<– Reads the Quest Text

31 Mar

questtextTobold found a real gem out there today and I have to spend some time talking about it.  Jeff Kaplan (also known as Tigole) used to be The Dude responsible for game design in World of Warcraft.  

More specifically he was the lead in charge of WORLD DEVELOPMENT.  That’s huge.  Say that out loud in your Sunday, Sunday, Sunday monster truck rally voice.

 

WORLD DEVELOPMENT!

Sounds cool but gets annoying – fast.  Just ask my cat.

Anyway, Jeff is on to bigger / better right now as the lead WORLD dude for Blizzard’s up and coming, super secret MMO.  This week he was at the Game Developers Conference and took some time to talk about the perils of quest design and some mistakes they made in World in Warcraft.  

Kaplan believes that Blizzard game designers need to work on not only how they write and design quests, but to basically overhaul the entire process.  He also admits to having penned one of the most painful and annoying collection quests in all of WOW….

(Yup – [The Green Hills of Stranglethorn] is all his…)

“So it’s a horrible quest, and I’m the only one who made it, and somehow I am talking to you guys today.”

To a crowd of developers and bright eyed press guys, Kaplan went on to talk about 9 things that Blizzard designers got wrong and why.  He does a great job of illustrating the design problems with examples from the game (Finding Mankirk’s Wife, anyone?)  The real zinger (for me) though, is that Kaplan believes Blizzard quest designers are simply writing too much.

“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.”

That set me back on my heels a fair bit.  I’ll admit to skimming quest text when it’s the second or third time I’ve run through a zone – but that first time through.  I read my quest text.  I think I’m the exception though and not the norm.  I can remember a conversation with my very first guild master, a guy who had been playing since the closed beta.  He admitted to virtually never reading the quest text.

“I skim man – all I want to know is what I need turn in at the end.”

The writer dude in me gets pretty offended everytime I hear someone talk bad about having to read the quest text or those that ignore the lore in the game.  The Gamer Dude in me is starting to agree with Kaplan though.  What?  Really?  The guy that writes WOW fan fiction is having a problem reading his quest text?  What about immersion?  What about geeking out to the ties the designers make to the overall game lore and to popular culture icons and WowInsider Bloggers?  

No – that’s all great.  But according to Kaplan:

wrong10

Once Writer Dude managed to stop being offended he took some time to think about all the bad quest text he had ever read.  A lot of it, particularly in the vanilla WOW starting zones is horrible!  Worse, according to Kaplan, game designers at Blizzard are using a single form of media to tell a story in what has to be one of the most rich multimedia outlets available:

I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. We’re so fortunate and privileged to work in a medium that is not only an art, but a revolutionary interactive form of entertainment. It’s unfortunate to see so many games try to be what they’re not, including our game at times. Of course we should embrace the concept of story… art, literature, film, song, they’ve all embraced story as well. But they all tell it in their own unique way.

I feel like we need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game. We need to engage our audience by letting them be the hero or the villain or the victim. [Art, film, literature], they’re tools. But we need to engage our players in sort of an inspiring experience, and the sooner we accept that we are not Shakespeare, Scorsese, Tolstoy or the Beatles, the better off we are.

That’s a lot to chew on – but Blizzard is already starting to make strides in smoothing the quest road and creating a more immersive experience.  In my opinion they truly began that change back in Burning Crusade with the Blood Elf and Draenei starting areas.  While neither are perfect, both are significantly more “together” than anything from vanilla WOW.  A new player can more easily step inside the game world and enjoy a fairly entertaining and guided path through their first 20 levels.  According to Kaplan, Wrath of the Lich King’s new starting hubs of Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord are examples of further refinement in how he’d like to see Blizzard’s quest design evolve.

It’s much better to have a slow, guided experience,” he said. “I think if you go to Borean Tundra or Howling Fjord, you’ll always have a ton of quests to do, but you’ll never have more than 6 or 7 quests in your quest log.”

The guided experience seems to be a recurring theme for how Kaplan believes questing in the game should be accomplished.  In the past, players are generally thrown into a new zone by accident or by the merits of a single NPC sending them to “help out” somewhere else.  That works well enough and managed to get most of us Hordey’s from our starting zones to the Crossroads in relatively good order.  The problem is, it doesn’t tie anything together.  You’re not really part of the story – you’re just some dude collecting gnoll paws or killing 40 Stranglethorn Tigers.  To truly take the game and the “story” to the next level, Kaplan believes  you need to involve the character – make them a tool in telling the story.

You know, that whole hero or villian or victim thing.  “Regular” video games like Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic or Neverwinter Nights do this – why shouldn’t an MMO?

The best examples of how Blizzard seems to be on the way to doing it right are undoubtedly the Death Knight starting zone and the series of quests leading up to the Wrath Gate.  For that matter, events like the one with Bran Bronzebeard in Halls of Stone add an amazing and immersive touch to what would normally be just another 5 man gear slog.

imgresFrom a writer’s point of view I can imagine my warrior, Tigerclaw, standing on the ramparts overlooking the battle at the Wrath Gate.  The combined might of the Horde and the Alliance united against a common foe, commanded by heroes, facing the very Lich King himself.  In a cut scene that looks like it was taken straight out of the Silmarillion, High-Lord Bolvar Fordragon and Saurfang the Younger stand before the gates of the darkest of dark lords and call him out.  What ensues – the battle – the death of Saurfang’s son – the betrayal by the Forsaken and Tiger’s part in the creation and testing of the very blight used to kill the assembled armies is a punch in the gut.  

Another great example of character involvement is the Drakuru questline that starts in Grizzly Hills and leads into Zul’Drak.  Characters aredrakuru1 unknowingly suborned by the troll Drakuru into furthering his designs on the downfall of the Drakkari Trolls.  Through the quests characters are able to see their part in Drakuru’s betrayal of his own people.  They find themselves unwitting tools of Arthas’ plans (again!) and only later as they are introduced to the Knights of the Ebon Blade are they able to take the fight back to Drakuru and take revenge.  These are good examples of how Kaplan’s vision for future quest design are taking shape.  You’re not just a cog in the greater WOW wheel – you’re a player – for better or worse and  your actions and decisions have consequences.

For myself – I’m excited.  Story has its part in the greater art that is game design.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be read.  In WotLK, the cut scenes and even the dialog text between NPC’s is telling a story that players should take note of.   If you haven’t already, spend some time standing around in Warsong Hold while Saurfang and Garrosh Hellscream discuss “strategy”.  The story told there spans the length and breadth of WOW history.  Showing us what has gone before and what the future might hold for all of us.  

Though it is too little, too late for some, I’m looking forward to seeing what the design crew comes up with next.  There is change in the air for Azeroth and perhaps for all MMO’s.

Either way, I will search for Mankirk’s wife no more.

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3 Responses to “<– Reads the Quest Text”

  1. Syrana April 4, 2009 at 19:21 #

    I’m a quest reader too, if I’m soloing. When I’m grouped (even with my husband) I feel compelled to rush a bit more and not read as closely. I think they did a great job with quests and story telling in Wrath… but it still breaks my heart and gives me lorenerd rage when someone says the Wrathgate questline and cinematic were long, wanted to skip it, didn’t “get it,” etc. 😦

  2. Becyensully December 12, 2009 at 01:49 #

    I’m frequently searching for brand-new infos in the world wide web about this matter. Thankz.

  3. Windpaw December 14, 2009 at 21:51 #

    Oh thank you Internet Spam Bot – your words mean more to me than you know.

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