Archive for the 'World of Warcraft' Category

Quasi-Censorship – Effects of Ratings on Online Games

Just today it came out that Blizzard actually self-censored content in Europe as part of an event that happens annually called Brewfest.
This event has been around for a few years now and it is very common that players across regions, specifically between US and Europe, as their content releases within a day and are fairly close culturally, compare their content.
It was noted early on that two quests as part of the event were available in the US but not EU. After long speculation by players in Europe that this is a bug, a CM of Blizzard finally spilled the beans:

The Brewfest quests ‘Pink Elekks On Parade’ and ‘Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!’ were removed to ensure that World of Warcraft contains content that complies with regional game rating requirements.

So these quests were not included for European players because Blizzard wanted to protect its rating.

Now players are confused because the quests in question seem quite innocent:

Pink Elekks on Parade
Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!

and have been available in previous years. The confusion is exasperated by the fact that many players can easily come up with range of
content that is much more objectionable than these two quests, including depiction of murder, torture of humans and animals, scenes of temporary suicide and more.

So what happened here? Well for one the PEGI system is much younger than the American counterpart ESRB. The endorsement of the EU parlament for EU member nations to adopt PEGI only went out in January of 2009 (i.e. this year and after WoW Wrath of the Lich King launched).
WoW’s ESRB rating is T for Teen and WoW’s PEGI rating is 11/12+ (11 in Finland). So let’s have a look at the rating texts of these two of the current and the next higher category in the rating:


TEEN (age 13+)
Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

MATURE (17+)
Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.


Videogames that show violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy character and/or non graphic violence towards human-looking characters or recognisable animals, as well as videogames that show nudity of a slightly more graphic nature would fall in this age category. Any bad language in this category must be mild and fall short of sexual expletives.

This rating is applied once the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life. More extreme bad language, the concept of the use of tobacco and drugs and the depiction of criminal activities can be content of games that are rated 16+.

The crucial distinction here is that ESRB does not make a distinction in depiction of drug use (legal or illegal) at Teen rating, while PEGI does.

Posters in the WoW forum have various reactions, calling PEGI broken, or blaming Blizzard.

I am not really interested in this, rather I’m interested in the dynamics and how to handle this differently.

For example WoW does contain a quest that asks the players to torture baby gorillas. I personally find this more objectionable than the zapping of pink elekks while drunk for a 13 year old. Yet oddly Blizzard feels that self-policing on the latter is more crucial than the former, but let me back off for a second.

The way rating systems work is that they are meant to be self-imposed by the industry (hence not censorship). Critics of this, going back to the parental advisory controversy of the 80s always felt that the problem is that it is effective censorship or self-imposed censorship.

This example illustrates this nicely. All European players are barred from seeing this content, even though it is not objectionable for a large section of the gamer population, and indeed within their age bracket it would be allowable within the system. But because the rating system defines a high barrier applied to everybody it will block content that would be fine for certain eyes.

Blizzard does not really have a full choice here either. They could say “screw PEGI” but these self-regulatory bodies come with penalty mechanisms for companies that do not comply to the rating they have gotten. And clearly not having a rating may not get the game shelved at all!

Originally the idea of these self-regulatory labels were to give Parents a choice whether or not they want their kids exposed to this. Now in this case clearly this is not what is happening. In fact the choice is removed for everybody, more lenient parents, grown-ups and so forth. The content is indeed fully censored to comply with the rating system.

Certainly it is bizzare to not be able to zap pink Elekks but have it be OK to kill, torture and enslave humans. This too goes back to the arguments brought by people like Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver advocating against the parental advisory labeling. Where the line is, can be up to interpretation and this interpretation can have rather odd, unintuitive outcomes. For example Dee Snider was confronted in the Senate Hearings on the topic with supposed Sado-Masochistic content in lyrics of a song of his band Twisted Sister. In fact the lyrics were about the surgery experience of a group member. Dee Snider stated that in fact the S&M interpretation was in the mind of Tipper Gore, a parental control advocate, rather than actually in the lyrics. The same interpretation pitfall applies here. Which content is indeed appropriate for kids. The right answer likely is, that for the most part that should be up to parents, and labels are meant to advise them what to expect in the content.

Whether this is effective censorship, politically or otherwise is a discussion for another time, perhaps for other people.

Online communities have the worst situation possible. They try to cater to a wide audience, 12+ year olds as well as 35 year olds. Content that is fine for one is probably not necessarily for the other. So how to handle this?

One possibility is to actually commute parental advisory into the game. If you get close to brewfest, the censored content in WoW, parental advisory appears on the screen. This would fulfill the warning function without censoring the content.

Another possibility is to have age-based signups. If a 13 year old signs in, then brewfest is simply inaccessible, while the content does appear for players in the 17+ range. This would be censorship, but less broad. Still parents who think it is no problem that their kids zap Pink Elekks do not get to allow this option (unless they are willing to lie about their kids age).

Labeling content is much easier for off-line games. No player will randomly throw up curse-words, or pretend to be drunk, for example.

In many ways this is a new thing to happen in WoW and it does raise a range of questions. Is this the intend of PEGI? Is this suitable for online experiences which in many ways are closer to real-world encounters than to solitary gaming? What are good and practical mechanisms that inform parents of content while allowing grown-ups to experience content that is clearly fine for them? Would you allow your 12 year old to get drunk in an online game to zap pink elekks or would you find it worse to see them torture a human character?

What makes raiding fun?

I was just about trying to research what possible reasons where why prominent and successful World of Warcraft raiding groups disbanded, such as Death & Taxes (disbanded), Risen (disbanded), Nightmares Asylum (moved to Age of Conan), Flying Hellfish (moved to Age of Conan). But there are more movements too. On my backwater server the server first raid group disbanded with the core leadership joining a top 10 group.

But rather than actually execute the program of trying to understand what happened there, leave the obvious comments such as AoC came around, or that the wait was too long, or that the stepping up from the Black Temple to Sunwell was too much even for the hardcore, or that it’s just been a long long run with WoW, I’d instead like to pull up a quote of a Death and Taxes member after they disbanded, posted on the WoW official forum:

I miss 40 man raids.

Being social with 40 people > “feeling more important in a smaller group”


NPD 2007 PC retail sales in

NPD data for PC retail sales in 2007 is in (via Gamasutra). It shows only WoW and WoW TBC as MMO retail box top sellers. All other titles in the top ten are offline titles. Sims2 and it’s expansions are still going strong again.

Retail box sales are down again after a 1% recovery in 2006.

None of the titles I enjoyed, like BioShock, Witcher, or even LotRO made top 10, but the first two came out mid-year and Witcher for example just may have a bigger market in Europe than the US. 

Again this does not include digital download sales, and no alternative revenue models, subscription fees etc.

I really wonder how big the digital download segment is, given that for example both NCSoft (GuildWars etc) and Steam (Orange box titles etc) gear towards online sale of their titles once you have one of their games installed.

I really wonder when NPD will be able to give more direct market development estimates that include digital download sales, etc. I think they announced that they’d do that a few years ago but it clearly hasn’t happened so far.

Social and family gaming #1: Preamble

I wanted to write about social gaming for a while and in fact if you look back you’ll find some on social gaming in various guises already. The following comment by PurpleCar caught my interest:

I am the Mom. I have a lot to say about this. In fact, I could go on for hours about how I feel that the gaming industry is ignoring me and my family. For one thing, my husband and I, both in our mid 30’s, have a hell of a time trying to find an E or Teen rated multiplayer quest game to play with our 7 year old girl (we’ve played every playstation 2 game there is that remotely fits that description). For another thing, I have no real games of interest for me. Sims was too un-end-user friendly, and generally stupid/boring. The rest have too much fighting, which is again, boring.
Don’t give me that crap that there ‘isn’t a market’ for me and my family. I’m not the only mom out here who grew up in the arcades and see nothing wrong with a little family game play. And don’t tell me to buy the Wii – we don’t want tennis. We want more shrek, teen titans, spongebob, etc. 4 player adventure games where we work as a team against bad guys and not against each other. And throw in a few games for just me, ya head-in-the-sand-prejudiced-blind-stupid-arrogant fucks.

(sorry, that last bit wasn’t very ‘mom’ of me. I’m seriously pissed off, though)

while the debate this was contained in focused only on the multi-hyphenated explicative, I’m more interested in the parts that I set in italics.

See a lot of dev discussion takes the assumption about some “core” market. And in a way there seems to be the notion of that “core” market being the end-all of what keeps you afloat, while the casuals are a great way to add growth and sales. But the “core” is what will pay subscriptions, shell out extra cash for collectors boxes, and buy all expansions.

Looking at 2006 PC game retail sales, two francises dominated: World of Warcraft as a single title, and Sims2 as a game with many expansions. WoW courted the casual market at least initially, while Sims2 is by no means a traditional “core” game, yet people bought expansion over expansion in 2006. The PC retail market grew for the first time that year, after steady declines the years prior. (Note that these numbers don’t include subscription sales, and online downloads, they also don’t contain any alternative business models, “casual games” or browser games).

The data is from NPD, analysts who track many markets, including game retail markets (console and PC separately).

So given the Mom’s complaint above it really got me thinking. Why do I not know that many family-friendly but high production value retail games? Yet I can name many war games, many RPGs, FPS even adventure games, sports games and RTS. I know so-called family games, but they don’t jump at me as filling massive shelf space at my local game stores.

But independent of family. Where are the games that focus on social, joint play. That focus on collaborative gameplay, rather than emphasize solo or competitive gameplay. WoW certainly is all this: solo (lots of the leveling), collaborative (group PVE, instancing), and competitive (PVP, competitive instancing). But in marketing competitiveness is often emphasized. Recent MMO titles like Warhammer are advertised as PVP heavy.

I always liked games that are about playing together to achieve a goal. I never really liked games where I beat up on my friends. It’s certainly a personality thing. But given that I’m attuned to games that allow one or the other and I can’t help but claim that collaborative models are underrepresented compared to solo and competitive models.

It may be rather shocking in a way that only last month NPD released a press-note with the following title: “PLAYING VIDEO GAMES VIEWED AS FAMILY/GROUP ACTIVITY AND STRESS REDUCER – New Study Busts Myths on Attitudes and Behaviors of Various Gaming Groups“. Well, OK the title isn’t such a shocker. What is shocking is that this title busts myths about attitudes and behaviors! Anyone surprised that people play games to reduce stress? And it certainly isn’t shocking for PurpleCar, as she’s been looking for more family-friendly games all this while for NPD to announce this as an analyst-discovered need at the brink of 2008.

Let’s see what they say:

while heavier gamers are much more inclined than lighter gaming groups to prefer playing games alone, both groups are equally inclined to enjoy playing games as a family, group or as a party activity, and both groups value gaming as a way to bring their families closer together.

Now that is a shocker. How many game devs seriously put into their game description: “We thought long about how that game looked to a whole family playing it.”? I don’t know but I haven’t read many articles for sure!

What a shocker too when people want to bond and unwind together, rather than, what some devs promote as fun, be constantly challenged and brought to moments of failure and competition?

Family gaming amplifies the picture because the question is not only “how social is a game, how can a game be played together”, but also, “is this the kind of message I want my kid to receive?”

In future additions to this sequence I want to try to carve a little bit at these questions.

Your Mom! Beyond opposites and 1-dimensional design: Can the core/casual assumption be upheld?

It’s a funny thing. I’ve long been worried about the whole hardcore vs casual thing. And I wanted to post about it for a while. Now a wave of magazine articles and blog posts got ahead of me. I forgot though if I ever discussed Wolfhead’s last post. Even if I did I want to mention it again, as part of a wide arc about widely held models of gamers among developers, vis-a-vis gamers view of the same. Fittingly the post by Wolfhead from June 2007 is titled: “Are MMO’s in Danger of Becoming a Spectator Sport?“. This post really is of interest in the light of remarks of game designers. Jeff “Tigole” Kaplan, the WoW lead raid designer, has praised the rise of e-games and respectability of gaming as a serious endeavour in various video interviews, I specifically remember one at BlizzCon 2007 and Blizzard has featured exhibition games of top ranked raid and PVP guilds and runs public arena tournements.

So in a sense these are two sides of the same coin.

But before I go on I want to contrast another two sources, one is hard to cite though. One is a recent “scare” by Raph Koster (and I think I have figured him out, he sure knows how to create buzz by taking extreme positions or at least controversial titles, titles like “death of high fidelity games” is another example verifying that theory) compared to a much more level-headed discussion as the title feature of the 4/2007 issue of the German game dev magazine /GameStar/dev called “Casual booms, background, analysis and forecasts” (my translation, all futher english quotes from that source are also my translation) which contains the opinions of many game developers ranging from casual only developers to Igor Manceau of Ubisoft and Tim LeTourneau of Sims fame.

While Raph thinks that casual gaming threatens the “core gamers”, none of that scare appears in the discussions of the other developers. For example Igor Manceau emphasizes that casual games are simply different “The best [core] game is the one that keeps players in the game the longest [..] With casual games this is completely different, because the point is to repeat the incentive on a daily basis rather than within a playing session.” I.e. for Manceau a casual game just has a different focus, and is not better or worse. It emphazises fun for short sessions but repeatable on a daily basis. I think some “core” games like WoW could learn from that design difference even. But the clue is that the difference in design outlook is value free. Short game sessions are “OK” in fact desirable. 

Even then, what unifies all the discussion though is the tacit assumption of two categories describing player populations well: core vs casual.

It’s part of game dev lingua, of game dev assumptions, and also of gamer language who worry about game tuning and gaming experience enough to post about it.

The more sophisticated will allow this to be a one-dimensional object, a line continuum between the extremely casual (whatever that is) and the extremely core (whatever that would be). The graph posted by Nick Williams in his Gamasutra article (also a “scare”) about a supposed dilemma for nintendo. I also remember Jesper Juul, an academic studying game design used a linear continuum to categorize games along casual vs hardcore in a talk I heard. It’s very interesting to note here that in Juul’s graph World of Warcraft was the most hardcore game on the chart. (Sidenote: Casual games always existed, but they didn’t get that label. Tetris, mine sweeper, little computer people, duck’s ahoy? What is new is the label and the awareness of it as a separate design and market.)

Contrast this with what Jonathan Blow had to say at the Montreal Game Summit about WoW (via gamasutra):

Blow believes that according to WoW, the game’s rules are its meaning of life. “The meaning of life in WoW is you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button and killing imaginary monsters,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or how adept you are, it’s just how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.”

Does that sound like a description of a hardcore game to you?

What according to Blow is cheap food to get the masses addicted, is the extreme end of hardcore in current gaming for Jesper Juul. I actually asked Jesper what he meant by a “casual game” and he said something along the lines of that a casual game is that you can pick up, play immediately for a few minutes and drop immediately. Clearly in that view WoW isn’t casual. There really is nothing interesting to do in WoW for just 3 minutes, just traveling to where you want to continue from your inn will take up that time and returning to the inn may or may not be immediate depending on whether your HS is available (or if it is even set to a desirable location!). In fact 10-20 minute trips are not unusual.

But I don’t actually care to take a position regarding whether Blow is right or Juul is right. In fact they are both right with some mental flexibility (and possibly modulo some specific reservations).

It much rather goes to show how deeply ingrained the tacit assumption of the words casual and core is in individuals minds and how these can be extremely stark, and also have utterly incompatible uses.

The Raph & Nintendo scare posts can be understood if one is an anxious gamer who considers WoW generally to be rather casual. While the positions of most developers in the GameStar/dev/ magazine take a more neutral position and embrace casual gaming as a separate category of gaming.

But even going back to the WoW design Rob Pardo discussed the design assumption of core vs casual (see the first blog entries I ever made). What is interesting about Pardo’s remarks is that indeed Blizz realized that the casual market is faster growing than the core but they tried to define game content for hardcore (instanced, grouped) and a path to become hardcore as entering instanced content.

There is a lot of data that Blizzard has that I would love to see. Specifically this specific one: What is the time spend in game by average long-time subscription gamers? And also: How many subscribers enter dungeons?

I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually turned out that most gamers even if they don’t play that much do enter dungeons in WoW. In fact Nick Yee’s article about how people play mostly alone in WoW actually gives the surprising indication that at level cap players spend 60% of their time grouped, i.e. don’t play alone (casual) at all! (People only play alone a lot while leveling, which may be more a function of levels causing dividers for joint play.)

And I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that in fact Jesper Juul is perfectly right in classifying all current WoW gamers as hardcore by some rather meaningful metric derived from the data that Blizzard has! But of course someone who expects hardcore to play 7 days a week for 4 hours at least will have to see a large fraction of the player base as casual. Because 5 days a week for 30 mins to 2 hours or even just 2 days a week for 1 hour is a vanishing fraction of time spend in the game. Of course I wrote about the extra time-dimension with respect to hardcore vs casual very early on.

But this doesn’t cover it really. Because the tacit assumptions run deeper. Read the following list of assumptions:

* Whoever doesn’t like PK/PVP isn’t hardcore

* Treadmills are ways to cater to no-skillers aka “skill is not accessible”

* Pressing buttons is easy aka “if a macro can do it it’s easy”

* Your mom sucks and so do games she would like

I disagree with all of these because they collapse dimensions of what makes games good. (Or just make assumption without testing them or are assumptions that having nothing to do with games but flow into categorizing players as hardcore vs casual)

Let me just pick up the last one because it appears in the arguments I quoted above.

Raph quotes a post by IQ212 who talks about the mass market of casual gamers based on the Mom example. While Raph concludes that “Core gamers are almost certainly going to have to adapt to a world in which a lot of developer attention is going towards a much broader array of titles than in the past.” IQ212 however actually had a positive intend with his Mom example. He writes:

So as you consider the gameplay, theme, platform, difficulty level and marketing of your game, consider your mom as a mirror of the mass-market. Don’t ship without observing your mom playing your game cold, and seeing what she finds fun, rewarding and challenging. Doing so could expand your market reach, and the average American represents a potential market of 300 million people.

Note to the guys making “Panzergruppe Tactics 4: Eastern Front”, you already identified the 59 people who will buy your game, so good luck with that.

For the rest of us making games for the mass-market, we’ll keep thinking about your mother.

Clearly he doesn’t see anything wrong with your mom finding a game “fun, rewarding and challenging”. IQ212 doesn’t paint a mom that has no sense of fun, of reward, or of lack of interest in challenge. Rather he pains a Mom who for her specific gaming need has a right to access fun, reward and challenge.

Or read this as a bullet:

* Accessibility has nothing to do with challenge, fun or reward (if done right)

Basically IQ212 says the Mom test is good. And the Mom test is actually game dev procedure! Cathy Orr of PopCap located in Seattle who specialize in casual games says in said GameStar/dev/ issue:

At PopCap we use the Mom-test to find out if a game works: Our CEOs sit their Moms in front of the game to gauge the success-potential of the game [..] We leave our Moms alone with the alpha- and beta-version of a game. After 30 minutes, we return. If they are still playing, then we have learned that we are on the right path.”

But Raph reacts to IQ212’s description of the canonical mom like this: “Yah, that’s not us, now is it?” Where “us” is of course us (hard)core gamers who have played for ages.

I actually disagree to that for the simple reason that it mistrusts your mom to identify fun, to identify early access rewards, and to identify early access challenges. But Raph Koster sees hope for the million Mom march on games. “In other words — gamers may not want to become like Your Mom. But Your Mom is gradually becoming more of a gamer.”

This brings me back to Wolfhead’s post. A veteran EQ raider and a WoW raid leader. He grieves the loss of access to design for the core due to time constraints. Wolfhead is not your canonical Mom with no extensive gaming experience. Wolfhead is the growing number of demographics of long-time gamers who have a life (due to growing older). The people who became Moms and Dads and by that virtue cannot fulfill a game dev’s fantasy of gaming 40+ hours a week to access desirable content (like the most interesting and lore heavy content of WoW).

These are the new Moms and Dads that want accessible/”casual” design that isn’t dumb. And I dare wager a lot of canonical moms don’t want dumb games either. After all they are a huge demographics buying and solving Sudoku puzzles at substantial difficulty!

So maybe the tacit assumption that:

* Your average mom is dumb

is just a corollary of the equally false assumption that

* Most gamers are lazy

Certainly the core vs casual dimension doesn’t describe Wolfhead or myself, or some of my MMO playing buddies, some of which I know to be Moms in real life.

Rather than designing along a core vs casual dimensions, people should design based on X-tests, where X are gamers you like to reach. And if a designer thinks they can only design a game that passes a mom test and not a elitist-jerk test they haven’t even tried.

Rather than assuming a 1-dimensional model to design one-dimensional games, maybe designers can learn to not assume silly models, and instead design rich, deep, accessible, fun, challenging, rewarding multi-dimensional games.

Also listening to your Mom may have told you a few things earlier:

* Your mom probably likes collaborative games over competitive ones, if she likes competition it’s the friendly competition of a bridge game and not the one of a ranked boxing fight.

* Your mom doesn’t like the idea of killing other players/people

* Your mom considers grieving rude and doesn’t like game mechanisms that support it (like poisoning carrots or nude pickpocketing in UO)

* Your mom wouldn’t want to spend extra cash to bypass arbitrary game barriers via RMT but accepts if RMT is build into the design as sensible payment method.

The vast majority of people switched off PK in UO the second they were given the change. I think that just means that most of us, the “carebears” are legitimately like your mom – in a good way. And your mom would have the wits to identify those that demean others for not liking to kill people as bullies and those that don’t want others to enjoy the game as rather nasty and selfish.

But of course some absolutely want to exclude others, so if that means ditching your mom so be it? Well I guess we gotta be scared of her now if we believe Raph Koster or Nick Williams. After all, games that are designed for her gotta stink big times. Well, not, if game designers have a clue.

Finally, I love the Mom example for another reason. Noone is like her! Rather than having one model for what Mom wants how about people actually get a clue about what “people” want.

Malcom Gladwell’s TED talk is oft cited recently in the comments on Raph’s blog. I think it describes the fallacy of tacit assumptions in an industry perfectly. And the core vs casual assumptions are one of those that need to die to actually serve soup sensibly to everybody. And that’s not one soup for all, as some seem to be scared of. It’s a whole lot of soup and many types of soup that many game devs seem too opinionated to even think about. But to figure it out you cannot be scared of your Mom, Elitist Jerks or players like Wolfhead. They all are right if they say: “I didn’t find that soup fun or rewarding.”

Postscript: Raph posted the following reaction on his blog:

I just read Moroagh’s reply post to this… where there’s the mistaken assumption that *I* am worried about the moms taking over. As I said in the opening to the article, I’m commenting on something I get a lot from core gamers. Me personally, I’m not particularly worried.

My post never really was meant as a reply to Raph’s, but rather a post I wanted to make for a while but got catalysed by various source, including Raph’s article.

Just briefly an actual reaction to Raph’s article. I don’t believe that “core gamers” are a homogeneous blob either and I don’t think people who loved wolfenstein were particularly scared/worried by zoo tycoon or mine sweeper or solitaire being around. So I do still hold that there is a kind of scare going on that tells core gamers they kind of ought to be worried, when for years most never have. Taking Nintendo as an example: I have to date seen no evidence that the booming Nintendo DS market in any way diminished Nintendo’s console market or that the existence and scope of Nintendo Wii has honest-to-good alienated many gamers. Some gamers always look at others and peck against them, that’s a completely different matter though. I for one have not noticed any discussion about “core gamers” being worried (beyond the standard pecking that’s always around) until Raph blogged it as a broad concern. I’d conclude that for most gamers it actually isn’t a topic at all and loads of my core friends happily play Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS alongside TF2, Portal, BioShock or Crysis. And they weren’t worried that their Mom played away at Zoo Tycoon or Yahoo Bridge or some variant of Sims. So my answer to Raph’s blog title “What will gamers do?” is simply “nothing” because most don’t even have the concern, so they won’t as Raph postulates, complain. Those that do complain always have complained about their specific needs not exclusively being met (“only the hardcore should be able to kill Illidan”, “PVP is welfare epics” etc etc), and that isn’t new or particular to Mom gaming.

But all this detracts from my post above which really wasn’t in its core about whether gamers are worried about an increasing casual market. It was about how game designers can be more multi-dimensional and experiment/evidence based in their outlook at gamer demographics and game design (learn from the “mom-test” idea), and it was about how the persistent “core vs casual” assumption and debate is rather very flawed and narrow. “Your mom” is just an excellent way to look at these points and I am indeed grateful that Raph and the GameStar/dev/ magazine articles both brought that idea to my attention (I actually read the GameStar/dev/ article before Raph’s blog entry. That both touched the topic of “Your Mom” is a happy coincidence).

Game devs learning from gamers (yes, I know it’s hard), part II

Good communication between gamers and devs

The original intend of the series of posts is to discuss the learning devs
can get from gamers, and look at the difficulty involved in the process.

A good chunk of it got sidetracked in the specifics of the first post in the
pair, so I don’t actually mean these to be read as a sequence. The first will
muddle the clarity of this one. And this one doesn’t want to really touch the
specific terrain that the first one did.

Here I want to give positive examples and discuss more what gets in the way
on the player’s side.

I want to be rather concrete and take concrete examples:

The trash debate in WoW raiding

An interesting example of the interplay of game developer and gamers is the question of “trash” in raiding.

First a quick explanation of trash. Trash is a colloquial word for mobs that are in a raid instance that are not special named mobs. They typically occupy the path between named bosses and may or may not respawn after a given amount of time.

In TBC raiding especially in the beginning, there was a lot of arguing and complaining by gamers about trash. Sniplets like “too much”, “annoying”, “time sink”, “respawn too fast” would dominate the debate.

In this debate we did have the devs comment on their choices. Jeff Kaplan
(“Tigole”) who is lead raid designer of WoW had the following to say to the
trash complaints of the gamers:

”Trash” Concerns

Equally interesting yet non-epic-dropping non-bosses (or “Trash” as he community likes to call it) has been of concern lately on these forums. In all of our 25 person raid zones we’ve made a number of bug fixes and tuning adjustments. For example, the trash should be significantly easier to clear in most cases – and take less time. Also, we’ve lengthened the time between respawn on a lot of the trash. Yes, trash will respawn in some cases. It’s a pacing mechanic and one that works well when tuned correctly. For example, the trash before the Prophet Skeram or the trash before Attumen the Huntsmen or the Maiden of Virtue works well. You get a couple of tries on the boss, and if you fail, you spend a short time re-clearing. Yes, there are cases of the trash respawning too fast or the trash being too difficult or too lengthy. Those are the cases we hope to fix. We’ve also fixed some bugs that were allowing the trash to respawn after the boss for a certain area was dead.

Basically Kaplan was confirming the gamer’s observation about the scaling of
trash and they responded to it. He also includes the motivation for trash
respawns, a mechanism that not all gamers feel is really necessary. But
overall Kaplan’s post reflects a desire to understand the concerns of the
gamers and make an effort to explain the function of the mechanism in the

Later on during BlizzCon when they unveiled the plan for the second WoW
expansion, Kaplan presented a video of a fictitious raid instance that
consisted only of bosses without any trash between them. It was a fun way to
display the need for trash to create a build-up to boss mobs and make them
special and also make the context more realistic.

But at the same time Kaplan admits to more questionable trash designs,
specifically the magic immune trash after Curator and the length of the clear
up to Aran.

In many ways the exchange on Trash in WoW raiding has very good
qualities. The devs do see the core concern and make adjustments.

The video is of course more humorous than real part of the debate. I don’t
recall people really calling for no trash, mostly no respawns.

Kaplan explains the issue pacing. This doesn’t invalidate the gamer’s
observation that trash respawns aren’t really a fun mechanism, rather they
are a mechanism in place to achieve something necessary (pacing) in lieu of
having yet a better more fun mechanism.

In many ways I think this is a good example of gamer to dev communication and
a good example where game designers were open to observation of gamers about
a design. And the designers learned and adjusted.

In many ways this has qualities of good dev/gamer interaction.

That doesn’t mean that the phrase “Equally interesting yet non-epic-dropping
non-bosses” became a running joke in the community. Nor does it mean that all
comments were constructive.

“It’s so loud I can’t hear you”

A very real problem is indeed the noise floor and the sheer amount of
feedback that devs get nowadays. Another problem is that the gamers may have
sensible requests but they cannot be met easily for whatever reason (balance,
technical, time).

One of the biggest problem of raiding is how to accommodate diverse time
commitments. People often ask “what is the intended minimal time commitment
for raiding” even hardcores discuss how to “reduce the time investment“. Yet
of course the developers are torn between making raiding that withstands the
onslaught of raiders that will raid 6 hours a night 7 nights a week, and
raiders that would love to raid 3 hours a night 2 nights a week. That’s 42
hours a week vs 6 hours a week or a solid 7-fold factor in
time-investment. What is a proper mechanisms for pacing raiding that would
serve both settings and everything between?

The real question is not if the 6 hours a week players are slackers or
lazy (“free epix crowd”). It’s how to design a game that allows all people to experience content
and gameplay that in principle they enjoy.

A big problem is in fact spite. Some of the 42 hour folks in fact do not want
the 6 hour folks to see the same content. Why? “Because they didn’t deserve
it, they didn’t work for it”

So far there is still a prevailing attitude that buys into this spite. This
isn’t necessarily dev to gamer communication. It’s also gamer to gamer

“Carebear” is a player who does not enjoy adverserial player-to-player
play. Rather than this choice being neutral, some players will seek a
derogatory like “carebear” to display their disrespect for different

In terms of balance some players will want to indeed have content to be tuned
exactly to their specific need, while at the same time have it tuned to make
it harder for others. This more overtly happens with respect to PVP where one
class may call for another classes nerf, and it may be hard to distinguish
the legitimate concerns compared to the ones that actually seek imbalancing

Case in point are hunters in arena. Hunters said as early as March 2007 that
hunters are grossly disadvantaged in WoW arena play. Only late in 2007 did
detailed statistics surface that indeed did show hunters least represented in
all top ranked teams. Only then did the hunter class see rather drastic
changes to their gameplay (see my post on deading the deadzone).

But of course the forums were filled with how hard other classes had it and
they were also filled with hunters who derided hunters who tried to point out
the problem as whiners. Even when the statistic appeared there were some
arguing that there just wasn’t skilled hunters and the distribution was
fine. Some of those were hunters.

For practical matters, the gaming community provides a tremendously noisy
environment where legitimate concerns are covered between lot of other not so
legitimate things.

In PVE the spite principle also holds. For example a raid group may have
passed a stage, or an attunement. Some of these raid group will heavily
complain when if attunements are lifted or content is retuned, even though
they long left that content behind. So remarkably the changes do in no way
impact their actual gameplay. It only impacts their self-perception.

For example in WoW TBC when it cames out both attunements and comsumables
were way out of tune. Despite that fact there were advocates for the
situation. Famously one of the top-tier guilds argued heavily on the Elitist
Jerks forum that the consumables situation wasn’t so bad and provided
screenshots to supposedly support the point. The shots however showed that
most players had multiple consumables on them, which clearly for that very
specific group was acceptable. But more importantly the out of tune state of
consumable favored groups like Death and Taxes. They could race away from the
rest easier because the rest had a harder time meeting the consumable

The same was with attunements, even now Death and Taxes argues against
lifting attunements they have long passed on the Elitist Jerks board and clearly it now mostly
serves to slow down groups that are behind them. The easy argument is that
they are “slackers” otherwise and didn’t “deserve it”.

So some players do not only want a game design to be good for them, they also
want a game design to be bad for others. However clearly a good game design
does not cater towards spite of that kind. The consumable situation was
rectified and some attunement (though not all) was lifted.

I had a while back liked when Kaplan actually commented against the lack of
accessibility of raid game design
. Again a sign of insight into the troubles
here. For me this is a sign that a game designer if he has open ears and mind
can hear what’s in trouble even despite the substantial noise floor we have
and make good decisions regarding a game design.

Game mechanics, Information, “fun” & “Cheating” and the meta-game

Raph had another post that in reality is a continuation of the RMT argument. As I said earlier I don’t care too much about the topic. But Raph brought as analogy strategy sites in and makes roughly the bold claim that RMT and the existence of strategy sites is the same: They are both “cheating”.

But don’t take my vague summary, read Raph’s full post + discussion.

I think the statement of Raph’s that best describes what I disagree with is this:

A strategy guide that gives you the pattern may not teach you the timing, but it’s giving you info you are supposed to learn the hard way.

The key word is “supposed to”. Who should decide how things are fully supposed to happen? The designer, or also the gamers? I believe that gamers have a word in the decisions how they want to play games and if they decide they are in fact not supposed to learn certain things the hard way that is fine. If doing it the hard way isn’t fun, the game design has failed and not the gamer.

Here is how I reacted to the whole set of ideas in the comment section of Raph’s blog:

For me the main two flaws in the argument is what I’d call the “designer’s intent fallacy” and the idea that “information is game mechanics”.

The first fallacy is that players have to play a game (online or offline) at the terms that the designers originally intended.

For example, a game gets designed to have tricky riddles with an estimation that exploring clues for the riddles will take X hours. The player however doesn’t actually care to play the game for the riddles, they want to see the story unfold. Hence the player bypasses the riddle to progress the story faster than the designer intended. This isn’t “cheating”. It’s having different intent and possibly a different idea what “fun” is. (i.e. the player may not find it fun to keep dying in the same situation too often in a row, even if the game designer thought that the fun here is overcoming the challenge.)

Basically the reason why I use offline strategy guides is because of exactly this. I actually don’t like some game design decisions, and rather than play the game on the designers terms I ease the situation to be able to play it on mine.

One could actually take this as one measure of good game design: Are gamers likely or less likely to seek external help or relief. Rather than putting this on the gamer and calling them cheaters one could well put this on the designer and question if they made a game that matched what gamers wanted or provided mechanism that was tedium and not fun and people want to bypass them.

But for MMOs it’s even different. Thottbot and Alakhazam is not more cheating than a guild forum or a guild channel or even an ingame channel with people asking for help. Yes Thottbot offers extra information on top of it but there again it’s actually blizzard’s decision that they accept this. Given their ToS/EULA they could actually sue data-miners but they don’t. Thottbot and other sites are the “meta” game that goes with WoW and is very much part of the design. How great is it for a game that people send time exploring what to do next, what treasures to hunt, how to solve a difficult encounter _while not even in the game_. By having people engrossed in the meta-game, MMO designs win. Cheating is something that’s against the rules. Per Blizz’s rules at least, those web-sites are not cheating because they aren’t sued. After all everything that’s in WoW is Blizzard’s property and they certainly could if they wanted to.

And even if they wanted to, people can and will discuss strategies. It’s a social game and one cannot control communication. Asking for help on a quest and actually getting tips is not cheating at all. It’s supported by chat channels and guild structures.

Finally, if programmers think that if you have a full strategy to a WoW raid boss that means you just type as you enter and everything is done, those game programmers have no idea. Seriously. And I say this as someone who extensively researched and implemented raid strategies for raid groups.

Let me put it like this: Just because you know the theory of 10-finger typing and the basic rules of patterns in the 10-finger layout to get to words, doesn’t mean that under pressure you will type without mistakes.

That raid encounter programmer (as you seem to claim) don’t understand this is intriguing to say the least. By your argument most of WoW’s raid encounters should be downed by all raid groups who try, because after most use strategy guides extensively and they are available in abundance. Funny enough raid groups still learn on encounters that are reduced to typing for them at this point.

I actually also disagree that finding the strategy is the hard part. At least in WoW raiding finding the strategy is a matter of staring at the combat log and seeing what killed you. In virtually all cases it’s rather obvious what the counter is. In fact good boss designs will gently teach you what the counter is. Take tranq book dropping off the first MC boss and the second MC boss going into a frenzied state. In that design it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to give you the answer: Tranq the frenzy. If your tank gets feared, use abilities that control fear etc. The only raid encounter in WoW that took very long to get a strategy for was four horsemen. Why? Because the encounter design drastically broke expectations, by actually requiring raid groups to stack tanks (8 instead of the typical 5) and the generic assumption was that Blizzard would never design encounters that would force classes to be benched. They did and it took long for people to learn that lesson. Other than that implementing strategy is harder than learning it in most WoW encounters.

Heck everyone knows that you need to click the cubes at Magtheridon (and the encounter design pretty much gives that away as being the solution) and they still wipe to it.

The challenge to raiding is (a) finding a strategy and (b) implementing it. And in good raid design (b) is non-trivial and this is true for WoW raiding at least. If (a) and (b) takes too long combined, then the game designers failed not the raiders who read strategies others posted. I.e. back to the “designer’s intent fallacy”.

I’ll stay away from the RMT polemic though. I don’t find it very helpful to equate those things simply because noone ever broke into an MMO account and stripped a character to improve their raid strategy. But people certainly do just that to make some real money. No RMT is not like strategy web-sites for sure… The real question is if something is wanted or unwanted. A level 1 character spamming the say channel with RL commercials is not wanted on an RP server, yet economic drive makes it happen. This is a completely different thing than people asking in the same channel if someone can give a hint on a quest they have trouble with (that one is wanted). People do write hacking programs, but funny enough the majority do consider those cheating, because they are game mechanics. You claim that information is game mechanics but that’s a mistake, because you cannot control information hence you never designed it. If you design a game assuming that no guide book can ever be published it’s a designer flaw not a gamer flaw.

And if an offline game really drives people to use trainer programs, it’s again very likely a design flaw. If players wanted a managable fast mode and the designer didn’t offer one the design is flawed and not the reaction to the design.

Let me give another example: Threat in WoW. This mechanics is originally hidden, but started to play a crucial role in the ability to beat encounters (non-taunting tank rotations, like needed for Vaelastrasz or Huhuran) to beat the encounter players have to learn threat. The design of the game literally encouraged people to research how threat works and they did. Today we have fairly accurate Threat meters that tremendously help at threat based encounter designs. What is blizzards reaction? Not banning threat meters or calling them bad. Rather they announce that their own interface will give more visual cues related to threat. They could have made the threat mechanism more hidden by adding more randomness, but they chose not to do so and the mechanisms was revealable, and it’s allowed to be such. In fact the meta-game of understanding game mechanisms is a crucial part of WoW. High-end raiding is literally impossible without some level of understanding _unpublished_ game mechanics. No manual by blizz ever informs the gamer how to reach crit immunity, yet boss encounters are unbeatable if the boss crits a tank. The whole game is to allow the community to unearth the mechanism and that is very allowable and I’d argue intended.

But had threat never played a crucial part in beating encounters I’d argue that threatmeters probably wouldn’t have developed. Their appearance was “designed”. And yes, some designs are unintentional but the game designer did pick the selective pressures even if not forseeing the reactions.

There are things that Blizz does not like, which is in-game bypassing of paced content. But here again it’s design flaws that reveal this possibility. Currently warlock summoning is disabled in Zul’Aman because in conjuction with terrain exploits people could bypass content that wasn’t intended to be bypassable. Real problem is that the terrain wasn’t safely designed. Typically Blizz here too takes the right approach and rather than calling people cheaters and leaving things be, they fix their design mechanisms to prevent the unintended bypass. In a sense this is exactly the point: The thing they do have control over is the actual game mechanics and not the information. Blizz controls in-game mechanics but not information flow. Rather information flow is encouraged and allowed. Hence information is not game mechanics in the same sense as game mechanics is. Information is a separate meta-game that the designer doesn’t have full control over (and will fail if he tries).

I really believe that WoW at least is already in a way a socially designed game, exactly through the meta-game discussion it induces. If we want to be funny we can call that social meta-game “cheating”.