GDC 09: Jeff Kaplan on Directed Gameplay Within WoW

ONE OF THE MORE POPULAR SESSIONS at GDC was Blizzard designer Jeff Kaplan talking about quest structure in World of Warcraft. Entitled “The Cruise Director of Azeroth,” Kaplan talked about how the quest team set out to create directed gameplay without sacrificing the freedom of feeling you’re in an open world.

Kaplan started by pointing out different forms of directed gameplay from other games: the overhead arrow in Bioshock leading you towards your next objective; the on-screen tooltips in Team Fortress 2; even the World of Warcraft achievement system, which sets a wide range of goals for players to achieve in the world. Kaplan also showed a scene from the opening of Half-Life 2, which directed the player in a number of ways, including guards that prodded the player to a security checkpoint, and lighting that subtly highlighted where you were supposed to go.

But what Kaplan wanted to focus on was directed gameplay through quests, which to date have been amazingly successful within WoW. According to Kaplan, in the roughly 20 months covering July 2007 – February 2009, over 8 billion quests had been completed by WoW players – an average of 16.6 million quests a day – and that was just in North America, not counting other parts of the world. This represented a major success, considering the teams’s initial quest goals. 

When WoW was early in development, the current MMO leader was EverQuest, which had about 1200 total quests, including several expansions. The WoW team set their goal at 600 quests, many of which went into the low-level 1-10 areas, thinking people would find things to do from 20-60, like kill mobs and group to do dungeons. But company playtesters complained the lack of quests beyond the early levels made for a boring game, that having an empty quest log felt broken. And so the team kept adding more and more quests, to the point that WoW’s release had 2600 quests, and then up to 5300 for the Burning Crusade expansion, and then 7650 for Wrath of the Lich King.

With such a major focus on quests, the team set about improving the general quest experience. Historically, many MMOs hid their quests, where l33t players would scour the world and then post their findings on a forum to tell people about all the cool stuff they found. Blizzard went the other way, putting a big gold “!” over questgivers. As Kaplan explained, the hardcore MMO community erupted, crying that this made the game way too easy, but to the WoW team, the idea of hiding the core content made little sense.

This concept continued with the layout of the quest log, which started with a story-like blurb but then also a Cliffs-notes like summary of the actual quest objectives. Instead of making the player check a quest log to see if they got a necessary item off a mob, the game made an obvious quest update right in the middle of the screen.

(I actually thought Kaplan was a little off target here, implying the reason gamers kept checking their logs was because they thought the game might be cheating them, not giving them credit. Personally, I’d guess it’s often because games throw so much crap at you that it’s hard to remember what you were looking for. Yes, I know I need meat, but which was it again? Lean wolf meat? Tender meat? Raw flank? Did I get the right one?)

Finally, one of the keys to the quest log was showing the rewards right in the quest pane, reinforcing the idea that questing was really the “smart” way to play. You could do other stuff, but WoW continually urged to quest by showing that it would be worth your while.

The final section of the presentation focused on mistakes Kaplan said the team had made (or thought they made). Here’s a rundown:

“The Christmas Tree Effect” – you know when you run into an area in WoW and your mini-map lights up with 12 different !’s for questgivers? Kaplan stated that was bad quest design, that the player just grabs everything, runs into the zone, swings wildly and gets quest drops by default. Having too many quests in the same area at once reduces the player’s focus – giving fewer quests keeps the player on a general path without making them feel restricted.

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” – Kaplan flipped to a screenshot from a WoW quest tool showing a 511-character limit on quest text – which he thought was still too long. Players generally don’t want to read, and the longer the text, the better chance there is of them skipping it completely. The best chance you have of getting players to read is to keep things short, hence the imposed limit.

The Wrong Kind of Mystery – according to Kaplan, there’s nothing wrong with having a mystery in the context of your story, like trying to figure out what happened to two scouts in Elwynn Forest. But what you don’t want is to make a mystery out of our gameplay. Don’t just sent players into the wild with no idea what they’re supposed to do, because they’ll just give up and go do something else.

Poorly Placed Quest Chains – I could personally relate to the example Kaplan used here – the Myzrael chain in Arathi Highlands (Thottbot “Breaking the Keystone” if you’re curious). The chain spanned a dozen levels, sent you all over the continent and ended with you having to kill an elite giant (who was often hard to locate). It was the kind of quest that just sat in your log and taunted you, and by the time you bothered to do it, the rewards were pointless. Kaplan said that was something they got away from in the Burning Crusade and Lich King expansions (and succeeded with IMO).

Gimmick Quests – if anything, I thought Kaplan was a little off target here. He mentioned the addition of gimmick quests where players weren’t sure what was going, particularly some vehicle quests (he showed a screenshot of a rooftop dragon event from Lich King here). His point seemed to be that gimmick quests were bad, but I wondered if he misstated what he meant to say. Personally, I thought that the bombing run events in Burning Crusade and the dragon bomber quests in Lich King were great fun and broke up the monotony of standard collection quests; the problem isn’t that they were gimmicky, it’s that they weren’t polished. So I’m hoping Blizzard isn’t planning on staying away from these quests in the future. I’d like more of them – they just need to be tested and tuned better.

Collection Quest Mistakes – on the topic of collection quests, Kaplan mentioned one issue they found with creature density. For a quest to collect low-level raptor eggs in the Barrens, for example, the problem wasn’t a lousy drop rate, but that the raptors were spread too far apart and you had to wade through all sorts of other zebra and giraffe thingies to find them.

Kaplan also took the blame for creating what he called the worst quest in WoW – ” the Green Hills of Stranglethorn” — where you had to collect 15 pages of a book, which dropped off humanoid mobs and just ate up all sorts of space in your inventory and quest logs. I think Kaplan might have been too hard on himself here — as many audience members cheered, it sent players to the auction house to buy whatever pages they needed, and IMO if you ever leveled up alts, it was like free XP if you planned ahead.

Kaplan also went into a little detail regarding drop rates. Initially, creatures had persistent drop rates, and while it would vary from one mob to the next, they would generally shoot for something in the 35% range. Now, via subsequent patches and expansions, every creature has whatever item(s) you’re looking for 100% of the time, and there’s a progressive drop rate system that constantly massages the drop rate depending on how lucky or unlucky you are.

Overall, the talk offered a glimpse into how hard Blizzard works at fine tuning its game. Kaplan freely admitted that they make mistakes all the time, but they feel they’re their own harshest critics, and as we’ve seen over the past 4+ years, they’ve never rested on their millions of subscribers and stopped tweaking. As much fun as WoW was at launch, it’s clearly a much better game now, and I can only shudder at how many hours I’ll lose to Blizzard’s next MMO considering how much they’ve figured out in the past few years.