Back before World of Warcraft launched, in 2004, the template for quests in an MMORPG was a little dry. Games like EverQuest were primarily inspired by text-based MUDs, where you didn’t need much incentive to go out and kill things. For World of Warcraft, that wasn’t going to work.
Jeff Kaplan, who’s now known as the director and face of Overwatch, started his career as a quest designer on World of Warcraft. Speaking on a recent episode of the AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook podcast, hosted by Insomniac boss Ted Price, Kaplan told a story of how he, his fellow quest designer Pat Nagle, and Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham pieced together the quest chains that helped make World of Warcraft such a sensation.
“We came up with a bunch of different templates,” Kaplan said. “It really was a matter of trial-and-error. Early on, I remember sitting with Allen and trying to predict how many quests the game would need. We were sort of using EverQuest, and Asheron’s Call, and Dark Age of Camelot, we were looking at other big world games and just making a gut call of how many quests we thought we would need.”
To start, Kaplan said, he and Nagle split up the first two prototype zones. He took the forest of Elwynn; Nagle took the farmland Westfall. Then, Kaplan said, he put around a dozen quests into Elwynn, thinking that players would fill in the blanks themselves.
“We came from this very EverQuest mindset which was, you’ll have a few quests which will take you to an area, then once you’re in that area, you’ll be excited there are creatures to fight, then you’ll fight the creatures for a few hours and eventually get bored and then look for a new quest after that,” he said. “We were so wrong.”
When Kaplan and Nagle put up the alpha, their co-workers began storming their shared office, saying that something must have been broken. They told Kaplan and Nagle that once they’d gone and finished one of the quests, killing bandits or whatever it was, nothing else had happened.
“We’re like, ‘Did you see the gnolls? you should’ve just gone and killed the gnolls,’” said Kaplan. “They were like, ‘I’m not doing that, that’s so boring. That’s why I don’t play these games. I need more quests.’”
It was those complaints that led World of Warcraft’s team to come up with the quest chains that shipped with the game—seemingly never-ending sequences of missions that would guide you from location to location, giving you a stream of incentives to grind and level up. By peppering the game with tasks—even mundane tasks—Blizzard was able to hook even the players who had hated grinding mobs in previous multiplayer games.
“I remember as soon as that alpha ended, Pat, Allen and I were just sitting there going, ‘Oh no, what did we sign up for,’” said Kaplan. “We realized at that moment, that was defining in WoW’s questing history. There’s a new paradigm here. What previous games have done is not going to be accessible if we want to broaden our reach.”
The full podcast is full of fun anecdotes and is worth a listen.