Insider: The Honor System was introduced more than a year ago, on April 19, 2005. What did you write in your diary when the Honor System was first released?
Tom Chilton: I'd say that I definitely recall being very anxious, very nervous, wondering how it was all going to play out. We knew that it was probably going to change the way people played a lot. It was probably going to get a lot more people to PvP than were doing so regularly, because there weren't a whole lot of reasons to do it before, other than just for its own sake. We figured that the amount of PvP was going to go up quite a bit. We didn't know exactly how, and as it turned out there were massive raging battles across the world the next day when we shipped it, probably to the extent where it was concentrating too many people in one place. It was definitely very chaotic. So I was pretty nervous, but it was very exciting, and a lot of fun to watch.
I: I remember there were some PvP hotbeds when the PvP system was first introduced. Did you foresee those forming?
TC: We figured there would be some hotspots, but it was hard to predict exactly where. Even before we launched the Honor System, Tarren Mill and Southshore were hotspots already for the people that were PvPing, along with the Crossroads, so it wasn't any big surprise that those flared up more. The sheer degree to which they flared up was pretty surprising, but it was also interesting to see. It was pretty crazy actually playing in, too. I remember you could run up to Southshore or Tarren Mill, and you wouldn't really see what was going on, no players would load into the screen. And then, bam, they'd all load in at once and then, you'd die within a couple of seconds. It was pretty crazy.
I: When the PvP system was first released, it became one of the two pillars of the main end-game content for World of Warcraft: one being the PvP content, the other one being the raid game. At the time the PvP content was introduced, the only raid content was Onyxia and Molten Core. That content has progressed a lot since then. We now have Blackwing Lair, we have Zul'Gurub, Ahn'Qiraj 20 and 40, and we just recently released Naxxramas. How do you see the raid content of World of Warcraft influencing the PvP content?
TC: Well, they're very much intertwined. Any time you can get loot from a raid that will affect your chances to be successful in PvP, they're inevitably going to be mixed in with each other, and for the most part I think that's a good thing. We know that there are a lot of players out there that want to PvP and don't necessarily want to raid, and we try to support them as much as possible through the PvP item rewards.
Something we've also done in patch 1.11 is increase the quality of those rewards that you get, trying to keep up with the inflation from the raid zones. That's one example where they are directly interrelated. If we'd had the PvP rewards at the balance that they are today, back when we first launched the Honor System, they would have been viewed as incredibly overpowered at the time and the perception would have been that you had to PvP in order to be successful and that raiding wasn't viable. It's one of those things where we're always trying to keep the balance going back and forth. And I think that both as a player and a developer, the game is more enjoyable when you mix up your activities. I find that I very much enjoy both going on raids and PvPing, and I really would like to do things to encourage more players to do both.
I don't think players will be able to expect to gear up only by doing PvP. They might be able to gear up a lot of the way by doing PvP, but they'll be slightly better off if they also do a little bit of raiding or do end-game instances.
I: So do you think that the main way of balancing this is through rewards or also maybe through offering different kinds of gameplay in PvP content, like for example in Arathi Basin, where being the one who deals the most damage isn't necessarily the key to winning the battleground?
TC: Absolutely. At the end of the day, people are very reward-motivated, and I think that's what drives people to do what they do. The battlegrounds themselves and the design behind the battlegrounds are meant to keep that entertaining, to mix it up a little bit, keep it organized, make it feel like there is a reasonable chance for a player to succeed in any kind of fair match-up. We want to make sure that all of our battlegrounds have a different feel to them: they have different objectives, our outdoor world PvP objectives that we're going to be introducing will have different feels to them, and I think that it's just a question of building in more content so that in that process of going after those rewards which the players want, they feel like they had a good time getting there because they did a whole bunch of different things to get there.
I: Speaking of playing in the battlegrounds and giving every battleground a slightly different feel, you've done a lot of testing on the battlegrounds, and then you've implemented them, and then you and your team actually get to play these battlegrounds in a live environment with live players. Playing these battlegrounds in a live environment, what were the lessons that you learned, and how are those lessons influencing what you're doing with upcoming PvP content?
TC: We've learned a lot of lessons on a battleground–by-battleground basis. Each battleground has been different with what it's taught us, with what has worked and what hasn't worked. I've certainly experienced them very much like any other player. There have been times I've played in pick-up groups and gotten mowed down by the organized teams. Other times I've gone in there with my guild and done very well, and there are other times I've gone in there with my guild but been beaten by the better geared guilds. So I'd say it's a very typical experience.
At the same time, there's always something to be learned for each battleground with the mechanics themselves. In Alterac Valley, we learned that it was very easy to cross the line and have NPCs impacting the battleground too much. In Warsong Gulch, we learned that you have to spread players out as much as you possibly can to keep all players from concentrating on just one place or having one focal point. In addition, we learned in Warsong Gulch that it's very easy to come out with nothing, it's easy to get blanked there and have nothing to show for it. You come out after a pretty long period of time, and that feels bad. In Arathi Basin, we've learned that the mechanics there might lend themselves a little bit too much to just trying to squeeze off a capture on the flag or that key flag defense and that might influence the battle too much versus actually controlling the points of interest themselves.
These are things that we'll just keep carrying on in our learning. I wouldn't say that any of them have been flaws to the point where the battlegrounds haven't been successful. All the battlegrounds have been very popular--we've seen a lot of use on the battlegrounds, and I've had a lot of fun in all of them myself, too. But there are always things you can continue to improve on, that we can do better.
I: Have there been any very general insights that are not really specific to a single battleground but just general things where you see that, okay, this works, and this doesn't work?
TC: Well, battlegrounds need to be objective driven, and that's the core driving philosophy. Everything that happens in a battleground has to be directed toward that final objective of winning the battleground. One example would be Alterac Valley-- we had a lot of side quests that weren't really directly related to winning the battleground. They were tangential, and those things tend to detract from the overall gameplay. A lot of that was because some of the early design thinking when we were building Alterac Valley turned out to be very different from the direction we ended up going with battlegrounds.
I: I remember that at first, battlegrounds were not really intended to be instanced, but more like world playfields?
TC: Right, exactly. When we originally started designing Alterac Valley, we weren't thinking of it as an instanced zone. We thought that you might cross a portal to get into it, but everybody would be going to the same place. The portal would only be there to kind of indicate to you that you're going to be PvP flagged in here and people will be able to attack you. That was really the only reason for that. So we designed Alterac Valley thinking that it was going to be much more like just a normal WoW zone with different quests to do, and you would go there just to try to get some of the rewards out of the zone that you couldn't get anywhere else.
But we headed toward more of the instance concept because we realized that we just weren't going to be able to effectively control how many players showed up and whether there'd be too many or too few, or anywhere in between. We realized that we were just going to have to instance the battlegrounds and turn them into a mini-game of their own. But at the same time, we've found that during that process you have to make sure that everything in a battleground goes toward that final objective. We actually tried building a battleground internally once, called the Gurubashi Catacombs (we spoke a little bit about it at BlizzCon), and that battleground didn't actually have any objectives outside of killing the opponents.
I: Like straightforward deathmatch.
TC: Yes, pretty much straightforward deathmatch. And that in and of itself can be interesting in its own context, but it actually doesn't feel like a battleground. It feels more like a sport. So it didn't really lend itself very well to the whole Horde versus Alliance match-up. That was one place where we learned that objectives are very important. With our upcoming Arena System, we do anticipate doing this sort of deathmatch, catacombs kind of gameplay, and we're actually going to build that up quite a bit, but it's going to be its own separate environment.
I: So there is an Arena System planned?
TC: Yes, one of our major features for the expansion that we're just now talking about is the Arena System. It's essentially a system of gladiatorial combat where players are going to be able to go into arenas in teams of two on two or three on three or five on five (at least that's what we're planning to start with) and duke it out on a ladder-based system to get some pretty cool rewards.
I: So will that be mostly within one faction, or will that also be two teams coming from different factions against each other?
TC: In this case, you can actually have Alliance teams fighting against Alliance teams and Horde teams fighting against other Horde teams. It really makes sense in the context of an arena of gladiatorial battles. It doesn't really make as much sense in the context of a battleground, where it's very much Alliance versus Horde.
I: That's cool, so that goes kind of in the direction of a shift from quantity of PvP to quality of PvP?
TC: Yes, exactly. I think that what we're doing with the PvP system in the expansion is very holistic. We're changing the way the Honor System works to be more of a non-competitive grind so that it's something that you can work toward over time. You'll still be able to get honor points in battlegrounds and from outdoor world-PvP objectives, and from outdoor world PvP in general. You'll be able to get honor points which you then spend to get rewards, but once the expansion comes out, it's not going to be a ladder. There won't be any decay involved – it will be a lot more like an experience system. At the same time, we want an arena, we want a forum to be able to do competitive PvP, and we want to make sure that competitive PvP isn't just a time-grind. We want to make sure that it's skill-oriented, so that's where we're going to focus with the Arena System. We're going to try to make sure that the Arena System will require some kind of time investment, but very light compared to grinding away to the top honor ranks in the old Honor System. With the Arena System I think we can expect to see more of a chess-like rating system involved, and we'll see plenty of players that spend some of their time, maybe 10 to 15 arena battles per week, in order to climb to the top.
I: That's interesting. Speaking of a chess rating system, does that mean that there will also be some sort of automatic matchmaking to make for balanced and even teams?
TC: That's definitely one of the key features for our new PvP improvements. In the Arena System, we'll be matching players up based on their rating, matching teams up based on their rating more specifically. I think it's a very important part of the arena concept that you actually form your team ahead of time, a lot like you create a guild. You'll form a team, you'll maintain your roster, and based on who you have on your team, you're going to be able to go into the battles. Let's say for example you create a five-on-five team. You can actually have more than five people on your team, so you‘ll have benchwarmers! [laughs]
At that point you'll be able to go into arena battles, and the rating is for your team as a whole. Based on the success of your team you're going to get arena points that you can then spend to get rewards. This is different from the Honor System in that the Honor System is still very individual. We're also going to be doing some matchmaking in the battlegrounds. We're going to be taking the approach of trying to match players up in a battleground in more of a fun format. Players that are really well-geared will fight against other players that are well-geared, while players that are disorganized and not as well geared are going to fight against other pick-up groups. As much as possible we're going to try to refine that matchmaking system, and this is made possible by our cross-server battlegrounds, which is a new feature that's going to be coming out soon in our next patch.
I: Can you talk a little bit more about the cross-realm battlegrounds, just to tell us how that works and what players can expect from that new feature?
TC: Sure, absolutely. More than anything else the cross-realm battlegrounds are designed to create more opponents. What we call the "bucket size" gets bigger--the bucket size of players to play against. Right now, on any given server you have anywhere between no battlegrounds of a certain kind going at off-peak hours to possibly two, three, four, five battlegrounds of that type going when there are more players online. So rather than having these significant spikes, where sometimes you can't even find a match on your server for a certain battleground like Alterac Valley, when we combine players across a whole bunch of servers and put them in the same pool, it's much more likely that at any given time for any battleground you'll be able to find other players to play against, even for your level range. This is going to be especially noticeable for players of lower level who are still leveling up and like to do the level 30 to 39 battlegrounds, for example.
Our cross-realm battlegrounds will give us the ability to increase the pool size, and by increasing the pool size we can be more picky about what team fights against what team. For example, if there are only two teams that are in a battleground queue today, before cross-realms, we really don't have a lot of choices about matching them up against each other. If one of them happens to be a very good, raid-geared team and the other team happens to be a pick-up group, our only other option is to not have a battle, and we figure that people would rather have a battle than not have a battle, so we go ahead and put them together. The system can't be very picky. But once there are a lot of players to choose from, once there are a lot of teams to choose from, we can start to be more intelligent about how we put them together.
I: One thing I wanted to ask about, going back to the Arena System, you were talking about the teams. How persistent will these teams be? Will those be just like guilds that persist over longer periods of time, or like groups that you form and then disband?
TC: It's really up to the players themselves. Much like with guilds, you can create guilds at just about any time, you can join them, you can leave them, you can decide to join a different guild. It's going to be similar with arena teams. You'll create your team, you maintain your roster, you can decide to kick people off the team if you're the team captain, you can add other people to your team, other people can decide to leave your team and join other teams, etc.
I: So it will be completely parallel to the guild system?
TC: Exactly. There are a lot of very strong parallels to the guild system. In addition to the team system, we actually expect the Arena System to have the concept of seasons. You'll fight your arena battles over a period of several months, and that will be one season. And at the end of it, the season will reset and then at that point players start again from scratch and try to fight it out for the next season and try to get the rewards for that season. Using the seasonal system also gives us a perfect opportunity to introduce new rewards to the system. For example as we add new end-game instances or add new raids to the game, it gives us the opportunity to say, "Hey, this is a really good time to add some more powerful rewards to the Arena System!" to make sure the players are able to keep up with that.
I: The concept of seasons obviously begs the question, will there be a Super Brawl?
TC: Well, potentially. Certainly our producers of our tournaments are very interested in capitalizing on the Arena System to put together major events like that. But that's something that we'll have to wait to see how that turns out, but it definitely lends itself to that possibility.
I: You've also mentioned another feature of upcoming PvP content, the objective based world PvP. Can you give us a little breakdown of the objectives that you plan to introduce in the next patch, and also talk about your goals and your wishes for this brand new type of PvP content?
TC: One of the things we found when we introduced the battlegrounds was that it vacuumed up a lot of the PvP that was happening in the outdoor world and moved it into the instances. That is good in the sense that it creates more fair match-ups. The matches in Arathi Basin for example are usually 15 on 15, or close to it (at least most of the time), with players of similar level, which you can't guarantee in the outdoor world. It had good effects in that sense, but at the same time it doesn't feel as meaningful or as tangible as outdoor world PvP does.
Something we want to do is try to better balance the amount of PvP that's happening in instances versus the amount of PvP that's happening in the outdoor world. The only way to do that, really, is to incentivize the outdoor world PvP a little bit better and at the same time incentivize it in such a way that it doesn't create the kinds of problems that we had in the past with outdoor world PvP. Those problems included too many people concentrated in the same place, of varying levels, varying types, and a lack of any kind of resolution or objective. For example, back in the old days of Southshore versus Tarren Mill, players would fight it out for hours and hours and hours until they just finally got bored and stopped, and nobody really felt like anything was accomplished. We want to make sure that we tie that all together nicely and give players clear objectives so that it feels like a mini-game of its own. With patch 1.12 we intend to create some outdoor world PvP objectives in Silithus and in Eastern Plaguelands.
We actually plan to have slightly different gameplay between both of these zones. For example, what we're currently planning with Silithus is a capture the flag-like kind of gameplay. In Silithus, we're going to have resource nodes that we call Silithyst, and players will be able to pick up these resource nodes. It'll flag them for PvP, and then they'll try to run back to their base in that zone in Silithus, the same base where you get your field duty, and turn that in. When you turn it in, you'll get a buff that applies to being in that zone, and in addition it counts toward your team's total turn-ins. Once your team has turned in enough of these different resources, then your entire team will get a buff for that zone.
So for example, let's say I'm out there killing Twilight's Hammer guys for encrypted twilight texts and I see a resource node spawn. I might go over there and say, "Hmm, I don't know that anybody sees me, so I'm going to pick it up and try to run over to my base." In the process of doing that, some person on the other faction might see me running along and say, "Oh wow, I'm going to take a shot at that guy!" He'll be able to potentially kill me, or maybe I'll kill him. If he gets me, then the resource will drop, he'll be able to pick it up and run it to his base. Hopefully it'll encourage spontaneous PvP to happen and give people tangible rewards for it, a small amount of bonus honor in addition to the buff that you get. If enough people on my team turn in enough of these resources, we'll have a buff the entire time we're in the zone. Maybe we'll get a 5% damage boost anytime we're in Silithus or in Ahn'Qiraj, which is directly related to Silithus. It gives you an incentive to fight for your team and share in the success of your team in general.
I: So those buffs will also carry into the instances that are adjacent to the zone?
TC: Exactly. We intend for those benefits to carry over into the directly related instances.
I: How is this world PvP content that you're planning different from, for example, your original thoughts on the way you wanted Alterac Valley to play out?
TC: They're actually very similar in some concepts. The only difference was that the designs for Alterac Valley were more ambitious because we were building the entire zone to be PvP oriented. We had built in these large bases with lots of different NPCs, and the entire objective of the zone was to destroy the enemy base. That may be something we do in the future in one of the expansion zones, but I guess what we're doing in Silithus and the Eastern Plaguelands isn't quite as grandiose as that.
I: So you're basically trying to keep it simple and to keep it fun.
TC: Exactly, because we recognize that whatever PvP gameplay we introduce into those zones, it has to play well with all the PvE gameplay that's in those zones. It can't be disruptive.
I: So what about the PvP objective in the Eastern Plaguelands?
TC: We're planning a series of objectives around the towers in Eastern Plaguelands. Some of them are a little bit ruined, like the human white towers. There are four of them at different points, and players will be able to capture those towers just by being near them. Essentially it works a lot like Arathi Basin in that by being in the area, you have a chance to capture that tower. It's a slightly different mechanic in that with Arathi Basin you actually have to click on the flag and interact with it for ten seconds before it actually flips over to being captured for your side. In the case of Eastern Plaguelands, you're just going to have to be in the general area, and the more players you have in the area of that tower, the more quickly it'll switch over to your side. Once you capture all four towers, it'll give you a benefit for the zone. Capturing each individual tower will give you a more localized benefit around that tower.
I: Like you said, you're one of the lead designers of World of Warcraft, but you're also just a regular player. How do you experience the battlegrounds when you're playing in them, or just regular PvP. Do you find it easy to switch from developer mode to just regular player mode, or do you always have that nagging developer in the back of your head going, "Oh, look, you need to fix that"?
TC: There's always definitely that nagging developer in the back of the head that says "You need to fix that," although at the same time it's interesting how easy it is to be motivated by the in-game rewards. I still play it very much like a normal player does. I'm always trying to get better equipment on my characters, I'm always trying to advance myself somehow, trying to win that battleground, etc. But it's nice knowing that when I see something that feels broken, there's something that can be done about it. It also helps me stay in touch with the player base because, like a lot of other players, I'm part of a guild. I hear people that are in the guild saying, "This particular aspect of the game feels screwy, and I really don't like how it works," etc. If I hear that enough, it's very easy for me to say to myself, "You know what, I think this is really something that needs to be improved or changed."
I: Another thing that you do as designer is the talent review of the classes and some of those other things that keep the game alive, things where the game keeps growing, evolving through time. How do you plan to keep the PvP system and the PvP rewards up to speed with the development of the rest of the game? How do you plan to keep them valid and interesting?
TC: We plan to have avenues to add new PvP rewards to the system. With the Arena System, we can do it through the seasonal concept. Potentially anytime there's a season change or every couple of seasons we might introduce a completely new set of rewards players can get. The same goes with our revamped Honor System. In the new Honor System, as you gain honor points and you spend them on rewards, we'll be able to introduce new rewards to the system at any time. It's really pretty clean: if players got points saved up, then they can get those rewards. If they have been spending them along the way, then they might have to save up a little bit more until they can get the new rewards. But I think that it should give us the ability to keep those rewards very much in line with the rest of the end-game.
I: After about one year of the Honor System being in place and all the experience you've had with it, can you tell us a little bit about your general vision for the part you'd like the Honor System to play in World of Warcraft in one or maybe two years time?
TC: That's definitely very difficult to say. Obviously my answer two years ago would have been pretty different than it is today. Today, I see that we don't want to have a PvP system that is both competitive and a grind in the same system. What we're doing with our new PvP features is we're trying to make sure that we separate anything that is a long-term achievement from a competitive system. We make sure that those are basically separate systems entirely. I think that hopefully, this is going to be something that holds up over time. We're always still learning, we're always still exploring new ground and seeing what players do with the system and seeing what works and seeing what doesn't. But hopefully this is a system that can hold up and stand the test of time.
I: Also, with battlegrounds, they are very popular, I guess that's a fact that can't be denied, but is there anything you would wish to accomplish with the battlegrounds beyond their current scope?
TC: Eventually we'd still like to see battlegrounds get tied more into the outdoor world. We'd like to see it where winning battlegrounds has some impact on the game world, so they aren't entirely off in their own corner of the universe. I think that this is something that we will get over time, but it's not something that will happen immediately. Right now we're focusing on trying to refine both the Honor and the Arena Systems so that they're very viable systems in and of themselves. Once we get beyond that I think we'll probably start focusing a little bit more on tying in the battlegrounds into the outdoor world.
I: So the battlegrounds would actually be something where players could effect a change in the overall game?
TC: We've got some ideas on how we might do that, but those are ones that I'm not ready to talk about just yet.
I: Alright. In closing, time machines are always fun. If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell your past self to watch out for when putting together the various parts of the Honor System, battlegrounds, and rewards?
TC: Well, as I've already mentioned with the Honor System, it would definitely be to separate the experience system from the competitive system, to make sure that they aren't put together with each other. The other part would be for the battlegrounds, I would just try to make sure that they were manageable, in and of themselves, and they don't take too long, and that we have ways to ensure that a battleground won't go for hours and hours… Finally I'd say that with the outdoor world PvP, I would just tell myself, "Hey, make sure you have some outdoor world objectives too!" All these things are areas where you're seeing us adapt and change right now, and hopefully they are things that will pan out.
I: So, is there anything else you're looking forward to seeing in the next patch?
TC: In the next patch we're also going to be doing the rogue talent review, so that should be pretty interesting. In addition, along with cross-realm battlegrounds we'll get a variety of new features like our outdoor world objectives as we discussed and all the normal kinds of tweaks and tuning that we do along the way. Should be fun!
I: Thanks for your time!