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Age of the MOBA

According to EEDAR, by the end of 2015 MOBAs will generate more revenue than (F2P) MMORPGs in the North American market:

"Meteoric" pretty much covers it.

“Meteoric” pretty much covers it.

The difference is small – $501m vs $499m – but it’s impressive nonetheless for a genre that didn’t (formally) exist five years ago.

One thing is for certain though: MOBAs are the “new” hotness and are poised to overtake F2P MMOs either this year, or Soon™ in any case. Which is a fascinating turn of events for someone who really has less than zero interest in MOBAs specifically. Indeed, nearly every mechanic that make MOBAs “deep” are the same mechanics that make many MMOs terrible. For example, the whole Last Hit mechanic. Or having over a hundred different characters, many of whom are direct counters to others, requiring one to memorize a truly voluminous amount of minutia to succeed. You thought the whole Raid Dance memorization was dumb? Just wait until you spend time researching dozens of characters who don’t even get picked. Oh, and hey, I heard you like 40+ minute LFG fights were you (ideally) lose 50% of the time.

On the other hand, in the Venn Diagram for MOBA and MMO I wonder how much overlap there really is. Did some people leave WoW for League of Legends? What did they find on the one end that they did not on the other? Perhaps nothing, and the audiences are from two entirely different sources. Which really doesn’t answer the question of where the MOBA audience came from. Is this an entirely different generation of gamer coming to age during the rise of MOBAs? Or was this a deep pool of potential players who hitherto weren’t being serviced by existing products?

Maybe the answer is less complicated than I am making it out to be: MOBA players seemingly sprang from the earth because it’s all F2P. Easy to get into, easy to get hooked, and then easy to get monetized. As revenues approach half a billion dollars in NA alone though, this clearly is not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. Despite the MOBA saturation, revenue still increase almost 20% last year, according to the chart. You will undoubtedly have winners and losers in the market, but MOBAs are here to stay.

Which is… well, good for them. I’m going to play something else.

Or Maybe We Won’t See

Once again, Blizzard has buckled under the weight of people giving them money:

#ZerothWorldProblems

#ZerothWorldProblems

I would call something like this unprecedented, but I suppose I have experienced something similar firsthand back when Guild Wars 2 came out (Jesus, was it really 2.5 years ago?). I mean, it’s one thing to take people’s money and then not let them play because the servers are on fire; it’s something else entirely to not take the money in the first place.

In related news, someone on Reddit provided the following Twitch screenshot:

Rather unprecedented.

Rather unprecedented, I think.

In case that’s hard to see, it says Hearthstone had 190,704 viewers on Twitch.tv – higher than the next two games combined, which were… League of Legends and WoW. At the time I’m writing this post, it has decreased to ~86k viewers, but it’s still beating out LoL by a few thousand. New expansion and all, sure, but that’s still not a bad performance for a “casual app with a PC port.”

I Miss Ghostcrawler

There, I said it.

Luckily for all of us, apparently the people of the LoL forums occasionally goad him into talking about WoW design. Here are some of the bits I found most interesting:

Was there a specific wow example that you think changed the balance too much? Whether you meant to shift the game that way or not, it seems like the playerbase thinks this has happened.

If I had to point to one controversial change, I’d say that in vanilla and BC to a lesser extent, there were many specs that weren’t really viable for PvE or PvP. We felt like they needed to be viable in order to justify being in the game, and we were reasonably successful in getting all of them much more competitive. I’ll be honest that there were times when there was still one dominant PvP spec, one dominant PvE spec and one more-or-less dead spec per class, but we did get a lot closer than ever before, especially in the most recent expansion. (And that was the team that accomplished that — I take very little credit.)

So why was this direction controversial? One, it was just flat out harder to balance since there were more variables. It led to all sorts of religious debates such as whether pure classes “deserved” to do more damage than hybrids. In order to guarantee that a particular class or spec wasn’t mandatory for raiding or Arenas, we had to share utility among more classes. (One example is shaman were no longer the only ones to bring Bloodlust.) This did homogenize classes, and some players were understandably not excited about that direction. I’m not sure of a better approach though. Maybe WoW should just have had 10 classes and not the 30 that different specs brought. Maybe some specs should have just stayed dead. I still think about this a lot.

As someone who mained a Paladin throughout TBC, I am a little biased against the whole “leave dead specs in” design. I was not a particular fan of Paladin healing, which left… precisely zero viable PvE/PvP specs for me for most of that expansion. Hell, Illidian as a raid boss was entirely designed around having a Warrior tank. And don’t get me started on how Retribution was only viable as a DPS option on Horde side (Seal of Blood was Blood Elf specific). Paladins ended up being 5-man tanking kings by the end of TBC, but I still remember the growing pains into of Ulduar in which General Vezax basically meant I had to level up a Death Knight alt just to main-tank it.

Still, I almost wonder how a “just 10 classes” design would work. Perhaps like Guild Wars 2? Or would there simply be tanking classes and healing classes?

Do you ever regret opening the game up to be more casual? Instead of taking the kind of direction you are with league?

Different approaches work for different products, and I don’t want to second guess the WoW team. Let’s just say that after working on Age of Empires and World of Warcraft for a total of 16 years, it’s really refreshing to work on a game where I don’t have to worry whether someone’s grandmother can pick it up or not.

Would like to see GC’s grandmother (or mother or father or brother etc) kill Heroic 25m Siegecrafter Blackfuse!

Blackfuse is not the standard by which most of the game is designed. It’s memorable in fact because it’s so much harder than 99% of what you do in the game. Very few players even try (though it is a great fight). You don’t wipe 100 times leveling up. Few players quit running dungeons because they’re too hard. In much of the game, death is unlikely and not much of an obstacle when it does happen. That’s just the way the game was designed and the way nearly all players experience it. I’m not even commenting on whether I agree with that philosophy or not, but it was the philosophy.

Regardless of whether anyone’s grandmother can beat Blackfuse or attain Challenger tier is really besides the point. The points (and these are facts, because I was on the staff of both dev teams) are:

1) WoW spends a lot of effort to make sure almost any player can pick up the game, learn the ropes, level to 90 and even raid if that’s their interest. LoL spends almost no effort making sure almost any player can pick up the game. It does expend some effort to make sure that players who self-identify as gamers can pick up the game.

2) As a result of these efforts and different definitions of potential audience, WoW has a much broader audience than LoL. That’s fine. Different strategies work for different games.

My point was that I spent a lot of development time on both Age of Empires and WoW trying to make the games approachable to a wide audience without compromising the game design. I don’t have to do that anymore, which is s nice change of pace.

Well that’s certainly a confirmation of a lot complaints about WoW’s difficulty curve in solo content.

I love WoW but if not for heroic raiding, I likely would have left a long time ago.

I’m a heroic (mythic) raider. That’s how I fell in love with WoW. But they can’t sustain the game alone. (Source)

There’s a widespread misunderstanding that most people even want to be “brought up.” Everyone has the tools and capability to do anything. How many do it? (Bashiok)
We thought in Cata that we could entice players to rise to the occasion to do harder content. But, you know, some players just said that’s not why they play the game. More power to them. (Source)

The notion that gaming exists (entirely or in part) as a means to improve the skills of the player is a topic all its own, but let me briefly say: that’s dumb. Games are entertainment products. Some people are indeed entertained by honing their skills and seeing increases in finesse. But in many ways that is ultimately a zero-sum endeavor – being “too good” eliminates a wide swath of potential games for you on the one end, and the limits of your own physical abilities removes games from the other end. Meanwhile, everyone can experience, say, character progression at any level.

In a game entirely based around competition, sure, go ahead and “train” your players. Some of us just want to press some buttons, experience a little escapism, and/or need an excuse to (virtually) hang out with online friends and do things together.

I’d like to know what Blizzard considers to be the big barriers.
Well *I* consider the biggest barrier being it’s a 3D WASD game with a movable camera. (Bashiok)
I agree. So does a lot of data. (Source)

Man, I always supported you with WoW changes and felt really bad when you left, but that WoW comment… ouch.
We updated Elwynn Forest twice while I was there to make the game accessible. It was a lot of work. There are very hardcore aspects of WoW but there are also casual ones. Catering to both (or all) is a big challenge. That’s all I meant. I earned a reputation for “dumbing the game down” which is bizarre to me. I was countering that supposition. No offense intended.(Source)

I’m reading a lot of comments confusing accessibility with difficulty. Learning to play WoW is accessibility. Raiding is difficulty. WoW’s intent when I was there (I can’t speak for it now) was to appeal to a wide audience. Developing for a wide audience is very hard. Ulduar (my favorite raid) had two raid sizes (and optional hard modes). After that we added more difficulty tiers to broaden raiding appeal.
Is that something you didn’t want to do?
You can argue it exposed more players to the fun of raiding, but might have diminished the psychological reward of doing so. Raids also self nerf over time as players gear up, and we did across the board nerfs as well. So dedicated players would eventually get to see the content. The change was more about whether players deserved to see new content when it was new vs several patches later. (Source)
Adding multiple tiers per raid is more work. Appealing to a broad audience is more work. For once in my career, I don’t have to do that. (Source)
People struggled through bad design and confused it with mastery of difficulty.
There also was very little concept of damage meters or optimal rotations in Molten Core. The audience matured. (Source)

The raiding bit was interesting, but the fact that the very fundamental 3D interface being an issue is… illuminating. The things was take for granted, eh?

What by your experience are the constant things that come up that make learning a game hard?
1) Identifying the goal, 2) Understanding the controls, 3) Realizing where the fun is going to be. I mention that third point because too many tutorials strip away too much fun out of fear of burdening a new player.
Hand held guidance vs joy of discovery and freedom. Can`t have both.
Yes, but you can make the hand held guided part fun. Maybe you can see a dragon even if you have no business fighting one yet. (Source)

Explained another way, when you see a big drop off in players after only a few minutes then they are probably very confused. Players can’t usually tell if a game will be fun that quickly, but if they have no idea what’s going on, then they may quit. You see this a lot when casual players can’t mouse look, a skill second nature to many core gamers. (Source)

Look, you can play a very demanding game casually or invest many hours in a simple iPhone game. WoW appeals / tries to appeal to many gamers who don’t fit the traditional gamer mold. League doesn’t go after those gamers. Simple as that. (Source)
I can mouse look, play WoW, and adventure games. Dont consider myself (hard)core gamer. Core/casual split seems so limiting
It is very limiting. However, when even game developers watch a brand new player struggle with controls it’s eye opening. (Source)

Alright, I’m good.

Still… see what I mean? Could someone point out where else we could read some rather frank discussions on the nuts and bolts of game design? Developer blogs are almost entirely marketing vehicles that only tangentially resemble the final product. I am not suggesting Ghostcrawler is necessarily best designer out there, or even a good one. He might not be the one we deserve, but he’s the one we need right now.

No Such Thing as F2P in EU

The European Commission is in the beginning stages of passing down a mandate on F2P games, with the following as perhaps one of the definitions:

“The use of the word ‘free’ (or similar unequivocal terms) as such, and without any appropriate qualifications, should only be allowed for games which are indeed free in their entirety, or in other words which contain no possibility of making in-app purchases, not even on an optional basis,” they wrote.

Now, I am about as pro-consumer as you can possibly get, but this… seems a bit off.

For one thing, where is the confusion? It’s called Free-to-Play and all these games – even the one with really manipulative, coercive business models – are literally free to play. It seems like kids being lured into purchasing in-game items is the thrust of the legislation, but I’m not entirely sure what about that gets solved by labeling these games as “Freemium” or whatever marketing term fills the gap. They will still be free to download, parents will still be dumb and leave their credit card info auto-filled in or account signed on, and kids will still be manipulated to do things.

In fact, I’m kinda curious as to what possible games truly fall under the “unequivocally free” category. In-app purchases will disqualify you, but the game designers are getting paid somehow, so… what? Rampant and misleading in-game advertisements are okay? Maybe affiliate links to Amazon pages with one-push purchasing of an Angry Birds plushie? Do donate buttons count as in-app purchases? I mean, little Johnny might get confused and push the Donate $20 button a few times in a fit of youthful exuberance.

While I do not like the implicit design channels that F2P inevitably inform (payslopes, time walls, extra grinding, etc), I’m completely fine with the term itself. And it seems somewhat dishonest to put League of Legends into the same category as Clash of Clan derivatives, just because the former happens to have cosmetic purchases. Have a special “IAP-supported” filter criteria if you must, although I’m not sure if those searches will turn up anything these days. I mean, the last time I saw any truly free freeware was either on 3.5″ floppy disks or a random CD in my Captain Crunch cereal.

Notorius Reputations

The mystery of where Ghostcrawler’s next opportunity has led him has been revealed: Lead Game Designer at… Riot Games. As in, Lead Game Designer for League of Legends. Needless to say, some corners of the internet flipped their shit. A response from Riot Games illuminated some of the reasons he got hired on:

A lot of the things we want to focus on with game health this year (and preseason is a kick-off to this effort) is primarily around fixing a lot of the old problems. After finishing up support (IE the gold item particulars + Annie problem), we want to focus on adding choice and depth by taking a HARD look at “ball of stats” stuff so we can actually introduce interesting stuff with trade-offs.

I have never actually played League of Legends, so I cannot speak to any of the complexities of the game. But while the jokes about Ghostcrawler balancing things write themselves, it’s worth a slight reflection on how, pretty indisputably, WoW is more balanced class and spec-wise than it has ever been. My prediction is that he’s going to tank LoL all right… in the aggro sense. It sorta sucks how his reputation automatically makes him an undeserved (IMO) target of scorn. But hey, if you’re good at something, I guess getting paid (more?) to do exactly that thing isn’t so bad.