Blizzard: Game designers aren't Shakespeare
Lay off the text reams
GDC 09 Former World of Warcraft lead designer Jeffrey Kaplan told his fellow developers today to lay off the heavy text.
Speaking at a presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Kaplan - who's now helming Blizzard's next unannounced MMO - said game makers often suffer from "medium envy", where they try to deliver a compelling story by writing reams of dialog and narrative without keeping in mind it's a video game.
"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," Kaplan said, adding that he's as guilty of this fault as anyone else.
"We need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game," said Kaplan. "We need to engage our players in sort of an inspiring experience, and the sooner we accept that we are not Shakespeare, Scorcerse, Tolstoy, or the Beatles, the better off we are."
Kaplan said WoW has attempted to avoid drowning the player in dialog by limiting designers to only 511 characters in their quest descriptions.
"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," he said. "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."
Kaplan quite candidly addressed some of the other mistakes he felt WoW quest design suffers from.
One mistake in quest building Kaplan described is the "Christmas tree effect", where a player enters a new area and sees their mini-map light up with the exclamation marks of NPCs with new quests to offer.
"If you ask the fans, they love this," Kaplan said. But he cautioned that presenting too many quests at once makes the game maker lose control of guiding the player through a good quest experiences.
"With too many quests to pick up at once, odds are the player won't read anything," Kaplan said. "Odds are they won't anyway, but anything that prevents them from doing it is a bad thing."
Kaplan said one way WoW quest designers have attempted get around the problem was giving one quest giver several quests.
"It should just say 'Do Elywnn Forest' at that point," he said. "Come back to me at level 60."
Another is a focus on "gimmick quests without polish". He illustrated this by showing a slide of one of WoW's newer dungeons, The Oculus, which has players ride dragons throughout.
"We didn't build the engine around vehicles," said Kaplan. He added that other games like to tack on vehicle combat (while describing, but not naming Halo) where "you can tell they didn't know what they were doing with vehicles, and it felt all floaty and things didn't shot right. The same mistake happened in World of Warcraft."
Another was sloppy collection quests — something that's too often the bane of gamers. Kaplan admitted that he was behind what he himself described as "the worst quest in WoW", the infamous Green Hills of Stranglethorn quest.
"So I'm the asshole that wrote this quest," Kaplan said.
"It's a horrible quest, and I'm the one who made it. And somehow I am talking to you guys today."
Unfortunately, Kaplan didn't offer any details on Blizzard's next MMO. And he even teased the audience about it too — the Green Hills of Stranglethorn-writing bastard. ®