Why H1Z1 Needs a Creative Director

Throughout the maiden launch week of this blog, I’ve been complementary over H1Z1 and its development team, both in terms of how they’ve designed around player choice and in terms of their monetization strategy.  I maintain that the design work that’s gone into H1Z1 is exceptional when it comes to crafting an immersive, interactive world, but that isn’t to say that the good folks at Sony Online Entertainment have hit every ball out of the park.  Today we look at what I perceive to be the most glaring weakness for the team in creating an immersive world: their lack of a creative director.

Granted, the game has only just launched and remains in an early state, but for reasons that the rest of this entry will make clear, their need for a creative director is immediate – particularly given that the team is already hard at work at the forthcoming roadmap.  Coupled with the fact that the game is already a smashing success in sales, they’re bound to begin expanding the content quickly – making the need for a creative director all the more prescient.

What is a creative director and why are they a necessary role for online games?

Creative Directors, in game development, are often noted as the glue that holds the disparate shards of the game together.  They hold the vision and thematics (the pathos and logos that the game seeks to impart to the players) at the core of their work and collaborate to ensure that everything else – art assets, lore and storytelling, content, loot, combat, progression, and world design – are webbed together.  In this sense, they function similarly to the creator of a television drama; they’re not going to write all of the scripts, but they’re going to shape the overall narrative arc, characters, and themes and ensure that everything else acts in support.  For reference, this is the role filled by Chris Metzen for Warcraft, Jeffrey Butler for EverQuest, and Todd Howard for the (offline) Elder Scrolls franchise – designers who have proved their worth to their franchise time and time again.

This isn’t just for lore junkies, either.  Kung Fu Panda jokes aside, think of the complex themes that went into the development of Mists of Pandaria – warfare vs peace, slavery, the rise and fall of empires, colonization and its impact, spiritualism, the effects of corruption on long-held values… it was a vision, composed of archetypes and themes that were not only told through the use of narrative and questlines, but through the naming conventions of equipment, the design and animations of the monk class, the abilities of raid bosses, level design, and art.  Without a creative director, there’s a mess of continuity – and errors here are something that will be recognized to various degrees by all players, not just those with a keen interest in the lore and backstory.

So it’s likely clear why a creative director is all the more needed for online games that seek to establish immersive, interactive worlds.  When there are breaks in continuity, a player notes this – either consciously or subconsciously – and that breaks the suspension of disbelief.  In other words, the world becomes less immersive, the player less invested, and the game world more hollow as a result.  Interactive worlds are designed to be a fantasy for the player to become absorbed in – to feel a part of – and in order to do so, the design of all of the systems and assets that make them up need to be interconnected.

I’ve researched this for a few days and it appears that H1Z1 has never had a creative director on its team – something that makes sense on the surface, given that SOE was attempting a new, agile-based development process with a far smaller team than they’ve employed in the past.  For a while, RadarX, who was serving as the community manager played portions of this role – he was the primary author and editor of the H1Z1 Survivor Radio broadcast (more on this later), and had done work to create themes, characters, and a backstory that would carry over into the game.  Months before the game’s release, RadarX moved back to Planetside 2, however, and it’s unclear who picked up the mantle of the creative directing of the project.

That’s led to numerous hiccups in the continuity of the game world that hinder H1Z1 in realizing it’s potential as a truly immersive, interactive world.  We’ll discuss these below.

Continuity Errors in Setting and Map Design

Heading to Orego... I mean Wyoming.
Heading to Orego… errr Wyoming.

From the very beginning, the developers stated that H1Z1 would initially be set in Anytown, USA.  That was initially, and remains, a red flag in my eyes – an anonymous, semi-urban region of America works for a film – or even a single player game – that has a clear beginning, middle and end; but specified settings matter a lot more when narratives are serialized, such as television shows, single-player games that make up a franchise (think: Elder Scrolls, Bioshock), and especially in online game worlds that are ever-expanding.  It matters that the Walking Dead is set around the area of Atlanta, Georgia.  There’s a smart rationale behind the opening credits of Game of Thrones soaring over a map of Westeros, and the historical parallels of character, setting, and plot are a core reason behind the success of Assassin’s Creed.

Belatedly, the developers began to refer to H1Z1’s setting as the Pacific Northwest, but it’s clear that this was a decision that was made in such a way that the continuity of that decision didn’t extend to all aspects of the game design.  The vegetation present in the forested areas of H1Z1 match that of the foliage seen in many parts of Oregon and Washington State.  Blackberries are found in both Washington and Oregon, but they’re found in the latter state in far greater numbers. There’s no town of Cranberry in either state – it’s an Easter Egg (see below) – and several Pleasant Valleys in Oregon.

And that brings us to the highway problem.  H1Z1’s Anytown map features two highways: Interstate 25 and US Route 14.  And here’s the issue: neither of these highways run through either Oregon or Washington.  US Route 14 runs east-west from Lake Michigan to Yellowstone Park, Wyoming.  Interstate 25 runs north-south from New Mexico to Wyoming.  So maybe H1Z1 is actually set in Wyoming?  It could be, except for the fact that US-14 and I-25 never actually cross, and the land they pass over has very different flora from that which we see in game.

By now, you’re likely thinking that I’ve sipped on too much Swizzle.  This is minor and what does it matter?  And the truth is, right now, it doesn’t – the road signs, misplaced highways, and ambiguous setting don’t hold the game world back from being an immersive whole.  But what happens as the map, as promised, begins to expand – including urban areas.  Are we headed to Seattle?  Portland?  Cheyenne?  Over time, these little inconsistencies add up.

The easy solution to this is one that’s been used in narratives throughout history: provide a facsimile of real world settings.  Modern gamers will recognize this approach most notably in the Grand Theft Auto series: we’re in “San Andreas” not Los Angeles, “Liberty City” instead of New York.  This allows the developers to have a great deal of creative license in their map design, while still having a real world base to work from – and attract players with.  What GTA does that H1Z1 does not, however, is provide internal consistency: every location in GTA is a facsimile.

In H1Z1‘s Survivor Radio backstory reveal, however, they’ve taken an approach that is far more Assassin’s Creed than Grand Theft Auto.  I’d encourage readers to listen to the nearly two hour show, but for those who haven’t, the first quarter of the plot centers around the creation of the virus and links it to a pharmaceutical company operating out of Poveglia, Italy.  The location is real and so are the historical claims that Survivor Radio makes regarding its Napoleonic History and the presence of a quarantine station.  This is the historical specificity that entertainment like Assassin’s CreedThe X-Files, and The Walking Dead use as their bread-and-butter: take obscure but accurate historical stories, paint them in a new narrative context to infuse meaning that fascinates the audience, and spin new stories from there.  But the power of that approach stems from the accuracy of presenting real world events, settings, and individuals.

H1Z1 needs to decide which approach to setting they’re taking and then iron out the inconsistencies that have developed from map and lore design being created in isolated silos.

Continuity Errors Between Loot and Lore

No one needs these anymore.  That's why they're in every house.
No one needs these anymore. That’s why they’re in every house.

There are strong assertions in Survivor Radio, the only canonical lore for H1Z1, that a pharmaceutical company had successfully research a cure for all human disease and this cure-all drug was what led (perhaps purposefully, perhaps accidentally) to the creation of the virus.  If this is the case, why are we seeing loot spawns for various over-the-counter, low impact cold medicines in nearly every house and bathroom cupboard?

And furthermore, why are we seeing syringes filled with an “H1Z1 Cure” – without any justification or references in the lore or backstory to a cure existing at all?

These continuity breaks again show the absence of a creative director’s impact – there are very real reasons that these items exist in spawning locations: promises of future game systems that will be intriguing and continue H1Z1‘s strong design toward interesting player choices.  But with such shades of contrast with the established lore for the game, there are again inconsistencies that will result in future changes or retcons.  Furthermore there are missed opportunities – loot is an area, particularly in a survival game, where hints toward the mysteries and complexities of the backstory and lore can emerge – and yet we see no reference to the characters or groups (such as Kurama Pharmaceuticals) that could add narrative, drama, and intrigue.

Continuity Errors Between Death and Lore

One of the badass systems that is already present in H1Z1 is the fact that player corpses/loot bags become zombies after a short time.  It’s an amazing and innovative idea, but similar to the cold medicine issue described above, contradicts previously established lore.  Survivor Radio clearly indicates that the infection is spread through being bitten, progresses within the host until they succumb to cardiac arrest, and finally ending in a reanimation.  That leaves little room for the reanimation of the truckstop scavenger who is headshot by an arrow from another fresh spawn.  Another inconsistency; another continuity break.

Characters and Groups are (For the Most Part) Inconspicuously Absent

As noted above, we see no in-game references to Kurama Pharmaceuticals, Double-D Kennedy, Big Reg, John Hodge, or any of the other intriguing characters that SOE spent time and resources developing and conveying to their audience through Survivor Radio.  And even in a human-NPCless sandbox, there are plenty of opportunities.

Among them: notes scrawled on in-game maps (none of which reference the previously-established lore), itemization, and especially the quest system of worn letters, where I’ve only seen one lore-based reference (a letter addressed to the Runners, a previously established in-game faction) in contrast with several easter eggs shouting out popular – and worthy – streamers, such as Cohh and Lirik.

Compelling characters and groups are essential to further intrigue and immersion in interactive worlds.  An advantage for sandbox games is the ability for players themselves to become the compelling characters, but this capacity doesn’t excuse the absence of developer-crafted characters.  And it isn’t the presence of the characters themselves being present and modeled in-game that matters, so much as the trails of breadcrumbs that they leave throughout the world.  The Lich King mattered in World of Warcraft.  Andrew Ryan mattered in BioShock.  And in both cases, they had a tremendous effect on the intrigue and immersion of the world, even when their faces and voices weren’t shown on the screen.

Can H1Z1 survive without them?  Yes.  But the world will be far less cohesive and intriguing as a result.

The Easter Egg Problematic

Too many of these.
Too many of these.

In H1Z1, there are easter eggs everywhere.  First, there’s the pat-on-the-back of developer recognition:  roads, such as the Avram Highway, are named after developers.  So are loot (Smed’s Mixed Vegetables) and locations (Clegg’s Sandwich shop.)  Pictures of the developers hang on missing posters outside the police station.

And there’s hat tips present throughout: the majority of the worn letters are references to popular streamers; the supermarket is named after genre-staple Romero.  Even the naming of the towns of Pleasant Valley and Cranberry have zombie-themed reference points.

This is a creative and humorous group of folks, I’ll give them that.  So what’s the issue?  Isn’t this all in good fun?  After all, countless worlds – Warcraft and the Elder Scrolls are known for their easter eggs and allusions.  The difference here is that these easter eggs are situated within worlds that already have lengthy backstories, lore canons, and thematic approaches.

From a design perspective, the problem with easter eggs is that they have a direct impact, psychologically, on a player’s immersion.  Each time the player encounters an easter egg where they understand the reference, there is a moment where two things occur: 1) the player finds humor and an appreciation for the moment, but 2) the player’s sense of disbelief that they are existing within the game world is broken, because they must step out of the world and back into the real one in order to make sense of the reference.

You can get away with this when these references are infrequent and obscure because they don’t impact the overall thematic vision or immersive experience for the player, particularly if the thematic and lore-based groundwork is so well-established that these breaks are appreciated – they serve similar purposes as commercial interruptions after intense television scenes.  But if the creative direction and thematics of the game are less established – as we’ve noticed above – these easter eggs have the potential to do more harm than good for a player’s immersion.  Imagine, for a moment, Warcraft stripped of all its lore and characters – the large number of easter eggs they have in the game become all the more obvious but lose their humor because the world itself has lost meaning.

That’s the precipice upon where H1Z1 sits – design the thematics of a game to be consistently tongue-in-cheek and the player’s experience will reflect that.  Fun, momentarily, for the developers; harmful, in the long term, for creating an immersive world with a cohesive narrative.

And that brings us to the closing.  From the continuity breaks described above to the overabundance of easter eggs, it’s easy to see how H1Z1 will have a long-term problem of thematic direction if they continue on the same path.  Currently, these issues don’t manifest themselves extensively – because with a new game, with an early narrative and a small geography, the developers can rely on the thematic archetypes already ingrained in player’s minds due to other genre staples – especially AMC’s The Walking Dead.  

But for H1Z1 to truly succeed as a long-term, immersive world, it needs to begin crafting its own stories, characters, and themes.  And it needs to ensure that the art, systems, and world design are reinforcing.

Suffice to say, it needs a Creative Director.

Related, and coming up in the next two weeks: Designing Narrative in Sandbox Environments

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