Monday, May 5, 2008

The World (of Warcraft) is Flat - Part II

This is the follow-up article to an article I wrote a few days ago: The World (of Warcraft) is Flat - Part I

As I concluded in the previous article, I have become convinced that all of the obvious “unfun” things about Warcraft are related to the unhealthy level of importance that Blizzard places on gear upgrades. While the acquisition of inventory items is an important part of the genre, the imbalance created by gear inequality is the very root of the most common complaints about the game. I noted last week that the solution to fixing PvP is to make gear more accessible or irrelevant. However, in the PvE game, the significance of gear acts as an entry barrier to the higher level raids. Fixing one quite literally breaks the mechanics of the other. The problem is also quite notably at the crux of the hardcore versus casual argument. Hardcores don’t want their hard work trivialized and casuals resent not having access to the top end-game content.

I have a solution.

Mind you, it is not a solution that is easily implemented into an existing game like World of Warcraft. No, I think we all need to accept that Azeroth is flat. The issue with “fixing” an existing game is less about implementing the change and more about convincing 10,000,000 trained lab mice to accept a different flavor of cheese. That type of solution is more revolutionary than it is evolutionary. Nonetheless, I do have a solution for the next MMO to avoid the same type of pitfalls that Blizzard has encountered with Warcraft.

The gear problem in Warcraft is like a stagnant pool of water. When the pool first forms, the water is clear, warm and fun to swim in. But after a while, it starts to get a bit murky and foul smelling as algae and bacteria begin to flourish. Eventually, the water just looks, smells and feels disgusting. It becomes something we wouldn’t even swim in, let alone drink for sustenance.

If we add a stream or river to that pool of water, then the clean water from the stream washes away the foulness that forms in the stagnant pool. The bigger the stream, the fresher the water. Right now, Blizzard has a big stagnant pool with only a very tiny stream to cleanse it. I propose the next MMO make the stream significantly larger. Not too big or we’ll all get washed away downriver, but big enough to keep the pool fresh and clear.

The stream does two things. It brings in fresh water and it takes away the stagnant water. If you simply drain away the stagnant water, then the pool will eventually be empty. Alternately, if you just add fresh water, then the pool will eventually overflow and start flooding the surrounding area.

Applied to an MMO, the stream is a durability system in which equipment and inventory are eventually consumed, used or broken. This mechanic works to remove used or stagnant gear from the game world. And as I’ll cover in a moment, broken or lost equipment can solve or reduce all of the game play issues that I talked about in the previous article.

But first I want to address the perceived negatives about a “broken gear” system. Most of the concern with replacing gear is that acquiring one item requires a lot of work. It would be ludicrous to expect someone to work hard for a T6 piece only to have that piece break before you could get the next piece in the set. As pointed out in the pool of water analogy, we can’t simply remove water from the pool without refilling it. A system that requires replacing broken or consumed equipment necessitates a system where inventory is more easily attained.

The players who can attain the gear more quickly and regularly will still be better equipped overall, but even a casual player could “save” or “bank” items for when they wanted to do something special to them. If content was “progression” level for you, then you would want to wear your best outfit. If it was more “farm” content, then you would want to downgrade to something less and “bank” your good gear. One distinction between the “hardcore” and the “casual” player is who can afford to be well equipped all the time versus only under very special and favorable conditions.

Consider how often “lesser” loot drops that gets disenchanted because no one needs it. That gear would instead get banked as your replacement kit or your farm kit. People who played the most would simply end up with high quality replacement loot in the bank ready to equip for the next raid.
However, a casual would presumably need to run around in his common gear and start collecting a good set in the bank. He would then “put on his Sunday dress” when he wanted to Raid (or do Rated PvP) with the big boys and be able to contribute (or compete).

The need to have replacement and farm gear also really works to stimulate the economy. Crafted equipment becomes far more important as a method of keeping your character equipped. You wouldn’t want to go farm Primals or run your friend’s alt through Scarlet Monastery in your best gear, but a nice set of crafted greens would work just fine.

I would even love to see a method to “destroy” an item for a % chance of being able to learn how to craft it. That could keep people from having to run the same instance repeatedly to source a favorite item or piece of gear. Instead, they could spend the time working to attain the materials needed to craft it. Maybe some loot even needs to be destroyed for a material component to a really nice crafted upgrade (i.e. you needed the belt buckle from the Belt of a Thousand Souls).

Increasing drop rate %s and the amount of items dropped is another way to enlarge the stream of incoming gear. Bosses could drop full sets of equipment instead of just a pair of gloves or boots. Elites could drop commons and greens to serve as a stop-gap replacement during a run if something broke and you didn’t want to run to the bank. If the Belt of a Thousand Souls has a 100% drop rate off a particular end boss, then the upgrade is both difficult to obtain (because you need to kill boss) and readily accessible (because it has a 100% drop rate).

New players to new guilds can also be equipped more quickly. If someone is skilled and plays often, they can quickly find themselves in a progression guild. The focus then becomes on finding people who you enjoy playing with that can pass the “skill barrier” not the “gear check” required for the higher end content. Encounters can be tuned on your ability to play the game and not as much on the raid having X amount of gear.

The importance of an individual piece of gear is dramatically less in this system but the overall importance of acquiring inventory and equipping your character is not trivialized as a consequence. In fact, it’s the opposite. When you always use your best gear at all times, then you are really only interested in equipment that is an upgrade over an existing piece. In a “broken gear” scenario, you are constantly faced with choices and options. However, because the reward incentive on a particular piece is less – you really aren’t losing much if you don’t win that drop or need to source an alternative.

While I am not a huge fan of the idea, I can see the argument for limiting some of the high-end content to only players who are truly hardcore. However, game designers have several mechanics they can use other than “gear checks” to prevent players from progressing too quickly. For example, I would suggest they use a system of difficult to complete attunements or “skill checks” instead of simply tuning an encounter to a particular amount of healing or DPS.

In the PvP game, items could be purchased for significantly less marks or points but would only last so many matches. The incentive would be to PvP in things like battlegrounds in your commons while acquiring the equipment for rated matches. This would act to significantly lower the gear barrier between the Arena elite and the entry level PvPer.

As I pointed out in the previous article, the major source of competitive PvP imbalance in an MMO RPG is gear inequality. The RPG nature of these games makes it difficult to eliminate entirely, but by making gear easier to acquire (and easier to lose), you reduce the degree to which the imbalance exists. It may be impossible for someone in greens/blues to beat an S3 equipped player, but it’s significantly more plausible that an S1 player could compete well enough to acquire S2 and then eventually S3.


Leiandra said...

Interesting. My thoughts kind of go back to some of the old "hardcore" MMO's where when you died, it was a big pain in the butt. You could even lose levels if you died and lost enough xp. Wow really took the edge off of getting killed. Yeah, it is a pain to have to ghost back to your body, but at least you didn't get knocked back to level 69.

That said, this really seem like more of a middle ground. Yeah, loot drops easily, but what if you got loot on a fluke? (Insert crazy story about lvl 69 getting into Black Temple boss here.) He'd probably just put the item in his bank and never use it again. Just seems kind of sad.

But then again... at least he got to see the item. Again... interesting. I keep going back and forth on this one. I'd have to agree with you though, it probably could never be implemented in Wow.

Terroxian said...

I generally agree with your analysis and I like your plan to fix it. The one thing I'll add to this is that your plan will allow the hardcore and fastest of players to speed through the content presently avail at an accelerated rate (faster than we see now). Thus, the game maker would have to know that content updates would be needed at LEAST every 6 months (new areas and new equipments) and/or design a new system of end game content not relugated to gear progression.

This would mean more 'work' for the game maker. Presently, Blizz can concentrate on smaller upgrades to content to make them well polished and make the player go through the same content over and over again.

Anyway...this is one rat that would gladly try your new maze...

sid67 said...

That’s a good point, but it begs the questions – what is the actual end-game for a raider? If it’s just downing Illidan or the big bad boss at the end then why is the gear on that boss drops even important? After all, if the game “ends” when the final boss is killed then why bother doing it more than once?

I would argue that the REAL end-game is the acquisition of the top loot or gear in the game. And if that is the goal, then having a system that decays that gear with durability loss forces the player to continue to play and do “top end” content in order to keep themselves well geared. It also makes older content remain relevant when they need a farm kit or replacement item.

Developers can also force slow-downs by implementing artificial mechanics. Attunements are the most obvious slowdown, but other things could be put in place that could create some stiff competition amongst progression guilds. For example, imagine that access to a boss is determined by a World Event and the first people who do it have to race (along with others) to accomplish a very difficult series of guild tasks in order to get things unlocked. Once unlocked, the first guild (or two) get a limited window to beat it unchallenged before it opens up for everyone else. For the hardcore, the “world event” task could be very challenging and “slows” the game down. However, they are rewarded for the extra effort by being the “first” to accomplish the task.

I agree with you on crazy death penalties. An XP loss just seems so extreme. I even recall that when I started playing WoW that I was noticeably concerned that an item would “disappear” from my inventory if I allowed it to get to zero durability. So the point is well taken but could be offset by having replacement items provided very early on.

That’s really the key to successfully implementing this type of system. You would really need to pay attention to balancing the inflow and outflow of items so that you are never really lacking equipment but also not overwhelmed with unused gear.