Saturday, December 29, 2012

Fit the Theme - Don't put Aliens in Hamlet

During my first year as an associate game designer, I was assigned to work on the "Sunstrider Isles" - later to be known as the Isle of Quel'danas.  The project's scope was ambitious - we were going to make an island with a growing number of quests that would grow and evolve as players quested there - and we had to do it all in under three months. 

The quest team was responsible for the overall vision, but back then quest designers rarely spawned exterior zones. So I was brought on to fill-in the space. I was assigned to work with the handsome and stylish Eric Maloof on the capturable northwest side, while the tough-nosed Luis Barriga handled the Dead Scar. 

I saw it was a town and merrily set to work, trying hard to make an early good impression.  I had blood elves wandering around, talking to each other, gaily gossiping about the neighbors and doing day to day chores around town. 

The next day, Eric came over to my desk. 

Eric: "Hey, Alex, I noticed you started working on the Sunstrider City already."

Me: "Yeah! I figured let's knock it out quick so you can get your questing done before the deadline."

Eric: "Well, I appreciate that... but was that a Blood Elf gardening?"

Me: "Yep, right next to the NPC to who takes out the trash and scullery maid who complains about the butler."

Eric laughed: "Well, I find that incredibly amusing, but these are Blood Elves. They are lazy magic users and incredibly militaristic."

Me: "Oh. Huh. Let me try that again..."


I respawned the city, over the next week. This time with duelling warriors, soul channeling Warlocks and half-broken robotic automotons which patrolled the perimeter. The eastern side had Infernals falling from the sky and demons escaping from magical gateways.

Eric: "SO much better."  

I still kept the gossiping NPCs, but they gossiped about the bosses inside the raid instance instead. Did you ever hear them?

The Importance of Fit

The mischievious Gnome, the stoic, confident Tauren and the recklessly magical Blood Elves are very important themes. While fun to do the burly Gnome, or the cowardly Tauren character, these characters lose their charm and uniqueness if the original kit hasn't been well-established.

This is why Fit is such an important concept in lore, game mechanics and life. If not reinforced over and over again, these important backdrops will be overlooked and forgotten.  

How many players realized that the Arakkoa were victims of magical genocide or that they were once part of a dark and ancient empire? Very few.

Instead, the theme of "creepy bird people" was constantly reinforced. It's okay though, they didn't really matter to the over-arching story of the Burning Crusade. 

Theme and Fit

In a nutshell, try to reinforce the appropriate stereotype with every tool at your disposal: Art, Level Design, Combat Mechanics, Story. These "kits" are your palette for telling a consistent story about the world your players live in.  

Make it fit, or it takes the pillow to the face!
Next time: fitting the audience...

1 comment:

  1. "I still kept the gossiping NPCs, but they gossiped about the bosses inside the raid instance instead. Did you ever hear them?"

    I never really noticed, since I haven't revisited the isle too frequently since its heyday back when the average lifespan of the Blood Elf NPCs was all of 6 seconds or so, but the above statement plus the recent WoW Insider article that mentioned it - http://wow.joystiq.com/2012/12/14/why-the-burning-crusade-didnt-suck/ (under the Paradise Lost section) definitely makes me want to go back and check it out.


    PS: You articulate the various facets of game design very well. After every post, I find myself looking forward to the next one. Well done. =)

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