Episode #7 – “Interview with Blizzard Quest Designer Helen Cheng”Aug 20
Our seventh episode is a special interview that features Blizzard quest designer Helen Cheng. Tzufit and Apple Cider Mage talk to Helen about her life as a quest designer, some of her favorite parts of the job and what it’s like creating some of the interesting characters from the expansion.
A full text transcript of the interview is below the cut.
Apple Cider Mage: We’re here for a very special episode of Justice Points. It’s our awesome, amazing developer interview with Quest Designer Helen Cheng. Thank you so much for being here. We are overwhelmed and excited. Do you want to introduce yourself to our listening public?
Helen Cheng: I’m very excited to be here. Thank you for having me. My name is Helen Cheng. I am a game designer on the quest team. I’ve worked on various different patches and expansions in the past, including the Firelands patch in 4.2 and Mists of Pandaria as well as, most notably, patch 5.1 where I worked quite a lot on the story progression that you unlocked over the course of the content there and then as well as a little bit on patch 5.2 and 5.3.
Apple Cider Mage: Well that’s a lot of things that me and Tzufit have both done.
Helen Cheng: Yeah, we work on a little bit of everything here. It’s super fun.
Apple Cider Mage: The first thing we wanted to get off the ground is, what was your path of becoming a quest designer at Blizzard?
Helen Cheng: I have always loved playing video games, so that is the number one step, I think, is to have a passion for games and the industry. I worked for a start-up after college, which was trying to do serious games, which are games that have practical applications like learning or work, and things like that. After that I worked for about three years at a casual games company in San Francisco called PlayFirst. They’re probably most known for their Diner Dash series. I worked on a bunch of games there. I think I worked on over ten titles. The nature of the casual games industry is that the projects go pretty quickly, like they’re usually a nine month or so development time. While I was there I actually was lead designer on a vampire romance game, which is awesome. I love that game. I had played WoW since 2004, so I was hugely addicted to WoW for many years and knew the game really well. It just so happened I was looking to move to LA and I interviewed at a bunch of different places down here in Southern California and managed to get an interview at Blizzard. I was so nervous at the interview, and it was like amazing. I don’t know, they decided to hire me and it was my dream come true. So that’s how I ended up here.
Tzufit: So can you tell us a little bit about what your average day is as a quest developer?
Helen Cheng: Sure. Days definitely kind of change, but I would say on average it’s – you know, if you’re lucky you don’t have too many meetings. You might have one or two meetings to talk about various things like to talk over feedback on something you’ve created or implemented, to talk about new systems, new ideas, brainstorms, things like that. But most of the day, I think, is basically spent working on a specific piece of content. We split up the work via areas of the map. So, for example, like Mists of Pandaria, I might be working on quests at the Jade Temple. So you’re coming up with ideas for what quests will go there, and then the majority of the work is actually the implementation. So we make all the content ourselves. I used to think, before I worked at Blizzard, that quest designers wrote the quests and that was it, and then some magical group of programmers created everything. But no the quest designers, we actually also make everything. So every creature that’s placed in the outdoor world, everything that they do, everything that they say. If you see a bear drinking at the lake, that was set up by somebody on the quest team. If you see, like a quest where you use a torch to burn a body or something, we’re setting up those items and spells and all that stuff. I would say implementation is the majority of the work. So we’re at our computers, implementing.
Apple Cider Mage: I had kind of always imagined that the quest designer position was a lot of writing and not a lot of implementation.
Helen Cheng: The writing is actually a very important part of the job, but a smaller part of the job, actually.
Apple Cider Mage: Is your day to day different now than say the beginning or the middle of an expansion? How has that changed over time?
Helen Cheng: Usually when we are beginning a project it is much more high level. We’ll do more discussions. We’ll work out storylines or characters, kind of plan what sort of content we want to do. So, for example, patch 5.2 was the Throne of Thunder patch and we had all the content out on an island. So, earlier on, we’ll decide things like we’ll do a server progression that unlocks over time and figure out exactly how that works technically. We wanted to do these single-player scenarios. How does that work? Do we have the capability, tech-wise, to make that happen? So a lot of high-level planning. And then, as the project continues, then we’re very heads down, carrying out what we had planning, implementing it, playing through, iterating, responding to feedback, doing play tests, things like that.
Tzufit: Helen, do you have a favorite quest or questline that you’ve created?
Helen Cheng: Oh, that’s so hard to –
Tzufit: I know, I’m sorry. It’s like asking what your favorite book is, or something.
Helen Cheng: Yeah. I have a couple of favorites. I would say probably the most enjoyable project I worked on was the patch 5.1 storyline because we got to send players all over the world. It was really fun to take players back to Silvermoon City or to random places around the world. Dalaran – we got to do some really cool stuff in Dalaran or Darnassus. So that was fun, and also to work with such big characters. We brought in pretty much most of the big name characters for Alliance and Horde, like the faction leaders. You got to work with Varian Wrynn and Anduin and Jaina. On the Horde side Baine and Vol’jin and Lor’themar play a huge part. These are characters that have such equity in the Warcraft universe, and to be able to bring them to the forefront and have characters interact with them, play with them, see these cool events play out, see the politics at the high end was really neat. That was definitely really fun. It was also a really hard project to work on because it came right after 5.0, so we had worked a lot on 5.0 and then we worked a lot on 5.1. So it was probably some of the busiest times of that year, but it was really fun to see the end product.
Apple Cider Mage: I think one of the burning questions for us was what is it exactly like being a woman developer at Blizzard and dealing with the larger game community, or even just, WoW players? What is that like?
Helen Cheng: It’s awesome. I don’t think it’s that much different – I don’t know, because I’ve definitely heard various stories from all different industries, not just the game industry. I think working at Blizzard is awesome. We have quite a few women on the team. I don’t feel like we’re treated any differently. We are just doing the same thing as everybody else. It’s really fun to work on the different projects. We have so many talented people, not just women – men, women, both. It’s just fun to work on such a talented team. There’s just so many people who are technically brilliant or creatively brilliant. I don’t really think of it as a difference by gender, really. We’re all working together collaboratively and we all just love being here.
Tzufit: As you may know, we are sort of focused on feminism and social justice in WoW on our podcast. So one of the questions we wanted to ask you was, do you have a favorite female character in Blizzard lore?
Helen Cheng: Gosh, that’s a tough one. One of the reasons I’ve always admired Blizzard is that they do have strong female characters that are three dimensional. Back ten years ago you wouldn’t always see games with a cool female character like a Kerrigan in StarCraft. I think Kerrigan and Sylvanas are the two characters I immediately think of just because they’re so cool. They’re incredibly badass. I’m trying to think of Mists in particular and see if we have any cool characters there. What I like about working in the story medium for WoW in particular is we really have the opportunity to craft interesting female characters. I’m trying to think of an example and nothing springs to mind immediately. I don’t think that strength is always necessary to make a female character compelling. She doesn’t have to be a warrior. You can make a female character who protects her village, and she’s not necessarily special or strong, or has had this awesome training, or has some secret ability that suddenly appears in the face of danger. It just gives us the opportunity to explore those different shades of strength across the board. That’s definitely something that we want to strive for.
Apple Cider Mage: Taoshi? A lot of the Shado-Pan women.
Helen Cheng: Yes. Yeah, I had a lot of fun working with some of the Shado-Pan characters. We had different people working on Shado-Pan, so there were a lot of contributors. Yalia was one of my characters. She’s really fun to work with. I had a lot of fun working with Fei Li “the Firecracker” and Snowblossom. Even Suna Silentstrike – I don’t know how many people played through her storyline.
Apple Cider Mage: Yeah. We devoted like most of an episode to her.
Helen Cheng: Oh really? Oh, that’s awesome. I had no idea. That was a really fun storyline for me to work on because she has a mind of her own, for sure. She and Ban Bearheart – I tried to really contrast the two of them, because she is really headstrong and passionate, and Ban is more cautious and more conservative. That was a fun story to work on, probably the deepest story for Warcraft that I had done up to that point, because the theme of the zone is the Sha of Hatred. I really wanted to make their story and their personalities collide in a way that would cause her to derive this hatred for him, for Ban, because of the events that happen. It’s kind of a story about how life just kind of happens in a certain way. You can’t always control everything that happens, all the decisions you make result in an outcome. For her it was, she couldn’t deal with the tragedy of losing her husband and she succumbed to her inner hatred. That was her tale. Kind of tragic, but I really wanted to illustrate what the Sha of Hatred can do to people if you can’t control your inner emotions. She’s not necessarily a good character, she’s just human – or, I guess, pandaren in this case.
Apple Cider Mage: We really had a lot to talk about with her because she was a character we really strongly related with. Even though I kind of didn’t agree with the ending of the quest, it made sense to us, especially from a Sha of Hatred standpoint. The fact that you worked on that is just –
Helen Cheng: Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s actually really an honor that people get to play through stuff that we work on and react to it. It’s so much fun to see people get wrapped up in these stories and invested in these characters. It feels really good to us to see that.
Apple Cider Mage: You mentioned before that you played WoW before you actually got a job at Blizzard. Do you still play WoW? Do you play any classes or specs? What do you like about WoW if you still play?
Helen Cheng: Yeah, I’ve gone through ups and downs in terms of my intensity of playing WoW. Currently, I guess my main is my hunter at this point. I play a draenei hunter. I also have a very fond attachment to my druid, who was my main for many years. I definitely still play. I haven’t been raiding recently, but I do pop in and do the outdoor world content, do LFR, things like that. I was raiding pretty much up until 5.2. My most intense point playing WoW was probably around the time of AQ. When AQ came out, my guild was desperately trying to open the gates. I remember getting up at like 6 a.m. in the morning with my alt and myself and farming the carapaces.
Apple Cider Mage: Yeah, the server crashing and getting stuck on the boat.
Helen Cheng: Yeah. Definitely tons of fun memories.
Tzufit: So, in your opinion, what makes a good quest? And this doesn’t necessarily have to be quests that you’ve worked on, for example, but any quest that you really like doing.
Helen Cheng: I don’t think it’s going to be one quest. It’s probably going to be a quest chain. It’s hard to make a single quest stand out too much without some kind of resolution or some kind of story. On its own, a single quest can be really fun because of its gameplay, the particular combat you get into, or maybe it’s a really memorable mechanic like a vehicle quest or a bombing run. Or maybe there’s a really special event that happens or a really cool reward. Any number of things could make one quest particularly stand out, but in terms of a really good quest chain, I think it will be a combination of those things – compelling story that draws you in. I think you really want to show and not tell the player the story, and the best way to do that is probably through the gameplay and the environment, the staging. Since we were talking about the Suna Silentstrike story, like when you roll into Hatred’s Vice, you see all the dead yaungol all around you. That tells a story immediately, just by seeing it. Things like that will definitely make a quest chain stand out. At the core, it has to have really fun combat, and that comes from interesting enemies to fight, interesting mobs.
Apple Cider Mage: We’re moving into 5.4, and it’s sort of a culmination of all the things that we’ve done in the 5.1 and 5.2 storyline, and we’re going to head to Orgrimmar. When you were working on the story stuff in the earlier patches, did you know that 5.4 was going to be a cap to all this progress that both factions have made?
Helen Cheng: Yes, we did. We had an arc planned for the patches.
Tzufit: I guess we’re sort of asking how far in advance do you know the secrets that all the rest of us want to know?
Helen Cheng: Ah. Well, we have known for a while. We usually have an idea several months, if not more, in advance of the big things that are going to happen. Things can always change. It’s hard to predict for sure until we’re working on it and developing it. Specifically for 5.4, I think we even announced really early on, like at the last Blizzcon, that it was going to be Orgrimmar.
Apple Cider Mage: I know that you worked on Molten Front and then, I think you also worked on the Valley of the Four Winds farm?
Helen Cheng: Yes, the player farm.
Apple Cider Mage: And I think the farm kind of builds on the Molten Front experimentation with zone phasing. I know that the opinion of the Molten Front was really contentious but the farm not. How does it feel working on quests or mechanics for quests that are experimental? How do you feel about dealing with the community’s response to that, especially when you know it might pay off later?
Helen Cheng: Specifically in terms of Molten Front and the farm, I think we used similar tech for both of those, but it wasn’t necessarily that the farm was an idea that grew out of the Molten Front stuff. But we definitely utilized a lot of the same technology in the background. The player response is always interesting, I think, to see what players say. I’m always delighted when there are things that players like, and then when players don’t like something it’s always an opportunity for improvement. The thing with player feedback is, there’s so many different kinds of players. Some players will really like something and some players won’t. A lot of it is about understanding why. Then developing future ideas that will still preserve the things that people enjoy, but offer something new or different for the other players. I think the farm was a really fun project to work on. I think it had a really cool system at its heart and it tied in really well with all the content, like the cooking profession. It tied in really well with the characters in that particular area. Valley of the Four Winds was just such a beautiful zone, and beautiful setting for that story and that theme. And then the daily quests really added more content for players and helped drive the unlocking of the story quests and the upgrades as well.
Tzufit: And it’s really amazing how well-received the farm was. I can’t say universally because this is WoW we’re talking about. On my server I know it just seemed like people logged off at Halfhill. You went down there to do your dailies and there were a ton of people in the market at all times. It really seemed like it was one of the most popular daily hubs with Mists of Pandaria, so that’s very cool.
Helen Cheng: Yeah. Definitely. It was really fun to see players enjoy that content.
Apple Cider Mage: Yeah, I have five farms. I’m not even going to lie, I have like five farms, two of them maxed out. Yeah, I’m a farm baron. Seriously, thank you so much, Helen.
Tzufit: Yes. Thank you very much. We really appreciate it.
Apple Cider Mage: Especially since we found out that you have written some of our favorite characters in Mists of Pandaria.
Helen Cheng: I noticed, by the way, Apple Cider Mage, I noticed that your banner on your website is the apple cart with the guy that says, “An apple a day keeps the priests away.” That’s also my NPC. So I was really excited to see that.
Tzufit: That’s great.
Apple Cider Mage: I’m never changing that banner now. Thank you so much for creating a guy that has giant apples.
Helen Cheng: Oh, you’re welcome.