[MUD-Dev] [BIZ] Warcraft Interview

Michael Tresca talien at toast.net
Mon Jan 19 19:21:02 New Zealand Daylight Time 2004

Was sent this via email, it's an interview with the creators of
Warcraft.  Some of it probably sounds familiar...I'll believe it
when I see it.

Mike "Talien" Tresca
RetroMUD Administrator

  Blizzard is a really difficult company to find. It sits in an
  unremarkable office park in a bland Southern California suburb and
  doesn't even have a sign on the front door to help you find it. It
  isn't until you get inside and see the enormous Warcraft III
  banners, statues of orcs and humans, and see the huge notebook
  full of fan mail in the reception area that you understand
  why. Blizzard is a company that focuses inward. It's not terribly
  interested in fancy trappings, showing off its talents, or putting
  on a show for the public -- Blizzard's games need none of
  that. And its latest, the hotly anticipated MMO, World of
  Warcraft, looks like it's going to speak volumes.

  "Why an MMO?" was the first thing I asked Jeff Kaplan, the game's
  associate designer, as we sat down for my tour of the World of
  Warcraft alpha. The obvious answer, of course, was that Azeroth
  (Warcraft's fictional universe) is a world with an incredibly rich
  history, filled with fascinating characters, monsters, and
  places. Blizzard has created that world through a series of
  well-received real-time strategy games and that's great, but RTS
  games don't give the chance to do the kind of open-ended, intimate
  exploration of the world that an MMO would.

  Kaplan laughed, "The truth is, though, that Blizzard has a large
  contingent of MMO fanatics. A lot of us worked on MMOs in the
  past, and a lot more of us played them and had plenty of lunchtime
  conversations about what was right and wrong with them.
  Eventually, we realized that as a game company, we didn't have to
  just talk.  We could create the MMO that we wanted to play."

  As Kaplan fired up the game and ran me through the character
  creation process, he went on about Blizzard's gaming philosophy
  and how they're specifically applying it to World of
  Warcraft. Apparently, according to Kaplan, Blizzard's game
  philosophy has always been that it's all about the player
  experience, not the designer's ego.  Throughout the development
  process of any of their titles, they're constantly asking
  themselves the same questions: 'Am I having fun now?' 'Am I
  getting angry at the game?' 'Am I bored and watching the clock?'
  In World of Warcraft's case it's, 'Am I just grinding experience

  Those questions informed the entire World of Warcraft design
  process. One of the biggest issues with the current generation of
  MMOs isn't technological, it's philosophical. An MMO is a game,
  not a social experiment. Creating a huge arena and expecting the
  players to generate all your content means you've forgotten why
  people play games in the first place -- to have experiences, to
  challenge themselves. MMOs shouldn't be about a designer playing
  god and seeing what all his little ants do in his digital ant
  farm. To extend the metaphor, MMOs should be a theme park -- not a

  Welcome to QuestWorld

  Picture a playground. There's a slide and monkeybars and a swing
  set and sandbox and other stuff to do. Then unleash a whole bunch
  of first graders on it and watch what happens as they try to
  "create their own fun." There are fistfights as everyone tries to
  get to the top of the slide and screaming when that one kid just
  won't get off the swings. It's just a whole lot of grief as
  everyone jostles with everyone else because the structure of the
  environment means that your fun comes at the expense of everyone
  else's. Sound familiar? It should -- it's the unfortunate reality
  of many MMOs.

  According to Kaplan, that's exactly what Blizzard didn't want to
  have happen in World of Warcraft. "All of our systems are designed
  to avoid what we call 'player collision' -- when players fight
  over limited content or generate their own grief-oriented fun for
  lack of anything better to do. World of Warcraft is rules-oriented
  and goal-oriented."  He quickly moved to clarify, "We don't put
  players on rails or anything -- players are entirely free to play
  World of Warcraft any way they want. What we've done, though, is
  created systems, guides, and rules that make it more fun and
  easier to play around our attractions rather than trying to figure
  out ways to grief other players."

  That's why the majority of player actions in the game will revolve
  around quests. Quests are pretty easy to find -- any NPC with an
  exclamation point over his or her head will have a starting quest
  for you. The difference in World of Warcraft is the variety,
  style, complexity, and sheer number of quests available in the
  game. "Our original plan called for 600 quests by the time we
  shipped," Kaplan said. "To date we've created about 1,400 and more
  get added every day."

  The game's quest system is designed to shepherd players through
  the many attractions of World of Warcraft. "The majority of the
  quests in World of Warcraft are level specific and
  non-repeatable," Kaplan said. "That means that we don't have to
  create generic 'FedEx' quests that don't take into account your
  level, where you are in the game, or the world's storyline."

  As an example, he walked me through the opening quests for an
  undead player in the newbie area. The undead player starts in a
  tomb, a newly independent member of the Forsaken, a splinter group
  of undead battling against Mindless Ones (undead in thrall to the
  Lich King, Arthas). The first few quests have the player exploring
  the relatively safe area around the undead city of Tirisifal
  Glade. The three quests he showed me were to kill several Mindless
  Ones who were wandering outside the walls, kill some Night Spiders
  infesting a Forsaken gold mine, and beating back a camp of human
  Scarlet Crusaders (insane humans who wish to wipe out all undead).

  This is what I do when traffic gets bad on the 405... The
  difference between this and similar quests in other games was the
  definite sense of progression. The undead general who offered the
  quests would acknowledge your growing skill and importance as you
  performed more tasks for him -- as would other characters who were
  offering quests. The feeling was that you were actually a part of
  the world and that what you were doing mattered. Now, most MMOs
  offer this in newbie areas, but World of Warcraft takes this
  design paradigm for the whole game.

  "The quest designers broke each zone down into points of
  interest. We want to spread players out, avoid clustering players
  in places where they would get the best loot," Kaplan said. "When
  you follow the quests, they'll take you around the whole world,
  letting you see all kinds of neat stuff, and since the good loot
  comes from following the quests, it keeps players from clustering
  around spawn points."

  Quests are also designed to funnel players to level-appropriate
  zones where they can find new and interesting experiences. These
  are called "breadcrumb quests."  For example, an NPC who notices
  that a player has reached level 10 may give a quest over in
  Silverpine Forest. That gets the level 10 player out of the newbie
  zone, keeping it fun for new players. As the player advances,
  breadcrumb quests will send players between continents and even
  between races -- a human may want you to head to the Dwarven lands
  for something where many new quests await.

  "You don't have to follow the quests, of course," Kaplan
  said. "You can just run around, exploring new areas, become a
  crafter, run a guild, and all the other things players expect in
  an MMO. The thing is, all of those things are enhanced by taking
  on quests.  You can discover new lands on your own, kill monsters,
  and get a few experience points and some basic treasures, or do
  the same things on a quest and get great experience points and the
  best stuff."

  One example he provided was what I immediately dubbed the "Mount
  Doom"-style quest. "You may be able to make some great swords, but
  the only way to make the big über sword might be to quest for a
  particular material then fight your way down into a mystic forge
  at the bottom of a volcano to build the thing.  Not only does that
  make the crafting professions more exciting, it provides
  incentives for players to interact with each other. If you don't
  have the combat skills to get to the forge, you may need to find a
  group to help you. Really big items might make you try to recruit
  a guild."

  More than just FedEx

  Of course, with the game this dependent on the quest system, it
  stands to reason that the system better be pretty darned
  robust. "Our quests are tremendously diverse," Kaplan said. "Some
  are designed to be finished in a half-hour, others, in a week.
  Some quests are always available, others appear and disappear
  randomly. Some are timed, others will only be seen a few times and
  disappear for three months."

  In fact, the list of different quest types in the game was
  impressive. In addition to the standard FedEx quests, there will
  also be collection quests (collect 20 human skulls, or 8 Scarlet
  Crusade armbands), rare dropped item quests, bounty quests (kill a
  certain number of something), escort quests, defend-the-objective
  quests, and even something the team called "pumpkin quests," which
  are non-combat quests that rely on stealth or exploration to find
  and object and bring it back to the requestor. The name comes from
  an early undead quest where the player must sneak into a human
  farm and steal five pumpkins without being seen.

  This is what happens when you forget to mow the lawn in
  Azeroth. Many quests are also chained to together or lead off on
  interesting tangents. Killing a human noble on a quest might cause
  a rare letter to drop off the corpse that leads you to another
  (completely unrelated and separate) quest that brings you to a
  graveyard where the writing on a headstone leads you to still a
  third. Kaplan talked about one of his favorites, a puzzle quest
  called "Cortella's Riddle." A group of pirates are attacking
  Stranglethorne Vale. If you manage to get onto their ship, a piece
  of paper sitting on a desk in the captain's cabin gives you a
  riddle that, if solved leads you to an impressive treasure. The
  quest is unrelated to fighting the pirates -- in fact, the player
  is never directed to it, but sharp-eyed adventurers can find the
  paper and get an experience that other players might miss.

  "The puzzle quests are actually pretty rare, though," Kaplan
  said. "Most of the time, we're pretty straightforward with what we
  want the player to do." The game's quest window includes the
  story-based text along with a "Cliff's Notes" version of the same
  in more direct language. "We didn't want the players spending
  their entire lives on a spoiler site so we always try to give some
  indication of what's going to happen in the text. For example, a
  character might say that 'On very rare occasions, the Murlocs form
  a tumor, get me one.' That way you know that you're looking for a
  very rare drop item."

  Phat LeWt

  One of the biggest issues for players in MMOs is items. Kill
  stealing, grabbing stuff from another's corpse, the division of
  treasure among a party -- all cause friction among players. Add to
  that players' desire for items to distinguish themselves from
  other players and it can get pretty ugly out there. Kaplan
  believes that World of Warcraft has solved that problem.

  "I'm really proud of our loot system." Kaplan said. First, a good
  selection of items (but not necessarily the best) needed to be
  tied into the quest system.  That's why the screen that offers a
  player a quest can have up to four given and six "choice" rewards
  to choose from. Any class has a reasonable chance of getting a
  good item from a quest, so players are doing as many quests as
  they can. It also means that players can judge whether or not the
  quest is worthwhile before they do it. According to Kaplan, the
  system was set up to avoid players farming quick respawns for
  experience or expensive items for money. The best items and the
  most experience are available to those who get involved in the

  The Night Elf starting city The rest of the loot system is also
  designed to avoid those "awkward social moments" such as who gets
  what loot in a group. The game's loot system has three settings:
  free-for-all where the first person to click on the creature gets
  the items, a round-robin where players take it in turn to get
  items, and "master looter" where one person is responsible for
  loot that he or she will distribute later. According to Kaplan,
  each system is designed for different levels of trust among social
  groups.  Casual groups who just hook up for a mission or two will
  use a round-robin to keep distribution fair, guilds will certainly
  want to use "master looter," and regular gaming companions with a
  high level of trust can use the free-for-all.

  The level of sophistication goes a bit deeper than that,
  though. There's "quest loot" that not only drops if you're on a
  quest, but if you're grouped with someone who's not on that quest,
  they'll never see the quest loot. Quest loot is also available to
  you regardless of the state of the loot system. If it isn't your
  turn in the round-robin, you'll still be able to pick up a quest
  item, but only the proper member of your group can pick up the
  other ordinary items that were on the creature - you'll never see
  them on your screen.

  The best example of this smart looting system was what Kaplan
  called the "Melvin's head" system. One of the most awkward moments
  in any MMO is players waiting for a spawn because each of them are
  on the same quest ("Bring me Melvin's head!")  Players in that
  situation can be reluctant to group because only one of them will
  be able to get Melvin's head. World of Warcraft, though, supports
  multi-drops. This basically means that every member of the group
  on the quest will be able to pick up one copy of Melvin's head
  once he's dead. This encourages social interaction and grouping
  since nobody's worried about having to fight over the rewards.

  He deserves death just for that name... That's not to say the
  world is completely egalitarian. Items will have six levels of
  commonality: common, uncommon, superior/rare, legendary, epic, and
  artifacts. There will also be rare titles and badges of
  recognition that people can acquire. Player distinction and
  cosmetics are important to MMO gamers, so they're important to
  Blizzard. "We want the game to be friendly to power gamers as well
  as casual gamers. Power gamers won't be able to acquire that
  über-artifact that lets them level mountains, but they might be
  able to get a sword of the same power that's available to a casual
  gamer -- only theirs bursts into flames when it's used."

  Hands On

  I had to admit, Kaplan's initial presentation impressed me. In a
  short discussion, he had removed several of the biggest, most
  annoying things that I had hated about other MMOs. Stealing items?
  Check. Social interaction if I want it? Check. Soloing
  possibilities? Check? Stuff to do all the time to avoid boredom?
  Check on that too.  Philosophically speaking, it looks like
  Blizzard's on the right track.

  Next, though -- I'd get my hands on the game and see if what he
  was telling me came close to the truth...
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