It came from GDC: Sid Meier is my hero, or player psychology and game design

People who play games are egomaniacs. It says on the box you get to control armies, discover new technology, and create entire civilizations. So, right away, you’re an egomaniac.

-Sid Meier

If there is one law of computer gamers, it is that everybody loves Civilisation. So when the game’s designer, Sid Meier, gives a talk about game design, it’s worth listening to what he has to say.

Kotaku has a good summary of the legendary designer’s keynote speech from GDC. He touches on how he designs around the idea that every player likes to win, and how he views the psychological effects of rewarding or punishing players. This is Venturebeat’s coverage of the same talk.

The other part that caught my eye was the comment on protecting the player from themselves. Or in other words, players tend to be risk averse which doesn’t always help them learn better strategies. For example, when saves are freely available, players often save their progress before every battle and just reload and try again until they win. This can make it harder for them to see where an improved strategy could help them in the bigger picture.

Sid also plays WoW, incidentally. But sadly he doesn’t take the opportunity here to make a few suggestions to Blizzard.

WoW in 3.2 – more game, less MMO

The list of changes in patch 3.2 are coming thick and fast, and even beyond that we’re now getting stronger indications for where Blizzard plans to go with the game.

With paid faction changes in the works, paid race changes can’t be far behind. You can already switch servers (for a fee), and change your character’s appearance or name. No one will be surprised if players will eventually be able to create new alts at a high level rather than starting from level 1.

Raids will have more control over their lockouts ie. instead of a raid automatically resetting every week, there will be the option to extend the lock for a week to keep working on the progression boss of the moment without having to spend an evening or two reclearing. (note: this will leave raid leaders in the interesting position of having to choose between progression and loot from reclearing bosses, but will be great for our 10 man runs which aren’t so much about the loot anyway.)

In addition, Blizzard are tinkering with the economy a bit more directly than they have in the past. By introducing new recipes for epic gems, they’re specifically targetting the value of the different gems and eternals.

((edited to add: don’t take those recipes as gospel, the patch is still in testing and they changed in the later iteration. I do think Blizzard is using them to manipulate the AH a bit more directly than normal though. Note how there aren’t any that use eternal earth, for example.))

(Because obviously it would be a tragedy if jewelcrafters were not able to make huge profits from everything they freaking do. But I’m not bitter.)

Cerinne@Spectrecles lists out many of the upcoming changes.

And what I’m seeing is a concerted plan to deal with what I called the 4 year itch, by changing the game’s paradigm. Fewer and fewer of the choices you make in game will actually be permanent.

Being able to try a playstyle out, learn if it works and change if it doesn’t is generally good design in a game. Who really enjoys those old text adventures where a choice you made at the start in all innocence could screw you at the end of the game? Even in KOTOR I saved my game a lot, so that if I made a poor choice I could go back and do it again.

It’s not really good design for roleplayers, or for virtual worlds. But Blizzard is a games company and they see the game side of WoW as the side that pulls in the players. They probably are correct.

Cui Bono?

With any set of game changing patch notes, the big question to ask is who will benefit. Fel Fire looks at the (controversial, in the blogosphere at least) badge changes and concludes that … actually just about everyone benefits – she discusses this at the bottom of the linked post.

Similarly with the notion of paid faction changes. A lot of people would benefit if they could pick up an old character and switch factions to go join friends. After all, the game has been out for four years. It’s quite likely that players have met new contacts in real life who play the game, why should they be forced to level a new alt just to play with them?

I could go through every single one of the changes that have been announced and find that lots of people potentially benefit. It wouldn’t even be difficult.

So if lots of people benefit, who is adversely affected by these types of changes? Well, anyone who is finding that their previous assumptions are no longer correct. And they’re right to feel that there’s been a switch and bait going on. The assumptions people played under for years are no longer entirely valid.

What does ‘Horde for life!’ even mean when you can pay a fee and switch? Will there be much prejudice against the nouveau Horde? I’m doubting it. The majority of players don’t care about lore, they just want to play the game. Also with the ability to start a death knight at level 55 on any faction, you can effectively take a head start on a faction change at any time.

It’s going to take some time to sink in. Is there any point being a hardcore raider when the only real difference is in how quickly you clear new content (and access to hard modes which may or may not excite you)? Does the choice of race/ faction/ class/ server have less weight to it when you have the option to pay to change if it doesn’t work out?

I wish they’d get on and announce their new game already

I can’t help wishing that they’d leave WoW to tick along under its existing paradigm. It’s worked fine so far. Put the new ideas into the new game instead, and let each game be true to itself.

But they probably are doing the right thing. Many current gen MMOs have eased their levelling curve and introduced ways for newer players to catch up or old players to resub, Blizzard just attacks the whole problem in a more  gonzo way (actually one of the things I admire about them is how willing they are to experiment with their cash cow, a lot of companies would not be so bold).

Having said all that, I’m warmed to see so many people getting their backs up about having less permanent character choices. Because it means that there are others out there who want to interact with their virtual worlds in a way that I do too. And I wonder if any of the next gen games will be able to ditch progression (or find a different, non-level based way to model it) and just give us a world with which to play. I think the audience is there.

Links for a Bank Holiday weekend

  1. Ashellia, the Female Human Paladin, explains why she hates cinematics in games. I think she’s right on all counts, but stupid melodramatic bits of fluff with rubbish scripts still have the power to move me … dammit.
  2. The Escapist wonders why top ten lists are so popular
  3. rerollz gives a lesson on PvP Etiquette: how to QQ with class. (QQ means cry more noob, if you haven’t seen that acronym before.)
  4. Gamebizblog.com asks whether hardcore gaming websites are drifting too far from the market these days. It turns out that the amount of boxes a game will sell is not necessarily related to the internet buzz.
  5. Big Bear Butt Blogger has some great tips for the new tank.
  6. Over in Sexy Videogameland (best blog name ever?), Leigh Alexander discusses user-generated content and why she prefers games with a strong direction from the designers, rather than from the other players.
  7. Zork gives a step by step guide to making Blizzard icons look cool. People never cease to amaze me. Someone played WoW and thought , “Man, those icons are just uncool!” Isn’t humanity wonderful?
  8. Kalon at ThinkTank ponders why on some raid nights, things just fall apart. And he’s not afraid to point fingers.
  9. This is a great story that I got from the GameCulture blog about how gamers were recruited to help scientists fold proteins, and beat some of the biochemists at their own game.
  10. Game Design Concepts is running a free online course on game design from June til September this year. He notes: By the end of this course, you will be familiar with the (relatively small) body of work that is accepted in the game industry as the theoretical foundation of game design. You will also be comfortable enough in processes to start designing your own games, as well as critically analyzing other people’s games.
  11. Unwize asks whether players should be punished for not reading through quest text carefully enough.
  12. This is more of a metalink but Tesh has a great collection of game design related links in this post.
  13. Remember Zork and all the other text based interactive fiction games? Ever wonder what happened to that genre? They kept going and have a huge indie following. Emily Short is one of the most innovative of the new authors, check out her website for an introduction to the genre. And particularly check out her work.
  14. Storybird is a new collaborative storytelling tool. It hasn’t gone live yet but I was impressed with what I saw.

Do you play like Alice, Dorothy, or Wendy?

alice-lewis-carroll (If you answered ‘tinkerbelle’ then take a well-deserved time out at Dorn’s fabulous blog.)

If you have ever taken the test that classifies players as socialisers, killers, achievers and/or explorers in MMOs (I’m ESKA, by the way) then you’ll be familiar with Dr Richard Bartle’s work.

We know that one of the big appeals of MUDs and MMOs is that they support a lot of different types of play. So there’s no reason why an achiever and a socialiser can’t happily play in the same game, even though they may not want to play together.  And this paper is really the seminal work in starting to classify those different types.

But the problem with this model from my point of view is that it dates from about 5 years BWE (Before the WoW Era). The virtual worlds he was observing were MUDs, or very closely based on MUDs. Trends in game design have changed. And there are some new emergent types of play that simply weren’t big in the MUD days (or  in the types of MUDs he was considering).

MUDs, for example, were never well known for their deep and immersive storytelling narratives. MMOs may have a long way to go, but with the rise of quest based levelling, storytelling is here to stay. Also although you could group in MUDs, I don’t remember team-based play being quite the cornerstone that it is in many MMOs today. Raiding in WoW has more in common with team based games like Team Fortress or Settlers than it does with a Diku MUD. (No one would ever had joined a MUD and asked immediately which endgame guilds were recruiting or what classes they most needed.)

So the fact that Bartle’s categories don’t include the narrative-seeking player or the team player just shows how there are new emergent playstyles coming alongside.

So I was intrigued to read in the Virtual Cultures blog about his keynote speech to the Indie Multiplayer Games Conference (via Massively) about ways in which players approach modern games. And here he’s tackling one of the big issues which is the divergence of sandbox games (like EVE or Darkfall) and ‘theme park’ games (like WoW and LOTRO).

I’d been thinking about this anyway, since Averaen commented on my post this week on virtual hangouts that s/he thought it was a mistake to treat WoW and similar MMOs as if they were virtual worlds. I don’t really agree; if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then maybe … just maybe… it could be some odd breed of duck. And WoW is certainly a massive persistent virtual world, it’s contiguous (you can fly from one end to the other without zoning), it has consistent-ish storylines, it has cities and villages, it has hangouts and places where players can buy food and drink, it has auction houses and a working economy. How can it NOT be a virtual world?

Anyway, getting back to Dr Bartle. In his keynote he picked up on three different types of play experiences in virtual worlds, using a metaphor of heroines from children’s stories.

  • Alice: the explorer, who wants to see things that are “curiouser and curiouser”
  • Dorothy: who wants to get to the end of the yellow brick road (ie. follow the railroad)
  • Wendy: the content creator, who wants to tell stories for her brothers and the other lost boys

He’s using the play types to describe different types of world, rather than just different players (eg. Alice represents sandbox games, Dorothy represents theme-park, quest heavy games, etc). He also notes that MMOs have been on a divergent path, with social and game oriented MMOs tending to separate. But that this is a bad trend because game-oriented MMOs become repetitive and meaningless, and social MMOs become impenetrable and unfocussed. I can’t speak much for the latter but we know that the former is definitely true. What does it even mean for a game to not have an end?

Bartle argues that a good MMO/ virtual world should offer opportunities for all of these playstyles. And NOW we’re talking about playing styles I can more easily identify with. Because I enjoy all of these things in games. And in an era where games seem to be becoming more and more focussed, it’s a call to arms that I hope someone will hear.

Because dammit, that’s the game /I/ want to play.

Dual specs bringing back the hybrids?

Back from holiday now and catching up properly on other blogs, I am seeing a lot of reactions to dual specs. I’m surprised that so many of them are negative for the wrong reasons.

Good reasons to dislike dual specs:

  • They encourage people to act differently than before they were available, and the way in which they act differently is bad for the blogger or bad for the game.

Bad reasons to dislike dual specs:

  • Some totally different reason that you’re going to hang on dual specs, even though a moment’s thought would show that they’re not connected.

Comments from Tobold’s Sunday Post referred to a couple of posts on dual specs.

Forever a noob posts a top class rant that shows mostly that he’s never played a hybrid.

Are you a paladin or warrior in a progression-minded raiding guild?  Better buy some bigger bags.  Because your raid leader is going to FORCE you to carry two or three sets of gear into raids.  Anub’rekhan needs two or three tanks, but Maexxna needs only one.  If dual-spec were around when Naxx came out, anyone who was not the main tank would have been REQUIRED to switch spec to dps after the Anub’rekhan fight.  And you’d better have good gear for both specs.

I have news for you sweetie. Any paladin or warrior who has raided in a progression minded guild is laughing at that comment, because what do you think we do NOW when we have a fight that only needs one tank? I’ll tell you what we do. We switch gear and do rubbish dps/heals. All that dual spec means is that we’ll be able to switch gear and do good dps/heals instead. This is a problem why exactly?

Imagine that you are a resto druid.  And you really like healing.  How will you respond when your raid leader says, “We don’t need three healers for this fight.  I need you to respec to Feral for dps.”

You’d ask if one of the other healers could do it instead. They all will have the ability to swap to a dps spec.

But my main issue with the argument is this: that situation could come up now. What would the resto druid do  in that case? Heal even though it wasn’t needed? Or throw a few weak nukes and hope for the best. As long as Blizzard is designing raids which may need different numbers of tanks/ healers/ CC/ dps from one encounter to the next, then people are already dealing with these issues.

The blogger’s issue is with raid design, not with dual specs. And frankly, I’d be perfectly happy if I was able to tank all through a raid and never be forced to dps in my prot spec too.

I want bags of infinite size.  If my paladin is going to have to carry three sets of armor, you better give me 30 slot bags.  Or let me teleport my gear directly from my bank.  Or summon gear from some deity on my command.

I’d be down with that. But it’s written by someone who simply doesn’t realise that a lot of hybrids already carry three sets of gear around.

Big Bear Butt (who definitely does know about playing a hybrid) riffs off this rant and takes it in another direction. His issue is more that the availability of dual specs will cause people to act as though they’re necessary.

I can see the day coming when a raid leader asks not “what spec are you”, but “what are your two specs, and how much DPS/Spellpower do you have in each”.

This (for those who are keeping score) is a perfectly sensible reason to be wary of dual specs. It is entirely possible that hybrids will be expected to play at least two of their roles/ specs to raiding levels if they apply to high end raid guilds.

Some people will be delighted, it will be why they wanted to play a hybrid in the first place. Some will refuse, and the world will keep turning. Raid leaders will still recruit primarily for the roles they need.

I’m not unsympathetic, but with my raid leader hat on, I know that I don’t need all my hybrids to be able to switch to heals. Maybe one spot in the raid will be preferred for a dps hybrid who can heal in one or two fights as needed. Just one spot. For all the rest, any dps is as good as any other. And they still get more spots than tanks or healers.

And again, I keep coming back to the point but people work within this framework right now. All dual specs does is make it easier for them to do it more effectively.

If my Druid can now, all in one character, walk into a raid or instance and, within seconds, either be a main healer, main tank or equitable melee or ranged DPS, whatever the Raid Leader wants at the time, AND be as good at it as the other classes are in each role, and the Rogue or Mage can only be a DPS, a DPS or a DPS?

That’s BULLSHIT.

Why would a Raid Leader want a Rogue or Mage anymore? The Rogue and Mage bring nothing but DPS.

At this point, BBB’s issue is not with dual specs any more. It’s with the game design and how the parameters on hybrids have changed with Wrath. It’s a reasonable rant topic, but dual specs isn’t the cause here.

I already ask one hybrid to help heal on the Four Horseman and Sapphiron. Dual spec doesn’t change the fact that some raid encounters need a different balance of tanks or healers to others, and we address this by asking one hybrid player to switch roles in the raid. There was a time when people who played hybrids LOVED that they could switch between nuking and healing in raids as needed without respeccing. There was a time when hybrids loved that they could switch from tanking to dps without missing a beat. All it needed was a change of gear.

We’re going back towards that style of hybrid, not moving away from it.

I don’t need a random hybrid to become a main tank. But I may need someone to dps 90% of the raid and heal for 10% of it. That’s the role that hybrids now fill in Wrath. And all tanks and healers are now hybrids.

Dual specs won’t take raid spots away from pure dps classes. We already do use hybrids in this way. We already do have the raid designs that require some role switching.

Well, from personal experience, I know that when I look at DPS scores, I see Hunters at the top, Retribution Paladins and Death Knights coming REAL close behind, and Rogues and Mages have to work their ass off to squeeze every last drop of utility out of their class to hang tough on their heels.

And finally, this has nothing whatsoever to do with dual specs. This is another, and again perfectly reasonable, request for damage to be evened out between classes. Rogues are definitely still behind where they should be in PvE. He doesn’t mention Fury Warriors but no one will be surprised if they catch a nerf, it’s entirely expected.

Either let Rogues and Mages have a Tank or Heal spec that is on par with other Hybrid classes… OR freaking make them the absolute best there is at what they do, which is kill shit!

And this is a rant about balance and the costs of being a hybrid. Role switching and flexibility are definitely advantages, IF that was what you wanted from a class. But if that was what you wanted from a class, then why not roll one at the beginning?

Is it that rogues and mages want to heal, or is it just that they are jealously eyeing up that one raid spot that is reserved for the guy who will dps for 90% of the raid and heal for 10%? Because by far the majority of raid dps spots will not require role switching.

Or simply that they also are uncomfortable with how class roles have shifted in the game design and how their initial expectations don’t line up with how things are now. That’s fair enough, it has been a big change.

But don’t blame dual specs for every single issue that you have with WoW. It’s not the cause, simply a symptom.