When World of Warcraft's fifth expansion pack, Warlords of Draenor, releases on Nov. 13, it's not likely to have perfect balance. There are going to be some new elements that could break certain player-versus-environment encounters or lead to frustration in the player-versus-player game. But developer Blizzard isn't just alright with this reality — it's downright excited by it.
"We're looking for things that are going to happen randomly in the world. That's our favorite part of World of Warcraft," designer Cory Stockton explains to Polygon in an interview. Stockton is the lead designer on Warlords of Draenor's new garrison system, one of the biggest additions to World of Warcraft with the expansion and the source of many of the items that have a good chance of producing surprising and unexpected effects.
The story of Warlords of Draenor involves the heroes of World of Warcraft journeying to an alien planet and an alternate reality to stop an invasion of Azeroth. In order to fight back, the players can't just mindlessly quest through Draenor — they need to actually set up a base of operations. Enter the garrison system, which has players making choices about which buildings to set down and upgrade.
During our talk, Stockton focuses on one of the garrison's buildings: the goblin workshop (or, if you happen to be a filthy Alliance player, the gnomish gearworks). This engineering-centric building is full of a bevy of mechanical toys, such as grenades, jetpacks and a "power gauntlet" that allows you to push back anyone standing in front of you.
Stockton puts it more clearly: "These items were designed to break the rules."
He describes one of his favorites of the toys that the workshop makes available: the nuke. "If you've played StarCraft, you know how the ghost can paint a point on the ground, and it does a big countdown on the screen," Stockton says. "This one does 500,000 damage. It's super crazy." To offset the potential of such a devastating weapon, the nuke can only be used once a day. But Stockton and crew still expect it to be used in ways they haven't figured out yet.
"These items were designed to break the rules"
"People make choices and cause crazy things to happen," Stockton says. "It's those kind of water cooler moments. We know some of this stuff is going to break, and we know the forums are going to explode about how this is the most overpowered thing, but really across all the buildings we've done stuff like this. It's crazy stuff that we've never done before."
In fact, Stockton says Blizzard never would have even considered adding things like this to the game earlier in World of Warcraft's life. "I think as a part of dealing with a game that's almost 10 years old, we've got to continually add fresh things and break our own rules occasionally," he says.
Of course that also means Blizzard has to be prepared to fix these powerful new items at a moment's notice if exploits are discovered. That's where World of Warcraft's greatly improved hotfixing capabilities come in. "We have a hotfix system where we can change anything in the game instantly and have it pushed to a server," Stockton says. "We don't have to wait for patches or anything like that."
Some players may wonder why Blizzard would introduce items they know could break the game if they already have intentions of quickly fixing said items at a moment's notice. According to Stockton, this is the direction that makes the most sense for making players happy.
"You can't really go in the opposite direction," he says. "If you introduce items that are underpowered and say, 'Well, we can buff this later,' at that point, most people that already think it's shitty are just going to think it's shitty. They're not going to go back and look again."
Blizzard's openness to trying new and weird things with Warlords of Draenor is also served by the elegance and complexity of mechanics the studio has been polishing for almost 10 years now. It has options open for balancing that simply weren't available when the game launched.
"We can make any item in the game deal different damage to PvP targets versus PvE targets," Stockton says. "We can make it have a different cooldown on a PvE target. As long as we think about that stuff beforehand, we can design things that will work in both situations."
As for the future of garrisons, Stockton expects them to be supported and developed throughout the lifespan of the Warlords of Draenor expansion pack. Currently garrisons can be upgraded from humble beginnings to a max level of "tier 3." Stockton tells Polygon that Blizzard could add a fourth tier, or it could just add new buildings, or it could add more levels of upgrades and toys for current buildings like the workshop. The developer is exploring all options as it begins work on content patches for the new expansion.
And beyond the expansion?
"The way we've really looked at the garrison feature is that the technology and the things we've developed will benefit us long-term," Stockton says. "For example, the concept of followers and sending followers on missions — that could be implemented in a number of ways that don't have to be through the garrison. The idea of a building — we could do something in a different expansion where we let you build a building at a random spot in a zone and that would offer you a benefit. Maybe in every zone you could build a unique building. It doesn't have to be a big base full of stuff."
The garrisons themselves have been created with the specific circumstances of the Warlords of Draenor expansion in mind, so it's likely they'll be abandoned on the strange world they were built on. However, they'll hopefully provide a strong foundation for future World of Warcraft experiments — and more room for playfulness and surprise in the long-running MMO.