[Diablo 3, LOTRO] What were they thinking?

Two examples this week of devs making some unexpected decisions.

Diablo 3

Now there’s no launch date yet for D3 but we’re assuming that it will be ‘soon’ since it’s only taken Blizzard about 12 years to get this one going. And yet, even as recently as this week they are announcing that they’re still making major changes.

It’s good to see a company respond to feedback received during beta testing, but when you get to “we’re going to be iterating on designs we’ve had in place for a long time, making changes to systems you’ve spent a lot of time theorycrafting, and removing features you may have come to associate with the core of the experience” then it all starts to sound a bit major. That’s not an issue, if they’ve got ideas for making things better then it’s a good idea to implement them. Just the new builds will also need a good soak of playtesting to make sure that they haven’t introduced more problems than they’ve solved. Especially when you are reitemising everything.

I think the comment about ‘systems you’ve spent a long time theorycrafting’ is quite telling. That’s what some beta testers do these days, and whether it’s for fun, or for profit (ie. prepping some future game guide), there’s a strong commercial element for players who are up with the newest game information and wish to package and sell it. Tobold commented on this with reference to D3 also.

I don’t think D3 will be especially commercialised just because of the real money AH (although it’s bound to attract the “Make Money Now” sites/ ebooks), I think any large and popular game released now would do the same thing.

The other raised brow from D3 this week is around bannings from the beta. Now I’m not uptight about devs banning players (actually I laughed like crazy when I heard that Bioware banned someone for using a stupid meme about ‘I am 12’ on the bboard, because the boards are restricted to 13+ – that was actually and genuinely hilarious), but the only reasons I’ve known people to be banned from betas previously have been around harassment or breaking NDA.

So when Stabs commented on Markco’s banning which was around gold making in the beta, I was surprised, since D3 doesn’t have an NDA on the beta and I very much doubt he’s been harassing anyone. I don’t know the details, but I do wonder how ready they are for the prime time.

LOTRO – the money pit

It’s clear that Turbine have been thinking about how they can get some more cash out of LOTRO players. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it means selling items/ content that people will want to buy.

It’s behind the recent announcement of the next expansion, Riders of Rohan, which is said to be huge. And also that they plan frequent content updates afterwards. If paying for content is your preferred form of F2P, this is good news, assuming the content is fun and all. I’ve always enjoyed LOTRO questing, especially the epic books, so I don’t see much of a downside here. They’ve found that the player base is more willing to throw money at them for expansions than for fripperies. Is this a move away from the ‘whale model’ of F2P payers, I wonder?

And then there is adding gear with stats to the item store. This is lower level gear, and the notion is that lower level players were having trouble gearing … or something.

“Lower level players are telling us that they are having difficulty obtaining good gear. This is us coming up with solutions to problems players are reporting to us. We’re trying to create solutions for players”

Fine, but there is a solution for players. It’s called crafting and the auction house, it’s called skirmish gear, it’s called doing quests. It’s called playing the game. So why is that not working? This is one of the issues with F2P, the devs have very little motivation to figure out what’s not working and tweak it, if players will just pay for a band-aid instead. Or maybe they have thought about what’s not working and decided it’s a structural issue with the way the entire game is made. Maybe it’s inevitable that the lower level game gets left to its own devices, that crafters can’t be bothered to keep crafting for alts, that gold gets less important so no one cares about that in-game market.

The other LOTRO innovation that I thought was quite smart was selling class-specific mounts on the item shop. I think there’s a lot of mileage in cosmetic class-specific items. They’re fun. They’re thematic. Sadly not as fun as having an actual class-based quest in game associated with them, but there’s also the notion that players might buy a different mount for each of their favourite alts. It’s all quite smart.

You’re playing it wrong!

No multiplayer game ever survives contact with the players. This is as true for traditional card and board games (and pen and paper games, if those count as traditional these days) as it is for MMOs, but there is a huge difference in scale.

For example, has anyone ever played a game of Monopoly without some house rules? In fact, has anyone read the actual rules? I sometimes wonder if every family has its own set.  Note: Monopoly is such a poor game  that I’d advise anyone to PLEASE USE YOUR OWN HOUSE RULES IF THEY MAKE IT MORE FUN

Running pen and paper games, it’s also  a given that players will always think of something that you didn’t expect them to do. But when I’ve been running those sorts of games, a large part of the fun for me is finding out how players will surprise me.

I’m fascinated by player behaviour in MMOs,  particularly in ways we find to play the games that the devs never intended. This could involve:

  • exploits
  • players cooperating on goals where devs expected that they would compete, or vice versa
  • roleplaying in games that aren’t designed around that
  • exploring instead of achieving, or vice versa
  • soloing content that was designed for groups
  • buying gold instead of farming it
  • powerlevelling
  • griefing
  • building elaborate social structures that weren’t foreseen by designers
  • any kind of mixmaxing that devs didn’t spot
  • focussing on unexpected goals (eg. the naked warrior, or people who collect pets as their endgame)

As soon as you bring real players into the picture, the sky’s the limit. Some of these emergent behaviours get labelled as cheating. Players are told ‘you’re playing that wrong’. Or ‘you’ve broken the game.’ Some exploits get fixed, some players get punished, life goes on.

But is it really possible to play the game wrong? It is understandable that if you present a player with a game — and no rulebook — they’ll assume that anything they can do in game is reasonable.

Even if there is a rulebook, as per Monopoly, they’ll feel comfortable tweaking it the rules just don’t reflect how they want to play.

Some players will not make this assumption. Instead, they’ll assume that the way they play is reasonable and everyone else is wrong. You’ll sometimes see complaints about perfectly legitimate power levelling from players who think it removes the fun from a game.

So in any case, it’s easy to feel confused. The huge MMO sandboxes that we play around in are welcoming to lots of different styles of play. You can do what you like. Except when someone decides that you were playing it wrong. That rock on which no mob could reach you? You thought it was designed like that, but what if it was a bug? That’s an exploit right there. That super powered combo you built your character around? Sorry, not intended. It gets nerfed next patch.

It is absolutely part of the MMO genre that if players find a way to be a little too optimal in game, steps will be taken to fix it. For the sake of balance. And because in order for the game to be fun for the majority, the optimal route through needs to be a ‘fun’ one and not a dull grindfest? Well maybe.  In any case, devs have their ideas of what is fun and since you are paying them to produce fun games, we assume most players are down with that.

So when is an exploit not an exploit?

Most people are aware of when they are exploiting an unforeseen bug in the coding, or even outright cheating. When these bugs are fixed and the exploits closed off, the majority of sensible players nod, remind themselves that these games are complicated, and may even think in passing how much more fun MMOs would be if you could just dump the hardcore achievers with their minmax attitude, exploits, gold buying, and tendency to focus on the ends rather than the means.

But sometimes it simply isn’t that clear.

Recently City of Heroes introduced a mission architect. You could create your own instances, your own plot arcs, your own supervillains and enemy groups, and other people could run through and give them marks out of 5. You could even earn xp and pick up achievement badges inside architect missions. It was (and is) terrifically fun.

Then someone worked out how to create a mission that was optimised for xp. It was called meow. It wasn’t just optimised for xp, it was crazy xp. You could create high level mobs with virtually no health. You could use high level mobs who were effectively rooted to the ground. You could use bunches of high level mobs clustered around a bomb that players could explode.  Here’s a  video of a player in a meow farm mission.

Other people caught on quickly and before you knew it, the channels were full of requests for groups for meow missions. They zipped up levels like wildfire.

And then NCSoft decided that enough was enough. Positron stepped in (as reported by Blog of Heroes) and stated clearly that this was going to stop. Meow missions would be banned, and:

Players that have abused the reward system egregiously may lose benefits they have gained – leading up to and perhaps including losing access to the characters power-levelled in this fashion

So the punishment is not just for the people who designed the missions. But possibly for anyone who ever used them. Even if it was just to grab a couple of quick levels to get a new ability, to help a friend or partner, or just to get high enough level to access some of the cooler zones.

Ardua@Echoes of Nonsense has a good rant about this. He helped his wife get her character a couple of levels via a meow mission because he was tired and it was late, so that she could get a pretty cloak and a pet that would help her to solo and now she risks being banned for it? And this is in City of Heroes, a game with no significant endgame.

I don’t have a problem with devs banning exploits and cheaters where they find them in games. But when it was down to their mistake and no one was really hurt by the extra powerlevelling, what’s the point in coming down so hard on all the players who may have taken part?

Maybe instead we should ask: why were people so keen to powerlevel in CoH? Is it because the midgame is boring as heck? Is it because some characters just don’t get fun before they collect a full set of abilities at higher levels?

Yes there will always be some people who exploit loopholes just because they can. In a way, they get their fun by outsmarting the devs (and good luck to them). But when you find a large proportion of the playerbase jumping onto the bandwagon, you have to ask what’s wrong with the game at a more fundamental level. Because if it was fun in vanilla mode, people would eat vanilla.

And if it takes hours of boring gameplay to get the character you want, then maybe the problem isn’t with the meows.

On another note, I’m still impressed at whoever thought to design powerlevelling missions. Someone recruit that guy as a level designer, stat. S/he obviously has a solid understanding of game mechanics and how players behave in game.