Whole New 'World': Designer Discusses 'Warcraft' Expansion

New package focuses on bite-size chunks of content so gamers can live their lives.

Monday was a national holiday, but Jeff Kaplan had to go to work.

He's the lead game designer of "World of Warcraft." National holiday or not, the biggest addition of new content released for the most popular massively multiplayer game in America was going on sale. An expansion pack called "The Burning Crusade" would allow players to venture across massive new plots of land and play two new races. Gamers who had spent months maxing their characters to the former Level 60 ability limit would now be able to crank things up to 70. And Kaplan had to be in the Irvine, California, office of "WoW" developer Blizzard Entertainment to make sure the "World" didn't come crashing down.

At 3 p.m. PT, Europeans were allowed into the new areas. "That was an exciting and nerve-racking moment for us because that was the first real test of how things were going to go. Our initial reports were excellent. No major mishaps happened." Blizzard employees in Europe began sending Kaplan's team videos. "We got this great video of the Champ-Élysées in Paris and the crowd that showed up for the midnight signing and thought, 'Oh my God. People are really excited about this game.' "

Six hours later, Kaplan was at Universal CityWalk in Universal City as the game launched in the United States. Fans spotted Kaplan and asked for his autograph. As is often the case, they had a special demand: "They didn't want me to sign my actual name — 'No, no, no, I want you to sign "Tigole" on this.' " Tigole is Kaplan 's "WoW" alter-ego.

CityWalk includes giant screens that on Monday night were showing videos of "The Burning Crusade." "I actually worked at Universal Studios in the story department as an intern when I was in college, and I used to go to CityWalk for my lunch break and always felt so small and beneath it all," Kaplan said. "To go there and see our game that we worked so hard on featured there was a really special moment."

After a long night and with only three hours of sleep in his system, Kaplan showed up to work at Blizzard on Tuesday and got on the phone with MTV News to discuss the expanded game and his hopes for Blizzard's MMO future. Once a game developer has shipped a product, 'tis the season to reflect, to dream and to tease.

To reflect, Kaplan explained that "Burning Crusade" was designed so that at least some people could sleep. "World of Warcraft" is a famously time-consuming game, a schedule-altering passion that many players get lost in for hours at a time regardless of the demands of significant others, work schedules and a good night's sleep. But "Burning Crusade" was structured to ensure players could get some rest.

"One of the core tenets of 'WoW' design philosophy is to not design around super-long extended-play sessions," he said. "We really focused on the winged-dungeon approach." That means they've made areas designed for players to quickly get in and out, knocking through one 45-minute wing at a time. "We felt that gave people the option of doing a bite-size chunk of content on their own time, and should they choose to take four or five bites in a night, that's kind of a personal decision."

"Burning Crusade" has been in development for more than two years, since before the original "World of Warcraft" shipped, Kaplan said. During that time, no American MMO has outpaced or even sniffed the dust of Blizzard's runaway success. The company now claims to have 8 million "WoW" subscribers worldwide. But while "Burning Crusade" was receiving its polish in 2006, the massively multiplayer non-game "Second Life" came close in matching buzz.

The malleable, blank-canvas, user-generated approach to the "Second Life" online world allowed users to dream up wild places and events, the kind of un-proctored brewing that makes for good press (see "Why Walk? Virtual Walkathon Helps Raise Money For Cancer Research" and "Are Virtual U2 Concerts Even Better Than The Real Thing?"). Did it also give team "WoW" any ideas? "I think it's amazing what 'Second Life' has become, and I love some of the ideals they've embraced," Kaplan said. Those ideals allow users to shape the world they're in. "World of Warcraft" sits at the other end of the spectrum: Its world is entirely engineered by Blizzard's designers.

Kaplan describes "Second Life" as a "great case study" for his team to watch. "Obviously some of the elements of 'Second Life' at this point couldn't be integrated into a game like 'World of Warcraft.' It's a very different system, and it would probably be a shock to that system. But should we ever work on a future project that was similar, there's a lot of lessons we could learn from that."

Would he want people to someday be able to create their own "World of Warcraft" races? "I don't think that would work for 'World of Warcraft,' but that is not to say I don't think it could work in a game similar to 'World of Warcraft.' " One challenge, he said, would be to make sure that the best user-created content — likely the minority of stuff made for the world — would be front and center, the first thing a new gamer would experience.

Kaplan and others in the company have become quick to tease future MMO work from Blizzard. "We would love to revisit our 'Starcraft' or 'Diablo' universe at some point," Kaplan said, referring to other fan-favorite Blizzard series. New worlds are options as well. "There's a lot of really bright and creative people here who would like to stretch in some new directions as well."

How about a "World of Warcraft 2"? "I think right now our focus is just going to be developing more content for future patches for 'World of Warcraft,' and of course we'd like to discuss having another expansion on the horizon. Whether or not we do a sequel to 'World of Warcraft,' we're definitely interested in exploring more of the MMO space. I don't think that has to be a sequel to 'World of Warcraft.' I think 'WoW' has tons of room to evolve."

Then how about a "World of Warcraft" for a Wii or PlayStation or Xbox? "We are not anywhere close to being on console," Kaplan said. He wouldn't even surmise how such a game would compare to the computer version. "It depends on if the console folks were playing on the same service as the PC folks."

Even lacking so much sleep, Kaplan wasn't ready to reveal the big secrets. But he could entertain some relatively smaller ideas. Many gamers enjoy making movies out of recordings of their adventures, mishaps and group dance routines in "WoW," but they are required to use outside programs to capture and assemble the footage. "We don't have an in-game video capture tool, but that is something we are extremely interested in," Kaplan said. "It's definitely one we would like to pursue."

Another small but potentially profound concept for "WoW" is player-generated housing. Gamers don't have a room of their own for their characters to live and decorate right now. This matters to Kaplan, who is a big fan of "Animal Crossing," the Nintendo franchise centered around cultivating a home and sense of unique, personal space. "I think housing can take 'World of Warcraft' to the next level," Kaplan said. "I want to make sure that when we introduce player housing to 'World of Warcraft' we do it right and give the feature the credit that it deserves, which is a massive amount of production time on the programming, design and art time. It's something we actually wanted to do for the original shipping game." But it's not coming, he said, until it's a "Blizzard-quality feature."

As to another hot topic, the Sword of 1000 Truths, an ultimate "WoW" weapon featured in "South Park" last fall, was never in the original "World of Warcraft." It was briefly dropped into the beta version of "Burning Crusade." Is it in the final product? "No, it's not currently."

Recently, influential MMO designer Raph Koster raised the question of whether MMOs are as fun as they should be or if they depended too much on the innate joy of doing stuff with friends (see "GameFile: Future Of Online Worlds; Playing 'Halo 3' Early & More"). "I absolutely agree that an MMO cannot depend on other players to create the fun," Kaplan said. "The fun needs to be innate to the core game mechanic."

Understandably, Kaplan feels his game stacks up. "We can take somebody and place them in a newbie zone all by themselves, and they'll have a good time. They'll level up. The combat is fun. The pacing is good. The rewards are good. Without a doubt, the fun needs to be there. But if you look at some other MMOs and strip the players out of the equation the game isn't fun anymore, and I think that's a core reason why some of those MMOs haven't been as successful as 'World of Warcraft.' "

Kaplan is confident, if not quite rested. But once the team gets some sleep, there's more to come.