Behind The Code With World Of Warcraft Developer John Staats

John Staats World of Warcraft AIM

Escaping from your dreary life and playing video games may be a thrilling experience for you, but for game designers and developers it is nothing short of a marathon. Although as a gamer, people anticipate the width and depth of the knowledge but do not really know how difficult it can be to deliver something adventurous and new experience.

This week for our column Behind The Code, Analytics India Magazine got in touch with John Staats, the man behind the development of 90% of the caves, crypts, dens, mines, and hive tunnels, in the World of Warcraft game. He worked as a game developer at Blizzard Entertainment and was responsible for designing and building half of Vanilla WoW’s dungeons. In fact, he has spent ten years on the project in level designing.

How It All Began

Staats initially learned how to use 3D editors by finding modification groups for first-person shooter (FPS) games. He began assisting developers who used to build games’ levels by painting textures and eventually learnt the basic tools and workflow. 

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Intrigued by game developing, he worked additional hours and built his own levels in games thus continuing for four years. “Developing games was addictive to me, which helped me in creating a remarkable portfolio,” explained Staats in an interaction with AIM. This allowed him to get a job in Blizzard Entertainment, where he along with the team, developed the WoW game.

What Does It Take To Make A Great Game

While working for Blizzard Entertainment, Staats was amazed at how difficult it was to develop a complete game. WoW was completely new gameplay that no one had it before, thus there wasn’t any reference to look at for guidance. 

“Finding new gameplay is easy, but making it engaging and fun is very rare. It takes years of trial and error to master and deliver captivating games. I was surprised how Blizzard functioned, and though the processes were interesting and difficult, thus, I decided to take notes for my education and help other developers to learn from it,” explains Staats.

While talking about his biggest challenges in game development, Staats described making 3D dungeons was the most strenuous tasks of any massively-multiplayer online (MMO) games. 

Therefore, Staats stresses on the fact that a right team of programmers, who can figure out a work-around for challenges, devise an effective strategy to accomplish tasks at hand are essential to the success of games.

For instance, in WoW, they used a superior program called 3D Studio Max for creating assets like weapons, trees, and props. This gave a natural feeling to the game, which other gaming firms could not deliver with their brush-based level editors. 

Further, he said game development requires not only a proficient programmer but also a creative developer, who can come up with new ideas for making games interesting.

In order to be creative, Staats looks for ideas everywhere right from concept art from other games to student artwork and educating himself to have a strong foundation. He also read fiction from Harlan Ellison, Phillip K Dick, and Stanislaw. And in horror, he prefers books from Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dan Simmons. Apart from this, he also gets inspired by the brutal honesty of comedians, thus, he read every comedians’ autobiography.

Staats also plays every board game at least once, attends tabletop gaming functions at least once a week. He believes that such activities help one churn creative juices. 

Can AI & Game Development Go Hand In Hand

When asked about the involvement of AI in the future of gaming, Staats trashed the overblown hype around AI.

Artificial Intelligence is a high-concept idea, but it’s totally impractical in the game development.

Mentioning some of the impossible tasks in the games, Staats warned that developers often think something that is possible can be fun in the game, only to realise after development that it isn’t as enjoyable as expected. 

For instance, ideas like player-housing in role-play games (RPGs) — a type of game where character advancement is the prime focus —  still does not work. He is still waiting for technology to enable MMO FPS games, however, he thinks it might not ever be possible. 

The absence of technological advancement might be the reason Staats believes there hasn’t been any interesting leap in games since 20 years post the free-to-play games. 

Although we witness AI agents in games, Staats deemed them as irksome and annoying to play against.

He pinpoints scripting as more interesting than AI in game development, and perhaps, a blend of both can be exciting. Mentioning the advantages of scripting, he distinguished human-designed obstacles, in contrast to AI, are not only faster to create but are more interesting to fight against.

Furthermore, he also added that AI would neither assist developers in game development nor eliminate their jobs.

What Does the Future Hold

The immense knowledge that Staats gained while working as WoW developer has been compiled into a book, The World of Warcraft Diary, that depicts the making of WoW from inception to launch. It contains the anatomy of a computer game development team to help understand the readers what goes into the gaming workflows. “The book will give readers a perspective on what it is to be a game developer,” says Staats. 

Inside the book:

  1. The anatomy and details of a computer game
  2. Blizzard’s secret sauce into making games
  3. The 4 years of notes John took while developing WoW
  4. How to break into the computer game industry
  5. Why Blizzard succeeds where other publishers don’t

Staats is also working on his own tabletop RPG for three years. Exciting times ahead for gamers as he also reveals that he would be releasing an RPG fiction book.

Rohit Yadav
Rohit is a technology journalist and technophile who likes to communicate the latest trends around cutting-edge technologies in a way that is straightforward to assimilate. In a nutshell, he is deciphering technology. Email:

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