I can’t say I agree with you, Mr. Kaplan

April 11, 2009

So, for those of you who may not know, Jeff Kaplan did this big panel at the Game Developers Conference that was all about quest design relating to World of Warcraft.  While the talk was, as a whole, really awesome, there was one part specifically where I found myself disagreeing strongly with Jeff.  That part was video games as a medium for story.

As a person who absolutely adores story in video games, I found that whole section to be really off.  I can get what he’s saying — people need to calm themselves down and just not write as much in those little quest boxes — but it didn’t come off like that.  Especially the line, “Don’t be Shakespeare in video games.”

Being a good story writer in video games means being sometimes brief, but always being inventive.  You need to capture the player with your writing, not overload them with meaningless drivel and huge word counts.  And, above all, the design itself needs to nurture the writing, otherwise people are just going to skip right over it because you’re not sending them the right message.

Take, for example, the standard “Kill 10 rats” quest.  In original World of Warcraft, we saw a heavy usage of attempting to wrap story around these horrible, horrible quests.  “I got chased out of my home by some kobolds, so I need you, the hero, to kill 10 of them so I can go back into my house.”  It doesn’t matter how good the storyline is with that quest… it’s still a shitty kill 10 rats quest.

Story and design need to go hand in hand.  If it’s an epic story, then it better have some epic design to it.  I better feel that I am truly following some grand path when I’m doing that quest, otherwise your writing comes off really overblown and unnecessary.

Jeff, later in his panel, pointed to the success of the Death Knight questline.  His reasons for it being a better string of quests was because of better design — and he’s right to a point.  But what also helps that questline be so absolutely amazing is the writing and overall plot arc that went into it.  Sure, some of the quests in that long chain have the standard “grab X of this”, “kill X of that” but they’re all enveloped in this wide goal of completely destroying the Scarlet Crusade.  Phasing goes a long way in making these types of quests “feel” amazing for the player, because they can see how their actions are affecting the story.  The player now has an impact and can see the story unraveling before them in more ways than just a stupid quest box.

I think that’s the overall goal of storytelling in interactive spaces — make the player feel it.  Books have stories that come off of the page and envelop the reader, why can’t we do the same thing in video games and do it 10x better?  We let the player play in a beautiful imaginative space.  We have more ways of relating story besides 511 characters in the quest pane.  Why don’t we actually go out and embrace them, rather than just throwing players into meaningless encounters just so they can get that special piece of equipment.

When we stop using the carrot on a stick motivation and start using actual emotional motivations for players, then we’ll be our own modern day Shakespeares.  Don’t say something is bad just because your game sucked at it for 2 expansions.


  1. I totally agree with you ^_^

  2. Indeed. Games have vast potential for storytelling, but too many devs are stuck in a teenage male rut, completely oblivious to how to tell a good story, how to *show* a good story… and what a good story even is in the first place.

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