It Don't Matter If You're Orc Or Dwarf

June 29, 2009

Tired of always being on the losing side in BGs? Has Blizzard got a microtransaction page for you!

We wanted to give everyone a very early heads-up that, in response to player requests, we’re developing a new service for World of Warcraft that will allow players to change their faction from Alliance to Horde or Horde to Alliance. There’s still much work to do and many details to iron out, but the basic idea is that players will be able to use the service to transform an existing character into a roughly equivalent character of the opposing faction on the same realm.


Annyong HaseyWAAAUGH

June 3, 2009

Paul Barnett meets Korea, uses sweeping arm gestures.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71r5HiLa8bA

Note to Paul: “War is everywhere! AND SOON IT WILL BE IN KOREA!” may not be the best tag line this month. (Edit: Which is probably a good thing, then, that this was shot in January.)


The Unbearable Lightness Of Stranglethorn Vale

May 18, 2009

Richard Bartle explains in great detail exactly what goes through an MMO designer’s mind when playing one of the more painful zones in WoW. Except he rather likes it, see.

So, my view is a bit different. As I noted, I actually see Stranglethorn Vale (STV) as one of Blizzard’s less well designed zones. To wit:

  • It’s too large, and until very recently there was no easy way to move from one end of the zone to the other. While ideally, as Bartle noticed, there is a slow progression from one end of the zone to the other, realistically players will not play through the entire zone in one sitting. This is especially annoying for Alliance players – they have a small NPC hub, without a “innkeeper” resting area, in the northern end of the zone, while Horde players have a more central location, with an innkeeper, to work from. This is really the largest problem with the zone – it’s just too large. And because it’s too large, it keeps you there far too long. What may have given you a sense of place and wonder at level 30, to put it mildly, no longer does by level 45. (Another zone, Dustwallow Marsh, was recently revamped specifically to give players a place to escape to during that level range.)
  • The quest design relies far too much on “kill 10 of these. OK, kill 10 of these! OK, hey, kill 15 of these.” Yes, that’s inherently what WoW (or any Dikumud PVE) game play is. But those sorts of concentrated kill quests, while gravy to powergamers looking for the easiest way to leverage the mindless button pressing that destroys them of everything that makes them human, really highlight the artificiality of the enterprise. And that’s what most WoW quest design manages to hide very well. You’re not just killing 10 wolves, you’re saving a troll village from starvation or whatnot. Sure, it’s just a storytelling veneer, but it’s important veneer. It also helps break up the inherent tedium involved in “kill 10 of this, fetch 5 of that” questing. And because WoW is usually so good at this smoke-and-mirror hand waving style of quest-driven storytelling, when it breaks down, it’s notable. And STV is an excellent example of where this breaks down.
  • Hitting more on the specifics of faulty quest design as opposed to the content, STV is where players begin to be punished in earnest by poorly thought out world design. When you have too many players hunting the same thing in the same area, you either encourage cooperation or competition. However, WoW by its very nature as a solo-friendly MMO rabidly discourages cooperation (at least until it’s hit forcibly over your head when you switch to end-game raiding), so very few people actually think “Hmm – we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, we should group up and kill them together!”. Instead, they think “Hmm, we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, I BETTER TAG THEM FIRST!”. Other poorly thought out mechanics include the “Green Hills of Stranglethorn” mega-collection quest (which the author himself is on record as regretting as “the worst quest in WoW”) which usually serves as a focus of inventory-related frustration for the intended new player audience and as powergaming grist for those already familiar with the zone, and some quests with an insanely low drop rate for quest-related drops that, again, encourage frustration over fun.

So, that’s generally what I think of when I remember that zone – long, tedious, lots of panthers, and an abiding hatred for Hemet Nesingwary. A hatred, by the way, which Blizzard gave a knowing wink to in Northrend – after Nagarand, aka STV 2.0, reuses the kill-20-panthers quest design yet again to even more wretched excess – when you can actually start killing off Hemet’s buddies. Generally, if a well-regarded part of your content involves killing off a quest giver, that may be a sign people didn’t like those quests.

A lot of what Bartle writes on STV is interesting, especially as it relates to its quest design. He definitely comes at looking at STV from a different angle than I do. Specifically:

    Well no, because these quests are stepped: the levels appropriate for the tiger mastery steps are 31, 33, 35, 37; for the panther mastery steps they’re 31, 33, 38, 40; for the raptor mastery steps they’re 34, 36, 41, 43. The final boss is also 43, but elite (so "bring friends"). This interleaving allows for variety, and it despatches the players off to various different parts of STV where the target creatures lie, thereby causing happy interactions with other quests relating to areas they pass through. However, even though this is very well done, it’s basically just well-accomplished craftsmanship. No, what we also have here is some actual art.

    The stepped nature of these hunting quests mean that whatever level you first encounter the Nesingwary camp in STV, there’s going to be a quest of an appropriate level for you. It’s like a net, spread wide to catch players.

     

    Well, no. Thanks to how WoW quest chain dependencies work, you actually have to start at the beginning no matter what your level, and work your way through the chain. It would be awfully nice if the quest givers did actually recognize that, yes, thanks to being Level Awesome you can dispense with the Somewhat Mighty Junglecat slaying and move straight on to the Fiercely Mighty Junglecat part of the quest. (Which Warhammer Online also tried to implement, by the way.) At least, it would be if you were playing the game as designed. Players, who are playing the game to win much of the time, would then resent the loss of experience and faction and gold and everything else, and hammer away at the lower level quests despite their being level-inappropriate, because they don’t want to lose any rewards due them at all. (The fact that they will then kvetch about that content being tedious is entirely beside the point.)

Bartle’s primary point, to move away from nitpicking semantics, however, is that the entire Hemet Nesingwary saga is an artful storytelling device which funnels you through the wonder of the jungle, forcing you to ask if you were predator or prey, as you travel down a road which mirrors your character’s growth and confidence. And as designed, the core of STV – which can easily be a metaphor for WoW’s character development model itself – does indeed work that way. Proper game design (at least as one cynical wag put it) doesn’t present you with a complex challenge, but tricks you into believing you’ve conquered a complex challenge. And in WoW, that “complex challenge” is the investment of time. Invest enough time in STV – or WoW itself – and you will eventually win. That’s its inherent promise, and to a large degree the polish in which that promise has been delivered is why WoW is so incredibly popular, even years after its release.

And yet, even with that well-executed promise, there are problems along the way. Server queues. Lack of meaningful social gameplay. Class imbalance. Lack of meaningful PvP. Same old diku, different day. And STV mirrors that as well – even with all of WoW’s promise, and even with STV’s world design and immersive environment, there are times when it falls flat on its face.

And so we have Dustwallow Marsh. Which is everything STV isn’t – a hub-spoke model of world design, less immersive world crafting, more attention to detail and interesting quest mechanics. And with a game and community the size of WoW’s, this is really the solution to STV’s problems – simply create so many options that everyone can be happily grinding their way to virtu
al nirvana.


I Hate WoW Achievements

May 2, 2009

As the title says, I hate WoW achievements.

Why?

Because I enjoy PvP in WoW. Specifically, in battlegrounds. Yes, I’m sure that’s not hardcore enough for you leet gank groups that cut your teeth on the blood of the damned in Darkfall or blow up Titans in Eve with your tackler or whatever. I enjoy killing things, and WoW lets me do that and rewards me with points so I can buy new pants. It’s a win-win, usually.

I can’t play this week. Why? Because Blizzard’s version of Children’s Week this week has, as a quest to unlock an achievement, capping flags in several popular battlegrounds.

Note: in a given game of Warsong Gulch or Arathi Basin, not everyone caps a flag. That’s not how the game is designed. It’s designed to be played as a cooperative team endeavor. In fact, everyone can’t cap a flag because only one person can at a time. And don’t even get me started about Eye of the Storm, because (a) the flag is in one spot where you are basically turned to paste anyway and (b) I play Alliance, and Alliance are never allowed to win Eye of the Storm. It’s in the rules. But hey! Someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to make an achievement for taking your little orphan sprog out to the battlegrounds, and spent about 3 minutes writing it up. Awesome.

Which means, currently, battlegrounds in WoW currently consist of nothing but achievement hustlers, frantically trying to unlock the achievement in the one week open to them before next year so they can get their purple pulsating flying manhood compensator (the flying mount, the fastest in the game, that you get for unlocking all the event-based achievements) trying desperately to outclick other players in clicking a flag, regardless of what actually is going on around him. Or, even worse, the achievement for Warsong Gulch where you have to return a dropped flag. Which results in entire teams camped around their flag in the hope that one foolhardy opponent actually tries to play the game as intended.

This is monumentally retarded, and here’s why.

  • You don’t force people into PvP who don’t enjoy it. My god, this is basic MMO Design 101. Blizzard usually plays in the big leagues, and then goes and makes a junior varsity mistake like this that makes me wonder if the adult designers went on holiday this month. PvP is an entirely different playstyle. You incentivize it, you reward it, you don’t make it a requirement, and you especially don’t make it a requirement for achievement playstyles who are collecting achievements instead of, you know, doing PvP.
  • You don’t make single player achievements that screw over other players. I literally wonder if the designer who made this achievement ever set foot in a battleground, so disruptive is it to gameplay. This incentivizes players – who, thanks to the point above, are there even though they have no interest in the actual gameplay – to screw over their teammates and be the first to win the CLICK CLICK CLICKY contest to unlock their precious little dingy achievement unlocked window so they can stop trying to screw over their presumptive allies and go back to doing what they enjoy. This is not good design. This is not even bad design. This is incompetent design. Anything that rewards players for pissing off other players is incompetent design.

I know. It’s only for a week. At least they didn’t include my favorite BG (though it seems awfully hard to queue for lately!) I should stop being a whiny …whatever the insult is for someone who just wants to kill people and right now wants nothing more than to kill his own presumptive allies (and lest we forget – I play Alliance. I *already* have a burning, unslaked desire to kill night elves) because Blizzard decided it’d be funny to direct the locust swarm of achievement whores through the wilds of PvP.

Just in case you think I’m being a whiny baby? Here’s what noted rantsite WoW Insider had to say:

Nightmare.

This…is not going to be a lot of fun.

School of Hard Knocks requires you to enter the four pre-Wrath battlegrounds and capture/return flags or assault nodes with your orphan out. It may sound simple, but think about the length and frustration factor of the average pugged battleground, and then think about the length and frustration factor of a pugged battleground where your own team’s sole concern is beating everyone else to an individual achievement.

This is going to work in one of two ways: either you get these achievements for being close to a captured/returned flag or a captured node, or you have to do it yourself. If it’s the former, then this achievement is suddenly a lot less nightmarish. (Editor’s note: it’s not. You have to be the one to return/cap the flag.) If it’s the latter…I really don’t know what to tell you that might help. Your best bet is to try to organize a premade (if your guild isn’t doing one already), rotate people into flag and node captures, and hope everyone sticks around long enough for everyone to get their achievements done, although this is obviously going to be a tall order by the time you hit the 40-man AV.

I’m looking forward (well, not really) to seeing a series of Warsong Gulches where no one plays offense, Arathi Basins where no one plays defense, Alterac Valleys where no one plays defense, and EOTS where the entire game is a writhing, howling mass of players clustered around the center trying to be the first to click the flag. Oh, and to make things even better, with the huge decline in arena participation and the relative ease of raiding, few players at 80 have serious resilience gear, making it easy for burst DPS on the opposing team to annihilate people in the run for a flag or node.

I return to my previous statement; nightmare.

Hey! Blizzard! Why not for next month’s event? Make an achievement that requires you to get an arena rating of 2000! That’ll be a hoot!

I hate WoW achievements. I want my game back, goddamit.


When You Put Bunny Ears On An Orc, YOU PROMOTE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

April 29, 2009

Feministing dislikes Noblegarden.

(I do too, but only because it’s really tedious.)

To be a bit more serious, they do have a valid point, and one that could have been minimized very easily with intelligent design (for example, requiring both players to trade an item to activate the bunny state). But Blizzard has shown time and again that not only do they tend to encourage their community to minimize social concerns, they also tend to respond childishly when those concerns are brought up.

And yet, hey, 12 million subscribers!

(One of whom apparently won the game. Whoops.)


WoWPhone

April 27, 2009

Hey, look, it’s WoW on an iPhone!

I’d type up my reaction to this, but Thomas Bidaux (formerly of NC Europe, now running his own consultancy) said what I would have already, and probably in greater detail. (tl;dr version: nice technical achievement, not actually playable, but the market is there).


Jeff Kaplan Does GDC, Explains How Not To Write Quests

March 27, 2009

Well, if you’re going to clone World of Warcraft, you could do worse than listen to the guys who cloned Everquest. Jeff Kaplan gave an opinionated talk that will probably have WoW players posting furiously for weeks.

“This is the worst quest in World of Warcraft,” he said. “I made it. It’s the Green Hills of Stranglethorn. Yeah, it teaches you to use the auction house. Or the cancellation page.”

“So I’m the asshole that wrote this quest. My philosophy was, I’m going to drop all these things around Stranglethorn, and it’s going to be a whole economy unto itself… It was horrible.”

“It was utterly stupid of me. The worst part… one of the things that taxes a player in a game like WOW is inventory management. Your base backpack that the game shipped with only has 16 slots in it. But basically at all times, players are making decisions. For a single quest to consume 19 spaces in your bags is just ridiculous.”

“So it’s a horrible quest, and I’m the only who made it, and somehow I am talking to you guys today.”

Most of Kaplan’s points boil down into the following:

  • People don’t like Lake Wintergrasp

You’ve played that shooter, that shooter that is fucking awesome… and then it’s got the one gimmick vehicle level, which you can tell they didn’t know what they were doing with vehicles, and it felt all floaty and things didn’t shoot right. The same mistake happened in World of Warcraft.

Lots of these vehicle quests, they’re more fun for the designer than they are for the player.

  • People don’t like delayed gratification

It’s a quest that starts at level 30, it spans 14 levels. And it ends with you having to kill Myzrael there, who’s a level 40 elite mob. So it’s basically like putting a brick wall in front of a player. Here you go, just bang your head against the wall for a while…

The reason that this is bad — it’s cool to have quest chains that span a lot of content, and feel kind of expansive and far-reaching. But the reason that this particular case is bad is because the player [loses trust] in the game.

  • People don’t like solving mysteries

We can unveil a mystery story, but at the end of the day, in the quest log it needs to say, ‘Go kill this dude, go get me this item.’ The mystery can’t be what to do [on the quest]. We wanted the action in WoW quests to be in the gameplay, not in figuring out what am I supposed to do.

  • People like choices. But they’re wrong.

…You show up to a quest hub, and your minimap is lit up like a Christmas tree with quest exclamation marks.

The weird thing is, if you ask our fans, they love this. This is to them a good quest hub… They go in and vacuum up the quests. But we’ve lost all control to guide them to a really fun experience.

  • People don’t like to read

I think it’s great to limit people in how much pure text they can force on the player. Because honestly… if you ever want a case study, just watch kids play it, and they’re just mashing the button. They don’t want to read anything.

Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.

World of Warcraft has 12 million more subscribers than you do.