The presentation saw an extremely candid Kaplan, now working on Blizzard's next-gen MMO, recognize and address the nine major problems with World of Warcraft.
But before getting into the nitty-gritty details, Kaplan made one thing abundantly clear: the WoW team is aware of the problems, and is actively working to fix them.
1. "The Christmas Tree Effect"
What this means, and this is kind of a weird one, but you show up to a quest hub, and your minimap is lit up like a Christmas tree with quest exclamation marks.
The weird thing is, if you ask our fans, they love this. This is to them a good quest hub... They go in and vacuum up the quests. But we've lost all control to guide them to a really fun experience.
Kaplan noted that this leads to users not reading the quests, not bothering to remember which quest giver gave what, and forgetting the order in which to do the quests.
"It's much better to have a slow, guided experience," he said. "I think if you go to [Lich King zones] Borean Tundra or Howling Fjord, you'll always have a ton of quests to do, but you'll never have more than 6 or 7 quests in your quest log."
Kaplan amusingly revealed that some WoW quest designers try to get around the problem by stacking quests onto a single NPC. He showed one NPC that was stuffed with eight quests.
"It should just say 'Do Elwin Forest' at that point," he said, laughing. "'Come back to me at 60.'"
2. Too Long, Didn't Read
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."
3. Medium Envy
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."
This section began with a slide showing Sherlock Holmes.
"Sherlock Holmes is basically looking for Mankirk's wife there," joked Kaplan.
"We should never say something's wrong in Elwin forest, go figure it out," he elaborated. "We can unveil a mystery story, but at the end of the day, in the quest log it needs to say, 'Go kill this dude, go get me this item.' The mystery can't be what to do [on the quest]."
"We wanted the action in WoW quests to be in the gameplay, not in figuring out what am I supposed to do."
5. Poorly Paced Quest Chains.
On the screen was a shot of the Myzrael quest from World of Warcraft, which Kaplan quickly explained.
"It's a quest that starts at level 30, it spans 14 levels," he said. "And it ends with you having to kill Myzrael there, who's a level 40 elite mob. So it's basically like putting ab rick wall in front of a player. Here you go, just bang your head against the wall for a while..."
"The reason that this is bad--it's cool to have quest chains that span a lot of content, and feel kind of expansive and far-reaching. But the reason that this particular case is bad is because the player [loses trust] in the game."
Kaplan continued to say that players begin to distrust the game when being tasked with such elaborate quests, and are less likely to take on longer quests in the future.
6. Gimmick Quests
The slide on screen showed one of the World of Warcraft's vehicle-based quests.
It's funny, I think I went to Google Images and typed in 'gimmick quests without polish' and this screenshot came up.
We didn't build the engine around vehicles, is what I'm using in this particular example.
You've played that shooter, that shooter that is fucking awesome... and then it's got the one gimmick vehicle level, which you can tell they didn't know what they were doing with vehicles, and it felt all floaty and things didn't shoot right. The same mistake happened in World of Warcraft.
Lots of these vehicle quests, they're more fun for the designer than they are for the player.
7. Bad Flow
On screen, a rather messy flow chart for the Loch Modan zone appeared.
"This was a flow chart of how Loch Modan works," began Kaplan. "The red quests are kill quests, the green quests are collection, and the blues are bread crumb quests."
"The problem with Loch Modan is the player didn't have a lot of choice, and the quests were clustered up... you get a cluster of lets say four, five kill quests right away, and then you get into a cluster of collection quests. Has a very bad flow. It's a side effect also of the Christmas Tree."
Kaplan then changed the slide to show a less confused flow chart of the same zone.
"As you can see, there's more than one progression path. They're all sort of broken up, so the player is getting a very diverse experience. "
8. Collection Quest Mistakes
"I think you could do this with any type of quest in WoW. But I picked on collection quests because lots of people seem to hate [them]. I don't think collection quests are broken, but lots of times we do a shitty job [with collection quests]."
Kaplan pointed to obvious problems with creature density: areas with too few creatures, creatures that are too spaced apart, and too much creature variety.
"If I have too many creatures in an area, it's going to take my longer to get through the combat."
As an example of too much creature variety, Kaplan looked to a familiar raptor collection quest in Barrens zone.
"For every raptor that I have to kill, I've got to wade through like three or four other creature types," he said.
Then Kaplan dropped a real bomb: he was responsible for the infamous Green Hills of Stranglethorn collection quest.
"This is the worst quest in World of Warcraft," he said. "I made it. It's the Green Hills of Strangelthorn. Yeah, it teaches you to use the auction house. Or the cancellation page."
"So I'm the asshole that wrote this quest. My philosophy was, I'm going to drop all these things around Stranglethorn, and it's going to be a whole economy unto itself... It was horrible."
"It was utterly stupid of me. The worst part... one of the things that taxes a player in a game like WOW is inventory management. Your base backpack that the game shipped with only has 16 slots in it. But basically at all times, players are making decisions. For a single quest to consume 19 spaces in your bags is just ridiculous."
"So it's a horrible quest, and I'm the only who made it, and somehow I am talking to you guys today."
9. Why Am I Collecting This Shit?
Kaplan used an example of a quest where a captain asks you to kill eight gnolls.
"What the eff, the guy down at the hill asked me to kill bandits and I didn't need to bring anything back to him," mocked Kaplan. "So 'A' I'm asking why I need to bring the paws back. But then I get into this philosophical thing where I say, 'Shouldn't the gnoll have a paw every time I kill him?' Or am I so brutally massacring the gnoll every time that..?"
"And then I'm like, 'Shouldn't he have two paws?'"