WOO II An Exploration in Design - July 2012 - By Stoneghost: Dalaran

 

WOO II - What players want

The business intends to offer a product at the highest possible price and lowest possible maintenance cost while attracting the largest possible customer base. But a massive multi-player online game (MMPOG) is not like, say, a can of soda, with easily measured ingredients and one or two dimensions of satisfaction. MMPOGs have have huge audiences, serve a complex variety of needs, and possess inherent conflicts when it comes to marketing. Yes, the product is entertainment, and yes, the customer is satisfied when having fun, but neither of those terms is easily defined.

Take as an example the play in a typical random battleground. Some players define "fun" as the ability to shout obscenities in chat for the duration of the encounter, or the ability to browbeat other players for not having the right gear or skills ... some enjoy playing the game, "capture the flag", for example, while others want to wander around dueling with one another without ever noticing the game. (For that matter, some parents use the game as an experiential outing for their mentally handicapped children ... a Blood Death Knight guarding a flag in Gilneas is actually a fine activity for someone who finds complex thinking a challenge. See: companions.)

I have my own opinions on the validity of these kinds of "fun", but I am not expressing those here. My point is that when millions of people come together in the same venue, widely differing point of view are likely to emerge.

 

What Woo II is about

Fundamentally, an online game is a form of entertainment. The WOO II design sometimes uses the "amusement park" comparison ... but a "movie theatre" or "novel" would work just as well. Companies that provide entertainment, be they film studios, publishers, amusement parks or online games, are in the business of giving their customers with "what they want." In particular, it is not the company's job to design the entertainment venue in a way that makes the user change his or her behavior in ways that are not interesting, engaging, or ultimately entertaining.

When a reader picks up a book, he or she intends to detach from the effort it takes to scan text with one's eyes and interpret the results ... and to do this by becoming actively involved in the mental image that the words project. A good book, good movie or good ride all have in common that they transport the user into an alternate reality. MMPOGs seek the same goal ... but within the constraint that their customers must interact with one another as the transportation proceeds.

Ultimately, the audience decides what the company must provide, and companies that lose track of this requirement are doomed to lose customers. If amusement park customers want water slides, then it is the job of the amusement park to provide interesting, entertaining water slides. If the park instead decides that customers must take a five mile hike before they can get on the water slide, the customers will depart.

Players want various kinds of experiences in an online game, but what they want most is a negative ... they want to have fun and they want not to be bored.

 

Conflict

Consider obscenity. An individual, in chat, gives a long, involved description of the physical properties of his sexual organs. On the one hand there is no way of knowing if this player is: a teenage boy acting out a fantasy, a college student working on an experiment in social discourse, a teenage girl trying out the male point of view, or a mentally deranged pervert trolling for entertainment. On the other hand, nearly everyone dislikes this kind of talk. In fact the dislike is sufficiently pervasive that the game includes a special tool for reporting such people to the game, and removing them from your communications.

In this case the fact that a few players want one thing and many players want something else makes the conflict fairly easy to resolve. But there are numerous instances where the resolution is not so clear. As an example of this consider the never-ending debate as to which is the weakest or strongest class, or as to what talents should be available to which classes and at what strength. Or whether "bots" should be allowed in game play.

Conflict is built into the very nature of an MMPOG, and in fact such games need conflict. The dramatic tension in most MMPOGs is carried via combat between contesting factions. The games cannot easily encourage random killing on one hand and ban "bad" behavior on the other. The best they can do is try to meet the expectations of the majority of their players.

 

However, the conflict that comes because players have different goals can ruin the game for all involved. The next table is an oversimplification, but it gets the point across.

Player Type
Play To Win
Enjoy the Raid/Battle/Quest
Just Screwing Around
Activity

Questing

X
X
X
PvP
X
X
X
Raiding
X
X
X

This isn't to put a value on any of these ... if people want to pay admission just to fool around, there's nothing inherently wrong with that ... but, when goals mix, problems arise. For example:

And on and on. The real conflict here is between "fun" and human nature. People have different opinions as to what constitutes "fun" and little tolerance for those who are keeping them from having it. Unfortunately, unlike Amusement Parks, which can separate people by plugging them into seats on "rides", a MMPOG has to let people mix, and even worse, has to hope that they will cooperate with one another.

WOO II tries to deal with conflicting goals by creating multiple venues for each type of player.

This won't be a panacea, but the principle is sound. The game design should try to identify groups of players with similar goals and provide a venue or venues that fit their needs.

Boredom

No one wants to be bored. But as with everything else, the definition is not simple.

Some of my friends think that Fishing is boring; I think it is relaxing. Some players think that dungeon raiding is boring, others think it is exciting. Some think that arena matches are boring, others do nothing but play arenas. The thing that everyone can agree on is listed as a rule of this design: Boredom is not fun.

Operationally, the campaign against boredom can cause problems. For example, the current game organizes character abilities into groups called Classes, and then further organizes some abilities by time as the character levels ... and others as choices that are further restricted to "one of three."

This scheme reflects the tension between some players, who want things to be as absolutely simple as possible, and other players, who enjoy the complexity of making choices. The first group would prefer a character with one button ... probably called "fight" ... that would handle the combat; the second wants to explore the relationships between the abilities, how they play off against one another, and choose the best fit. If the game gets too complicated, the first group gets confused and can't play; if the game gets too simplified, the second group gets bored and leaves.

The only way to satisfy both of these groups is to give the attributes two interfaces: a "default" face that restricts choices to just a few options, and an "open" face that lets players make all of the attribute choices on their own. (Possibly, there are some middle positions, but these two endpoints are a reasonable place to start.) This is the logic behind the WOO II Life Paths and attribute trees. The default interface presents players with restricted choices as a template for a particular kind of Life Path choice ... Raider Tank, for example, or PvP Flag Carrier or Crafter Farmer. However, at the player's discretion, the interface opens up to permit the player to build the character "from scratch." (The detailed comparison between Life Paths and Classes is here.)

The advantage of Life Paths is that there are three primary, and more or less equally robust, ways to play the game ... four, if Questing is treated as a separate game path. Each of the four pathways has a structure ... a set of rules that informs player actions and guides their play. But to play the full game, a player needs to create three characters ... this adds variation and makes it easier for the game designers to extend player interest over time.

But the main effect is to reduce boredom ... and that is the primary goal.

BASIC Concerns

The current game has some problems, among them: a rush by the majority of player to reach the top level, underusage of the majority of the game's "real estate", imbalances in PvP play, boredom in questing, limited entertainment in crafting. These problems cannot be solved by forcing players to do things that they don't want to do for no reason other than to solve the problem. WOO II's take on this situation may not be the best one, but it has an internal consistency:

  1. Underusage of real estate and the rush to "level up" are addressed by making low level activities more fun to play. "Releveling" lets players enter raids and pvp events at any level with full relevancy ... meaning that their characters are the same level as the event, and the rewards are meaningful at every level.
  2. Leveling occurs inside of a character's Life Path, and in particular, Questing is removed from the leveling process. Questing takes on the task of delivering the game's primary mythos and story line. This allows for a variety of more interesting and entertaining quests and chains, and it opens the possibility of attracting new players who are not so interested in Raiding or Fighting.
  3. As Life Paths, Raiding and Fighting become self-contained "subgames", each with its own venues, abilities and rewards. The number of raids is greatly increased (by releveling), and battlegrounds acquire a progression that gives strategic PvP players a more goal-oriented experience. Fun Houses and Theme Parks provide entry level play for prospective Fighters and Raiders, and also serve as gathering places for players of all Life Paths. Fun Houses and Theme Parks also provide a "place to go" for players who have time to kill and want something "not boring" to do while they wait.
  4. Releveling, and the use of "basic gear", puts all characters in battlegrounds on an even field, regardless of their maximum level or gear rating. This emphasizes skill and at the same time removes the disadvantage of not having "PvP" gear.
  5. With the status of Life Path, Crafting becomes and full time activity that will draw players who are not interested in constant combat. Likely, many Crafters will also Quest.

On one hand, this approach compartmentalizes the game. One character can no longer participate in all activities. But two good results come from this compartmentalization: players get to concentrate on the activities that they most enjoy, and there are more activities to try out. In addition, because the account structure has changed slightly to broaden character management, a player can easily make a new character for each kind of activity.

On the design side, the WOO II approach should be easier to maintain. Designers no longer need to worry about balancing PvE and PvP gear and abilities, for example, and Quests can be structured for interest and entertainment rather than for experience. Many fewer items of gear need to be inventoried, and releveling, while powerful, does not require much storage space or processing time.

The new Crafting structure will have to be built from the ground up, but once in place it should not be hard to update and extend. Ditto for the new Questing regime.

Probably, the upper tier "Campaign" battlegrounds will be the most difficult venue to produce. It's worth a try, though, because if successful it would provide a very rich enhancement to the current game's PvP experience.

SOLO OR GROUP?

Some players only want to play in groups; others only want to play alone; most want to do both. WOO II takes the point of view that solo and group play are equally valuable, but this is not the same as saying that they are equally easy to support.

You can play a MMOG solo even if you are technically in a group. Any number of players admit (or claim) to be inebriated while they are playing, and other certainly turn off the chat, turn on their own music and play as if every character they meet is an NPC.

The goal of WOO II is to give every player something that they want to do. This means that people who want to be alone should have venues that support this.

Social Media?

The new notion of "social media" seems attractive in the context of Mass Multiplayer Online Games. With millions of players interacting with one another, doesn't such a game present an opportunity for marketing and "monetization?" Strangely, it may not.

MMPOGs may be social, but they are not personal. Unlike your experience with Facebook or Twitter, you do not know the real names and locations of the people you play with unless they tell you, and they probably shouldn't tell you, and they almost never do. This means that outside of the game space, there is no way to contact or even recognize a connection with, another player.

It also seems that the game has a very highly specialized focus. You could sell books about the mythos of the game to players, for example, but you could hardly sell them books in general. They might download music from the game, but they won't be interested in buying other kinds of music.

Finally, there is simply no way to advertise anything to players inside the game without destroying the ambiance that keeps the game alive. This goes back to the amusement park metaphor. Successful MMPOGs absolutely must maintain the fantasy world that they seek to create. Commercials or merchandising ... in fact any break in this illusion ... reminds the participants of precisely what they came to the fantasy world to forget.

As a result, it's hard to see how a MMPOG could establish the real world connections necessary to translate it into a platform for social media. And it seems likely that even minimal attempts to inject sales or advertising into game play would drive away enough players to make the action counterproductive.

Crafting

Crafting in the current game is limited in two ways. First, the learning curve is slower than the game. By the time a character acquires the necessary skills and materials to make an item, he or she has moved past the level where it would be useful. And, since most players are leveling as quickly as they can, most items have little or no market value. In fact, a quick check of the auction house will show that most items sell for less than the cost of the materials it takes to make them.

Secondly, most crafted items are of lower quality than items gained through raiding or PvP. There is a logic to this, in that a character should have to fight in PvP venues to get PvP gear, but the end result is a deprecation of crafting.

All in all, the current game can't seem to decide out what to do with crafting. When it gives the Crafters useful items to make, those items get made and sold. But this often seems to be followed by a reactionary period where the useful items are bound to the Crafter. This fails ... because no character can craft all the items that he or she needs ... and in the next upgrade distribution often opens up again.

This cycle is in good part driven by the question of value.

WOO II's approach to this problem is to use Crafting to create a market and let the market set the value of everything. If all items that can be bought must first be made, then the value of the items will be set by Crafter decisions, rather than by players having to commit their time to "farming" for drops or materials. This frees players to do what they want to do ... as long as it also makes them some cash ... and it gives Crafters the goal of supplying the needs of the market.

The marketing approach is also supported by the decision to let players choose from a wide variety of talents, skills and enhancements. In general, players like variety because each wants to be unique. And in this case, a wide variety of demands for goods and services makes for a more balanced market.

Value will still be driven by rarity, and in the end this will be controlled by the way resources and recipes are fed into the game. What the market based approach brings to the game is a new class of game play in Crafting, the ability for every character to have a unique "look" and set of attributes, and the ability for players to focus their time on the activities that they most enjoy.

PVE and PVP

A character in a PVE group is a cog in a machine. He or she has a role and must play it effectively and efficiently. A PVE tank must get aggro and be able to withstand repeated attacks without taking critical damage. A PVE healer needs to deliver health with pinpoint accuracy while maintaining mana for the long haul. PVE damage characters must pump out damage at the highest possible rate for long periods of time.

A character in PVP is an individual in a cooperative venture. He or she must continually assess and adjust to fit the needs of the situation. A healer may need to do damage. Damage players require some amount of self-healing, as there will not always be a healer present. Damage and healing must focus on trauma ... healers need large bursts for short times, damage players need the same. And while tanks do not generally play a large role carrying flags and guarding towers are essential tasks.

Most players play either dungeons or battlegrounds and do the other as a change of pace. At a minimum this requires two specifications ... likely, most players have a character geared and skilled for each style. (Many players also have a third character who does nothing but crafts and auction house, but that's another story.)

The divergence of these two modes of play puts tremendous stress on the game's desire to let players mix in combat. In theory a top ranked PVE player and top ranked PVP player should be able to fight one another on an even basis. In practice this is increasingly unlikely.

PVE gear and weapons are forced to escalate to accommodate tougher and tougher bosses. To balance this, PVP players are given buffs that apply only in player versus player combat. But the result is very messy. For one thing the span between PVE gear from the early dungeons in a progression to the final dungeons is quite wide ... as is the span for PVP weapons and gear. This means that a highly geared character is overpowered versus a player with less gear... even if they are at the same character level. And no player who does not do PVP or PVE can possibly duel with someone who does.

This approach also tries to maintain the fiction that general "world" PVP is on a par with Arenas and Battlegrounds. Thus, the current game seems to be trying to maintain a status quo that its own dynamics are dissolving. The WOO II approach is to:

While this would give up on the dream of world PvP, it would also expand the use of the world by players who don't use it very much now, and it would give PvP players a more robust experience with stronger goals and better rewards.

However

The current game has positioned itself as a Dungeon Raiding game with PvP as a sidelight. Crafting is a minor activity, and questing is used as a way to quickly level players so that they can gain entrance to the latest dungeons. The mythos is presented primarily through dungeon "content", which leaves anyone who does not raid on a regular basis out of the story.

But this works. The current game has millions of subscribers ... and perhaps that is all that the game's owners require.

Death, Death and Death

There is a huge amount of killing in the current game. I doubt this is bad in any moral sense, it is, after all, a game, but it can become tedious and boring.

The monsters in a dungeon are impediments to the goal of the boss fight and treasure. Clearly, they need to be removed, and they die defending their hoard. Death in PvP is ameliorated by rezzing, in fact rebirth is so much a part of the contest that the deaths seem unreal and significant only in that they remove a resource from the other side.

But quests that demand massive killing, or the need to destroy hundreds of NPCs in order to farm their hide or take their possessions seems different. There is no serious goal involved, there is just an endless stream of death for no reason.

One of the goals of Questing in WOO II is to build a more interesting set of activities - less mindless killing and more clever puzzles and wondrous adventures. It's not that there shouldn't be a little death along the way, it's that the death should contribute to the story and not be just a way of filling time.

Ditto for Crafting. Moving farming into the Crafter's Holding relieves the game of the need to require death on a large scale in order to feed the game's industrial complex. Here too, there is no reason why animal pests and humanoid robbers shouldn't die ... but the main focus is elsewhere.