Saturday, March 01, 2014

WARLORDS :: Us and Them

A wise man once said a game is a series of interesting choices. For some the takeaway from that is more choices mean a better game. In general I see the Blizzard approach as a focus on emphasizing what an interesting choice is. Interesting choices can offer depth and complexity without needing to be numerous and overwhelming for the sake of being overwhelming. It's easy to throw all of the paint on the floor and say it's done. It's far more difficult to properly mix, and restrain, and balance elements. Looking at chess, there are relatively few pieces with few "abilities", it's a near-infinitely deep and complex game, and strategies for it continue to evolve even hundreds of years later. Certainly someone could introduce dozens of new chess pieces, dozens of new choices, and there would be some subset of players who would enjoy it more purely due to an increase in complexity. 

Over time as new systems are introduced to WoW, others are removed, and iteration happens on current mechanics, these things tend to become more complex at no fault of their own. I think any designer would agree that it's not the fault of the player that the game's systems get more and more complex over time as changes are made. It's a snowball effect for sure, and it's not the player's fault when things get out of control over years and years of patches and iteration and inflation of complexity. It's just difficult to predict what the game will be like a few years from now, and only approaching design from that future-angle would likely mean less active design to help address current issues (something we wouldn't want to do). But at the very least we can recognize when we need to reevaluate the corner we've painted ourselves into, can enact that change in an intelligent way that makes the game better, and ideally be able to explain clearly why we're making it.

Perhaps inevitably, considering what is likely to change once Warlords finally hits, people have begun to question the choices Blizzard are intending to implement with the game. When you consider Thursday's Watercooler is being set out as a deliberate attempt to explain the philosophy behind the changes, it is inevitable that people will respond to this with legitimate concerns regarding that, and Bashiok's reply to one such thread is probably one of the most eloquent responses I've ever seen a CM give. It is a reiteration of the understanding (which players like Cynwise have so beautifully demonstrated in their posts) that actually, there is a shedload of stuff to grasp correctly before you even get to hit a mob in game. Making the process of understanding and the eventual comprehension of your abilities as simple as possible does NOT devalue the overall experience for the new player: in fact, quite the opposite. Making the journey fun, exciting and with the minimum amount of 'oh crud what does THIS do?' will mean people remain engaged. After all, you don't need complexity to create compelling gameplay. In fact, often the opposite is true.

No instructions. Just add user.

The thing with gaming, like it or not, are the Instructions. There's a reason every game experience starts with a Tutorial: to play there are rules and commands, and you need to grasp these to proceed. Except, in games like Journey, there ARE no instructions and you are left to pretty much work it out on your own, because it transpires that playing the game ends up as it's own instruction manual, and each time you come back to play it again you have a better idea of what to do. So actually, learning is repetition, and the reason why lots of people never make it to the end of games is that the repetition isn't enough to inspire you to progression. It is no real wonder that End Game has become as important in Warcraft as it undoubtedly is, why giving people incentives to reach maximum level becomes so important, because if you want your game to last a decade, the journey can really only be a part of the overall experience. What has become abundantly apparent in the last year is that many people have (quite rightly) pointed out that, after four expansions, there's too many bits bolted onto the basic framework of the game to allow it to function correctly. Blizzard had argued they'd do the item squish thing before Pandaria, but decided against it.

How different things might be now if they had.

Big line, little line, Abilities STILL ROCK.

And so we discover a few things as the dust settles from Thursday: many people are going to miss buttons that go, some of us (and I include myself in this) will wish there were no need to change anything because we're happy and the people who like to complain will reiterate the basics: change is bad, scary, I WILL be less uber and I'm BLAMING BLIZZARD. However, and this is crucial in understanding the nature of change, this reboot isn't just being done for the people that are here, now. The complete retool is being implemented to make the game more attractive to returning players. What needs to be considered after I say that is twofold: these people are likely not going to level to 100 via the 1-100 route at all, many WILL just start at 90 by buying the game fresh. Many of those players will have left sometime after The Burning Crusade too, if returning numbers on my server are any indicator. The past, at least for them will be utterly irrelevant, because all they'll have to do is clock ten levels to get to Endgame. That means making things quick, simple, BUT AT THE SAME TIME retaining the level of choice that this game has become synonymous for. When people drag the baggage of 10 years along to comment on this 'change' they're bound to end up feeling at a loss. What existing players forget, so many times it's depressing, is that the game isn't just them. IT'S FOR EVERYONE.

Twitch does Jigsaws but realises they'll need summat more complex...

The final key to success in all of this, and the reason why Blizzard may have deliberately decided to stick the brakes on with announcing a Beta before they've explained their rationale for changing things first, is if everything actually fits together and still looks like Azeroth when it does. Some of these changes sound drastic but in reality they're probably just sticking like abilities together. Giving less stuff to press and making us less uber always had the potential to freak people out: after all, one of the many reasons Blizzard didn't do this in Pandaria was the potential this fact alone had in disenfranchising the existing player base. That's probably got a lot to do with why Developers were answering questions on Twitter for hours after the Watercooler was published: if people feel included in the process, they're less likely to end up aggrieved. Talking about change is also important too, because it makes you feel a part of the process. They call it crowdsourcing, if you want the precise marketing term, and it is very effective. Give everyone a chance to feel they're being considered as an individual with an important opinion will mean less potential volatility when faced with change.

If it's Saturday, it's time for a quote :D

The decision by Blizzard to actively involve the Community in what is effectively a redesign process is undoubtedly a good move, and this will extend to Beta testing when their choices will come under the most intense scrutiny of all. What is less clear at this stage is why, when we were rushed through a series of patches in Pandaria, we're spending so much time discussing details and not actually playing the game yet. Best guess? They're still not in a position to do so because it's not all complete, and this is part of a process to allow the nuts and bolts of the game to be put in place. Maybe it is also because the Designers have realised that actually, these are a combination of changes we can't just rush through in the hope that everyone agrees. Perhaps now is the moment where content actually becomes LESS important, and choice becomes MORE, because if these changes are mishandled, it could truly wreck the status quo.

Whatever the reasoning, we're not doing anything until it's been explained first. Perhaps more people should be grateful that's happening at all, and take the opportunity to involve themselves in the debate as a result.


Evlyxx said...

A very well written and thought provoking article.

Bartosz Szafarz said...

We have to remember there are those who take changes as they are and just adapt (like me). Those people have hard time understanding the fuss and probably are less likely to voice their opinions on forums etc. Thus, as usual, negative feedback outweighs the positive. But such people exist, though it may seem that they don't.

For me all the changes are cool, some of them even have no real impact on the actual gameplay experience other than psychological.

Stay cool, embrace the change,

R said...

"The complete retool is being implemented to make the game more attractive to returning players."

If I might update that slightly...

The complete retool is being implemented to make the game more attractive to new and returning players.

True story. Back in Wrath I had a relatively well geared druid by T7 standards. A buddy was on his way to visit from a far-off land (2-3 hours on the road) so I was killing time and since I had no way to accurately gauge when he'd arrive, running heroics for emblems or whatever the reason was we ran heroics after we needed gear from them at the time. Since this was pre-LFD it was a premade group of friends &/or server folks.

Running Utgarde Keep, just got to the spot where the room opens up and there are a bunch of drakes and handlers and arguably the toughest room pull in the instance.


"Sec, door."

He'd arrived a bit earlier than expected and I didn't want to bail so I asked him to hang tight while I finished it off. He hadn't seen WoW before... "What'cha doin'?"

Hmm. How to explain in 5 seconds. Actually, what the hell... "You guys mind if we experiment a bit here?" "Sure, fine with us."

I had my buddy take my seat. "Here's what you're going to do... you're the bear. Yeah, that's actually you, you're a druid, you shapeshift. Yeah, seriously. AWSD to move like in some other games. I just want you to point your ass in a generally forward direction and walk backwards while hitting nothing but 6 (Swipe). When you encounter things with actual names, just stop and hit 6, once they're dead, go asswardly forward again, rinse, repeat. I'll be over there watching TV. Good luck!"

Went fine, more or less, although apparently tanking backward isn't a naturally learned skill and I gather he twerked some walls on the way. Still, the others were suitably complimentary toward "my" experiment (they had no idea it wasn't me playing) at the end and the group disbanded.

"What did I just do? What was that?" my buddy wanted to know.

"You just ran the back half of a heroic dungeon, some of the harder content available in a game you've never played before, one that many others struggle with."

"Is that good?"

"All depends on your viewpoint, I suppose."

I had no intention of getting him into WoW, he didn't have the time for it, but it was a useful experiment.

So yeah, as with all things, viewpoint is key. It'd be easy to argue that those were simpler times, before active mitigation, and that a return to simpler times risks successful ass-bear tank runs by complete noobs which would be the end of the world as we know it. But then again, I was geared... it was an experienced group who was willing to attempt an odd technique... my buddy had at least seen a video game before, if not WoW... Wrath heroics were pretty easy, even when they were current tier...

Even simplified, WoD shouldn't face many of these issues. Harder heroics and active mitigation alone should make duplication of those days pretty unlikely.

Removal of abilities that are simply macroed together? Makes sense.

Removal of abilities that are generally unused? Makes sense.

Removal of niche abilities that they can design around a lack of? I don't see the issue.

Cutting down on the number of buttons? Doesn't make things easier, it just makes the remaining buttons more important. In a game where Recount often lists 12-15 damaging attacks from a single player, many passively, each doing 3-15% of the damage, doesn't there seem to be some room for paring down and re-focusing on core abilities? I think so.

And if we do, eventually, get back to the point of being able to ass-tank a heroic? I wouldn't complain about that, either. It provided one of the more lasting memories of my time in-game, the time I taught my noob friend how to tank by pushing 2 buttons and trying not to get stuck on walls.