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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