Tuesday, November 1

Preview: Mists of Pandaria

PREVIEW: "I think World of Warcraft has changed," begins Greg Street. We're in a poky cubicle on the second floor of the Anaheim Convention Center in California. Below us, more than 26,000 attendees are taking in BlizzCon, Blizzard Entertainment's annual community celebration of its Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft franchises. Only 10 minutes earlier, Street was on stage presenting the game's new expansion, Mists of Pandaria, to thousands of fans from around the world.

Set on a pan-Asian-themed island that has been hidden from the world since the Sundering, Pandaria is a land inhabited by a society of Panda-like creatures. It's Five Deadly Venoms and Pokémon; it's Kung-Fu Panda and Confucius.

Street, known to players by his handle "Ghostcrawler", is the lead systems designer on World of Warcraft, and as such is intimately involved in nearly all facets of the game's development. If for long-standing subscribers Ghostcrawler's opening remark is a statement of the obvious, it's one worth repeating all the same. Before anything else, Mists of Pandaria is a response to change - one that plots a new course for Blizzard's billion-dollar leviathan.

Mists of Pandaria will include a single new race for each faction, the Pandaren, and a new class, the Monk. Originally conceived as an April Fool's joke, the Pandaren, who are equal parts convivial and contemplative, quickly gained cachet with fans of the Warcraft universe. "We did a poll asking what would you most like to see in World of Warcraft," said Street of how the panda-alikes evolved from joking concept art to headline act in a new expansion. "The number one feature was Pandaren - not even the number one race, but the number one feature."

Playing a Pandaren Monk through the initial 10 character levels and corresponding Pandaren starter zone demonstrates an experience that takes key lessons from prior expansions and more ably prefaces the new player's role in the world. An aspiring Monk under the tutelage of an ancient and benevolent kung-fu master, the player undergoes a play-by-play hero cycle as outlined by Joseph Campbell. As the wise old master goes to rejoin his forebears, the player is charged with adventuring forth into the world to ensure the future of the Pandaren. Before he or she can do so however, the Monk must choose between joining the Horde and the Alliance, each represented by old friends Ji and Aysa.

The mechanics of Monk gameplay is somewhat different to that of the other classes. Much like rogues, or the Assassins of Diablo II, the Monk must use combo points to perform specific finishing moves, and to build points, the Monk must use attacks that draw from a small but rapidly regenerating resource called Chi. As a result, each attack must be input by the player.

"Fighting games - console fighting games - are super-popular around the office, as they are with a lot of gamers," says Street. "To capture that martial arts feeling we really wanted that responsiveness: I hit a button, I see my guy do that. So we thought it'd be a little lame if your monk was just going around doing all that stuff without you hitting the button. So we're really trying to get that button-masher feel: I hit this I punch, I hit this I kick."

After years spent building, refining and, many would argue, lowering the narrowing ramp that led players to end-game raid content, Blizzard has instead decided to broaden its offering. If anything demonstrates that, it's that there is no new apocalyptic threat to Azeroth in Mists of Pandaria.

That's not to say raid content has been done away with. Mists of Pandaria will launch with three raids, and more will surely be added over the expansion's life cycle to satisfy the vocal demands of the game's most dedicated players. But as the expansion is to be defined by conflict between the Horde and the Alliance rather than yet another manifestation of Armageddon, raiding will now be the only true way to shape and engage in the game's latest narrative.

"We're really trying to give players lots of different things to do, so they can log in on any night and say, 'I'll work on my pet battles,' or 'I'll try to beat my time on a Challenge Mode dungeon,'" continues Street. "I think in Cataclysm we gave players a reason to log out. Even raiders: they raid Tuesday night then log in on Wednesday and say, 'Well, there's not really anything for me to do. The raid is done, I don't really need any loot from a dungeon and I don't want to PvP.' They were done."

Challenge Mode dungeons are a recalibration of the heroic dungeon concept. Inspired by Stratholme's "45-minute Baron runs" in pre-expansions World of Warcraft, these instances will focus on speed and teamwork.

"You'd run a normal dungeon, then run a heroic dungeon, and then you'd run a raid," explains Street of the typical gearing cycle in previous expansions. "As we were getting more and more players into raiding, and as we made raiding more and more accessible, we realised that we were making the normal dungeon really easy, then really hard in heroic, then relatively easy at the raid, and we were just losing them at that point, and they felt like they couldn't get the gear they needed. We asked ourselves: what are those hard dungeons really serving? They're just a barrier to entry. But they're also a lot of fun, and having that challenge where you have to use all your abilities perfectly with just a small group is really cool."

To ensure that players are unable to out-gear the Challenge, their statistics will be normalised. Scoreboards will keep track of the server's best, and rewards will include gear without any statistics that can be transmogrified to customise a character's appearance.

Mists of Pandaria's Pet Battles are directly inspired by Pokémon: companion pets are rife throughout the World of Warcraft, but lack any real purpose beyond vanity. "We know it's popular, and we thought it was a great way to leverage existing content," explains Street. "We had all these pets in the game but they didn't do much, and we wanted to offer some more things for players to do that weren't directly related to player power."

Most of the pets players already owned will be included in the new system. Players will name and train their pets, or sell them on the Auction House. Pets acquire skills and can go into turn-based battle with others' with a three-skill load-out.

There will also be "wild pets", which can be discovered and defeated before being added to the player's collection. To add some exploration, luck and patience to the system, some wild pets will have especially unique spawning conditions. Some may only spawn in the rain, or in spring, or at night, or in a specific area - or all of the above, enthuses Street.

The popularity of digital collectibles in Asia - and indeed the Asian theme of the new expansion - also suggests that World of Warcraft is increasingly looking to include and cater to those markets in the future. World of Warcraft is still by far the most popular subscription-based MMO in the world, but with highly anticipated MMOs on the horizon in the West - from both other publishers and from Blizzard itself - figurative and literal expansion in the East is a logical progression for World of Warcraft.

Mists of Pandaria looks set to provide a unique experience for both emerging players and those returning to sample the ever-changing world of Azeroth. Expect it in 2012.


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