Perhaps this seems an oddly simple topic, but it's so commonly misunderstood that it seems relevant to illuminate it a bit.
I've often heard it assumed that a WoW quest designer is a writer, essentially responsible for just quest text and dialogue. The truth is, that's about 5% of a quest designer's job. Quest designers are storytellers, but the best quest designers tell story with the world far more than text, and they utilize a huge number of tools to do so.
A typical development team
For context, most game teams are essentially split into 4 major disciplines (simplifying a little bit for brevity):
- Artists create concepts, make models, and animate things. Creatures. Weapons. Buildings. Props.
- Engineers write the code that makes the game work. Servers. Rendering. Combat. Dungeon queuing. Tools to create things.
- Designers put things together into an experience. Form terrain. Place creatures. Encounters. Systems. Quests. Rewards.
- Producers keep the whole thing moving. Team communication. Removing complications. Schedules. Coordination with other groups.
These development groups are supported by other teams, sometimes integrated closely, sometimes entirely separate. User Interface. Audio. Quality Assurance (testing). Customer Service. Licencing. Business groups. Many others.
Not all studios are split up like this, but most are somewhere in this space.
For most MMO teams, a quest designer (or Mission Designer, Content Designer, etc.) is responsible for planning and building content primarily for outdoor zones, and sometimes for small group instances. This involves identifying major stories and themes, creating characters, planning creature ecologies, planning a "flow" through the zone, and identifying gameplay opportunities along the way.
High level plans often involve many people. Plans for a specific POI (Point of Interest) or instance are often handled almost entirely by a single quest designer, with review at various points along the way. Depending on the studio, this can mean a quest designer can have a great deal of independence in the characters they want to make and the stories they want to tell, as long as they generally fit the game.
In this context, level designers build the physical world itself. Terrain, trees, buildings, textures. They do this working closely with quest designers wherever possible to plan around the content that is going to be placed there.
After a plan has been put together and approved, and some basic level design has been made, a quest designer begins to put it all together.
- Dressing and customizing many NPCs and creatures that are going to be used.
- Placing creatures in the space and scripting their actions.
- Creating quests and hooking up credit mechanics.
- Building elaborate quest events out of spell effects and more creature scripting.
- Placing "flavor" in quest hubs and combat POIs to reinforce the fantasy of the space and help sell the story visually.
- Adding discoverable bonus content on the sides.
- Writing dialogue and quest text.
- Testing it all and iterating to improve it.
As with all designers, quest designers are responsible for communicating everything they need from other teams, be that voiceover, specific art assets, special tools or engineering, level design adjustments, etc., so forming good relationships with other subteams makes for a better designer.
Following up quest designers, encounter designers build combat mechanics into all of the creatures and bosses in the world, typically working with the themes the quest designers have established. Item/reward designers build quest rewards and drops for all of the creatures. Other designers hook up other systems, like battle pets and mining nodes in WoW's case.
On some teams, encounter or reward work is also consolidated onto the content designer as well, but that is a bit more atypical these days in my experience.
And beyond all of those practical, functional parts of doing the job, a quest designer has to be skilled at a great deal of far more subtle things. Touching on a few:
- A firm grasp of all of their game's culture and fiction, and how to tell stories that fit cleanly within those bounds.
- A good sense of visual storytelling and how to communicate things in ways that are clear while not being overused.
- Strong instincts for smooth usability, and a general knowledge of the standards of interaction that feel comfortable and familiar in their game.
- A strong understanding of player psychology and how they will respond or learn when presented with new information.
- Effective familiarity with online social dynamics as large number of players gather in small spaces competing for resources or rewards.
- The ability to be creative within the confines of certain fictional boxes, time limitations, or tool limitations.
In many studios, the term "Level Designer" is used to refer to a designer who creates an entire "level," rather than just the terrain as I indicated above. If you're approaching a team trying to get a job, it's important to familiarize yourself with their individual definitions, as they can vary quite a bit.
Again, mileage may vary from studio to studio, but this should be a pretty solid approximation for what the role entails. On the World of Warcraft team and on many like it, quest designers do quite a bit more than writing.
Being a quest designer is an immensely gratifying job, if an immensely challenging one. The breadth of skills you have to master to be good in these sorts of roles dramatically eclipses most professional experience I've had in other fields, and the ramp-up times can be dramatic as a result. But for anyone who's got the the capacity to juggle the many things involved while remaining passionately creative, I highly recommend it.
[My thoughts and opinions are my own. They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]