Mar 31, 2008

[The Great Divide]

Via Tolbold's blog:

The problem is that these two parts of the game [Solo and Group content] are drifting further and further apart in World of Warcraft and the MMORPG genre in general. Soloing becomes easier and easier, the need to group during leveling up has been nearly completely removed, elite mobs turned into soloable non-elites, and the rewards for pseudo-solo PvP have been much increased. It is now possible to go from level 1 to level 70 and full epic gear in World of Warcraft without ever joining a group once. And the classes who are best at soloing fast or best at PvP are the most popular and most played.
Meanwhile, raiding remains hard, because that is the very reason of being for it, and even harder raid content as added to the end with every content patch. But to overcome these challenges, people need to learn how to play in a coordinated way. And the mix of classes, talents, and gear required for raiding is very different from what is most popular and easy to achieve in the soloing part of the game. Slowly but surely the two modes of gameplay drift so far apart that cracks begin to appear, threatening the whole model.

From a raider's point of view the leveling game now fails to fulfill it's function of getting people ready to raid. Sure, they might be level 70 and have epic gear, but they might still be totally useless for a raid: they have not even the most basic training of how to play their class in a group, and they are of the wrong class, wrong spec, and wearing gear with the wrong bonuses to succeed in raids...The average player who soloed up to 70, invested some effort in PvP to get epic gear, and now wants to raid, will find himself rejected and laughed at by the top raiding guilds on his server. He'll complain about them being elitist, but in fact it is game design that created the gap between average player and raider.

What needs to be done is to rethink the concept of solofication. Why is soloing popular? A part of it is due to Real Life ® contraints, if you solo you can play in smaller bits and bites, group play needs longer periods. But another part of it is just a Skinner box: people like soloing because the game teaches them that soloing is the easiest way to advance. So even if they would have the time for a group, they rather keep on playing solo, because setting up a group is so not worth it... And WoW's concept of teaching players how to group is equivalent of throwing them into deep water to teach him how to swim: some people learn it that way, but many get hurt and frustrated in the process.

Solofication not only opens up a gap to end game raid content, it also moves MMORPGs in a direction where they become vulnerable to competition from single-player games. When I recently asked whether people would play a single-player version of WoW without monthly fees, I was surprised of how many people would prefer such a game over an online MMORPG with monthly fees. If game design minimizes your interaction with other players, then why pay $15 a month for that interaction?

I have to admit: I prefer the 'forced grouping style' MMORPG. I would rather not solo most of my time -- I started playing MMOs because of the social aspects, not in spite of it. Five and 10-man dungeons in WoW are my favorite content. I wish more quests were like that too -- as it is now, it's pretty hard to find groups for the few 'Group' quests out there. Many people skip them. It's rarely worth the time to look for a group when you could just move on to the next solo quest.

The 2 opposite kinds of 'wants' of MMO players can't both be supported equally; one or the other will fail and as a result the whole game will suffer. I think this just goes to show that a MMO should pick its niche and play to it 100% -- trying to court both is not the way to have the best overall content for its players. One or the other side will end up feeling shortchanged, and the entire original purpose for playing an MMORPG in the first place is lost.

Mar 26, 2008

[I Want a World]

It was true two years ago, and it still is true now:

So then, here’s the problem. World of Warcraft is TOO accessible. By that, I mean, it’s possible for someone who hates the MM part of MMOs - other people - to progress through the entire game without ever needing to, well, group. Eventually, in the 50’s, they might start getting pick-up groups for the lower level “end-game” instances or more difficult quest sequences. But the wall between “LFG Stratholme” and “finding a guild that will get me into MC/BWL gear” is abso-freakin-lutely HUGE. And it’s quite obviously a leap of design. It’s a very clear point of departure - once you get to this point, you’re no longer casual. Your character won World of Warcraft. You got level 60. You got the powerup. YOU WON THE GAME.

It’s no coincidence that Blizzard, no doubt driven by their community people put up a page on their website detailing exactly what to do when you, well, win. “Hey, you can… uh… do PVP? Raid? Roll an alt? Play our expansion?” Kind of obvious stuff - unless you have a player base composed mostly of people for whom this is their first MMO, and definitely the first MMO they’ve reached the endgame in. They want more stuff. They want more stuff like they already played.

They absolutely do not want different stuff. They want stuff like they liked. If they wanted that other stuff, they’d have not quit that other MMO they tried for a month. They want more stuff like the old stuff.

And… they ran out of stuff. And Blizzard can’t make enough stuff. And most of the stuff they are making… uh… it’s not that stuff. It’s the other stuff. The high-level raiding stuff that, to keep a tradition in every other MMO alive, wasn’t included with the original game, but was PatchedInLater.

So until the expansion comes later this year, which will deliver a DVD full of MORE STUFF, you have millions - millions of players who are out of stuff. It’s getting pretty ugly. And most of those have no interest in being in the top 25% or 10% or whatever of the pyramid of players that enjoys organizing raids to whack the most powerful foozles. They feel bait and switched. They had a good year or so of stuff. They want more stuff.

But every game eventually runs out of stuff. There’s never enough stuff. What’s left at the end - the endgame - is what the players can come up with to make their own stuff. Be it PVP or high-end complex PVE raiding until their fingers bleed, every game eventually has to figure out how to keep players happy - either in cranking out More Stuff on a regular basis (/wave Everquest) or in keeping people happy in making their own stuff. Thus why PvP is such a common end-game goal for designers - hey, people have an endless appetite for beating each other over the head with sticks.

But if you play WoW, and you got to level 60, and you don’t like raiding, and you don’t like PvP, and you don’t particularly want to level up a new character… well, you’re out of stuff.

And that’s where some people get REALLY ANGRY. Because they have a lot invested into their characters, their friends and the connections between the two, and they REALLY. DO. NOT. LIKE. BEING. TOLD. NO. Queue the hundreds of threads on the WoW forums. All of which boil down, in the end: “More stuff, plz.”

Because, despite the claims by both sides on the forums, the “casuals” don’t really want free government cheese from Nefarion. They want more character development. They want to get to 70, or 80, or 60.0009. They don’t want to feel like they’ve reached the brick wall of character development that, well, they have. They don’t want to completely switch their playstyle to keep developing the character they’ve grown attached to. They don’t want the game to end


And that sentiment is universal to all games. The fact that we’re seeing so much of it expressed in World of Warcraft bespeaks more of its success than its failures.

The task of the WoW designers - should they choose to accept it, and it’s quite likely they won’t, being that it’s Different and thus Scary - is to move players from a developer-driven character development model to a player-driven character development model.

Whether it’s through PvP (a “cop-out” that many players won’t accept), some form of guild-based PvE advancment that even the smallest guilds can participate in, or something entirely new… maybe a dancing contest! Everyone loves dancing. Really. But the point is that the life cycle of the character has to move beyond the racetrack that the quest lines and character levelling aims the player down. And the only way for further points in the life cycle to self-perpetuate is to enable the players to make, and track their own goals. There are five million WoW players. While there are probably a lot of WoW developers, there most assuredly are not five million of them. Numbers are not on their side.

And yes, this means getting more “world-ly” and less “game-y”. But games end, and worlds don’t. And players who are demanding that their character’s life cycle not end… are demanding more world. Not necessarily more content - but more ways to participate.

But that would require a good deal of thought, and development work. Maybe even an expansion! Never seen those before. But in the meantime, we’re seeing what happens if, in the days of Everquest pre-any-expansions, somehow five million people managed to cram into Lower Guk. Demanding more stuff.

...And I want a world. What worries me, is that all the future MMOs trying to copy WoW's success are just going to fall into the same trap. Really, as long as the game is profitable overall, who cares what the players want longterm? The devs will make their profit and be happy, and that's what they want, after all. I suppose it's our own fault for shelling out the cash to support a love/hate relationship with the game.

The second expansion pack is coming out sometime in the near future -- has Blizzard realized what Scott (and many other oldtime MMOers) have said for years? Or will it be more of the same? I hate to say it, but I really think it will be more of the same...

If anyone finds an MMO that actually tries to be a world instead of just a fun game on rails, please let me know. So far none of the upcoming contenders really seem to be trying for that, though.

Mar 25, 2008

[Because 5% Doesn't Pay the Bills]

via Broken Toys, on the removal of the incredibly complex attunement quests for Black Temple:

"Not everyone is happy about this:
'Blizzard no longer cares about the hardcore gamers, be that the raiders or the pvpers. Well, we’re done with it. It wasn’t just one thing really. While we were all excited to get some tier6 for our freshly 70 alts from this new badge gear, there’s a part of you that just has to feel some pain when you look back at all the time you spent farming instances…for nothing.'
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, silly. It’s silly to expect game developers to create content that 50 people on the planet can access. OK, so that’s an exagerration. According to Wowjutsu, 286,000 people have entered the Black Temple, and 121,000 have finished it. Still, that is 5% of a given fairly hardcore population… to show up on Wowjutsu, you have to be in a raid that has completed some portion of Karazhan. Just as a comparison, those figures above are compared to 2.2 million players that watched the Shade of Aran blow up their raid."

  The costs of developing and running an MMO do not allow the old EQ model of pandering content to the minority uber elite. It's not going to happen, and to expect it to just reeks of entitlement complex. Which happens to be what the 'hardcore' raiders like to accuse the 'casuals' of having, ironically enough. =P

"This isn’t a bad thing. If you make your game’s endgame challenge dependent on how fast your content designers can crank out ever-increasingly-difficult challenges, you either have a game that no one can finish, or a game everyone can eventually finish, given enough investment of time.
Which makes some people unhappy. Raiders denigrating casual players in WoW has a long, storied tradition, after all. But casual players pay the bills. I fully expect Wrath of the Lich King to have a hideously complicated attunement sequence for taking down Arthas at the end. I also fully expect that sequence to disappear a year later."

  Unlike EQ, where the high end content remained out of reach of the majority of the players, even after the hardcore had moved on to newer dungeons, at least WoW is trying to allow more folks to be able to experience more of the game as they add to the endgame. I'd like to see a good explanation of how to solve the problem of accessibility in a better way from these folks who feel that just because some other guy can get into Black Temple a year after they themselves did, it somehow cheapens their own personal game experience. Once again, the entire raider shpiel about how they're 'in it for the challenge' just rings false. If they were, they wouldn't care.