How World Of Warcraft's Quest Chains Came To Be

Back before World of Warcraft launched, in 2004, the template for quests in an MMORPG was a little dry. Games like EverQuest were primarily inspired by text-based MUDs, where you didn't need much incentive to go out and kill things. For World of Warcraft, that wasn't going to work.

Jeff Kaplan, who's now known as the director and face of Overwatch, started his career as a quest designer on World of Warcraft. Speaking on a recent episode of the AIAS Game Maker's Notebook podcast, hosted by Insomniac boss Ted Price, Kaplan told a story of how he, his fellow quest designer Pat Nagle, and Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham pieced together the quest chains that helped make World of Warcraft such a sensation.

"We came up with a bunch of different templates," Kaplan said. "It really was a matter of trial-and-error. Early on, I remember sitting with Allen and trying to predict how many quests the game would need."

"We were sort of using EverQuest, and Asheron's Call, and Dark Age of Camelot, we were looking at other big world games and just making a gut call of how many quests we thought we would need."

To start, Kaplan said, he and Nagle split up the first two prototype zones. He took the forest of Elwynn; Nagle took the farmland Westfall. Then, Kaplan said, he put around a dozen quests into Elwynn, thinking that players would fill in the blanks themselves.

"We came from this very EverQuest mindset which was, you'll have a few quests which will take you to an area, then once you're in that area, you'll be excited there are creatures to fight, then you'll fight the creatures for a few hours and eventually get bored and then look for a new quest after that," he said. "We were so wrong."

When Kaplan and Nagle put up the alpha, their co-workers began storming their shared office, saying that something must have been broken. They told Kaplan and Nagle that once they'd gone and finished one of the quests, killing bandits or whatever it was, nothing else had happened.

"We're like, 'Did you see the gnolls? you should have just gone and killed the gnolls,'" said Kaplan. "They were like, 'I'm not doing that, that's so boring. That's why I don't play these games. I need more quests.'"

It was those complaints that led World of Warcraft's team to come up with the quest chains that shipped with the game - seemingly never-ending sequences of missions that would guide you from location to location, giving you a stream of incentives to grind and level up. By peppering the game with tasks - even mundane tasks - Blizzard was able to hook even the players who had hated grinding mobs in previous multiplayer games.

"I remember as soon as that alpha ended, Pat, Allen and I were just sitting there going, 'Oh no, what did we sign up for,'" said Kaplan.

"We realised at that moment, that was defining in WoW's questing history. There's a new paradigm here. What previous games have done is not going to be accessible if we want to broaden our reach."

The full podcast is full of fun anecdotes and is worth a listen.


    wonder if the podcast will explain why they decided to have quest chains that send you to the other side of world just to deliver a piece of bread or something

    I mean it's awesome they introduced you to desolace after questing in STV but it's like "hey now that you're here, can you fly back and deliver this to person X in return"

    gg classic WoW

      Especially since in those days you couldn't just pick a flight-path destination and go make a sandwich while you flew from one end of the continent to the other... no, you needed to stop at every link of the chain and manually select the next zone's/link in the chain's flightpath.

      My God, vanilla was full of tedious busywork and padding (that the nostalgiacs with their rose-tinted, 'everything is dumbed down for casuals, now' goggles mistake for complexity and cleverness).

        A thousand times this.

        I'd bet big that there's basically no chance 'WoW Classic' launches in today's market with all the utterly pointless tedium vanilla had... Which of course will only lead to people crying about how it's not really vanilla if you're not forced to be handcuffed to your computer just to complete a friggin' flight path.

          Vanilla WoW covers a huge range of patches/changes though. From release to what it was just before BC launched is a big difference.

          They'll likely launch Classic as something closer to BC when they'd removed most of the bugs and had a lot of quality of life changes.

      Hey now, it’s not easy ensuring that all of Azeroth and other areas have timely delivery of fresh, high-quality baked goods. If adventurers aren’t going to fulfil this much-needed service, who will? Goblins?? C’mon man.

      The mundane reason is they're either breadcrumb or discovery quests, designed to push you out into the greater world to zones you might not have considered visiting otherwise. The difference is discovery quests take you there to pique your interest, while breadcrumb quests are a little less subtle in saying "hey, go here next okay".

      The old attunement quests omg... ping-ponging continent to continent for a few minutes of action at each end. It wouldn't have been so bad if it was start in Kalimdor for three or four hours then go to the Eastern Kingdoms for a few hours and you're done.

        To be fair, getting roundhouse kicked from Azshara to Eastern Plaguelands for Ony attunement was kind of cool.

        Even if the lake you're supposed to land in doesn't load its water in time and you hit the ground and die...


          I wasn't much into raiding, but I remember spending an hour before each raid just trying to catch the zeppelin from Ogrimmar; it would get to the load point and disappear, dropping me in the water so I'd have to swim back and wait for the next one, over and over.

            Or the boat from Gadgetstan. Man I can't remember the last time I actually used that. Or the zeppelin for that matter...

              Wait not Gadget, Ratchet. Damn, that shows just how long since I've been there 0_o

    "We're like, 'Did you see the gnolls? you should have just gone and killed the gnolls,'" said Kaplan. "They were like, 'I'm not doing that, that's so boring. That's why I don't play these games. I need more quests.'"

    Emphasis on the bolded part. I think something that is often overlooked is the 'outsider perspective', the fact that back before WoW came out, MMOs (at the time incredibly limited) were something entirely different, and many of the people working on this revolutionary one didn't actually play them. These were RTS developers building an MMO.

    It might also explain some of the stagnation. Odds are pretty good that anyone working on WoW today probably quite likes MMOs and how they currently play, thus feeling little need to revolutionize the genre the way WoW did on launch.

      Good points. I played MMO's a lot back in those days, spending a good deal of time in Everquest. The game was a grind, but because there was nothing else to really compare it to, its all we knew. Basic idea was to go to the zone of choice, find a spot, and camp it. Very little in the way of quests, but the main ones there were doozies.

      There were chains in how you progressed through raids, with one naturally leading to the next, and so on until you finished an expansion, but actual quest chains were limited, and didn't lead you through the game. I don't remember any MMO's doing that pre-WoW.

      When WoW did that though, it gave an exceptionally strong template. Give a good (enough) story (or not), a few dungeons/raids at the end, good UI, and release. The ones that worked had all that, the ones that didn't messed something up. Or tried something too radical, and lost out to the WoW juggernaut.

      Today, a new idea is dangerous. There are thousands of MMO's to choose from, not to mention online FPS options, so developers don't want to take the risk. Cloning WoW is the safe option, which is so important to the bosses when they're dumping tens or hundreds of millions into development.

        Final Fantasy XI, which came out 2 years prior to World of Warcraft, had amazing quest chains through expansions... and some terrible ones like ‘wait 24 RL hours then talk to the next person.’

        Haven’t found anything in WoW that comes near the emotional investment as the Chains of Promathia storyline.

          I'd forgotten FF XI :) Never played it (was deep into EQ at that point), but from memory it was quite hit and miss. Which you point out yourself.

          FF XI is a hard one to figure though. While it was on PC, I always saw it as a console game, so mentally just dismissed it. That's one me. Everquest Online Adventures was the same.

          WoW though changed the game completely. Whatever the reason was (I think it was simply down to ease of access - it ran on an oily rag), it hit that right mark and exploded far beyond what any MMORPG could imagine was possible at the time. And did it so well it was an easy template to copy.

          Which, as @transientmind points out, has meant that the genre has largely stagnated due to just copying whats worked the best. Part of that was their hand holding as it led you through from the newbie zones to the endgame, which you see in pretty much every MMO today.

            FFXI has some really high barriers, for what was originally a PS2 MMO that had a PC port (beyond the hardware to play the PS2 version was never released in PAL) in that some classes needed incredibly complex macros set up to work at peak efficiency. I couldn’t imagine going back to playing a ninja tank after over a decade in more user friendly MMOs.

        Regarding your last paragraph, new ideas in the MMO space are extremely risky, not just because of the 'comparison to WoW' thing that inevitably happens, nor even because of how much competition there is in the MMO space (though that certainly doesn't help).

        In my opinion, the real problem is the subscription model for MMOs is dead, and the F2P model strips games of the sense of progressive accomplishment that's core to why the genre works. There are really only two subscription MMOs with any meaningful slice of the pie these days - World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy XIV - and while neither of those are going to die any time soon, they both show signs that they're living (successfully, nevertheless) in the waning years of their genre.

        Faux MMO features in non-MMO games seems to be the direction everything is headed. Drop-in multiplayer like Watch Dogs, communal lobbies like some shooter I remember reading about a while ago, games that think throwing a persistent but otherwise disconnected-feeling progression layer (effectively disconnected from the world of the game) on top of the small-scale actual activity the game focuses on, these kinds of things are much more common now than what we've come to appreciate about the classic style of MMO. And while they're all working to varying degrees, they're also missing some essential part of what makes MMOs great - a connection to the world you're playing in, and a sense of community among the people you're playing with.

          Well, that ended up way longer than I thought. Sorry for the rant!

            I always do that. I type fast, and don't realise how much I've typed, so what I think is a few lines ends up a wall of text...

          Its definitely a different environment. I think something like vanilla SWG would stand a better chance today than back in the day, simply because there are so many more online gamers today. Its ideas (which I loved at the time) would be fresh, and something to gravitate to.

          As I said, I played EQ a lot. I loved the camaraderie I'd built up in the game, and loved the sense of risk playing my toon. You die, there are real consequences - one death could mean a weeks effort just gone in a flash. The emphasis on raiding options was wonderful, and still something I haven't seen repeated. Not even WoW gets close.

          Today, its a popcorn version of games. Play, die, respawn, repeat. But theres no development of ideas because they're just repeating what works. Its telling that the biggest move in games in the last 2 years is just throwing 100 people into an arena and letting them at it. And more telling that everyone is rushing to copy it.

          While a lot of what we'd see as new ideas have been done already, where are they? Every few years you see a Counter Strike, or DotA, or PUBG, and that becomes the meta. But they're just small variations, and aren't improved on. They just become The Thing To Play.

            To be fair, play, die, respawn repeat has been around forever in gaming. Even back to the old 20c arcade machines. It's a logical way to do stuff and unlikely to die anytime soon.

              Because of their persistent nature though, MMO's had a real chance of getting out of that cycle. Its a shame it didnt, and the cycle became the norm, because in the early days you did everything possible to avoid dieing.

              Your characters death had repercussions in the early days of UO, EQ, and DAoC, and as a player I felt invested in doing everything I could to avoid that. Today, you take the hit, and reset, but back then it could mean losing all your stuff, a weeks gaming, or your realm being overrun.

              The easy option became the standard, one of the areas the genre has stagnated.

                I dunno, I hate dying in game as well. It annoys the hell out of me if it happens in WoW.

                I've gotta be honest, if they went perma-death or even lose your equipped gear I wouldn't play. With the sometimes fickle nature of the internet it's a terrible design and the entire reason I have zero hard core Diablo 3 toons. Losing a character, or gear or even progress because of LAG just isn't fun.

                  If you died in UO, your corpse just laid there, and anyone could loot it. There ended up being a bug where you could bury things inside other bags so they couldn't be looted, but the gear you wore was essentially gone if someone ganked you.

                  Which was in an era where that fickle nature of the internet was SO much worse. Was telling of those early days that macros and exploits were your best defense. There was no defending against it either. You either fought and won, or died, whether you wanted to PvP or not.

                  In EQ you lost experience. From memory it was around 10% of a level. You could get a resurrection from a cleric which recouped up to 96% of that lost exp, but that was a pretty high level spell and they weren't always around. Things got easier over time, as various expansions shaved off the roughest edges, but for the first 4 or so years it was brutal.

                  Add in that every 5 levels was a hell level, and took a ridiculous amount of time to level through thanks to a bug in their programming. You might play an entire night to get just 5% of that level, so a death could easily undo that work. And it hurt.

                  Oh, you also got sent back to your bind point, which could be the other side of the planet. Only casters could bind to a location, and only in cities. So die, and your back at your bind point, naked, and needing to get back to your corpse to loot then equip your gear, so you could kill whatever killed you. Which was still probably standing over your gear laden corpse.

                  Thats what I meant by repercussions. It went beyond being an inconvenience, and impacted on your ability to play the game. Those early days in UO soured me forever on PvP and hardcore games.

                  @grunt: And that's exactly why I'd refuse to play a game with those sort of conditions. I'm playing for a challenge sure, but foremost I'm playing for fun. That sort of shenanigans isn't fun :(

                  I'm also kinda amazed that the devs thought it was good design, even back then.

        Yet go play any of those WoW clones and they're a hell of a lot worse than the game they're trying to copy.

        I quit WoW a month into Cataclysm, didn't return for 5 years until Legion hit. In those 5 years I played a hell of a lot of other MMOs and didn't really last with many beyond 2 weeks, and none hit 2 months. I figured WoW had burnt me out on MMOs and ruined the genre for good, I just couldn't stick with it anymore.

        Then I tried Legion....That was almost 2 years ago now and I've played it every week, almost every day and sunk a tremendous amount of hours into it. Am keenly awaiting BFA to launch and have leave booked so I can go nuts leveling with a group of guildies.

        WoW is something special. It's hard to hit on exactly why but it does do a lot of things right. The token system is one of the best things they've ever done, I wish every F2P MMO followed suit, convert to a subscription model with tokens and remove all of their store items beyond vanity stuff.

          It's hard to hit on exactly why but it does do a lot of things right

          For me, thats WoW in a nutshell. On the surface, it was nothing special. It just took the Warcraft assets and turns them into an RPG. But HOW it did it changed the genre. It made everything look so easy to do, which is Blizzards magic, and is why everyone a) rushed to it, and b) tried to copy it.

          Nobody has repeated it though, so clearly it wasn't as easy as Blizzard made it seem. I still play a few MMO's, but there aren't many I return to these days. GW2 is currently getting my attention.

          I took a longish break at the end of Cata, came back about halfway thru MoP and played until the Legion Pre-patch at the end of WoD. Took a long break then and only came back to WoW a few months ago. BFA has very little appeal to me. They continue to take our characters and remove abilities we've had for over a decade. There are so many changes that most of the classes are unrecognisable now and it's just getting worse. Nothing I've see in the BFA information to date makes me feel any different. Sadly :(

            You played WoD - the worst ever expansion and then missed Legion - either the best or 2nd best ever expansion. BFA is taking a lot of cues from Legion, at worst it will still be a hell of a lot better than WoD.

            As for removing abilities I have no issues with anything they're doing there...go look at Star Wars The Old Republic if you want to see what happens without ability pruning....a large skillbook that you use a fraction of which makes it very hard for new players to sift through and figure out without a guide. That's basic which abilities to use that you need a guide for, not min/max'd spec and rotation.

            My only issue with BFA so far is the global cooldown stuff. It's going to be an annoyance but I played in vanilla/BC when all that stuff was on GCD anyway. Having recently gone back to SWTOR for some filler before BFA their combat is much slower paced and the GCD has a lot to do with it, I think Blizz are wanting that feel....that said though my defensives as a tank in SWTOR are still off the GCD.

              I didn't miss legion, I'm 7/11 Mythic kills in Antorus. I've missed the last couple bosses (guild is 9/11 mythic) but will hopefully get a Mythic Argus kill before the xpac ends. I didn't like the changes they made between MoP and WoD but I outright despise the ones they made in Legion. For quite awhile I flat out didn't intend to go back. But I got WoD cheap and it's not costing me a sub since I had gold coming out of my ears so I gave it a whirl.

              I still don't like the changes they made to most classes and a hell of a lot of the systems - professions & crafting sucks and I hate artefact weapon. I know they did something wrong when I hate playing the class I've mained since vanilla. Mythics are interesting but annoying since it's a pain getting even a half decent pug group together anything but the lowest level of them.

              Skill pruning would make sense if it was better balanced. You see some classes which have a rotation of 5ish buttons then others with a rotation of 8+. And they didn't prune in a lot of cases, or rather they pruned a spell then added in a new that is kinda similar but has a different name and graphic... I mean really? How does that help. And the other bad part of it is they don't seem to prune an unused, unwanted ability. They prune (or tweak) ones people use all the damned time.

              I can't see myself playing come BFA (Big fucking annoyance?) but I'll play the pre-patch when we get all our abilities changed *again* and see just how much I hate it once it's finalised before I make that decision.

                What class did you main? I came back for Legion after a 5 year "break" (skipped Cata-WoD). My main from Vanilla-Cata was mage, I went Blood DK for Legion. First alt I leveled was mage and I absolutely hate that class now, can't play it and be happy with it. Relegated it to my bank alt.

                Every other class I've played I've been fine with. They all have a different feel from one spec to another, it's just a matter of finding your personal preference. Whether rotation is 5 buttons or 8 doesn't matter. That's not balance, it's gameplay difference. If everyone had a 5 button rotation and 3 CDs to use then what's the point of having different classes? All melee would be the same, all ranged would be the same and the only difference is graphical. I see posts on reddit all the time from people asking "which is the most or least complex class to play" etc...people are after all different play styles, some want 3 buttons to press, some want 10.

                I have no issues with the artifact weapon, had problems with AP but they fixed that around Tomb. Beyond that my only gripe with Legion is the Legendary system which becomes minor compared to what I do like.

                If you're doing Mythic + in pugs then you're flat out doing it wrong and playing a different game to what I am - go watch Preach's series on that if you don't know what I mean. Mythic + is best with the same 5 people week to week, my team has had 3 of us the same from start to finish and the other 2 have been the same since some point around Nighthold. Going into BFA my guild is running set 5 man teams with designated leaders to keep their spots full etc, try give us some continuity across the board.

                Going into BFA my only issue is the GCDs which for me will likely end up on par with the Legendary system of Legion. I don't like it but i'll live with it.

                  Balance Druid. I despise the changes they made to it in the last couple xpacs.

                  I'm also not impressed with the changes to both MM hunter (I switch to BM because of it) and Combat Rogue now known as "outlaw". /eyeroll.

                  Less upset, but still not super keen on the changes to Warlocks (across the board) and Enhance Shaman.

                  Prot pally is... acceptable. Frost Mage, WW monk, Unholy DK and fury warrior to me are about the same.

                  I haven't levelled my Disc priest past 102 so I'm not sure about it yet. But from what I see so far I'd lump it in the second group.

                  I really like the Demon Hunter, but it's new so it's not like they had a chance to mess up stuff people were used to.

                  The problem with the different number of buttons is that some classes can just faceroll and others have every damned key bound and if you mess up your DPS goes to shit. Out of all the classes balance has the worst rotation now (in my opinion of course). There's something wrong when you have spells where the same button changes from New Moon-Half Moon-Full Moon and each variant has a different cast time and does different damage. And if your spells are empowered your cast times on the two main fillers are different. Muscles memory for casting? Forget it.

                  I don't mind having a ton of buttons for utility, but when the *basic rotation* is more than 8 buttons something is wrong with the design.

                  Not everyone can get a regular group of five people. Especially when you come into the xpac late and everyone has their cliques established. Frankly I think mythic+ is the new 10 man raid (but with 5 obviously). What you're describing is basically raid guild behaviour just with less people. That to me isn't what 5 mans should be about.

                  Oh I didn't mention the legendary system, it's another one of the systems that to me is flawed. Imagine what it's like as a druid with different legendaries for FOUR different specs taking up bag space. It frustrates the hell out of me that I need to be switching legos between fights to try to maximise DPS. Then having to juggle set pieces because this lego is a ring but that one is a chest and so on. *ugh*

              Oh, and I think they're still messing with the GCD. Last I read all the racials are going to be back OFF the GCD. Though, who the hell knows that could change again in the next couple months.

      One thing that always bugged me about their initial quest design was that you pretty much always needed to look it up on Wowhead (or I think it might have been thotbot back then).

      I always wished they made the quests and the world feel a bit more real. Lets say you had a quest to retrieve Bob's sword from the Eastern Plaguelands. It just said go the EPL and get Bob's sword. You'd google it to find out where it was and off you'd go. Or if you didn't google you'd wander for hours trying to figure it out before finally stumbling onto it by accident.

      They COULD have made NPCs actually useful. Like you hit EPL and ask an NPC if they've heard about Bob's sword and get pointed in the general direction. "Aagh! I think he went to the north" and so on. Make it feel like you were discovering stuff using the world not google.

        That's generally how it worked though. An NPC would give you a quest, usually with a description of a location ie The Penstilant Scar in EPL and sometimes a description of the NPC you had to kill or why Bob's sword might be there.

        Early WOW you just had to read the Quest text to work things out, but then wow-pro/TomTom happened and question just became [Follow Arrow] [Kill NPC] [Follow Arrow] [Hand in Quest] [Follow Arrow] etc

          Yep, you're spot on. The vast majority of WoW's original quests and into BC had descriptions of where to go and you had to figure it out. I remember telling so many people to read the quest, have them repeatedly tell me it didn't help etc...then I'd say ok, write it out for me which point they'd actually read it and go "oh".

          That said there were some in there that were so vague that you needed thottbot to figure it out.

            I think you're remembering them a little more fondly than they were. Sure it might tell you a general area but they frequently didn't have enough detail to figure out where you needed to be. I remember a few that were literally go to this zone and find something. The quest text didn't even hint whether it was in the north of the zone, or the south. Whether the item was lying on the ground or an NPC had it or a monster you had to kill had it. Not every quest was like that, but there were a lot. Just think of Mankriks Wife.

            And like I said, there were all these NPCs around the zone and NONE of them would give you any useful information. It would have made a lot more sense to be able to at least ask them. But I guess that would have meant a tremendous amount more data needed for the game.

            I quite liked one of the quests during WoD (I think) where it had a kind of riddle which worked out to be the river flowing over a waterfall. So you could work out where to go.

              I've only ever seriously played Alliance, so never experienced the Mankrik's Wife scenario.

              Like I said though, in general they were great at giving you a place to find via landmarks but there were some you needed thottbot for.

                I don't know about alliance, I only have a DK and a low level alliance toon so I've done bugger all on them quest-wise. But there were definitely a lot of quests for the horde back in vanilla that had bugger all information to work off.

                Or ones where the information was kinda faulty. Like one where you had to kill certain mobs in Arathi Highlands (IIRC) and they had two mobs with the same names but in slightly different locations in Arathi. Only one group had a chance of dropping the quest items... Nothing like grinding mobs for an hour only to discover they have zero chance :(

    When WoW first came out there were only really 2 types of quest. Fetch quests and drop quests. They got pretty versatile with using those back then.

      Most quests in most games boil down to four archetypes, ultimately: kill, protect, courier, and discover. WoW did have all four at launch, but they've gotten a lot better at making them feel less like those archetypes since (even though they still are).

        I don't mind those quest archetypes (they cover most things). I do wish however, that quests weren't quite so dumb. Nothing worse than killing fifty gnolls then getting a quest that says "Hey a gnoll stole my watch. Go kill some gnolls and get it back". Or talking to an NPC and they have no quests. Then five minutes later you hand in another quest and suddenly that other NPC has 5 quests for you.

          I liked AO and vanilla SWG's random quest generation myself. How AO let the third party tools farm for a good mission was great, and SWG's setup meant everyone had a different experience. It was let down by a lack of variety, but it was a method that could be built on.

          SWG's tradeskill setup was also one of the best I've seen in an MMO. Shame they killed it so efficiently.

    "We're like, 'Did you see the gnolls? you should have just gone and killed the gnolls,'" said Kaplan. "They were like, 'I'm not doing that, that's so boring. That's why I don't play these games. I need more quests.'"

    That's always been my problem with MMOs. The combat in itself was always really boring. I came from the days of playing tactical player-killing MUDs like Carrionfields and had far more exciting combats in a text based environment (as crazy as that may seem). Later MMO's have tried to fix this (DDO, Neverwinter and Wildstar come to mind).

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