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Experience Design

MMOs: Creating a compelling user experience over time

Last weekend, I virtually attended BlizzCon 2011, a conference hosted by Blizzard Entertainment, the game developer behind Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo. A major focus of this annual conference is to provide insights and generate excitement about upcoming content planned for each franchise, but it is also a celebration of gamers, by gamers, and for gamers. Tournaments give us a chance to see the best of our fellow players compete against each other for major prizes (for example, the champion World of Warcraft arena team split a USD75,000 first prize) and glory. Interviews and panels by the game designers and developers provide insight into the work, thought, and passion that fuels the continuing evolution of these games.
It’s these last types of sessions that I’m especially drawn to and from which I gain user experience design insights. Although the focus of the conference is notably different from the UX-focused conferences I’ve written about previously, this conference offers a unique perspective into what goes into creating some of the richest user experiences around.  This year, I especially enjoyed World of Warcraft (WoW) Lore and Story Q&A panel featuring Chris Metzen, Senior Vice President, Story and Franchise Development; Dave Kosak, Lead Quest Designer for WoW; and Sean Copeland, historian. As I watched them answer the most detailed questions about the story line so far from a passionate crowd, it dawned on me that there are strong lessons here about designing for UX over time in a way that few companies currently consider. Three areas are very relevant to development of many other products.


The first area to consider is engagement. Low hanging fruit, right? Games should be engaging in the exact way spreadsheet software isn’t. However, in a potentially endless experience of a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, keeping users engaged enough to get through the grind of killing 10 of this enemy and harvesting 30 of that rare herb to level and advance quest lines is really very challenging. Not every game does this well.
Two points emerged to show why WoW in particular remains the dominant MMO after 10 years. The panelists have great passion for their material and have great empathy for their fans. They care deeply about delivering a phenomenal experience, they care about the characters and worlds they create, and they care about seeing all of that evolve and grow. “We love these characters,” said Kosak. Metzen reiterated, “No one loves these characters like we do.”
Ethos is tough to bring into a world, though. Even Blizzard designers still struggle with bringing some elements of the story into the game without getting in the way of people who just want to play. Watching them work through these struggles show that emotional engagement is still one of the hardest parts of the user experience to design for.
The gamers who experience the resulting story and game are a diverse, international audience who are equally, if sometimes not more, protective of this world and its culture than the designers. The gamer audience is also characterized as being some of the most demanding and critical consumers of any service in the world. Blizzard’s response? The game designers invite questions, criticism, and ideas in a live Q&A session as well as in developer diaries that they post periodically and in the online forums for each game. In these online resource, they often detail player feedback that changes and developments are responding to. Metzen has talked about how BlizzCon refuels his “geek batteries” and closed the panel expressing his appreciation to the audience, “Thanks for loving this stuff, for sticking with us.”
And the engagement effort is across multiple channels, including the tone and look-and-feel of the websites (microsites serve each franchise separate from the main Blizzard site), user forums, BlizzCon, and offline media such as books and comics allow lore enthusiast to dive even more deeply into the individual characters and their stories. They then share what they learn in forums. Hints were made in other panels that there may be yet other media through which players can engage.
There are unique challenges with providing multiple channels for players and still keeping everyone equally engaged, even those who don’t take advantage of other channels. Taking the example of sharing story through books. Metzen noted:

“I was petrified of trying to develop fiction in real-time with WoW. Quest design process is complicated enough, right? It’s really hard to develop quests…  to develop that much story and keep moving… As we were chasing stories over the year, we took a more conservative route [in the past]…

A lot of people don’t want to go out and read a book. They want their content in the game… I think the onus is on us try and bring and really bring these events and have them more evidenced in the game. That kind of thing needs to be balanced with the quest lines and the content that Dave and his team are already pushing.”

Kosak added to that point,

“Certainly, one of my principle goals with being on the content team of WoW is to make sure that these key events that happen in the lore are somehow represented in the game. If you read the book, you’ll get all kinds of perspectives about the characters and about the event that happened.

But there will be a component of it in the game that you can interact with, so that you can catch up, so you can see what happened. ‘Oh, big event! I was there. I got to experience that.’ It’s not easy to do. We going to keep trying to experiment with that. I think we can do a much better job of it… It’s one of my principle goals and I work really closely with the guys on c-dev [content development] to make that happen.”

BlizzCon Website showing World of Warcraft Lore & Story Q&A panelists

BlizzCon Website: World of Warcraft Lore & Story Q&A Panelists Metzen, Kosak, and Copeland (© Blizzard Entertainment)


Second, MMOs are inherently social, but WoW’s design and lore cultivate a culture and in world and out. The culture in WoW along with other online communities has been studied by sociologists (Ars Technica has an good example article). Guilds, tournament teams, and just an in-game friends list, allow players to connect and share with other players and develop relationships.
Game design also promotes social interaction by encouraging players join in parties to solve challenging boss battles and achieve player-vs-player dominance with team mates, share adventures with their fellow guildies, have a dance party in the town squares, and of course, talk about the exploits of Chuck Norris in and out of the WoW world. The structure of quests, the variety of chat channels, support for services such as Ventrilo for voice chat, and flavor controls like emotes let players create their own game experience and contribute to that of others. And if one thing doesn’t provide the experience you want (Chuck Norris chatter isn’t to everyone’s tastes), you can go find another experience to share.
Out of world, you can join user forums to talk about almost any point of the game of interest and, of course, attend BlizzCon.

User experience over time

Third, and of particular interest to me, WoW delivers an evolving experience over time. They aren’t afraid to take risks that might potentially alienate some players initially, but will advance the story line, expand the lore, and refresh the experience for seasoned players. They realize that they cannot be complacent if they want to remain relevant. In the last expansion, they completely broke the world of Azeroth. Areas that had become stale are totally new. Next, they are delivering a new race and a new class (a way of playing) in Mists of Pandaria. But they aren’t forcing the story in a stilted way. The panelists were not afraid to say they haven’t worked out every detail for certain characters and certain storylines.
Even the existing content provides new ways of experiencing the world are readily available. Create multiple characters and accomplish the same quests differently. They deliver periodic world events and holiday content to mix up the regularly scheduled questing.
They are also constantly looking at game play. As much as I cringe every time I have to reallocate my skill points when they reset a character class, I recognize that they are trying to create a balance where every player can play and make equal contributions. They adjust player-vs-player battlegrounds and increase challenges in existing dungeons. They have lowered the barrier to entry, introducing free play to level 20 and supporting faster advancement up to level 50, while maintaining the challenge and commensurate rewards for higher levels. This attracts and encourages new players to join an established culture while avoiding alienating experienced players, a difficult balancing act.
That’s just a broad overview of the insights that MMOs and WoW in particular offer for developing richer and more complex user experiences. I could write more, but that’s enough for this post and I need to go do the Hallow’s End holiday quests before the event ends next week.
Author Notes:
Access to the recording of the panel requires a virtual ticket, which is still available for purchase if you’re interested in watching the panel for yourself. You can view the recording through 20 November 2011.
BlizzCon, World of Warcraft, Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo and Blizzard Entertainment are trademarks or registered trademarks of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.

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Karen Bachmann

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