At a fast and off-the-cuff GDC Online session, Blizzard designers and writers covered a wide variety of topics that affect design and writing in games such as World of Warcraft and Diablo.
Dave Kosak, lead quest designer of WoW explained the biggest challenge that he faces regularly: “You have to continually reinvent the world... It’s tricky, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. WoW writers have been reinventing the game since it launched in 2004.
For lead content designer Kevin Martens, who’s working on Diablo III, keeping players moving rapidly through the game while still telling a story is a challenge that the team is solving.
“You click through everything until it explodes with blood and treasure,” said Martens -- it's an aspect of play that the team needs to stay focused on.
That constant stream of gameplay is the main hook for Diablo, and Blizzard doesn’t want to step on that hook for the sake of storytelling.
“We’ve learned that ambient storytelling is very important,” said Martens. Lore books, similar to BioShock’s audio books, and other ambient pieces of storytelling have become important in Diablo III’s story.
Blizzard’s passionate community isn’t afraid to speak up about what it likes – and what it doesn’t like – about designers’ choices. According to James Waugh, senior story developer at Blizzard, he listens to fans, but that input needs to be filtered through his colleagues and his own experience as a game designer.
While Kosak said one complaint from a fan on a forum bugs him, even if it’s amid a hundred positive comments, Waugh didn't feel the same way. “I don’t think I’m affected by the fan chatter at all, but I’m not dismissive." He added, "It doesn’t inform on what we work on, or my opinion.”
To Waugh, the characters in Blizzard games are, in a sense, real – as long as the writers and designers are true to who a character is, then everything works out as it should. And, if something really isn’t working, Blizzard designers and writers should be able to sniff it out during the creation process, he said.
“I keep thinking of a rock band,” said Chris Metzen, Blizzard SVP of creative development. “You jam on a piece … and people either dig it or they don’t.” The bottom line is that “You gotta stay true to the artist you are,” he said.
He argued that creating a memorable story and characters “isn’t about being super clever,” or even unique. It’s more about a writer tapping into something that resonates from within, and writing from the heart.
"These goofy contrivances [that a writer writes]; it’s something true coming out of you,” said Metzen. "The more of yourself you put into this stuff, [the more] it feels like art again.”
Sometimes, the writer's heart says to kill off an important character. But this decision should not be taken lightly, and should be used as a powerful storytelling tool, the panelists said. “When you do something like that you have to be offering [players] something new as well,” Martens said.
For example, when designers decide to kill off a character in a sci-fi game, his death might then open up a brand new dimension to explore. “You play fair with fans when you do it that way," said Martens. "Never waste a character’s death."
Panelists also recounted some of the key gaming moments that made them realize the power of the medium. Cameron Dayton, transmedia consultant for Blizzard, said for him, it happened while playing id Software’s Doom.
“A wall opened behind me [in the game], and it was a demon, and I literally fell out of my chair. My friends would snowboard and have these cool bruises. I had a gaming bruise,” he laughed. But he was proud of the geeky injury, and the fact that a video game initiated his primal flight instinct showed the effect games can have on players.
For Waugh, it was the RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic from BioWare. The twist at the end of the game was his “ah-ha” moment. “It was one of those moments [in which you realize] you could tell a story in the gaming space. … I was blown away. … This is the new frontier of storytelling.”