16 May 2010

The Composer and the Engineer

Hail to the Chief chorus music

Cataclysm

Note: Minor mention about revised levelling system. Nothing that isn’t common knowledge already.

Over the last few months I’ve been using the Refer-a-Friend system to level up some new alts. It’s been a bit of a struggle – even with the perks and bonuses I’d forgotten how much of a grind the experience can be. More to the point though, it’s made me pay much more attention to the process behind gaining new skills and abilities, and how those abilities are then put to use.

Looking at it one way, learning how to play a class could be a bit like learning music. For a mage, you would start off with your basic nuking spell like Fireball, learning the rhythm of the class. You’d then build upon that with other spells, such as Scorch and Hot Streak, in order to create a rotation. The way that your fingers beat out a patern on your hotkeys is a similar pattern to a pianist – there’s a melody there that becomes increasingly complex as you gain levels. I think that it’s also true for Affliction Warlocks, learning how to weave their spells together in a well rehearsed pattern.

Looking at it a different way, you could treat it as an engineering problem, with each ability seen as part of an engine. To start off with you have a pretty basic engine that grunts along, but as you collect more engine parts you can start building some really fancy stuff. Of course if you put the parts together in the wrong way you get something that misfires horribly. Arrange the parts well and you have an engine that purrs, delivering meaty performance and incredible efficiency.

The trouble starts creeping in when you look at how you introduce new abilities to a player. Currently you hop along to your trainer, who teaches you both new skills and existing ranks of old skills at the appropriate level. And that’s it. There’s no real advice about when the new skill you’ve just learned is worth using, or if it’s helpful to your playstyle at all. Some of the best in-game resources for helping with this are other players, while Psynister’s Guides are a great “missing manual” for players levelling a new class.

But should we need these guides at all, or is this something that the game itself should do? Should the game be teaching this stuff to players instead, either through interactions with class trainers or by an extended tooltip method? Should we have to rely on the goodwill of other players in order to help us?

I think that Blizzard understand some of this problem by removing spell ranks in Cataclysm. It removes “trainer blindness” – that bit where you’re spam-learning a ton of skills. Most of the time they’ll be new ranks of spells you already know, with the occasional new one sneaking in. The idea is that by focusing your attention purely on skills that are new you’ll be much faster at incorporating them into your routine. I’m not sure if it’s sufficient to provide all the help a player needs, but I think it’s a welcome step in the right direction.

More fundamentally than this, I think that it’s a ripe time to have a look at how classes treat their skills. Do you want to treat players as composers, starting them off with the simple things and giving them a rhythm to build upon? Or do you want to treat them as engineers, handing them a Lego bucket of abilities with which to build an engine that roars? After all, the two different approaches require a different mindset and a different approach to how they are taught.

Personally I think that both are valid approaches, as players in general are a varied bunch. Some will prefer one style over another while a few will be able to handle both. By being upfront and helping to start that process, I think that players are much more likely to find a class that grips them to the end.

Maybe, just maybe, they’ll make an engine that sings.

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6 Responses to The Composer and the Engineer

  1. Poneria says:

    I strongly disagree with a lot of this, but it’s too much for a comment. Bbl.

    • Gazimoff says:

      I’d love to see your reply when it comes :)

      I can understand how it’s a bit of chalk and cheese, but it’s something that’s been bothering me for a while – how do you teach the fundamentals of things like rotation, priority, etc, without either having to learn it from someone that already knows the class or from reading it in a gude? How do you guide a plauer who has a stack of spells to show which ones are good and which ones aren’t useful to them?

      With Cataclysm, there’s a huge potential for new players to try out WoW for the first time. Should they be left to bumble through the content, the lucky few being shown how to play by others? Or should part of the game be actively teaching you how your class works?

      I admit, it’s a really tricky thing, but if you think there’s an alternative I’d love to hear it :)

      • Poneria says:

        It’s not really that I have an alternative. It’s more I’m saying you’re confusing endgame with being the obvious end-result of leveling, when endgame is just another leveling game itself.

        Buying a soccer ball doesn’t mean you _must_ or eventually _will_ become a profession player or that soccer balls should come with instruction manuals on what formations are effective. It just means you can play whatever level of game you want. College intramural soccer games happens to be the same flavor of game that FC Barcelona or Team USA plays, it just differs in the specific rules and following, is all.

        But it’s not which soccer ball you bought as a kid or what camps you went to that make you a superstar futbol player.

        It’s you. And the people you play(ed) with.

        And I approach my computer games with the same regard. Taking out the requirement of having to go learn from other people would destroy the game, in my opinion.
        .-= Poneria´s last blog ..Keyboard-turning & “Wrong” =-.

        • Gazimoff says:

          That’s a reallty interesting concept – is WoW two games (a levelling game and an end game) that are similar but not the same? Like going from checkers to chess, or similar.

          Should, or even *can*, a levelling game prepare you for an endgame? Or should the two be treated distinctly, with only the basic similarities between them?

          It’s a good point, and it’s got me thinking…

    • Poneria says:

      ( This is actually a response to the big long thread, but I don’t think the squishing box is going to treat a textwall kindly. Because I textwall by default. =P)

      Not really checkers & chess, I stick by my soccer game analogy. Hobby & professional. Not to say levelers/hobbyists aren’t any less focused or serious about their game than raiders/professionals, but it does feel like there’s a distinction between the two, and it smacks something of relaxation. The focus to triumph is the same for both, I think, but the penalties for losing or screwing up are different. Or maybe the penalties/focuses of success are actually different (what’s completely “wrong” in pro might be “okay” in hobby circles, and vice versa).

      I’m not going to say they are more lax in hobby soccer versus pro soccer, because if hobby soccer is really important to you, then getting knocked off your hobby team is just as bad to you as a pro losing his job.

      It really does feel like this job mentality (you adapt yourself to the team) versus this fun mentality (the teams adapts to its players). I’m not saying “job” as in something not terribly enjoyable but otherwise necessary; you can love your job, too. Think about it; in raiding and pro soccer, typically you start with a team and a content/tier focus, and you find players who fit that bill. You play with those players so long as those players are useful to you. Players can come and go with no hard feelings either way (or buckets of tabloid drama, if you like that). You also start with a known, full, and assumed bucket of skills.

      In hobby soccer, you start more often with a show of interested hands, and you build the teams around the players (schedules, likes, skills, etc.). In leveling, you start with a few of seemingly random skills (it’s like you get one of everything in the first 10 lvls, and then get similar abilities later) and your own mindset on soloing vs. grouping, and you work it out as you go.

      You don’t have to have played checkers to learn to play chess or vice versa. However, if you’re playing pro soccer, chances are good that you played it as a kid/hobby beforehand. Same thing with leveling: if you are a raider, you HAD to have leveled (at least somewhat *cough* DKs *cough*) beforehand.

      So leveling will teach you the basics you need. But it won’t be superhard on you if you screw up or don’t play the very most efficiently. It’ll also baby you just a little bit. Y’know, in kid-league soccer, they do this rule where you have to cycle everybody onto the field in the game. Mandatory substitution, so “everyone plays.” It’s a feelings thing, but it’s also a teaching thing. If not everyone plays, then not everyone learns, because soccer is one of those things where doing helps a lot (versus watching or reading). They also keep track of who scores goals, so next season, you don’t wind up with the all-stars all on one team; they stagger the best players among the worst. (Oh wait, that’s the LFG now…huh…)

      Whereas in the pro world, you play only if you’ve proven you’re one of the eleven best on the team. More specifically, you only play if you’re one of the one (GK) to four (midfielders) best of your role on the team. Same thing in raiding — if you’re not one of the 10 or 25 best, you sit it out. If you’re the fourth best tank, you won’t be playing on the A Team.

      In the kid leagues, you also just aren’t expected to have and don’t need all the skills you need in the pro league. I used to referee for the kids’ league (AYSO) I played in, and one of the age ranges I did was U6 (under 6 yrs. old). Aside from the boundary lines, the only marks on the field are the center circle and two very small, backyard-sized goal nets. You can rotate in the center circle and still, as the center ref, be able to call the out-of-bounds accurately, even though you get a line ref to help out. There is no goalkeeper position, in fact, there are NO positions because there are only 3 players per team on the field at any one time. They certain don’t play like there are positions; it’s one swarm moving around the field.

      There also aren’t penalties in U6 soccer; no red cards or yellow cards. Kids grab at each other because grabbing is part of the description of being a kid, and yeah, you can send a kid off if he’s being particularly feisty, but for the most part you expect shirt-grabbing all match long. If they don’t throw the ball in correctly — straight over their head, foot never lifts up — they get a do-over, maybe even a second do-over if they “almost had it.”

      In kid leagues, you don’t have all the rules and you don’t have all the penalties because it’s the kid leagues and they’re not expected to play like adults, they’re expected to play like KIDS.

      Same thing with leveling. It might teach you some things about endgame, but it won’t teach you everything and you won’t be expected to play like it’s endgame just to graduate to level 2 (or 20 or 55 or 76 or 85).
      .-= Poneria´s last blog ..Keyboard-turning & “Wrong” =-.

  2. Psynister says:

    [WARNING: Wall of Text Incoming!]

    Excellent points on both sides. I see where Gaz is going with this, but I also see clearly Poneria’s point.

    I read this before coming to work today and started to reply but decided it would be better to sit and think about it for a bit before replying, so that’s what I’ve done. In short I agree more with Poneria.

    I’d like to mention before I get into that part of my reply, that I don’t think doing away with spell ranks really has anything at all to do with helping people incorporate new skills. I think the foremost reason for it is the bug they have with dual specs not upgrading your spell ranks of your inactive spec’s action bars when you train which results in level 80’s using Rank 3 of spells that have Rank 10 simply because they haven’t replaced the old icon with a new one. Second, I think they’re trying to limit the number of trips you have to take back to your trainer to make playing more smooth and less of a hassle by having to leave your questing areas constantly to go train.

    Right now the only “easy” way of finding out if you’re using lower ranks of your spells is for someone in your party/raid running the RankWatch addon that will whisper to you, or for you to be running the UpRank addon which auto-updates all of your action bars for you.

    Those of us who just train everything that’s there by spamming the “Learn” button do so because we already know what we’re doing. Someone who doesn’t know is more likely to actually look at that list. I personally spam learn and then scroll through my chat log to see if there were any Rank 1 spells in it and if not then I just go on about my business.

    Now, on to the actual reply.

    I totally get what you’re saying about the composer/engineer as I myself am a composer. When I’m playing my Prot Paladin the rotation is so simply and concrete that I literally have my left hand waving in the air between casts because I have the GCD timed perfectly to have my hand come back down to strike the next ability right on time. It’s a fun, smooth way to play the game that just lets you get into the rhythm of the class and get it done. My own style of play is more engineer like for most other classes though because many of them are set to a priority system more so than an actual rotation, or even though they do have a rotation there are different cast times (for casters) or required movement (for melee) that throw off a rhythm.

    But you’re looking at it here from an optimization perspective. A lot of people just like to have fun with the class, which often includes casting spells or using abilities that aren’t optimal for their spec. As Poneria is getting at, not everybody cares about being optimized for end game, or even for leveling. They’re interested in just playing the game and having fun.

    Let’s take a look at being a Druid tank for just a second. If we read the tooltips on Regrowth and Rejuvenation we’ll see that they’re healer spells that are used for healing, which can also be used in other specs when healing is needed. If you’re the tank then you don’t want to drop out of Bear form to heal somebody, so you shouldn’t be using those spells. However, one of the best ways to play as a Bear tank is to HoT yourself up before you rush into combat so that you’re generating a little extra threat, you’re keeping your health high, and your healer has some buffer for their healing starting off.

    Another example, Hand of Reckonning for Ret Paladins. HoR is a paladin Taunt that deals holy damage to a target if they are not targeting you. When you’re playing solo it’s an excellent DPS spell that can be used to pull a mob or to finish off a mob that’s fleeing due to low health. It’s also great in dungeons if you let your tank know what you’re doing. If you’re running with another Paladin you can do some serious damage to mobs just by trading off HoR casts when they’re not on cooldown.

    The problem with offering extended tooltips to try to teach you how to use different spells is that you can’t cover everything without giving them a manual with each one, because you aren’t just covering a single spec, you’re covering all three. And you’re not covering just PvE, you’re covering PvP. Not just solo, but 5, 10, and 25 man groups as well. We could probably write a 3,000 word essay on the many applications of Polymorph alone. Blizzard would pimp the CC spells, but we know they’ll be useless again. “But Blizz is bringing CC back,” yeah, I’m sure they are. At least until we get the gear from Cat that makes it pointless again, right?

    Now for something a little more constructive.

    Do I think adding more informative information in game would be helpful? Absolutely. Would I want Blizzard telling me how to use all my spells, which ones are good for my spec and which ones aren’t? No. I don’t think Blizzard would get them right in most cases
    .-= Psynister´s last blog ..Druid Leveling: 1-30 (Resto and Balance) =-.