World of Warcraft Content Design

Jeffrey Kaplan, the lead game designer of content on World of Warcraft spoke at Anthony Borquez's Videogame Production class (ITP 280) at USC. I got there a few minutes early and found out that Anthony's class is an excellent survey of industry trends, curated and delivered with respect to the students' time and priorities. Tonight he happened to highlight the features and business news of Club Penguin and Webkinz. I highly recommend ITP 280* interested in entering the industry.

It turned out that Jeffrey was a USC alumnus. Jeffrey got his BA in Creative Writing from USC in 1995, and MFA in Creative Writing from NYU in 1998. He actually applied to the cinema writing department and was rejected. After working for a few years at movie studios he decided he'd had enough of the personalities and poor treatment he'd encountered.

At Blizzard, though, Jeffrey doesn't write stories. In fact, he defers story decisions to the creative director. And it was not his writing that helped prepare him for content design at Blizzard. It was not the understanding of fiction and creative writing; it was iteration, and "getting owned" on criticism from others, without being able to talk back. The corporate tree of designers at Blizzard is:

The educational backgrounds are inconsistent at Blizzard. People from MIT work alongside people with no college education. The newest class designer has no college education or professional experience. He beat the best monsters in World of Warcraft in unprecedented time and offered expert advice on classes, those he played and even those he didn't.

Successful massively multiplayer online design

He glossed over the evolution of the MMO, which I won't belabor here. Like most westerners, he didn't acknowledge the early asian MMOs in the 1990s, such as Kingdom of the Winds (1996).

He did touch on the obvious criteria for a successful MMO. They are very expensive, because there is product development and then on top of that service. It is daunting to compete not just with a game, but the time commitment for all its expansions.

My favorite line of his, was "Every game would have been brilliant but for time." So true. I personally hear it (and have lived it) from amateurs and professionals alike that their chief enemy is time. He makes a design principle out of this later.

He said an MMO needs a great intellectual property, which was problematic, given the criticism of Star Wars Galaxies. He noted the intellectual property needs to admit a universe that is immersive and expandable.

The company needs experience with MMOs, which Blizzard did not have when they started. Blizzard recruited people from MMOs. For three years he played EverQuest, out of which he logged 297 days of play, or about 6 and a half hours a day for 3 years. Jeffrey Kaplan was guild leader of third largest guild in EverQuest. That was his entry into the game industry. Blizzard hired him as associate game designer.

The designers need to understand human psychology, sociology, and philosophy behind design. They need especially to understand how persons and groups behave when anonymous.

Like the foundation of any good videogame, there must be a core vision and key features. Spend time on the critical features.

Game Developer post-mortem offers insight into development including the arduous working conditions. Jeff crunched for 9 months; 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, 84+ hours a week (which, if you don't like, you might want to drop out now). It wasn't due to an evil producer. Game designers passionately work extra hours and weekends to keep their content from being cut.

A common mistake of competitors is to focus on making the content last. Instead, make content fun to repeat. Jeff recommends Team Fortress 2 beta; it has 4 maps, but they are fun. Relatedly, grouping should not be forced. Let the solo players and introverts play alone.

A common mistake for MMOs is to believe that shipping is the end of development. If a game is a ship, a small single player game might be SS Minnow from Gilligan's Island. MMO is like an aircraft carrier that stays in service. Shipping is not the end.

Polish is key. That seems to be a Blizzard mantra. And play your own game.

Deliver on the fantasy. Blizzard was panicked about Star Wars Galaxies, the competitor to World of Warcraft. Instead of light sabers and stormtroopers, there was dancing and hairdressing.

Avoid ant farm syndrome. Don't play god. Don't make an ant farm. Social experiment is not the goal of the game. A lot of designers stop playing games when they start making games, because they are playing with the players. That is fun for the designer, not the player.

Sid Meier's son came by Blizzard for a tour. Jeff applied Sid Meier's often-quoted mantra to example games:

Post-mortem on EverQuest

EverQuest was the predecessor to World of Warcraft. THE GOOD: Great world. Deep story. Attention to detail. Evolved from MUDs. EverQuest was polished. Classes are interdependent. The ultimate carrot on a stick: see someone wearing an item you want and you go for it.

THE BAD: No solo advancement. Since groups are critical; class balance is critical and vulnerable. Needs polish. Bugs still exist. Traveling between zones, you just run and your screen freezes and double line of chat.

Punishes too much. One night and one death can set you back more than the whole night. Tradeskill designer at World of Warcraft stopped EverQuest because he combined without feedback and all items disappeared. Death, spellbook, out of combat regeneration. Jeff got to 15 in WOW in an hour, but in EverQuest, it took 5 minutes to regenerate health.

Too steady. After playing 3 years, Jeff had still backstab on his bar.

Spoiler sites were required to get to the cool content.

Too clunky. Alt-tab and instant start were not available.

Good game design

In a great game, no one notices the game design. Halo 3 had a challenging scarab battle. It also had excellent checkpoint and save system; and matchmaking. Why browse servers when matchmaking can be automated for less technical players who don't care about the details. World of Warcraft restricts options, not gives more options.

Make the interface and gameplay intuitive.

Great game design is not "The One Amazing Idea". It is thousands of little decisions each of which is executed well.

Provide choice and tradeoff.

Balance and tune.

Even in an experimental game, there should be a control. That is, not everything can or should be innovative. Find something familiar.

Suggestions when designing

Select a specific problem to solve.

Less is more. (I wish he said more.)

Prototype. Jeff does not like documents. Even at World of Warcraft, all 30 in the room may think the idea rocks. But when it is put into the game, it may still suck.

Iterate.

Listen. When feedback is given, don't defend. At Blizzard (as well as other companies), they're fond of saying to defensive designers: "Are we supposed to ship you with every box?"

Process feedback. Jeff wanted to draw attention to items. Players gave feedback that they don't want their eye drawn. But the exclamation marks if they were not there over the head of the NPCs, would have also received this criticism. Therefore, criticism need not be taken as a literal directive, only as indication that is something, somewhere is out of kilter. A designer has to understand the game well enough to bypass the literal content of the comment.

Be critical of other games and most importantly of your own game. Bioshock plasmids were too limited; they could have exposed and exploited that cool feature.

Polish!

Play many games in many genres. World of Warcraft borrowed basin from Battlefield 1942.

Wear many hats of the player population. Wear the hardcore hat. Wear the casual hat. If you'rer not one, listen to one and understand them. Be aware of the kind of player you are. Jeff is not hardcore; he plays 20 hours a week.

The game should be accessible. Team Fortress 2 took 8.5 years to ship. First version was for hardcore gamers but it wasn't more fun. Second version was broadened and was more fun without missing anything. Many parts of gameplay were obvious from first look.

Trailer for World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King expansion emphasizes wondrous lanscape places and monsters. Amazing places and monsters. The voice over promises sacrifice and the Death Knight hero class. It rattles off seige weapons, hairstyles, items, Northend, items, level cap lifted to 80. It ends on mysterious shot of Lich King.

Jeff admires these games:

MMO is different from single-player design. Designer cannot control player. Designer does not know where the player is. There is a much wider range of population density. Design space for maximum to no player population.

There is a wide range of players, who want mutually exclusive prestige. Everybody wants to be the hero. In single player they can be, together they can't. Player interaction is great; but interacting with jerks sucks.

Knowledge spreads quickly in MMO. One could look at spoiler site in single-player. But in MMO, a spoiler could be spat out while playing the MMO.

MMO grows and evolves. There is no end. Half-Life 2 has a conclusion. MMO is not going to entertain you to the end of time, but there is no clear end. It can be like a bad relationship.

One gets to ask: To instance or not to instance.

Design for World of Warcraft

Know the genre. Know the game. Blizzard used to hire broadly, but now only hires experts on WoW; lest players dance circles. Become intimate with the gameplay. Blizzard designs for the hardcore that are accessible. WoW was the first casual MMO.

Plan on too much content; then prioritize best. Iterate and polish.

Content flow is a network diagram of the nodal areas in a zone, such as 5 person dungeon; 25 person raid, exterior zone; PvP. This is diagram connects areas into a simple schematic network. He did this in Visio. Clear division of content is required, so that nodes can be edited or cut. More in design than will ship (Psst, don't tell the developers that). Others can go to patch.

Dungeon design

Progress. Pace boss. Vary points of interest. Mix up pulls.

Let everyone in party experience it. Make every class shine. Give every class a cool role.

Show off skill of expert players. Put in easter eggs. Put in cheats that are okay. THat will satisfy many players.

Dungeon design sequence:

Concept. Content flow. Network of major locations in a zone, coded by content and use.

Layout in 2D. Lead level designer designs in Illustrator. He can make the zone in 2 days. Whereas the 3D assets would take several months of many artists. Each only takes a minute to delete.

3D Blockout in 3DS Max, which is tested in game. Camera tests and avatar tests. Test with smallest and largest avatars. Test with minimum and maximum camera zoom.

Playtest.

Balance. Balance is in the eyes of the player. It doesn't have to be balanced; the average player just has to feel like it is balanced. Totally balanced PvP means losing half the time. Losing half the time is not necessarily fun.

Feedback. The community is good at identifying problems. The community is bad at designing games and generating workable solutions. The community disagrees tremendously but does not recognize its disagreements. The community, though, is always right. Jeff checks out the guild websites, hardcore and casual, to see how they are reacting to the content.

Lastly, what brought Jeffrey to USC was to promote university relations. Paid 8-week summer internships are offered. Contact Choua Her.

Some of the tips were obvious and shallow (everyone already knows polish is important, but "polish" does not indicate what to polish or how to polish). Yet the talk itself had its own gems. Polished or not, the gems (when provided) in the Jeffrey's lecture not only justified, but overcame and tarnished the foundation of a detraction I'd read last year.

An excellent companion to Jeffrey Kaplan's talk is Rob Pardo's keynote, VP of design at Blizzard.

* After ITP 280, I'd also recommend Designing & Producing Video Games ITP 391.

Notes by Ethan Kennerly 2007-10-10

Return to Fine Game Design