Fruit of the Poison Tree

In my recent unemployment, I’ve been playing a bit of World of Warcraft’s latest installment, Wrath of the Lich King. As ever, Blizzard has provided a highly polished and often entertaining experience, although it seems to me that like most such games it carves out the rich middle of the market, leaving nothing but scraps for designers with more interesting and challenging ideas. In other words, it’s an inevitable result of free market capitalism and none the less depressing.

It’s interesting to trace the extremely annoying qualities of World of Warcraft to their roots — Dungeons and Dragons — but here’s the rough version:

In D&D you don’t create the character you want to play, you create (a) a member of a character class who is (b) horribly underpowered. So, from the outset, forget any ideas of playing a storybook character of your own devising. You’re playing a rigidly constrained character of — if you’re lucky — a game designer’s devising. More likely, you’ll end up playing something that is an accidental outcome of bad rules.

In D&D there are (rather bad) rules for combat, and almost no rules for anything else. It therefore falls to combat to resolve all major plot points.

In D&D, you progress in the game by gaining levels and (more importantly) equipment. If you’re lucky (and probably not very imaginative) at some point you’ll end up playing the character you originally wanted to play, but soon you’ll progress beyond that and get an overpowered parody of that character who scoffs at normal challenges and instead has to slay five dragons before breakfast to work up an honest sweat.

In D&D story is — at best — driven by location. (Often story is merely an accident created by location.) If you want a story involving A, then B, then C, then you place A in room one, and a corridor to a room containing B, and so forth. Ideally, the room containing A has a locked door which can only be opened after A has occurred satisfactorily. It is therefore crucial that geographic constraints be absolute. No magic can open the door to B before A has transpired. Indeed, A might be thought of “quest to get the door to B” and B might be thought of as “quest to get the door to C”.

In D&D armor is a Good Thing. The heavier the better. In fact, the only reason you wouldn’t wear Gothic Plate, say, everywhere and all the time is that you’re simply not allowed to by virtue of your character class. (Admittedly in very late model D&D there are some very minor disadvantages to the heaviest armor.) This rule provision is so ingrained that no-one has even sought to discuss (a) how the Universe enforces it or (b) how it might be transgressed. E.g. suppose you needed to keep a wizard safe from assassination… might you dress said wizard in Gothic Plate and suffer some disadvantage (no spell casting allowed, for example?)

All of these poisonous (and just plain stupid) concepts have made their way from Dungeons & Dragons, originally released in 1975, to World of Warcraft, originally released in 2004.

So, in World of Warcraft you are restricted to a character class. You start (slightly) underpowered but soon find yourself so powerful that you will casually undertake a half hour quest to — with no assistance — kill 12 dragons or perhaps a minor god. Every story point (with miniscule exceptions) is handled through combat (indeed conversations afford no player choices at all). “Instances” are literally a series of rooms where you must kill the denizens of each room in order. And the only reason not to wear heavy armor (which is always better in every respect to light) is that you aren’t allowed to.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a little progress? To begin with, we’ll need to pick a different tree. The RuneQuest tree, or the Champions tree, or even The Fantasy Trip┬átree.

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.

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.

World of Warcraft. MMORPG* Suckage. And Other Stories

* Massive[ly] Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (i.e. games like EverQuest)

A while back I saw an interesting diatribe on brokentoys.org (Lum the Mad’s blog) about how it would be nice if there were a critical mass of gamers who wanted to play something other than mage / tank / healer games (pretty much every MMORPG out there, and any vaguely successful one, falls into this category) amd proposed some kind of amorphous global diplomacy thing which made no sense but had its heart in the right place.

I would actually settle for something far less ambitious — a mage / tank / healer game that didn’t suck.

(For those of you not accustomed to MMORPG jargon, a mage is someone who is fragile but does a lot of damage (usually from a distance); a tank is someone who can stand toe-to-toe with an enemy in a fight, not die, and be able to hold that enemy’s attention; a healer is someone who makes wounds go away… Every major MMORPG to date, including those featuring superheroes and “science fiction” settings, is essentially designed along these lines. If you think of these three archetypes as forming a triangular spectrum (like a color gamut) every character option more or less falls somewhere on the triangle).

WoW (World of Warcraft) is shiney and new and we haven’t started to comment on the suckage yet (aside from the obvious — lag, crashes, and downtime), but there’s still plenty of suckage to go around.

  1. As your level increases, content is doled out with a lot of hamburger’s helper, in the form of tedium. I.e. instead of “go kill 20 mobs, collect 15 items, and come back for a reward” it’s “go across the continent to fred, then go across to BFE, kill 200 mobs, collect 10 items, and then go to wilma (in BFE2) who sends you to barney (in BFE3) who gives you a not to take to betty (in BFE4) for your reward.”

    This isn’t clever. This isn’t fun (not the fifteenth time, anyway). This is just EQ with better graphics and dialog boxes instead of /hail.

  2. The reason for the hamburger’s helper is that if you gave people stuff at a decent rate, you’d run out of content. When you run out of content, people stop playing. When people stop playing, they eventually stop paying. Then you go broke.

Is there a solution to this dilemma?

I think there are several, and WoW intends to utilize one of them (by imitating DAoC) but not the others.

  • Make PvP a feature. Folks in my office still play Quake II because PvP never, in a sense, gets old. DAoC didn’t have an end game besides PvP, and WoW will probably be a solid implementation of ideas others have already demonstrated will work.

    But what about…

  • Making the world a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    E.g. if everyone is killing monsters of type X, maybe make them scarce. Have quests impact the world in non-trivial ways. Put a tiny bit of state in the world Not a lot, but a little bit. Just a tiny amount would make the world SO much more interesting. God forbid, one server might seem a little different from another.

  • Make quests a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    Imagine if all newbie quests weren’t identical. Suppose player A goes to NPC B and asks for a quest and then gets a “slaughter 10 pigs” quest. But player C comes up and gets a “collect 8 eggs” quest. OMG! This could even interact with the oh-so-slightly dynamic world. (When pigs get scarce, more hungry bears and wolves and bandits appear.)

  • Maybe design it as a multiplayer game.It’s amazing to think that after all this time and effort has gone into designing competing MMORPGs, that they’re still fundamentally single-player games.

    E.g. if you are assigned to go kill Fred Bloggs, so are fifty other people. Since there’s only one Fred Bloggs, he/she just “respawns” and can be killed over and over again. Why kill him? He just comes back? Why rescue the princess? She can just kill herself and respawn back safe in the castle? In any event, killing Fred Bloggs does not rid the world of him, so why bother?

    It’s about time someone actually designed one of these games so that this kind of idiocy didn’t exist. Random name generators aren’t that hard to write…