World of Warcraft (Part I)

Blizzard is a really difficult company to find. It sits in an unremarkable office park in a bland Southern California suburb and doesn’t even have a sign on the front door to help you find it. It isn’t until you get inside and see the enormous Warcraft III banners, statues of orcs and humans, and see the huge notebook full of fan mail in the reception area that you understand why. Blizzard is a company that focuses inward. It’s not terribly interested in fancy trappings, showing off its talents, or putting on a show for the public — Blizzard’s games speak for themselves. And its latest, the hotly anticipated MMO, World of Warcraft, looks like it’s going to speak volumes.

“Why an MMO?” was the first thing I asked Jeff Kaplan, the game’s associate designer, as we sat down for my tour of the World of Warcraft alpha. The obvious answer, of course, was that Azeroth (Warcraft’s fictional universe) is a world with an incredibly rich history, filled with fascinating characters, monsters, and places. Blizzard has created that world through a series of well-received real-time strategy games and that’s great, but RTS games don’t give the chance to do the kind of open-ended, intimate exploration of the world that an MMO
What do you mean “You’re dead, Jim.”
Kaplan laughed, “The truth is, though, that Blizzard has a large contingent of MMO fanatics. A lot of us worked on MMOs in the past, and a lot more of us played them and had plenty of lunchtime conversations about what was right and wrong with them. Eventually, we realized that as a game company, we didn’t have to just talk. We could create the MMO that we wanted to play.”
As Kaplan fired up the game and ran me through the character creation process, he went on about Blizzard’s gaming philosophy and how they’re specifically applying it to World of Warcraft. Apparently, according to Kaplan, Blizzard’s game philosophy has always been that it’s all about the player experience, not the designer’s ego. Throughout the development process of any of their titles, they’re constantly asking themselves the same questions: ‘Am I having fun now?’ ‘Am I getting angry at the game?’ ‘Am I bored and watching the clock?’ In World of Warcraft’s case it’s, ‘Am I just grinding experience levels?’

Those questions informed the entire World of Warcraft design process. One of the biggest issues with the current generation of MMOs isn’t technological, it’s philosophical. An MMO is a game, not a social experiment. Creating a huge arena and expecting the players to generate all your content means you’ve forgotten why people play games in the first place — to have experiences, to challenge themselves. MMOs shouldn’t be about a designer playing god and seeing what all his little ants do in his digital ant farm. To extend the metaphor, MMOs should be a theme park — not a playground.