Interview: Alex Afrasiabi

Interview: Alex Afrasiabi

Destroying a world that's taken years to build up is not a task you'd imagine a level designer would cheerfully go about. But that's exactly what Alex Afrasiabi, World Of Warcraft's lead world designer, will do in the upcoming expansion Cataclysm. We met up with Afrasiabi at this year's Blizzcon to discuss growing up with Everquest, learning from mistakes and where World Of Warcraft can possibly go once Azeroth is torn asunder.
It’s your fifth Blizzcon now. How has the event changed over the years. Is the magic still there?
Are you kidding? Yeah! I was just in Hall D doing one of the Q&As. I looked out and for a second I just kind of froze looking out across that sea of people. These are our fans. It was just a crazy moment. It’s gotten better every year – it’s just gotten cooler. It’s this opportunity to see everybody that loves our games. To interact with those fans is precious to us.

World Of Warcraft lead world designer, Alex Afrasiabi

So you’re obviously locked in the studio for 363 days a year. Is it strange coming here and meeting the fans you’re making games for? Does it give you fresh perspective?
I wouldn’t say it was strange. I would say it’s really cool. It’s something we all look forward to. Everyone gets really excited, everyone’s Facebook starts heating up.

To what degree does the feedback you get from fans influence the game design? Do you regularly take fan suggestions on board?
Totally. It’s always nice to interact with the fans and the fans have cool ideas. Straight up. Sure, they have bad ideas too, but so do we. It’s nice to get a different perspective on things. It takes some guts to get up there at those Q&As and ask a question in front of thousands of people. I don’t know if I’d be able to do that! It’s super-cool. And there’s always a good take-away for us. We decided on the caster legendary staff coming up from one of the Q&As. You see – there are positive benefits.

We had two from our Quests & Lore Q&A yesterday. We had the caster legendary and we had a moose. We’re going to get a moose apparently. Another one we talked about is how players that enjoy role-playing would like more of a story panel on their character pane where they could type out the story of their character. I thought it was a cool idea. I’m not going to commit to implementing it but it’s something we’ll certainly talk about.

This year was light on big announcements compared to past events. Do you think there’s a need for Blizzcon to be an annual event?
Getting thousands and thousands of Blizzard fans together is reason enough. And if we have something cool to announce, what better place than Blizzcon? I think it’s super cool to have them every year – so let’s have them every year.

Age of Conan designer Craig Morrison recently said in his blog that story shouldn’t get in the way of letting players “hitting something with a stick” How does that tally with your approach?
I don’t think that’s fair. Anecdotally, one of my friends is down and her boyfriend is a World Of Warcraft player. A casual player; a super nice guy. We were just talking and he tells me that what he loves about World Of Warcraft is the story and the lore. It’s not like he’s beaten over the head with it and it’s not like he knows every aspect of the lore – he doesn’t.

But what we have to understand is that lore is intrinsic to the game. It’s the fantasy, it’s the setting. You take that away and what do you have? You don’t have a game in my opinion. It’s all part of the package. It’s super-important. Yeah, they want to beat things with a stick but they want to know what they’re beating. They at least want to have an inkling of a reason as to why. They want to have an understanding of their identity. These things are important to players, whether they realise it or not.

If you ever go down the path of, “I’m just going to let them beat on it with a stick and not worry about anything” you’re going to have a game that fails. You’re going to have a game that hurts. Players aren’t going to have fun in that world. You absolutely have to give them that story, that lore and that immersion.