Are MMOs getting easier or players getting lazier?

via Bio Break, I was reading a column in GameSpy about the lack of challenge in WoW. Don’t get me wrong, now that I’ve seen most of the raid content for myself, I can understand where that’s coming from (and it’s a subject for another day!)

But. It isn’t the raid content that he’s talking about. It isn’t endgame at all, in fact. He’s talking about the levelling curve and how Blizzard have mostly trivialised it. And if you want to go even faster, you can grab bind on account items that adjust themselves to match the level of your alts. And because they are BoA, once you have finished you can send them on to another alt. Although by definition, heirloom items are only available to players with max level characters, to help speed up the levelling of their alts.

Not only that but people also have easy access to websites like wowhead and addons like questhelper which neatly remove any residual quest related frustrations anyone may have had with not finding things or puzzle solving.

All of these things conspire to make questing and levelling a trivial (but still time consuming) part of the game. Aside from the fact that no one forces you to go look things up every single time you get stumped for more than half a millisecond, what we are seeing is a fundamentally different way in how players respond to in game quests.

They are no longer viewed as fun puzzles. Instead, they’ve become sleepers (or even speedbumps) on the railway of levelling, and the objective of most passengers is to get past them as quickly as possible on their way to their final destination. Levelling quest rewards are largely ignorable. Even if they are useful upgrades, you’ll grow out of them soon enough. Some questlines will have particularly engaging storylines or fun tweaks. Those are the equivalent of the Settle-Carlisle scenic route*. Pretty, a fun day out, and good for photo/screenshot opportunities. But you’d skip them if you were in a hurry.

This is not a WoW-specific paradigm shift.

Looking at newer games, they’ve all been tweaking to make the questing process more streamlined and single player friendly. WAR has its red blobs (which actually fulfil much the same function as questhelper, but more nicely implemented and integrated) which I think have been roundly welcomed. Anyone want to complain that levelling in WAR is too easy? They’ve eased their levelling curve too. You don’t even have to worry about accidentally pulling groups because most mobs can be solo pulled.

I don’t think people complain, because they’re not unhappy with it. And WAR in particular does offer other ways to level, the solo questing isn’t supposed to be challenging so much as to just give you something to do inbetween scenarios.

Why does the levelling curve need to ease off?

This one is obvious. In any level based game with multiple expansions, if you want to make your game appealing to new players, they need to be able to catch up to the pack. Is there any way to do this other than to speed up the low level game?

  • Spread out the pack, either by being very very alt friendly or by spreading the appealing content through all levels and letting players stop at a place they like.
  • Let new players start at higher levels. Still would need some kind of tutorial.
  • mentoring schemes (sidekicking, or letting you help a friend to level faster)
  • Nuke the old content at the start of every expansion. Let everyone start from level 1 again together.
  • Nuke the whole server regularly.
  • DITCH LEVELS! (wait, am I shouting? :) )

I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift on quests and level based games. WoW is, for logical reasons, trivialising its levelling game. This will be less fun for people who enjoyed the challenge (I’d direct them to LOTRO where the quests are much more old-school style), but it’s a strange reason for not trying WoW because the high level quests in TBC and Wrath are brilliant.

The level-by-quest design served MMOs, and WoW in particular well but we’re seeing how it fails in a mature game now. Once you have seen the stories once, you don’t need to see them again. New players need to be able to catch up.

We need a new scheme for levelling. WAR with its multiple options, multiple zones, and public quests is surely on to something. So why is the prospect of levelling an alt in WAR so unappealing?

* You have to love that the Settle-Carlisle railway doesn’t have any pictures of scenery on the front page, although the scenery is the main reason that it’s famous. There is a picture of a station cat on the station page though.

WoW vs WAR: the EU angle

Compare and contrast:

Warhammer Online opens shiny new official forums … in the US only. If you don’t have a US account then you can’t even go read the forums, let alone post. (Anyone can at least read the WoW US forums or the Turbine ones for LOTR).

edited to note: Arbitrary corrects me on this, we will be able to read it once it’s out of beta.

World of Warcraft … announces details of its long awaited new raid dungeon on the EU site first. I don’t really care where stuff gets announced as long as I can go geek over it myself (faux Wintergrasp inside a raid instance? catapults where I can catapult myself? Rar! I’m a simple warrior and these things make me happy) but damn if it doesn’t feel nice to get the stuff first sometimes.

I don’t dislike GOA, who run the EU side of WAR, but one thing I do like about WoW is not always having to feel like a poor relation for being on this side of the pond. Although by the way, why particularly can’t we just have worldwide forums?

Are talent trees a failed design?

Blizzard’s plans to implement dual specs (ie. the ability to switch quickly from one talent spec to a  different one, complete with a change of gear and glyphs) is an admission that talent trees have failed them as a design.

It’s a band aid for a broken system that makes MMOs less friendly, more frustrating, and more inaccessible to casual players than they really should be.

Where did talent trees come from?

Talent trees on paper should never have grown into this strange monstrosity that they have become. They were intended to let players customise their characters and their abilities, to tailor the character to their play preferences. So as you went up levels, you had more points to spend on growing your character the way you wanted it to be. It was intended to mirror the way xp get spent in pen and paper games. When a character levels up in a tabletop game, they usually get some points to spend on stats, some to spend on abilites, and they may be able to buy new abilities also. In a tabletop game (D&D for example) you can easily build a cleric which focusses on buffs and damage. You can build a caster who chooses to specialise in support rather than damage.

Implementation of talent trees in games is associated with Diablo, so it isn’t surprising that Blizzard decided to go with the same successful model.

I hated talent trees in Diablo. You had to make some fairly fundamental choices about how your character played with no option for respeccing apart from starting again. You had almost no information to go on about how the different specs might play or what you might find more fun other than trying it (and starting again if you didn’t like it). The talent trees on offer gave you access to such different playing styles that each class was really a bundle of 3 (or more) completely different classes.

So on the one hand, there were lots of different things to try out, and lots of different aspects to each class. On the other, the only way to really try things out was to reroll a lot. It was also very easy to come up with a build that would be fine at the start but very weak later on in the game, and never realise until you had many hours of play under your belt.

Being able to tweak talents and try out different builds did give the game a lot of replayability. But ultimately people gravitated towards cookie cutter specs because sometimes you just want to beat the game, y’know? Without having to spend a lot of time starting again from the beginning.

The more hardcore players worked out the more effective talent specs. After all, they had the most time to spend on experimenting and starting again. They posted about them on forums. Less hardcore players read the forum posts and followed their advice.

Sound familiar?

Things I dislike about Diablo talent trees:

  • Being forced to make game changing choices without enough information to know how that choice will affect your game.
  • Being unable to change your mind easily when you find out that you wanted to try something different or have made a mistake.
  • Having the experimentation phase tuned such that only hardcore players really have access to it.

Note that these factors are frustrating for players like me, but may be good for replayability and building up a hardcore fanbase.

Three Characters in One, Bargain?

The peculiar thing about talent trees in WoW is that you sometimes feel that it’s like playing totally different character classes. The hybrids in particular suffer from using completely unrelated mechanics and gear from one spec to the next.

Paladins may be the worst example of class design ever seen in an MMO. They have three unrelated talent trees, each of which requires a totally different gear set, and playing style. There is no overlap at all. Balancing them in a sensible way has been a struggle for Blizzard right off the bat. It isn’t just the difference between switching from healing to dps to tanking, although that is also quite a fundamental change just from respeccing. It’s the fact that when prot/ret are balanced for mana regeneration, holy becomes way overpowered. It’s the fact that when prot/holy are balanced for survivability, ret becomes a nightmare.

Three classes in one sounds fine as a design goal, it gives players lots of options and lots of customisability. But in practice it’s proved almost impossible to balance. I think Blizzard generally does a good job these days, but they’re fighting against a talent tree system that is fundamentally broken.

Choose your talents to fit your playing style

If it was just a case of picking talents to fit your style, that would be fine. But it isn’t. The different talent trees support different areas of the game. There are PvP specs, group friendly specs, solo friendly specs.

This is glaringly stupid. People may prefer one or other part of the game but why on earth would you want to put barriers in the way of having players participate in all of it.

Why force healers to have to spec differently if they value soloing? Why force anyone to spec differently for PvP? Don’t they want people to have fun and be able to take part in every aspect of the game?

The cost of having talent trees that are specialised for different aspects of the game is that it directly flies in the face of one of the major strengths of an MMO. The fact that there are lots and lots of different things to do.

So it’s really not surprising that lots of people in WoW respec a lot. I used to respec my warrior about twice a week, and that was even without PvP. I welcome dual speccing with open arms as a band aid for a broken system.

Developments in Talent Trees

Other games have improved on the talent tree implementation. LOTROs traits, legendary weapons, and stances (I think most classes now have the ability to switch focus between group and solo style play) may not offer the wide range of customisation but let players tweak their characters but still recognisably remain the same core classes. WAR’s tactics let you easily switch from PvE to PvP focus and back again.

Guild Wars (which is on free trial at the moment by the way) has probably the best system ever devised for handling talent trees. You can respec for free any time you are in a town, and you can only pick 8 abilities to slot in your quickbars for any mission. A big part of the game is figuring out how to tailor your character for whatever it is that you wanted to do.

But what about actually just building and identifying with your character?

This is the flaw of easy respecs. Another aspect of pen and paper games is that you build up your character over time, and you can identify with it. Reworking all of its abilities every week would make it more difficult to do this.

This is one of the reasons I never really glommed onto Guild Wars, although I do think it’s a cool game. Sometimes you just want to grow into your character, not just switch it around every time you are in town.

It’s the reason that respeccing a lot on my warrior sometimes does my head in. I wrote before about identifying with a talent tree, but I know I’m not alone in this. People in WoW often do describe themselves by their talents, eg. I’m a moonkin, I’m an affliction ‘lock, etc. Easy respecs confuses that.

So from a gameplay point of view, I think that talent trees have failed. I think dual specs (and presumably triple specs sometime later) are a band aid for that, for making it easier for players to take part in all aspects of the game. I do wonder how future attempts at balancing talent trees will change to take this into account (eg. who cares how much damage holy paladins do, when they all have the option of just respeccing to ret?).

I think in future, talent trees will be tweaked more with PvP in mind than PvE, for this reason.

Mythic bets on the blogosphere. Would you?

I love reading (and writing) MMO blogs. If you’re reading this and you’re a blogger, THANK YOU. I love the level of conversation, the thought provoking writing, the platform for people to explain very different play styles and perspectives, the theorycraft, the rants, and the interaction.

Mythic Interactive

Ever since the development stages of Warhammer, Mythic employees have been actively chatting to bloggers.

So perhaps it isn’t surprising that they’ve chosen to publicise their two long awaited upcoming classes via (not very) obscure gift packages sent in the mail to bloggers. One to Keen and Graev (who have a cute post puzzling about it, of course it’s about Slayers, you berks!!) and one to The Greenskin.

Apart from the side-effect of inciting jealousy in all the other Warhammer bloggers, I can’t help wondering how effective this is for getting the word out.

How many people read gaming blogs?

But how many people really read blogs? We know that most MMO players don’t even read official forums, and blogs are surely a smaller proportion than that.

As a rough guide, when the Book of Grudges was at its peak, we used to get about 1000 visitors a day. We were one of the more popular Warhammer Online blogs but my guess is that blogs like Waaagh and The Greenskin would get two or three times that. (A lot of blog readers will just pick one favourite blog and not regularly read several). A popular but more generalist blog like Tobold’s may get at least that many, possibly more.

And presumably the big WoW blogs may be on 5000+ hits per day. WoW Insider may have much higher numbers, I suspect that as a site they have a lot of readers who don’t typically read blogs.

I am assuming that gamers  are more interested in specialist blogs about the game they are currently playing than are interested in general MMO issues/design. And since WoW is the big gorilla on the block, that translates into more traffic for the big WoW blogs than for those of other games. It might be incorrect, there may be some games which just foster a higher level of web activity than others.

This is not to say that I don’t love and appreciate both of my readers :)

How influential is the blogosphere?

Obviously it’s cheap PR to send a few pieces of tat in the post. And certainly the pro online gaming news sites do keep an eye on the bigger blogs (this is the story from Eurogamer.net about the Slayer) . It also enhances the company’s reputation for engaging with its players/fanbase on a very grass roots level. (Can you imagine Blizzard doing this? Thought not.)

Anyhow, it is because of being picked up by the larger media sites that this method seems sound to me. It’s just an alternative, cute way of putting out a press release. I thought it was all quite fun!

An addendum about the word blogosphere

I love the word blogosphere. It has a “trendy media talking about web2.0″ vibe to it, but according to dictionary.com, the word dates back to 1997 (ie. practically the dark ages.) Now that it’s out of my system I promise that I will never use it again.