Game Design: WoW Case Study

Studio Art 100
Spring 2009
Tu/Th 1pm-2.20pm, HIB 335
Open Lab: Tu/Th 2.20pm-5pm, Wed 9am-5pm
Class Discussion Forum

Robert Nideffer
email: (email contact preferred)
phone: (949) 824.4218


This course will be a case study of Blizzard Entertainment's hugely successful MMORPG World of Warcraft. It will involve active reading, discussion, playing, researching, and modding. We will be playing WoW Classic, on unrestricted trial accounts, generously made available to us by Blizzard. Weekly sessions will be topically driven, and include investigation of interaction paradigms, game mechanics, game development processes, and methods for analysis and critique of games. A substantial part of the course involves using a new (unreleased) version of the "!" Software Development Kit (SDK), a custom suite of Flash-based editing/modding tools, designed to build side-scrolling WoW inspired action RPG games, to complete class assignments.

WARNING: This class will be fun, but extremely time/labor intensive. Please DROP IT if you cannot commit to 10+ hours per week spent on course-related materials outside of official class time!

NOTE: All course materials are freely available online for reading/printing/playing.


  • You will be able to continue playing WoW outside of official class time. In fact, the majority of your /played time will be done outside of class.
  • You will level your character to at least 20 by week 5, and to at least 30 by week nine.
    avg leveling time (extracted from PlayOn circa 2005, it's faster now):
    01-20 = 46 hrs
    21-30 = 54 hrs
    31-40 = 90 hrs
    01-40 = 190 hrs total time
    01-60 in world-class time = ~115 hrs
  • X-TRA CREDIT BONUS: If you hit 60 by the end of class you'll get bumped up to the next grade if you're borderline.
  • You will level your character's two Primary Professions to roughly 100 by week 5, and to roughly 150 by week nine (it's smart to pick complimentary ones, one collecting - like Herbalism and Alchemy or Skinning and Leatherworking).
  • You will level your character's three Secondary Professions (First Aid, Cooking, and Fishing) to something above 50 by week nine.
  • You will be available to group/party with other classmates outside of class.
  • You will turn in all assignments on time.
  • You will review the week's materials prior to class.
  • You will actively participate in class discussion.
  • You will notify me in advance of any anticipated absences.
  • NOTE: The good folks at Blizzard Entertainment have agreed to make it possible for you to transfer your characters to real accounts at the end of class. WOOT! You'll have to pay monthly from there on out of course...

  • 1st 1/2 of class: Will consist primarily of short (~500-1000 word) written assignments (25% of grade) designed to get you to think critically and creatively about what you're playing.
  • 2nd 1/2 of class: Will consist primarily of short game modding exercises (25% of grade) designed to familiarize you with the use of the new (unreleased) version of the "!" Software Development Kit (SDK).
  • Final Project: Will consist of a more advanced game modding project that incorporates critical thinking and creative writing (40% of grade). Details will be discussed in class. It will be due by the end of the day of the scheduled final exam.
  • Participation: Will consist of effort and class participation (10% of grade).
  • There will be a penalty for late work.
  • NOTE: All written assignments, as well as discussion about assignments, modding, WoW, etc. will be posted to the Class Discussion Forum.


WEEK ONE (1st 1/2 Begins - Playing, Thinking, and Writing)

03.31.09: Introduction

  • Course Overview
  • Very Brief History of the Internet
  • Very Brief History of MMOGs
Review: Assignment: Gaming Autobiography (1pg)

04.02.09: Setting the Stage

Assignment Due: Gaming Autobiography

  • AddOn Installation
  • Guild Invites
  • If you're new to WoW and roll a Druid I'll do a UI overview and run a guided tour.
  • Try to hit level 5+ by the end of class.
Review: Assignment: Why WoW Now? Discuss the broader cultural and technological context (the material conditions, events, the climate of opinion, etc.) giving rise to the game. Why do you think it emerged when it did, and how it did?


04.07.09: In Game

Assignment Due: Why WoW Now?

Play: Review:

04.09.09: Around Game

Play: Review: Assignment: Basic Mechanics - Identify and discuss at least ten key game design mechanics that structure your play. For example, different quest types ("talk to," "collection," "kill," "delivery," "escort," "one-offs" and "complex chains"); how quests are structured (to introduce core mechanics and move you through zones, to create a sense of story, to introduce lore, to motivate continued play); "game balancing" (gearing up, itemization, progression, class mechanics, racials, attacks/spell casting, cooldowns, quest "flow"); "social networking" (chatting, grouping, buffing, fighting); "ginding" (repetition related to level/exp, reputation, profession, advancement); etc. etc.. Evaluate what you like/dislike about them as you list them.


04.14.09: In and Around Game - Cont.

Assignment Due: Basic Mechanics

Discussion: Play:
  • Make sure you've trained up with your class trainer.
  • Don't forget to level your professions.
  • Feel free to explore a PvP Battleground or a Dungeon Instance if you're ready.

04.16.09: Playing With Others Beats Playing With Yourself... Doesn't It?

Watch: Play:
  • Party and play with someone you don't know.
Review: Assignment: Sociable Media - Describe at least five specific game design features by which WoW encourages in-game social interaction.


04.21.09: Race, Class...

Assignment Due: Sociable Media

Watch: Play: Review:

04.23.09: and Gender

  • Party with someone you don't know and try to engage them in conversation about RL identity.
  • Record your chat log using the "/chatlog" command.
  • PvP Battleground - Warsong Gulch.
Review: Assignment: Identity Politics - Discuss at least five ways in which specific game design decisions limit and/or expand how you behave, and how others may perceive you, in the game world. Include information gained from your conversation about RL identity.


04.28.09: Hail To Thee!

Assignment Due: Identity Politics

Watch: Play:
  • Do an in-game "breaching experiment" (break a norm or social rule - speak a non-english language, play "wrong," etc. - and observe other's reactions) and /chatlog it.

04.30.09: "Data Mining," Modding, and Creative Play

Watch: Play:
  • "WoW Connect," from Front Network, 2008.
  • "Murloc RPG," from newgrounds, 2006.
  • "WTF?!," from, by Robert Nideffer and Alex Szeto, 2008.
Review: Assignment: Ideological Frames - Describe in some detail at least three dominant narratives/ideas that the game is built around, and how those narratives/ideas are coded into the game.

WEEK SIX (2nd 1/2 Begins - Playing, Thinking, and Modding)

05.05.09: Concept

Assignment Due: Ideological Frames

Resources: Play:

05.07.09: Zones

Play: Assignment: Concept Zones - Storyboard ideas for at least two map zones. Define the overall theme, mood, look and feel, the number of scrolling layers, and the types of objects and NPCs you will find in them.


05.12.09: Characters

Assignment Due: Concept Zones


05.14.09: NPCs

Play: Assignment: Characters and NPCs - Do a mockup for at least one playable character, and for at least five unique NPCs.


05.19.09: Items and Quests

Assignment Due: Characters and NPCs

  • Keep leveling - Dungeons runs (Razorfen Kraul, Gnomeregan).
  • If we have enough higher levels we can do more advanced instance runs as well.

05.21.09: Advancement

  • Keep leveling - Dungeons runs (Razorfen Kraul, Gnomeregan).
  • If we have enough higher levels we can do more advanced instance runs as well.
Assignment: Items, Quests, and Advancement - Design at least three unique items (balanced in relation to character level), at least five unique quests (at least two of which must be part of a "chain," and of different quest types - i.e., collection, kill, escort), and the rate of level advancement and experience gain.


05.26.09: Open Lab

Assignment Due: Items, Quests, and Advancement

  • Keep leveling - Dungeons runs (Scarlet Monastery - Graveyard).
  • If we have enough higher levels we can do more advanced instance runs as well.

05.28.09: Open Lab

  • Keep leveling - Dungeons runs (Scarlet Monastery - Graveyard).
  • If we have enough higher levels we can do more advanced instance runs as well.
Assignment: Particle Effects - Create at least three particle effects bound to items, and at least two weather types bound to your zones.


06.02.09: Open Lab

Assignment Due: Particle Effects

  • Keep leveling - Dungeons runs (Scarlet Monastery - The Library).
  • If we have enough higher levels we can do more advanced instance runs as well.

06.04.09: Open Lab

  • Keep leveling - Dungeons runs (Scarlet Monastery - The Library).
  • If we have enough higher levels we can do more advanced instance runs as well.
Assignment: Refinement - Use Open Lab time to discuss progress and refine your ideas.

06.12.09: Final's Week

Assignment Due: Absolute last day to submit the final version of your game modding project.

Note: Special thanks to Blizzard Entertainment for making this class possible through the generous donation of unrestricted 90 day Classic Trial Accounts, backend technical support, and account management.