Log in

More WoW

I've been playing World of Warcraft again lately.

After more than four years of playing it, I gradually lost interest and stopped playing. Finally, last August I cancelled my account, because I hadn't really done anything in the game for months. I had sucked all the juice out of it.

I didn't stop playing MMORPGs. For years now, I've had multiple MMORPG subscriptions. I watch new releases closely, and I periodically drop some subscriptions in order to pick up others and try them out. I'm fiercely interested in the design of MMORPGs, in the variety of possibilities and the limitations of the genre. I have my own wishes and ideas, and whenever a game tries something similar to what I want, I'm really interested to see how it plays out. So I've continued to play MMORPGs; I had just lost all interest in WoW.

What drew me back again was my friends. As I've said to them many times, playing with friends is more interesting to me than anything else about these games. If we have a group of good friends playing on a regular basis, I'll enjoy a game immensely, even if it would bore me silly to play it alone. So when a few regular companions expressed an interest in a WoW project, I wasted no time in reactivating my subscription.

It's interesting to come back to what has become the gold standard of MMORPGs, after the better part of a year spent with its competitors. Returning to WoW, it's clear why it remains the 800-pound gorilla in the market. No other game can match its combination of breadth, variety, polish, fun, and performance. Other games exist that beat WoW in each of these areas, but none that can compete with it in all of them at once.

Still, WoW isn't perfect. The things that drove me away are still there, and if it weren't for the projects with friends, I wouldn't be playing it. Maybe Cataclysm will change that; we'll see.

In the meantime, this seems like a good opportunity to make a few observations about things WoW could do to make itself a better game. It's very good now; don't get me wrong. I didn't leave because it was bad, but because I was tired of certain things, and wanted to see what I could find elsewhere. Well now I'm coming back, and I have to say, I found some pretty cool things while I was away. I;d like to see WoW adopt some of them.

Everything Old Is New Again

Blizzard is already planning to do some of what I want, and I couldn't be happier. One thing that I found in Lord of the Rings Online is a developer that constantly revisits the entire landscape of the game, making little changes and improvements everywhere, across the board. If you start a character in LOTRO today, the quests you pursue and the path you take will be quite different from what it was the first time I played. This constant reworking keeps making the game world better, richer, and more appealing. The questlines get deeper, smoother, and more interesting. The changes draw players back again and again to create new characters and experience the world all over again, but not in exactly the same way.

Now Blizzard, of course, has their own way of going about this, but they are, in fact, planning to rework their world and the starting areas. Where Turbine does it a little bit all the time, continuously, Blizzard is of course planning a big bang release that dramatically remakes the familiar old world all at once, in one go. I like Turbine's approach better, I have to say, but still, I have no doubt that Cataclysm's huge makeover of WoW will be fun. Bravo, Blizzard. I only wish you had taken the lesson from Turbine sooner, and more faithfully. It wouldn't hurt WoW for you to put a team on reworking the whole world a little at a time, all the time, as they do. It would help keep every part of the world fresher and more intriguing, and would give you many chances to strengthen weak questlines and movement patterns. Not to mention that just sprinkling simple changes around the world all the time would help counteract the feeling of stagnation and stasis that sets in after a zone has been around for a while. Give players a reason to explore old areas, and maybe they won't be such ghost towns anymore.

There might be some hope in this area. Blizzard does learn from the successes of its competitors. It adopted an achievements system that bears a striking resemblance to the Deeds system in LOTRO (though the one in WoW is pure fluff, unlike the LOTRO version). It recently introduced legendary items like the ones pioneered by LOTRO, as well; another good move.

Talent Show

Any experienced WoW player can talk your ear off about "talent trees". Like most MMORPGs, WoW divides its characters up into classes, each of which has an exactly-specified set of abilities, and a set of group roles it is designed to play. Each class can be customized to some extent by using "talent points", acquired through leveling, to buy customizations called "talents". For each class, the talents are arranged into three sets in which later, more desirable talents require you to acquire earlier, less desirable talents, before they become available.

This is all fine, as far as it goes, and Blizzard's execution is certainly stellar in this area. They go to great lengths to play-balance all the classes and abilities to ensure, to the extent that it's possible to do so, a level playing field for all players. I'll acknowledge how tough this is, and certainly Blizzard's competitors have a pretty mixed track record in play-balancing, and in designing classes and customizations that play well together. Still, WoW's ten classes with three talent trees each feel pretty constricted to me, coming back from the wide world of other possibilities.

Consider Warhammer Online, with its twenty-four different classes, all distinctly different from one another. Dont' bother to remind me of the play-balance issues; I'm well aware of them. I acknowledge that they're a problem. But the variety, oh, the variety! Some of those classes are really interesting ideas; consider the Disciple of Khaine, a melee healer! Some are just buckets of fun in their very concept, like the Witch Hunter, or the Magus of Tzeench. (I'll also take Warhammer's vile, idiotic, and hilarious Greenskins over WoW's noble--and boring--Klingons in green paint any day of the week, but that's another conversation).

Champions Online takes it farther. Their eighteen classes are not really classes; they're just bundles of abilities that are designed to have a common theme and to work together smoothly. You can stick to one of these "Power Sets" if you want to. If you don't you're free to treat the Power Sets as a buffet lunch, and take a little from this and a little from that, as you like. Players can compose completely original combinations and invent entirely new playstyles. It's the most fun I've had in character-creation since...well, ever. Again, I'm well aware of the problems and disadvantages, and, on balance, I still think their approach is a good one.

So what would I like to see from WoW in this area? How about letting us buy abilities from a range of classes, rather than just one? How about opening up the talent trees, and letting us mix and match from those, too? It doesn't have to be a total free-for-all. I think the principle of making later customizations depend on earlier ones is a good one. But I think you could take the class abilities and talents out of their locked boxes and redesign them to support a style more like that of Champions. I think you could open the framework up a little, and let players in effect design their own classes by combining elements from two or more of the standard ones. I think if you did that, you would also open up the possibility that, instead of introducing some new hero class, you could instead introduce a new set of abilities and a new line of talents, and watch what players make of it.

Would it introduce new play-balance problems? Sure. Would some combinations be overpowered and require rebalancing, while others would be unusable? Sure. But you would also see players inventing completely unheard-of new playstyles, some of which would be great fun, and would inspire new feats of creativity in the developers. I think Blizzard could make it work, and could make it a ton of fun.

Ghettoes and Ghost Towns

WoW shepherds players pretty relentlessly through its zones. You start in one of the starting areas and within five levels you move on. You move on because you have to. If you don't, the quests dry up. There's nothing left for you to do. That dynamic continues through the game. If you're not questing somewhere, you have no reason to be there at all, so WoW players are, perforce, nomadic. There isn't anything like the Orc Fort on Ultima Online, and there can't be. You can't have a home in WoW because you always have to move. The inevitable result is that three quarters of that lovingly-crafted world is deserted at any given time, because no one has any reason to be in most of the zones.

But what if zone boundaries and level boundaries weren't so much the same? The way WoW's world is laid out now, the map is segmented into several dozen big chunks, each of which is dedicated to a particular level range. It's easy to understand why: that arrangement makes it easy to collect all the quest lines for a particular level range into a space that is easy to conceive, easy to design, and easy for players to navigate. But it doesn't have to be that way. What if instead a zone was just a geographic region with a common theme, and the questing paths for various levels were a completely separate thing? What if all the zones in WoW had questing paths for a wide variety of levels? What if subzones of mobs and destinations for low levels were woven through the landscape side-by-side with mobs and destinations for high-levels? In short, what if it were possible for lower levels to move productively through more the world? And what if there were reasons for higher levels to be in zones that are now deserted?

Low levels would then have a sense of exploring an even larger and more diverse world, one that is not so much closed off to them. Higher levels would have reasons to be in most of the world's zones, instead of only a select few. All that lovingly-crafted landscape wouldn't go to waste, sitting empty with tumbleweeds blowing through them ninety percent of the time.

Sure, there are logistical and design problems to solve, but I think it's worth it. Champions shows that the basic idea is workable. Their maps have other problems--too little variety, for one thing--but they do a fine job of intermingling high- and low-level content in a way that keeps characters of all levels moving through the whole landscape.

What We Fight For

I always enjoyed large-scale PVP battles in WoW, but I've always had problems with them, too. I began in WoW PVP before the introduction of the Honor System. The only reason for PVP battles was that they were fun. The Alliance and the Horde would fight for hours over the few hundred yards that separate Tarren Mill from Southshore. We weren't fighting for any objective; we were just fighting because it was fun.

Eventually, though, Blizzard introduced the Honor System, and rewards that required rank earned through PVP. Then it introduced Battlegrounds, and more rewards, and new ways to earn them in PVP games, and Arenas, and so on. PVP became a grind. Everything in WoW becomes a grind, by design.

A member of the venerable Shadowclan guild, which has been around since the dawn of MMORPGs, put it this way: if you can't loot other players, then the game will become a grind for gear. If you can loot other players, then it becomes a community. That's sounds wacky at first. What's the reasoning?

Well, think about it. In WoW, if you die in PVP, what are the consequences? You get up, dust yourself off, and run back into battle. That's it. In Ultima or Darkfall, if you die, the other side takes all your stuff, unless your friends are on the ball, drive them back, and grab it for you. Sounds terrible, right? But what does it mean for gameplay?

If you can't lose your stuff, there aren't really any consequences to losing. And if you can't take loot from the foes you defeat, there's not much incentive to beat them. It just doesn't matter very much. So how, as a game designer, do you get people into your lovingly-crafted battlegrounds? You give them rewards! What kind of rewards? Well, what's the one thing MMORPG players want more of? RIght! Better gear! So you churn out better and better gear, and you award it to players for playing longer and longer hours in your battlegrounds. And they clamor for more and better gear, because, heck, that;s what they're playing for. So you up the quality of gear some more, and make them play longer hours for it, and the whole thing inevitably becomes an endless grind. And, inevitably, because people are there to "earn" gear upgrades, and not to have fun fighting in a battle, the battles are stacked full of whiners and slackers who contribute little or nothing to the team effort. You start to need mechanisms to punish all the free riders who join a battle but don't do anything, because they aren't interested in the battle, just in the gear they can get by being in it.

What if you can take lot from other players? Well, one thing that happens is that they really don't want to lose. Another thing that happens is that if someone brings some epic weapon or armor to the battlefield, all his enemies want to kill him and take it away from him. So pretty soon, nobody wants to bring epic gear to the battlefield. SO gear isn't very important anymore, because nobody wants it anymore.

So what is important? What makes it worth fighting?

It turns out that there are a lot of different answers to this question, and a bunch of different games have demonstrated them. One thing that makes it worthwhile is the same thing that makes bowling leagues or bridge clubs worthwhile: you can get together with some friends and have some competitive fun. There will be winners and losers. You can root for your friends and help them try to win. Guild Wars maintains tournament ladders for a variety of different types of PVP games. For a lot of people, placing on those tournament ladders is a good enough reason to enter the competition.

Another reason to play is to pitch your flag at the top of the hill and keep it there when other people are trying to knock it off. Several games offer variations on this kind of play. Warhammer Online, for example, enables a guild to capture a keep and claim it. When they do, the keep flies the guild's flag. Vendors appear who owe their allegiance to the guild. Taking the keep away from them is tough (hey; they're forts!), but it's also a lot of fun, and awards some nice rewards in the form of experience, money, and other in-game goodies. It turns out that it's fun to fight for a collective objective, rather than to just grind away hours in battlegrounds because eventually that will "earn" you some gear.

Another reason to fight is because you've built something at the cost of some time, effort, and money, and you don't want someone else to take it away from you. Age of Conan and Darkfall both have ways for guilds to build towns or forts. It's not cheap or easy to do, but once you have one, it's a relatively safe haven where you can visit vendors, rest between adventures and battles, and enjoy the company of your friends. But once the town is built, your enemies know where to find it, and sooner or later, they'l attack it. If you want to keep it, you'll have to mount a defense.

Al of these PVP mechanics have challenges and problems. Some developers have solved them better than others. Guild Wars, in particular, has a stellar reputation for the quality of its PVP games. All of them, though, offer alternative possibilities that don't necessarily involve and endless, colossally repetitive grind for slightly better gear.

You Can't Go Home Again

I've barely scratched the surface of things that Blizzard could learn from its competitors. And maybe it will; Blizzard remains one of the best game companies on the planet. They clearly aren't standing still. They've already adopted many practices pioneered by other games, and sometimes they improve on them in the process (and sometimes they don't).I hope Blizzard continues to learn from the best that other games have to offer.

Am I back to stay? We'll see. Certainly I'll play WoW as long as a group of my friends has a project going. I still have trouble staying interested in solo play, though. If I'm not working toward a goal set by my play group, I lose interest quickly. Maybe Cataclysm will turn that around for a while. At the least, it will be interesting to see the revamped world. The playable Worgen and Goblins will be good for at least some fun, too. And who knows? Maybe Cataclysm will bring with it enough of what;s good in other games to make we want to play WoW again for its own sake.


February 2010

Powered by LiveJournal.com