Quote of the Day: On Endgame

I had forgotten how good the Blizzard designer notes usually are. This is another great example of designers sharing their thinking about MMO endgame, with reference to Pandaria. (They are also very open about where they think Cataclysm failed.)

No developer wants to hear "I want to play your game, but there’s nothing to do." For Mists, we are going out of our way to give players lots to do. We don’t want it to be overwhelming, but we do want it to be engaging. We want you to have the option of sitting down to an evening of World of Warcraft rather than running your daily dungeon in 30 minutes and then logging out. We understand we have many players (certainly the majority in fact) who can’t or aren’t interested in making huge commitments to the game every week and we hope we have structured things so that you don’t fall very far behind. The trick is to let players who want to play make some progress without leaving everyone else in the dust.

This. This is why you never bet against Blizzard.

[WoW] Annual pass thoughts, class design, end of expansion blues?

One of the interesting snippets that came out of Activision’s last earnings call was the information that about 10% of WoW subscribers took up the annual pass offer. Green Armadillo shares his thoughts on this, and I agree that this is higher than I would have expected to see. That’s a lot of people who have committed for the long term, even knowing that there was no new content due, D3 wasn’t likely to be out before the Summer and the next expansion beta probably at around the same time.

I think it speaks for a large number of players for whom WoW has become part of their lives, so they either don’t mind paying a premium for the privilege of only logging on occasionally, or else it’s too much hassle to unsub and then worry about resubbing again later (in the same way that people don’t tend to shift their bank accounts around much, even if they could get a better deal elsewhere.) It’s not fair to say that the annual pass decision is made completely without reference to what new content Blizzard will be providing, because D3 and the MoP beta were thrown into the deal. But I bet a lot of the people who picked it up thought “I’ll probably be subbing for the year anyway, might as well.”

Which mostly boils down to a lot of people being happy to pay Blizzard £92 pa for access to WoW, plus Diablo 3 (when it comes out) and beta access to the next WoW expansion (oh and a mount, I forgot about that). There’s not much more to read into that, except maybe that older established players who are glommed onto their game of choice are much less fussy about new content and bug fixes than players hopping into a new and shiny game. Next year, Blizzard won’t be able to offer as tempting a deal to annual pass holders so it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

What I do wonder is whether subscription game players in general would prefer the option of an annual sub. (At that point, you’re getting quite close to the old Guild Wars model where they aim to release one paid expansion a year and that’s all people have to pay, the only difference is in the amounts charged and how much extra content you get for your money.)

Watercooler on Class Design

Ghostcrawler posted one of his neat thought blogs, this time on class design and roles  in WoW. And it sounds to me as though they know all the issues inside out and the base problems with  some classes being way more hybrid than others (compare the druids’s 4 roles with the mage’s 1 role) would just be too much hassle to change at this point in the game.

I think that’s fair. No point annoying the players who like their classes just the way they are – well not more than totally shaking up the talent trees every expansion would have done anyway. But it sounds a bit weary to me, the tone of designers who’ve mostly given up. Maybe they got burned on the old DK talent tree model, where each tree was intended to be able to perform both melee and tanking roles. It’s a shame because I thought that was good fun, but I can see why sinking back into one tree per role for hybrids and … uh … one tree per different play style for non-hybrids is an easier and more comfortable fit.

I felt tired just reading it. Tired of the game design which involves always having to chase after ‘OK, so which is the best class/ spec for this role I’d like to do’ or ‘ohnoes, my class/spec  got nerfed and no one will want me for role X any more’  or ‘class X can fill 17 different roles, what do I get to make up for not being able to do that?’ (There’s a theme around balance and how your class ends up as the lens through which you see the game here.) Ultimately, you either pick a class/ spec because you love the theme and feel and playstyle, or you pick your preferred role (possibly because of theme/ playstyle) and try to pick the class that best embodies it – and these two approaches don’t always match.

As a player, I just want to be able to pick my class because I dig it and be able to perform whichever role I want to a level that’s acceptable to the rest of the player base. Is it really that much to ask? (yes :P ) Oh, and I don’t want to play a melee class in PvP but I really like melee classes in PvE. Come back to me when you’ve thought it over again.

Is it that end of expansion time already?

Usually the end of an expansion is marked by an upswing of hype for the next expansion. I think in WoW, this changed during Wrath, because there was a long slow period between the last major raid being patched in and the new expansion. So now in Cataclysm, it’s not surprising that people are already talking about this being the end of the expansion. (Incidentally, it also makes me suspect that the  slow period at the end of Wrath is  setting the pattern now for future WoW expansion cycles).

I noticed that WoW Insider has a column on “what to do when you’re bored at the end of an expansion” to mark this. They suggest speed running heroics (just in case you’re not bored of running heroics yet, I guess), soloing stuff from the last expansion, or joining their new social guild. There is plenty of other stuff to do in WoW, including collecting achievements, PvP, levelling alts etc etc.

Or you could unsubscribe and play something else, the MoP ‘open’ beta isn’t likely to start until Summer at the earliest. Just a thought.

[WoW] Tanking Changes

Ghostcrawler announced some design changes around the threat mechanics via a forum/ blog post today. Basically tanks will be getting an automatic 200% treat increase next patch. It’s mostly due to dps who don’t like having to hold back in instances when they get a lower geared tank. This plays into the issue I was discussing a couple of days ago about there being some barriers to people picking up tanking for the first time.

The threat change won’t make any difference to how tanks play, since they usually go for their best threat rotation anyway. Other proposed changes for more DK-like survivability active cooldowns sound interesting, but are likely to make the tanking classes play more and more similarly.

But there’s an interesting thread running through the post and it’s to do with threat dump abilities (ie. feign death, soul shatter, cower, etc.)

It’s not fun for the Feral druid to stop using special attacks in order to avoid pulling aggro. It’s fun to use Feint at the right time to avoid dying, but it’s not fun for Feint to be part of your rotational cooldown.

I had thought feral druids had a Feint ability of their own, why would it be fun for rogues to use it but not for cat druids? (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either a rogue or a feral using an aggro dump, but besides that.)

We like abilities like Misdirect. It’s fun as a hunter to help the tank control targets. We are less enamored of Cower, which is just an ability used often to suppress threat. We like that the mage might have to use Ice Block, Frost Nova, or even Mirror Image to avoid danger. We don’t like the mage having to worry about constantly creeping up on the tank’s threat levels.

This is where I get confused, because several of the ranged dps classes have aggro dumps, as well as two of the melee. If it’s bad for one class to have to use that ability, why is it OK for the others?

Anyway, regardless of what you think of threat and the proposed tanking changes, the big question is why this was considered to be so important that it’s being changed mid-expansion. My guess is that instance tanking just isn’t keeping up with strong AE dps such as mages and frost death knights and this is a quick fix.

But it will take some of the teamwork out of instance play, having to adapt to what the tank was doing and watch your threat will become a playstyle of the past.

[WoW] Interrupts, Ghostcrawler admits melee is borked, and some cool links

Yesterday, Ghostcrawler wrote another intriguing blog post about game balance, interrupts, PvP issues and how designers can get into the trap of power creep.

The basic line of thought is that interrupts are too good in PvP (too accessible, too short a cooldown), so casters had to be given better instant spells/ kiting ability. And then *handwave* for some reason Blizzard had to give out more interrupts —

– no wait, this was “bring the player, not the character” and the homogenisation of classes in Cataclysm, and they did it deliberately and now they’re finding that they’re in a power race and it hasn’t worked out so brilliantly well.

Anyway, I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had as to whether casters were intended to have lower mobility as the price for having range (and crowd control). Ghostcrawler implies this is the case:

One of the advantages melee used to have in PvE was on movement fights. If the boss has to be kited or stays in motion, the rogues and warriors can follow along and still deal damage. <…>In today’s PvE environment, that role has almost flipped. Many casters can shoot on the run and take only a very minimal DPS hit to do so.

This is interesting since it’s the first time I’ve seen that Blizzard have admitted that melee have issues in the current tier of raiding. This was obvious to most players from pretty early on in the expansion (I recall having written about it.)

And it’s due to their design changes with Cataclysm, and they don’t seem to have any plans to either change it or improve things. There are more issues than being out-dpsed by casters, because staying in melee with bosses has gotten more difficult – again this is by design which he doesn’t mention here.

And his solution — nerf interrupts – wouldn’t really make that much difference to the PvE side of things on its own. Having said that, they’ve been quite keen on having players interrupt bosses on this tier. I figure that once they decided to give interrupts to all comers, they decided that people might as well use them. Since I like interrupting bosses I’m down with that, but it gets old …

This argument is particularly wearing for rogues and warriors who had interrupts right from the start and weren’t told that they were overpowered until now (at least not because of that.)

Some more WoW links

A few links from bloggers that I have read recently on WoW.

Matticus asks if 25 man raids are slowly dwindling. This was a prediction many people made pre-Cataclysm – is it coming true?

Borsked argues eloquently that raiding is back where it was meant to be in the game, only for the dedicated. And that the WoW player base is balancing itself to having fewer raid guilds.

Boathammer explains why WoW is boring to him as a non-raider

Quote of the Day: On scaling with gear

Scaling awesomely with gear as compensation for doing bad damage when undergeared is not good game design.

-Ghostcrawler

This quote, in a nutshell, describes the issues with gear scaling.

The idea that you start off weaker in return for being stronger later on sounds like a payoff that most people understand. A lot of players make these assumptions too — if a character is easier/ faster to level they feel that there should be some kind of built-in cost. It just doesn’t work in an MMO with multiple classes who are all required to end up at around the same level.

Or rather, because everything in MMOs is weighted towards endgame, there is no amount of weakness early on that could really make up for being overpowered at the end. One is just more important than the other. Plus it makes the early game miserable.

In this quote, he’s talking about Fury warriors. (I wish mine did that sort of damage. I think I lost my Fury mojo from doing too much tanking … or something.) But this also represents the challenges of Cataclysm. Blizzard is going to try to make all classes scale evenly and equally with gear. That isn’t currently the case, and it’s accepted as an issue. So good luck to them on that. Unfortunately it isn’t the kind of flashy player-pleasing fix that grabs headlines and draws in the crowds, but it’s probably the biggest long term endgame fix that they’ve ever made to the game.

But do you agree with the quote? Surely in a gear based game, being able to scale awesomely with gear is one of the great motivating factors to progress your character?

How much is a buff worth?

It is a common trade-off in MMO design that players are asked to decide whether they’d prefer more damage or more utility for their character. Any talent spec scheme that lets you choose whether you’d prefer to spend points on buffs instead of on more damage is following this theme.

With tanking or healing classes, you’re simply choosing what type of utility you prefer to provide. Would you prefer better buffs, or slightly larger heals? Better raid buffs or more threat for yourself?

But with a dps class, it’s a straight up choice between more personal dps vs more raid utility. The idea of a raid buff is that the performance of the whole raid is improved by more than any detrimental effect on the buffer. So why must it feel like a penalty if someone is asked to buff? I think it’s because there’s a sense in which you are donating a gift to the raid (the buff and the dps hit) in return for your raid spot, whilst raiding alongside other people who don’t have to do that. Not only that, but due to various buffs working in different ways, some classes do genuinely get to provide buffs at very little personal cost. So it is easy to feel hard-done-by.

In Wrath-era WoW, all classes have become buffing classes because Blizzard decided to spread out the buffs. But can you really teach an old dog new tricks? Will classes that had previously been categorised as pure dps really want to give up their top slots in order to give better buffs?

Ghostcrawler had an interesting comment on this in shaman forums recently:

We want classes to have to take a hit for buffing the raid, but we don’t want it to be a gigantic one. Again, on the one hand players are eager for these buffs because it “secures them a slot!” but on the other hand, they want someone else to do the buff so they don’t have to.

This is spot on in my experience. Dps tend to complain like crazy about having to be ‘the buff bitch’, even though they’d likely complain even more if no one wanted the buff at all and it was never worth speccing for. I don’t mean every single one of them complains, but everyone who enjoys playing the damage meter exhales a private sigh when they realise that they are on buffing duty so won’t be troubling the top 5 slots.

This expansion has marked a minor role shift for dps specs in the game, towards more hybridness. If we had buffing classes, no one would complain about providing buffs because it would be their raison-d’etre. Although that would present a completely different set of issues.

How does your raid decide which member of each class should buff? Do people complain when they are asked to do it?

If you can find them maybe you can hire … The B Team

Ysharros posts a really interesting link to some insider commentary on shifts in focus at WoW at the moment. Eric@The Elder Game discusses how development teams are organised on MMOs, and how staff switch focus from developing new games to running the live (maintenance) teams or vice versa; he also uses his experience to explain some of the changes we’ve seen in WoW lately.

I find this interesting because it goes a long way to explaining why the game is taking bold new directions recently (the fact I agree with them and didn’t like some of the earlier design decisions is beside the point). And also it reflects my experience as an engineer.

As a developer, it’s always more fun to be working on a project where you have lots of creative freedom and input. Maintenance and bug-fixing can be intellectually fascinating, but you always eventually come up against the wall of:

  • “All this has happened before, all this will happen again.” (ie. you’re stuck with old design decisions for historical reasons.)
  • “Here be dragons!” (ie. no one actually remembers why a particular decision was first taken but apparently trying to change it once caused huge issues that no one really understood so the devs decided never ever to change that file again … just in case.)
  • “We don’t have the budget for that.” (ie. sometimes you’ll discover an issue that really requires a large redesign of some major subsystem to fix. Forget it. Find a cheaper workaround. You’re never going to be able to justify rewriting the entire O/S file system, even if you are right.)
  • “This looks like a case for … Old Bill.” (ie. only one person still working at the company remembers the original code or why it was written in hand-crafted assembler – if you’re lucky you may find him down the pub at 3:45 on the third friday of a month with an N in the name.)

And this is why the typical length for which an engineer stays with a company is about 2 years (in the UK at least). After that, they’ll find a new project to work on that isn’t in maintenance.

Population balance in MMOs: Thinning the Warrior Numbers

This is bound to be a hot topic in warrior circles at the moment, Ghostcrawler (WoW Lead Systems Designer) dipped his toe into the murky waters of social engineering on Tuesday with this post; it’s about halfway down the page, in blue.

– Warriors are very popular main tanks.
– This is probably because they used to be the best tank (by design) and because many MTs have stuck with the class for many levels.
– We think they are slightly under-powered in Ulduar relative to other tanks.
– If we are not careful and buff warriors too much then there are going to be more of them, which only feeds into the perception that warriors are designed to be (or should be designed to be) the best tank.
– We’ve worked very hard to make sure there are 4 viable tanks, just as we’ve worked very hard to make sure there are 5 viable healers. We want to have paladins, druids and DKs tanking Coliseum, and not giving up (or being replaced by the raid leader) because they aren’t warriors.
– We don’t balance around popularity. However we do take it into consideration. WoW is a social game and despite the excellent work by the theorycrafting community, player perception and psychology play a big role and often change very slowly.
– We don’t balance around past history. However we do take it into consideration. WoW is a game and players can form an emotional attachment to their characters. Emotion enters into it. While my team deals with cold hard numbers a lot, that is not the only part of game design.

This is very interesting, and not just because it made me feel down all day (I’ll come back to that.) Some classes in MMOs are always more popular than others, support classes are less popular than dps for example. Melee is usually more popular than ranged.

When one class shows a population spike over and above this, it’s usually because they are either overpowered or perceived to be overpowered. That’s the flavour of the month (fotm) trend, people roll or reroll classes that they think are most effective. Usually, devs will spot this and correct any actual overpowered elements and the rerollers will move on to the next fotm.

In any case, warriors are still popular. It isn’t because they are overpowered, quite the opposite in fact. From comments he’s made previously I’m also sure GC understands the various issues which the class has. Blizzard would prefer it if warriors were less popular – they take popularity into consideration. Even though they understand that people have an emotional attachment to their character (this is part of the reason that people keep playing their warriors despite being a bit behind the other tanks, the other reason is just the general barrier to change) they’d like less people to play them as tanks in order to balance out the numbers.

I’m actually not convinced that raids pick warrior tanks nowadays because they are still perceived to be the best. I  haven’t seen any guilds on my server specifically recruit for protection warriors. I’ve seen them recruit for Death Knights and Druids, but not warriors. If warriors are raid tanking these days, it’s either because the player has a history with the guild or because someone was recruited because they were a good player and they happened to pick a warrior.

And if people are going to switch out their warriors for other tanks, it means that guilds will be ignoring their guild and player history to do so. The only reason to do that is because the player either burns out or switches mains, or because one of the other tanks makes the raids much easier. Why else would you boot your main tank who has been your main tank for months?

I don’t feel that Blizzard has any case for this level of social engineering. All we ask is that they make all the classes as viable in their roles as possible. Yes, people get emotionally attached to their characters after they have played them for a few months, sunk hours into gearing them up, earning reps and achievements, and learning all the ins and outs. That’s how they designed the game. If they wanted players to be jumping class whenever they said ‘jump’ then maybe they needed to make it easier to have account based achievements, trade skills, etc.

Can you imagine the outcry if they’d said that mages were weaker than other dps in Ulduar but that they were cool with this because the class was overpopulated? Or that priests were weaker than other healers in Ulduar but that was OK because lots of people still played them in raids?

We want to have paladins, druids and DKs tanking Coliseum, and not giving up (or being replaced by the raid leader) because they aren’t warriors.

But is it OK to have warriors replaced because they aren’t paladins, druids or DKs?

So, what’s the future looking like?

I have really appreciated in Wrath that GC has been so forthcoming in sharing his views on the different classes and where Blizzard plans to take them. I think that as a player in an MMO, I need to take in-game decisions with the long term in mind so the more information I have with which to do that, the better.

But there is a downside to this. What if the longterm vision that devs have for your class is that they want to discourage people from playing it and keep it weak?

Personally I feel gypped because I wasn’t playing my warrior through any period of the game where they were overpowered. I tanked at the beginning of TBC when druids were the tank of choice. I tanked heroics in TBC when everyone wanted paladins for easy mode. And I’ve tanked in Wrath where warriors have been fine, but a bit behind the rest. I think I’m personally overdue for my overpowered few months. Sure, that’s the history of the class, but it isn’t MY history with the class. And it won’t be the history of anyone else who started their warrior more recently and wasn’t tanking the Black Temple (which is most of us, I’m sure).

I’m not planning to switch mains. I still like playing my warrior and she’s been fine for the content we’re doing. Also, I’m cool with my dps offspec so if I have to spend more time as Fury and less as Protection, I can do that. I do feel down about the game though, I never needed to be the bestest tank ever but there are only 3 spots for tanks in a 25 man raid. How far behind will they let us get? Is it always going to be the hard mode class, where we work harder than the others and still end up behind?

I’m also not looking forwards to having to listen to all the druids and paladins and DKs boast about how cool they are in the tanking channel for the foreseeable future. And I’m like … well, I have Intervene! Beat that! And it gets this really cool bonus in T9, bet you’re all jealous now!

*pat*

But what I really wonder is what Blizzard are going to do next if explicitly stating that warriors are intended to stay weaker than the other tanks doesn’t do the trick. All I’m saying to my fellow prot warriors is … if you get a knock on the door at 6am, hide.