Archive for July, 2007

Catching up: The leveling curve, alt play and the hurdles

In my very first post I quoted from Rob Pardo’s Austin Conference keynote as transcribed on Raph Koster’s blog. Back then I was interested in how the WoW designers thought about their customers with respect to gaming behavior (beginner vs core, doughnuts etc).

Now I want to cite a different passage from the same talk but this time the interest is the leveling game, alt play and the time it takes for a new leveler or alt leveler to catch up to his level cap and raid attuned friends. One caveat here. I’ll assume that end-game raiding is the primary desirable activity for the leveler. This is important to note because time invested for attunements only affects them.

With that let’s hear Pardo on the leveling curve:

Pacing: the bridge between depth and accessibility. Once you have all those deep features, then you have to figure out how you get from the newbie experience to that core experience. For WoW, that’s done through the levelling curve. When I hire designers for Blizzard, one of my pitfall questions that I ask is “why do you think WoW was successful?” One of the hidden answers is the levelling curve — if you extend the levelling curve too far, it becomes a barrier. You hit a levelling wall. Our walls are shorter and there are less of them.

The short levelling curve also encourages people to reroll and start over. We had some hardcore testers who would level to 60 in a week. There was much concern within the company. But I would tell them that we cannot design to that guy. You have to let him go. He probably won’t unsubscribe, he’s going to hit your endgame content or he’ll have multiple level 60s. In games with tough levelling curves, it discourages you from starting over.

Now TBC has increased the level cap. There are new newbie zones, and there are some minor changes to the leveling game, very few quests added, but a number of flight paths which at least help curb traveling time.

Having almost completed another leveling act (will be my third level 70, my first releveled from scratch, started very recently). Time to get to 60 (I have five level 60 characters and one more close) is cut short on efficient leveling by about roughly 12% thanks to leveling experience, flight paths and the occasional quest. Overall leveling from 1-60 is not substantially faster and new characters will still take about the same time to level their first. However taking the total time 1-70 it takes around 150% of what it took to get to 60 efficiently. (All these numbers assume fairly efficient leveling, no more than 8 days to 60 and 12 days to 70).

Hence the time investment to get to 70 is substantial. In addition, questing has actually gotten harder. Why? Because in zones 20-55, zones are virtually empty. There is no grouping help or cursory relief by some trash mobs being cleared and access to quest results being faster. More time is spend clearing trash that surround quest goals than before.

Instancing from 20-69 is generally much harder for the same reason. People in a certain level range are too scarce as people are spread out over a larger range of levels.

Overall I’d say that the hurdle that Pardo has been talking about as success of WoW 1.0 start to appear in TBC just from the lack of retuning the leveling time to about the same time-frame it took to get from 1-60. There is a lack of extra quests (a handful per zone at least would have helped leveling speed, at best there is one occasionally. Exception is a new quest hub in Ashenvale, which new levelers may, however miss if they don’t level in Kalimdor early.

Entry to the raiding game still requires the lengthy Karazhan attunement chain. Comparing to MC attunement, or ZG access this is an additional contradiction to the success model that Pardo describes (and apparently forgot to enforce for TBC design). While on paper there is open access content, in reality Karazhan attunement is completely mandatory. Virtually no raid group will take on people who can raid Gruul, Magtheridon, Serpentshrine Cavern or Tempest Keep without being Karazhan attuned.

Basically the leveling game doesn’t seem to be in tune with the original principle any more. There is a stark difference in leveling structure between the new starter zones, the old leveling content 20-60 and Outlands and to rescue the leveling game there needs to be content added in the range 20-60, to (a) increase the pace to bring the new leveling time to level cap closer to the old one and (b) add variety for leveling.

I for one don’t see myself leveling another character to 70 from 1. If level cap is raised to 80 and there isn’t some serious retuning of the leveling curve, there may be no catching up.

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Free addons, services and their cost. WoWAceUpdater and Mazzlegasms as examples of the social dynamics

Currently there is another free program upset developing in the WoW addon world. The developers of the WoWAceUpdater program included ad banners. WoWAceUpdater is a convenient program that lets you quickly update all your installed addons that are distributed by the WoWAce.com web-site. It used to have no ads at all and is distributed open source.

Users of the program posted their dislike for the ad and asked for alternative solutions. It turns out that the ads were added because the updater is, per the WoWAce hosts, responsible for 80% of the traffic, which goes apparently at over $1000 per month. In response users proposed direct advertising for WoWAce donations, making it a subscription service, or seeking ways of throttling the volume. Currently all minor beta changes will be updated, and people have suggested updating only release level code.

WowAceUpdater makes it very easy to frequently update addons hence it’s not surprising that the program itself helps amplify the download volume per month.

The WoWAce Forum contains discussion of the topic between users and developers/hosts. People also have voiced various concerns with the specifics of the solution. WoWAceUpdater launches internet explorer (and not any alternative default browser) and IE has a bad rap for allowing trojans to be installed via image links. Also WoWAceUpdater needs to elevate it’s execution privilages under Vista to be able to use IE the way needed for the ads. Some people simply object to having third party programs used at all and data exchange with them.

People have suggested compiling out the ad part (the source is open) or simply using older versions of the updater which doesn’t use the ads.

What’s interesting about this is the dynamics that developed overall. Developers and hosts of wowace became upset over the lack of support for the ad route to address this issue. They question the community, call the reactions disgusting or the overall situation sad.

In many ways however, the current development reminds me of the old Mazzlegasm story. Mazzlefizz made a very popular and nice all round addon package/interface mod that self-installed/configured in-game. The original version concluded with a dance, then a moan emote, followed with a yell about having a Mazzlegasm. Some people took offense at that part, and wanted an option to disable it. It was perceived as self-promoting advertisement by some, and as inappropriate in content by others. Mazzlefizz for a long time refused to remove it. Third parties started writing addons or patches to remove the Mazzlegasm, which in turn infuriated Mazzlefizz with arguments that the code was her intellectual property.

The displayed attitude is exemplified in the first post of the original FAQ linked above:

“If you don’t like an add-on that makes your character say something when you install it, don’t use it.”

Basically noone has the right to an addon working in any specific way. It’s free and as is. Don’t like it? Don’t use it.

The hosts/developers of WoWAceUpdater also posted a similar stance in the discussion:

The simple answer to everyone one of the people complaining here is this:

If you don’t like it, don’t use it.

The way the Mazzlegasm story actually ended was like this: Some people indeed complained that they got reported in game for having Mazzlegasms and there were claims of suspensions having been issued. If this was the reason or something else isn’t clear, but Blizzard representatives contacted the host of wowinterface who forwarded the request to Mazzlefizz for a switch for the feature. Mazzlefizz stood by her stance but added the switch.

This is a tricky situation, with lots of questions about entitlement, free content, content cost, user feedback, user entitlement, author entitlement, free code distribution.

Mazzlefizz for one could have completely avoided the whole discussion by always having a switch, or by simply not having this particular feature at all.

Same for WoWAceUpdater developers. There certainly would be no upset if they hadn’t added third party program executions and third party ads to the project. It’s likely that adding a paypal donation banner would have been much better received. But despite the objections the developers stand by their choice.

Of course the problem here is that addon development isn’t free. Mazzlefizz did invest substantial personal time into the project, which just in terms of hourly labor has a price tag attached. Even more so web hosting isn’t free. WoWAce has to pay the bandwidth, and programming the updater and maintaining the site again takes time.
Certainly Mazzlefizz had it easier. There were no running costs, just the concern that people would learn about the MazzleUI and Mazzlefizz’s own notion of fun. WoWAce has to content with running cost. It will be interesting to see how the obvious difference here will play into the overall dynamics.