Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
 
Reading between the lines

An anonymous commenter asked me: "Tobold, I wanted to ask you if you are not a little bit disappointed about the announcements made at the WWI regarding wow. I mean, we learned nearly nothing. What do you think?" Well, I think that I learned a lot about WoW that weekend. Because often you learn more by reading between the lines and watching what is going on than by listening to a big new announcement.

Just read my interview with J. Allen Brack again. Many commenters simply projected their own view onto that, and just saw what they expected to see. But if you read it with an open mind, you learn a lot about the way Blizzard sees World of Warcraft. They are obviously extremely confident in the long-term future of WoW, so confident they don't even think they need to plan ahead. They strongly believe in quality, which is good, and don't believe in sticking to a timeline, which I think will bite them in the behind one day. You wouldn't want to produce lets say a car the way Blizzard develops games. Fortunately all other software companies have the same problem. Apparently creative coding doesn't lend itself to strict organization.

The interview also told us that if you hear anyone from Blizzard talking about a potential future feature, it is just that: Talk. For example somebody on some WoW panel mentioned Blizzard looking into allowing people to switch between two talent builds, and many people jumped on that and now think this is a feature that will come soon. But the interview clearly taught us that Blizzard looking into something only means the idea is on a board together with lots of other ideas. Maybe it will be patched in next year, maybe it will be part of the next expansion after WotLK, or maybe it will simply never happen.

Another important info from the interview is that Blizzard still considers World of Warcraft to be a group game. Did you notice that when we talked about the reasons for lack of healers and tanks, J. talked about the warriors damage contribution in a raid or group, which should be more meaningful? The solution to add more damage to warriors is the good one, but of course most players are worried about their damage output when soloing or PvPing, and couldn't care less about their position on the damage meter in a raid.

Finally there is a world of info contained in the simple phrases "We definitely want you to play at the high level with your friends. And we are always looking at neat good ways for you to get up to the high level." Not "we want you to level up with your friends". Blizzard is totally sold to the idea that the real multiplayer part of their game happens at the level cap.

I think that getting this sort of information of how Blizzard sees World of Warcraft, and how they produce the patches and expansions, is more useful than a precise announcement of lets say the WotLK release date or one more feature in it. For example I can now tell you with almost certainty that the next expansion after Wrath of the Lich King will come out in 2010, just by logically extrapolating the information about the production process. You heard it here first. :)
Comments:
Not "we want you to level up with your friends". Blizzard is totally sold to the idea that the real multiplayer part of their game happens at the level cap.

I honestly don’t have too big an issue with this idea. **dodges flames** The problem is pacing. I have always leveled much faster than any of my real life friends. It’s already frustrating enough “waiting” on them without any added incentives that equate to forced grouping. Still – it would be nice to have something like EQ2 has where a low level and high level can pair with each other at an adjusted level of difficulty.

Many commenters simply projected their own view onto that, and just saw what they expected to see. But if you read it with an open mind, you learn a lot about the way Blizzard sees World of Warcraft.

That’s good insight, but I think most people aren’t interested in how Blizzard does business. They want to know what brand spanking new feature is going to radically change a game they are mostly bored with playing.
 
If Blizzard is smart, and I think they are too rich to be stupid, they are right now producing some 'Next-Gen MMO(RPG)'.

They have all the time in the world and as soon as Warcraft begins to lose too many subscriptions to any other MMO(RPG) they will be ready to release their new one.

Due to Blizzards prestige that would be a desaster for any competitor.

Right now Blizzard has all the time and all the money in the world to do this.
And right now still seek to employ 'Next-Gen MMO Programmers' at their Homepage.

Blizzard just intends to run WoW as long as possible - obviously.
That's also a good way to gain expirience and testing out new features.
 
Regarding the issue of people wanting to play with their friends. Why can't the higher level friends roll alts and catch up to their lower level friends? Instead we always seem to hear solutions that lower level friends must be given some kind of boost to get to higher level friends instead of the other way around.

That is a recipe for disaster. as levels, content, prestige and status will be cheapened. Let's say your friend just discovered WoW:

You: "Hey friend, come to Karazhan and heal for us?"

Friend: I've only got a level 6 priest?

You: "No problems! Don't you know about the new "buddy" system? Now we can play together!!! You know how to heal right?"

Friend: "Sweet!"

Friend: "Wait, what does "heal" mean?"


Regardless, I believe that in a few more years leveling will either be dead as a mechanic or trivialized to the point of absurdity. Besides once players get a taste of 55 free levels with the Deathknight they will start demanding it for their other new characters.

At the rate Blizzard is going WoW will probably cease to be a MMO as we know it and morph into something entirely different. It's going to be funny watching the WoW trainwreck as all of the unintended consequences of bad decisions come to fruition. The next few years will be interesting times indeed.
 
Unintended consequences of bad decisions??? what the hell are you talking about?!

Anyway, bizarre comments aside, thank you Tobold for pointing out the insight gained from those comments. It is indeed fascinating, not only how good a job Blizzard do, but how their development process works. It makes a lot of sense that they would work it out as they go along, and not have a pre-fixed plan. That would be a recipe for disaster. They do a wonderful job of integrating a creative process with a solid business plan. But my overriding sense of how they work, is that they are much more turned-on, and driven, by the world they create, than they are by business issues such as revenue and popularity. The game is popular because Blizzard do such a good job creating it and responding to feedbacl, not because a marketing department came up with a good strategy (although you need marketing folks of course!)
 
An excellent idea, Wolfshead, and one that's often overlooked.

In my Guild a few of us were feeling the Raid burnout, so we rolled Alts. We dont play them unless everyone is online, and then we all group up together. There's no twinking involved, nobody gets a free run through any Instance by anyone's 70. When we need/want to run an Instance we do it together. We're all leveling at the same rate and we're having a blast.
 
Why can't the higher level friends roll alts and catch up to their lower level friends?

Speaking from my own personal experience, that rarely works very well. Let’s say that I play 25% more than my friend. The entire time I am leveling I am always 25% ahead, so doing anything with him is a step backward for me. Then once I hit max level, I can’t just reroll a new character because he would be 75% ahead of my Alt. Alternately, let’s say I already have a max character when he starts leveling. I then need to devote 75% of my playtime to a new Alt just to keep pace with him. If I want to do other end-game stuff, I only have time in that 25% I’m not leveling the Alt. If I play 40 hours a week, that might work. But if I play 10-15 hours, then 2-3 hours of end game isn’t much time to get anything done.

Instead we always seem to hear solutions that lower level friends must be given some kind of boost to get to higher level friends instead of the other way around.
As I understand it, in the EQ2 mentoring system, “Mentors and Apprentice will receive experience, loot, and quest credit as if the Mentor were the same level as the Apprentice. Mentors do receive viable amounts of experience and advance toward their actual level while mentoring, though at a slightly reduced rate.” In other words, the Mentor drops down to the Apprentice’s level rather than low level getting boosted in order to do higher level content. This has always seemed like a reasonable solution to the problem I described above.
 
Why can't the higher level friends roll alts and catch up to their lower level friends?

They can and will do that of course, if they enjoy that. If they prefer to play a specific character that is higher level that is not a very good option.
It does not have to be lower characters scaling up to higher character, it can be the other way around also. Just provide the options and let the players decide what works best for them.

That is a recipe for disaster. as levels, content, prestige and status will be cheapened

Cheapened in what way? Loot etc would be scaled to the actual level of the player, at least in the case of lower -> higher.
And disaster for who?
If it makes it easier for friends to play together and have fun, then all is good I would say.

A very low level character would have problems in a high level environment, but again that is up to the players if they want to try that. Give the options and let players decide for themselves.
 
Fascinating that we have both (independently) taken very similar conclusions away from the event. I've written up quite a lot more detail here - http://timhowgego.com/peeking-into-blizzards-development-process.html .

You should have gone to more panels! Samwise's Starcraft art panel wasn't as packed as it should have been (the 09:30 Sunday start may have been a factor), but he was quite frank about just how constantly evolving their development process is. I guess each person will take away something different. Plenty at that session probably only remember the cool artwork, and won't recognise a word I'm saying...
 
How about a "Frozen Jihad" type prediction for this 2010 release! :)
 
As to some unintended consequences, here's some amplification on that. What we are seeing here with Blizzard's WoW is that the idea of "levels" are being devalued so that players can reach the level cap in a shorter amount of time. Why? Because of Blizzard's philosophy that the focus of their game is at the "level cap".

The problem is that by making levels trivial and creating content where a player can solo to the level cap with ease you end up creating a player that is ill prepared to function in a group or a raid.

Players who reach the level cap show up like a boatload of refugees...confused as to what they are supposed to do next. Creating a MMO where the leveling is trivial only contributes to this problem. In previous MMO's level used to mean something. It was a sign of accomplishment and respect. You knew if a person had a high level character then they probably were a good player. This is certainly not the case with WoW.

Where do players learn to raid if they are expected to blast their way to level 80? Where do players learn to group and develop mastery of tanking, healing, crowd control if they are given an easy road to level 80?

If levels 1-79 are trivial and the good stuff begins at level 80 then at the very least those levels should act as a tutorial or boot camp for the "real" game that begins at 80. Again Blizzard has failed in this department.

A good MMO should have fun and exciting content in all of it's stages from low to mid to high level areas -- not just at the level cap. Grouping and raiding need to be introduced much much earlier then is the case currently.

Part of the problem is that WoW is now an aging MMO. Also the other problem is that Blizzard keeps shifting the "fun" content goalposts from level 60 to 70 and in WotLK to 80. Their design philosophy will come back to haunt them as the old part of Azeorth basically becomes abandoned making it even harder for new players to get started in WoW. A MMO can be a very shallow and lonely place without other players. That's exactly what's going to happen because Blizzard has put all their eggs in the "endgame" basket. You reap what you sow.
 
In the same vein as Wolfshead, Ive always been wary of ever increasing level caps or thousands of expansions.

Part of the reason I've never tried EQ is that there appears (to me at least) to be a huge gulf between where I would start and where everyone else is. What's the point of playing an MMO if you're alone all the time even when you aren't soloing?

City of Heroes at least seems to address that reasonably well with updating lower and older content (granted, it is slow going) as well as bringing in new high level stuff.

WAR's public quests seem to hold such promise. High level or low, new guy or old hand, everyone can weigh in and get rewarded for doing so. It brings the community together.
 
If Blizzard is smart, and I think they are too rich to be stupid, they are right now producing some 'Next-Gen MMO(RPG)'.


1/2 a million years of history prove that you can be rich and stupid at the same time. And that sometimes smart people become stupid when they become so successful they don't have to listen to other people


The problem is that by making levels trivial and creating content where a player can solo to the level cap with ease you end up creating a player that is ill prepared to function in a group or a raid.

Players who reach the level cap show up like a boatload of refugees...confused as to what they are supposed to do next


This is the best way I've ever heard this problem described
 
The problem is that by making levels trivial and creating content where a player can solo to the level cap with ease you end up creating a player that is ill prepared to function in a group or a raid.

I agree with you, btw. That being said, the whole “leveling” system doesn’t really go away at 70, it just changes from actual levels to a gear-based pseudo level. The delta between a T6 equipped player and a player in new blue/greens as significant as level 60 to 70.

New players like “levels” because it provides a sense of achievement. If there wasn’t a cap then people would just keep trying to level forever never taking the time to stop for end-game. Basically, people are taught that from 1-70 they achievement is through leveling. At level 70, it changes to some other undefined and unclear goal. That’s as much a reason for end-game confusion as anything else.

It’s one reason why I like the idea of a “skill based” system over a level system. Players are taught early on that character achievement at the start of the game is the same as it is near the end.
 
I'm playing some EQ right now (SOE is offering for free) and the hot zones (massive exp bonus) are a joke. It's made leveling trivial. The same with WoW, I guess. If these two companies no longer care about PVE why not allow players to start at the cap and be done with it.

Mt fear is that developers are abandoning PVE entirely and that each new MMO will have even less leveling than the one before it.
 
It seems to me that developers and players are kind of shooting themselves in the foot by thinking of the "leveling" and "level cap' games as two separate pieces where different rules are supposed to apply, rather than as one continuous game.

We end up with silly stuff like WoW being solo mostly for the first part if you want to get through it quickly (Thanks to the low instance/PvP experience), just to switch to arenas/raids (which have very different playing styles), games that appear to be planned as PvP where the players have to level through a PvE part to reach what they really want to do, and other silliness.

It seems odd that Wow, and it seems a lot of other MMO, developers haven't thought up different levelling (or skilling, or some other equivalent, including none at all) models for their games, which reflect what a game is supposedly designed for.
 
I totally agree with Dillion. The idea of having a game play one way for the first 100 hours, and then play completely differently the moment you turn 70 is insane.

If I enjoyed having fun and meaningful things to do solo or in small parties my first 100 hours, why wouldn't I want compelling content for that play style at hour 101? Conversely, why should players that only want to raid be forced to suffer through a 100 hour solo/ small party grind to do it?

There are some fairly obvious ways to avoid this quandry, and suprisingly few MMOs have implemented any of them.
 
Regarding Blizzard's lack of timeline... I think this topic deserves a future discussion of which choice would all of us prefer:

1) A product being delivered on time, but buggy and a feeling of it not being finished. Ala most of the recent MMORPG's.

2) A game taking waaaay too long to release because it's stuck in quality control mode like WotLK or perhaps Spore. Causing existing gameplay to stagnate in WotLK's case. I'd argue that if it's for a game that hasn't released at all rather than an expansion, all that'll do is increase gamers' collective hunger for it.
 
I also think blizzards slow release schedule is starting to poison the well of expectations. Features they finally release today are things expected 2 1/2 years ago in patches. This just makes more and more people think they are incapable of innovation when stuff asked for 3 years ago is handed out in poor implementations, LFG tool as a prime example, and then never touched because some dev states it's fine deal with it. And the blue comments to this day on the LFG tool are usually whiney, non productive posts about how its a great tool but people won't use it.

I think they are slowly turning thier player base into thier enemy and that's just not a good thing.
 
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