Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Posts Tagged ‘world of warcraft’

With Cataclysm, Blizzard took the World out of Warcraft

Posted by Ben Zeigler on December 28, 2010

Now that I’ve hit level 85 with my Feral/Resto Tauren Druid and had a bit to think about it, I wanted to share some thoughts on the newest expansion. The short of it is that if Cataclysm is the direction Blizzard wants to take their open world content, I am not interested. Now, before I get into that I’ll quickly discuss what’s good: The PvP additions, the new instanced dungeons, and the changes to the existing old world content are all well made and great improvements. I very much enjoyed Azshara, and thought it was as good as any existing zone in the game.  But, as soon as I bought the expansion proper and dropped into Hyjal, things went south quickly.

Remember, “Polished” is a relative term

Actually when I dropped into Mount Hyjal for the first time I and hundreds of other players were immediately slaughtered by “friendly” NPC guards (this got fixed a few days ago apparently). You’d think this kind of bug would get fixed in the months long beta, but oh well, things happen.  But throughout the rest of the open world content I ran into constant game breaking issues. The end of the Troll starting area left me in perpetual in-combat until I restarted. The story event at the end of Vash’jr broke on me 3 times in a row, leading me to kill the executable after getting stuck in a cutscene for 20 minutes. When I first entered Uldum I ended up in a broken phase where I couldn’t get out of the small cage it spawned me in until another reset. An Uldum turret mission took me half an hour because 90% of the enemies were moving but invincible. At least 4 separate times I ran into issues where enemies I was fighting would randomly despawn (not even evade, actually disappear) right before the end of boss fights.

I didn’t play Burning Crusade or Lich King right at launch, but playing vanilla WoW at launch I never ran into so many quest progression issues (stability is way better now though). All of the failures I ran into seem to share the same base cause: complicated single player scripting that interacts poorly with the actually massive number of people in the world. After the success of Lich King’s content (nearly everyone seemed to enjoy phasing and vehicle missions), Blizzard has pushed their design farther in a direction their engine cannot handle. There are now a ton of in-engine cut scenes that tell the story, but their quality is often abysmal. Awkward voice work, camera angles that constantly lead me to be staring 90 degrees to the right of the subjects, jerky animation, and an excess of shots of characters slowly walking made me want to skip all of them. But, I stopped trying after half of them prevented me from skipping and 1 of them actually dropped me to login after I skipped it. I’m the kind of player who doesn’t love cut scenes in narrative action-adventure games, but if you constantly take control away from me to show me poorly edited machinima that could easily exist in the game world, I’m not going to play your game.

The Rollercoaster of Warcraft

It isn’t just the cut scenes that take away player control, the plot of the expansion is constantly trying to making you feel small and useless. After helping defeat the scourge of Arthas, jumping into the defense of Hyjal felt satisfying as the zone made you feel important. Deepholm continues the same theme, as you literally save the earth. But when you enter Vashj’ir you almost immediately get kidnapped by completely normal Naga. It vaguely makes sense because you’re in their domain, but it still feels a bit silly for one of the heroes of northrend to be overpowered by a single humanoid. Then, the first thing that happens when you get to Uldum is… you get kidnapped by a small group of stereotypical pygmies and thrown into a tiny cage. Before you end your questing you’ll get abducted AGAIN by inconsequential minions. I’m sure this was meant to make things feel “dramatic”, but it just made me feel like my character was useless as I rode the Rollercoaster of Warcraft.

It isn’t just the story progression that took away my feeling of control, it was the game mechanics. The changes to talent trees were great for balance purposes, but did remove the feeling of being able to choose your own path as you had to stay within the constricted path chosen for you. The biggest change is in quest structure, as there are now far fewer quests available at any given point. The game leads you from quest hub to quest hub in a very precise manner, and if one quest is broken due to bugs you will be unable to progress any further because all the quests are in very long chains. When I got to a quest hub in vanilla wow and got received 6 quests spread across a geographic area, I got to plan my approach and have the satisfaction of doing it efficiently or not. In Catacylsm when I get to a quest hub I get 2-3 quests which are geographically on top of each other and nearly impossible to do in isolation. The confusing part is that because an 80+ character is guaranteed to have a flying mount, they could easily space these out a bit better to make the world feel more alive without killing efficiency. As it is, you’re lead by the nose throughout Catacylsm, with the only choice being which of 2 linear paths to progress down first. Oh, and all these linear chains mean that 99% of quests in Catacylsm are not shareable so group questing is both less efficient and less fun than going it alone.

Massively no More

Blizzard appears to have completely given up on the idea of open world content that is designed for a Massive number of players. In addition to the constant bugs and lack of mission sharing, anything that isn’t easily soloable has been removed entirely. But, the mob and quest mechanics have not adjusted to the fact that everyone is now soloing. The vast majority of quest objective spawns do not share credit if two groups/players simultaneously engage them. A smattering of them do correctly handle split credit but it’s completely random and not tied to any visual or text feedback as far as I can tell (I thought it might be tied to rather an enemy HP bar turns gray when tagged, but this seems to be unrelated). Half of the time quest objectives would quickly respawn when farmed and half of the time it would take 10 minutes. Sometimes the players would informally group up to help share quest credit and half the time someone would gank an enemy despite you clearly being in the front of the line. The only time I died while questing in Catacylsm was when the accelerated spawn timers from farmed enemies would cause them to respawn before they hit the ground. Other than that, the only challenge in questing Catacylsm was in developing a comprehensive spawn camping strategy and stopping myself from raging at kill stealers who are supposed to be my allies.

There are exactly 2 open world experiences that are designed for a “massive” world, and neither of them work. The Crucible of Carnage in Twilight Highlands is the now-traditional forced group quest where you fight dungeon-boss-quality enemies in a full group. But, it’s even more broken than ever. For the experience to work correctly there has to be EXACTLY 5 people who want to perform the quest at any given point. If there are less you will fail because the enemies are difficult. If there is more than one full group the quest breaks as two group compete to start fights, gank spawns, and generally screw with each other. Oh, and sometimes the enemy fears you, you run out of the arbitrary quest area, and fail a quest 4 times in a row. Finally, Tol Barad is the Wintergrasp replacement that aims to provide large scale objective PvP. But, in it’s current form it’s completely unbalanced as the attackers have a nearly impossible task while the defenders can basically not move the entire game and automatically win. Tol Barad may get better, but in it’s current form it’s much less fun and rewarding than the instanced battlegrounds.

Fun to visit, wouldn’t want to live there

What does today’s World of Warcraft gain from being a massively multiplayer game? The open world content is trying to be a linear action-adventure rollercoaster without the satisfying gameplay or high polish and production values required to make that work. The end games of PvP and dungeon instance running are almost entirely run through matchmaking services or via explicit guild activities. Oh, and if I want to play with a friend of mine from work I have to spend 100 hours leveling a character to max or pay $30 and abandon my existing friends to set up a server transfer. 18 months ago I said no MMORPG would ever beat WoW, but it looks like World of Warcraft is on it’s way to killing the genre itself, by abandoning it.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Singular Design of the World of Warcraft Talent Tree

Posted by Ben Zeigler on February 16, 2010

I recently started playing World of Warcraft again, for the first time in about 4 years. I managed to make it up to 77 after 200 hours of play before giving up, which is a lot better than last time.  The only reason I stopped is that I ran out of compelling goals to work towards, as I knew I wasn’t going to hang around long enough to be a serious raider. I was also having a hard time assigning my Talent Tree points, largely out of indifference. Then I realized how impressive that was: for 77 out of 80 levels I was compelled to level up almost solely by WoW’s Talent Trees.

My 77 is a Tauren Druid, so I’ll be using the Druid talent tree as my example. I’m only directly familiar with Druids and Hunters, but I suspect my conclusions will hold just as well for the other classes. Yell at me in the comments if you disagree. So, what is it about the structure of WoW’s Talent Trees that makes them the most successful character development system in the history of gaming?

Directed Goals

As soon as you hit Level 10 in WoW, you gain convenient access to information about 90% of your character’s development choices. You can mouse over the highest-level talent in the game, see its requirements, and learn what it does. It may not be initially obvious how an ability works, but simply by virtue of it being at the bottom of the list and having the highest requirements, you know you want it. This is the single most important component of character development as it pertains to keeping players involved: it gives them a compelling goal.

Luckilly, WoW satisfies this goal by making each bottom-level ability worth the effort. Even better, along the way to the bottom of the tree are a variety of enticing sub goals. In the druid example, Moonkin Form and Tree of Life immediately jumped out as things I knew I wanted. After identifying the goals I wanted to hit, I would then use them as guides for picking my powers as I leveled up. Nearly every point you buy in WoW is working towards several goals at once, via direct dependencies or point requirements. On the other hand, a wide open character system like the one in Champions Online lacks any clear long term goals. Without those goals, a player has nothing to work towards.

Concrete Rewards

The long term goals of a character development system give you a future, but a game needs something to keep players going in the present. Certain games, like League of Legends, give such incrementally small effects per skill point that they don’t feel like a reward. In contrast, talent points in WoW either tend to give small but easily describable global bonuses (1% to all stats is incremental but is clearly shown on your character sheet), larger conditional bonuses (30% damage increase to a common power will be noticed), or provide an usable ability. Of course, this wasn’t always true. Today there’s only a few powers in the Druid trees that are difficult to understand or compute (I only vaguely understand bonus healing), and Improved Mark of the Wild now gives the same bonus with 2 invested points as it used to give with 5.

I played Titan Quest recently and it’s an example of a game with a badly designed skill tree. Taking a look at the Rogue tree, you get multiple points per level and have to split them between a “generic” pool that opens up new skills and improving existing skills. So, at a given level up you get 5 points to choose between adding 35 health, increasing the damage of a 12-rank ability by 7, or picking up a new and initially useless passive skill. It turns out ranking up a skill improves more the higher rank it is, which is something I didn’t realize until literally just now. I never really understood what my skill points were doing, which meant I didn’t get any of the primal psychological thrill that results from direct rewards.

Build Variety

Build variety is hard to get right in an online game, because inevitably the hardcore players will try to flatten all variety out of the game as they “discover” the best builds. If you take a look at sites like WoWPopular or disparate internet forums you’ll notice that certain talent builds are considered to be correct. Variety at the high end suffers a bit overall, but WoW does do a good job of encouraging players to diversify outside of their main tree. Once you reach the bottom of your primary tree, it’s a good idea to start working down a second tree towards a synergistic sub goal. In the case of my druid, the Restoration tree has several important skills for Feral druids, so I had a larger set of possible talents to pick from as a worked on my goals.

The real view of character development variety isn’t visible at a static point in time. Instead, WoW needs to be seen as a living, breathing game. For each expansion (and class-by-class between them) Blizzard has dramatically changed the design of the talent trees to fit with the higher level cap as well as solve various Goal and Reward-oriented design issues. This shakes up the playing field and lets everyone explore the full development space. On an individual level, as a player levels up they can respec their talents for an initially low cost. For instance, I eventually realized that I didn’t enjoy Bear Tanking so switched over to be Cat DPS as my primary. Then to effectively double the existing variety they finally added Dual Specialization. Punishing a player for wanting to change their mind on initial decisions or forcing them to specialize on a style of content (PvP, PvE, Solo, etc) when your game supports several is just insulting in today’s market.

Shareable Choices

The final component of WoW’s character development system is actually outside the design of the game itself. If you take a look at a system like Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid it’s got a good mix of Goals, Rewards, and Variety, but it’s missing something critical: There’s absolutely no way to communicate it to someone else. When you’re building a social game, your character development system should facilitate the social element as much as your world design. Based on community support the Talent Tree structure is objectively the best structure for the sharing of character development information yet developed, and has been since Diablo 2.

Several components of WoW’s design are key to this, rather they were intentional or not. The splitting of a WoW class into 3 trees helps as it leads to “Druid 0/58/13” being a useful shorthand for a player’s abilities and inclination. There’s no mechanical reason for any node in a WoW tree to have a specific x/y location, but the spatial nature of the tree makes it easier to remember and discuss. Eventually Blizzard caught on to what the community was doing for them and built the Armory. Basically, if your character development choices cannot be adequately simulated via a single page web application written in javascript, You’re Doing It Wrong.

Half the Game

In my personal opinion, you can blame the success of WoW on two primary factors: the quality of the world, and the drive of the character development system. The importance of Loot eventually overwhelms the importance of talents, but I think many people underestimate just how much talent trees add to WoW. Most players of WoW never make it to level cap or get an epic flying mount, so for all of them the talent system provides that giant carrot on a stick, the one that keeps millions of tired legs fighting against the treadmill of a level grind. Without it, there would be no World of Warcraft.

Posted in Game Design, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

No MMORPG Will Ever Beat World of Warcraft

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 14, 2009

There’s been a bit of talk lately about the future of Shooters from Cliff Belszinski and others, and there was a nice discussion about it on last week’s Listen Up podcast. The quick summary is that many people believe the FPS genre is headed towards picking up various features from the RPG genre. Nearly every multiplayer FPS released today features a grinding-based level advancement system. As someone who is a huge fan of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex I endorse this trend, and single player games (Borderlands being a good example) are going to take BioShock’s lead and go with it. However, I think this is just part of a larger and more significant trend: The integration of features you might associate with RPGS/MMORPGS into other genres. How will this integration work, and what does it mean for what is currently the MMORPG genre?

Let’s take World of Warcraft, as it is the current pinnacle of the MMORPG genre. To be clear I am using MMORPG to refer to the specific type of gameplay used in World of Warcraft (as well as close relatives), while I am using MMO to refer to the more general category of online games with a persistent world. I feel the success of WoW can be roughly divided into 5 components that heavily interact: The social systems and community that build in and around it, the subscription business model, a persistent world to share with others, the character advancement system, and the DikuMUD-derived base gameplay. The community and social systems are a major reason that players are happy to play your game for years on end, and all other parts of an MMO should enhance those aspects. Although Korea and China have proven that other business models work, the subscription model encourages a strong community, is very attractive to piracy-fearing developers, and is what funds the massive development costs needed to build the rest of the game.  The persistent world (the only thing that Call of Duty 4 is lacking to be a proper MMO) encourages the socialization by giving the players a really solid context to use as the base of forming relationships. The character advancement system ties into the persistent world by making it seem even more significant when you level up. Finally, the base gameplay gives players something to do when they’re not too busy socializing, exploring, or advancing.

There have been many attempts to swap out the base gameplay of an MMORPG for something else, and most of them have failed. Planetside, numerous racing games, ridiculous numbers of free korean MMOs that never caught on. Why is that? The problem is that only certain types of base gameplay fit will with the other components of an MMO design. Quake would make a horrible MMO, because the entirely skill-based gameplay of it does not lend itself well to character advancement. Defense of the Ancients can never be an MMO because the pace of character advancement excludes them from being part of a truly persistent world. My feeling is that Planetside failed because it was too intense. I didn’t play a whole lot, but every indication I’ve seen says that because of it’s focus on pure combat, the game did nothing to encourage out-of-combat socialization. Unless you have breaks and social hubs built into your game (the waiting-for-the-round-to-end time of CounterStrike can serve this purpose well), players will never develop the long term social ties needed to sustain a community. This is also why there’s never been a good MMORTS: the amount of brainpower needed to manage units in a way that engages RTS players doesn’t leave a whole lot left over to build social bonds.

The DikuMUD gameplay is a good match for the other components of an MMO, but it’s reaching it’s limits. First of all, things like MMORPG aggro are still extremely nonintuitive (Why isn’t WoW’s aggro based on positioning? Because DikuMUD didn’t have graphics). More importantly, the direction WoW is moving (towards puzzle raid bosses that need to be solved and game-breaking solo quests with vehicles and such) indicates that Blizzard has run out of ideas to keep the basic tank/heal/control/DPS gameplay interesting. If there’s one thing Blizzard is extremely good at, it is iterating and polishing gameplay ideas. The rest of the industry may be hubristic enough to believe that they’re just going to be BETTER than Blizzard at freshening up MMORPG gameplay, but it’s a better bet to just not try. Age of Conan and Warhammer gave it their all, but they just didn’t do enough to differentiate themselves.

What has succeeded? Eve is an interesting example. The base gameplay of Eve is so barebones that I can’t stand playing it, but obviously others can and it’s still growing. The puzzle genre is an attractive one, and Free Realms may be on the right track (although it’s a bit too scattershot on the base gameplay). I’m 100% convinced that within a year or two one of the major multiplayer shooter franchises will go fully MMO (business model and all). Other variants of the RPG theme, such as tactical positional (ie, like japanese SRPGs) or Action-RPGs (Diablo is 90% of the way there, and there have been a LOT of almost-great Action MMO RPGs) are obvious choices. There are a lot of potential gameplay systems that can be the baseline for an MMO, and I’m sure one is going to come out of left field in a few years and become a bigger success than World of Warcraft. Subscription-based games featuring a persistent world and character advancement will be increasingly successful for decades to come, but World of Warcraft will stand as the pinnacle of popularity for a now-niche gameplay style. At least until it’s time for the retro remake.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »