Monday, March 30, 2009

Does Every Gamer Really Want WoW's "Directed Gameplay?"

In a presentation at GDC 2009 [note: this links to some salty language], Wrath of the Lich King gameplay director Jeffrey Kaplan discussed a number of issues in quest design that the Lich King team considered to be problems. Kaplan says that all of these issues are things that Blizzard will be actively avoiding in all future quest designs.

Examples of these perceived quest design defects are:

The Christmas tree effect: quest hubs activate lots of quests, which players take in any order that they like.

Too long, didn't read: most WoW players skip even the 511 characters Blizzard allows for quest text, so why bother?

Medium Envy: "Art, literature, drama, film, song have all embraced story" but gamers don't care about any of that artsy stuff.

Mystery: "[E]ven 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.'"

Why am I collecting this [stuff]? "You never want the player to even think somebody made the game. You want the player to think only of himself."

My reaction is that all the things Kaplan describes as problems probably make sense for Blizzard. Blizzard has enthusiastically embraced the "directed gameplay" notion of game design, in which no player at any time ever lacks a blindingly obvious answer to the question, "What do I do next?" All of Blizzard's new content, including quests, is being designed to be consistent with that assumption that everyone who plays World of Warcraft needs their moment-to-moment gameplay to be strongly directed by Blizzard.

Is that really a good assumption for all other MMORPGs?

Should all of the quests and other content of every MMORPG be designed so that no player at any moment in time is ever in any doubt about what they're "supposed" to do next?

Or is there room in the MMORPG industry for games that provide guidance and assistance but not constant direction?

For my part, I think of these two service models as similar to those of the late Circuit City and Ikea, respectively. Forget for a moment about the products sold: think about the shopping experience.

I used to hate going into a Circuit City, so much so that I simply stopped going there years ago, because I detested being swarmed by vulture-like "sales associates" who wanted to direct my consumer experience. They treated everyone as uninformed, and they pushed their ideas of what was desirable on every consumer. No sale, thanks.

By contrast, I love the Ikea shopping experience -- there is an incredible wealth of products to explore, each of which is clearly described. On the rare occasion when a customer needs assistance, it's easy to find the centrally-located customer service area. When I shopped at Ikea, the low-pressure environment allowed me to find specific things that I wanted in my own time, and through exploration I often found (and bought) things I didn't even know I wanted.

I'm not suggesting that following the "we'll tell you what you really want" Circuit City approach will cause WoW to fold like Circuit City did. Obviously there are a lot of gamers who are perfectly happy being told one place to go and one thing to do at a time.

What about the gamers who value choice and freedom and the ability to explore a gameworld in their own way and at their own speed?

WoW already exists for the gamers who like lots of direction.

Why should every MMORPG try to compete with that service delivery model when there's an alternative model that can satisfy gamers who are willing and able to direct themselves?

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