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An Interview with John Staats, author of “The WoW Diary”

We interviewed John Staats about his time at Blizzard, WoW's past and future, and how to get into the video game business. Staats took plenty of notes during his time working on World of Warcraft, which he's now put into a book, "The WoW Diary." He was nice enough to share those insights and some of that secret sauce that makes Blizzard games so long lasting.


An Interview with John Staats, author of The WoW Diary

Nobody knew what to expect of World of Warcraft (WoW) when it launched. Before WoW’s launch nearly 15 years ago, Everquest was the standard for the MMO (massively-multiplayer online) genre. WoW would change all that. This was all thanks to men like John Staats – WoW’s first 3D level designer. During his tenure at Blizzard Entertainment, Staats was shocked at how many misconceptions he had about video game design. So, he took notes! Four years worth of them, in fact. Now he has compiled them all into a book – The WoW Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development. I had a chance to interview Staats about the book, WoW, and video game design in general.

K: You took 4 years-worth of notes while developing World of Warcraft (WoW). When you decided to turn those experiences into a book, how much of those notes had to be redacted?

JS: The only thing I changed was removing a quote from someone that we couldn’t confirm whether they wanted it attributed to them, so I merged it with the rest of the book. Blizzard corrected me on a couple of details about things before I arrived at Blizzard, that was it. No other changes. Basically, they didn’t care, LOL.

K: Blizzard games enjoy an impressive longevity. WoW is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year! What keeps players invested in these games, even when they’ve stopped receiving updates (e.g. Diablo II, Starcraft)?

JS: They build games on proven gameplay and follow a formula of removing things that don’t work. This is an iterative method, and it takes lots of time, but it gives Blizzard devs the chance to cut the fat and pursue fertile ground when they discover it. Most publishers and investors don’t want to pay for this, so their game studios are hobbled.

One of the ways Blizzard is celebrating WoW's 15 years.

One of the ways Blizzard is celebrating WoW’s 15 years.

K: How involved is Activision with the formation, development, and upkeep of a Blizzard game?

JS: Not at all. We never saw them or prepared builds for them. We never implemented anyone’s unsolicited notes on our work. Blizzard has a hands-off policy with their owners and have kept it because it was always profitable, so suits were usually happy to ignore us. Activision may have commented on the material that our PR department sent them. Things may have changed since I left (but probably not).

That’s what I knew. I’m sure Mike Morhaime didn’t fill me in with all the gory details of what was going on with corporate communications, but whenever I asked him why the company made this decision or that decision, he was very forthcoming. BTW, Vivendi (who owns Activision) is the real boss, and they’re only concerned about finance.

K: What’s a feature in WoW, or just video games in general, that many players don’t even notice, but is vital to their enjoyment?

JS: The correct (and boring) answer is always network code.

Next to that is framerate, which can be determined by AI, inventory, UI code, texture usage, etc. But that’s still a boring answer.

A more interesting response, one that a 3D level designer may give you, is unit pathing. Pathing dictates how monsters or vehicles move. Can they jump or fly? Pathing also defines how to build things, which determines how an artist will create content, and knowing this beforehand allows the team to create content correctly, efficiently, and that’s what makes games fun, right? Pathing also means a game can be tested which helps designers implement and test their ideas. None of this can be done without a programmer blazing the trail.

Karazhan, one of Staats' raids, remains one of the most beloved raids over a decade later.

Karazhan, one of Staats’ raids, remains one of the most beloved raids over a decade later.

K: Dungeons are some of the most memorable parts of the WoW experience. Looking back, what’s something you wish you had done differently, concerning the dungeons of WoW?

JS: Building smaller dungeons would have been much better. We were creating play spaces comparable to Everquest dungeons, in which many parties of players would delve together. EQ dungeons needed to be huge, so we built massive dungeons (we couldn’t test dungeons until the last year or so of the project) because we didn’t know if instanced dungeons were the way to go. 

K: The heroes of Azeroth have been to so many locales. Under the sea, in the clouds, back in time, other planets, and, with Shadowlands, even the afterlife! How do designers ensure that each zone a player visits is unique and interesting?

JS: That’s done through concept sketches. If it looked interesting and different, and the monsters scheduled for the zone make sense, then we create the zone art assets for it and make the zone. It’s nothing fancier than that. We’d pull colors from the concept sketch and texture things accordingly. Boring zones were canceled internally, usually at the concept stage, even before zone sketches.

K: The Horde and Alliance have been at war for a very long time, yet they’ve had multiple chances to team up and, ideally, bury the hatchet (and not in each other’s back). However, each expansion finds a new reason for them to become hostile again. Is this because “Horde vs. Alliance” is a core mechanic to the game? How much does the story inform the game design, and vice versa?

JS: Story almost never informs game design. Game design almost always sets parameters for what stories can be told. Stories are the easiest, cheapest, fastest thing to create. Many creative people can tell cool stories working with kick-ass game assets. It’s creating the game assets and features–that’s the hard part. If someone makes and animates a dragon, you can bet the next boss in the lore will be a dragon!

In the Shadowlands expansion, players will be going to the afterlife! Let's hope they don't run into all those murlocs they slaughtered.

In the Shadowlands expansion, players will be going to the afterlife! Let’s hope they don’t run into all those murlocs they slaughtered.

K: When WoW released, it utterly dominated the competition. Furthermore, its design would become the standard for many MMOs to come. Did WoW take MMO design to the next level, or did it end up homogenizing the genre?

JS: WoW stole from it’s predecessors to be sure, every good game does. It’s the simple formula of fixing what doesn’t work and keeping what does. If everything works, there’s nothing left to do but clone a game; and cloning is rarely a smart investment unless you are delivering to a new audience. Everquest was the game that invented everything, and they just put a graphical interface on old multi-user dungeons (text-based dungeons) that were around for many years, so it’s hard to say whose design it really belongs to. If my feet were to the flame, the revolutionary leap was with the EQ team…but they didn’t know what to do with their bottled lightning, so Blizzard took the baton.  

K: Aside from education, what’s the most important thing someone should have on their resume when applying to work in video game development?

JS: Resumes mean very little. If you’re a veteran, it’s more important to have a reputation. The industry is so small, your renown is what matters.

For designers/programmers, it’s your ability to communicate and solve problems…and that’s all done through the interview and tests. For new artists/designers it’s all about the portfolio.

What studios look for, and one of the most surprising things you’ll learn in my book is, it’s VERY hard to find self-motivated employees who are willing to redo their work until it’s polished. 90% of people want to move on to the next project, and it’s a pain the neck to force people to redo their work until it’s done right.

We’ve all heard the phrase “passionate employees,” well, that’s what it’s about. If you care about perfectionism enough to put your own time into something, you’re a rare find. Most studios would rather see one professional-level art asset or codebase than a dozen half-finished projects.

K: Finally, and most importantly, I must ask: when are we going to get a Blackthorne sequel?

JS: Haha! Are you talking about the 2011 Sam Shepard flick? I haven’t seen it! I dunno, I’ll get my people on the phone, and we’ll shake some cages. I’ll get an answer to you soon.

Give us a sequel to your 1994 classic, Blizzard, you cowards!

Give us a sequel to your 1994 classic, Blizzard, you cowards!

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