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Challenge is Overrated

Rohan posted the other day that the modern MMO tendency towards making leveling alts easier runs afoul of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun¹. “Leveling alts should be harder, not easier!” Allow me to offer an alternative Theory of Fun: it’s about Novelty, not Challenge.

While I have forwarded this thesis almost three years ago, I am more convinced than ever that the Novelty theory better explains fun than Challenge. For one thing, when was the last time you were truly challenged in a videogame? When were your abilities pushed to their maximum? Okay, now think about the last time you had fun playing a videogame. Did you ever have fun without being challenged? QED.

Part of this debate is semantic – Challenge is Novel by definition, else it would not be challenging. But Challenge does not model the demonstrated ability of players to derive fun and entertainment from picking herbs, mining copper nodes, exploring the map, fishing, and so on. Neither Skyrim nor MineCraft are particularly challenging, and yet people can sink MMO-esque amounts of time into them.

What challenge is taking place in the imagination of a child at play?

The other problem with Challenge as Fun is how clearly there is a hard limit on it. Even if you avoid crossing the line into too challenging to complete, sustained challenge can be exhausting. Which makes sense, as challenge is an exertion of effort above the median. Sustained challenge also presupposes a sort of boundless limit for self-improvement. Even if I believed that everyone could do anything if they simply put their mind to it (I don’t), it’s undeniable that one’s effort hits diminishing returns rather quickly. Is it worth 15 hours of additional practice to realize 1% gains? Maybe someone thinks so. I raided with a Hunter back in ICC whose DPS improvement was literally squeezing in one, single additional Kill Shot into an eight-minute fight. But even he would be unlikely to spend 30, 60, 90 more hours to squeeze in a second one.

Plus, you know, he did end up quitting WoW despite there being plenty of challenge left.

The way I am describing Novelty is not necessarily as “a completely unique experience.” All it has to do is simply feel new to you. The subjectivity is an important facet, just as with Challenge, and it explains how someone can still have fun picking herbs when the action itself is fairly rote and well-defined. For myself, I consider Progression to be Novel; increasing in power and effectiveness is fresh and exciting to me. I start making plans for my ever-increasing hoard of Peacebloom (etc), or imagine what I could purchase after selling it. Others could see the act-in-time to be Novel – they have never picked Felweed at this particular time and place before, and who knows if a member of the opposite faction could be lurking around the corner. Of course, there is also the people-element that can make the most mundane of tasks into cherished memories.

In the end, I might almost say that the most universal quality in fun games is Engagement. Challenge can be engaging, Novelty can be engaging. However, it is not particularly useful to suggest a game be more Engaging any more than it is useful suggesting a game be more Fun. One can certainly suggest a game be more Challenging or Novel though. I would just suggest going with the latter.

¹ I have not actually read Koster’s book, so it’s entirely possible he isn’t arguing Challenge > everything. In fact, I seem to recall it being more about learning things, which puts it more in line with my Novelty argument. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a game has to be Challenging to be fun, and I have no idea why challenge is so fetishized in game design.

Dry Watercooler

The latest Dev Watercooler is out concerning major changes in the upcoming WoW expansion, and yet it is one of the most content-free ones I have ever read. I’d say it was all bones and no meat, but you can usually suck some marrow out of bones. But this? This tells us nothing. And so we’re going to have to fill in the blanks with our own rampant speculation.

Stat Squish

There is but one new morsel concerning the Stat Squish (emphasis added):

It’s important to understand that this isn’t a nerf—in effect, you’ll still be just as powerful, but the numbers that you see will be easier to comprehend. This also won’t reduce your ability to solo old content. In fact, to provide some additional peace of mind, we’re implementing further scaling of your power against lower-level targets so that earlier content will be even more accessible than it is now.

That is just about the only possible concern there was with the Squish, so I’m glad it’s taken care of.

Racial Traits

To keep racials more in line with one another, we’ve decided to bring down the couple high outliers, then establish a fair baseline and bring everyone else up to that. We’re accomplishing this by improving old passives, replacing obsolete ones, and adding a few new ones where necessary. Ultimately, our goal is to achieve much better parity among races.

Know what would be really nice? What they consider a fair baseline.

I almost wonder though, if I am parsing that paragraph correctly: is anyone else getting the sense that perhaps activated racials are being left alone? Blizzard did mention Berserking (a Troll racial) as being “extremely powerful,” but I find it difficult to imagine how, say, Every Man for Himself could be redesigned to be equivalent. Unless maybe every race is getting some kind of PvP-ish active racial and then the passives will be the PvE knob. All I can say is that I’m happy this is getting looked at, as I have regretted rolling my paladin as a Draenei since pretty much the beginning – Gift of the Naaru has consistently been the most useless active racial in the game.

Ability Pruning

For Warlords of Draenor, we decided that we needed to pare down the number of abilities available to each class and spec in order to remove some of that unnecessary complexity. That means restricting some abilities to certain specs that really need them instead of being class-wide, and outright removing some other abilities. […]

One type of ability that we focused on removing is temporary power buffs (aka “cooldowns”). Removing these also helps achieve one of our other goals, which is to reduce the amount of cooldown stacking in the game. In cases where a class or spec has multiple cooldowns that typically end up getting used together (often in a single macro), we merged them, or removed some of them entirely.

Two interesting bits here. The first is a sort of roll-back of the “bring the class, not the spec” theme of the last two expansions. It’s possible that they’re not talking about the sort of active/passive raid buffs that made it easier to get a 10m raid together, but it’s a bit hard to imagine how else it would work in practice. I mean, are we talking about removing Heroic Strike? Slice N’ Dice? Only letting Frost DKs have Dark Simulacrum while Unholy DKs get Necrotic Strike? This is way too vague. But my point is that if these currently-class-wide abilities have any utility at all, only allowing one of the specs have them is going to create a demand for that specific spec. Which is fine in the abstract, I suppose, but it’s definitely a movement away from specs being more of a play-style decision than a mechanical one (outliers aside).

The second part about cooldowns is both welcome and terrifying simultaneously. Some cooldowns are simple macro-bait, but others… well. I hate to fall back on sacred cow terms like “iconic” and “class defining” but some actually are. I don’t think Blizzard would remove Avenging Wrath, for example, but that is almost always paired with Guardian of Ancient Kings. In fact, that’s pretty much the most classic (and visible) example of cooldown stacking I can think of. Perhaps both will stay in the game, but Ardent Defender/Divine Protection will be removed or rolled into Prot’s version of GoAK. What of the many Hand spells though? Lay on Hands? Could we see Devotion Aura go the way of the rest of the Aura spells? I could see Devotion Aura absorbing Divine Protection pretty easily…

At some point though, this is definitely something that can end up hurting.

Crowd Control and Diminishing Returns

The diminishing returns list up to this point has been a study in Rules Lawyering gone amok. “No, no, no. That’s not a Fear, that’s a Horror. And Controlled Stuns are nothing like Random Stuns.” All in all, there are 11 categories and 2 additional abilities that only DR with themselves. Which is not to say that the various categories didn’t serve an important function – making a wider variety of class/spec combinations viable in Arena – but the prospect of being locked in a CC chain almost indefinitely is a high price to pay.

Here is the shakedown according to the post:

  • Removed Silence effects from interrupts. Silence effects still exist, but are never attached to an interrupt.
  • Removed all Disarms.
  • Reduced the number of Diminishing Returns (DR) categories.
  • All Roots now share the same DR category.
    • Exception: Roots on Charge-type abilities have no DR category, but have a very short duration instead.
  • All Stuns now share the same DR category.
  • All Incapacitate (sometimes called “mesmerize”) effects now share the same DR category and have been merged with the Horror DR category.
  • Removed the ability to make cast-time CC spells instant with a cooldown.
  • Removed many CC spells entirely, and increased the cooldowns and restrictions on others.
    • Pet-cast CC is more limited, and in many cases has been removed.
    • Cyclone can now be dispelled by immunities and Mass Dispel.
    • PvP trinkets now grant immunity to reapplication of an effect from the same spell cast when they break abilities with persistent effects, like Solar Beam.
    • Long fears are now shorter in PvP due to the added benefit of a fear changing the players position.

It’s difficult to get a read on how the DR merge will play out right now, especially considering we’ll supposedly see CC get cut altogether from certain classes/specs. At a glance, I can say that melee classes are likely getting the bigger end of the stick here with the removal of Disarm effects + ranged class CC nerfs. The Druid vs Paladin match-up won’t be so one-sided now that we can bubble out of Cyclone. Hunters are getting screwed with Scatter Shot + Freezing Trap being on the same DR. Warlocks are getting especially hosed with their panic-button instant-cast Horror effects diminishing the follow-up Fear, which is itself getting nerfed again anyway. What is that, 10 years of Fear nerfs in a row?

In any case, that’s about all the blood I could squeeze out of that Dev Watercooler stone. I appreciate birds-eye dev articles as much as the next guy (and probably a bit more), but I felt this one was really lacking in specifics. I suppose we’ll start connecting the dots once everything is data-mined on MMO Champ, although by then it’s likely everything will have changed again.

Edit:

Words cannot describe my disappointment.

The Limits of Procedure

In a recent post, Tobold says:

After Everquest Next announced dynamic spawns with an ecosystem, destructible environment, and open world player housing, several people dismissed these claims as unrealistic with the argument that Ultima Online tried that and failed: Players kill mobs faster than they can reproduce, gather resources so fast that whole forests are turned into deserts, and build houses everywhere until no more flat surface is left. While that history is correct, the conclusion isn’t. As a counter-example look at Star Wars Galaxies, where open world housing clearly worked a lot better than in Ultima Online. So what is the difference, and how can a virtual world with a stable ecosystem be created without players destroying everything? The answer is simply in the size of the world, and the scale of the ecosystem.

Two paragraphs later though, he sort of undermines his own argument a bit (emphasis mine):

The Ultima Online ecosystem failed due to its small size and technical limitations of the time. But a procedurally generated world can be much bigger, even infinite. People don’t run out of world to modify in Minecraft. And if the world is big enough, you can put in enough mobs so that players can’t possibly make them extinct.

Er… if players cannot possibly make the mobs extinct, what’s the point in having an “ecosystem” in the first place?

But, never mind that. What I really wanted to talk about is the Minecraft bit. Because sometimes I get the feeling that “procedurally-generated” as a concept is being elevated as some paragon virtue of game design – a silver-bullet to boredom – when it is really nothing of the sort.

A procedurally-generated game solves exactly one problem: metagaming. That is not quite the correct word I want to use though, as you can still technically metagame a procedurally-generated world in several ways. Namely, by knowing its procedures. For example, no matter what Minecraft world is created (mods aside), diamond only spawns in layer 19 and below. Indeed, there is a whole bunch of Minecraft constants to consider (accurate circa 2010 anyway). All the Minecraft map being procedurally-generated does is prevent you from following a guide telling you to move North a hundred steps and then walk East to find a nice batch of Iron Ore near the surface. Avoiding those scenarios is certainly useful, and it’s always fun running into the truly bizarre and whimsical creations of the RNG gods.

The problem arises in treating the procedurally-generated whatever as “endless content,” when it is really not anything of the sort. As I talked about before, your knowledge of a game’s systems really only ever increases as you play; novelty has diminishing returns within the same game. Each Minecraft world generated may be completely different, but you are going to be doing the same sort of things each time: punch wood, make tools, make structure, dig for ore, etc. Different starting locations and details can spice up the gameplay for a time, but your “build order” is unlikely to change much no matter where you are.

Procedurally-generated content definitely has a place in gaming, usually in the context of roguelikes, but it will not solve any of EQN or any other MMO’s problems. Not that its application in MMOs made much sense in the first place – one of the defining characteristics of an MMO is a persistent world, which is incongruent with procedural generation. Even if it was just one world of infinite size (expanding at the edges), the amount of space surrounding objects of player interest would remain finite. And that’s assuming players would be willing to trudge out very far from their starting location in the first place.

No, just adding more space isn’t going to solve the issue. If anyone claims that an MMO’s world cannot be too big, simply point them at any given low-pop server of any game anywhere.

The Siren Call of Dynamism

Looks like we have the next Jesus game:

EverQuest Next Could Fix Everything Wrong With MMORPGs

I’ve played every major massively multiplayer role-playing game released since 1998, yet it feels like I’ve spent the past 15 years playing the same game over and over again. That’s a problem. EverQuest Next is the solution.

I probably should have stopped reading that Kotaku article right there, but I’m a masochist at heart.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things I’m reading about EverQuest Next sound interesting. Voxel-based things, somehow without looking like Cube World. And… err… yeah. Classless/multi-class systems like The Secret World/FF11. Stylized graphics like WoW, Firefall, Wildstar. Red zones on the ground that you shouldn’t stand in, like most every game these days. Jumping and “parkour” (which means what, exactly, in this context?) like in Guild Wars 2. Reducing abilities down to eight, like Guild Wars 2 again. Dynamic events and “calls to arms” like Guild Wars 2 and Firefall and Warhammer. Hell, considering they brought over Jeremy Soule to do their soundtrack, they probably should have just called the game EverGuildQuestWars2Next.

Then there are the hype red flags. A StoryBricks-based AI that wanders around and sets up camp organically? Neat. But then I started reading this interview:

So, to better understand the Rallying Calls, I wasn’t clear on some things with David Georgeson’s example: say you’ve built a big city, and built these stone walls around it, and now an army has come for a siege. Is that something that happens over a couple hours, or a week?

McPherson: That army siege lasts until the players on the server have completed that stage.

[…]

With the “emergent AI,” though, how can you maintain something indefinitely? If the army comes to attack, and is defeated outright in an hour or the players just ignore it, what then? Do you keep spawning enemies?

Butler: Until the things that spawn them are destroyed.

[…]

So, if orcs are released into the world and wander around looking for areas they like, they’re not coming from some point and spreading outward, they’re spawning from camps they set up?

McPherson: Right, perfect example. So in phase four of this Rallying Call, four large orc warband camps spawn in the hills. Those camps are literally swarming with orcs.

Butler: And they’re unassailable.

McPherson: Until you meet the requirements to move on to that next area and eliminate those. Then you and your army push past them and assault them in their homeland.

Butler: You try to fireball the palisade walls in the orc camps, but the fireball doesn’t take down the walls because you need catapults, because that’s what unlocks the next phase and gives you the ability to assault the camps directly.

[…]

What happens if players don’t do any of this?

Butler: It’s simple, it doesn’t advance. So just like a chapter of a book, right? You’ve got your personal storyline, you’re playing through the game. Your personal contribution and the story that goes with it goes on at whatever pace you choose to pursue. The server has a storyline as well, expressed with these Rallying Calls. If players choose not to pursue them, the clock just doesn’t advance.

Oh. So… these things are completely indistinguishable from anything we’ve seen a thousand times before, all the way back to simple phased quests in WoW? Will there be a little “Catapults put into position: 0/2” blurb in the middle-right side of the screen too? How dynamic and revolutionary.

Getting back to the Kotaku article, the author presents his final conclusion like this:

Addressing the Real Problem

Boredom is the enemy of the MMORPG, plain and simple. Now matter how gorgeous the world, or how animated the player base or how compelling the game itself, eventually all of that content the developers spent years creating is going to grow stale.

That’s the real problem here. MMORPGs have traditionally been developed much like single-player games. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be padded with downloadable content, but they’re still single-player games with other people crammed in there to keep us from realizing that we’re playing the same thing over and over again.

Maintaining a strong community helps, but its not enough. To really solve the core problem, you’ve got to create what so many games before have promised — a living, breathing, ever-changing world.

EverQuest Next sounds like the solution to me.

Now, he says he has been playing MMOs for the last 15 years, but I get the distinct impression that he hasn’t. All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based. An ever-changing world is irrelevant in comparison to a completely static world populated with other people you like hanging around with. People are still playing the original EverQuest for god’s sake! This is besides the fact that there isn’t a “living, breathing, ever-changing world” in EQN or anywhere.

Even if EQN or some future game actually managed to pull it off, would you even want to play it? As I pointed out back in 2011, player impact on the game world is considerably less interesting than many people make it out to be. Imagine if xxArthasDKlolxx killed an NPC and now you can never interact with said NPC again. Is that what you want? Feature sets that include “destructible environments” always have to be followed up by explanations about how it isn’t permanent, lest new players be introduced to a cratered wasteland made by bored griefers.

EVE has been in the news lately with its dynamic player impact, but all of that has been confined to player social structures, and not the game-world itself; star systems have changed ownership, but it’s not as though there are less NPCs or ice rocks in the universe.

That’s how you do dynamic content: with people. Whether orcs spawn in the valley or on the hill is extremely trivial, considering you still have to remove them in pretty much the same manner as you did 15 resets ago. GW2 has committed itself to two-week content obsoletion cycles, which I guess is one way to avoid the tedium of redoing the same thing over and over. Then again, even if the set pieces change, you are still interacting with the world the same way, more or less, as you did at level 1. “Kill this, click that, jump here, fill up your meter, claim rewards.”

I’m not saying that dynamic/changing content can’t be fun, I’m saying that dynamic content is not some silver bullet for boredom. Things might change randomly or dynamically, but your understanding of their mechanics only increases over time. Nils has talked about this years ago, as I have, but I think Klepsacovic summed it up more poetically here:

That last part is the key: anything I could think of.  Early on I did not imagine what else I could want to do in this world.  I’d done only a tiny fraction of what I could.  This had two effects.  One was that I had not run into a limit yet.  The other was that I could not imagine a limit.  I did not imagine that the sky ended, that the quests ended, that the raids could all be done.  These were all true, but since I did not know them and did not even imagine them, they were irrelevant.  I was running the infinite distance of a circular path.

Since then I’ve learned and my behavior has changed.  I do not run in circular paths.  I run out, find the edge, map it out, and then fill it in.  This means that very early on my mind has already filled the size of the world, so that all that can happen after are details, with nothing big to be revealed.  In my mind it looks like two strategies for filling in a circle.  Both start at the center.  One draws a line out to the edge and now the radius is known.  It then spirals inward, knowing exactly where it is headed.  The other starts the spiral at the center.  It will cover the same area, but it will do so not knowing where the edge is, what the limits are, until it reaches them.

Cynicism is easy, but it’s also an appropriate response to any claim that non-player dynamism is going to solve anything. You can still get bored playing a procedurally-generated game; if that fact is not the simplest indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of Mike Fahey’s Kotaku argument, I don’t know what is. People are the only thing that will continue making a game interesting once you have mapped out the circle. The player-built structures and other such things might bridge the gap, but it won’t be enough if you aren’t making friends and setting down roots. Given how EQN is F2P though… well, I’m not holding out hope for a particularly stable, long-term community.

All that said, EQN is now on my radar. If it’s fun, I’ll play it. Hell, I’m kinda interested in the incredibly devious EQN Landmark “game” where you’ll likely pay SOE for the privilege of building content for them (Landmark is F2P, but that just means the costs are hidden). Imagine building your own house – as in, your IRL house – and placing that in game… or selling it to other people. I have never used Portal 2’s puzzle-making feature, but I am always a fan of developers giving players tools to build in-game stuff. Crowd-sourcing is great, but even better is the ability to sorta build your own game design portfolio.

Would I get bored with EQN eventually? No doubt. But I don’t see that inevitability as a negative – it is simply the natural consequence of learning and experiencing things. An MMO doesn’t have to last forever to be worth playing. People and relationships don’t last forever either, but I don’t see anyone saying those are a waste of time.

Inevitability of Decline

Nils and I have been debating here lately over whether the decline of WoW’s growth had something to do with Wrath and Cataclysm’s design. One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to WoW discussion is the notion that subscription numbers are somehow correlated with endgame design. They are not. As I mentioned in that article, only ~20% of subscribers killed the easiest (non-Naxx) boss in the entirety of Wrath and the stats for Cataclysm thus far¹ are not any better: 17.9% have killed Magmaw, even after the nerf. But my actual argument goes further than that:

The decline of WoW was/is inevitable. That is to say, WoW’s subscription growth would have slowed and eventually declined no matter what Blizzard did. This is in contrast to the implied argument from Nils and others that had Blizzard simply copy & pasted TBC, they would have gained 2 million subs per year into perpetuity. My argument about the inevitability of decline has further consequences when it comes to MMO game design, because I believe that good design decisions can still lead to net loss in subscribers. Bad design decisions can certainly increase the magnitude of the hemorrhaging, but the best you can hope for with good design is to stave off the inevitable as long as necessary. This argument rests on a few premises.

Premise 1: Fun has diminishing returns.

I explored this premise a bit in The Diminishing Returns of Fun post. The basic idea is that Novelty is the ineffable quality of “newness” of a game that is consumed as the game is experienced. It can also be expressed by the quotes “You can’t go home again” and “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Novelty can be about learning new systems (i.e. rules) within a game, but it can also be about seeing new areas². Part of the “ineffable” problem is that novelty is not just about new things in of themselves. A jigsaw puzzle you previously solved does not become novel simply because new rules are introduced, like forcing yourself to not start with edge pieces or playing Tic-Tac-Toe before being able to place a piece. Once you feel confident of the contours of an experience, the remaining novelty quickly evaporates.

Nils described this once as: “The longer you play a game, the lower its potential to keep your mind busy, because you get ever better at it. If you so want, the game is in the cache now and you don’t have to think as much to play it.”

How this relates to WoW can be expressed in this investor call quote from Blizzard president Michale Morhaime:

“As our players have become more experienced playing World of Warcraft over many years, they have become much better and much faster at consuming content,” he said at the time. “And so I think with Cataclysm they were able to consume the content faster than with previous expansions, but that’s why we’re working on developing more content.”

Players become much better and faster at consuming content because the novelty of said content has already been experienced. A quest that might once have been novel (despite being built from un-novel components like Kill X Foozles, etc), becomes much less so the Nth time around. With the novelty gone, there is no compunction against finishing the content as quickly as possible – the quest becomes a task to be completed, instead of an experience to be sensed. Anyone can open a book to its final chapter and read how it ends, find a plot summary or otherwise “spoil” it. That we do not do this is a function of our desire to experience the story, which (typically) only occurs by limiting ourselves to reading it in order from beginning to end.

Unfortunately for Morhaime, developing more content will not stop the decline, no matter how good it is.

Premise 2: Market Saturation exists.

As I talked about in Saturation, Tom Chilton made the intriguing comment in an interview that:

” […] if you look at the way the population breaks down, we’re at a point in our history where there are more people that played World of Warcraft but no longer play World of Warcraft than currently play World of Warcraft.”

If measured at the peak of WoW’s reported subscription rate of 12 million, that means roughly 24 million people have played WoW at some point in time. How many more people would play WoW that have not done so already? That is somewhat of an open question. However, if we look at the Wikipedia list of best-selling games of all time we see that more people have bought World of Warcraft than Halo 1-2-3 combined (5m, 8m, 8.1m), more than Super Mario World (20m), more than Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 combined (11.62m, 9m), more than The Sims (16m), and damn near two-thirds of the way of overcoming the original Super Mario Bros that came with every single NES (40m).

I doubt that Chilton was including Free Trial downloads in his statement, but either way, it is difficult to believe that the market has been anything other than tapped. If we assume that Blizzard is staffed with rational bussinessmen (if not designers), then we can infer from Chilton’s statements that the market for WoW has peaked according to Blizzard’s own data, and further sub growth is more likely to come from additional localizations than, say, capturing/retaining more US/EU subs.

Premise 3: Players consume content faster than designers create it.

The difference between this and Premise 1, is that Premise 1 is about how it becomes increasingly difficult to create subsequent content as novel as the original. This particular premise is simply how long it takes to create content versus how long it takes to consume it, novel experience or no.

Factoid: There were 8.75 million subscribers in vanilla.

Back in my Subscription and Correlation post, I augmented a graph from MMOData.net to show the release date information of the WoW expansions for illustration purposes. This is what it looked like:

The interesting thing to note is that the total subscription numbers (the green line) is actually above 8 million before the release of TBC. China did not get TBC until the end of 2007, so if you add that interim period (the blue line) to the whole, we get WoW’s vanilla population at 8.75 million.

I believe this factoid is important because that 8.75 million segment can be considered the Baby Boomers of WoW. Indeed, between 2006 and 2007 the sub population grew from 6 million to 8 million – churn notwithstanding, it is possible that 6 million subs aged for an entire year. Compare that with 2005 to 2006, where less than a million subs could be said to be one year old by the end. In other words, starting in 2006 the volume of veteran players more than likely outpaced new players.

Premise 1 + 2 + 3 + Factoid = The decline of WoW was/is inevitable.

Ultimately, I wanted to stake out this argument because A) I do not see many people that do despite implicitly acknowledging it (e.g. growth is always finite), and B) good MMO design decisions tend to be indistinguishable from the bad when viewed through the one-dimensional prism of subscription numbers.

For example, the general (blogging) zeitgeist surrounding Wrath of the Lich King was that it killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. What does not get separated was, say, how the questing experience was orders of magnitude better than questing in TBC (does anyone seriously disagree?), and how I feel that the episodic raiding model is a lot more honest, and better designed than a strict linear progression model. Yes, raid difficulty was poorly handled. Yes, turning heroic dungeons into 5-man daily quests burns people out (starting with TBC, mind you). None of those raiding missteps can realistically can be responsible for more than a fraction of sub losses, but that is neither here nor there.

The mechanics of what I am asserting can be visualized in the crude image below:

In frame 1, a player has just begun playing. In frame 2, they have carved a path through the majority of the game on their way to the level cap. In frame 3, they have reached the endgame, where most of their activities involve repeated content such as dungeon runs, raiding, dailies, and so on. In frame 4, the player either rolls alts or otherwise backtracks in search of novel experience in the content they missed (different leveling zones, class-specific quests, the opposing faction, etc). As expansions are added, the frames get taller… but not by much. Whereas the original leveling experience might have taken 300 hours, leveling in an expansion takes a fraction of that. If an expansion is released when you are in frame 2 or 3, that is fine. But if you are in frame 4… the end is (already) near.

So, in summation, WoW would have inevitably declined no matter what Blizzard did. That the decline “began” during Wrath is largely an irrelevant coincidence compared to the Baby Boomer population wave reaching the natural end of their novel experiences. The Baby Boomer hypothesis can be falsified should we ever get average age of account statistics or character maps of activity, but it would not affect the soundness of the underlying argument either way. Raid design decisions are unlikely to have anything but marginal effects on subscriptions compared with what the bulk of players are doing – which we know to be not raiding. And I believe that a lot of better game design could be achieved if we spent less time fixating on a drawn-out, endgame experience.

The deserved popularity of WoW proper came from the strength of its IP narrative, its pacing, its humor, the vastness of its game world, the underlying character of each of its zones, the uniqueness of its classes and how each demonstratively created their own novel experience. We should not take its declining subscription rates as anything more than the natural decline of an otherwise well-lived life. Here is to hoping that Blizzard opts for hospice care instead of the intensive life support that is currently in vogue.

If not… well, here is a raised glass to Diablo 3 and Titan.

 

¹ WoWProgress says 64,642 guilds have killed Magmaw as of the time of this writing. Assuming 18 raiders per guild (charitable considering 10-man raiding is vastly more popular), that means 1,163,556 players. WoWProgress only tracks NA/EU/KR/TW guilds, which number ~6.5 million. Ergo, 17.9%.

² You can probably argue that exploration equates to “learning the rules.”

The Diminishing Returns of Fun

I was listening to an episode of The Instance (#242) today and was struck in a rather fundamental way by what they said in the Mailbag segment. So much so, that I went ahead and captured the 8 minute audio exchange and uploaded it to Youtube so it could be more easily accessed. The reader email question itself was rather asinine, but it elicited a (brief) discussion on how the playerbase of WoW has evolved over time. The evolution of the playerbase, or devolution as some say, has been a frequent whipping boy of forums posters and bloggers for ages – Blizzard dumbing down the game, catering to casuals, and so on.

The thing is, I firmly believe that the argument has always been backwards. Blizzard is not catering to casuals, they are desperately trying to retain that ever-sliding core of veterans. Blizzard is not shaping players, the players are shaping Blizzard. The rest is worth listening to, but I went ahead and transcribed the most important portion of that audio clip, spoken by Scott Johnson:

[Repeating content] is a distinct downside to MMOs in general, and it is why I really enjoy a cultivated experience like Diablo 3 – like the Elder Scrolls games, like I am expecting with Skyrim, like a lot of single-player RPGs – where the wonderment and the excitement and the newness is always present. Because, unless you are freak who plays games six times through for no reason, everything is new as you consume it. Whereas in World of Warcraft, and other MMOs like it, as much as Blizzard tries, and they do the best out there to make things SEEM as fresh as possible. After a while, like that Blood Beast fight… [snip]

But again, I’m kinda with him. This is why I don’t pug much. Because I find that so grindy and so not fun. What I want … if I’m going to do that stuff, I’ll do it with my friends because then THAT is the newness of the experience. Because we’re laughing, Manny said something funny, Pootinky made a fart noise, whatever. We’re having a ball in there. So THAT is fun for me. The actual pugging of the thing for the 5000th time is not fun for me at all in the least. It is just earning money, currency to go get something. And that’s fine, that’s working as a system. But I’m kinda with him that you lose that cultivated experience, you lose that wonderment of walking into a room for the first time, like walking into Ulduar and going “Holy crap! Look at where we have to go and how we have to get there.” And then after a while you are “Oh my gosh, Ulduar can suck it. I hate this fight.”

That is reason the “vanilla forever!” mindset never made sense to me, nor the appeal to nostalgia that was Cataclysm; as they say, you can never cross the same river twice. People like to imagine that if everything had stayed hard, they would not have gradually lost interest in the game. But think about your favorite games of all time. Are those games still fun for you today? Would they still be fun to you if you replayed them half a dozen times back-to-back? You can never recreate that original experience – the wonderment and newness is consumed in the act of experiencing it. And as much as I agree with Scott that Blizzard does a lot in trying to keep content fresh by constant iteration and new boss abilities (etc), at some point you understand on a fundamental level that the Ship of Theseus has sailed, so to speak.

The “catering” is not to casuals, but to the veterans who have reached the end of their original experience and who, through boredom or social ties, are looking for more things to do in-game to fill the time while they wait for schedules to align. But why would veterans actually want extremely fast leveling, faceroll dungeons, and so on? Some of that is actually trying to capture the 80-90% of players who never finish games, sure. But the things like Justice Points and LFD are firmly for the vets. Nils suggests that Blizzard uses “ease” as a weapon in the form of competitive advantage against other MMOs (or perhaps in response to others doing it). Or perhaps in reaction to player “entitlement.”¹ I would argue instead that fun in games has diminishing returns. Running across the entirety of Searing Gorge each time you wipe in BRD might have given you a healthy respect for safe pulling in your formative years, but I guarantee that you would be sick of it four or five years later if it was included everywhere. You learned that lesson, and reinforcing it constantly adds nothing of further value to your experience anymore than would repeating grade school as an adult.

Ultimately, I feel theme-park MMOs are their own worst enemy. Nils told me once that it was in my best interests for an MMO journey to last as long as possible. If I was purely fixated on the eradication of my free time, then sure. I played WoW for over 7000 hours as compared to Xenogears’ 80 hours. But I never once, for a single moment, felt that the magnitude of fun with the former came remotely close to matching the latter. In fact, as is the case with any novel or movie or TV series, the extreme danger is that efforts to elongate the experience instead poisons it². More becomes less. Instead of cultivating a complete experience with a beginning, middle, and end, the theme-park MMO model demands an open-endedness at odds with its progressive narrative.

Perhaps this is merely a sign that (theme-park) MMOs are not a genre meant for me. I do not think that is entirely true though. The genius of MMOs is that they appeal to and accommodate a huge variety of players with different interests – as vapid as questing seems to be to vets, it was actually an endearing experience the first (few) times. Instead, I think designers should embrace the end of their games, incorporating a more conclusive experience while leaving the door open for an encore. Or the after-party.

¹ Entitlement is a word so abused by bloggers and commenters that it has lost most of its meaning. Entitlement should not be synonymous with the expectation of a fair exchange of value. Nor should it denigrate legitimate instances of design criticism. It’s honestly getting to the point where you cannot say something is superfluous or inelegant without being accused of feeling “entitled” to, you know, better design.

² See: Lost, Rescue Me, every Terminator movie after T2, every Alien move after Alien 2, etc etc etc.