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Chicken & Eggs, PlanetSide Edition

I have been playing around with PlanetSide 2 (Ps2) for the past couple of days.

As far as initial impressions go, the “introduction” to Ps2 is uniformly awful. Oh, hey, they lifted the character creation head presets from Fallout. Pick a faction and server without knowing anything about either. And before you even get a chance to check out character/class settings and such, you are launched via drop pod into the heaviest fighting on the map and, in all likelihood, killed immediately. Now that you have some free time, go ahead and look over the thoroughly unhelpful menus while trying to ascertain to what degree SOE is set to gouge your wallet (spoiler: the Nth degree).

Not that it really matters, but hey.

Once you finally respawn, things do not get much better that first day. Coming from Battlefield 3 and even Tribes, killing people seems to take 1-2 seconds of full-auto fire more than it should. It is also difficult to tell who the enemy actually is – while you get a No Smoking sign on your crosshairs when aiming at a friendly, everyone has the same profile and even colors at first glance. Character animations look stiff, and the models seem lifted from Natural Selection, that Half-Life mod from a decade ago.

I respawned time and time again, courageously throwing myself in front of bullets intended for players actually capable of accomplishing something, while I returned fire with my Nerf Gun that shoots wads of wet tissue paper. In a lull in the dying action, I tried deciphering the stone tablet hieroglyphics that was my minimap. “Generator destroyed.” “Generator repaired.” Was that a good or bad thing? Whose generator? When the the vehicle I was spawning at finally got destroyed, I found myself literal miles away from any discernible action, with no way of knowing where to go, what to do, or why I was doing this instead of finishing packing.

I was lost and alone in the blinding snow.

Forever Alone…

The second and third days, by contrast, were infinitely better.

It took a lot of outside research, but I started understanding the pros and cons of the various classes. I learned enough about Certs (i.e. upgrade points) to know what they are, how to get more, and good places to spend them. I used Reddit to find a Google Doc that explained what the symbols on the map are, how to properly assault a Bio Dome, and some tricks for getting around. I learned enough about the weapon shop to know how badly SOE is gouging me (way worse than Tribes: Ascend, by the way)… but also the cool bit where you take a new weapon out for a 30 minute test-drive without paying anything.¹

On the third day, I found one of the best features in almost any game I have ever played:

Please make this the future.

I called this post Chicken & Eggs because games like PlanetSide 2 (and nearly all MMOs) require you to have social structures in place before you can really start having fun. Social structures which, incidentally, seem like a waste of time to seek out/develop when you aren’t having fun. “Join a guild to have a good time.” Why would I, if I’m not having fun currently? Which is supposed to come first? I am not necessarily suggesting that fun should occur without effort, but let’s be serious for minute: there are a hundred different games you could be playing right now that are fun from the word Go.

While I still believe the First Day experience in PlanetSide 2 is pretty awful, I absolutely love this grouping system with descriptions they have in-game and hope this sort of idea is lifted wholesale by every MMO multiplayer game. Why can’t there be some sort of in-game bulletin-board-esque system that allows like-minded individuals find each other in every game? Why do socially-oriented games basically require out-of-game social structures to work at all? I have always enjoyed the no-obligation/instant grouping of LFD, but I still recognize the existence of a social hole it cannot fill. Yet here, in a single simple feature, I can differentiate between the friendly strangers, the SRS BSNS folks, jokers wanting to recreate that helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now, and more.

So come on, social game designers, this is not that hard a concept. If the game is made better by playing with people we know, make it easier to get to know people in your own goddamn game. Nearly 99% of everyone I know online I originally met through WoW or blogging about WoW. Make your game a foundation for new friendships (by making it easier to do so) and people will continue coming back. We get the opportunity to express ourselves and meet new people, and you (likely) get a pair or more of multi-year customers.

¹ This feature is cool, but it has a 30-day cooldown on that specific weapon, and starts up an 8-hour cooldown on every other item. Apparently this cooldown is per character though, so you can cheese the limitation by rolling a new toon, trying it out, and then deleting it later.

Population vs Community

Population is the antithesis to community.

In other words, the bigger a community grows, the more it ceases to be a community at all.

com·mu·ni·ty [kuh-myoo-ni-tee]
noun, plural com·mu·ni·ties.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

A lot of words have been said regarding the degradation of the “MMO community” or a community specific to an MMO, typically in the context of developer mistakes decisions. While my argument technically supports those who claim that, for example, WoW devs killed the WoW community by pooling the population together via LFD and the like, the actual mechanism of community destruction was simply the existence of more warm bodies.

The more people you get together in one place…

  1. The lower the chances you have of seeing any individual again.
  2. The easier it is for good players to get lost in the crowd.
  3. The easier it is for extremely bad behavior to get noticed.
  4. The more incentive someone has to behave even worse (for attention, or other gain).

You may have heard about Gabriel’s Greater Internet Dickwad Theory. I suggest the “Anonymity” component is redundant with Crowd. In sufficient numbers, even one’s real name becomes irrelevant, assuming it isn’t duplicated to begin with, i.e. John Smith. Think back to the cliques that formed in high school. Chances are that the negative behavior of the members of the clique did not persist on the individual level when they were split up (beyond, perhaps, a catalyst). For myself, I distinctly remember the dichotomy between how much the football team could be assholes during lunch, but how well behaved (and friendly!) they were in Art class, including the ringleader (so to speak). Even if we assume that such a clique required X amount of sadism in order to remain a member, the fact that it was apparently modulated on the basis of number of witnesses is telling.

I bring all this up as a means of arguing against Milday’s mourning of the loss of “community activism,” for lack of a better term. To her, things were better when people behaved out of fear of Scarlet Letters and social ostracization, rather than behaving well simply for lack of griefing tools. It is impossible to steal a resource node or ninja a dungeon drop in Guild Wars 2, for example, and that is apparently a bad thing. Better that someone could behave badly and such behavior be punished, than a world with no wrong to be done.¹

And, hey, perhaps Milady is even right. Maybe that is better.

The problem is that social ostracization only works on a community level. Could a ninja get blacklisted in the “glory days” of vanilla and TBC? On smaller servers, sure. Or maybe even on larger servers in the “community” of people running dungeons at 3am. But then again… were they really blacklisted? Paid name changes were rolled out in October 2007; server transfers existed since mid-2006. Alts existed since Day 1. And, let us be serious here, social ostracization only works anyway when both A) the entire community acts as one unit, and B) the target even cares. Your “xxIllidanxx is a ninja” spam might have inconvenienced xxIllidanxx for the 30 minutes you posted in Trade Chat², but what about the rest of the time? Chances are that he still got a group eventually, either because someone was really that desperate or they simply did not know. Or perhaps enough of his ninja friends logged on today.

The flood of LFD strangers circa end of Wrath makes social ostracization in WoW dungeons moot, of course. But I would say it was moot to begin with, given the size of WoW as a whole and the underlying level of persistent churn. There will always be more people. Even if you stopped xxIllidanxx in his ninja-looting guild-hopping TBC tracks, such that he reformed or quit the game entirely… xxArthasxx is right behind him. And xxDethwingxx. And xxlegolasxx. And so forth and so on ad infinitum. Not necessarily because there are infinite jerks/morons in the world (there is), but because the underlying incentive to behave badly still exists.

In the land of law-abiding citizens, the one criminal is king, to bastardize a phrase.

Should we simply throw up our hands and endure bad behavior? Of course not. But with games of sufficient size, the only solution that works is a systemic one. Guild hopping a problem? GW2 lets you join multiple guilds. Ninja looting and/or Need Whoring getting you down? Individual loot has rolled out in Diablo 3, GW2, and is coming to a LFR near you. Even Copper Ore nodes cannot be stolen in GW2, only shared.

The only downside to systemic solutions is what Milady refers to as the Automatization of the Social. In other words, if you provide in-game incentives to positive social actions – such as getting XP for helping resurrect dead players – one can no longer tell whether the action was performed for altruistic reasons, or selfish ones. I might suggest there is no difference between the two (altruism typically feels good), but I also recognize the potential pitfalls – I hardly ever thanked a stranger for rezzing me in GW2, whereas it would have been a bigger deal in WoW.

The key though, is simply recognizing all the new opportunities be sociable. Ever do Diablo 3 co-op and then stop and ask if your wizard partner needed the rare staff you picked up? Would Need vs Greed been better there? I say that voluntarily giving up a “secret” item is more social than simply not hitting Need. I have mentioned GW2’s resource node sharing several times now. In WoW, maybe there was social interaction is letting the other Miner grab the ore when you both show up. Or maybe you ganked them/stole it while they were in combat. In GW2, since you both can take the same node, you have an incentive to work together to kill the spider guarding it. That’s more social than what came before, IMO, because even if you gave the stranger the node in WoW, it allowed you to get to the next node faster, or the knowledge to move to a less-farmed area to maximize your own gains.

In Conclusion…

Any non-static community will “degrade” over time as the benefits of bad behavior naturally escalates with each additional member. The only real solution is changing the fundamental interaction between members, such that the more odious bad behavior becomes more than disincentivized, but impossible. With each additional participant in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the more likely the worst possible outcome comes to pass. Ergo, it is best to never present the Prisoner’s Dilemma at all, if you can help it.

Out of all of the social engineering experiments we have seen in the MMO space, the results of individual looting/resource nodes is the one I am looking forward to seeing the most. It is a fundamental shift away from zero-sum – I win the item, you don’t – to win-win. At least in theory. Maybe it will turn us all into asocial solipsists playing our single-player MMOs.

In which case… well, I still consider that a win-win compared to the current paradigm.

¹ Which should make one question one’s assumptions about the desirability of Heaven, eh?
² Ironically, xxIllidanxx would have a good case against you for in-game harassment.

On (or Off with) Their Head(s)

Aside from the things I previewed already, there was another dimension to the Guild Wars 2 beta: the turning of most of the classical MMO arguments on their head. You know the types, the ones that start perennial flame wars on forums? Nearly every single one showed up to the party, and Guild Wars 2 spilled its beer all over them. Stodgy old classics like:

1. Portals ruin exploration and make the world smaller!

Guild Wars 2 features Waypoints which, once discovered, can be instantly teleported to from anywhere in the world for a small fee. Here is a piece of the starting Norn zone:

Flight paths are sooooo 2004.

If portals truly do make the world smaller, you will be looking at Guild War 2’s map from an electron microscope. There were 17 Waypoints in the beginning zone alone; even assuming that number is inflated due to its newbie zone status, the World Completion box indicates there are 477 such Waypoints overall. There were more than a dozen in Divinty’s Reach, the human capital city. And keep in mind that Waypoints make portals feel like a trip to the DMV in a convenience comparison: you actually have to walk up to portals (how quaint), whereas you can teleport to Waypoints from anywhere.

My very first gaming blog post ever (originally posted on Player Vs Auction House) was a guide for people stuck in Dalaran when Blizzard removed the Stormwind/Orgrimmar portals circa beginning of Cataclysm. At the time, I felt like I was pretty clever coming up with a method that got you from point A to point B in seven and a half minutes. And it was clever, when the (solo) alternative could potentially take over ten minutes if you missed the boats. Yes, I’ve heard stories about 30 minute boat rides in older MMOs too.

With the extremely notable exception of WvW, there shouldn’t be an inch of the Guild Wars 2 world that cannot be reached in less than five minutes provided you have been there previously.

I have always argued that you make a world bigger by putting more stuff in it; size should be judged not by distance, but by density. Otherwise we can make a world 5% bigger by having players move 5% slower. Whichever argument reflects the truer nature of things, we will never get a more on-the-nose test case than when Guild Wars 2 launches. We are literally at the bottom of the slippery slope, two steps away from player omnipresence.

2. Points for losing?! Why don’t we just mail them epix?

Log in, press H, collect full suit of (legendary?) PvP gear.

This may not be an entirely fair comparison, as the implicit objection is towards “cheapening” gear progression by making it inevitable. Also, I am assuming that none of us gets uber-gear simply for turning 80 on the PvE side of things. There is something to be said though, about eliminating mechanical rewards (e.g. gear upgrades that increase performance) and focusing almost entirely on cosmetic ones. Will the PvP side of things stay fun enough in the long-run without the “crutch” of progression? Time will tell.

3. Guild leveling was needed to make guilds important again.

You can join multiple guilds simultaneously, no problem. Guild hopping to the max.

4. LFD has destroyed the sense of server community!

Server community? What community?

When Guild Wars 2 launches, you will also have the option to play with your friends on another world with our free ‘guesting’ feature. With guesting, your characters can play on any world where you have friends – with certain restrictions. For instance, you will not be able to participate in WvW while guesting. (source)

I suppose it will come down to how important WvW ends up being to you – I don’t think it’s quite the killer app, as others might – but otherwise there is no other reason for you to “stay” on any particular server. It is not entirely clear if you can “guest” yourself on just any random server, or if you have to be “invited” by friends, or join their party, or whatever. In any event, I would actually suggest this is about as close to “serverless” as a themepark can get.

5. No one talks in LFD, it’s like they’re all mute AI/bots.

Outside of WvW, this was about as chatty as I saw anyone:

Sir Booyah makes a point.

Different servers are different, betas are different than Live, and I don’t even know if that log was from the equivalent of Local Chat or Trade Chat, etc etc etc.

From my experience in the beta however, Milady is correct in being a little apprehensive about the Automatization of the Social. ArenaNet has eliminated kill-stealing and loot-ninjaing, they have incentivized resurrecting one’s fellow players, and they have successfully turned WvW into a Us vs Them affair in hiding the names of opposing players (“Green/Red/Blue Invader” is all you see). Emergent social interactions in Public Questing Dynamic Events have been so streamlined that no dialog is necessary.

And that… is kinda the rub.

I am not a huge fan of the blunt social engineering seen in old-school MMOs – “make friends or never hit level cap,” “play nice or get blacklisted and never run dungeons again” – but I am cognizant of how little purpose chatting in Guild Wars 2 will be, even in the middle of a impromptu 10-person group. Out in the world, it almost felt like I was in an LFD for questing.

In retrospect, perhaps Guild Wars 2 isn’t necessarily turning this argument on its head. What it is demonstrating is that the issue isn’t the random, transient nature of your group in LFD. Rather, it is the lack of necessity to interact that is the cause. Even the most mute LFD group in WoW had to coordinate who was standing in what beam during the 2nd boss fight in Blackrock Caverns, for example. Perhaps high-level dungeons will perform the same role in Guild Wars 2, and perhaps the nature of WvW will lead to the formation of like-minded individuals.

Out in the open world though, other players may as well be bots.

If it was not otherwise clear, I am not implying that Guild Wars 2 necessarily refutes all these classical arguments simply by existing. Rather, it merely appears to openly mock the collective wisdom of forum heroes everywhere. If things turn out well for ArenaNet’s gamble, there will be much soul-searching in the months following release. If not? Well… I’ll think of something.

SWTOR Retention Predictions

Discussing retention in an MMO without accounting for social ensnarement is like discussing weight loss without accounting for calories. It is something so fundamental that I have to imagine that the only reason it is not brought up is because it is taken as a given. And yet I have now read multiple blogs talking about SWTOR’s lack of retentive capacity based on story, story, or even god forbid, gameplay with completely straight faces. Here is Gordon from We Fly Spitfires:

And this, unfortunately, is BioWare’s big mistake. They sacrificed on so much in order to squeeze in a fully voice acted ’story mode’. It’s why there are so few classes, so few starting areas, limited racial choices, a small number of Flashpoints and Warzones, and only a single line of progression for each side. Likewise, once the shine of the story mode wears off, you realise that the gameplay is pretty generic if not shallow and outdated. Nils has a good write-up on the subject and, if you agree with him, you’ll probably also come to the realisation that WoW’s gameplay actually has a surprising amount of depth to it (at least in comparison to The Old Republic).

To get this out of the way, WoW’s combat definitely does have a more visceral cadence to it than my experience with the SWTOR beta. At least, it does once you pass certain level thresholds with a given class. Rogues before Cheapshot are hideous. Paladins were garbage for years until multiple class revamps later. And so on.

Having said that… really? Are we seriously to the point at which we are holding WoW up as an example of compelling gameplay as if Cataclysm never happened? Even if we agree that there are two (or more) different definitions of gameplay taking place – the moment-to-moment, and say, the minute-to-minute – I am here to argue that while they are helpful, they are ultimately secondary at best.

Retention in MMOs come down to the people. Daily quests are not compelling gameplay. Heroics are not compelling gameplay. Grinding mobs is not compelling gameplay. What is compelling is that you are doing things either with or for other people. These otherwise asinine activities are utter tripe on their own, divorced from the Show & Tell aspects. When I did 20+ days of daily quests to unlock the exalted Tol Barad trinket on an alt, it did indeed feel good to work towards something tangible. But what made the trinket tangible? The PEOPLE. The knowledge that my geared alt would be useful in a guild raid situation, that some random person could appreciated the amount of investment that went into earning it, that it was useful in the context of other people.

So tell me, exactly, what it is about SWTOR that prevents such meaning from possibly existing in whatever arbitrary trinket they have at the ass-end of a huge endgame grind. We have all endured unfun things in WoW either for the promise of fun later, or because friends make it fun to do unfun things together. What is the difference here? And perhaps more pointedly, if compelling gameplay is the defining factor for retention, why aren’t we still playing WoW? I did not quit WoW because the gameplay changed, I quit because the game ceased to be fun. Great gameplay is not enough for long-term retention. Nor would I even say it’s required. It helps, no doubt, just like voice-acting and emphasis on stories helped get feet stuck in doors of people whom would have never gave yet another MMO a chance. Whereas moment-to-moment gameplay has to compete against every new game released, your social circle is a lot less replaceable.

SWTOR could very well end up flopping due to lack of retention. But if it does, I’m betting the traction loss comes not from lukewarm gameplay or limited instances, but lack of guild infrastructure, social incentives, RPing opportunities, and the other touchy-feely aspects of the game. In any case, considering SWTOR needs 350k-500k subs to operate in the black (even counting the Lucas cut), predictions of its eventual demise are a little ridiculous unless you believe it will be less successful than Rift (currently at ~475k).

Raiding with “Friends”

Checking up on Tobold reveals an interesting post about the “failure” of the F2P model in Facebook games, or at least the way Zynga goes about it. However, there was a specific section of the post that piqued my interest (emphasis added):

By making paying to play so expensive and annoying, Facebook games thus make the “social cost” of pestering your friends more appealing. That very quickly leads to players realizing that the person least likely to be bothered by a constant stream of gift requests is somebody already playing the same game. MMORPGs like Everquest started out with a social model in which guilds were there to play with your friends, and over time that social model degraded to guilds where you play with people who have the same goals and play intensity as you have, even if you don’t actually like them. Facebook went through the same development much quicker. Every Facebook game forum has “add me” threads. My new Facebook account already has 67 friends, just by clicking on links in various “add me” threads like that.

I am not entirely sure whether the designers of Everquest actually expected people to join guilds with their IRL friends, but that almost seems like a moot point anyway – MMOs have a way of stratifying the playerbase into those willing and able to perform at X level and those at Y level. As may be implied by the tone of prior posts, and the existence of a blog to begin with, I tend to take things much more seriously than regular people… of which my friends qualify as, more or less.

The irony though, is that I am not even sure whether raiding should be a friend-based activity, or even could be one in the long-term. I certainly would never raid with my IRL friends specifically because raiding presents scenarios that only complicate things in (external) friendships. Loot distribution. Healing assignments. Interrupt duties. Punctual log-ins on raid days. Choosing who to sit out when 11 people are online. Deciding whether heroic modes are worth the time/hassle of attempting. It is the same strain I imagine must exist in a friendship between a supervisor and their employee. There is no good choice between the job and the friendship; it is always Lose-Lose.

The in-game friends I made via the guild and raiding in general understood when certain decisions were necessary as a Guild Master and/or Raid Leader in ways that my IRL friends could/would not. Then again… now that I think about it, there was quite a bit of drama when I continued bringing a few people along to the raids for the good of progression, but whom otherwise detracted from the enjoyment of everyone else. They probably should have understood why my actions were necessary, but I cannot help but imagine my having the same negative reaction if the shoe was on the other foot.

Raiding is often called the pinnacle of the MMO experience, but I am beginning to question that precept. Is there something wrong with the model? Or is (the possibility of) interpersonal conflict simply a given in any social endeavor? It almost seems like you could avoid conflict by making raiding so easy that any friction becomes irrelevant, but what of the people who enjoy a challenge? Or, hell, wouldn’t an easy endgame preclude the usefulness of a guild to begin with?

Fixing MMOs: The Social Problem

If the cornerstone of MMOs are the social aspects, then I have a question:

Why do game designers make it so absurdly complicated to find like-minded individuals?

I started playing WoW like I imagine a lot of people did: alone. And much like I imagine happens with guildless new players, I was ninja-recruited in one of the starting zones. From there, some elder player took me under their wing, helping me with that difficult final Ghostlands quest, getting me into a BG for the first time, and so on. I had a really great time.

Then… the guild imploded while I was questing in the Hinterlands. The game was no longer fun, and I abandoned my Blood Elf warlock. Since I had already paid for the WoW box and TBC at the same time, I decided I would at least try to get my money’s worth and roll a draenei on a new ‘Recommended” server. Leveled alone, twinked out a bit at levels 18-19 and 28-29 (I thought the AB boots were godly, even if you had to lose 30 games to get them). And then I ran that fateful Scarlet Monastery as a paladin tank, with three people who were friends IRL. I must have made some kind of impression because they invited me to the leveling guild they were in, named Invictus.

When I quit WoW a few months ago, I had been the GM of Invictus for over two and a half years. I saved the guild from abject destruction twice before taking the reins myself, and we graduated from leveling guild to Kara-clearing to eventually the #1 progression 10m-strict guild on the server in Wrath. For a time we had an absolutely brilliant raid roster of people that got along with each other, had similar interests, and otherwise had an ineffable chemistry which peaked in Ulduar, something that absolutely could not have happened at a better time in the game. Seriously, I still get misty-eyed looking back on the Ulduar montage I filmed (and seeing the Guild chat spam in the video after those kills almost makes me want to re-sub).

Thing is, it was completely goddamn random that any of us met at all.

To be clear, I am not referring to the general sort of Destiny vs Coincidence of my original guild imploding, my “choosing” Auchindoun over another server, or even my decision to tank Scarlet Monastery that night (and remember, this was back in TBC so Alliance characters had to be pretty damn serious about making the 15+ minute trek across three Horde-heavy zones). Anyone can talk about “what if?” until they begin to question the very nature of existence itself.

No, I talking about how Blizzard and most other MMO developers seem to rely on emergent social groups in their social MMOs.

e·mer·gent
adjective
Arising casually or unexpectedly.

When I met Sproll, Ariyal, and Duerim (now Boryenka) that night in Scarlet Monastery, none of us really knew how much we had in common. I wish I remembered what it was that led them to invite me to Invictus, although it was probably something dumb like my being guildless at the time. All three of those guys ended up being core officers of my benevolent Invictus dictatorship over the years, and I still talk with Bor to this day outside the game – we played the new Portal 2 co-op DLC a few days ago, for example.

If LFD existed back in those days, would I have met them in Scarlet Monastery? No. Would I have met them somewhere else on Auchindoun (it’s a low-pop server after all)? Maybe. But I still cannot get over the ridiculousness of the design insofar that this sort of emergent social behavior is encouraged in the most asinine way possible: randomly throwing people together and seeing what sticks. That is why you will never see me agree with the notion that LFD destroys communities. A lot of us bloggers lucked out in the Wild West fashion, but how many untold millions failed to get that pug moving and quit from boredom before the endgame? Is that really a “community” worth saving?

What I will agree with is that the current system is also dumb. The genre seems so stuck in the goddamn Dark Ages when it comes to social networking that I am genuinely surprised anyone makes something more than superficial “friends of convenience” at all. Players need to be given the tools to find like-minded individuals. There is a danger to creating insular cliques, of course, but if everyone agrees that MMOs are better with friends, this antiquated grouping design of blind coincidence needs revision.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion featuring concrete suggestions, coming (to) In An Age near you.

Butchered

If you want to read a 4,079 word essay on the decline of WoW from the standpoint of two members of the sub-10% of raiders, you cannot go wrong with Failure, Challenge, and the Decline of WoW. If, instead, you were looking for a well-written, relevant essay on WoW’s “decline” exploring actual issues, don’t bother reading it at all. Stede in particular eviscerates the entire argument in a single comment.

What interested me about the essay is how so completely it falls into that utterly bizarre MMO difficulty trap – the sort of notion that MMOs should be social engineering experiments to create a generation of better gamers. The part that struck me the most was when they were talking about The Butcher from the original Diablo:

The best piece of low-level content ever created by Blizzard is found not in current WoW, nor even in old WoW, but 15 years ago in Diablo. The Butcher.

Every NPC in town warns you about The Butcher before your first trip into the dungeon. In case you didn’t bother talking to them, just outside the dungeon entrance you find the previous adventurer who tried to delve in, bloody and dying. Before killing your first mob, a villain is set up. The first half hour of dungeon crawling goes by uneventfully. But somewhere on the second level down, starting to get a little comfortable with your level 4 character, you come upon a small square room completely covered with blood. Maybe you remember the warning, maybe you didn’t, but in either case, it’s your first time playing and you want to know what’s in there, so you open the door. And you get Butchered.

This experience is hard to convey in text to people who’ve never played Diablo. Ask anyone who has if they remember their first time being killed by him. It’s sudden, surprising, and scary. It’s probably your first character death. He does a huge amount of damage, stuns you, and holds you in melee range. He has a loud yell the moment you open the door, an elaborate bloody apron, and a ridiculously-sized cleaver. You’re mostly likely dead before you take in everything that’s happening. And for some reason, it’s the one moment that makes everyone’s eyes briefly glass over in nostalgia.

Having played the original Diablo, I had the same experience of being mercilessly slaughtered by The Butcher. The essay goes on from this point to talk about Hogger, trying to tie both the experiences together while lamenting that Cataclysm and WoW in general has lost this dangerous feeling. The ironic part of these examples is that each were precisely designed to not be difficult. The Butcher was not supposed to be a difficult encounter, it was supposed to kill you. As the author(s) note, you probably had not died yet at this point in Diablo, so it behooves the game designers to set up unwinnable scenario to demonstrate what will happen when you overextend in the game proper. Same exact deal with Hogger: his purpose was demonstrate the difference between non-elite and Elite mobs. You were supposed to die. Neither were difficult in any meaningful sense of the term, and both simply encouraged you to grind mobs until you outleveled them as content.

The original Hogger.

Even Nils has recently demonstrated that the early game is designed to still kill you, Hogger or no Hogger. What gets confused by these challenge-seekers is that leveling was never designed to be challenging. The “kill you” moments or outdoor Elites that could be defeated through skillful actions were not designed to challenge your skill, they were to organically demonstrate how death and resurrection worked without resorting to instant-kill mechanics. And yet people lament the removal of the outdoor Elites near dungeons as if they were designed to spice up gameplay instead of marking territory out-of-bounds for solo players.

It is fine to desire content tailored to your skill level, as those authors so obviously want. But it always strikes me as bizarrely pompous to place said desire on a pedestal as if gamers becoming better at games is some kind of righteous calling, a form of high art compared to the Jersey Shore-ness of current WoW leveling. First, they were wrong about the purpose of early difficulty. But secondly, and more importantly, a high-difficulty paradigm actively destroys the social aspect of MMOs. If I want to experience hard raiding content but the friends that I made leveling up do not, I must abandon them. Read the comments from that article. For every “exclusive content through difficulty” proponent, there are at least two more people grateful that they can finally raid with their friends (until Firelands anyway).

In any event, the other half of the article talks about loot structures in MMOs, which is another post entirely. Suffice it to say, I disagree with them on that point as well.