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GDC: Learning From  World of Warcraft 's Quest Design Mistakes

GDC: Learning From World of Warcraft's Quest Design Mistakes

March 27, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

March 27, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, GDC

As huge numbers of developers already know, World of Warcraft has a robust and engrossing quest system. Wrath of the Lich King gameplay director Jeffrey Kaplan explained how this evolves from Blizzard's concept of 'directed gameplay'.

"Directed gameplay is a phrase we use at Blizzard to represent the idea of leading a player to a fun experience. [It's] an underlying tool to help a player become immersed in your game," says Kaplan.

One form of directed gameplay Kaplan seems quite keen on is the achievement system, most commonly noted on the Xbox 360. Though early on achievements were not always used intelligently as a design tool, "Achievements have now evolved to the point that players buy an Xbox 360 game and they look at the achievement list first and use that to decide how they are going to play the game." Since this is the case, good achievement design is paramount, argues Kaplan.

Kaplan gave some impressive if some (admittedly) arbitrary statistics. From the period June 30 2007 to March 5 2009, 8,570,222,436 quests were completed by World of Warcaft players -- a rate of 16 million per day.

Kaplan describes the game as "Content-driven with an open world feel." It's an important distinction: "We wanted Azeroth to feel like an amazing world that players could enter and explore and enjoy... But when it came to our content specific to the player being guided through our world, we were going to do it all ourselves." To that end, all details of the world are placed deliberately and have attention drawn to them.

Early in development, the company's goal was 600 quests ready for the initial World of Warcraft, based on their research-backed estimation that EverQuest had 1200 quests. But in alpha, due to the game's design, "We found that WoW had evolved into its own thing that felt very broken any time it had an empty quest log."

The game shipped with 2600 quests. By Burning Crusade, the game had swelled to 5300 quests; as of Lich King, 7650.

Given this focus, "Our priorities had to shift considerably." The emphasis became on supporting this quest system -- with interface elements, which continue to evolve: a robust quest log, easy-to-find quest givers marked by floating exclamation points, and instant feedback on quest progress both in the log and onscreen as a distinct message. The next version of the WoW client will also include tooltip information, based on user feedback. This is important: until these sorts of feedback were implemented, users would constantly re-confirm their quest log to make sure progress was being recorded.

But more relevantly, the change to a fully quest-driven gameplay lead to a crucial change in design philosophy. It wasn't enough to make the process streamlined. Blizzard had to "make completing quests the smart way to play the game," says Kaplan.

More concretely: "Even if I don't care about the boots from the quest, I have faith in the designers that I will get a good reward from doing that quest." The experience and gold reward "was absolutely the most important thing. I think tuning is often a pillar of design that gets overlooked."

With that, Kaplan launched into a discussions with problems related to the quest design system of World of Warcraft, noting, "We're very aware of these problems and we're working actively on fixing this stuff. I think you'll find the biggest critics of WoW to be the WoW development team."

The Christmas tree effect

Says Kaplan, "What this means is, you sign up to a quest hub and your minimap is lit up like a Christmas tree with quests. If you talk to our players, they love this. The problem with doing this is that we've lost all control as designers to guide the players to a really fun experience. I'm not saying that the experience needs to be linear, or on rails, or don't give the player a choice... just be smart about how you give a player a choice."

The problem is that players mow down the quests one-by-one without regard for progression, forgetting entirely the context that they were given in -- this abstracts the game for players, makes it seem obviously "made".

Too long, didn't read

Writing is an issue for quest design -- Blizzard limits quest text to 511 characters. Describing the writing aspirations of game designers as "a huge mistake we all get caught up in, any of us who have written for video games. We're so effin' brilliant and once it gets out there, everyone's going to realize..." says Kaplan. Don't be precious about your writing; consider the way players actually play the game.

Medium Envy

Kaplan continued this point: "I'm as guilty of this as anyone. It's unfortunate to see so many games try to be what they're not, including our games at times. Art, literature, drama, film, song have all embraced story and they tell it in their own way. We need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it."


Kaplan then identified a more complex problem: approach to an abstract concept like "mystery" in quest design. It can have very concrete effects.

"I screw up on this sometimes," admits Kaplan. "It's not that mystery story is bad. I think the problem with mystery is that the mystery should never be in the action that the player needs to do. We embrace a quest philosophy that even if you're on a mystery story, we should never going to put you on quest where we say 'Something's wrong in [the forest]. Go figure it out.' At the end of the day it needs to say 'go kill this dude, go get this item.' Even if I'm the type of player who's not going to [use an external strategy site or tool] I'm going to see [the solution] in general chat, unwillingly.'"

Poorly paced quest chains

Kaplan feels that quest design is absolutely crucial. "We lose trust in the player. As game developers what we should be doing in our game, we should be building trust in them that we are going to lead them to a fun experience. As soon as he runs into the red quest chain or the creature he can't kill, we lose that trust."

Gimmick quests without polish

"We didn't build the engine around vehicles. Without pointing out any names... You've played that shooter, that shooter is fucking awesome, and it's got seven of the best levels you've ever played and then it's got that one vehicle level where they didn't know what they were doing. The same mistake can happen in WoW. You need to understand what the core of your game is. These quests are more fun for the designer than for the player," says Kaplan.

Bad flow

Kaplan showed a flowchart of a quest, which had four enemy kill quests in a row, then four collection quests in a row. That is bad design, he maintains, and the quest is in the process of being redesigned for the next patch. There should be multiple routes to the goal, and if possible, special non-generic (but non-gimmicky) elements. "It's about being a little bit flexible but always guiding you back."

Collection quest mistakes

"I don't think collection quests are broken, but I think we often do a really shitty job of collection quests," says Kaplan. Here are some examples:

- Poor flow (again!)
- Issues with creature density
- Require too many of one item to be collected
- Require a broad variety of items to be collected

"One of the things that taxes a player in a game like WoW is inventory management. Basically, at all times players are making decisions on what they want to have in their bags."

Why am I collecting this shit?

"You never want the player to even think somebody made the game. You want the player to think only of himself," says Kaplan. Collecting items can seem extremely arbitrary and pointless. But if the collection results in an effect to the story, it will work much better. "[The player's] going to be more accepting of the fact that you put him through all of this gameplay if there's a celebration moment to it."

"Shitty streaks" are also a problem with item collection quests. As of Lich King, WoW has shifted to a a progressive percentage system. "Every creature who is part of a collection quest has the item 100% of the time, but we do a progressive system of how many times the player will see it every time he kills it, and we keep track."

Though these numbers aren't actual, he characterizes the system like this: the first time you kill a monster, you have a 16% chance of getting the item. The second 32%, third 48%, and this progresses to 100%. But he warns "it also got rid of all of the good streaks and we had to raise the base drop percentage higher." 


In response to a question about playtesting quests, Kaplan noted that designers at Blizzard are absolutely required to play their own games, which doesn't happen at all studios. Consequently, "playtesting starts the minute somebody implements something."

One questioner asked why he spends 10 minutes flying around the world to start his game of WoW every time he logs in.

Kaplan puts it down to a vestige of inexperienced design. "You can really see a shift. If you look at original content and compare it to Burning Crusade and then to Lich King, LK is the direction we want to be going." Travel time will be cut down, plans to fix old quests are in the cards. "Early on before the game was public, our philosophy was we needed to move players around this beautiful, big world... We had a lot of ridiculous quests that sent you too far. We later refined this into our concept of 'breadcrumbing'."

Kaplan was asked if the company has formal metrics for timing, or player boredom rate. Says Kaplan, "For combat we definitely had a metric -- we said we wanted combat to last one minute, and... it's actually much quicker now. For other things, it's very gut."

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