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Interview with John Staats, First-Level Designer for ‘World of Warcraft’

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with John Staats, first-level designer for the launch version of World of Warcraft.

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The first iteration of World of Warcraft, often called “Vanilla WoW,” has a strong pull of nostalgia for many fans. From inspiring countless other MMOs, to imbuing an entire generation of players with memories that they will never forget, to inspiring Blizzard to re-release it earlier this year, Vanilla’s footprint is undeniable.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to John Staats, a first-level designer on World of Warcraft‘s initial launch, to discuss his recent book, The Wow Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, which chronicles his own personal experience with developing WoW‘s initial release.

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In a lot of ways, The WoW Diary reminds me of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. Both books address the challenges of game development, including the incredible amount of hours that game developers work and the dreaded “crunch” when a project has to be delivered on time. Your section on how your colleagues described their work on StarCraft was particularly interesting. What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about how developers work?

The biggest misconception is how expensive developers are! Most publishers and studio heads are always portrayed as the bad guys, but the truth is there’s so much risk in game development, it’s just insane. If a company is upfront about long hours, then I see no problem with longer hours to some point. Unfortunately, the law isn’t so flexible. After WoW shipped, we dropped to capped 40-hour weeks (mandatory) and it sucked. Everything was so schedule-conscious that we stopped experimenting.

Studios are all different. Some people asked if unions were the answer, and they might help in some cases, but they would make other situations worse. There would certainly be fewer games out there without crunches. I dunno. I’m from Akron, Ohio. I’m just happy to have worked in the entertainment industry!

As a developer, even at somewhere like Blizzard, fan feedback seems like it’s able to affect team morale. In the book, you mention a few cases of this. What was it like to work under the pressure of fan expectations?

World of Warcraft feedback wasn’t nearly as bad as Warcraft III, because the company was too quick to promote their first 3D title. Making a 3D game has such a sharp, painful learning curve that engine re-writes caused long delays. The fans were unfamiliar with the long waits associated in making 3D games, so they were especially angry.

The class designers definitely had it bad on World of Warcraft. People never post when they’re happy, the forums are usually very negative. And there’s strange “voodoo” where people report glitches or errors that aren’t really there. There’s a LOT of voodoo reports that designers need to verify, and that eats up their schedule.

Kevin Jordan once joked that he was going to claim to be a character artist at the launch party signing table, just to avoid being drawn into discussions about rogues versus shaman duels. For the most part, WoW was so much better looking, better playing, better running than the competition, we had it easy. Still, we put pressure on ourselves: for the most part, the fans were pretty cool.

World of Warcraft

You state in the book that you got your start in modding computer games on the PC. Did you have any prior experience with other game systems, or was your only experience with the PC?

PC only. I was actually a Macintosh user exclusively because I was in advertising in NYC. I bought my first PC in the mid-1990s. As a Mac person, there weren’t many games available (thank you, Steve Jobs), so I only played a few titles on my roommate’s machines. They always had to kick me off whenever they came home.  When I got my own, I relentlessly played FPS and strategy games.

One of the more interesting comments that you make in the book, and one that I was curious about while reading, was the following: “Writing stories is so easy it seems nearly half the people in the industry want to do it[…] it’s unreasonable to expect players to follow a storyline, detailed or subtle.” Do you think games are ever capable of delivering complex and subtle stories, or is it beyond the medium’s scope?

I honestly doubt stories will become more subtle for most genres. Most games pull the player’s attention to non-story elements like socialization, user interface, goals, and combat tactics. Looking for things is rarely fun. It’s just too hard to expect the average player to follow nuanced stories… and you never want to risk players becoming confused with your plot.

You use the phrase “computer games” throughout the book instead of the more commonly used “games.” Was there a semantic reason for this?

Ranchers and farmers are in the agricultural industry, they have a completely different set of concerns.

There’s a huge difference in developing computer games versus console games. It’s so much easier to make games for a console. They’re far more predictable, and optimized for specific types of games. Developers are influenced by all kinds of games; pen-and-paper RPGs, tabletop board games, card games, handheld devices… and all of them are very different to produce. I didn’t want to lump everything into the “games industry.”

You mention early on that you’ve suffered “a neurological problem in [your] hands that hinders [you] from using a computer for significant lengths of time.” Given the increasingly interconnected nature of modern society and how much time you spent on computers during your career in the games industry, how hard was it to adjust?

I played FPS games before I became a level designer. I played up to 14-16 hours a day when I had the time. That’s without stopping, BTW. I would eat leftovers between matches. I was nuts.

John Staats World of Warcraft

Blizzard and Nintendo have always seemed like analogous companies to the outside public. Both spend large amounts of time and money crafting games that have long-standing appeal and excellent quality. Both don’t worry about winning the public relations war and, instead, depend on the endemic quality of their games to do the talking for them. Did anyone ever make that comparison inside of Blizzard?

It was a very conscious effort to avoid distractions. There’s so much temptation for some people to jump into every conversation, there was a company-wide mandate to keep your mouth shut. We had Bill Roper for our spokesperson, and if the public thought he personally made all our games, that was fine with the developers (he wasn’t even a dev!). This lets every member of the company, as a whole, take credit for the collective products. Other industry developers will weigh in on every conversation, and journalists will seek out the same developers for opinions. On top of the risk of crossing wires with the company’s official opinion, so much exposure could create jealousy.

At one point in the book, you mention that an acquaintance of yours, Scott Hartin, had worked making console games in Japan and hated it. Was this a common complaint among those who had worked in Japan?

He’s the only person I know who’s worked there, and it was something he said in passing. I thought it such an interested idea, that different cultures tend to work in different ways. Who knows? Perhaps it might have just been the studio he was in, that made them work that way.  

Ragnaros and the Molten Core raid have emerged as a large part of the lore surrounding the vanilla release of World of Warcraft. It’s also something that you mention receiving compliments from fans about. What part of Molten Core are you the most proud of?

I’m proud that we ninja’d it into the shipping game without the producers having it on our to-do list! It was a passion project Jeff Kaplan rallied people around. I’m glad he did. We were working on so many bugs after we shipped, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to update the live servers with a content update like MC.

As a historian, having an oral history of one of gaming’s largest and most influential games is an incredible resource. In the beginning of the book, you say that you struggled with compiling your development diary because, to a large degree, you were afraid of underrepresenting some of your hardest co-workers. In the end, why do you think more oral histories, such as your book, aren’t published?

I can absolutely tell you it’s because the author needs to take notes. I can’t do a sequel to The WoW Diary because I stopped taking notes after we shipped. There’s just no way, I’d get everything wrong, or release a bland, broad-strokes version of how things went down. That’s where my book stands out, the details make the story vivid.

 

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Blizzard released WoW Classic back in August. What are your thoughts on it?

I’m surprised they did. No one has ever done something like this before. Redoing someone else’s work doesn’t sound like a fun project for developers, who are in nature, creative people. It just isn’t fun to walk in someone else’s footsteps. I’m also keenly interested to see how it plays out. Do they relaunch expansions? Does it affect the retail version? I honestly don’t know, but my popcorn is ready!

Blizzard has been criticized recently for their communication with players. How different does it feel when you are on the corporate side of that relationship?

No one is criticized when your games stink. LOL! Seriously though, complaints never stop, so it’s never a big deal. Whether it’s about lawsuits or controversy, Blizzard usually takes the high road, and disengages from distractions; it lets them focus on what they want to be known for… making good games. I’m glad to see they’re still doing this.

Final question. As something of a hardware nerd, I’ve got to ask, how did developers handle the rapidly progressing technology of the late 90s and early 2000s, when Moore’s Law was in full effect? 

Blizzard games sell well because they target low-end systems. Most studios weren’t, and aren’t, smart enough to realize this. Most studios want to be the first kid on the block to have a shiny new feature. While the industry chased after expensive features that narrowed their audience to customers who had top-end computers, the savvy companies focused on the low-end machines. To answer your question, Blizzard avoided the Moore’s Law trap.

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A big thank you to John Laats for agreeing to be interviewed and providing us with a review copy of his book. If you’re interesting in learning more about John Laats, his work, you can find him at his website.

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

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