Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

GDC09: The Cruise Director of AZEROTH: Directed Gameplay within WORLD OF WARCRAFT

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 30, 2009

Here are my notes for the GDC Session “The Cruise Director of AZEROTH” presented by Jeffrey Kaplan from Blizzard. The first segment was thoughts on the quest design in World of Warcraft, and the rest was about specific mistakes the quest team felt they made in the original WoW. There was a lot of interesting and relevant info packed into a nice digestable lecture:

Directed Gameplay in World of Warcraft

  • The goal of directed gameplay in the design of WoW was to improve immersion within the context of an open-world design.
  • Directed gameplay can be achievements (750 in WoW, according to Jeff “Some just suck”), UI via tutorials or navigation information, and Quests, which are the primary source of directed gameplay in WoW.
  • Players of WoW complete 16.6 Million quests per day, and 8.5 Billion between June 2007 and March 2009.

Original Design of WoW Quests

  • The original design of WoW was to be content driven, with the flavor of an open world. Original goal was to have 600 quests at launch, to compete with Everquest’s 1200 (which included the first few expansions).
  • Then in internal Alpha, Blizzard employees said (according to Jeff) “What the Fuck” about the number of quests, and they eventually had to scale up to 2600 quests at launch, 5300 through Burning Crusade, and 7650 today.
  • A big goal was to improve quest accessibility. This came through in putting ! above quest givers (which pissed off the hardcore, who thought finding quest givers was “gameplay”),  integrating a quest log, orienting the log to give “cliff notes” for the player, and showing the rewards ahead of time.
  • Players should never have to try and discover the core game experience. When people can’t figure out what to do, they get bored and quit.
  • Showing the rewards ended up not being that important, because players learned to trust the developers: Quests in WoW were by design the “smart” way to play, and players felt safe knowing they could trust they would be playing efficiently

Mistakes in WoW Quest Design

  • The “Christmas Tree Effect” of giving too many quest givers was determined to be bad. They now give you a max of 7 available quests. He feels this discouraged players from reading quest text and getting involved in the world’s fiction. (My view is that it’s a lost cause to get players to care about the fiction of non-custom quests, and personally enjoy trying to optimize my questing)
  • “Too Long, didn’t read”. If the text is too long then NO ONE will read it, even people who want to. WoW quest text has a hard limit of 511 characters, and they have to fight for it when designers and programmers want to increase it.
  • Medium Envy. Quests that try to hard to mimic other mediums (film, books) tend to not work out too well.
  • Mystery in quest objectives. In today’s world there is no way to effectively do mystery for quest mechanics. Players will figure it out anyway, but they’ll just get irritated if the developer forces them to check a FAQ. Put the mystery in the fiction, but NEVER so players don’t know what they can do next.
  • Poorly paced quest chains. There is one 14-level quest chain in WoW that is way too long. This makes players lose trust in the designers and think too much about how the quest was designed.
  • Gimmick quests without polish. You should direct players towards the fun that is your core mechanic, not waste time half-assing bizarre vehicle missions (I would argue that in certain cases it can be good to distract players from your core mechanic)
  • Bad flow in a zone. If you give quest chains that are too deep, or are too uniform in objective, the zone starts to feel boring and players quit. The WoW quest team now explicitly graphs out mission flow for a zone, and uses that to evaluate how fun a zone might be.

Specific Collection Quest Mistakes

  • Creature density issues (too few, too many, hard to find, large travel distance). If it’s hard to GET to a quest objective, that has to be factored into the balance or players will be irritated and distrust the developer.
  • If you have a collection quest that takes too many items or types of items (that irritating 19 part quest in Stranglethorn), it screws the players by confusing them and using up valuable backpack space.
  • “Why collect THAT?” There has to be a reason you are collecting things. If you’re collecting “gnoll paws”, why doesn’t one always drop after a kill? Why don’t 4 drop? Why isn’t it just a kill task in the first place? Collection quests need to have some logical payoff, such as being combined into a potion that you give to someone.
  • WoW has a standardized collection quest drop rate of 35%. This leads to good and bad streaks, so in Lich they changed it to a progressive percentage, where it gets more likely to drop if you haven’t gotten one in a while. This removes bad AND good streaks, so they had to raise the drop rate to 45% or so to match with player perception. (This is a good start, but I think a better study into the actual psychology of drop rates is warranted)


  • They have 5 full-time quest designers, as well as help from encounter designers. There were 60 developers on the original WoW team and 140 now, but they can’t really scale the quest team. They prefer a small, manageable team who communicates a lot.
  • They don’t have any sort of magical quest testing setup, other than that each designer must play their own content.
  • The original design of quests encouraged players to travel between zones frequently. Eventually they realized this was a bad idea due to how long the zone travel times are in WoW, and now try to only use breadcrumbs to leave zones when it makes sense. (This still needs a lot of work, especially in early zones)

One take away for me was that Jeff kept talking about how important it was to go back and fix up old, badly designed quests, but that CLEARLY has not happened to any significant extent. They know the problems, but even a company like Blizzard appears to enjoy making new stuff much more than fixing old broken stuff. I’ve been thinking that this is just an inherent bias built into creative people, and I don’t know the right way to combat it. Other than that, the talk did a good job of getting across some of the specific design decisions of World of Warcraft, and did it in a way that was clearly targeted at devs instead of fanboys. Despite seeming a bit nervous on stage, Jeff gave a great presentation.


4 Responses to “GDC09: The Cruise Director of AZEROTH: Directed Gameplay within WORLD OF WARCRAFT”

  1. […] 3:00PM: The Cruise Director of AZEROTH: Directed Gameplay within WORLD OF WARCRAFT: WoW has the best MMO content in the business, so of course I’m curious about their techniques for developing it. (posted my notes) […]

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