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Developer Dialogue: John Staats’ Journey as a WoW Level Designer

If you made your way into Blizzard’s offices in the early 2000s, you might think you’d accidentally stumbled into a DnD enthusiast’s Mom’s basement. Faded posters on the walls, food packaging scattered about, and the dim, electronic light only emitted by a computer monitor. This is the picture John Staats paints in the intro to his book, The WoW Diary, at least.

I got the chance to speak with John Staats about his experience within these office walls, his work on World of Warcraft, and the writing of his book.

John Staats was the first 3D level designer Blizzard recruited for the development team of WoW. This put him in a unique position in numerous ways: he was one of the earliest members of WoW’s dev team, he had the responsibility of recruiting more 3D level designers, and last, but not least, he had the chance to document WoW’s development.

It’s this documentation that eventually led to the release of The WoW Diary in 2018. It comprehensively reports on the goings-on of WoW’s development right up until its release in November 2004.

 

Image depicting the inside of Blizzards Irvine office. Shows computers running World of Warcraft near a very clean reception desk.

Blizzard’s Irvine office. Much cleaner nowadays than in the late ’90s.

 

The first thing I had to ask John Staats was what surprised him about working in the industry. After all, it’s rarely the glamorous lifestyle that the media makes it out to be. Staats told me his biggest struggle was with recruiting talented people. Numerous hires ended up not being up to the job, and that was if they could find someone to come on board to begin with. One of Staats’ first jobs was to hire other level designers. When talking about sending out interview offers, he said, “I would send a dozen every week for six months, and there is just no one. If they were good at level design, they were already on a project and they wanted to finish that project.” So it seems that being a game developer back then was a far cry from the glamorous “game god” lifestyle depicted on the flashy covers of ‘90s gaming magazines. It’s kind of sad how many people put themselves through college dreaming of making games, only to be told they’re not up to the challenge or to burn out in the midst of their first project – something Staats and I discuss plenty later on.

Another thing that surprised Staats was the sheer scope and complexity of code. Most of his games industry experience came from those bizarre ‘90s tv shows about games, so for that reason, he’d “never seen code before.”

It’s this expectation vs reality that motivated Staats to document the process in the first place and led to the eventual publication of The Wow Diary years down the line. “I think that the imputes of my book was that I wanted to find out how everyone was working.”

 

 

After discussing Staats’ first experiences at Blizzard, we then went on to talk a little bit about crunch and how it affected his life in the office. A big part of The WoW Diary is the sheer scope of what they were making; the team knew that WoW was to be one of the biggest games ever created, and with that, there inevitably comes a human cost of long hours and many, many takeaway pizzas. I wanted to ask Staats about crunch in particular because of his relatively unique position. Having moved to Orange County to work on WoW, he “basically had no life anyway” and was more than happy to work the “long hours” associated with a massive project such as this. He’d left a cushy marketing job behind in New York, but after spending many hours modding levels into FPS games like Quake, he knew this was what he wanted to do. When Blizzard came a-knocking with a lower-paying job in a far corner of the U.S, to quote Staats’ book, he “took the job in a heartbeat.”

This isn’t to say Staats isn’t critical of crunch, but for him “it was more of a mission because [he] left so much in New York…” Publishers just aren’t going to be as eager if they have to pay for larger development teams in order to mitigate crunch. If that happens “it is a fact that there will be fewer games, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.” 

Despite long hours of crunching from the WoW team, they still managed to come up with new ideas and stay motivated. Staats widely attributes this to Blizzard self-publishing the game. Team members would constantly be sharing ideas with other design departments and taking inspiration from one another. Self-publishing gives developers “the freedom to fix mistakes.” When it comes to newcomers, “getting people to be honest is one of the challenges” because most workers in the industry are used to working with a publisher, where “employees don’t actually voice their opinions because they know it’s not going to change.”

 

Fewer games may be a reality in the near future as more organizations promote Unions.

 

The WoW Diary doesn’t really feature much about John Staats’ work as a level designer on WoW, so I asked him a little bit about what kind of things he “ninja’d” into the game. For those who don’t know, “ninjaing” is when a developer quickly adds something to a game at their own behest, usually in their own free time and with the consent of a few other team members. Staats was known for going the extra mile and is responsible for many of WoW’s additions, so I asked him about his favorite, and he told me about when he made some new wood textures for the volcanic area Searing Gorge. “We didn’t have anybody available to paint textures, so they were using the docks of Booty Bay to build these scaffoldings. The Booty Bay textures, it’s a pirate, yellow baked sun, very tropical. It’s the nicest texture set. So all this wood in the Searing Gorge, none of it was charred, and this was going to ship this way. I was able to just make a bunch of assets and say, ‘hey, what about this? Do you guys wanna switch for something that’s a little bit more appropriate for the zone?’, and they were like, ‘oh that’s so much better, thanks,’ so you can’t just directly ninja something into a zone. You have to get people behind you.”

You might be shocked to hear that many of WoW’s zones were based on real-life places. One such example is the Night Elf starting area, Teldrassil. Teldrassil happens to be Staats’ favorite zone aesthetically, so it felt appropriate to ask him about its origins: “In Irvine California, there’s a row of trees near the [University of California] campus that have purple leaves. The leaves die, and they cover the road in these purple leaves.” Another example is Westfall, which takes inspiration from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl – a massive dust storm caused by severe dry conditions in the 1930s.

 

image taken from world of warcraft. Depicts the area of Teldrassil. It features large, colourful trees and a wooden house

 

When discussing the game’s dungeons, Staats recalled what feedback was like during the open beta. “There was just a lack of any commentary whatsoever on what any of the dungeons looked like. When there was discussion about dungeons, it was always about what drops.” This was a bit of a double-edged sword, though, as it also meant players were “complaining about drops” rather than the interior design.

Black Rock Depths was Staats’ favorite dungeon to work on, with his least favorite being the insect-infested Ahn’Qiraj, commonly referred to as AQ40. “That was a good example of a dungeon where the ideas really didn’t resonate to make an organic tunnel interesting.” Unsurprisingly, this meant Staats avoided AQ40 during his many hours with WoW after its release.

 

Image taken from WoW. Depicts a map of a dungeon with a tunnel like layout

The windy layout is another thing Staats wasn’t happy with when it came to AQ40.

 

Once Blizzard had published World of Warcraft, they were no longer “counting the pennies,” as Staats would put it, and they were able to splurge on things like new conference tables and more members of the team.

Sadly, it wasn’t the end of the hard work. Because of things like fan feedback, bugs, and the upcoming expansion, “The year before was honestly easier than the year after.” This led to a lot of burnout, with many people on the team wanting a break from working on an MMO. “People were tired of working on WoW. Half the team left.”

After working on WoW, Staats went on to work on Blizzard’s canceled project Titan. Titan was the main reason Staats departed Blizzard. ”The problem with Titan is that there was no proof of concept.” After he’d worked on it for a year, he was confident that it just wasn’t a project he wanted to be on anymore. Titan is often credited with being the prototype that became Overwatch, and while none of Staats’ work was put into Overwatch, he still has a little bit of insider knowledge about what did: “The only thing that I see similar are the player models. They used some of the character designs, but everything else was different. Yeah, I guess both were shooters, but they’re completely different games.”

 

Promotional art for the game Overwatch. Depicts character tracer facing the camera and jumping through the air

Reportedly, Tracer’s design was heavily inspired by one of the skins for the “Jumper” class in Project Titan.

 

Before I wrapped up the interview, I asked Staats a little bit about the feedback he got after publishing The WoW Diary and some of the difficulties he faced when writing it. “It’s not a Blizzard product, and I kinda didn’t want it to be a Blizzard product. They love it. It’s given me a good excuse to reconnect with old co-workers.” The biggest challenge he faced was using game development terminology. He didn’t want to bog down the book with tons of jargon, but he also wanted to go in-depth when it came to the ins and outs of development.

It was lovely to sit down with John Staats and discuss the industry, his book, and his life as a whole. He was kind enough to send me a copy of The WoW Diary for this interview – a great read which I’d heartily recommend to any game enthusiast. Staats doesn’t work as a game developer now. Unfortunately, he developed a condition in his hands which makes him unable to operate a PC for long stretches of time. His journey in the Games Industry is far from over, however, he’s still enjoying his passion for games through tabletop podcasting, writing and even working on his own board game. Staats told me a little bit about the book he’s working on at the minute. It’s part of a relatively new genre known as litRPG, which is a novel that’s set inside a Video Game. Staats explains it much better on his website whenitsready.com, so if you want to follow his future work, head on over!

 

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