19 Jan 2011

Warcraft Versus the Traditional MMO

Box art for the original World of Warcraft

I promise I’ll get back to talking about mages soon. I’ve been doing some research on the latest PTR patch which I think will make interesting reading, but that can wait a few more days. Today I’d like to ask you a question.

Do you play World of Warcraft because it’s an MMO, or because it’s Warcraft?

The reason I ask is because your expectations of the game were probably different depending on what angle you were coming from. If you’re a veteran MMO player you’d probably expected many of the genre conventions to be applied to this game. The game world would then have been moulded and shaped around those genre conventions, effectively making a Warcraft MMO. It would still be fun to play but it would probably have had a much more traditional feel to it.

If on the other hand you’re a veteran of the Warcraft games then you’d probably expected the game world, environment and storyline to come first. You wouldn’t have felt too worried about genre conventions being cast out and disregarded as long as the game had that Warcraft look and feel. It would still have been fun to play with that unmistakable Blizzard polish, but it probably wouldn’t have felt like a traditional MMO.

Why do I make this point? Because sometimes we need reminding that games aren’t designed with our individual tastes in mind.

The Quest for Fun, Not Bacon

At its core World of Warcraft is not a difficult game, but it’s also not intended to be. The designers actively make choices in order to make the game engaging and accessible by as wide a range of people as possible. This systematic design also includes making choices about group content. What do I mean? Let me give you a touch of history.

When I started playing back in Vanilla there was no Looking for Group tool. I used to have to hang around in Ironforge looking to form a class-raid to Scholomance. I used to spam trade chat looking to find seven other people to join my group, each of them unique in class and role. I used to have guildmates but there were never more than three of us online. In many cases it took longer to form the group than to complete the dungeon. Things became easier when I joined a raidgroup, but I still remember camping trade chat just to do a single dungeon for an evening.

Let’s be honest, the waiting game is not fun.

Nowadays we have a tool that takes a lot of the pain out of forming groups, if only they’d be a bit more reliable. But that’s the only variable Blizzard can’t control. Even if they make the perfect game with precisely balanced classes and widely appealing content, the effect other players can have on your own in-game fun is huge. If you have a bad dungeon run or a bad raid it’s easy to blame the game, even on a subconscious level. Putting all your game design eggs in one group-play basket leaves you in a bad place if group play is not fun.

The natural design choice is to reduce the reliance on groups from some parts of the game, or to make forming groups as easy as possible when it’s required. That’s the key thing for me – it’s multi-player on my terms. I don’t need to group up all the time and I don’t feel compelled to. Should an MMO force you to group up for all content? Possibly, but then the challenge wouldn’t be about defeating the content. It would be being able to hold a group together for more than five minutes before disintegrating in a puddle of blame, bile and badly spelt swearwords. You may find that challenge fun. I do not. Human Resources Online is not the game I want to play.

Know What You’re Buying

A stack of Wrath of the Lich King Collectors Edition boxedAbout two years ago Demon’s Souls was released for the PlayStation 3 without any marketing budget, but still gained universal acclaim and popularity. One thing that stuck in my mind was every single critic saying it was bloody hard. It was still a success because people knew what they were buying – they expected a challenge and were given one in spades. The achievement of completing Demon’s Souls was something to be proud of, compared to say reading a book or watching a film. It meant something.

But that’s the rub – you’re largely playing the game on your own, relying on your own skills and playing on your own time. If you fail to defeat a boss then it’s your own frustration that you’re venting and ultimately your own controller that gets wedged in your own TV screen.

Now imagine you’re playing a game like that, but every aspect required you to be playing it with at least four other people who you’ve never met before. Sounds like fun? Maybe. I’d be very unlikely to pay a subscription for it though – some nightmare spawn from the dark recesses of Dungeons and Dragons and Chatroulette.

Warcraft is cut from a different cloth. This doesn’t make it any less valid as a game, it just means that the design intentions are different. It’s not intended as a heavy MMO for heavy MMO fans. At one end of the spectrum it’s a single-player RPG with a IRC-style chatbox, while at the other end it provides the raid and PvP encounters we know and love. That’s not a bad thing, that’s deliberate design for an intended audience.

The Fallacy of Audience-Led Design

Over the last year I participated in two MMO betas – Final Fantasy XIV and Lego Universe. The two games couldn’t have been more of a contrast against each other.

FFXIV had a collection of baggage with it due to the previous MMO in the dynasty, a legacy that many participants in the beta were desperate to preserve. They pleaded with the developers for it not to be a “dumbed down Warcraft clone” that threw out the conventions of the MMO genre. They wanted a serious game for serious players. Ultimately they got the game they deserved – a repetitive and unintuitive grind-fest with hideous controls and lacklustre content. Three months in and the design is declared a failure, with a new team brought in to make sweeping changes.

Lego on the other hand served to break conventions. It borrowed heavily from the Warcraft school of game design where the focus was on making it fun to play. And fun it was, even though it felt simple and childlike. If I had the time to play a second MMO it would probably be this one just because it was cheeky and delightful to be a part of.

Designers shouldn’t be trying to rattle off features or build the game the way convention dictates. That way lies sameness, boredom and designing to tick boxes. Instead they should ask themselves a simple question with every change they make:

Does this make the game more fun to play?

Don’t Shout (Too Much)

Outdoor megaphoneIt doesn’t matter if you’re a diehard of the MMO genre or just a fan of everything Blizzard makes. It doesn’t even matter if you’re just stopping off at Warcraft town as part of your grand gaming journey. We all want the games we play to be fun, to be enjoyable, to be entertaining. The great thing about MMO games is the uncommon interaction between player and developer – a two way street where ideas can flow back and forth. I don’t know of any other genre where this applies.

That said, feedback generally comes in two piles: “I think that this small aspect of the game doesn’t work very well and think it should be changed” or “I don’t like large segments of the game and think you should rip them out and make wholesale changes”. Chances are that if you fall in the last camp then the game isn’t really designed to meet your playstyle expectations. You wouldn’t be aiming Lego Universe Online at heavy corporation EVE players, would you?

We can’t demand every game to be our game, much like we can’t expect every film from Hollywood to be our film or every book to be our book. That’s just silly. What we can do is ensure that we provide feedback on the games we play in order to help make them better. We shouldn’t expect every game to feel like a tailored suit made just for us, but if you’re struggling to find the fun anywhere in a game then it might just not be for you.

Megaphone picture by 100yen from Wikimedia Commons

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