Archive for May, 2007

Motivation and frustration in TBC Raiding via the Lore Setup

TBC opens with the great premise: “You are not prepared” and Illidan enters as the grand evil and the obvious ultimate foe.

Just in terms of setup this is a truly intriguing one because it is so starkly in contrast to what WoW 1.0 was. Yes, both start off with awesome cinematics, but the first didn’t highlight the final aim, the one target. The first cinematics actually mostly shows you, the heroes (say that in a Steven Colbert kind of voice) in conflict. TBC cinematics keeps some aspects of this, draenei and blood elfs are introduced and some inside jokes about classes and gimmicks are presented (sheeping, hellfiring murlocks, ressing) but the whole story is anchored around one guy and it starts the second the movie begins with Illidan’s narrative: “Imprisoned for 10.000 years…”

As opposed to highlighting what you can do and struggles you will have, Illidan is the main character and he taunts you. Come and bring it, but I tell you “You are not prepared.”

This may seem like a small difference but it sets the stage for the expectation of the game. It’s actually not new to Blizzard cinematics. Think back to Diablo II extension “Lord of Destruction” with Baal rolling in. It was clear that Baal was the nemesis, the evil to beat and the goal of the game. One had to beat ones way through trials and tribulations and even though he may have been impressive with his army and his magic skills and his diabolic laugh, it was clear the moment you see the movie. “I can and will beat Baal in due time.” Baal appeared huge, but the gamer was certain to be bigger than him and come out as the victor, the hero.

I have read a number of people write about TBC raiding and why did the Black Temple get added when the early raiding was struggling. Why not add Zul’Aman or something else that is accessible. The choir sings the canon: “In all likelihood we’ll never see Illidan anyway”.

Where does this believe come from? Well, in WoW 1.0 there were a number of “ultimate evil guys” in the game. Ragnaros, Nefarian, C’Thun and Kel’Thuzad. The raiding scene was a sizeable fraction of the WoW population but the number of people actually seeing or possibly killing Kel’Thuzad was a very small fraction of that population. So, goes the logic, with Illidan being even worse than Kel’Thuzad, the widely advertised ultimate target of the Burning Crusade story, he ought to be just as hard to get to and beat.

And people are disillusioned. “This game is for the elite and not for casual raiders anymore.”

But Kel’Thuzad has a crucial difference to Illidan. He never was center stage of a game defining cinematics, he never taunted all buyers “you can’t beat me”, he never defined what WoW 1.0 was all about. He was just the next one in line of assorted big bad guys who deserved some smacking.

Illidan is different. He is the guy who taunted everybody and he is the guy who defines the story line, in fact the whole region and the core lore for everybody. Illidan is much more like Baal in the Diablo II expansion. And that defines the crucial difference between both WoW 1.0 and TBC on the one hand and Diablo II expansion and TBC on the other. In WoW 1.0 none of the big bad guys defined the game or taunted you into inferiority. In Diablo II expansion, the moment Baal rolls in you know that you will eventually beat him.

In TBC? Noone knows. And this is where the boundary between motivation and frustration can flip. Baal is motivating because you know you will beat him. His laughing is impressive and motivating but not actually demoralizing. Illidan on the other hand may in fact be right, his taunts may be true and you and your friends may never beat him because after all it was all your fault all along: “You were not prepared.” Just wait for your more successful gaming buddies to join in the taunt “Lol, you were not prepared, nubs.”

Will people feel motivated to stick with a game that may ultimately be based on the very possible and real premise of their lack of success?

I don’t know, but it’s an interesting proposition. I remember many years back there were games that were so hard that a lot of people would not see the end of it. In a lot, maybe virtually all games of more recent vintage the philosophy has changed, and this includes Blizzard games. If you buy the game you can sensibly expect to beat the game in a certain amount of hours and feel good about yourself by having beaten a big bad meanie.

Either Blizzards finds a way to actually convince people that despite the taunts and prior experience of WoW 1.0 they are actually prepared and will beat Illidan, or we are testing old motivational waters all over again. Can a game concept that is based on sustained motivation afford to lastingly tell its “heroes” the nagging and persistent conclusion “you lost, you were not prepared”.

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TBC Raiding Buzz

Hmm I missed NewBreed’s post about TBC raiding that really addresses some aspects that I more abstractly talked about when discussing Blizzard’s donut model and the sociel ties issue. But luckily Tobold picked it up. Have a read.

 P.S. June 1: Here’s a german blog entry discussion this too.

Social Ties and the Online Time in MMOs

I wrote a little about the “hardcore vs casual” market and the donut model of Blizzard recently. In part I think the point there is that customers do get a form of classification that goes into game design. There is a underlaying model of the people and the market segment they belong to with the assumption that people from segment X won’t raid and people from segment Y will.

What is missing in this assumption, beyond what I wrote earlier in terms of fine detail are social ties. People who play MMOs may not be strangers when they start, and they may form social ties even online while playing. I know a great number of couples who play or have played WoW. I played a lot of my WoW time with a real life friend, who moved elsewhere. In fact I bought the game on because we were looking for something to play online together.

What is important for people is that when you log on, you can pretty much immediately play together and further that bringing your friend in doesn’t pose a real restriction to what you can do in the game.

This concern isn’t restricted to WoW but it also surfaced around rumors and announcements of the subscription model of Hellgate London prompting Bill Roper to write an open letter to the community to explain Flagship’s stance on the question. While the core of the discussion is about the subscription cost and access to the online game in principle, let me quote the parts that talk about social play directly:

We want as many players as possible to find and group with their friends online, regardless of when or where their characters were created. Gone are the days of worrying about making sure your new character will be able to play with your old friends. Everyone gets access to our secure multi-player game servers. Players can party and trade with other players and play through the entire adventure to save London from the grip of the demons.

This is one important aspect. Unlike my case where my real life friend and I started the game together, often this is not the case. Some friends join later. If they do, how big is the penalty to get to a state to play together? A second but ultimately related phenomenon is that of divergent online times. Some of my friends have more real life commitments than me. Whereas I may be able to be online at least four hours a night, just under two hours may be typical for them. Will the difference in available online time create access barriers between people with social ties?

This wasn’t really so much a question in the original WoW game but for me personally got amplified with the TBC release.

WoW does have content access restrictions and there are two types:

  • Buddy friendly access. If one player gets the key your buddy can come.
  • Buddy restricting access. Every player has to get the key to come.

As said earlier the restrictive second type of access model was reserved for 40 man raids in the original WoW. These needed long planning regardless and the question too is what was the actual cost to get your buddy access. With exception to Onyxia that cost was low. Hence even though there was Buddy restricted access it was possible, for a lot of content to overcome it with managable time investment. Naxxramas attunement could be sped up by an extra ingame material cost.

Some content, like Zul Gurub, Ruins of Ahn’Quiraj and the Temple of Ahn’Quiraj were open access hence had no buddy restriction. In other words there was buddy accessible raiding at the 20 and 40 size in the game.

TBC has spread Buddy restricted access. Now 5-man, 10-man and 25-man can have buddy restricted access. There are three encounters of 25-man instanced raiding that can in principle be reached without restrictions – these are in Gruul’s Lair and Magtheridon.

All heroic instances are buddy restricted, the first 10-man instance has a more time-intensive attunement that both Molten Core or Blackwing Lair had. Access to later instances require clearing previous ones.

If a friend reaches 70 to join his buddies who are in the middle of Serpentshrine Cavern, what is the time needed to get that friend access and allow buddy play in TBC as it stands now?

Karazhan attunement:

  • Rescue Thrall (5-man instance run) 90-120 minutes
  • Shadow Lab to Murmur (5-man instance run) 120 minutes
  • Steamvault to first boss (5-man instance run) 30 minutes
  • Arcatrasz to key fragment (5-man instance run) 30 minutes
  • Black Morass clear (5-man instance run) 50 minutes

Then Serpentshrine Cavern attunement:

  • Offset Missing Cenarion Expedition reps with Armament if available
  • Heroic Slave Pen to before the second boss (5-man heroic instance) 60 mins
  • Raid kill of Gruul (25-man instance)
  • Raid kill of Nightbane in Karazhan (10-man instance)

Compare this to Molten Core:

  • Attunement to the core run (5-man) 120 mins

and then Blackwing Lair:

  • Upper Black Rock Spire clear (10-man) 180 mins

Times are rough and I probably overestimated 0ld attunement times. Especially MC attunement had a backdoor patch allowing stealth classes to solo it and small groups (3-mans) to complete the attunement in very short time (less than 30 minutes). A good group could certainly clear UBRS in 120 minutes.

In the original WoW if buddies logged on there was no question that they had access to all 5 to 20-man content if one of them had it (i.e. keys to the instance door).

In WoW TBC buddies can log on and not have this. One may lack reputation to join heroics, or lack instance runs to join Karazhan. Even in the path 2.1.0 there is new content that isn’t immediately accessible. Specifically the Netherdrake quest hub requires the completion of a group quest first to get the base reputation for access.

Overall TBC seems to have more restrictions of Buddy play and it’s a real problem for people who want to play with real life friends and partners, or even just bring an online friend up to speed to join a raid.

Did Flagship initially overlook the reactions of folks to a model that looks like it separates friends in terms of access? Did Blizzard overlook social ties when designing the new access model in TBC?

This is intriguing because in the concept MMOs are about allowing people to play together, so the question of accessibility versus tiering access (for say, a “hardcore vs casual” customer base) should remain an interesting one. Was it wise for Blizzard to restrict access more in TBC than before? I think it’s yet to be seen.

What’s the next MMO?

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m actually waiting for the next thing after WoW. Maybe it’s because WoW TBC turned out to go more constraint and not really find the longevity solution for end-game (for me personally at least, where rep grinds are an admission that the holy grail hasn’t been found).

Hellgate London pushes towards MMO somewhat. How that’ll turn out might be interesting to see. I know a lot of folks who silently hoped that Blizzard had announced World of Starcraft, but they are hiring to design a “next generation MMO”. Red 5 Studios has been announcing an MMO (now based on the gorgeous Offset engine). But except for the first, things seem far away.

I’m not sure what it is, but too much splatter doesn’t interest me (Age of Conan), and I like collaborative PVE not PVP (Warhammer Online). Lord of the Rings online is fun now, but it is by no means clear that once the leveling subsides there is anything left there to do.

But as with anything, there is always surprise, and preconceptions about this and that I may well turn out to be wrong. Who knows? Maybe WoW 3.0 is the next big thing?

 P.S. June 1: WowVault’s Sprawl  has a lot more on this point.

Rethinking Casual vs Hardcore due to WoW TBC

There is a longstanding discussion in the MMO community, that talks about casual players and hardcore players. These discussions are often tricky simply because the very definition what a casual player really is and what really makes someone a hardcore player always appears as an undercurrent in the discussion.

If I sat down and tried to put me into one of the two categories as a say, WoW player, I’m really kind of hard pressed. I’ve read and even contributed to theorycraft discussions, I have lead raids for a long time, I have developed boss strategies, I have lead my primary class in the raid group, I have seen a lot but not all of WoWs original content. Looking at this description I’m probably hardcore.

But I have never had a server first, I’ve never raided 6-7 days a week, more like 3-5. I abhor potting and have never gone into anxiety disorder if a few items didn’t have the best of the best enchants on it. I never raided to participate in a global or local “who kills a boss first” race. Raiding was always a collaborative activitiy and not a competitive one (and more on that a little later). And I actually never have had a server first and I don’t even care.

In my raid group I was at the hardcore end of the spectrum. We had people who had virtually no enchants, who raided typically 2 days a week, we never obsessed about gear or spec, and WoW raid design up to mid-Naxx allowed this to be possible.

There isn’t a whole lot of discussion that I know of where developers themselves outline how they feel about content and types of players. Or how to deal with blurry boundaries between these types of players. Rob Pardo of WoW fame gave a keynote at the Austin Game Conference in 2006 and did touch on this issue. Raph Koster took notes and put them up on his blog.

Let Pardo quote the key passage:

It all starts with a donut. Allan Adham (original designer & founder at Blizzard) would draw a donut to explain what Blizzard is about. The middle of the donut is the core market. The casual market is the rest. We see Blizzard as being about both, and that the casual market grows faster than the core.

So in the very design concept Blizzard there is a concept of separation of what they call core (without hard) and casual. Of course one has to be careful here, a core market actually doesn’t define the playing style. And a casual market doesn’t either. But reading this I had a sense that really for Pardo there wasn’t a very strict separation between core subscribers and hardcore players. This comes from the final remark that the “casual market grows faster”.

What is interesting about this is that it also induces a design philosophy. Design the game for both who is perceived as casual by the designers, and for those who are perceived hardcore. That decision itself begs the question: How should they related? How does content for hardcores work for a casual and the other way around. And finally where is the boundary set? What does the core market want and the same for casual market? How is that reflected in the game?

In term of actual design here is where Blizzard apparently set the boundary:

Dungeons too, we wanted them to be a much more hardcore experience, we wanted only groups in there, and so on. The dungeons are there to serve more of the core market. It’s something to strive for, a bridge for the casual players to become a little more hardcore.

The group concept really seems to serve as the defining aspect of the game. You are “a little more hardcore” if you do dungeons.
This definition for the WoW design also is reflected in later remarks by Pardo.

What is interesting here is that Pardo too describes transitions and he describes the tradeoff of having all out access over rewarding certain playing styles.

Tradeoffs. Every decision comes with tradeoffs. designers are greedy by nature — we want everything, moms, dads, cats and dogs playing together. Nothing in game design is black and white, it’s all shades of gray. Whenever we can, we try not to compromise. It usually results in both sides being dissatisfied. If we had solo dungeons, then he group dungeon fans would feel their achievements would be cheapened. So we chose specifically not to have solo instances.

Of course for a long time WoW player and someone who has now played LOTRo the particular description here begs another question: Is the assumption that group dungeon fans actually “feel their achievement cheapened by solo dungeons” true? LOTRo has solo dungeons and I certainly never felt my group dungeon experience cheapened. But I do think there is something true to this given the reactions to WoW TBC.

WoW TBC has changed a number of things. Leveling has gotten more polished and is more streamlined, less travel heavy and more rewarding overall. This isn’t really a change in the core design philosophy, but just something that makes what it did before better. There are other motions that also go in that direction.

Pardo said in 2006:

Bite-sized content: we try to tune our quests for accomplishment in chunks. We aim for a 30 minute session, lunchtime battlegrounds. We are doing more “winged dungeons” in the expansion, because we kinda stumbled upon it. We split up the dungeon into separate wings that can be done in 1/2 hour to an hour — like Scarlet Monastery. This was a lesson we learned during development, so we weren’t able to apply it everywhere in the original release. You want to avoid getting to a place where the content of your game doesn’t allow people to play unless they have X amount of time that night.

Indeed 5-man content can be cleared in 60-120 minutes, whereas a full Uldaman run with a level appropriate group certainly could be longer than 120 minutes. This is an improvement and a realization of a successful concept. In short “time should not weed out too many people from trying content”.

TBC has however also changed a number of other things, specifically around the raiding game. Raiding must be the crown of the “core market” content for Blizzard. But overall things that changed already start in 5-mans. A few things that I think Blizz did in TBC are:

  • Make instanced content more challanging.
  • Make access more time consuming.
  • Make access more linear. I.e. to progress you need to have beaten all early tier content.
  • And by extension exclude some people from content access unless they meet certain requirements.

In the original WoW game there was no pre-raid content that was inaccessible for any player who didn’t have certain prerequisites to show. One could enter Scholo, Strat UD, Scarlet later wings or UBRS with just one person holding a key. So if two people wanted to do an instance together and one had the prerequisite (key), they were guaranteed to have access independent of the second persons requirements.

Blizzard invented the heroics concept to make 5-man content more replayable. But heroic content is not accessible like 5-man content was in the original game. Everybody needs the key hence two people are not guaranteed to be able to go if one has the key.

Blizzard did have game content that required everybody to meet prerequisites before, but this was exclusive to 40-man raid content. No content for smaller groups ever had this requirement. Zul Gurub and the Ruins of Ahn’Quiraj were open access and all other content either had no or the single-player key concept. But even 40-man content access was generally easy. The only real time investment cases (more than 3-4 hours total) are certainly Onyxia (especially but not only horde-side) and Naxxramas. The Temple of Ahn Quiraj was open access content, once the server as a whole met the requirements.

In TBC every raid content needs keying (“attunement” in WoW parlance, a word that came from the first keying process to Molten Core, the quest called “Attunement to the core”). In some sense one can think of heroics as 5-man raid content by their keying type. The keying for Karazhan, the first keyed raid content of 10-man size is certainly more involved than both Molten Core and Blackwing Lair dungeon attunements. Two very short 25-man dungeons need no attunment (Gruul’s Lair and Magtheridon). The first longer size 25-man instance needs success of all raid members in Gruul’s Lair and Karazhan.

To understand the impact of the design decisions made here, I think it’s worthwhile to go back to the concepts of “casual” and “hardcore”. There are really multiple dimensions along one can place these labels. Some people claim that the defining factor is “skill”. I.e. how well the player can play their class, how deep they understand the mechanisms etc. But another important dimension is “time”. How much time is a player online and what kind of activities is he interested spending time on? Is grinding for materials acceptable, is spending time on long attunements acceptable, is raiding for more than 3 hours acceptable?

If one separates these two aspects, suddenly I’m skill-hardcore but time-casual (at least roughly half as hardcore as someone who raids 6-7 days a week for 5+ hours). Of course Pardo’s keynote doesn’t really address in any way what time commitment to the game separates casual versus core.

What TBC before 2.1 had was the following:

  • Increased skill requirements in terms of encounter design and tuning. Hence a more stringent definition of raid-level hardcore by skill.
  • Increased time requirements in terms of attunement design. Hence a more stringent definition of raid-level hardcore by time.

The second aspect is tricky because of the content design itself. While Magtheridon and Gruul are fairly short, Karazhan is very long and has a mid-instance entry to accommodate that. Time requirement for Karazhan is not really low either.

The 2.1 patch addresses a lot of tuning questions. Hence one of the two points got addressed and the boundary between the game-definition of casual versus hardcore by skill got changed. The 2.1 only in two aspects address the time question, namely reduction of consumable influence and introducing a backflagging mechanism for Serpentshrine Cavern, the first longer 25-man content via a drop off the last boss. Nothing else in terms of the time-definition of casual versus hardcore got changed.

WoW TBC raiding by moving around the boundary of Blizzard’s donut concept. By increasing the requirements and linearizing access, the boundary became more distinctly defined and hence also begged the question: Does the game place it where the actual customer set is at? Before 2.1 there were a few aspects that did get extensive discussion. Specifically consumables. This did get changed. But also attunements. This didn’t. Overall entry and continuation of raiding remains more time-intensive than it was in the original game.

In my circles, of skill-hardcore but time-casual raiders, raiding as it was possible has mostly ended. Some have become time-hardcore. Some have joined skill-casual, time-casual groups. Some have quit.

Overall the donut has a more defined separation of hardcore and casual and the question will be, was that a good thing?

The effects of this is yet to be seen. Subscription tracking sites haven’t updated recent time spans, though I hear that MMOGData is looking to fill that gap, that MMOGChart left since last summer.

I’ll leave this for now. The also very interesting question of social groups, diverging playing times and access is another long topic, for another time. This is long enough already.

Welcome to the Noise Machine

Yes, so here I have it. I have finally decided to try this blog thing that folks have been raving about. In fact it’s probably old-fashioned by now, but hey. I was never one to seek the most popular, but rather what works.

I want to write about a few things, but not quite yet. Stuff like MMO design and what works for me and what doesn’t. About online culture and the way people flame each other to death for no apparent reason, about fun and not so fun. And whatever else I can squeeze out on a boring afternoon.

For now it’s welcome, to something that says nothing at all.

P.S. And yes, possibly any catchy phrase is trademarked. What a bummer.