, and we all lit up at the possibility of trotting out all our cool ideas. We initially started by brainstorming ideas and proposing ways to counter various “cheese” strategies, and sort of made a rough list of what we were thinking about each boss. Then we reviewed it with a wider audience, got some feedback on things that maybe felt awkward or out-of-place, and collected more suggestions for mechanics that already existed but which aren’t often seen, and how to highlight them. Finally, our designers divided up the work, made tweaks to try them out, and we previewed those versions on PTR to a much more positive reception.
To try to keep things feeling like Classic, we try to relate them to existing mechanics or abilities. For example, the change to Magmadar is to have him spawn core hounds while you fight him. The core hounds work just like the core hound packs you fight leading up to him, so the mechanic is familiar, and feels like it fits, but isn’t something you’re used to having to do while you’re feared and trying to maintain a tranq rotation on the boss.
We also try to use existing art assets. We have the ability to modify the way art assets appear in game, or position them in new ways and new places that can give them a whole new meaning, but they’re the art assets that were in the game at the time, so they have that same sort of visual fidelity that makes them feel like they belong. It’s a challenge sometimes to re-use art and make it look good in its new placement, but constraint can often lead to better designs. In our revisions to Razorgore, which are coming out soon, we initially added a drake that had 5 different line-shaped breath attacks, one for each brood color. But frankly, the red one was the only one that looked any good at all. All the others looked terrible when drawn out as a line, and that caused us to experiment with having the other effects be something different than a line attack, such as an icy patch that froze people, or a speed buff on the adds, which I think led to a better design overall.
Wowhead: Is there ever a concern that updating these old raids might make them too difficult? For some players, the difficulty to defeat these bosses doesn't always add up to the gear that drops, so they are discouraged. For example, killing Chromaggus (using many greater protections potions) and then only seeing a
: Difficulty tuning is certainly on our mind. One of the things I think is a distinguishing feature of Classic is this feeling of place, where a raid feels like a thing that exists as it is, instead of as a tunable difficulty setting you dial up and down. While its nice in modern WoW to be able to select the difficulty level you want, Classic’s single difficulty presents an aspirational goal. If you can’t do it yet, you have an incentive to rise to the challenge.
But we’re also aware that for many, the challenge wasn’t the point—it was the social aspect, so we want the fights to be interesting to learn, but not impossible to execute. We want the casual groups to feel like they CAN do it, while hanging out and chatting with each other on their favorite chat program. We just don’t want them to be able to do it while they’re asleep at the keyboard.
I think we’ve done a good job hitting our difficulty bar so far, but as we get into the later raids that were harder to begin with, I think we’ll have to be more careful. For those, we’ll have to walk a tight line if we continue to make changes, so they’ll be interesting, but not exceedingly challenging.
Warcraft Logs DPS Rankings
in Naxxramas on Classic Era realms
Wowhead: It is common knowledge that melee are far superior damage dealers in comparison to their ranged counterparts. Many players suspect that some of the new boss changes are being designed in a way to be specifically “anti-melee”, is this the development team’s way of “balancing” the classes and is this intentional?
: Yes and no. We’re aware that melee are strong damage dealers, so when we’re developing new boss mechanics, we do try to avoid anything that exacerbates that problem. If we introduced a mechanic that hurts ranged, for example, we might ask, “is this just going to make them bench all the mages?” On the other hand, a mechanic that hurts melee more is probably more likely to make the cut. But in neither case do we want something that makes you bench an entire role. We want all the fights to feel like you ought to bring a mix of both ranged and melee, and to feel like some fights give your melee a chance to shine, while others give ranged the spotlight. It’s a hard line to hit, though. Hopefully everybody feels like they’re valuable to their raid, and has a chance to show off what they can do.
Wowhead: Many of the new fights have the community ecstatic, this is basically a dream come true for real vanilla fans. Is there ever a chance that there will be a completely new raid or dungeon developed for Classic in a future Season? What many players refer to as “Classic Plus”?
: I think this is probably the biggest unfulfilled hope from Classic fans. We had a lot of passionate “no-changes” fans, and I think they were broadly satisfied with our initial release. Then there were really two big groups of proponents for what we could do after that: the Burning Crusade fans, and the Classic Plus fans. We were really torn between both approaches after we first released Classic. I wish we could just do everything, but there are always more ideas than we have time for.
Wowhead: Recently there was a mass player ban for multiple issues, the current honor system encourages players to play obscene hours (and people consider using automated bots) and the increase in difficulty of raids has many more players participating in Real Money Transactions for gold (to buy consumables). Are these issues something the team is aware of and what can be done for future seasons to prevent this?
: We are aware of players using botting software to automate gameplay, and buying gold for real money, and I have to stress that both those behaviors are against our terms of service.
Now that we’ve increased the penalties for gold buying, which increase rapidly for repeat-offenders, we’re starting to see some of this behavior diminish. We do make an effort to reclaim the purchased gold as well. I never want to declare victory in the fight against botting or real money transactions, because it’s a never-ending arms race, but I am cautiously optimistic that our recent efforts are helping.
We are also considering what changes we can make both from a technical and a design perspective to reduce the incentives and catch the bad actors, but it’s a complicated problem that doesn’t have a single easy solution.
Classic Era Tournament Realm
Wowhead: Speaking of consumables, for some Classic Warsong Gulch enthusiasts, the
is WSG. Unfortunately, to play the game at the highest level players need hundreds and hundreds of Free Action Potions, Goblin Sapper Charges, Rocket Boots, and so on. This can make it very difficult for community events to take place as well, requiring hundreds of players to amass large quantities of consumables just to play. Would it be possible for the developers to create a Classic Era Tournament Realm, where players can create premade characters and buy consumables for Warsong Gulch matches?
: I think this drive to create and collect consumables is part of what makes Classic special. Free access to unlimited consumables on a tournament realm is exactly the kind of convenience feature that I think is antithetical to Classic.
We want you to see your character as a real person in a real world doing what they need to do to live their best life, and if you (and by extension they) want to compete at the highest level of Warsong Gulch matches all day, you need to figure out how to get your consumables fix. The risk of running out, or the hesitation to use one because they cost money, is something we want you thinking about as you play. If they were meant to be unlimited, they wouldn’t be consumable items in the first place. They’d be class abilities.
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