Battle for Stromgarde Warfront Available for Alliance

Season 15 Launch

Developer Insights: Days of the Frozen Throne with the Live Content Team

Game Design & Balance AMA - Recap

Overwatch Ultimate Genji Sword - Available for Pre-Order

World of Warcraft Diary Chapter Preview - Stepping on Toes
John Staats has sent along a chapter from his upcoming book as a preview! There is an ongoing Kickstarter for a book about Vanilla WoW development that is about to end early next week.

If you are interested in hearing more, John Staats (Level Designer), David Ray (Senior Tool & Database Programmer), and Kevin Jordan (Game Designer) are doing a Reddit AMA on Friday!


Originally Posted by MMO-Champion
"I’m a programmer. I can push around the producers, but the level designers won’t listen to me."
— Jeremy Wood

Veteran programmer Collin Murray described Jeremy Wood, whom we hired straight out of college, as “a guy who is scary-perceptive for someone who’s never worked before.” It’s a universal perception that level designers don’t listen—that we build however we please, regardless of limitations set by the programmers. But let me take this opportunity to offer a bit of defense for my fellow level designers: We listen, but we also have other considerations. We’re the center of development’s Venn diagram. It’s our job to make locations render smoothly; while telling a story; while making the world beautiful and immersive; while providing areas suitable for gameplay. In serving our varied masters, we sometimes forget our limitations. When we discover something cool, concessions often must be made. Sometimes our hacks create more work for other departments, who help us pull off our tricks. It’s a balancing act of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

For instance, I once butted heads with the programmers over transparent water. Our opaque water wasn’t popular with the art team, and it prevented me from seeing my submerged temples in Blackfathom Deeps. I’d asked repeatedly for transparent water tests, but the programming staff said they were swamped with higher priorities and didn’t have time to fix “sorting issues”—which were graphical glitches when multiple transparent objects appeared in front of one another. If spell effects (which used transparent textures) were cast in front of transparent water, they would appear to be underneath the water’s surface. Not good, right? And sorting issues were a messy video card problem, and since all video cards worked differently, it was a major pain in the ass to correct.

However, I wasn’t convinced. I scaled-up one of our props that used transparent textures and used it as a mock-waterline to see how bad sorting would look—and the result wasn’t bad at all. The sorting issues were only noticeable when I channeled from the shoreline into the water. The “ribbon” VFX hiccuped when they overlapped the water, but it was utterly unnoticeable in the heat of combat. The entire dungeon team was so excited that we showed the producers, and Shane gave me his thoughts. “John, I know you’re super-excited about this, but you have to let us handle it,” he explained. It was a delicate situation, and he just wanted to be the one telling the programmers they were wrong. Everyone had been working late hours and Shane didn’t want to upset anyone. “I promise you,” he continued, “we’ll implement transparent water, but it might take a little time. Please, don’t tell anyone else.”

Shane was talking to me like this because I had a reputation for being a ninja and sneaking things into the build of the game that weren’t approved or on a task list. I’d always earned autonomy in the workplace by working longer hours than anyone else—and my situation at Blizzard was no different. I established a gentleman’s agreement with the producers that I could build extra dungeons on weekends and after hours if I completed tasks already assigned to me. I found trust like this to be liberating, empowering, and generally made my time on the job more comfortable. I ended up making so much content, the game designers urged the producers to treat me with a hands-off approach. Because I worked on whatever I wanted, people often came to me if they needed something major to be improved—or ninja’ed in. Since the producers were wise to my ways they always kept an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t creating work for other people.

But transparent water was a different story. This time I had gone behind the backs of programmers after they had doubled-down on insisting that they didn’t have time to fix sorting issues. In truth, the programmers were correct—there were sorting issues, but what they didn’t realize (and what my test had demonstrated) was that the sorting errors were mostly unnoticeable. Aside from myself, the programmers were working longer hours than anyone else on the team, so reversing one of their vetoes would be a touchy prospect. Shane was perfectly reasonable in wanting the news to come from him instead of a rabble-rousing level designer. I certainly didn’t want the heat, so I let Shane add the task to the programmer’s workload in his own time, so I promised to keep my big mouth shut. But what Shane didn’t do was tell the other level designers the same thing, and they promptly blabbed about the discovery to half the office.

Later that day, a group of artists came over to my desk and insisted that I show them this Promethean miracle of transparent water. I protested, but they weren’t having any of it. They told me the whole team already knew and crossed their arms, saying they wouldn’t leave until I showed them. I relented just to get them out of my office. And wouldn’t you know it, Shane walked into my office at exactly that moment. Before I could get a chance to explain what had happened, he walked away, shaking his head in exasperation. That should illustrate what it was like to work with level designers. We are troublemakers by nature. We spend so much time on a single file or area that sometimes we become too fixated on forcing things to happen.

I’ve always found case-by-case problem solving yielded better results than fiats coming from department leads who didn’t quite realize the whole “robbing Peter to pay Paul” thing. For instance, I ignored our object size limits while building the thorn canopies for the Razorfen dungeons. After Scott Hartin informed me why the engine couldn’t handle my giant canopy I built it a different way and he subsequently gave me a different veto. Over several weeks we went back and forth until eventually we ended up working out the problem together (Scott tweaked the code to make an exception). The result was that Chris Metzen’s vision of being inside a giant thorn bush was realized.

And I wasn’t the only one making waves. When Aaron Keller was told we couldn’t place freestanding buildings directly on the terrain for complicated pathing code reasons, he placed tepees and tents in Thunderbluff anyway, and we discovered that the pathing problems weren’t as bad as initially feared. Dana Jan built his Deadmines bigger than our engine’s “farclip limit,” which forced programmers to increase it—and we learned bigger rooms didn’t produce performance problems. This proved to be a valuable lesson for creating “epic” areas.

As ornery as the dungeon builders were, the exterior level designers were worse (or so we were told). The programmers were so frustrated by the overuse of props in some areas (which deteriorated the engine’s performance), that they often went to the producers to arbitrate compromises. Butting heads was a good thing; it meant employees were passionate about their jobs, new things were discovered, and the game’s limits were stretched with coolness.
This article was originally published in forum thread: World of Warcraft Diary Chapter Preview - Stepping on Toes started by chaud View original post
Comments 21 Comments
  1. Aucald's Avatar
    Water: the bane of graphical designers and programmers. Different in every engine, sometimes close to reality but just shy in a dozen different ways.
  1. Lockheed's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Aucald View Post
    Water: the bane of graphical designers and programmers. Different in every engine, sometimes close to reality but just shy in a dozen different ways.
    I wonder if WoW and Ark have similar engines for the water rendering. I'm not sure if other games do this, but in both WoW and Ark, the wing flap animations of flying mounts are reflected across almost the entire water's horizon when the camera is angled just below the player, regardless of how far away or high up they are from the water.
  1. Rustov's Avatar
    Makes you wonder what kind of stories we could get from modern wow development. A behind-the-scenes of devs just talking about their daily work would be more welcome than a bunch of placations about how they can't fix the game. I liked the one tidbit from Ion's AMA explaining why Kil'Jaeden was so hard.
  1. Esper's Avatar
    It’s a universally perception that level designers don’t listen—that we build however we please, regardless of limitations set by the programmers.
    Typo in the third sentence. That doesn't bode well.
  1. Stormykitten's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Esper View Post
    Typo in the third sentence. That doesn't bode well.
    Depends a bit on whether an editor will be involved in the final product, because believe me, they do no small work.
  1. Darkke's Avatar
    As a programmer I hate guys like that. Programmers tell them that we can't do X, they do X anyways and to them it seems to work and gleefully they report it as working. Meanwhile the backend that these guys don't see is throwing up errors like crazy and having a panic attack, but because they reported it as working the bosses now expect it to work so programmers have fix that mess on top of their other tasks.
  1. relaxok's Avatar
    Needs an editor... stat!
  1. Jetstream's Avatar
    What I don't get about this story is why the programmers said a problem existed when they hadn't verified that a problem existed?

    Quote Originally Posted by Esper View Post
    Typo in the third sentence. That doesn't bode well.
    Editors are a thing you know.
  1. galvin's Avatar
    I love transparent water. Good for the guy that made it happen!
  1. THEORACLE64's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Stormykitten View Post
    Depends a bit on whether an editor will be involved in the final product, because believe me, they do no small work.
    Oh, no! A typo?! What ever should we do!!?!
  1. Awsyme's Avatar
    Always interesting... but I find the quotes always feel, well, very self aggrandizing/humble brag. We hear a lot about how long he works when others didn't. How he always went above the call of duty and got results. How he was always right to do so.

    I'd be curious to hear what other employees thought of him ^^
  1. leviathonlx's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Awsyme View Post
    Always interesting... but I find the quotes always feel, well, very self aggrandizing/humble brag. We hear a lot about how long he works when others didn't. How he always went above the call of duty and got results. How he was always right to do so.

    I'd be curious to hear what other employees thought of him ^^
    Yea the book excerpts and his AMA's have been very humble braggy and in general a way to get some spotlight on himself for a game he worked on over a decade ago. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if there's a bit of embellishment going on.
  1. Tome's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by leviathonlx View Post
    Yea the book excerpts and his AMA's have been very humble braggy and in general a way to get some spotlight on himself for a game he worked on over a decade ago. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if there's a bit of embellishment going on.
    On the interviews he’s had, he very much give credit where credit is due. He doesn’t speak so much about what he did good only, he speaks a lot of good about the team around him, constantly, and have said that x is great because of y member.

    Listen through the Countdown to Classic interview done by Josh Corbett with Staats, and you will hear he praises other people a lot more than he praises himself.
  1. Binki's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Darkke View Post
    As a programmer I hate guys like that. Programmers tell them that we can't do X, they do X anyways and to them it seems to work and gleefully they report it as working. Meanwhile the backend that these guys don't see is throwing up errors like crazy and having a panic attack, but because they reported it as working the bosses now expect it to work so programmers have fix that mess on top of their other tasks.
    Indeed. After that quick demo programmers probably spent months fixing massive various issues with different graphic cards, possibly huge FPS loss.

    Whole thing sounds like Staats was a big douche to programmers.
  1. Chonar's Avatar
    I love workfloor stories like these. Lifting the veil and funny at that.
  1. Kromus!'s Avatar
    Really excited to read the finished book. Working in development, I find this really interesting to see how decisions were made and how they got over arguments/disagreements.
  1. Coombs's Avatar
    This just more cements my idea that books these days have turned into long form blogs.
  1. Will's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Darkke View Post
    As a programmer I hate guys like that. Programmers tell them that we can't do X, they do X anyways and to them it seems to work and gleefully they report it as working. Meanwhile the backend that these guys don't see is throwing up errors like crazy and having a panic attack, but because they reported it as working the bosses now expect it to work so programmers have fix that mess on top of their other tasks.
    but on the other side of the coin, if not for guys like that, the game's engines wouldn't be stretched, and we wouldn't have had such epic/cool areas in vanilla.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Coombs View Post
    This just more cements my idea that books these days have turned into long form blogs.
    yeah because nobody releases novels anymore, right?
  1. Coombs's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Will View Post
    but on the other side of the coin, if not for guys like that, the game's engines wouldn't be stretched, and we wouldn't have had such epic/cool areas in vanilla.

    - - - Updated - - -



    yeah because nobody releases novels anymore, right?
    Not very good ones.
  1. Aralnda's Avatar
    i cant afford the book right now does anyone know how much it will be after it prints or if there will be more after the kickstarter?

Site Navigation