Confessions of a WoW Quest Designer

Rarely do we get a chance to peek behind the curtain at Blizzard Entertainment. The company that makes the most popular MMO in the history of gaming is fairly secretive and clandestine about their development process. Blizzard is so cloak and dagger about their operations that their street address is never published lest hordes of angry fans upset at the latest class nerf show up with torches and pitchforks and storm their hallowed halls.

To be fair they occasionally give us a glimpse into their inner workings at various BlizzCons and Game Development Conferences. Last year it was Rob Pardo who gave a speech at the GDC — an annual conference aimed directly at game industry types. This year it was Jeff Kaplan’s turn to ask for absolution from his fellow game designers with a talk entitled The Cruise Director of Azeroth.

Broken Toys has already pounced on this story as has Mobhunter each giving their own unique takes on his speech. There’s another report from Gamasutra as well. I’d like to put my own Wolfshead spin on Jeff Kaplan’s lecture.

Let me first say that I think we need much more transparency in hearing from MMO devs instead of the usual corporate spin doctor speak we get from the community reps on the official forums. Jeff comes across as being brutally honest, self-deprecating and *gasp* even humble which is a very refreshing change from the high school bravado of his days back as a guildleader of Legacy of Steel.

Control Freaks

I’ve always maintained that Blizzard are control freaks. Everything about WoW is about controlling the player from the perspective of a single-player game mentality. Even the title “cruise director” implies that you the player are on their ship and you are just a tourist that needs to be given a full set of activities to keep you entertained.

Jeff Kaplan: What this means, and this is kind of a weird one, but you show up to a quest hub, and your minimap is lit up like a Christmas tree with quest exclamation marks.

The weird thing is, if you ask our fans, they love this. This is to them a good quest hub… They go in and vacuum up the quests. But we’ve lost all control to guide them to a really fun experience.

Did you notice that? He said “we’ve lost all control”. The thing is, the player is never really in control when they play a quest directed MMO. Yet the very fact that the player is choosing to load up on all of these quests at a quest hub seems to infuriate Jeff. Why? Because the player is not supposed to do this. This is unintended. This is wrong. It seems that he’s saying that the player is thwarting their own potential fun by being *in* control. The horror.

Question: Is it bad to let players take control of they way they play your MMO?

While I do sympathize with Jeff at the fact that players nowadays seem to load up on quests like a fat man at an all you can eat buffet, can you really blame them in a MMO where efficiency and min/maxing are the order of the day? WoW teaches players to behave like achievers, why then should they not “grind” quests in the same way they do everything else? Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Too Much Text in Quests

Jeff laments that there is too much text in quests:

Jeff Kaplan: I actually wish that the number was smaller. I think it’s great to limit people in how much pure text they can force on the player. Because honestly… if you ever want a case study, just watch kids play it, and they’re just mashing the button. They don’t want to read anything.

Yet how can this be when WoW is a quest based MMO? Quests without some form of text can’t exist can they? It seems he’d rather just have a laundry list of things you need to kill and/or get.

The problem here is not that there is too much text to read, it’s the fact that a typical MMO interaction with NPCs is a very boring and uninteresting one way conversation. Think about it. You aren’t allowed to speak or reply. You have no input.  All you can do is press either accept or decline. NPCs have the emotional depth of a vending machine.

The solution is that we need to get away from the WoW quest pane opening up where the NPC gives you a speech about how he needs your help. We need to have quests and interactions with NPCs that are challenging in their own right and more like the exchange you’d see in a real conversation. So Jeff, the text isn’t the problem rather it’s the sterile and unimaginative way the text is delivered. Maybe you’ll ponder this for your so-called “next gen” MMO. We need a revolution on how players interact with NPCs. Is anyone listening?

It’s Not a Game, it’s a World

See if you can count how many times Jeff uses the word “world” in his lecture.

Despite the fact that it’s the “World of Warcraft” and not the “Game of Warcraft” Jeff to my knowledge never refers to WoW as a world, instead he calls it a game. I find it fascinating that one of the former lead designers of the most popular MMO in existence has an apparent aversion to calling WoW a world.

Some MMO designers are afraid of using the term virtual worlds. They feel it’s too experimental, too weird and too pretentious. It scares them because it’s a heavy responsibility making a world even a virtual one. It’s much easier and safer to make a game because if the world goes all wrong you can say “it’s just a game…” There’s also a lot of machismo involved with the competitive nature of gaming, so creating a virtual world is for sissies. Real men make games not virtual worlds.

If there was any doubt as to why Blizzard has been willfully negligent in fully developing the awesome potential and possibilities of a virtual world we have no further to look then the attitude of people like Jeff Kaplan. He’s been the “man” all along keeping WoW down. It’s a well known fact that Blizzard has given veto power to all of its key people. So it’s very easy to see why typical virtual world features like player housing and guild halls have never made it into WoW given Jeff’s disdain for the notion of virtual worlds.

It's a World, Not a Game

If it’s Broke then Fix it

After reading that Jeff authored the infamous Green Hills of Stranglethorn quests and other problematic quests I have to wonder why they just don’t go back, fix them and make them better. Why do they knowingly let people suffer through these quests for 5+ years? There’s a certain arrogance at Blizzard that once content is “finished” it’s finished for good.

I guess $500+ million a year in profits isn’t enough green to hire someone to fix old quests or update old content. I know this cool guy in Washington that may be able to help out Blizz with some stimulus money. 🙂


I have to respect Jeff for being honest enough to admit that there are some problems with the quest system in WoW. His frankness and candor aside, we should not let him off the hook for failing to address many of the systemic problems inherent in quest driven gameplay. Longasc a reader of this site made a great comment that I sums up the feeling that Kaplan didn’t go far enough in admitting the shortcomings of the WoW quest system:

Longasc: I unfortunately miss the part where he says “Now we need to get away from quest-guided content delivery”.

I suppose we should be thankful that he finally manned up and made a partial confession. There is hope for him. It will be interesting to see what if any lessons Jeff has learned from WoW when he creates the quest content for Blizzzard’s unannounced next gen MMO.


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  1. Longasc April 7, 2009
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  3. Jeremy S. June 16, 2009