Interview: Blizzard's Darren P. Williams clues us in on gameplay engineering and cutscene design

On the eve of the launch of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, we caught up with Blizzard’s own Darren P. Williams, senior software engineer on BFA, to talk about what he brought to the venerable MMORPG’s latest expansion - which promises to put the war back in Warcraft.

Blizzard say that Darren specialises in something gameplay engineering, helping designers, animators, and artists bring their visions to life in-game.

Gameplay engineering sounds like a really interesting specialty. Is this a role that's common in other development environments or is it something that Blizzard has cultivated through their own internal processes?

Darren Williams: “It's definitely not unique to Blizzard, but it is unique in that it's probably one of the most creative aspects of engineering because the gameplay engineers are working very closely with the designers on the team and the artists on the team. They'll come up with the vision for a piece of art or a piece of gameplay and gameplay engineers are kind-of the glue that gets that all together and in players hands. [They] get it working, responding to input, feeling great, and just implementing that vision.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“It's definitely not something you'll see in other industries. It's specifically gameplay”.

”I started as an engine programmer back in the day, which is more rendering stuff, which had that creative focus. Then, as I was working on that, I realized I really like working with the animators and designers to get the actual gameplay behind the art in the game as well.”

Your work in gameplay engineering sort of covers a lot of ground including loot itemization, visual effects, spell effects, character customization, animation, in-game cutscenes. What is the most interesting of those and what's the most challenging?

Darren Williams: “My favorite area to work on is combat-related look and feel. I'm not talking about necessarily balancing the numbers or the classes - but when you hit the button, seeing the animation and the impact feeling great.”

“Something we did in Legion, and that I was heavily involved in, was the revamp of the combat animations to really update an modernize that. That was really rewarding and really satisfying. I think players responded to it very well. We've carried that forward into BFA now where we, through the support in Legion, updated caster animations in a similar way.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“I think the classes feel as good as they ever have and better. We look at the game through rose tinted glasses sometimes, so it was nice to actually refresh and make the fantasy of your character to feel like what in your head you pictured it. That stuff's really satisfying to me.”

“It's also really challenging. I think the biggest challenge for me on the team is often the item and loot systems. Our players are very, very passionate, and rightly so. Loot is the main driving force for developing your character and becoming more powerful. So getting that right takes a lot of care. We have many players and if there is something that's not quite right, it will come to the foreground. Some of the code we write there is the most meticulous of all the code.”

In-game cinematic cutscenes have come a long way from their introductions. I believe it was in Wrath of the Lich King. How do you see Blizzard and yourself pushing that envelope further in Battle for Azeroth?

Darren Williams: “Yeah, with Lich King, you're probably talking about the “Wrathgate” cinematic - which was really well received. Our team there that built that was based in a machinima background. Their tools were limited. They would just run the game and record stuff and they created this awesome thing. It's the same thing our community does now. We responded to that in-house by developing more formal tools for them and that stuff has just really increased in quality, as you've seen. We do multiple of those per patch, even now.”

“There’s a number of those - we call them pre-rendered captured scenes - in BFA coming out, that players haven't seen yet, which will be awesome.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“And then, even further than that, the tech built for that, which I was involved in, is now used for real time cutscenes in the game, which have, since Mists of Pandaria, started showing up more and more. And they're a very important part of our storytelling, even just from little interstitial type moments in your quests reveal maybe a key bad guy you're about to fight or a sequence in the raid where something's opening up or a boss reveal to something that you'll see this week in the Battle for Lordaeron scenario where there's a lot of real time cutscenes there showing the story, the invasion of Lordaeron, that’s very exciting.”

You originally came out of the Australian games dev scene. Do you still follow it? Are you still engaged with that scene?

Darren Williams: “Yeah, I have a lot of friends here. The games industry is a small industry, relatively. The Australian one even more so, and so I have friends that are still here or dispersed all over the world. I'm still in touch with them. I was in Brisbane for most of my Australian games career, so there's quite a few studios there with friends that I keep in touch with, see how they're going.”

Are there many other Australians at Blizzard that you work with?

Darren Williams: “There are a few. There's actually a couple engineers, one on my direct team, used to be from THQ in Brisbane. I was at Pandemic and there's a couple of Pandemic people along with me there, and there's plenty of artists too. Even outside of our team, there are plenty of us there. We have a mailing list internally for ANZ expats, so we keep in touch with the New Zealanders as well.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Back when WoW first launched, subscription-based MMORPGs were the norm. Since then, we've gone through this whole trend towards free-to-play.  However, in recent years we've sort of seen subscription based service platforms begin to come back through stuff like Netflix and the Microsoft Games Pass. What do you think the trend back toward subscriptions services means for a game like World of Warcraft?

Darren Williams: “We're obviously developers, so we can't comment on - or know much about - the business side there but we think that we provide a lot of value to our players and lots of different types of content, so we're just focused on that from our current model.”

“Different ways to play the game. like if you have a small amount of time, you can jump in and do some quests or we have islands coming with BFA, which is a great small bite of content, through to the longer form raids, that take a long time and organization to complete each week. So that's kind of what we're focused on as developers.”

How long have you been playing World of Warcraft? Do you still play it regularly?

Darren Williams: “I've loved Blizzard games forever. That's why I wanted to get into games and Warcraft 2 is like Blizzard as a studio for me. And I remember when WoW came out, I wasn't an early adopter. I'm like, "I don't know if I want to play an MMO," and then I saw my brother visiting these places - that I know from Warcraft 3 - in third person, and I had to play this game.”

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“So I love a lot of the areas. The fondest times playing was, for me, Lich King, when a lot of my friends also would be on at the same time, and we'd regularly play after work. Then, I moved to Blizzard, so I have less of that, but I'm always so excited for the new expansion to see what happens to the stories [and] play through that [next] level of content. That's my favorite part of the game.”

“I enjoy the endgame - but always excited to see what these guys have come up with for the characters.”

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth launches on August 14th.