Is there anything about WoW that as a game designer you especially admire?
It's hard not to admire WoW. With 12 million players, it's clearly doing an awful lot right. The ease of use, the sense of being in a world that has its own reality and physical existence - those are terrific. As a game ... I'd give it maybe 7/10. It's a good game, qua game, but it's not a great one.
What it does brilliantly, better than any other game I've ever seen, is the constant reinforcement of success: whenever you do something good, the game praises you for it. It starts immediately: You've earned money! You've earned XP! Your weapon skill's gone up! Wow, you leveled! You've found a magic item --and you equipped it, and now you're tougher! Hey, you discovered a new place! Wow, you got an achievement! These come at exactly the right moment to keep you playing and even to shrug off the difficulties and defeats you encounter (and let's face it, at very low level if you're attacked by two mobs, you are almost certainly dead.)
It's what Alice Taylor calls the "lovely dopamine drip"; it's basic Skinner-box behaviour reinforcement through brain chemistry. And gradually, these rewards become rarer and spaced further apart, and your brain craves them more, and two years later there you are with four active toons, 5,300 achievement points on your main, and a guild of sarcastic new media types with busy evening schedules that make getting 10 people together for a raid a nightmare.
This is not a criticism. But when we say we keep playing WoW because we enjoy it, let's understand why we enjoy it. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Druid BASE Jumping.
Conversely, is there anything about WoW's design that particularly perturbs you?
A lot of the world of WoW simply doesn't make sense. There are solid game design reasons for the quirks, and Blizzard has done an amazing job of making you forget about the fact that, for example, when you drop something it simply disappears or that you can walk through other people like they're not there. But the moment you step back and take all these little quirks as a whole, your suspension of disbelief never quite recovers. That's what the whole Brave n00b World thing was about.
There are also some things that almost nobody would ever notice, but which Blizzard has changed. There used to be a road around the edge of the world. You could swim east from the Echo Isles, off Durotar, and if you were a first-level Priest you could heal yourself through the deep-water fatigue until you reached a patch of clear sea. Keep heading east and you'd get to the edge of the world. The sea ended in what looked like a cliff of water, and there was a path running north-south. If you followed it south, you'd eventually get to the corner of the world. It was weirdly cool, not least because you didn't need any exploits or hacks to get there, you just needed to know it existed. For almost a year I had a character, TestSubjectX - a first-level Priest, inevitably - who lived there. And then one day I logged in and it didn't exist any more. Which is a shame, because we were about to have a guild party there.
Of course, if Azeroth has an edge, then it can't be a sphere. Is it flat or is it round? It's an interesting question. There's a lot of evidence in both directions: you can find globes around the world, and you can see it as a sphere from the courtyard of Black Temple, but yet sunrise and sunset happen at the same time wherever you are in the world, which imply that it's flat. More work needs to be done in this field.
Also the lore is horrible. I've written fantasy novels, published fantasy RPGs and worked with Games Workshop on the Warhammer line, and I know cobbled-together hack-fantasy nonsense when I see it. WoW's lore and storytelling is getting better, but the background, plots and text in the original game was fourth-generation watered-down post-post-post-post-Tolkien rubbish, and the storytelling was dreadful.
What's on your plate these days as far as game design?
Mostly I'm preparing for the new semester and a new intake of students on the university course I lecture on (Computer Game Development, University of Westminster). In my guise as the games consultancy Spaaace, I've recently been approached about designing some iPhone games and working on another ARG, which is cool. I've had a couple of ideas for a new type of card game, which I'm going to start prototyping soon, and I've been doing some work with the pervasive-gamers behind Sandpit and will be test-running out some new designs there over the next few months. I run a publishing company, Magnum Opus Press, that sells tabletop role-playing games, and that's busy with new releases and new ideas. It's a busy time.
And where can we currently find James Wallis in print?
I've been working through some ideas about where the boundaries between games and game-like activities lie, and I've been going back to the early books on games and play - Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens," Roger Caillois' "Man, Play and Games," stuff like that, mostly written decades before the first video game - to see what they said about the subject. That may spin off into a series of articles re-examining the classic books about games and games design. So that'll be boring my regular blog readers in the near future.
And I'll be releasing Interactive Fantasy, the journal of games design I published in the mid-'90s, as a series of free PDFs, just as soon as I can work out how to turn 15-year-old DTP files into electronic documents that don't look like crap.
I hear you have a WoW ultra-newbie in your family. What's her favorite WoW activity?
She's not ultra-new, she dinged two last week and learned the phrase "Shut up, Daddy" to celebrate it. When she was a few months old she'd sit on my knee and watch as I ran through Azeroth; the sense of forward motion through a virtual world would keep her quiet for minutes at a time.
She's not so interested in WoW these days - mobs and fighting scare her - though she loves telling me where to go when I zoom into a first-person viewpoint and walk around Thunder Bluff. But she has a laptop of her own, it's orange and it makes monkey noises ... and for the moment, that's enough.
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" - neither did we, until we talked with these players. From an award-winning fantasy author and an Oscar-winning 3-D effects director to a bunch of guys who get together for dinner and group raiding in person every week, catch it on 15 Minutes of Fame.