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World of Warcraft’s first level designer John Staats on ‘WoW Diary’, Blizzard culture and more

Staats was instrumental in vanilla WoW’s development. He sat down with AIPT to talk about the game, his book, and more.

Blizzard released World of Warcraft Classic back in August, the original version of the enduringly popular MMO that has had players reliving their youths while experiencing what’s considered by many the pinnacle of the genre.

Just two months prior to that, John Staats released WoW Diary, a book that recounted his experience as a developer on the original World of Warcraft project. WoW Diary was funded on Kickstarter within ten minutes of its release, and it’s easy to see why: Staats has incredible knowledge and experience from his years on the WoW team, and his book is an unprecedented inside look into Blizzard’s development process that many never thought we’d see.

Staats was World of Warcraft‘s first level designer, and responsible for some of the most beloved zones and instances in the game. These days, he’s shifted his focus to tabletop games. His book is available on Amazon now, and you can read more about him on his website, whenitsready.com.

John was kind enough to answer some of my questions, which you can read below.

AIPT: In your book WoW Diary, you mentioned you immediately accepted a position at Blizzard despite their offer being lower than what you were making previously. What made Blizzard such a special company? What has made them different from the other game publishers out there for so many years?

John Staats: Blizzard makes quality games. Games are often buggy and unpolished. Blizzard had (and still has) an unbroken streak of releasing terrific products. I reasoned that if I were going to relocate and devote myself to a project, I wanted to be sure that it would be for a good game. I wouldn’t want it to suffer poor network code, crummy art, or dubious game mechanics.

I held the company in such high regard that I accepted their offer without knowing which game I was working on. WoW was so top-secret, the only thing they could tell me was that I would be designing and building dungeons, which is what I wanted to do. Working for a Madison Avenue ad agency (my day job) had a fairly low ceiling for waving a freak flag, so I entered the games industry when I had the chance.

AIPT: You worked on 90% of original WoW‘s non-instanced caves, crypts, dens, mines and hive tunnels, including many instanced dungeons and raids such as Scholomance, Molten Core, UBRS and Blackwing Lair. You also have a couple things in the game named after you, such as Staats’ Fishing Pole and worgen NPC John Staats. Is there anything you worked on and were happy with, but for whatever reason never made it to live servers?

JS: There were tons of things that didn’t go into every game, but there were usually good reasons why. We produced far too much content for Karazhan; it was riddled with crypts, cellars, and unfinished areas. We scrapped a couple raid dungeons after learning that remote locations could become an impediment to casual players. I was happy with the dungeons, but there’s no reason to spit out content that no one was going to see.

More often I regret not having changed or removed something. I would love to make Ragnaros’ room slightly conical; it would look and probably play so much better if the spiral floor sloped downward in the center. There could be cool mini-games of jumping inward to the next tier. The Wailing Caverns should have been broken into different instances, but we just didn’t know that would be how players preferred to play…bite-sized content in lieu of mega dungeons. I’d also love to cut out the last three rooms in Blackrock Depths too. These are just little things — in hindsight, we were close to the mark.

AIPT: The fruits of your labor are being played by millions once again with the release of World of Warcraft Classic. Are you surprised by the demand for Classic? Obviously WoW was a revolutionary game upon its release, but fifteen years and eight expansions later, why do you think the original, “vanilla” experience still strikes such a chord with players, even ones who didn’t play it when it came out?

Staats is immortalized in Azeroth as a worgen NPC.

JS: MMO content evolves over time, so later generations will miss out on experiences and events. It’s something veterans can always lord over newbies. I suppose everyone gets sick of hearing about the good old days. While I’m not surprised by WoW Classic‘s demand, I am surprised that Blizzard agreed to re-release the game. I still don’t know what they’re do after players kill Ragnaros 50 times (especially since he’s so much easier than modern raid bosses). Will Blizzard release the same old updates? Will they be modified updates? Since content and game mechanics are often married, will they release the same design “mistakes” as well as “successes?”

And this dovetails into another reason why I think veterans wanted to play WoW Classic. I bet they wanted more “world” in their World of Warcraft. Conveniences provide instant gratification, but they shrink the the game’s grandeur and integrity. For instance, making flying mounts faster than land-based steeds was a mistake. Fast fliers removed what could have been an interesting choice between taking a direct route or a more circuitous way at high speed…or a mix of two mounts to make the player feel like they’re “cheesing the system.” And on a personal note, I didn’t like enjoy saying goodbye to my kodo.

AIPT: While vanilla WoW was clearly a great foundation on which to build, as WoW has been going strong for fifteen years with no signs of slowing down, many systems have had to be revamped or changed completely to survive the many iterations of the game.

JS: Creative people are often iterative. Both old and new devs want to experiment or improve things. It’s human nature and is keenly felt in the software industry in particular. It’s why Battle.net, Facebook, and Windows keeps changing, even though the previous versions seem fine. Sometimes the changes are so sweeping, it takes longer to implement them than developers are willing to stay. Department heads sometimes inherit unfinished projects, and if they don’t share the vision of the predecessors (people rarely do), they abandon them to begin implementing their own solutions. If you believe me, just take a look at iTunes. Oi!

JS: How much thought did the team put behind longevity and extensibility when creating some of WoW’s features?

None whatsoever! We never talked about it. The game shipped with such a long wish-list of features, longevity was the least of our worries. We had so many ideas for content and systems, but we didn’t have time to develop them. This crazy workload was probably why so many of the original devs left. MMOs are everything to everybody. I ended my 300-page book on the observation that these games are infinitely expandable. I was one of the few original developers who thought there’d be 20 years of life in the game, and I’ll be the first to say we might see WoW Classic launch again in another 15 years.

AIPT: After World of Warcraft, you were moved to Project Titan, which was ultimately scrapped, but many of its assets went on to make up Overwatch. Have you played Overwatch? What, if anything, did you work on that made it to the final game?

JS: The only resemblance between the two projects were the engine and a few characters. Very little design seems to have survived, although I haven’t played Overwatch myself. It’s exactly my type of game too — I’m very good at shooters, but my hands ache after sustained computer use, so I curtail my computer use to productive endeavors. Given this Sophie’s Choice, I’d rather make games than play them; so I’m strictly a tabletop geek these days.

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