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Designer Responsibility

How responsible are game designers in the balancing of their (single-player) game?

Syncaine swerves to the right:

One theme I’m seeing is the debate about what is OP [in Skyrim], and how easy it is to min/max the game. I find this… odd. As Nil’s himself pointed out, you can turn godmode on if you want, and be as ‘maxed out’ as you can possibly get. Hearing that people are ‘exploiting’ the game by running into a wall for hours while hidden to max out stealth makes no sense to me. Why waste all that time, just go into the character file and put stealth to 100. […]

“Am I to blame?”


Luckily the solution is easy; remove one or more of the enchanted pieces, or up the difficulty, or RP a reason why you no longer require mana to cast spells.

I’d rather you do that then Bethesda spend time hardcoding a solution over adding yet-another-quest, or whatever other content they could do in that time. Or have the hardcoded solution prevent me from play “how I want”.

If this was an MMO, 100% valid point. If it was a multiplayer game like Dungeon Defenders, still 100% valid. An sRPG that is far more about the journey than the end-goal? Naw, non-issue IMO.

Nils has a more center-oriented approach:

I agree that it is partly in the player’s responsibility to not optimize the fun out of his game. An example would be sneaking against a wall until you have maxed out stealth in Skyrim.

On the other hand, I just uploaded a video to youtube that shows how I enchanted four items and now can cast destruction and restoration spells witout any mana cost. This is a game changer, as the mana constraint was important in the game – until then. Many of my perks in the talent trees are suddenly useless. The game becomes worse. Playing it is less fun if I can just spam a single spell without looking at mana.
I optimized the fun out of Skyrim. Am I to blame?

The problem is that I ended up enchanting my equipment this way not by sneaking against a wall. I simply skilled enchanting and then used reasonable enchantments on my equipment.

My point is this: A game cannot use the cartot, that character power progression (CPP) is, to increase the player’s engagement with the game, and at the same time allow him to optimize the fun out by hunting the carrot in a reasonable way.

My own left-leaning approach is the same as I outlined in the Culpability of Questionable Design, the very first post I made under the In An Age banner. Essentially, it is (almost) always the designer’s fault.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

As I commented on Syncaine’s post, I find it bizarrely apologetic to state that it is a player’s responsibility to not ruin the game for themselves. The specific situation in Skyrim Nils had brought up was the ability to eliminate all mana/stamina costs of spells and abilities via Enchanting. Nils had gotten his Enchanting skill up “legitimately,” as opposed to, say, getting 100 Sneak by auto-sneaking into a corner for a several hours. For the record, I see zero difference between those two activities – both are simply examples of incredibly poor design ridiculous failures of imagination.

In Oblivion there existed a Magic College where you could invent your own spells and magic items, within certain constraints. Making a Fireball spell that dealt 100 damage was expensive, whereas a 50 damage Fireball cost less. Similarly, a buff/debuff that lasted an hour was more expensive than one that lasted for only 1 second. After about an hour of playing with the various sliders, I left the College with a ranged spell that decreased the HP of the creature it touched by 100 for 1 second. The practical effect was that it instantly killed everything in the game, at least until I gained many more levels – even then, if I fired it quickly, the second hit would kill anything with less than 200 HP since it stacked with itself. I called this spell Finger of Death, and later added it to a sword along with the Soul-draining property so that as the sword instantly killed who it touched, it refueled itself.

I did not set out to break Oblivion, nor did Nils set out to break Skyrim; the both of us were simply using the tools the designers gave us and taking them to their logical conclusions. It is the responsibility of the designers to ensure that incredibly obvious things (at least in retrospect) like “-25% mana usage” does not stack with itself, that temporary decreases in HP scale the same as damage abilities when their effects are indistinguishable, and so on, are balanced. Arguing to the contrary is to admit that WoW leveling is not too quick since the player can manually shut off XP, that facerolling mobs and instances is a player failure as said player could play with just one hand, play with a gamepad, play with Resurrection Sickness, or any number of entirely arbitrary self-imposed restrictions. It is to abdicate, wholly and completely, any responsibility of the designers to present a balanced, well-paced experience.

Syncaine is right about these games being about the journey, not necessarily getting to the end as quickly as possible. And yet I derive deep satisfaction in the execution of strategies, figuring out how rules/objects work, and finding more efficient ways of doing tasks; those things constitute the journey to me. Turning on god-mode in the console may have the same end result, but it skips all the fun, thinking bits inbetween, just like skipping to the last chapter of a book. In other words: optimization is fun.

And so I believe it is – and has to be – the designer’s responsibility to ensure that if a game can be optimized, that it still continues to be fun and challenging when it inevitably is. Anything less is laziness, incompetence, or both.

Answering Nils’ Criticism

Nils made a comment in response to yesterday’s post, and I feel a rebuttal is important enough for its own post.

Ok, so in BGs where you can blow people off edges you take typoon. In the others you take Fearie Fire. Was that a hard choice?

Yes. Because I want Typhoon all of the time… but Faerie Swarm could be useful in Arena… but what if I get Dalaran Sewers where the shock value of a Feral druid knocking someone off the edge would be priceless… but endlessly kiting people DK-style would probably be fun too… and hey, would Typhoon be more or less powerful on Magmaw than the AoE root… etc.

The consequences of choosing Typhoon over Faerie Swarm is that you won’t have Faerie Swarm even when there may be a good situation for it. In a raid, there is probably a clear-cut answer of which is more useful, and if it is EotS weekend, then Typhoon would likely be the answer. But that’s not a problem between the Typhoon vs Faerie Swarm choice, it’s a problem with encounter design. And I would still take Typhoon in an encounter where Faerie Swarm is more optimal, as long as Typhoon wasn’t completely useless (i.e. the delta between their usefulness wasn’t too great).

I think everything has been said there. Choices have to have consequences, otherwise they are meaningless. Blizzard repeated attempts to get around this is ridiculous. The reason you have a few choices left in the current talent trees is because it doesn’t matter where you spend your last points!

And it didn’t matter because up until now they were treating the first ~31 talents as “choices” when they really were not. If you are a Ret paladin, you take 3/3 Crusade, period. You take 2/2 Long Arm of the Law, period. And so on. Now, they can give you choices that matter (in the sense I’m talking about), as evident by the druid talents you went over and all the other classes.

You say that there is an optimal, cookie-cutter EJ solution to these problems but I am saying that that is irrelevant. Yes, there will always be an objectively optimal choice assuming the choice has a measurable impact on anything. The only relevant thing though is the distance between the EJ solution and the 2nd best (or 3rd) solution. As long as they are close enough, I can choose which of the two is more fun for me (Typhoon) and still feel happy about that decision even if the “correct” answer is something else. My fun, enjoyment, familiarity, stylistic inclination, ease, etc, will make up the difference.

The only change of note with the new talent trees is that you can change them on the fly. This makes them a mandatory part of the preparation before you do anything of importance (boss fights, arena games, rated BGs …)

Other than every spec of each class having access to cool abilities that were hitherto restricted to individual specs, right? Hell, a Resto druid can have Typhoon and summon treants! Nevermind Assassination rogues with Shadowstep, Arcane mages with Cauterize and Ice Barrier, etc etc. And by removing the ~31 redundant talent “choices” that each spec takes regardless of PvE vs PvP vs leveling vs raiding, this should allow Blizzard to focus on keeping the six actual talent choices we have now interesting and difficult to choose between.

And just based on the rough draft we saw at BlizzCon, I would say they are off to a good start.

OT: Subscription and Correlation

Did you know that ice cream makes it more likely you will drown? It’s true. When ice cream sales increase, so do the number of drowning deaths. Clearly linked! Speaking of spurious correlations…

I fully expect Rift to now follow in the footsteps of WoW, in that it will decline. Vanilla and BC days had challenging content, and it’s not a surprise that sub numbers grew. WotLK made things ‘accessible’, and surprise surprise, the response was pretty meh (sub numbers dropped in the US/EU, but were offset globally by WoW launching in new regions, hence the overall stagnation). Cata tried to play both sides of the fence, but a combo of too little too late, a gimmick of progression (hard mode rehashes rather than straight-up new content), and a one-track, insult difficulty 1-85 game did it in. With no new regions to offset things, subs are dropping.

(SynCaine in the post “Accessibility killed Rift“)

World of Warcraft’s growth rate went from a perfectly stable 2 million subscribers per year during 2006 to 2009, to zero during WotLK. This was exactly the time when Blizzard changed the character progression mechanic.

(Nils in the post “Smoke and Mirrors“)

“If developers design a game which requires too much effort from the average player for too little gain, the average players will start leaving the game. “

This is the part I strongly disagree with, and WoW’s sub history does as well. Vanilla/BC, which had a MUCH harder end-game that fewer players saw to completion, saw massive growth. WotLK/Cata, with raids being cleared by all who stepped inside, have brought decline.

(SynCaine in a comment on Tobold’s post “Syncaine on Accessibility“)

The reason I bring these examples up is because this type of thinking (or lack thereof) is what I consider one of the most pernicious, asinine fallacies in any discussion of World of Warcraft. It is intellectual laziness at best, intellectual dishonesty at worse. Before I begin in earnest however, here is a slightly augmented graph from MMOData that most people refer to when they talk about WoW subs:

1) Correlation does not mean causation.

Standard preface to any claim that X means Y. Ice cream and drowning are only “linked” because there is a third factor involved.

2) Even if correlation did mean causation, why this particular correlation?

This specific point is the reason the argument is intellectually lazy. When you look at the graph, it is true what Nils and SynCaine said about there being a relatively rapid period of growth during vanilla and TBC that was not apparent after the release of Wrath. However, tying that solely (or even partially) to accessibility/character progression/difficulty/etc is a completely unsupported leap of logic.

There is zero evidence given by either author as to why it was “existence of more challenging content” and not, I dunno, the introduction of the PvP Honor System and BGs in the summer of 2005, which coincides with a 500k sub spike in WoW-West on graph. Or the release of ZG in September of that year, also suspiciously near another 500k sub bump. Or if I looked at WoW’s overall numbers like Nils does with his “2 million per year growth” argument, perhaps I could argue Patch 1.12 with it’s wildly successful:

The stage is set for intense, objective-based land battles as Horde and Alliance vie for control over important strategic positions and resources around Azeroth. Head out for Silithus and Eastern Plaguelands to engage the enemy on the field!

…was responsible for the corresponding bump of 1 million (!) subscribers. Clearly, clearly, more things like Silithus and the old Eastern Plagueland towers is just what WoW needs.

3) What does endgame accessibility/difficulty have to do with anything?

This is another intellectually lazy part of the argument that the authors never bother to address. What percentage of the playerbase ever actually makes it to the endgame, and is this percentage big enough to even impact subscription growth? That is an open question.

The best metric that I can come up with is to look at the number of guilds who killed Beasts of Northrend in 10m ToC after two years of it being out (86,187 guilds), multiply that by something charitable like 30 players, and then divide by the approximate population in the graph above while only taking into account the regions in which WoWProgress collects data (~6.5 million). The result is 39.77% of players killing the easiest boss in the easiest tier of which we have data (something like Noth the Lootbringer from Naxx 2.0 would have been better, but alas…). That actually sounds like a lot of people, and 19.88% assuming only 15 raiders per guild is not too shabby either when referring to raid content.

That said, there is no evidence whatsoever from those two that difficulty-related gyrations amongst the top 1/3rd of players doing raiding content has a meaningful impact in comparison to whatever the remaining 2/3rd non-raiders are doing. Between 2005 and 2009 the subscriber base was growing at ~25% per year. Is it even remotely likely that the top 40% had anything to do with a meaningful drop in growth rate?

4) Growth, or lack thereof, does not really mean anything other than what it is.

What I mean by this is that you cannot simply look at growth as anything other than what it is: growth. It does not mean anything else without further information. For all the talk about growth rate percentages and “the design decisions that caused them,” look at the pink line for a moment. That represents subscriptions in NA alone. Unfortunately MMOData stopped tracking that information individually (or perhaps Blizzard stopped giving it out), but the whole of TBC resulted in ~650k more subscriptions in NA over a two-year period.

Is 325k sub growth per year more than the apparent zero sub growth in the year of Wrath? Sure… but we have no real way of knowing why that growth was occurring. Was player churn less of a factor in vanilla and TBC? Was the growth simply due to the release of WoW in additional regions? Does market saturation have any impact? Do we simply ignore, I dunno, one of the worst global recessions in world history?

Oh, wait a minute… early 2009 was when the markets were at their worst? And yet WoW subs were relatively stable in most regions during that entire year? Clearly Wrath’s accessibility and stress-free raiding were the only things stopping WoW’s overall decline in a tough market, as evidenced by Cata’s increased difficulty leading to subscription loss once markets improved. QED, amirite?

The bottom line here is that you cannot use WoW subscription numbers as evidence of a claim without first proving said numbers have anything to do with said claim. Did World of Warcraft gain six million subscriptions worldwide in its first year? Yes. Was that because of the strength of its class balance? Its risk versus reward structure? Its accessibility? No one can really say; all of it would be conjecture.

Personally, I believe the initial rush was due to the strength of the IP – I know I certainly gave WoW a shot because of how much I enjoyed Warcraft 3 – and also due to the strength of the Blizzard brand. The designers also got a lot of things down perfectly that I feel other MMO designers stumble across to this day, such as letting characters jump, making solo-play possible, having quests with interesting plots, getting the reward faucet just right while questing, and so on. The tone and tenor of game balance has certainly shifted quite a bit from when I began in TBC, but where I disagree with Nils and SynCaine is that I feel that Wrath was actually a step in a better direction in most (not all) ways. Unfortunately, until the duo, and others who believe as they do, let go of the absurd notion that “the numbers” support their conclusions, it is impossible to have any rational discussion about it.

There is a separate argument as to linear raid progression vs episodic progression, but that is an OT for another time.