Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Blizzard Want Ads: A Game Designer With A New Idea

So I got to 70 in Burning Crusade about two weeks after it shipped. At first it seemed like leveling up was going to be fun, because of all the new content. But then it turned into a grind, because of all the "new" content.

Executive Summary

Landscape Artists: 10/10 (great job, as usual)
Creature Artists: 7/10 (nice job, but a little lacking in variety)
Game Designers: 4/10 (boilerplate content with some nice writing filling the blanks)

OK, Gorey Detals

Here's the deal. World of Warcraft is a game engine that, fundamentally, allows you to run your avatar around and, in a very limited way, interact with other figures (computer- and player- controlled). You can accumulate possessions, some of which affect your character's appearance and/or "capabilities". The graphics are very pretty, the controls are responsive, but that's about it. Pretty much everything beyond this takes place, more-or-less, in the head of the player.

E.g. the game contains lots of "quests". Lots and lots and lots of quests. But a quest in fact comes down to:

a) Click on a computer-controlled figure ("person" or "wanted sign" or "random object").
b) A dialog box appears. Read it.
c) Follow the instructions in (b).
d) Click on another figure and receive a reward (items, money, experience).

Where item (c) is one of:
1) go somewhere.
2) go somewhere and "kill" a prescribed number of things. ("Killing" is essentially a process of clicking buttons and watching animations.)
3) go somewhere and "collect" a number of things (either by "killing" figures and taking the items from them or just clicking on things).
4) go somewhere and click on one or more things (e.g. "talk to so-and-so" means click on them, "read such-and-such" means click on it).
5) escort a figure from point A to point B (which generally involves "killing" some stuff).

There are some minor variations on these themes, but that's about it.

So, any idea that you are "talking to someone", "killing someone", "embarking on a dangerous journey", "undertaking an urgent and desperate mission" takes place entirely in your (the player's) head and not really in the game itself, which is really just an engine for wandering around virtual landscapes and clicking on stuff.

Very little assistance is given to the player in order to help the "head game" (which is all that separates an enjoyable computer game from, say, balancing your checkbook in Excel) beyond very nice graphics. E.g.

i) conversations in World of Warcraft are not interactive. In many cases, you just get a dialog box.
ii) "urgent missions" are, with very few exceptions, not urgent at all. There's no time limit. You can abandon them and try them again later.
iii) nothing you do has any impact on the world. E.g. if you're told to kill a terrible orc chieftain who has been harassing villagers, you may have to queue behind other folks killing the exact same chieftain. The chieftain may "respawn" before you've even finished "looting the head" of the chieftain you kill to complete the quest.
iv) "dangerous journeys" often involve travelling no more than a few yards down a well-marked path.

This is not to say the World of Warcraft is not a compelling and enjoyable game. It certainly is, and moreso than most single-player games. But its weaknesses are magnified in Burning Crusade (the recently released expansion). The quests are more repetitive, more formulaic, and more predictable than before. The "zones" are (aside from cosmetic differences) populated with nearly identical creatures and quests. It's all a bit of a yawn.

And, having reached level 70, it seems that the future holds key and faction quests ad nauseum. Oh, how original.