Right premise, wrong conclusion

WoW’s (former?) head dev Jeff Kaplan gave a nice little chat at the GDC. You can find it easily elsewhere in the world wide net. But I’d like to call attention to the following snippets, on quest texts and the medium:

Kaplan explained the age-old internet phrase, relating it to WoW quests that are simply too wordy.

“World of Warcraft quest designers are limited to 511 characters,” he said. “That’s all that will fit into the data entry. And all you programmers know why it’s not 512.”

Some quest designers ask for more space, Kaplan said, saying, “Why are there only 511 characters? We gotta have more, let’s blow that out.”
But Kaplan would prefer to see WoW quests go in the other direction.

“I actually wish that the number was smaller. I think it’s great to limit people in how much pure text they can force on the player. Because honestly… if you ever want a case study, just watch kids play it, and they’re just mashing the button. They don’t want to read anything.”

And this other little choice gem:

Kaplan prepared the crowd for a rant at this point.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. We’re so fortunate and privileged to work in a medium that is not only an art, but a revolutionary interactive form of entertainment. It’s unfortunate to see so many games try to be what they’re not, including our game at times. Of course we should embrace the concept of story… art, literature, film, song, they’ve all embraced story as well. But they all tell it in their own unique way.

I feel like we need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game. We need to engage our audience by letting them be the hero or the villain or the victim. [Art, film, literature], they’re tools. But we need to engage our players in sort of an inspiring experience, and the sooner we accept that we are not Shakespeare, Scorsese, Tolstoy or the Beatles, the better off we are.

“If it makes us feel better, Shakespeare couldn’t 3D model his way out of a paper bag,” concluded Kaplan.

“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.”

Dear Mr. Jeff Kaplan (Jeff K.? lawls, etc.), if you’re reading this, my humble comment: It’s not about 511 characters or more, and it’s not that people don’t want to read your quest texts because they’re too long. People skip your texts because the quality of the texts stinks. A good writer can work wonders with 511 characters. What I would suggest to you, sir, is not to lower the limit, or raise it. The solution is pretty obvious: Hire better writers. There are tons of good writers out there that produce excellent stuff and are dying to get some work. When you outsource the writing to a programmer, marketing guy, cousin or whatever you’re only doing a disservice to the game.

15 thoughts on “Right premise, wrong conclusion”

  1. Addendum: If people don’t believe what a good writer can do under 511 characters….

    “He felt on his trip that every place stirs up an emotion, and every emotion invokes a memory: a time and a location. So couldn’t he find the Princess now, tonight, just by wandering from place to place and noticing how he feels? A trail of feelings, of awe and inspiration, should lead him to that castle: in the future: her arms enclosing him, her scent fills him with excitement, creates a moment so strong he can remember it in the past.”

    361 characters

    “Ghostly, she stood in front of him and looked into his eyes. “I am here,” she said. “I am here. I want to touch you.” She pleaded: “Look at me!” But he would not see her; he only knew how to look at the outsides of things.”

    178 characters

    “Perhaps in a perfect world, the ring would be a symbol of happiness. It’s a sign of ceaseless devotion: even if he will never find the Princess, he will always be trying. He still will wear the ring. But the ring makes its presence known. It shines out to others like a beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion, distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth. In time he learns to deal with others carefully. He matches their hesitant pace, tracing a soft path through their defenses. But this exhausts him, and it only works to a limited degree. It doesn’t get him what he needs.”

    511 characters (without quotes)

    All from Braid.

  2. Well said my friend. Bravo! I do hope he get’s it in his head, or else just imagine how empty the new Bliz MMO will be with Tigole at the helm.

  3. I think you’re misunderstanding what Jeff’s saying. He’s not saying “people don’t want to read [WoW’s] quest texts because they’re too long.” He’s saying that the majority of players don’t want to read quest texts, period. They could hire the best writers, creating compact masterworks for each NPC’s utterance, and most players will still skip right by the rationale for killing Noo’Nah the Demon Lord and just go kill him. Adding more space for text effectively means more wasted storage space.

    His second quote there gives a clue as to why: MMOs tend to be crappy mediums for developer-driven storytelling. In my opinion that’s because the medium doesn’t really allow for player actions to have true repercussions on the game world. People get quests for direction, because quests tell them “what should I do now?” They learn it’s time to go to another area, and as a result they’ll get some more XP and maybe a nice new hat. The in-game reason as to why a player’s character might want to do this-or-that action is irrelevant. Noo’Nah never stays dead, and the world is never a better (or worse) place for his passing.

    In this way an MMO is not a good way to deliver a story compared to, say, a Shakespearean tragedy. The strength of the MMO medium is to allow the players to create their own “stories” alongside other players, be that a recounting of a raid encounter over beer and pizza with your guildmates or a roleplay session.

  4. It doesn’t matter how well written it is, if it boils down to “Kill ten rats and I’ll give you gold!” or “This guy is bad, kill him for good armor!” people will skip through it. If you want to show lore, use cutscenes, you have more tools to impart information, and people are less likely to forget how to get to the next npc when they actually see him talking to your quest giver instead of getting his name in a paragraph.

    You quote braid, but shadow of the colossus barely uses any text at all and manages to hook the player and convey emotion just with cutscenes, sound effects, and music. And Ico honestly could convey emotion just by using controller vibration to make you feel Yorda’s pulse as you walked.

    Seriously, text is overrated. Cutscenes and other means of showing information work much better.

  5. 100% agree. Any gamer can write some fan fiction, and many MMO gamers can write a descriptive story… but it does take a professional writers to “show, don’t tell,” which I feel many of the cheaply hired writers in games have trouble with. That, and it is likely the editors are not also professional editors, but game designers… so they read the text, feel it is good enough to implore the “character” to kill the next ten rats, and be on with it.

    Somehow, I was disturbed with Blizzard’s presentation, and I think you turned my feelings in to words.

  6. @Dblade
    Cutscenes and other means of showing information work much better.
    Why I believe the quest givers in Age of Conan is hands down the best quest delivery system in the MMO genre…
    We may be clicking through, and the answers may not even matter, but we also have something visual to show us how the quest giver feels, complete with emotes and the whole 9 yards…
    But, to top it off, the stuff is very well written…

    What others should strive for..

  7. Good points all. I still beg to differ a little. Kaplan sees “kids clicking through” and immediately blames the medium, mostly, and then his approach to it.

    I think he has it backward, hence the “right premise, wrong conclusion” bit. There’s a difference between “text is at fault” and “your text is at fault”. So that’s why I think that, while expanding the medium and finding a better way to convey story/quest/objective is very good, what matters most is what you’re doing with that medium.

    Kaplan has the wrong approach. For example, the natural conclusion to the “kids just click through” premise to anyone who paid attention to players would be, possibly, that the prevalence of “quest helper” mods + the little variety in intrinsic quest goals (it’s all either kill, fetch, get there and use or get there, basically) is responsible for this fast click away – kids don’t need to read because by level 15 pretty much they realized they didn’t have to; get to the point marked on the map and do the one of three or four possible quest actions was enough. Kids click through because you’ve bred them all through the game (and all through many games, to be fair) not to pay attention to what you were saying. Because you didn’t make it necessary.

    But Kaplan blames the fact that the text is too long. He’s missing the forest for the trees, just as he did when he designed Green Hills of Stranglethorn.

    So it’s not the text length, it’s not that you have to deliver it through cutscenes, cinematics, a hybrid system super lovey and talkey NPCs or whathaveyou. It’s -what you’re doing- with the prevalent medium.

    Garbage in, garbage out; if what you put in sucks, in terms of writing, it’s gonna suck no matter what medium you deliver it through. If this was cinematics, and Kaplan said “people are just clicking the cinematic away”, his (wrong) reaction would be “let’s make it glitzier and better looking”, instead of “let’s make the writing for those better.”

    I might be wrong, but I don’t think I’m misinterpreting him much. While trying to find a different, better medium is nice, people click through because they’ve learned they can do it and not miss anything (thematically or gameplay-wise). It has nothing to do with the length of said texts. A text empty of meaning or value is still a text empty of meaning or value regardless of length.

  8. I still think you’re missing his point.

    “But Kaplan blames the fact that the text is too long.”

    No, he doesn’t. He’s saying that expanding the text won’t help matters. Give the writers 511 characters, 51 characters, or 50,111 characters, the problem is the same: most players don’t give a rat’s a** about the story. As long as your text boils down to “Kill Noo’Nah and you’ll get some XP and a shiny,” the majority or players will skip all the buildup, all the emotional impact, all the tie-ins to the background of the game, because all that matters to most players is what they need to do to get more phat lewtz.

    The quote about increasing the text length is because his quest writers want more space to tell a background story about why the character needs to go kill 10 foozles. His point is that the existing space is perhaps too much, because all most players want to know is “go kill 10 foozles.” Apart from what directly gives them game-mechanic benefits, it doesn’t matter if the 511 character space is written by Neil Gaiman or Hack McHackersen — when it boils down to “kill 10 foozles, get XP and a nice hat”, that’s all most players want to know. Which is, I think, what you’re getting at here:

    “While trying to find a different, better medium is nice, people click through because they’ve learned they can do it and not miss anything (thematically or gameplay-wise). It has nothing to do with the length of said texts. A text empty of meaning or value is still a text empty of meaning or value regardless of length.”

    This is where I think you and Kaplan part company. He’s saying, “screw the background, just tell people ‘Kill 10 foozles and you get a cookie’ since that’s all that matters.” You’re (apparently) saying: “Leave the story in, just make it have weight and meaning.” I don’t think that has anything to do with the quality of the writing, but rather the import of the writing: if killing 10 foozles gets you a shiny… but foozle-friendly merchants will charge you higher prices, and you may get randomly attacked by vengeful foozle herders, you may want to think twice about taking the quest.

    Presuming there is no fallout for killing the foozles — as is the case with the majority of WoW’s quests — then there’s no point in switching to cutscenes, or increasing the text length, or increasing the writing quality. Most people are going to try and glean “where are the foozles, and how many do I need to kill?” and everything else you throw at them is merely noise to that signal.

  9. Great subject to bring up, great discussion lots of good points made. This is why I read this blog. I would like to simply add this “If something is fun to read, I read it. If its not, I don’t” end story.

  10. You might be right, Sok. But maybe at the end of all this it’s still a problem of writing.

    Yes, it’s correct to say that most players just want to kill stuff and not bother. But, follow me here for a second, on November 2004, and largely through the following times of WoW’s expansion -when it was still ‘new’- most players went into it with with few preconceptions. If come 2009 and all your players want to do is kill stuff without paying attention to what you’re saying it’s because (a) you’ve bred that trait over years of limited and uninspiring questing and (b) that is your own fault.

    I keep going back to the very limited actual quest actions, a.k.a. what you actually need to do once you get to the quest spot, and it all boils down to those four or five things and nothing more:

    – Get to quest location and kill (x) of (y), return.
    – Get to quest location and gather (x) of (y), return.
    – Get to quest location and activate (z)
    – Escort (p) from (a) to (b)
    – Get to quest location.

    That’s about it. That right there comprehends… I’m gonna go out on a limb and say 80? 90%? of WoW’s quest actions. And other MMOs as well, be fair. And, saving technical limitations (“our game just can’t do that”), this is at its core a problem of writing and design as well.

    If WoW has told its players to do the same darn five or six things quest-wise for almost five years, and to top it off the game’s writing is sub-par, that’s when Kaplan mentioning text length and the medium itself becomes a pill that’s a bit too large for me to swallow.

    Writing is not just quest text. It also has a lot to say in what we want our players to do, what we’re going to allow or forbid them to do, and how they’re gonna go around doing or not doing it. Again, saving technical limitations (which I don’t know), there’s no reason why the writing in terms of quest design, not text, has to be so limited and uninspiring.

    Or am I supposed to believe that in 2009, when the engines driving our games are approaching photorealism, game assets are measured in gigs and successful MMOs make good money… all we’re able to design are five or six quest types? I flat out refuse to believe that.

    I don’t know if the blame (if there’s such a thing to assign) lies on Kaplan, all the former EQ alums that came on board WoW’s development or what. But I refuse to believe or accept the biggest MMO in (western) history, with a subscriber base larger than many countries and a game that has been piling up money with a bulldozer for at least four years uninterruptedly apparently can’t do better than this.

  11. Nemesis Officer: I assure you, my good man, Nemesis is most definitely “down with the street”. Word up, my homie, as it were.

    21 words, baby.

  12. “Writing is not just quest text. It also has a lot to say in what we want our players to do, what we’re going to allow or forbid them to do, and how they’re gonna go around doing or not doing it. Again, saving technical limitations (which I don’t know), there’s no reason why the writing in terms of quest design, not text, has to be so limited and uninspiring.”

    Agreed completely, and I think this works with what Kaplan is saying. An MMO is not a novel nor a play, it’s an MMO, and has its own toolset for storytelling. That toolset involves the ability to interact, to make choices that shape the narrative as it progresses. “We need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it” — because a wall of text boiling down to “kill ten foozles” doesn’t fly.

    I suppose it’s a pity Kaplan doesn’t elaborate on how we can expand narrative within an MMO. Your list of five quest goals is a good distillation, I think. Let’s suppose we’re ultimately limited to those: at the end of the day, your quest will still be “go get (x) of (y), return.” Some potential wrinkles:

    ** There are multiple ways to get X of Y, some easier than others. Kill all who stand in your way, bribe them with something else they want more, convince them that you’re their pal, complete another quest to open up a passage to bypass most of the opposition, etc. The quest still remains “go get (x)”, it’s just that how becomes more open.

    ** Once you get X, you realize that maybe you don’t want to give X away to the questgiver. In fact, you may be better off giving it to someone else. In both cases you’ll get a reward, but in both cases you’ll earn the ire of someone and have enemies. Or you could just destroy X, which may have it’s own set of repercussions…

    In both cases you would convey the options/hints within the block o’ text/cutscene/whatever, thus giving them a bit more import than the simple blather of why Questgiver really has an emotional attachment to X. Import until someone writes up the quest walkthrough, that is…. but hey, it’s a start.

    I’m curious if he’ll figure out a better way to “deliver [the] story in a way that is uniquely video game” in his upcoming project. We’ll see.

  13. Interesting — I’d argue that they did show how to expand narrative within MMOs in WOTLK. There were several great examples of using quest chains and your actions in those quest chains to show the world changing — the Sons of Hodir/Thorim chain, for example. This multi-hour quest chain has you meeting key players, negotiating a truce, uncovering deceptions, and provides a motivation for soon-to-be-released end-game content.

    I find it disingenuous to complain about the limited quest activity palette. The only substantive way in which MMO quests differ from, say, KOTOR is that you don’t get dialogue trees. I’m not personally all that convinced that dialogue trees are a great solution either — BioWare can make them jump up and roll over, but you still are left with that same feeling that you’re doing things on rails.

    I think there’s a confusion here between game design — the limited palette of tools that are used to direct the player without confusing them — and storytelling. Braid has a limited palette of actions; the “quests” all boil down to learning how to use the five or six actions to build into greater things. Same with Wow — there’s a limited palette of things you can ask people to do, so it’s about building that up into something more. Saying that killing ten rats is the storytelling instead of the gameplay makes no sense to me.

  14. I think there’s confusion because there are several levels of writing and we naturally put everything in the same bag.

    In my view (and I might totally off base here) design should respond to writing and not the other way around. Or rather, design should do in its design ways what the writing is calling for.

    Example, the Northshire Abbey area in WoW. Starting area for Humans. There is an abbey there because the writing calls for one, and inside that abbey you’d expect to see abbey-related NPCs and not, say, sewer-related NPCs. With abbey-related quests to give perhaps. Design would build that in the world, but writing goes into it as well regarding how to build it. That’s one overarching level of writing.

    WoW’s design, broadly speaking, calls for many groups of easy to kill enemies more or less bunched together so the starting player can begin to come to grips with the world, his skills and the questing mechanisms. Design doesn’t care if those bunches of enemies are rats, kobolds or orcs. Design doesn’t care if they live in a cave nearby or they’re out and about. Design doesn’t care what the quests are telling players; doesn’t care ‘why’ players have to do what they’re called to do.

    So that’s another level of writing over simple quest text, and probably the one that is causing the most problems. Because from day one the quality of this level of writing has been junk. Of course it has improved. If you compare Northshire Abbey with Bloodmyst Isle, in terms of writing, the Draenei starting area is much tighter. There’s a prevalent common theme and thematically it just flows better. But it’s still hit and miss.

    All design cares about, more or less, is to have enough quests/xp around so by the time players move from Northshire to Goldshire they are (x) level. Doesn’t matter how. Yeah, many level 1’s just race to Goldshire but that’s player prerogative and not the point. The writing is at fault, not the design, in Northshire because it gives utter junk to the players. It’s borderline irrelevant. Kobolds, wolves and Defias with very little reason to kill them other than “they’re there and nearby”. Yes, there’s that guy that wants wolf parts for something, but for no reason other than the want itself. Yes, there’s that lady that owns the vineyard the Defias are occupying, but that’s mentioned in itself with no connection to anything else of note.

    One of the greatest triumphs and pitfalls of WoW’s design, at the same time, is how a level one can race to Stormwind perfectly fine and it doesn’t matter one bit. When you suggest to your players how it’s the same if they’re there or not, and those quests get done or not, and there’s no impact on the world then (a) your world starts becoming irrelevant and (b) you start conditioning your players to expect irrelevancy.

    No wonder they click through.

  15. “(a) your world starts becoming irrelevant and (b) you start conditioning your players to expect irrelevancy”

    Indeed. This is the legacy of the “massive single player game” that WoW is designed to be. Nothing can really change because it would wreck the ride for everyone else. It’s not a world, it’s a chase for bigger numbers, and the social aspects have been derived from that, including the click-through questlines. The stories just don’t matter to the gameplay, so why bother with them?

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