Community Manager Zarhym on game design vs. story development

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|08.29.13

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Community Manager Zarhym on game design vs. story development
Zarhym on game design vs story development
It's always interesting seeing the blue team's thoughts on World of Warcraft, whether on the community, or the development of the game itself. Community Manager Zarhym had some profound words to share this week regarding the interviews we've been seeing for patch 5.4, and the challenges of setting up community interviews with the different developers. There's been a big, ongoing debate amongst players regarding story development this expansion -- in particular, faction story development. Players feel that the Alliance story has been somewhat left behind this expansion, to say the very least.

Zarhym decided to chime in and comment not only on this topic, but on the topic of interviews in general, and how hard the story development team works on the story behind the game we love to play. Given that we've done several interviews with various developers over the course of Mists of Pandaria, it was nice to see Zarhym's thoughts on the matter. Read on for his post in full.

Quote: The debate over faction story development continues internally here at Blizzard, as it does on the forums and elsewhere.

Any chance we can get more updates on that debate? We get constant updates on gameplay mechanics from Ghostcrawler and other CMs about their thoughts and feelings, but we only rarely hear things from Kosak and friends.

It'd be very helpful if they started talking to us and telling us what they're hearing, because right now it seems like there's a really big communication gap.

It's something we're working on. I'd love to set up more story-centric interviews and conversations with the community. But, while Dave and Greg are both design leads, it's very difficult to compare their tasks, workloads, and roles within the community.

Systems design is extremely complicated, but it revolves primarily around math. It's easier to have a conversation over class balance concerns and walk away with some objective, actionable feedback. We also try not to change classes too dramatically from patch to patch -- we don't want people logging in and suddenly not knowing how to play their class every time they download a new patch. Greg can talk about general changes early on in a patch's development cycle, and then he can take feedback and look at an array of statistical data we collect in order to finetune numbers closer to the patch's release.

Story development works very differently. Concerns are much more subjective. This isn't to say they're inherently less valuable, as we're always taking careful note of what the popular opinion is on a given topic. But, there's often a degree of complexity to story development concerns that certainly can't be addressed by changing a couple values somewhere in the game code. And the story we want to tell, combined with the gameplay we want to introduce, is determined much earlier on in development than what class balance will look like in patch X.

For example, there are several people in this thread asserting that the entire concept of the Siege of Orgrimmar is flawed from a story perspective, particularly for the Alliance. Well, we knew Siege of Orgrimmar would be the final raid of Mists of Pandaria before the expansion was revealed at BlizzCon 2011, and the story framework for how we'd get there was already more or less in place. So, even when we do react directly to feedback about story concerns, we're looking much more at the big picture here, and what stories we want to tell and how they should unfold over the course of several patches (or even expansions).

We can make some tweaks and refine some story arcs along the way, but regardless of the discussions taking place right now, the 5.4 story is set. It has been for quite some time. That's in big contrast to the aspects of systems design that draw the most discussion (i.e. mainly class balance).

So, tying this back to the varying capacities in which Dave and Greg engage the community, I couldn't be very liberal with Dave's time when it came to booking interviews. I found about an hour of his time (hour and a half if you count that I stole part of his lunch break) and sat him down for back-to-back interviews -- in, out, and done in one swoop. The reason being that his role in the development of a patch happens at a very different stage of the cycle. At this point he's not actively reading PTR feedback and tweaking how the Horde and Alliance are responding to the threat of Garrosh, or deciding to rework the conclusion of the siege. It's way too late for that, and he's already very busy working on the stories yet to unfold in World of Warcraft. And, yes, in that space he takes popular feedback to heart.

Dave Kosak... I just don't know anyone more passionate about this game's narrative, or more burdened with the responsibility of making sure that the story is fun to play through regardless of the faction, race, or class a player chooses. He cares deeply about you feeling personally invested in what you're doing, and whether you're red or blue certainly doesn't change that.

All this being stated, I want to add more words to this post. :p

Part of my role on the WoW Community Team is fansite/influencer relations, which includes booking developer interviews. I've been on the team for six years, but I took on the role of fansite relations shortly before Mists of Pandaria was released. Not counting things like PAX or other press events, I've been responsible for booking developer interviews for five press rounds (5.0-5.4). Each time I experiment with the formula by trying to cover different formats, give different sites or people a chance to talk to the devs, etc.

Looking back on the last five rounds to determine how we can improve the process and results going forward, I'll tell you right now that I'm most interested in bringing story discussion more to the forefront of interviews -- including WoW devs like Dave Kosak, as well as folks from Creative Dev like Chris Metzen and Micky Neilson -- and getting our artists involved more regularly, 'cause you don't hear from them enough. And finally, while I understand the importance of having a mix of text, audio, and video formats, I want the developers on camera more. I believe strongly that the more you get to see and hear the individual behind the name, the better!

It may be difficult for some players to understand, but Zarhym's right on the money with his statements regarding game design vs. story development. While game design and balance is one of those things that is primarily a numbers game, the story development behind the game is something else entirely, something far, far larger. Game design and class balance is something that can be tweaked at any given time, depending on feedback from players and how the game seems to be balancing overall. It may not be as easy as simply plunking a higher or lower number into a program, but it's something that can be adjusted relatively quickly if the need calls for it.

But when you're looking at story -- and I'm talking about the entire, sweeping story of the expansion as a whole -- this is story that has already been written. It's already been put into play. Adjustments could theoretically be made, but they'd have to be at best, minor ones -- otherwise you'd have to re-write the story altogether, and you simply cannot do that mid-expansion. Think of game design like driving a sports car on a long road trip. If you feel like turning left instead of right, you're entirely at liberty to do so. In fact, you could spin the thing into a 180 if you really felt like it -- they're easy to drive and quick to respond.

Story, on the other hand, is like a train moving down the tracks. The destination has been predetermined, the tracks are set on the ground, and the train has little choice but to follow those tracks until it reaches that destination. Every now and again, you can flip the tracks if need be, but the destination is the same every time. It's predetermined. It's been scheduled. It can't be changed on the whim of a single passenger, or even an entire car full of passengers. So what's the story team to do, when feedback has been particularly vocal this expansion?

You can't change the destination, but you can plan ahead for the next trip that train is going to make. And while Mists of Pandaria is nearing that inevitable end of the line, we have another expansion to look forward to. Having had the pleasure of speaking to Dave Kosak, Micky Neilson, and others on the Creative Development team, I can only wholeheartedly agree with Zarhym's assessment of these people -- they care more deeply about this game and the direction it's going than any player possibly could. It's been shown time and time again as the years go on for World of Warcraft that the developers do listen to feedback when it's constructive and has merit -- for some teams, it just takes a little longer to try and set the tracks straight than others.

It was really great seeing Zarhym's feedback on the subject -- as a Community Manager, he does an admirable job juggling responsibilities on the forums with scheduling interviews and keeping in touch with fan sites like us. But what Zarhym's really best at here, is reaching out to the community and keeping them filled in on what's going on behind the scenes, and in his head. Check out the full forum thread for more.

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Community Manager Zarhym on game design vs. story development