Friday, August 29, 2008

Achievements in WoW patch 3.0 blatantly exploits players

I’ll admit that I was mildly irked at the recent news about WoW patch 3.0. It just felt like nothing more than an attempt to distract WoW players while they wait for Wrath. Tobold thinks of it as a defensive move against WAR. I don’t know if I buy into that 100%, but the fact that many of these features aren’t even fully cooked in the beta certainly support that idea.

Then I read Blizzard is planning on introducing Achievements as part of the 3.0 patch. And I got PISSED OFF. Seriously pissed off. I’m talking “thinking about unsubscribing” pissed off.

My issue is that this whole carrot-on-a-stick incentive program is being introduced with NO OTHER NEW CONTENT. Oh sure, there will be new talents and a new profession – but no new raiding content. No new instances. No new zones. No new monsters. No new quests. No new anything to explore.

In Brent’s now e-famous jumping shark post, he started his discussion with a very valid observation:

“We all have made some serious investments in the MMORPG genre. Those investments are not simply monetary. Many MMO players have devoted their lives, or at least their valuable free time, to these games.”

His article diverges from this topic, but this insight is interesting because it touches upon the ethical nature of MMO design. Jonathan Blow eloquently explained the issue in 2007:

“That kind of reward system is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme[.] It's considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don't get bored and give up on your game. That's actually exploitation.

[Players will naturally avoid boring tasks but developers] override that by plugging into their pleasure centers and giving them scheduled rewards[.] We convince them to pay us money and waste their lives in front of our game in this exploitative fashion.”
(credits to
Scott for link)

Enter Achievements and Feats of Strength. J. Allen Brack from Blizzard was very revealing in this interview in which he describes how the Achievement system will motivate players:

“There will also be a list of things that players will never have considered doing, more of a to-do list; like you log in to the game and go, ‘I don't know what I want to do today, I'm going to pick a random Achievement and go get it’. [We] don't have hidden Achievements, with the exception of very rare Achievements called Feats of Strength that are worth no points.”

Think about that for a moment: A list of things that players will never have considered doing; a to-do list for points. I don’t make this stuff up, folks. This is a very clear admission that Blizzard wants to exploit players with a task list filled with largely meaningless or impossible tasks.

Of course, we knew all this already. This really isn’t a new topic. MMOs have always been of a questionable ethical nature that encourages compulsive behavior. It’s why they are highly addictive and given labels like EverCrack and World of WarCrack.

I long ago made my own peace with this dilemma and the whole concept of Achievements wouldn’t have even been a blip on my radar screen if not for one very important thing: It’s coming in Patch 3.0.

Bundle up the Achievement system within Wrath and it’s just one new gadget amongst a bunch of gadgets. Introduce it at the tail-end of a loooong period of time with little new stuff to explore and well, it damn well borders on evil.

You see, the Achievement system isn’t new content – it’s a task list with some reward system attached. It’s an incentive to run around doing the same crap you have already done for the 1000th time in order to get an Achievement.

I’m sorry but that just pisses me off. Introducing new content which basically amounts to a task list for me to do all the content that I have already done is so blatantly unethical and wrong that I find myself tempted to quit altogether.

Our free time is precious and as Brent pointed out, it gets more precious as we get older. I already know I spend too much of this time participating in boring tasks for my ultimately meaningless carrot. I’ve come to terms with that because, well – I like my carrot. I’ll continue to play MMOs because I like carrots.

But this Achievement thing in 3.0 – well, that just feels like Blizzard is spitting in my mouth. They are basically saying, “we have nothing new to offer you for now, but in the meantime here is a reward system for doing all the stuff that you have likely already done and for some other things you never even considered doing”.

Warhammer comparison: This isn’t intended to be a WoW vs. WAR entry, but I do feel it’s worth making the comparison to WAR because the Tome of Knowledge is often compared to the new Achievement system.

The first point is that achievements in WAR appeared to be hidden. It didn’t feel like it was a task list because I didn’t even know I had the task. Instead, it just felt like I was rewarded for playing.

Secondly, as I wrote in my previous article, WAR seems purposefully designed to provide rewards for anything you choose to do, so you simply gravitate towards the things you find the most fun rather than the most rewarding.

And lastly, it’s part of the design from the start – it’s not retroactive and it’s not being released with no other content. I would have little to no issue with the Achievement system in WoW if it simply came bundled with Wrath.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How much market share can Mythic steal from Blizzard?

Mark Jacobs at Mythic recently made a crack about not needing to cannibalize WoW subscriptions, or at least all of them. His poem is pretty witty, but it prompted me to think about where Mythic plans to get it’s subscriber base for Warhammer Online.

Blizzard is largely unique in the MMO marketplace in that they became a cultural phenomena that attracted lots of new MMO gamers to the marketplace. In the four years since WoW’s release, the MMO market in the fantasy genre has really matured. While I don’t believe that MMO subscriptions overall have peaked, the rapid growth that WoW experienced is pretty unlikely to keep occurring in the fantasy setting genre.

The result of this is a more mature and established market. All future games (like Warhammer) will largely need to find their success by attracting gamers away from other MMOs. So while Mark might not want ALL of the WoW subscriptions, he certainly seems to need SOME of them in order for Warhammer to be a success.

MMO Subscription Landscape
To answer the question that I posed in the title, we must first survey the existing MMO marketplace. Almost all of the subscription figures in the below chart are provided by with a few exceptions. Here are some quick caveats:
  • The goal of the exercise is to engage in a discussion about the possible Warhammer market share. Therefore, I only selected MMOs which I felt directly compete with Warhammer in the Fantasy genre and use the monthly subscription model.
  • Guild Wars has reportedly 4.5 million accounts, but were not included because they don’t use the monthly subscription model.
  • Warcraft reportedly has 10 million accounts, but approximately 8 million of these are accounts that are hourly subscriptions in Asia.
  • AoC recently released subscription figures at the end of Q2, so those are the figures I used.

Clearly, Blizzard is the dominant player in this market and commands 61% of the current market share. From a historical perspective, Warcraft has four times the number of subscriptions as the nearest competitor ever had at its peak.

Interestingly, the much older MMOs still have relatively strong subscription numbers. Even after all these years, EverQuest still retains 25% of it’s peak subscription base. It is a remarkable and unique trait amongst MMOs that significant numbers of players will continue to play them long after they have become obsolete. The fact that they decline, but don’t completely disappear is a very important characteristic to consider when thinking about the long-term viability of cannibalizing another MMOs market.

Measuring Decline
Amongst the MMOs that have experienced decline, the average % of decline from their peak subscription number is 63%. The MMO which experienced the most decline is Dungeons & Dragons (78%) and the MMO that experienced the least amount of decline is EverQuest 2 (44%).

The fact that DDO and the original EQ still retain 22-25% of their peak subscriptions is an important figure that we can apply to the current World of Warcraft subscription numbers. This core group of “4 Life” players may never unsubscribe. Likewise, we can reasonably assume that such a popular game as WoW would at least behave similarly to EQ2 and would largely not be at risk of ever losing more than 44% of the peak subscription base.

Measuring Opportunity Potential of Warcraft subscribers
The above logic is important because we can project some scenarios about Market Opportunity to the World of Warcraft subscription base. The point here is not to determine how many players will play Warhammer, but to measure the opportunity or potential market size that you could attract.

In the above chart, you will note that I have assigned 22% of the WoW subscriber base as “WoW 4 Life” players who will never unsubscribe. That’s 440,000 accounts and a bigger number than any other current MMO. In fact, it’s almost as large as EverQuest at peak subscription. Any notion that WoW will be “killed” is ludicrous under such circumstances. If you enjoy playing WoW, then have no fear that it will ever go away.

I also indicated 44% as “WAR Target” players who might be willing to switch games. There is no reason to believe that they WILL switch games, only that this is the biggest group of WoW players that Warhammer could reasonably attract. Consider this to be the MAXIMUM market potential that WAR could expect to cannibalize from the WoW subscription base.

The remaining 34% or “WoW For Now” is the group of players that won’t play forever, but also aren’t likely to leave the game anytime soon. From Blizzard’s perspective, they should be thinking about how to eventually transition the “WoW For Now” group to some eventual next-gen MMO. Of more immediate concern are the “WAR Target” players who are the biggest flight risk, but these "For Now" players are also a long-term flight risk Blizzard should be thinking about now.

Measuring Market Opportunity amongst all similar MMOs
I went ahead and applied similar logic to the rivals I felt most likely to lose share in an effort to determine where Mythic can reasonably expect to gain market share. I used 44% as a base number with the exception of DAoC subscriptions (75%).

The total market opportunity is a bit more than 1.3 million subscriptions and Warcraft players consists of 66% of that potential market. Up until this point, I have really only performed an exercise to assess market potential. This 1.3 million figure is a reasonable and logical assessment that provides an approximate estimate of the opportunity potential.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t just the opportunity for Warhammer Online, but any other new MMO that would want to enter the market at this particular time. I’m only talking about it in context of Warhammer because that’s the game looking to enter the market.

So if 1.3 million is the maximum opportunity, how much of it will they capture? A similar figure existed for Age of Conan and they clearly failed to capture anywhere near the total market opportunity. Will Mythic do better? The answer to that question is pure conjecture.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mythic talks about WAR Preview feedback

Mark Jacobs made a brief post about the top issues coming out of WAR Preview Weekend:

(1) Client Crashes
  • I’ve talked about this as one of the reasons why we didn’t release the NDA until recently. Here’s the current status
  • Just a little too many currently. While we are better off than we were in beta, we must do better still before release.
  • A number of players will lower spec machines had more CTDs than higher spec machines.
  • Number of fixes already in pipeline. They are working their way through our testing servers and will be pushed to the players once they have been vetted internally.
  • Engineering time for CTD issue has remained heavily committed; our top engineers are working on the various issues.

I had a few of these, but nothing I wouldn’t have expected out of a new game. In fact, I actually thought as far as a beta goes, this wasn’t all that bad. I would EXPECT this to be priority #1, so it’s nice to hear they are working diligently at it.

(2) Monster Pathing and AI
  • Well, what can I say other than not even all of King Tut’s wealth could have made us feel better for messing up on this one. Well, maybe all his wealth.
  • “Yes, that monster seems to be behaving a little oddly”. Monster responsiveness was very sketchy, odd pauses and tethering issues.
  • “Oh, was I supposed to go in that direction?” Pathing sometimes wonky - mobs get stuck or go in wrong direction.
  • Utter confusion at times as both monsters and pets will engage and disengage seemingly at random
  • Internal server optimizations last week broke the pathing/AI. And I mean really, really broke it. This truly was a “Opps, we broke this code” moment for us and we don’t have many of them.
  • Going to ensure that this problem is fixed this week. As I said in my first Preview Weekend, this is a major concern for us. Fortunately we have no underwater combat in this game or some of the NPCs may have been appropriately dubbed land sharks.
This was very noticeable. A number of bloggers have talked about it. I still think it was AI code, likely something to do with the flee/attack state the NPC was supposed intended to be in rather than pathing.

(3) Pet Responsiveness
  • With similar issues to Monster Pathing and AI, this was not our finest hour.
  • Need to transfer "combat responsiveness" fixes to pets - have pet move immediately on button press.
  • “Oh no, Mr. Bill!” Pets suffer from same pathing and lack of response as general monsters. Pets hopping around like they were headed to Del Staters.
See above. It’s partly that pets experienced the same issue that leads me to believe it was AI rather than pathing related.

(4) Global Cooldown Timers
  • This seems to be a hot topic for players to talk about. However, things aren’t always as they seem.
  • Reality and perception are two different things, Warhammer has a GCD of 1.4s, WoW has 1.5s
  • “Ability not ready” messaging needs to be improve, a sound effect if Global Cooldown in effect, maybe more cowbell?
  • Need to improve on the feeling of sluggishness of the GCD and UI. Bug with display where our timer shows 2s when it is really 1.4
  • The next best thing to a queue is? We will add in better "slop timer" to allow players 0.3s extra to pre-queue a second ability followup.
Nothing to see here. I didn’t think any of this was a big deal. There were a couple of visual things that were funky with the UI (kinda sorta mentioned above) but more quirky than OMG! OH NOES!

(5) Better animations
  • So much more coming in the next two versions of the client. We are currently incorporating serious amounts of new animations into the game. Hopefully nobody will sneak a coneheads model into the game.
  • Look at what my XXXX does now? Over the next month we will address many class-attack specific issues across all 20 careers.
  • “U think you can dance?” Nope, but we have added new racial animations for movement, fidgets and redid some emotes.
All I can say is that I got used to it, but it was noticeable. I think the complaints in this area are valid, if perhaps a bit overblown. Of all the things that I noticed, the most bothersome was this one animation bug where my guy shot this beam from his hand and in some RvR situations, it never went away. It was like I was linked to the other enemy player until either he died or I died.

(6) Texture Blurring
  • Textures are currently cached in a manner that results in blurriness on entering a region.
  • We will look at adding a client scalar.
I have no idea what Mark is talking about. No clue. This was not observed by me.

(7) Client Performance
  • This is one of those issues
  • Need better scalers on effects, sounds, graphics, etc to help lower end machines (already lots of additions to coders)
  • This thing loves memory like Dan Aykroyd loves bass. We have already improved the memory consumption of the client and taken 100M out of current test best.
There was a “custom” option to adjust video settings that did nothing. I can only presume that he is talking about adding these things into the game to actually allow, well – custom settings. LOL. I figured while in beta that they wanted everyone running things in pretty much the same mode to get as a control test. I still think this was the case.

(8) Targeting, Camera, etc
  • Currently our targeting system differs from many MMOs in terms of our features and how we go about things. We will identify and make a more standard initial setup but allow flexibility.
  • Will add additional keybinding selections to allow flexibility
Rohan talks about Targeting in WAR and WoW quite a bit today. The default settings in WAR are superior, but the flexibility (particularly with UI customization) in WoW is a lot better thus far. It would be nice to see some better functionality in this regard, although I do think addons will address some of it.

(9) Renown rank gear
  • Unfortunately, a new bug (well an old bug we fixed and then managed to break again) which allowed Rank 10 RR 6 players can go to Tier 2 to get better gear and then come back to Tier 1 and own scenarios. We are currently working on a fix.
Heartless_ had this complaint. I honestly didn’t know that this might have been a reason I was getting pwned by some people until Monday.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Warhammer Beta: A WoW Player’s Perspective

I had a chance to play the WAR Beta and wanted to present my thoughts about the game. This isn’t a review, just my insights as a currently active WoW player planning to play Warhammer on release.

Immersion – Graphics
This is tricky, but despite the game having better “graphics” than WoW, I felt that they were less fluid or connected. When I say connected, I don’t mean to the game world but to me (personally) as the player. It’s hard to pinpoint, but something just seemed to be missing.

Cartoonists use a technique called exaggeration to avoid a phenomenon called the uncanny valley. The theory of the valley is that if an animated character is sufficiently non-humanlike, then the humanlike characteristics generate empathy that makes them visually appealing (awww – isn’t that cute!). However, if the character is too humanlike, then the non-human characteristics will be the ones that stand out and it will feel “strange” to the viewer. Ironically, the better the imitation of reality, the more likely they are to fall into this uncanny valley.

Stylistically, WoW is often considered “cartoony” when compared to other MMOs. WAR has a much grittier sense of realism. Graphically, it’s far superior to WoW, but that sense of realism makes it more difficult to have an empathic connection with the animated avatar. From an immersion standpoint, I didn’t feel as connected with the game world (through my avatar) as I do in WoW.

That being said, within a couple of hours of play, I did get used to it and started to feel like I was part of the Warhammer world. In an unexpected way, the sense of community that WAR fosters with the RvR and Public Quests actually offsets the unconnected feeling. For this reason, I didn’t find the early lack of connection to be a deal-breaker since it mostly passes. I mention it mostly because if you are a WoW player, you WILL notice it.

Open World, Public Quests
Each zone appears to be divided into six chapters (three for Order, three for Destruction) and an RvR openworld battlefield. Zones are very large and each faction has an area about the size of the Stranglethorn Vale with an RvR battlefield of about half that size separating them. In a similar fashion to a continent in WoW, you can travel anywhere in the zone seamlessly without a loading screen. Likewise, if you want to travel to another zone, you would take a public transport that brings up a loading screen (like the Zepplin or Boat in WoW). A chapter is simply a collection of several subzones and a quest hub. Each chapter appears to have at least one Public Quest.

Public Quests have been covered in detail on other sites, so all I will say about them is that they are fun. As my buddy said to me, it feels like a spontaneous 10-man raid at level 3. They feel epic and the more people participating, the more fun you will have. Anyone can solo stage 1, but no one can solo stage 3. There has been a lot of skepticism about the Vegas Roll – but it’s a non-issue. It simply feels fair and I have yet to hear of anyone who felt “cheated” out of any loot.

XP for everything
You get XP for quests. You get XP for player kills. You get XP for winning or completing an RvR scenario (like a battleground). You get XP for each stage of a Public Quest. You get XP for unlocking achievements in the Tome of Knowledge. You get XP for rising in Renown rank. You pretty much get XP for doing just about anything while playing.

However, this doesn't make for faster leveling – it just helps take the grind out of it. It’s brilliant in its simplicity because I don’t feel compelled to do anything that I don’t want to do. Since everything I do provides XP, all I need to worry about is doing whatever it is that I feel is the most fun at that particular moment.

This, more than anything else WAR offers, makes the game design vastly superior to Warcraft. In WoW, you constantly feel compelled to do things that are unfun in order to get a reward. In WAR, anything you choose to do provides a reward, so you simply gravitate towards the things you find the most fun rather than the most rewarding.

User Interface
Mythic provides a default layout editor and everything can be resized, hidden or moved around. They also provide three different default hot bar layouts. Unit frames don’t appear to indicate class (or at least I never figured that out). The big thing that I noticed is that Mythic makes it pretty clear they want you watching the action and not watching bars and unit frames.

Macros suck. At least in beta, macros couldn’t be used to cast spells. Interestingly, this isn’t an entirely bad thing. It makes combat more involved and since it’s at a slightly slower pace than WoW, it’s not painful. It fits very well with the above idea that Mythic wants active participants and not people spamming one or two buttons while watching unit frames.

One improvement over WoW are the direction “arrows” that point out the location of party members and your target. Following the “watch the action not your UI” approach, WAR provides the visual clue to your relative position by providing arrows underneath your avatar in the style of Rainbow Six. Rather than located on the mini-map, directional arrows are placed at your avatar’s feet that indicate the where you can find your party or target.

The Map
Everything you could ever possibly want to know or look up on something like Thottbot is already on your map. No need to alt-tab to a website about where to go for a quest when the area is indicated with a little red cloud (like a fog of war) on your map. The neat thing about this approach is that it tells me enough about where to find it that I wouldn’t look it up, but not enough specifics to just walk me through the quest.

I will say that I’m colorblind, so this wasn’t intuitive to me right from the start. I’m used to designers differentiating things by color, but it’s still annoying. WoW does it all the time too (I hate Netherspite!), so this really isn’t a complaint specific to WAR. Eventually, I figured out my own little way of making it work for me.

Renown Rank vs. Career Levels
Warhammer has two sets of levels. A PvP level called “Renown Rank” and an all-purpose level called “Career Rank”. The Career Ranks are the most important levels since they determine your base stats, ability ranks and so forth. Renown Ranks provide points that are kinda sorta spent like talents in WoW.

Renown points can buy minor stat upgrades, large stat upgrades, or even new abilities (tactics). The biggest upgrades cost the most points and there are several tiers. Renown Rank is basically on a separate XP table that is specific to RvR. In other words, you only gain Renown when participating in RvR.

As your Career Rank (or level) progresses, you can also eventually earn points that can be spent in several Mastery trees. Through Mastery, you’ll specialize in a specific area (ex: damage, heals or buffs) that will augment your Core skills.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Addon authors wanted for WAR

One really smart decision that Mythic made was to use the LUA programming language for their interface addons. If you weren’t aware, LUA is the language that Blizzard uses to program the UI in WoW. If you are moderately familiar with editing or writing LUA scripts and XML files for World of Warcraft, the syntax and many standard LUA commands will continue to be familiar in Warhammer Online.

I’ve never mentioned it on the blog before, but I have written a few addons myself. For example, I wrote CharmsFu, ChatAlertsFu, Cartographer: Quicknotes and a quest helper called Wowhead Quests which inspired Cladhaire to right a much better and more popular version called LightHeaded.

I’ll freely admit that I’m not the best at keeping my addons up-to-date, which is why I don’t really think of myself as an “Addon Author” even though I have written several. I don't make addons for glory, I simply make them for my own benefit so that the game is more enjoyable FOR ME. I write them to make my life easier and if it happens to be easy to make it available to others, I’ll share it.

I’ve also written several “personal” addons that I never released for various reasons. In some cases, I just wanted something a lot more lightweight and basic than what existed elsewhere (simplicity over feature). But most often, it was simply something a bit more complex than I wanted to document or support.

Releasing an addon is a responsibility and if you’re not willing to support it, then I don’t recommend releasing it. It’s not a welcome feeling to get trashed on because you didn’t write your addon to work with another addon that happened to be written poorly – particularly when you’re not being paid for it.

I’m moderately interested in being part of the addon community for Warhammer, but it’s that last point that your efforts evoke complaints rather than praise that holds me back a bit. I’m undecided at the moment. I’m sure I’ll release some things, but just that which I feel will require minimal support.

In any event, what IS a very worthy cause is helping to document the Warhammer API. To put it simply, the LUA language is the basic building block and the commands (or API) for LUA is very well documented and understood. However, what Warhammer adds to the LUA language in the form of commands is NOT well understood at the moment by the addon community. An example here of a Warhammer specific command would be changing key bindings or determining the health of your target. In order to produce quality addons, authors need to know what these commands DO.

Even if you are a fledgling programmer, you can help document the API at The War Wiki and review this page about how you can help: How to document the API

If you are interested in learning what WAR addons are currently in development, I suggest taking a look at the to see which projects have already been started. There is also a developer forum community on CurseForge located here if you want to ask questions / make suggestions.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Gaijin Smash

One of the non-WoW related blogs I read is called Gaijin Smash, the story of a big black American man living abroad in Japan. I got a big chuckle out of something he wrote yesterday:

“[There] should be a store dedicated to saving male shoppers. It would be an ordinary trendy department store or whatever - but right in the middle of it there'd be a sports bar. There'd be HDTV's that played sports and had Playstations hooked up to them, along with pool tables, darts, etc. Guys could get those little black disks that they hand out at restaurants; when his girlfriend/wife/whatever female who dragged him finally made it to checkout, the black disk could light up and vibrate letting the guy know it was time to go. The guy could get one free beer for every hour his partner was in the store but hadn't yet bought anything. Give me a department store like that...and I would happily go shopping. Every fuckin' week.”

Mostly I wanted to share that because, well – that’s a damn cool idea and in the extreme off-chance that some marketing guy from Nordstrom is reading my blog – well, there you go. Do that. Please.

In a way, it reminds me a bit of the Bartle Test that defines four categories of players (click for test). Not the categories themselves, but Bartle’s idea that successful MMOs will design themselves for all four types – just like Gaijin Smash is suggesting that department stores be designed for both men and women.

However in MMOs, the designed for everyone approach has an obvious flaw: What if you have a severe aversion to a gameplay element that appeals to another player?

We certainly see this reaction in open world PvP. While this is a highly appealing element to Killers, it is extremely frustrating to non-Killers. Likewise, an Achiever might relish long grinds because it heightens their own sense of accomplishment. Other players may not really care about the achievement itself, they just want the gratification of what it provides them (and thus, RMT is born).

The equivalent in the Gaijin Smash’s department store example would be to force the wife/girlfriend/whatever to spend an hour in the sports bar in order to be allowed to go shopping. Or alternately, the husband/boyfriend needs to put in an hour of shopping before being allowed to go into the sports bar. Collectively the husband or wife might agree to the condition simply for the reward, but it’s not really an ideal solution to make people do things they don’t want to do when you are trying to provide a fun experience.

That’s part of what I find interesting about Warhammer’s approach to leveling. By providing several options to level (you can RvR or quest), they are catering to different player types without forcing them to do things. That’s smart.

FYI - According to Bartle I'm a Killer, with mild Achiever tendencies...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Badly Organized Poll: 9 out of 10 WoW players never heard of WAR

I continue to be a pretty active WoW player despite a lot of the burnout I’ve experienced over the past year. One question I keep asking other players the last couple of weeks is: Do you plan to play Warhammer?

The far majority of players I have queried have never even heard of Warhammer, let alone have an opinion about whether or not they would play it. In fact, upon learning that it’s another game, the response always has an underlying tone of “I am playing WoW, why would I play something else?” And it’s not because the people I am asking are PvE raiders – I play on a PvP server, I am in a PvP guild, and many of the people I have asked have been Arena players.

Among bloggers, the Warhammer topic has been covered at length, so it came as a surprise to me that so few current WoW players seem to be “in the know” about the game. Almost two weeks ago, Tobold asked us to guess how many copies WAR will sell. The answers ranged from a few hundred thousand to millions, but almost universally every single guesstimate mentioned the WoW subscription numbers. In fact, the most common formulas included some type of logic that Warhammer would cannibalize most of their subscriptions from Warcraft.

However, in light of the ignorance about Warhammer that seems to exist in the Warcraft community, I have to wonder if the blogging community isn’t just making the mistake of thinking that everyone else is just like them. The whole thought reminded me of an article Cameron Sorden wrote called When will players leave WoW? in which he said:

“Your first MMOG is kind of like your first love. […] I'm not convinced that any game will persuade first time MMOG players who enjoy WoW to leave it. Those people who are hunting for new games, who are tired of the old, who want something new... they tend to be people who already have hopped games once or more. When players find a game they like, a game that really grabs them, a game that defines the MMO genre in their minds and lays out what an MMOG should be for them, it's going to take either a serious blow to their game (Blizzard announces that they're done making expansions) or a serious improvement to the game style (on the EverQuest --> WoW level) to lure them away.” (Cameron Sorden writing for Massively)

So if current WoW players are not at the top of the line to buy Warhammer, then who is?
  • People who “hopped games once or more”
  • Ex-WoW players who have already quit (or are ready to quit)
  • Games Workshop fans
  • Existing Mythic fans who played RvR in DAoC
  • Friends of anyone who fits into any of the above
Now – I still think the above is a big group of people, particularly the “ex-WoW players who have already quit” group. I’m not privy to internal Blizzard numbers, but I highly suspect that the two million US subscribers playing WoW today are NOT the same two million US subscribers they had two years ago. I think a lot of people have left WoW, but subscriber numbers have held steady with new people coming in and old players buying second or third accounts.

If you are a Warhammer fan, please don’t take this as an attack on the Holy Temple. I mention this only from the perspective that we should expect modest success early on, possibly followed by a lot more players as word-of-mouth grows. WoW is, for what it’s worth, a cultural phenomenon and it’s unfair to hold WAR to the same measuring stick.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

MMOs are like Pizza

The NDA dropped for Warhammer Online yesterday and seemingly 90% of gaming blogosphere participated in the closed beta and has been pretty vocal on their thoughts about the game. Most of it is positive and even the negative stuff is not so much negative as the “nothing new to see here” variety. Cameron at Random Battle even had an interesting commentary directed at the reviewers rather than the game. Out of all the blog posts, the one I thought most worth commenting on is Brent’s over at Virgin Worlds.

Brent wrote: “I can say with complete confidence that this game might as well have been released 4 years ago as it offers us nothing aside from one standout evolutionary concept, the public quest, that moves the genre forward. […] What makes a game that works just like every other historically fun MMO, not fun? The timing. The timing is horrible. It is way too late for a game that plays like this to be emerging on the scene. Repetition is decidedly not fun. As players, we're no longer grinding mobs, we're grinding MMOs.”

The post is quite a bit longer than that, but that is 98% of the message. The message is really that WAR offers nothing so remarkably new that it feels any different than any other Diku-based MMO like WoW, EQ, AoC, or LoTRO.

What’s interesting about this sentiment and others like it is that it doesn’t really disparage the game directly. The game itself, as even Brent points out, is a quality game. Brent’s issue is that he’s just tired of that particular style of game and WAR doesn’t offer enough variety to him to warrant playing it over something else.

The problem with Brent’s logic is that he is making a hasty generalization that all MMO players are just like him. It’s a pretty common mistake to believe that everyone else is just like you, but how often is it really the case? Do most MMO players think like Brent?

My wife likes to eat a steak dinner, but never more than once a week. I, on the other hand, could eat a steak dinner every single night and enjoy the hell out of myself. My wife also likes pizza once a week. I can’t eat pizza more than once a month or I hate it.

It doesn’t really matter if we prepare the steak differently or try different types of pizza, the fact of the matter is that it is too similar to what we have already eaten recently. Entertainment can follow the same pattern.

Watch one hour of Seinfeld in a row and the second half hour show is as funny as the first. Watch eight hours of Seinfeld in a row and that sixteenth show is not very funny at all. And of course, if you just sat through eight hours of Seinfeld and now I want you to watch three hours of Friends – well, you just might want to shoot me in the head for suggesting it.

I think that’s where Brent is at – he just watched his eighth hour of Seinfeld and doesn’t really care to watch another sitcom like Friends. Maybe he would enjoy a drama, or maybe he would just rather not watch TV at all. Either way, the last thing he wants to do is watch Friends.

But that’s only Brent’s own personal measuring stick. Just like my tolerance for steak and pizza is different than my wife’s preference. We also don’t really know how long Brent has been playing compared to other players. So while it’s OK for Brent to describe the burnout he is experiencing, it’s more than a bit unfair to call a game unfun just because he’s tired of playing.

I know I personally am experiencing WoW burnout, but I never played DAoC and experienced RvR. So while Brent makes the supposition that the only evolutionary new thing in WAR is public quests, that is not really true from my viewpoint because RvR is a major aspect of the game that is entirely new to me. AND, simply by comparing subscriber numbers, it’s not much of a stretch to say that most WoW players didn’t experience RvR either. So while it’s not new or entertaining to Brent, it’s new and entertaining to many of us.

Friday, August 15, 2008

WAR Archetype Power Index

I had an interesting idea while writing the WAR careers (i.e. classes) entry on Wednesday. I didn’t mention it at the time because I didn’t see a good way to include it.

If you did read my previous article, then you’ll notice I did a little analysis on how the archetypes compare against each other in relative power. Today, I am taking that analysis one step further by creating a scoring system to compare the relative power of the different archetypes.

The scoring system I plan to use for comparing the archetypes is what I am going to call an Archetype Power Index (API).

Archetype Power Index (API):
Each archetype gets +2 pts if it is more powerful than another career, +1 pt if it is even with another career, and -1 pt if it less powerful than another career.

+4 (strong) + 3 (even) – 5 (weak) = 2 API

Melee DPS:
+10 (strong) + 2 (even) – 3 (weak) = 9 API

Ranged DPS:
+4 (strong) + 5 (even) – 2 (weak) = 7 API

Melee Healers:
+4 (strong) + 3 (even) – 3 (weak) = 4 API

Ranged Healers:
+4 (strong) + 5 (even) – 2 (weak) = 7 API

So according to my Archetype Power Index, Melee DPS (9) is the most powerful and followed by Ranged DPS (7) and Ranged Healers (7). Tanks (2) and Melee Healers (4) are significantly lower than the other careers. This is consistent with my thinking from my previous post and the primary reason I am considering Melee DPS over Melee Heals or Tanking.

Now what makes this particularly interesting is that Mythic removed four melee careers (two Tanks and two Melee DPS) from the game during closed beta. If these careers had not been removed, how would this have impacted the API score? Melee DPS (9) would remain the same, but Ranged Healers (8) and Ranged DPS (8) would both be slightly closer. More importantly however, Melee Healers (7) and Tanks (5) would have seen significant increases. In fact, the 3 point jump for Melee Healers is a 75% increase in API and the 3 point jump for Tanks is a whopping 150% increase.

My initial impression of the removal was that these things happen during testing all the time. For the most part, I still agree with that but my above analysis does make me question a bit whether or not this was the best long-term solution. I don’t know how important Tanks will be in WAR, but if they are REALLY important then it’s really unfortunate that the career who suffered the most by the removal is the Tank.

One thing to keep in mind about my Archetype Power Index is that it presumes a relatively even distribution of careers. To properly use such a system, it should be weighed against the actual popularity of each career. In other words, if Range DPS is the most popular archetype, then Melee DPS would have an even higher score since it performs favorably against that archetype. Likewise, if Melee DPS is extremely popular, then the Tank API would go up accordingly since they will perform very well against Melee DPS.

It’s also worth noting that the only archetype that is represented by each of the races is Range DPS, so it’s not a stretch to surmise that this will be the most prolific archetype. In fact, given how players as a general rule prefer DPS classes to support roles (Tanks/Healers), I fully expect that most players will be choosing a DPS class. My best guess is that the most popular individual career will be Melee DPS, but the most popular archetype will be Ranged DPS.

Although, given that the above API score for a Ranged Healer is the same as a Ranged DPS, going the Healer route might be a better choice. The Ranged Healer is even with Ranged DPS and has the same weaknesses. Given that, wouldn’t you be more desirable in groups for your support abilities as a Healer? As I am throwing around these relative power scores, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that WAR is designed to be group PvP.

While DPS might be epic on an individual level, perhaps the best groups will mostly be comprised of Tanks/Healers. When I start thinking about group play strategically, the appeal of the indestructible force has obvious advantages over the glass cannons. There is something about just being able to stand there and take everything that is dished out at you. It’s the difference between standing there with a flamethrower or driving a Fire Truck. Sometimes a flamethrower might be able to dance in and set your wheels on Fire, but most of the time they are just going to get doused with water and then run over by the Truck.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The PvP Matrix

Syncaine and Tobold have both had discussions lately about what constitutes “good” PvP and a couple of ideas keep popping up. Balance and Consensual PvP. The context of most arguments about what makes PvP fun (or not fun) revolve around either the idea that is imbalanced or it’s simply not consensual.

While most people seem to argue for or against one particular area, it occurred to me that balance and consensual PvP are not entirely mutually exclusive ideas. To illustrate this point, I created the following diagram based on the Ansoff Matrix.

In this diagram, I have placed a scale for Consensual PvP from complete Free-For-All to 100% Opt-In PvP. On the Y axis, I have created a scale for Balanced PvP that at one end represents imbalanced Powerful Rewards and the other end represents perfect Competitive balanced PvP.

Each of the quadrants is an area where two of the four PvP types intersect. For example, WoW Arena PvP can be found in the “Powerful Rewards” and “Opt-In PvP” quadrant since it is both a 100% consensual activity and very imbalanced from a gear reward perspective. Unreal Tournament, by contrast, is a FPS game that would fit as both consensual and competitively balanced.

You’ll notice that almost all MMORPGs will be skewed towards the “Powerful Rewards” side of the spectrum due to the gear progression and character development inherent in RPGs. I personally am of the mind that the more we can do in MMORPGs to move towards competitive balance, the more people will enjoy PvP overall. We may never be able to move entirely to the Competitive spectrum, but things like breakable gear would certainly help the problem.

The reason a diagram like this is important is to keep the discussion in context. What is it that you personally do and don’t like about PvP? For me, I enjoy competitive balance and FFA games. Others may enjoy a more WoW Arena style that is not exactly balanced, but is consensual, competitive and offers great gear rewards.

The problem is that two people often argue two very different things. They get upset about an FFA world because the significant imbalance through Powerful Rewards makes it an unfair fight. The issue is only partly the fault of the FFA design, but the larger issue is actually the perceived imbalance. Likewise, players like me want a challenge – so the issue with WoW PvP for me is not that I can get ganked, but that it’s not competitive unless I’m at the same level and gear as my opponent. Others simply want PvP only on an Opt-In basis and would rather not be interfered with at all unless it’s of their own choosing.

The point here is not that one quadrant is better than another quadrant, but that there ARE different quadrants and different players enjoy being in different sections. Two people might both enjoy PvP but actually enjoy wildly different parts of it.

**If you like the diagram, feel free to steal it. Please just credit where you got it. Thanks! :)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Choosing a Warhammer Class / Career

Now that I received my open beta code for Warhammer Online, I have started turning my attention to the important questions I want to answer for myself in the WAR Beta. Specifically, which class (er.. I mean career) and faction do I want to play?

I began my research in the Armies of War section of the official Warhammer Online website. First and foremost I wanted to settle on a faction, so I brought this up on vent last night with a good real life friend who will also be playing WAR. In WoW, we both play Horde and were naturally leaning towards Destruction. Surprisingly however, after reading all the career choices, we both seemed to like what Order offered us a bit more.

The thing was, even after reading all the careers I still had some trouble processing how all they all fit into the different game archetypes. Then I recalled this article that broke out the careers into the different archetypes.

(Black Orc, Chosen, Ironbreaker, Sword master)
  • Strong Vs Melee DPS (4)
  • Even Vs Tanks / Melee Healers (6)
  • Weak Vs Ranged DPS / Ranged Healers (10)

  • Melee DPS
    (Marauder, Witch Elf, Witch Hunter, White Lion)
  • Strong Vs Ranged DPS / Ranged Healers (10)
  • Even Vs Melee DPS (4)
  • Weak Vs Tanks / Melee healers (6)

  • Ranged DPS
    (Shadow Warrior, Bright Wizard, Engineer, Sorceress, Magus, Squig Herder)
  • Strong Vs Tanks (4)
  • Even Vs Ranged DPS / Ranged Healers (10)
  • Weak Vs Melee DPS (4)

  • Melee Healers
    (Warrior Priest & Disciple)
  • Strong Vs Melee DPS (4)
  • Even Vs Tanks & Melee Healers (6)
  • Weak Vs Ranged DPS (6)

  • Ranged Healers
    (Archmage, Rune Priest, Shaman, Zealot)
  • Strong Vs Tanks (4)
  • Even Vs Ranged DPS / Ranged Healers (10)
  • Weak Vs Melee DPS (4)
  • I most enjoy melee classes, so I wanted to know how the three melee careers stacked up against each other. In particular, I was most attracted to the Witch Hunter (DPS) and Ironbreaker (Tank) classes. After reviewing the above, I have to say that the Melee DPS is quite a bit more attractive considering that it is strong against 10 other classes. It’s a bit like playing Rock, Scissors & Paper and realizing that your opponent is going to choose Scissors 50% of the time. Whereas with the Tanks, you are only strong against 4 and even with 6.

    If you simply look at the baseline of how many careers do I do poorly against? Then Tanks score the worst (10) and Range DPS score the best (4). This tells me that the odds are good that Range DPS will be the far preferred archetype. However, from my perspective, this just adds to the joy of choosing Melee DPS. Because what’s the counter-Archetype to Range DPS? Melee DPS. :)

    Monday, August 11, 2008

    Warhammer Pre-Order and Direct2Drive

    I put in my pre-order for Warhammer Online with Direct2Drive yesterday.

    Direct2Drive is part of IGN like Gamespy and FilePlanet. When you buy a game from D2D, you don’t get a physical box, game manual or DVDs. Instead, you get a keycode sent to you through the mail and the ability to download the game off the website. The obvious downside is that you don’t install from discs or get any pretty literature. Ya – I realize that some people like to read the manual and like to keep the box. In my case, it just ends up taking space somewhere as I don’t really use it or need it.

    For me, the advantages of D2D outweigh the box. First, no store. No store means I don’t have to go somewhere and wait in a line. I might have to wait on a download, but I can do other things during that time in my home at my leisure. Secondly, I have no fear of my pre-order not being in stock, lost in shipping, or sold to someone else by mistake. Third, and most importantly, I don’t have to worry about losing the discs or keycode. At any point, I can simply re-download it if needed.

    Wondering if you can run Warhammer Online?
    This nifty tool called Can You Run It? will test your computer against the system requirements provided by Mythic. This is particularly handy if you didn’t know if your 1.7 GHz Dual Core Duo is better or worse than the 2.5 GHz Pentium minimum requirement (FYI, it’s better). It also has a nice graphical representation that hints at how much better your setup is over the minimum requirements.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008

    Mythic development process

    Paul Barnett of Mythic talked about lessons learned in the Warhammer Online development. In light of my entry on Monday about Blizzard’s development process, I can’t help but make a comparison.

    Paul Barnett: Everyone on the team from designers to coders will try to expand upon it and before you know where you are you no longer have your core idea anymore

    In contrast’s to Blizzard’s organic model that lacks cohesive direction, Mythic prefers to keep a clear vision of the core idea to avoid scope creep. On Monday, I wrote that a cohesive vision brings everyone together towards a unified goal. Rather than allow unconnected ideas to create distractions, the focus is on fleshing out the end result. The downside to this method is that you might simply ignore really good ideas because they don’t fit in your existing vision.

    Paul Barnett: We don't need good ideas, we need strong ideas[.] The problem with good ideas is that there are too many of them - can’t be measured. Good ideas aren’t hard to come up with. Strong ideas are unstoppable because they’re strong. A strong idea can be a good idea but a good idea isn’t always a strong idea.

    This is interesting because it addresses the downside I mentioned about the risk of ignoring good ideas when you stick closely to the core vision. Paul’s take here is that good ideas are easy to create, but what you need are strong ideas that are unstoppable. These unstoppable ideas will somehow find their way into the core and become part of the game simply by virtue of being such a great idea that it can't be ignored.

    Paul Barnett: WoW is a work of flawed genius. This means that when you dismantle [it], you can never be too sure if you got the genius or the flaw. I can’t tell what is flaw and what is genius in WoW, so I don’t want to get sucked into copying things in case I get the wrong one[.]

    I don’t agree with Paul on this point. WoW may be a work of flawed genius, but that doesn’t mean those flaws aren’t transparent. Every blogger I know has wrote about them at length, so it’s not like they haven’t been well documented or discussed. The really good things are also pretty obvious.

    AND – I think Paul is smart enough to realize what they are on his own merit. What I think he is really trying to point out here is that they didn’t set out to copy WoW. That they had a vision for what the game they wanted was going to be and that they worked towards that goal rather than trying to be the same game as WoW.

    Monday, August 4, 2008

    The pros and cons of Blizzard’s development process

    I’ll step outside the internet for a moment and talk briefly about my real life. Until about a year ago, I held a position in which I was responsible for managing and maintaining between 2 to 6 large projects and up to 30 employees. One of my core responsibilities dealt with project planning and controlling the scope of my various projects. As an outsourced vendor, our project commitments were to our clients and if we missed a commitment (or timeline) we were contractually at risk of losing out financially. If my team failed to meet project objectives and I failed to anticipate risks or respond to threats then I was held personally accountable. While I managed at most upwards of 30 employees, my teams all rolled up as part of a collective whole that included about 400 employees. I point this out only to illustrate the fact that I understand how to keep projects on task and how to use foresight and planning to anticipate problems.

    It is from this perspective that I am constantly amazed by the things I hear from Blizzard developers. I’ve made no secret that I think Blizzard lacks foresight and planning, so I will freely admit that I have been looking for an interview like this one to cite some specific examples of why I think this is true.

    When a Blizzard executive or developer gives an interview I am always struck by how free wheeling and unstructured the process sounds. Until now, I never had a lot of specifics to point out, just my overall impressions that things feel disorganized based on the interview comments. The example I gave the other day was that when a Blizzard dev gives an interview, I get the mental picture that they are all sitting around in a room smoking pot saying, “oh dude, wouldn’t it be cool if we had…”

    Rob Pardo finally gave me the insight I needed to understand why this is the case. As with anything, people and process problems always start at the top. While I am being critical of Blizzard in particular, it’s not a stretch to say that these observations likely hold true across many (if not all) game companies.

    Rob Pardo: We have an organic model for game development.

    Organic is one of those corporate buzz words used to describe something that freely grows with little constraint. In this context, the idea is that there is a purposeful lack of definition in order to achieve a greater amount of flexibility. By contrast, something that is very structured and defined is by it’s very nature more rigid and restrictive. The upside of an “organic” model is that it allows for an unfettered creative process to continue through the entire development cycle. The whole idea of organic organization is just that -- we plant things and see what grows out of it. Organizationally, things are much flatter than a traditional company that has you, then your boss and then your boss’s boss and so on. Instead, decisions are made by consensus amongst peers rather through some military chain of command. The downside is that it lacks a cohesive vision, planning and foresight.

    Rob Pardo: Everyone on the team has the power to veto. It's the team that's approving the game. If I veto something or approve something by myself it's only if the team allows it to happen.

    While this process is certainly free-flowing and consensus building, it also lacks cohesive vision and direction. In Rob’s scenario, the overall direction of the project is spread out amongst the entire team, so the vision or direction of the project is diluted and shared rather than singular (or monolithic). Why is this problematic? Well, imagine that you and four co-workers are trying to make a collective decision about where to go for lunch. All of you share the same overall vision of eating, but each of you might be thinking of different places to go eat. Two of you really enjoy seafood, one of you hates it, and the other two seemingly have no preference or want something entirely different. Eventually, you’ll reach some kind of consensus, but will it be the best choice or just something that no one objected to?

    A cohesive vision by contrast, brings everyone together in a singular direction. This helps people understand what they need to do and what needs to be accomplished. Instead of creating unnecessary tangents or distractions, they can work on fleshing out the vision placed before them. It’s the difference between lots of disparate unconnected ideas and a unified goal and direction. An unconnected idea may remain unfinished or appear out of place. A connected idea will flesh out the overall vision and bring more meaning and life to the overall project.

    It also strikes me that consensus building through peers as Rob describes would favor a more evolutionary rather than revolutionary design process. Any idea that is dramatically different than the accepted norm is going to receive peer resistance regardless of whether or not the idea is good or great. Whereas, a single influencer or approver may see the bigger picture of such a change and be willing to take a chance on revolutionary design. In others words, it’s always much easier to convince a group of people to do it the way you have always done it than to accept a brand new idea.

    Rob Pardo: On one of my games, I had one of my designers kept coming to me to approve stuff. I had to say, "Yeah, I like it, but you should talk to person a, b, and c, to see if they like it." He replied "But you like it, can't I just put it in the game?" I said "you can, but it's at your own peril, because if they don't like it, we'll go back and change it."

    I really appreciate Rob providing this example because it pretty clearly illustrates what is good and bad about the organic model. It’s good because it’s consensus building. One person has an idea, but he needs to vet out that idea amongst his peers to see if that idea really fits with what everyone else is trying to accomplish. It’s also free flowing in that the process is not so constrained that they don’t have room for new ideas. However, such free form comes at a great cost and it explains why expansions take so long to develop and create issues like mudflation.

    First, Rob’s indecisiveness costs the entire team time. Instead of simply making a decision, he delegates the decision to three other people. Now the designer has to meet with and convince three other people that his design idea is a good one. From a time management perspective, this costs not only the designer valuable time but takes away time from each of the three people he needs to convince. Alternately, he can work on it separately “at his own peril” as it may be changed back if they didn’t like it. Either result is far more wasteful from a time and planning perspective than if Rob had simply made a Yes or No decision or alternately delegated such responsibility to a single person responsible for that area.

    Secondly, how do you plan for the future? By the very virtue of the organic model, even today’s plans are not really concrete or set in stone. You may have “ideas” about the future, but it’s not possible to execute any type of actual planning because you don’t really have a clear vision of where you are going. If what exists today is not even properly defined, how can you possibly plan for what you will do tomorrow? It’s impossible to think forward without a clear understanding of how things will progress over the foreseeable future.

    sid67’s final thoughts
    To be clear, I’m not against free form ideas or being creative. I’m critical of WHEN they are making these design decisions. There is a time and place for being creative and it’s in the planning stage. That’s why they call it a planning stage – because you paint a picture of what the end goal will become. It’s not important to fill in all the details, but it’s important to establish a cohesive vision of the end result. Once you establish this vision, then you can begin fleshing it out. You don’t just figure it out as you go along during the development phase. I would compare the process to how Pixar and Dreamworks animators storyboard a motion picture like Shrek or Finding Nemo. They certainly follow a creative process, but eventually they reach a point where the animators understand what story they are telling and how it should be told. THEN, and only THEN, do they start animating the story and see what works out.

    It’s OK to be flexible. In fact, most would argue that the planning stage never really ends. However, once the vision has been painted then you need to start implementing process to control scope. On big projects, that means aligning people to specific areas of control or tasks. It’s just as wasteful to have every single design change need Rob’s approval as it is to need every single person’s approval or opinion. Accountability and empowerment are the pillars to successful management. Make people accountable to the collective vision, but empowered to do what is best for the game. It also means thinking about how a change is going to impact the rest of the vision and the timeline you set forth in your project plan. Game designers need to adhere to the critical path which is the earliest and latest that each activity can start and finish without making the overall project longer.

    The other challenge with the more free flowing model is what happens when people quit? Many ideas often only live in the heads of those that are passionate about them. However, with proper planning, the vision and ideas don’t simply die when a person leaves the team. Instead, they live on and give the next guy a place to begin without losing much forward progress.

    Without doubt, Blizzard made a great game in the original WoW. It took a long time and it mostly involved perfecting the ideas of others, but they did create something wonderful. However, while this organic model worked wonders for them as they developed the original game, I also believe that the same process hinders their ability to put out quality expansions in a timely fashion and creates a lack of foresight and planning that causes unforeseen issues like mudflation.

    Before you release a product, your potential customers have little experience or expectations about your product. If you chose to change a fundamental design element, it sets you back time – but any change is transparent to your customer since they never even knew it existed any other way. If you have a broken mechanic, you just fix it. But once a product releases, well – now your product exists in the mind of your consumer and as the NGE taught the developers of Star Wars Galaxies, changes to your design post-release aren’t always well received. Moreover, your customers also begin to have expectations about new content and a six-month delay is a much bigger deal when your customer are paying a monthly fee.

    Friday, August 1, 2008

    Horizontal Skills or Vertical Levels

    Cameron and Tobold both wrote some very insightful thoughts comparing Magic: The Gathering and MMOs that was inspired in part by my earlier entry on horizontal expansions. The basic idea being that M:TG only expands horizontally as players acquire new cards or spells; they don’t invalidate the old cards, simply provided new ones. In most MMOs like Warcraft, the traditional approach is to expand vertically by progressing in levels and gear that makes the old gear and levels obsolete.

    I’ll take the comparison one step further and make the leap that you CAN do a similar type of M:TG expansion in an MMO. It struck me while reading a recent discussion on Common Sense Gamer that Skill Points offer a nice tidy little way for MMOs to offer more horizontal advancement over vertical achievements.

    Part of the problem with having this discussion is that many people already have a mental picture of what a “skill-based” game means to them. The most popular skill-based game is likely Eve and that’s ONE way to handle it, but not really the only one. So for the sake of clarity, I want to briefly talk about my definition of skills and how they are applied in an MMO.

    Skills are effectively mini-levels for a specific character trait. In a way, they are simply another attribute of the character like Agility or Stamina. However, the difference is that they can be trained up in some fashion, either by investing time playing (like WoW) or time training (like Eve). This is in contrast to a character Level, which influences multiple character traits. The mechanic between Levels and Skills is similar in that they both advance vertically with progression, but skills are very specific while Levels are broad and affect a large number of things. Skills and Levels are not Abilities (or spells or actions), but they do influence whether you can perform the action and how successful you will be at attempting it.

    Warcraft has skills in the form of weapon proficiency, defensive ability, and professions. They are relatively limited and capped by your character Level, so the importance is largely on vertical advancement of levels and then gear at end-game. A game like Eve by contrast, is almost entirely focused on skills and “who” your character is and “what” they are able to do is largely defined by the skills they have learned. It is therefore a necessity that they offer a large number of horizontal skills to provide broader character development. Some games restrict certain skills to specific classes, while others are more free-form and allow any character to develop any skill. A “skill-based” game places a bigger emphasis on the depth of available skills and less emphasis on Levels that advance a large number of traits.

    Circling back to Cameron’s M:TG observation, new traits (or cards) can be added to your MMO character in the form of new skills that are available for training. In contrast to just adding Levels which make existing content obsolete, your ability to train new skills adds to the depth of your existing character without invalidating the older skills that have already been trained. Now consider that these new skills could influence the creation of several new Abilities or actions that you were able to perform. Perhaps instead of 10 new levels, we receive 20 new trainable skills that opens up the possibility for 40 new abilities. From purely a character progression standpoint, this would offer me a lot more than what I receive from new Levels.

    The other big advantage of this methodology is scalability. While you can never run out of Levels, at some point it just becomes ludicrous to keep climbing the ladder. Particularly for a new person who has to climb all the way up from the beginning. Blizzard is taking the tactic of reducing the leveling curve, but that just further invalidates the older content. In a skill-based system however, new players would have the option of specializing in a particular niche and older players would gain the benefit of seeing new horizontal content and abilities. (see discussion at Hardcore Casual)

    Another way to view acquiring new skills is similar to the way that the old pen & paper Dungeons and Dragons handled the notion of the Dual Class. In the D&D rules, a player could choose to stop his advancement in the current class and learn an entirely new one if they met the requirements of the necessary prime attributes for the new class. A Warrior could become a Mage if they had a 17 Intelligence. While the Warrior wouldn’t forget how to wield a 2-Handed sword or wear plate, they wouldn’t be able to use them because of the restrictions based on the new class. If the situation warranted it, they could always put on plate but that would encumber them and prevent them from casting most spells.

    Applied to my vision of a skill-based games, a similar mechanic could be used to prevent older players from being overpowered by virtue of simply having more skills than the newer player. As in M:TG, older players would have more options available to them, but they would need to make choices that limit them in a way that puts them on a more even playing field with newer players.