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Ghostcrawler on Death Knight Design

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Even though Ghostcrawler no longer works for Blizzard, he still occasionally talks about World of Warcraft. He gives us a developer insight behind WoW's first Hero class, the Death Knight.

You may remember Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street. He was Lead Systems Designer at Blizzard, before he joined Riot Games. He has been really active on Twitter even after leaving Blizzard answering various user-submitted questions about World of Warcraft. This time, he talks about designing the Death Knight class back in Wrath of the Lich King.

Blizzard LogoGhostcrawler

If it’s not problematic for you to do so, would you mind talking to us a bit about the original WoW Death Knight that you were part of designing in Wrath of the Lich King? I’m very curious about how it was built from the ground up, what sorts of challenges you faced and what it ended up becoming. -Magdalena

Ah, one of the original DKs. :)

I could talk about this for days, probably. At the high level, there were a few goals:

1) Create another plate-using class with different abilities and feel than the warrior or paladin. Runes were already conceived before I joined the team as a way to avoid rage or mana (or energy). We hit upon diseases as the primary driver of the rotation: apply a disease, do damage, remove the disease with a finisher. Obviously the rotations have evolved enormously since then.  

2) Experiment with having spec not strictly tied to role. We tried letting Blood, Frost and Unholy all tank and all DPS or PvP (with slightly different builds). This meant coming up with separate but ideally equal tanking cooldowns for example, and ideas such as Bladed Armor to let DKs benefit from the natural defenses on their DPs-oriented gear.

3) Deliver on expectations from Arthas and the Warcraft RTS about how a death knight would play. Example: Death and Decay was an iconic DK ability that WoW had given to the Warlocks. Pets felt like something we needed to deal with. Healing had to be really kit-appropriate. 

4) Make a viable class. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it was a challenge back in the BC era. Early on, some of the hardcore raiders at Blizzard said they couldn’t fit a DK into their raid roster because the parties were so static (e.g. you need a shaman with the rouges for WF, so where was the DK going to fit?). This led to a lot of rethinking about raid buffs, including raid options for who brought what, party vs raid-wide buffs, and whether it was okay to have specs who were only useful for buffing.

5) Because I didn’t know the WoW spell system very well from a technical perspective, I came up with a lot of new ideas. The upside of this was that they were new idea that pushed the team a little to implement new things. The downside was that it caused a lot of bugs (particularly with Shadow of Death, or whatever the talent that let you come back to life). Even with the “hero class” concept, we know we had to present an argument to players over why they should pick the DK as their new main. We knew we had to do something different. Death Grip (which was mostly Xelnath) was key in this regard.

6) I think a lot of the DK success had to do with Acherus and the quest experience, which was mostly Afrasiabi. I helped with that, but I was more focused on abilities and talents. Just wanted to call that out.

7) It was also really important to me to involve the community. The only way I knew how to develop (from my decade working on Age of Empires) was to constantly ask players what was working and what needed work. The early DK community was awesome. They were overall really level-headed, open-minded and defaulted to trust, and I think this experience led to them feeling some level of ownership over the class rather than it strictly being something we passed down to them.

Some issues I am remembering (or misremembering):

There was a point where you could build a DK with something like 16 different diseases, which were all just generic, though there were abilities that scaled with disease count. Somewhere along the way we had the idea to just compress those down to two (Frost Fever and Blood Plague) and try and theme them more strongly. 

We struggled a ton with Chains of Ice, since it was iconic, but also dropping speed so dramatically was really powerful in PvP, especially for a tanky melee class with a lot of ranged spells.

Originally, the intent was that Blood was the more melee focused and easy to play spec. Frost was more for min/maxxers who wanted to obsess over secondary stats, with a bit of casting thrown in. Unholy was originally more of a pet class (which was always super niche) and morphed into being more about spells and debuffing.

We spent way too much effort trying to make the DK-specific enchants a thing, but we never balanced them well, and there was just a right answer most of the time. Go figure. Maybe it was worth it for the flavor, but I am kind of skeptical. (Do these still exist in WoW? Not sure.)

I have mixed feeling about retreating from the idea that there was no dedicated tanking spec. I agreed with the decision (and might have suggested it for all I know), but a lot of that was because we were developing dual-spec at the same time, which made it much easier for someone to say swap to offtanking for just one fight. The class team was starting to feel like we were developing 6 specs of DK (Frost dps, Frost tank, etc.) and that is even ignoring things like DW vs 2H weapons, PvP and so on.

Wow, that was quite the text dump. I hadn’t thought about this in while. If I am misremembering things, I apologize.

(Source)

Note that Ghostcrawler no longer works at Blizzard. He is currently the Design Director on League of Legends.

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1 hour ago, PatrickHenry said:

I love hearing those stories. 

Mis-remembered or otherwise ;) 

It's good 'lore' into the game design. 

I agree completely.  I really enjoy hearing from Ghostcrawler too because he was all over the place when I first started WoW.  Every blue post I read seemed to come from him.

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As someone that follows folks like Extra Credit and tries to stay up to date with design discussions every now'an'then... these are the types of things that I absolutely love reading about!

Even tho' back during the day and just recently I have gone from prowling forums to becoming more engaged in them, Ghostcrawler is probably one of those folks I will remember for a good long time. And for reasons such as this; very open-minded just retelling of the old creation of what's probably one of my favourite classes to date!

Love'd it! ^^

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Following him on Twitter is awesome, regardless of what he talks about. He is super insightful about so many things and, when WoW does pop up, you really do get a blast from the past. 

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