Last week, game design company Blizzard released the latest update to their very successful World of Warcraft massively-multiplayer online game: Mists of Pandaria. My daughter and I often play WoW together when she’s on break from school; we tried out the game expansion for a couple of days over the weekend, and we’ll return to it for more questing during her autumn break.

As with most other game releases from Blizzard, I was blown away by how the company has managed to continue evolving this game experience. The architectural, narrative & interaction complexities behind making such an immersive shared experience are dizzying. And that’s not even to mention the considerable technological challenges.

As my kid and I were starting new “Pandaren” characters and playing through the beautifully designed quests, I was reminded of an article I read a few years ago about how the MMO came to be: “IGN Presents the History of World of Warcraft.” It discusses the business and competitive landscape from which WoW emerged, and the early design decisions behind it. In particular, it details how Blizzard had to re-think its strategy, sometimes when a product was almost ready to launch, and found themselves changing direction in spite of the “sunk costs” — because they wanted to release something excellent, rather than ship software just to meet a deadline. Such a “pivot” in a huge corporation with accountability to multiple 3rd parties is hard to imagine, but evidently it made all the difference. The article mentions another important point that’s hard to remember when in the thick of meeting deadlines on the corporate software conveyor belt:

World of Warcraft didn’t revolutionize the genre, but it won its war in the subtleties. While all persistent world RPGs come down to some kind of endless, insatiable quest for experience points, WoW brought a sense of immediacy to its pacing. Abundant quests gave the basic grind a sense of purpose in a way that hacking random monsters in the field never could. Death was no longer a heartbreak that meant losing everything you had spent the day working towards. The often brutal leveling curve was distilled to a gentle slope. Everything about WoW was designed around keeping things fun instead of punishing the player.

WoW wasn’t earth-shattering in its concept; it wasn’t a new invention, nor was it especially innovative in terms of launching brand-new game mechanics or story ideas. The difference was in the attention to the details of choreography: at each point of the player’s experience with the game, are the rough edges made smoother, are the activities and motivations aligned? The Blizzard WoW team didn’t stop after product launch, either. The game’s rules architecture and game-mechanics ecosystem are significantly different now than even just a few years ago. In a recent interview with a lead quest designer, there are numerous mentions of game elements that have been changed for the most recent expansion.

What we did with Mists of Pandaria is we really tried to look at how people play World of Warcraft, and we wanted to give everybody more stuff to do. So we still have dungeons and raids, because we think that’s the most compelling group content you can create in a video game, is really difficult, challenging raids… but we wanted a lot of stuff for people to do that really — maybe if you’re not into dungeons and raids, a lot of people would hit max level and then they would just re-roll another character. And I wanted something for you to do with your character at max level. So we really just doubled down on the stuff in the world that you can do with your max level character. Every faction in the game is now a story and an experience, and something that you can interact with every day, and they’ll have different quests for you every day. It’s more than a bar that grows on the bottom of your screen, it’s a whole story arc.

I emphasize the last sentence because it’s a great way of putting the challenge we often encounter when trying to make the binary, cold logic of computing technology accommodate the rich, organic, analog needs of actual people. Again, it’s in the finer details and nuances of the game where players are finding the magic. And that attention to detail is part of the designers’ continual willingness to keep questioning prior design decisions (even big, expensive ones) and changing things when they can be better.

The real key here seems to be that the way Blizzard measures “better” is highly driven by watching everything players do. Not just analytics on how much they buy or re-subscribe or promote the game to friends, but the human part of what they do in the game. There’s an explicit consciousness toward how people aren’t just completing tasks, but exploring a whole story.

Not all of us get to work on fantasy environments where everything is in a world apart, as in World of Warcraft. But we can still pay attention to the nuances of how people interact with the places we do make, and we can consider the narrative of that person’s life, where instead of questing in an artificial, immersive environment like WoW, they’re trying to get things done in the outside world. It reminds me to always be thinking of the whole picture, no matter how complex, and to be willing to change direction if that picture shows me the current work is heading the wrong way.

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