Game Designer’s Block


The best definition I’ve ever seen of what makes a good (computer) game comes from someone whose name I’ve forgotten at Electronic Arts, and it is: “Some kind of enjoyable activity combined with an excuse for doing it repeatedly.” I’ve been working on a game in my spare time with the working title of Project Weasel. (The link is not very exciting.)

When I first came up with the game idea I was working on several other games and actually being paid to do so. Most of the games were for children and while they were occasionally technically interesting, I wasn’t terribly engaged. (Luckily my role on those games was not as designer.) The main game I was involved with started out as, in essence, a Tomb Raider clone (Tomb Raider was the new hotness at the time) with the idea that the emphasis would be on the underwater parts (keeping track of air).

Being underwater is intrinsically different and intense in a way that being in a cave or tomb isn’t. I actually still think this is a very good idea for both gameplay and that I had a good storyline (which if anything is even more topical now than it was then, since it involved climate change), but it’s more than I can handle on my own.

After we turned down Electronic Arts’ development contract because it was insufficiently risk free for my employer (hint: don’t be risk averse if you’re trying to start a game development company) we spent nearly two years trying to get better deals from rival game companies by mutating our project into whatever idiotic thing they were into. And failing. (When we told other people in the industry about the EA offer we’d turned down, their jaws dropped. Ah, we were idiots.)

“Eco Guerillas Underwater with Tomb Raider Game Play” (our elevator pitch) eventually turned into something like “Carrier Command style Real Time Strategy, but with Submarines”. (The latter was a completely rewritten game design document with the same title as the first for contractual reasons. Also, in my opinion, a great game idea and a solid design. Oh well.)

Anyhoo, the company gave up trying to break into the game business, sold itself to a consulting company that had been bought by one of Australia’s few successful web startups and then taken it over from within (actually, the developer of the ridiculously bad “Hot Dog” HTML editor), and pretty much disappeared. I don’t even have copies of most of the design documents, although I could probably rewrite them from memory in a couple of weeks.

One day while the lead programmer, the owner of the company, and I were shooting the breeze, I came up with the idea for a game I called “Weasel”. It was inspired by a term used by Jack Vance in his Demon Princes novels. The basic idea is this: an interstellar society will always have a “beyond” — a region of space where people live but the law doesn’t reach. Assuming criminals have access to spaceships, the beyond will be a haven for criminals. “Weasels” were agents of civilization’s police force who would try to apprehend particularly nasty criminals in the beyond.

Of course, somewhere along the line I thought it would be cute if the “weasels” were in fact weasels.

So the idea was, essentially, a “casual” game with variable length missions (you would pick the scope of a mission based on how long you planned to play, and the game would dynamically insert the mission into the sandbox world). This is a ridiculously idealistic game design and the underlying idea (of a sandbox universe which dynamically generated “plot”) has been in the back (or front) of my mind in one shape or another since I was in college. But this time I had an insight would make the the basic idea much more practical than my previous designs (which weren’t much more practical than “Implement an interesting universe. Place player inside. Enjoy.”

An Insight

Here’s the insight. I think it’s pretty clever. I also think a lot of other game designers have had it. I hope someone takes it and runs with it. Runs a really long way. OK, ready? It’s coming…

The universe is stateless. All the state you need is either attached to the player, or discarded when “out of sight”.

What does this mean? And why is it even worth stating as an idea?

Well, let’s suppose we want to give the player a simple mission, of the form “Find X who we think is in Y. Kill X. Bring back proof.” This is pretty much a bog standard World of Warcraft quest. But in WoW, X is a predetermined NPC placed manually in the game world in advance in Y. The quest is statically designed. If two players take the quest, they both have to kill the same X. To solve this, we’ll have X respawn constantly. So you can kill X (1) inadvertently. Get the quest. Kill X (2) again. And bump into X (3) while looting X (2)’s corpse. This isn’t some freakishly rare thing that occasionally happens and you can ignore. This is something that happens all the time in World of Warcraft.

Now take my idea. The quest is part of the player state, not the world state. So when I get to Y, the game engine, knowing I am supposed to meet and kill X in Y, spawns X — uniquely — for me. If another person gets the “same” quest, it will be to kill Q in R.

If we just implement a dynamic universe without my idea, then once I have the quest the game engine needs to start spawning X in Y hoping that I go there. (Or pick a pre-existing X who is already in Y for me to kill.) X can be killed by another player (or, in a truly dynamic universe, another NPC). Or I may have previously killed X, which is just stupid. This isn’t going to produce very enjoyable play experiences.

Let’s take a slightly more complex example. “Go kill a bunch of Ys and get me a rare and valuable pelt P. You may find them in Q or R.” Another typical WoW quest, generally implemented by giving monsters of type Y some smallish chance of dropping pelt P. So one person goes and kills a Y and gets a pelt first time. Another goes and kills them for days and leaves frustrated. But, because we put the state in the player, we can design the quest so that you must kill at least five Ys in both Q and R to get the pelt, but there’s a set limit to the frustration (the probability of getting the pelt increases by 10% for every Y after the 10th that you kill, say). Or, after you’ve killed five in each place an NPC pops up who tells you about a particularly fierce Y that can be found in S. When you go there, there he is. (And someone else doing the quest might have been sent to D and E and then F.)

But it gets better.

One of the huge problems with creating dynamic universes is building mechanisms for propagating knowledge about the (dynamic) universe through the (dynamic) universe. I’m talking about NPC knowledge. If I want to know where some randomly generated X is in the Universe, who the heck is going to know? Everyone? That’s just silly. No-one? That’s silly too. But if the quest contains the information (ask about X in location Y and you will find Z who knows about X) the problem is solved.

Let’s suppose you’ve killed 1,000 orcs and earned the title “Orc Slayer”. How do people know to call you “Orc Slayer”? Well, that’s pretty easy. Your title is part of your player state. Plenty of games handle trivial stuff like this already. (Hey look, that NPC called me “elf”.)

But let’s suppose you’re doing a murder mystery quest (pointless in WoW since it will be on spoiler sites) where you are sent to talk to A who is supposed to be in B, but when you get to B you are told to go to C. When you get to C, you find A there, dead. But wait, there’s a clue pointing to D as the murderer, a known associate of E who may be found in F. You go to F, beat up E, and get told D is in G. You go to G, kill D, and return to the quest giver for a reward. This is all perfectly easy to build in a completely static way, but put the state in the player and not only can you do this all dynamically, but you can even make things kind of realistic. When you find A, dead, you can talk to random NPCs in the area and the engine would be able to assign knowledge of the crime to them because the game engine knows which quests you’re doing and what stage you’re at. In an MMORPG you could even imagine that the crime might take place in front of other players as you were approaching the area, and you could interview them as witnesses.

I’ve seen this kind of thing implemented in two places. In Arena and Daggerfall missions were randomly generated. It was very crude, but it kind of worked. If you were told to go to Random Building and kill a bunch of Random Monsters when you entered the building, there were the Random Monsters. Moreover, if you were told to kill Random Randomson in Randomtown, you would go to Randomtown and everyone in the town had a chance to know where Random Randomson was

It’s also kind of implemented in the Grand Theft Auto games in a very simple way. If you commit crimes in front of police you get a wanted level. That wanted level is part of your player state … no matter where you go you’re wanted. Police are spawned (kind of pathologically) based on your wantedness where-ever you are. If you’re swimming in the ocean, police boats appear and shoot at you. If you’re hidden in grass under a pier, police appear and start shooting at you. It’s very crude, but — in a nutshell — this is the idea I’m talking about. Imagine if quests worked like your wanted level and followed you around the sandbox.

* Well, some crimes — like colliding with a police car or carjacking someone right in front of them — running over people or knocking over lamp posts or ignoring red lights or driving at 120mph in a built up area are all perfectly OK)

The title of this post was “Game Designer’s Block”

Here’s my problem. Weasel was conceived as “the simplest non-trivial game engine that would support The Idea”. Then the usual things happened. First, I got interested in aesthetics. (Originally I was determined to use crude sketch graphics for everything, but I just couldn’t do it.) Next, I got bogged down in the hard slog of building a not particularly interesting game engine to support my interesting idea, which I can’t really get to until the game engine is done. (In fact, to prevent feature creep, I planned to completely omit The Idea from the initial game.)

But here’s what really got me bogged down. I got the basics of the gameplay working and, damn it, it’s just not fun. The basic activity has to be fun or all the other crap — The Idea — the stuff that gives you an excuse to do it over and over — well it’s a waste of time. My game needs two basic gameplay components: fly around in space and shoot stuff, walk around on the ground and shoot stuff. And, well, it’s just not fun.

Grand Theft Auto’s basic activity (stealing cars, driving around a city like a complete nutjob, and killing people — either by shooting them or running them over or getting their cars to explode) is a lot of fun. The main reason it’s fun (in my opinion) is that

  1. The cityscape is sufficiently immersive and real to give you a real rush when you careen around at insane speeds, driving against traffic, weaving between cars, etc.
  2. The cars handle just realistically enough to be challenging and yet are forgiving enough that you can do crazy stuff in them.

But the problem with space is that it’s basically empty. Flying a spaceship fast is easy. Space is empty. Filling space with asteroids is an option but asteroids are boring. You need to be able to duck and weave around things, and occasionally screw up and explode.

The problem with planets is that they’re really big. I don’t have the manpower to build a bunch of really interesting detailed environments, and randomly generated content is boring. Well, unless it’s very cleverly randomly generated.

So my problem is that I want flying around in a spaceship and blowing stuff up to be fun, and/or walking around on a planet and blowing stuff up to be fun. If I can only make one fun, I’m prepared to minimize or eliminate the other. But so far, neither is fun.

And so I’m blocked and writing way too many blog entries.

World of Warcraft BRIEFLY Revisited

Well, I was really bored and I had some money sitting in my seldom-used PayPal account, so I renewed my old WoW account to see if I might enjoy bashing stuff for a short while. (Yes, I know, flirting with old addictions is very dangerous, but I lived.)

When I quit WoW I predicted, somewhat bitterly, that Blizzard’s various borderline insane decisions (e.g. changing raid caps) would drive people away from the game. I predicted that the server populations would drop by 10% or more. Frankly, with time having passed, I decided my judgment had probably been clouded by ire, and that most of the folks who played WoW would probably deal with the stupidity and soldier on.

Logging back into World of Warcraft — and I should add that this was just me, just one specific server, and that I logged in during off-peak times on a day when Blizzard had announced rolling outages — it struck me that:

  • the usually crowded areas (such as the hub cities Ironforge and Shattrah) were almost deserted
  • the auction houses had relatively little for sale (and bizarrely skewed distributions of things — even more bizarre than I remembered)
  • there wasn’t anything on sale in the auction house that represented an upgrade for any of my alts (I have a lot of alts), which is pretty amazing since I quit six months ago before a lot of highish end content had been trivialized
  • my main (a hunter) was able to upgrade her (very decent, but not uber) bow for 35gp buyout (not a fluke, there were several such bows on sale at roughly the same price)
  • chat was pretty quiet, even dumb questions in city/general and trade channel spam were minimal
  • no-one I remembered was online (and I knew a lot of hardcore 24/7ish players)
  • there is new content (e.g. new factions to work on, new level 70 quests that require a flying mount to complete, etc.) but it’s not interesting. Oh wow, now I can fly somewhere, and collect ten doohickeys. That’s different.

My brief tour included both the Horde side (where the alt-guild I had been a member of only had three members who had logged in within the past month) and the Alliance, and both “newbie” zones and high end (level 70+) areas.

From what I’ve heard from friends who, at least as of a few months ago, were still playing WoW, pretty much every uberish guild imploded about the time ours did (i.e. when we’d tooled up 20+ 70th level characters and were ready to hit the “end game”). Coincidence? I think not.

First, Destroy the Social Glue

In order to hit 40-person raid zones, a guild needs an absolute minimum of 60 suitably skilled and geared players. On non-raid nights, this means that you have probably 20-30 raiders online, and on raid nights, this means you have 35-45 on. Blizzard built new high-end content for raids of 10, 15, and 25, but with all the lockout idiocy of 20- and 40- person content. (Anyone with experience dealing with the ZG 20-person raids knows that lockout was really idiotic for ZG, but this wasn’t so bad as no-one cared that much about ZG loot except for three bosses, two of which were easy to get to.)

So now you end up with, say, enough people to staff two 10-person raids on an off night. They either sit on their asses, or they start raiding, causing all kinds of lockout issues on raid night. (This was guaranteed.) You had guilds (like ours) fighting over whether they got to go with the (perceived) “A” team, vs. the suboptimal “B” team formed of leftovers, and then everyone went apeshit on raid-night, when there were two incomplete raids with partially locked-out players, and a whole bunch of folks who had a choice of forming raids without the best players (who were locked out) or joining a pre-existing raid and missing out on the easy loot.

And that’s just the fallout from one incredibly and obviously dumb decision Blizzard made in the expansion.

Next, Make The Learning Curve Too Easy, and then Too Hard

Other dumb decisions included making the difficulty gradient for the new raid content way too steep. Pretty much all the content (including dungeon instances) in Burning Crusade is idiotically easy, until you hit raid instances and “heroic” difficulty. Then it suddenly gets ridiculously (as in “figure this fight out by dying ten times”) difficult. It’s the old story of the frog in a pot of water … apply heat too fast and it jumps out. I guess a lot of people jumped out. It’s like Blizzard forgot one of the golden rules of computer game design (learned about ten years into the industry’s lifespan): the customer pays to be entertained; he/she doesn’t have to do a lot more to deserve that entertainment, and if you treat a customer as if he/she does need to earn the right to be entertained, you lose the customer.

This insight is most clearly displayed by the change in arcade games some time around 1984 so that you could pay to continue. Stick enough coins in the box, you get to see the whole thing. Better players can get away with fewer coins, but they don’t get to see more of the game. All MMORPGs have yet to learn this, but they get away with it by deluging players with so much content/tedium that they might not realize they’re missing something. The problem for WoW is that the original game set a high bar, and the expansion did not reach it.

???

No-one at Blizzard with a pocket calculator seems to have done some simple arithmetic, such as “hmm, to get to revered with Enemies of Fred you’ll need to kill 234,000 Friends of Fred”. Well, the other possibility is that they did, and the spectacular levels of tedium (in terms of factions, keys, and tradeskills) introduced in the Expansion are deliberate.

This isn’t surprising. There’s plenty of evidence of this lack-of-thinking throughout World of Warcraft, it’s just that it has never been piled up in huge, steaming mounds before. It’s almost like Sony Online Entertainment was put in charge of Burning Crusade (but then there would be better itemization).

Profit!

Assuming, and this is a huge assumption, my experiences in my 1h return to WoW were vaguely representative, it seems like Blizzard has lost not 10% of its players, but more like 50%. This is WAY more moribund than I would ever have guessed WoW would become in such a short period. Heck, I’d be shocked if EverQuest servers (merged as they are) would be this dead. That is simply astonishing, and worth a major post-mortem.

A Brief History of Bloody-Mindedness & Game Design

Once upon a time, someone invented computer games. Whether it’s chess, or pong, or asteroids, or whatever you want to pick as your first computer game (but not space war) the one thing all the original computer games (but not space war) had in common was that you played against the computer. In order to keep the game interesting for stronger players, the game would get harder as you “progressed” (either it got better after you completed a level or you could simply pick a difficulty level).

Fast forward a few years and a new concept was introduced to computer games: content. Suddenly, instead of the game’s content being essentially fixed and the speed, number of targets, and/or computer player’s reaction speed (or in chess games, depth and quality of look ahead) being raised, games had content. Level 2 might look different from level 1.

Content-based games quickly outstripped content-free faster, faster, more, more games in popularity and market penetration. Perhaps the last big gasp of the old-school games was Tetris, while the first mighty flash of content-based games was MYST (a game that millions of people who didn’t play games played).

All of this sets aside player vs. player games (such as Spacewar, DOOM, etc.) because human opponents can be endlessly challenging (well, so far). Humans are bloody-minded as players, but I’m discussing bloody-mindedness in game design.

Why Be Bloody-Minded?

It turns out that the more vivid the content and the more responsive the game world, the more people seem to like the game. It also turns out that the more vivid the game world and the more responsive the game, the more expensive the game is to develop. All those graphics, animations, and special case pieces of scripting cost money to think up, design, implement, debug, and then support.

So, therefore, it makes sense to make maximum use of all the vivid, responsive content you developed. Why produce gorgeous graphics and animation that folks will only see once? Solution: stick it in a really difficult part of the game the player will have to repeat again and again and again.

And, why produce vivid, responsive content players won’t see at all? Solution: make your content as linear as possible, forcing players down a “tunnel of fun”.

And the end result? Extremely vivid and interactive games that are mind-numbingly repetitive and linear. (You may think I’m describing your favorite game in particular, but guess what — that includes pretty much every triple-A title out there.)

There’s actually a third, and far more insidious, reason for bloody-mindedness that I haven’t gotten to, but it has its roots in all that boring history I started off with. It’s elitism. Almost everyone in the game design business is really good at playing games. And really good players know that what makes them cool, what makes up for their inability to form social relationships outside cyberspace, is their ability to play Q*bert until they get bored, or clock Time Pilot, or beat anyone in Virtua Fighter 5 as anyone. So there’s an inherent belief among many game designers that unless you’re this tall you don’t get to go on the fun rides.

That’s right, you may pay Blizzard $500 for a copy of WoW and three years of subscription fees, but you don’t get to see the Twin Emperors or Patchwerk or whatever unless you go through a certain (large) amount of tedium and pain.

Enter the MMORPG*

* Massive Money-making Online Role-Playing Game

All three kinds of bloody-mindedness are particularly prevalent in MMORPGs. You can actually see it evolve within the design teams. They start out designing stuff quite idealistically:

“Look, this dungeon is a bit non-linear and entertaining rather than really bloody-minded.”

“Oh dear, folks didn’t spend six months doing it over and over, we mustn’t make that mistake again.”

“If we’re going to write a really cool fight script, it’s vital that everyone has to watch it fifty times.”

This is because all three reasons are strongly sharpened. The economic arguments are stronger because unlike with single player games you want to keep people playing for as long as possible and develop as little content as possible. The elitism issues are magnified because a significant and vocal proportion of your player base hates their real lives and seeks solace in the game world where their entire sense of self value is determined by what they’ve seen and done (and looted) in the game world that most other people have not.

As a final note. A certain amount of bloody-mindedness is a good thing. If it were easy to see all the content in a game, no-one would bother. Difficulty makes a game rewarding — to a point. Even tedium and repetition can make an achievement rewarding — to a point. I doubt that any MMORPG player will disagree that MMORPGs have gone beyond this point in the latter department.

Can Anything Be Done? Should Anything Be Done?

The beauty of MMORPGs is that the economics of the game allow designers to spend much more time building content (and gameplay) for those games (from an individual player’s perspective) than single player games. Oblivion, say, has a stupendous amount of content, but it pales in comparison to World of Warcraft. Of course, most people play Oblivion for a few weeks and then, happy they’ve “finished” it, move on to something else.

So, MMORPGs have a lot more content than single player games because they make a lot more money (when they don’t fail miserably). But, single players games give you a lot more content per hour played than MMORPGs. One solution is to play single player games. But single player games have plenty of tedium and bloody-mindedness in them too. How much time spent playing, say, a typical Final Fantasy game is spent dealing with interesting new content.

Solution: Competition

Blizzard, right now, is raking in cash. I very much doubt that they increase content development expenditure based on their revenue; they just treat their player base as a cash cow and enjoy themselves. Every new player is (aside from server/bandwidth costs) pure profit.

My view of every MMORPG out there is that it’s woefully short of engaging content relative to the amount of time players are spending in it, and that the “hamburger’s helper” being used to keep the players playing is a sordid concoction of tedium, repetition, and general bloody-mindedness. Build more content and you can ease off on the tedium, repetition, and bloody-mindedness. But the only way we’ll see this happen is if (a) Blizzard suddenly decides, out of a sense of idealism, that they should spend more money building content for players they already have, or (b) credible competitors emerge who don’t take their players so much for granted.

Solution: Hire Your Customer

One of the standard “brilliant ideas” when I was in the Management Consulting biz was “hire your customer”. You see it everywhere, from “self-service” fuel pumps to “self-service” ticket collection at airports. (If it weren’t for 9/11, you’d be checking in your own luggage too.)

It’s clear that the ultimate source of engaging content in games is other human beings, but aside from player vs. player combat, and a few games with scenario design tools, no-one has much attempted to leverage the creativity of other players into games. There are obvious problems: the first thing I did with the Neverwinter Nights “Aurora” toolset (which lets you build game content) was create a “dungeon” consisting of a guy who would give you any amount of money or experience and a small dungeon full of superbly equipped enemies to kill and loot. This only spoils my own fun, but imagine if an MMORPG world allowed such things to be added by players.

The big question then is how to allow players to create challenges for each other in a relatively controlled way that allows the universe to constantly grow more interesting without anything getting too out of control.

I won’t go into it in detail here, but I think the solution is, in essence, something like Slashdot or Wikipedia. Everyone can produce content. Everyone can moderate. If a game engine like NeverWinter Nights allowed you to jump from server to server you could build a complete MMORPG universe without requiring a single gigantic server farm and incredibly costly infrastructure.

Hey, it’s an idea.

Solution: Emergent Behavior

Will Wright’s Spore is an attempt to build a dynamic-ish universe around players’ decisions, employing a “fractal” combination of random number generators and player design choices to create a complex, dynamic sandbox. Of course, the game never seems to ship, which tends to imply that while all the algorithms and technology are endlessly cool and fascinating, there’s not much of a game there yet. (I played this game before, when it was called SimEarth. Sure, it wasn’t quite so elaborate, but it was the same concept with 2d graphics … and it also didn’t work well as a game.)

Emergent behavior is something that game designers need to allow for but not surrender to, and be alert for and willing to exploit. For example, the designers of EverQuest added the “Bazaar” in response to behavior they had seen emerge in the general chat channels. (In contrast, Blizzard essentially implemented eBay inside World of Warcraft. This makes for an efficient market, but not so good game atmosphere.) Many of the features of MMORPGs are essentially codified examples of emergent behavior.

Let me give some simple examples of how emergent behavior could be added to WoW.

Imagine that instead of being quite expensive clickable items, horses were quite cheap (say 1g) but they didn’t go in your inventory. They were, essentially, NPCs. If you have the skill you can mount a horse, ride it around, and unmount it. If the horse is “owned” by a given player, it becomes “unowned” if left untended and not “tied” to a hitching post. Unowned horses can be attacked by predators, or stolen. After a while they just disappear (starve or wander off). If you pick up an “unowned” horse you are flagged for PvP (and can be attacked by either side). We just got a ton of emergent behavior — folks may have to leave people to guard their horses outside dungeons. Players can make money watching horses for people. And, just incidentally, horses can no longer be conjured out of thin air after swimming across an ocean or teleporting into town.

Imagine that instead of simply respawning in place some creatures appear logically from some place and move to their “location” along some reasonable path. For example, you might have a series of “trog camps” in Loch Modan, and instead of their just popping into place in each camp, they appear from the Evil Warlock’s spawning cave and then wander from camp to camp until all the camps are full. Then the warlock spawns a big monster that rampages about until killed by guards or players. Now, the order in which you kill things matters, folks doing something in place A affects folks doing something else in place B. The whole area becomes a lot more interesting. Oh, and just incidentally, mobs are no longer “popping” out of thin air.

(Actually, I suggested this as feedback to Verant back before it became Sony Online Entertainment. Apparently, MMORPG designers have decided that mob spawning is just the way things are. Ugh.)

Summing Up

Bloody-mindedness manifests itself in games as repetition, tedium, linearity and gratuitous difficulty. It’s caused by the economics of game development and elitist attitudes among both game developers and hardcore players to the detriment of pretty much everyone else. Potential solutions exist, but they’re either actually difficult (consider Spore), assumed to be difficult, or simply ignored because designers are too lazy and the existing approach is “good enough”. In the end, unless players rebel against repetition, tedium, linearity, and gratuitous difficulty, they’ll just get more of the same.

Farewell World of Warcraft

As you probably gathered from my earlier post (if you read it), I have become increasingly disillusioned with WoW after the release of Burning Crusade, and my wife and I have decided to quit the game cold turkey. I mailed my valuables to friends in game and we’ve uninstalled. Buh-bye.

As with all MMORPGs, WoW’s chief addictive quality is personal relationships. While the game may become tedious, boring, unrewarding, or repetitive, one’s sense of obligation to friends in the game is often the thing that draws one back in. You might stop playing for pleasure, but a friend will plead with you by AIM or email or phone to just come join tonight’s raid.

The single worst feature in World of Warcraft is raid caps. A given “instance” has a maximum number of players who can enter it as a group. For most it is five, but for the hard instances — the ones for which guilds are formed — it used to be twenty or forty. Almost all the tension in guilds was a consequence of these caps, since you needed to make a guild large enough to handle specific instances (e.g. 40 for BWL or Naxx) which generally meant making it too large and then cherry picking members to fill your raid.

Contrast this with, say, EverQuest, where most raids could be as large as you liked (within the technical limits of servers). Now, Blizzard’s designers were afraid large raids “trivialized” content, which leads us to the second-worst flaw in World of Warcraft: bloody-mindedness.

Tedium is to EverQuest as bloody-mindedness is to WoW. It seems that most high end encounters are specifically designed to be possible only for an ideally composed raid with idealized gear performing at 90% or better of optimal output. Furthermore, you can only succeed by knowing the encounter in advance — i.e. by trying it and failing or by reading spoilers. Preferably both.

It seems to me that Blizzard has made some huge mistakes with Burning Crusade, and I think I’ll list a few of them. The first two mistakes are huge because they undermine the personal relationships which are the chief addictive component of the game.

1) They charged for the expansion.

As I understand it, if you sell a game for $40 you get $15 wholesale of which $10 or so is profit (after you subtract production and distribution costs). Blizzard gets $15/month from its players, so every player who quits because the expansion is too expensive is a huge loss, while the gain is trivial. The negative consequences are huge because they can’t make the old world more interesting (then folks who haven’t bought the expansion might enjoy themselves, and we can’t have that) or thread new content into it. The potential cost is huge since I know of many players who baulked at the $40 which made them likely to quit the game. Why risk subscription income for a one off profit equal to a single month’s subscription?

The only reason to charge for the expansion was to keep retailers happy, since most of your $40 goes to them (and middlemen) and not Blizzard. This is dumb; it’s not like retailers will refuse to sell some new Blizzard console game because Blizzard sold its WoW expansion direct to customers (or gave it away).

I’m guessing charging for BC will, of itself, cost Blizzard 5-25% of its customer base.

2) They changed raid caps.

The proximate cause of our departure from WoW was idiotic guild leadership trying to reshape the guild solely to deal with Karazhan — the first “end-game” instance — despite the fact that it will probably be “old hat” within a month or two, and the next set of instances will be 25-man, meaning more wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Many cry “Karazhan isn’t like UBRS, because it’s hard” forgetting that UBRS (and Strath and Scholo) were very hard way back when. Oh well, those who do not know history — even having lived it — and condemned to repeat it.

On our server it seems almost every major guild is self-destructing in one way or another specifically owing to changing raid caps. I conservatively guess this may cost Blizzard 10% of their player base on its own in the short-run, and possibly seriously dent WoW’s player base in the long-run.

3) They didn’t fundamentally improve their content in any way.

Burning Crusade is literally just new content in the old engine. Or old content with new graphics. Where are the dynamic instances and quests? Where are the dungeons where you can choose your path? (WoW dungeons are, with almost no exceptions, linear.) Perhaps the most promising thing anywhere in BC is that some of your early quests require you to kill “20 Fel Orcs” (say) where any kind of Fel Orc will do. (Versus quests requiring you to kill 15 Fel Orc Sorcerors and 5 Fel Orc Attendants. “No no no, 36 Sorcerors and 4 Attendants is not good enough, go away.”) But this promising trend quickly disappears and we go back to the usual slaughters and collects.

If anything, the new content is more repetitive and banal than anything from the old world. I found myself doing a quest where I’m basically killing giant level 66 sheep and thinking “so this is essentially a super tedious copy and paste version of a newbie quest” … and guess what, it was part of a set of nine essentially identical quests. The quest “line” was a copy and paste version of a near identical quest line (from an NPC with the same name) you do at level 35 in Stranglethorn Vale. Wow, someone gets a credit for “Game Design” for this masterpiece.

Although this last major mistake does not directly attack the relationships which keep people playing an MMORPG, I think that in the long-run this is going to be the most damaging mistake. In the end, BC shows that Blizzard has run out of ideas (or that the folks with ideas have run out of Blizzard).

What might they have done?

In Dark Age of Camelot there are plenty of dynamically generated mini-quests. If you want to work on smithing, you can get a quest which gives you a customer for whom to make something which allows you to make a slight profit by buying or acquiring materials, making the item, and delivering it. Blizzard hates this idea and has designed all tradeskills to be incredibly tedious to improve and intrinsically unprofitable. The only way to make money is kill stuff or get it from other players. If you just want to help the local authorities you can be assigned a random local mission (go kill some bandits).

In Anarchy Online and EverQuest there are dynamic quests and dynamically populated “dungeons”. The most “dynamic” thing you get in Blizzard dungeons is some random spawns (e.g. there might be one NPC who only spawns 10% of the time in a given instance, or can appear in one of three places) and loot tables.

In Guild Wars there are instanced outdoor areas, allowing for epic (or seemingly epic) journeys. Every outdoor area in Burning Crusade is teaming with other players eliminating any sense of heroic adventure. “There they stood, in the Valley of Dark Death, facing the Arch Fiend, when three level 70s wandered by and gave them some free buffs and then killed the shadow fiend three times waiting for motes to drop. ‘Wanna join up and score the kill credit?’ they asked.”

Most of the quests in Burning Crusade are ridiculously local, along the lines of understandably dumb newbie quests: “Seek out wolves and kill 8.” Hmm, I seem a bunch wandering aimlessly around me right where we’re standing… This is probably because quests requiring you to run around in the old world were very unpopular; but Blizzard never figured out this was because the rewards sucked, not because travel is bad. (A quest requiring 15 minutes of travel through dangerous areas generally yields very little money or experience, while a quest requiring you to kill 10 monsters strolling about within a few yards of the quest giver will yield far more. This is why everyone hates “long journey” quests.) In Guild Wars you can be sent on a quest to kill a bear and bring back its skin because the outdoors are big and finding a bear is an interesting task in and of itself. And you don’t mind, because the rewards are decent. (Hey, I’m not saying you should play Guild Wars; I’m saying that Blizzard’s designers should — they might learn something.)

Finally, Blizzard could have allowed Horde and Alliance to cooperate and mingle in some or all of the new world. This makes sense with the back story, and it would have afforded huge new possibilities for creating new social glue to hold players into the game. Instead, the exact opposite makes, as I understand it, the PvP realms almost unbearable (imagine trying to complete quests in a city 2/3 full of enemy players). I imagine a lot of PvP realms have become, effectively, PvNo-one realms.

Anyway, I’m done with time-sink games for now, and — I hope — forever. When someone brings out an MMORPG whose business model isn’t based on keeping people on a repetitive treadmill while charging them for it, I may come back. Meanwhile, I will probably go back to games that I used to consider outrageous time-sinks, like Final Fantasy XII — my goodness, 50h of gameplay with 25h of repetitious crap? That’s ridiculous.

Blizzard Want Ads: A Game Designer With A New Idea

So I got to 70 in Burning Crusade about two weeks after it shipped. At first it seemed like leveling up was going to be fun, because of all the new content. But then it turned into a grind, because of all the “new” content.

Executive Summary

Landscape Artists: 10/10 (great job, as usual)
Creature Artists: 7/10 (nice job, but a little lacking in variety)
Game Designers: 4/10 (boilerplate content with some nice writing filling the blanks)

OK, Gorey Detals

Here’s the deal. World of Warcraft is a game engine that, fundamentally, allows you to run your avatar around and, in a very limited way, interact with other figures (computer- and player- controlled). You can accumulate possessions, some of which affect your character’s appearance and/or “capabilities”. The graphics are very pretty, the controls are responsive, but that’s about it. Pretty much everything beyond this takes place, more-or-less, in the head of the player.

E.g. the game contains lots of “quests”. Lots and lots and lots of quests. But a quest in fact comes down to:

a) Click on a computer-controlled figure (“person” or “wanted sign” or “random object”).
b) A dialog box appears. Read it.
c) Follow the instructions in (b).
d) Click on another figure and receive a reward (items, money, experience).

Where item (c) is one of:
1) go somewhere.
2) go somewhere and “kill” a prescribed number of things. (“Killing” is essentially a process of clicking buttons and watching animations.)
3) go somewhere and “collect” a number of things (either by “killing” figures and taking the items from them or just clicking on things).
4) go somewhere and click on one or more things (e.g. “talk to so-and-so” means click on them, “read such-and-such” means click on it).
5) escort a figure from point A to point B (which generally involves “killing” some stuff).

There are some minor variations on these themes, but that’s about it.

So, any idea that you are “talking to someone”, “killing someone”, “embarking on a dangerous journey”, “undertaking an urgent and desperate mission” takes place entirely in your (the player’s) head and not really in the game itself, which is really just an engine for wandering around virtual landscapes and clicking on stuff.

Very little assistance is given to the player in order to help the “head game” (which is all that separates an enjoyable computer game from, say, balancing your checkbook in Excel) beyond very nice graphics. E.g.

i) conversations in World of Warcraft are not interactive. In many cases, you just get a dialog box.
ii) “urgent missions” are, with very few exceptions, not urgent at all. There’s no time limit. You can abandon them and try them again later.
iii) nothing you do has any impact on the world. E.g. if you’re told to kill a terrible orc chieftain who has been harassing villagers, you may have to queue behind other folks killing the exact same chieftain. The chieftain may “respawn” before you’ve even finished “looting the head” of the chieftain you kill to complete the quest.
iv) “dangerous journeys” often involve travelling no more than a few yards down a well-marked path.

This is not to say the World of Warcraft is not a compelling and enjoyable game. It certainly is, and moreso than most single-player games. But its weaknesses are magnified in Burning Crusade (the recently released expansion). The quests are more repetitive, more formulaic, and more predictable than before. The “zones” are (aside from cosmetic differences) populated with nearly identical creatures and quests. It’s all a bit of a yawn.

And, having reached level 70, it seems that the future holds key and faction quests ad nauseum. Oh, how original.