Speaking of Rorschach Tests

Ghostcrawler made another community blog post about the Great Item Squish (or Not) of Pandaria. I read it, went “Yep, tis a pickle,” and moved on. Motstandet of That’s a Terrible Idea instead went on a bizarre rant:

Unquestioning and steadfast in their decisions, the WoW designers make seemingly contradictory choices. Why doesn’t GC want level 85’s to do higher level content? I could only assume it’s so players do the leveling “content” first. Yet they constantly assault the leveling game, […]

The article goes on, discussing various methods which could bandage WoW’s broken attribute system, and then he unloads this gem: “If your answer is that stat budgets don’t have to grow so much in order for players to still want the gear, our experience says otherwise.” Silly plebes with your naive remedies; I have data to dismiss your predictable suggestions!

Ignoring the arrogance, what metrics could they possibly have to discredit this simple solution?

I answered the post over there, but I think it is useful to talk about some of the underlying design issues of expansion-based themepark MMOs.

Design Issue 1: The “assault” on the leveling game.

The matter of pacing is of huge concern in videogame design. Even in single-player RPGs (or really any game), you still see the steady metering of items and abilities as the game progresses; going from Stone Sword –> Iron Sword –> Steel Sword and so on. I do not think I played even a FPS where I had access to all the guns in the game right off the bat. By handing out new guns or powers or abilities in a measured way, the player has time to focus on useful applications of said gun/power/ability before deciding which one(s) they want to use.

So given that, why does Blizzard continually assault the leveling game with patch notes such as “The amount of experience needed to gain levels 71 through 80 has been reduced by approximately 33%?” The issue is twofold.

First, look at the experience from a brand new player or even potential player perspective. The designers may have crafted the original WoW leveling experience to take an average of 300 hours to go from 1-60. In other words, the designers felt that 300 hours was a long enough journey to get to the endgame. When expansions are released though, an additional 50 hours is added to the leveling experience and the endgame moves farther along the timeline. Assuming that each expansion adds another 50 hours and no other changes were made, someone picking up all the WoW boxes would be staring at a 500 hour leveling wall come Mists of Pandaria.

So, assuming that 300 hours is a sweet-spot of sorts, it makes sense to truncate the leveling experience so that it always takes 300 hours to get to the endgame. The alternative of doing nothing means that all the commercial and word-of-mouth advertising would be concerning (endgame) content a new player would have to spend weeks and weeks getting to.

This is not to suggest there are not side-effects to XP reduction, such as out-leveling a zone before all the quests are complete. Then again, as long as the quests are sufficiently non-linear, why should anyone care? After all, skipped content adds to replayability. It is not entirely different from RPGs today with optional side-quests and how you can beat the game without being max level.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, one has to look at the experience from a veteran player perspective. I say “more importantly” because there are more ex-WoW players than WoW players, and thus more people who have already experienced the leveling content at least once. If I want to experience the endgame as a different class, each expansion makes the decision to roll an alt even more difficult – every hour I spend leveling an alt is an hour I potentially fall behind in progression (which is, incidentally, why it is useful to have diminishing returns and plateaus). While it is important to pace the game for new players, it makes less sense to do so for players who already learned all the lessons a slow pace was designed to encourage. I may not have ever played a druid, but I played a rogue, a warrior, and a shaman, so pacing things like I have no idea how to move around simply makes me bored and impatient.

So why doesn’t Blizzard simply make a Death Knight option (starting at level 55) for all classes? Good question. I wish they would. Heirlooms were a rather brilliant “solution” insofar as they took something they were going to do anyway – reducing XP required – and then made you spend time buying them, rather than getting them for free. That being said, from a business standpoint there is still probably value for them to have me spend 20+ hours leveling up as that is time spent in-game in those leveling ranges, making things there a little less of a ghost town.

Design Issue 2: Why not just have flatter progression?

Well, if you noticed, Blizzard is kinda doing this already. The standard ilevel upgrade between tiers used to be 13 ilevels, but now it is closer to 7 ilevels. Moreover, Blizzard combined 25m and 10m gear, so that instead of four tiers between raids, there are only two.

The problem with flatter progression is that it, in effect, removes “content.” To understand this point, let us all acknowledge what really is going on under a random loot system: the loot is random so as to give you a reason to beat a boss more than once. If the boss had “smart loot” that only dropped items tailored to the raid who defeated it, that raid would have less reasons to kill that boss week after week. As long as you continue to care about the loot a boss has, that boss remains legitimate “content” to you. I keep putting air quotes around the word “content,” because let’s face it, in every other scenario the only reason you would want to kill the same boss again is if it was fun to do so.

Another issue is when there simply is not enough of difference between gear to matter… or when older items are better. Spending weeks on a boss to gain +2 Strength is not my idea of a productive use of my free time, even if objectively there is no difference between that and +20 Strength. The way something feels is as important (if not more so) than the objective measure. There is a good reason why things are priced at $9.99 instead of $10, after all.

Flatter progression though also leads to those scenarios in which older items were strictly better than newer ones. Before relics were changed to be stat sticks, the Holy paladin Libram of Renewal reduced the mana cost of Holy Light by 113. That relic was available from the beginning vendors in T7 content and ended up being Best-in-Slot for (nearly?) the entire expansion. And yet Blizzard designed and itemized Holy paladin librams for T8, T9, and T10. If you used those, you were actually doing it wrong. And while new paladins could always just buy the T7 libram, there were situations in WoW’s past where an older item remained BiS (Dragonspine Trophy) and basically led to people farming obsolete content for years. That is not my particular idea of a good time, especially when you were basically farming an item for just a handful of people.

The Design Solution: Business (Mostly) As Usual

To be honest, I don’t think there is much different that Blizzard should have done. There were missteps for sure, such as when they introduced hardmode raiding in the middle of Wrath and had itemization quickly spiral out of control. But from a player experience, I was very grateful that my having Lich King loot did not trivialize Cataclysm leveling content the same way my having TBC gear left me slogging through hundreds of Northrend quests with zero upgrades. I can empathize with people who have all their hard work rendered moot each expansion/tier, but I also believe that the alternative is worse.

If Sisyphus had to look at the entire mountain each time instead of just focusing on pushing the boulder, I don’t think he’d ever make it to the top.

That being said, there shouldn’t be an issue with Blizzard introducing an option to slow down leveling much like they have an option to currently turn off XP gain entirely. And I would also like to see a Hero Class solution for veterans, possibly via the Cash Shop.

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Posted on November 7, 2011, in Philosophy, WoW and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. As a WoW-Vet I agree with your assessment of the leveling curve. I have 4 characters at 85 and to be frank after I have done it a few times I do not really want to do it again…I know plenty of people who hit 50 or 60 and just flatline because it’s taking them too long. They could introduce something like heirlooms to give the “hero” option to all classes. For example for X (3k+?) Justice Points you could buy a one-time “pass” that is account bound. You’d then create a new character of the race/class you wanted and use the pass on them. You’d instantly jump to level 55 in an appropriate zone with level appropriate gear.

    I have a feeling however that Blizz may start introducing things like “boosters” sometime in the future; especially for things like XP that don’t necessarily matter at endgame. I could see Valor/Conquest “boosters” being hated and I would be against them, but XP only really matters to the character/player.

  2. What the squishing is doing is removing the end game progression of past expansions. There’s no longer any reason (for instance) for BC Heroics -> Karazhan -> T5 raids -> T6 -> Sunwell to drop progressively better gear. Very few people are progressing through those raids these days. The squish will make them all basically equivalent. This might even make raiding more interesting during the leveling game.

  3. If someone is interested to see what happens with non-exponential power increases, it’s easily done. Or more correctly, WAS easily done, since the last LotRO expansion went the WotLK way and made a big jump in item stats.
    Before RoI, in LotRO, the equipement progression was small. Add to this that the stats were capped, that some instances required some specific level of resistance, that there are multiple item sets with possibly nice class bonuses, and the result was there there was no “endgame gear”. You could use level 50 items at level 65 simply because they were better in some situations. I didn’t go raiding in LotRO simply because the amount of farming for all the possible types of gear was enormous (and I’ll not mention the problem of getting information on it, and I’ll forget about the amount of bank slots wasted for all the possible types of tokens used to buy them).

    If I’m not mistaken, BC had the same approach and I’m very much glad it went the way of the dodo. Sure, the current Cataclysm approach is very simplistic: get the item with the higher ilvl and the right main stat, to hell all the rest. This makes gearing a lot less choice-based, but at the same time it also makes it a lot less a pain in the ass. (and, BTW, if you really care about squeezing that last % of DPS – not that it will serve any purpose 99% of the time – there are still some choices to make, in particular with reforging: depending on class/raid composition/fight type, the best secondary stats can get shuffled).
    The price to pay is the trivialization of all older content. When going to Twilight Highlands during leveling, mobs take time to kill, and pulling too many is dangerous. Now I almost two-shot them…. (btw in WotLK it was even worse).

    Leveling game: I agree 100% with what you say on the duration: they have to compress it or risk losing the influx of new players. One of the big points of WoW is that everyone is at level cap and so everyone can group together. Unless (until?) they implement character level “re-scaling”, fast rush to level cap remains a good approximate solution.