15 Minutes of Fame: Games designer James Wallis

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15 Minutes of Fame: Games designer James Wallis

15 Minutes of Fame is WoW.com's look at World of Warcraft players of all shapes and sizes -- from the renowned to the relatively anonymous, the remarkable to the player next door. Tip us off to players you'd like to hear more about.

Some players bound into a 15 Minutes of Fame interview like a Death Knight capering into Hellfire Peninsula. Questions get Death Gripped, ideas pop up like an Army of the Dead ... There's no stopping the flow. Take, for example, game designer and gaming professor and guild GM James Wallis. You could read his Wikipedia entry to give you a proper idea of what he's all about – or you give in and consider his own, more exuberant version of a biographical note:

"Origins Award-winning game designer. Have had a game published by MIT - that was unexpected. Have written 14 books, including two Sonic the Hedgehog novels from the early 90s that I prefer not to be reminded of. Have journalisted for everyone from the Sunday Times to Fortean Times. Launched Bizarre magazine in 1996. Back in 1986, I and some friends set the Guinness World Record for playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons non-stop (84 hours). Currently running Spaaace, the games consultancy, and Magnum Opus Press, which publishes old-school tabletop RPGs; and lecturing in game design at the University of Westminster."

Main character Munchausen
Server Nordrassil-EU

15 Minutes of Fame: With a background as diverse as yours, we can't hazard a guess as to your playstyle preferences ...
James Wallis/Munchausen: I play in three main ways: I solo, I explore, and I chase achievements. That doesn't mean I don't do instances, but the idea of doing VoA or ToC over and over again until the one piece of gear you want drops or until you've got enough tokens for that Tier 8 hat really doesn't appeal to me.

I don't PvP much. I don't enjoy it, and my main's a Tauren Hunter, so I'm a big obvious target and get ganked a lot. I do Wintergrasp because Wintergrasp is more of a mosh-pit than a PvP battleground, but the rest of it - feh. I realize that means there are literally thousands of achievement points I'll never get. I don't care.

You're the GM of <unassigned variable> (of which previous 15 Minutes of Famer Alice Taylor is also a member). How would you characterize the guild?
It's a friends guild, so you have to actually know an existing member in real life before you can get an invite. That keeps things small and fun. I think in the two years the guild's been running we've had exactly one /gquit, and that was an accident.

We're focused more on having fun than on raiding or becoming imba, and our definition of "fun" may not match other game players. Sometimes we treat the world as if it's our home and have parties and meet-ups there. Sometimes we treat it more as a sandpit or test bed, seeing what we can get up to that the games designers probably didn't intend. That doesn't involve hacks or wall jumping, but it does involve making up our own games and playing them within the structure of the greater game.

Most of the guild's members are involved in new media and games design, so our perspective on the game and game world can be quite analytical, from massive number crunching to talking about community building, the designers' intentions with specific pieces of geography, or quest structuring. It can get quite in-depth and tedious at times, but then we start jumping off things - pretty soon, we're back to the regularly scheduled embarrassing wipes in Naxx 10.

We also have a guild tradition of ding shots: taking photos of the moment a player maxxes out their character's level. These things are important and should be recorded -- you know, you should have a way of remembering them. There's something of an art to getting a good one and not hitting the button at the moment the toon's completely obscured by the roman candle. Like I recently did for Crystaltips (see above; sorry, Crys). Ideally, you should also be naked or wearing a really stupid costume.

Speaking of really stupid costumes, we hear tell of crazy guild events ... Dish!
The last really big event we ran was the naked Gnome steeplechase. The rules are pretty simple: everyone generates a new toon of a race/faction that most of the guild is unfamiliar with - doesn't have to be Gnomes, though naked Gnomes are inherently funny - and we see who can get the furthest from the start zone or gain the highest level in one hour.

As for upcoming events, I've recently invented the sport of Druid BASE jumping. A bunch of Druids gather somewhere high, jump off, and the one who hits Flight Form last without smashing into the ground and dying wins. We're planning a bit of street theatre in Org, using a little-known Inscription item, but that's not for another month, so I'm not giving away any clues. One of our guildies has been threatening for ages to organize a clam bake party on the beach south of Steamwheedle Port. In-world parties are a bit of a guild tradition, though they almost always devolve into naked skinny-dipping in the pool in Thunder Bluff. We're also in the early stages of planning something big for the evening before Cataclysm comes down.

And in the real world, I'm about to order sets of custom made cufflinks with the guild crest on them. Because, you know, there's Etsy-style crafting and then there's WoW gear you can wear to meetings.

How does your game design background affect the way you look at WoW? Are you able to play freely, or is there some part of you that's always analyzing, pondering, casting sidelong glances at ideas and places and mechanics?
Part of me is always looking at the game design or the world-building, and WoW is good about giving you pauses to stop and smell the pixels. A lot of the things I'd noticed came together last summer into a conference talk called "Brave n00b World," which was an attempt to work out how big Azeroth is and how it works in terms of physics and space and stuff. I mean, once you've noticed that the sun always rises and sets in the northwest, and the moon does the same thing, you have to start wondering about how that works in terms of orbits and gravity.

The conclusion I reached - all the maths on this was done before WotLK, but actually that doesn't change very much - is that Azeroth is a sphere about 12 kilometres in diameter. For reference, the Death Star is 120 kms in diameter. But Azeroth has terrestrial gravity, so it must have a density of 5,850 grammes per cubic centimetre, more than 500 times denser than lead. And that has further implications ... You can see the talk I gave here, and there are more papers here.
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