Sunday, February 23, 2014

[WoW] Clueless vs. Jerk, Who is Silver for Heroic 5-Mans Solving For?

Blizzard recently announced they were thinking of gating the new 5-Man Heroic dungeons in Warlords of Draenor behind a Silver in the Proving Grounds equivalent. Now, this was qualified with the idea that Heroic 5-Mans would be a fair bit more difficult than they are today. As difficult as Cataclysm’s 5-Mans? I certainly hope so, but we’ll see about that.
However, interestingly enough there’s a bit of a vocal backlash to the Silver requirement, and specifically from some higher-end raiders/proponents of the WoW community. Matthew Rossi, of WoWInsider, and Crepe, an MVP on the Blizzard forums both bemoan the idea that it’s a gate, it’ll require extra work on their parts, and that it is meaningless.

Matthew Rossi in particular suggests that the real problem in random dungeons are the jerks: the folks who go on auto-follow, who pull and intentionally wipe, the folks who are well-geared but the sit on their arses. I don’t disagree with him, or Crepe for that matter, but I think the pair of them are conflating two issues that do need solving. They forget the lessons that Cataclysm taught us.

Think back to a little dungeon known as Stonecore. The very first boss, Corborus, was quite the challenge for most people who walked in unprepared. I remember taking a full two hours trying to complete Grim Batol the first couple of times because, well, half my party may have been quick levelers, but they certainly weren’t good at their class.

Gaze upon him and despair. Or at least, watch your damn feet!
Don’t get me wrong: wiping is A-OK, if you’re exploring the mechanics and trying to get a handle for how things work, that’s totally cool. But making the same mistakes over and over again, and just not getting it are pretty annoying, or dealing with those well-meaning folks who are good at staying out of the bad, but they still only manage 30k DPS in ilvl 530 gear.
And that’s what the gating for Silver is trying to solve for. The beginning of Cataclysm was a huge wake-up call for a lot of folks, and many of them decided to say screw it and left the game. Blizzard is already aware that throwing together random parties you end up having to make allowances for less communication and the absence of that gelling period that a guild group would have gone through, so by ensuring a sufficient level of skill, it at least advertises that you aren’t ready to just walk in there.

While Crepe does bring up a good point that we’ll just out-gear the heroics eventually, Blizzard can then later take the requirements down a notch. Things can and do get patched, and most requirements in-game are not forever. They’re also correct that if implemented poorly, it could end up being a significant amount of work: ~20 minutes per spec today, and if you have to do it on every alt… but that could be solved if you only had to do it once per spec across your account. And perhaps the gating mechanism could be removed if you manage to actually complete the Heroic 5-Man in a guild group (where the Proving Grounds requirement doesn’t exist). Sure, someone could get their guild to run them through and still not be ready for random-time, but I argue that the gate is less about actually preventing them from queuing, and more acting as a large warning sign to folks.

But as Mr. Rossi says, that doesn’t solve for the people flagrantly violating Wheaton’s Law. It’s not supposed to. Blizzard would suggest that the Kick system is supposed to be there for that, but frankly, that system as it exists today isn’t sufficient. Chain-pulling to prevent the combat timer from expiring, kick limitations being applied to the kicker, not to mention a kickee cannot be kicked too many times in a short period of time (I still don’t understand the reasoning behind that, Blizzard). There are too many loopholes which make social enforcement of that system not work.

My point being, however, is that in my opinion folks need to be careful of what they’re asking for and what they aren’t asking for. Conflating the two issues doesn’t address either of them, and I for one believe both must be addressed, and it will take two different systems/approaches in tandem to get them both. They’re independent problems, with likely independent solutions.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online: What's in a Name?

The NDA lifted off The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) and I’ll be honest, the only reason why I noticed was because Twitter was all aflutter about it. I’ve played previous games in The Elder Scrolls universe such as Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim and every time without fail I end up playing for a while, getting distracted by something shiny and fun, getting distracted from that by something else shiny and fun, repeat ad nauseam until I’m so far off the beaten path that I have no idea what the plotline is anymore and then I just drop the game to play something else. This entire process usually lasts for about 6 to 8 hours, so given all of the other games I want to play, this seems like a poor fit for my play style.

That’s not to say they are bad games. Given the number of people who clamor they’re excellent games, I’ll leave that judgment for other folks. I just know that they’re not a good investment for me. So when TESO was announced, I gave it a firm meh and went on my day-to-day business.

Fast forward to today, and the blogosphere is alive with the sound of music complaints. Like myself, it seems that folks looked at the name “The Elder Scrolls” and walked into the game with a certain set of expectations. A world that opens up within the first like 15 minutes to do whatever you want, be it stealing all of the cheese wheels across the land and rolling them down a mountain, or questing to your heart’s content.

More cheese, Gromit?

Edit: Apparently the tutorial actually only lasts 15 - 30 minutes. That'll learn me not to ask questions.

Edit2: The above is true for certain definitions of tutorial. You can go off the rails after the first 15 minutes, but there's still guided tutorial-esque quests after.

Turns out those expectations aren’t met, at least for the first 10 levels or so. Apparently the tutorial phase is pretty much like any other MMO on rails. If you’ve got a bunch of journalists who only have a few hours to dig into your content (or new players who are trying to make a value judgment on if they want to invest more time, for that matter), having your tutorial take a long time and not be representative of the rest of your game is a fatal mistake.

Take Final Fantasy XIII, for example. Square Enix made the same mistake, and got lambasted for it incredibly harshly. Twenty hours of linear play with a tutorial every twenty to thirty minutes before it finally opened up at the very end. Now, that’s an extreme example, I highly doubt TESO is anywhere near that bad, but nonetheless, we’ve been through this song and dance already. Players don’t like it.

J3W3L from Healing The Masses expresses her frustration with folks taking the tutorial and extrapolating the rest of the game from said tutorial. On one hand, I can sympathize: how many games have I said, “Oh, the first few hours aren’t that great, but the game really takes off once you’re past that point”?

On the other hand, how is it not a complete design failure on the part of the developers that they aren’t showing—as a part of the game that is teaching you to play the game—what the game is like? I suppose rationalizing open world with guided tutorial is a hard problem, but throwing up your hands and saying, “it’s too hard to solve,” and just shoving in a sub-par experience as part of the crucial initial few hours where people make that snap-judgment is not a good idea for getting people to keep playing. Or worse: passing it off as a problem with the customers because their attention spans are too short, which completely misses the point of designing a game to make money.

When designing software, or a device, or anything else, to sell to people, the problem is rarely with the customer. Nobody can find that feature? People constantly hitting the wrong key by accident in your app? People aren’t going to give you as the developer a free pass because you’re nice (usually); the customer will buy someone else’s software that does it right, or at least, does it well enough but doesn’t have the issue they’re struggling with.

If you’re the software developer and designer, it’s your job to solve for those issues. So if your tutorial is turning people off because it isn’t representative of the rest of the game and takes too long, then you need to fix that, or you’ll get the niche of players who have the patience to get through the tutorial, but you won’t end up with the population to support the $100 million you just spent on development.

Even WoW had the statistics to support that 70% of trial players quit WoW before level 10, which was only about 2 to 3 hours of gameplay for a new player, so complain all you like about players with short attention spans: if the developer wants the money, the developer needs to have the experience nab them in those immediate short few hours. Nicholas Lovell of GAMESbrief puts it succinctly:

“The criticisms of TESO suggest that its initial experience is not trying to show you why this game is worth sticking with: it assumes that you are going to stick with it. It doesn’t try to earn your love and respect. It assumes it.”

Developer rant aside, if the game truly does open up after the tutorial, then this is all fixable. Shorten the tutorial or redesign it, and bam, you have your Skyrim: The MMO, which is what many folks want when they hear “The Elder Scrolls Online.” But if it’s not, then you have a branding problem, which likely stems from the fact that in most people’s minds it’s “easy” to make Skyrim: The MMO (despite it being very, very hard to actually develop Skyrim: The MMO because design considerations in a single-player game don’t really cross that divide into a multiplayer game very easily).

World of Warcraft made an incredibly successful jump from RTS to MMO, but perhaps that was easy because the only expectations people had of WoW compared to Warcraft III was that it should have the same factions/races/major NPCs and flavor. Since the genres were so radically different, there were no expectations from the RTS crowd as to how the game should play.

Interestingly enough, Final Fantasy XI had a similar issue to TESO, and I’d argue that they failed to bridge the gap from single-player Final Fantasy games to the MMO, at least for North Americans. You had a bunch of hardcore old-school MMO players, but the folks who wanted that crunchy story-heavy JRPG flavor weren’t going to get it from the grind-fest that was FFXI. People were upset (and still are) that an MMO got to take a spot in the venerated Final Fantasy line with a number and everything, because to them it wasn’t really Final Fantasy.

When you look at Bravely Default, which was classic Final Fantasy in everything except name, it sold like gangbusters in all markets. A new IP/franchise was born, divested of the baggage that comes with a venerated IP: Final Fantasy, an IP that is extremely diluted at this point. If someone says Final Fantasy these days, the only thing that comes to mind is made in Japan and Chocobos. There’s no strong association with a given character, genre, story, or style of play, and I argue that’s a bad thing. In the PlayStation era, the name “Final Fantasy” meant long JRPG with a heavy story, evolved battle mechanics from game to game, excellent graphics, and awesome music. Basically, the brand “Final Fantasy” was sufficient to sell the games nearly sight-unseen.

But that name also invites comparisons to other games in the series, and so it is with The Elder Scrolls Online. Zenimax chose to name their MMO on that series, and so it comes with certain expectations. When those expectations aren’t met, it hurts the brand and drives the players away. There’s room for experimentation, but as a company you need to understand what your brand means to your players, and deliver on that premise, because when you’re selling based on that brand, that’s what customers are buying. And if you can’t prove to your customers that they’re getting what they purchased in relatively short order, you’ll lose them and end up with upset blog posts on the Internet.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Decisions, Decisions: Information Disclosure Changes How We Play

(Warning: Mass Effect 1 Spoilers at the end of the post. Also, that game was released nearly 7 years ago. Statute of Spoiler Limitations is practically expired at this point.)

A game is a series of interesting choices.
- Sid Meier

Now, the cadence and magnitude of those choices can be quite variable, from the macro-choices of what class or civilization do I play, to the micro-choices of what to build in this city next, or what ability should I use in the next 1.5 seconds. But what differentiates a game from a movie is the fact that you’re making choices.

And nothing in a game is more frustrating than making choices in a vacuum, or being overloaded with information. Living beings collect input, think about it, and then make a decision. So when a game presents us with nothing or too much information, those choices feel arbitrary. We’re divorced from the consequences because as far as we’re concerned, we didn’t have the right information at hand to make a rational, reasonable, or emotional choice.

Take the game Final Fantasy XIII-2. As you gain experience points, you get the option of determining what role to level. The game lets you know at what levels of each role you get skills at, but the game doesn’t tell you is that depending on which role you level when, your character gets different stat allocations. For example, when activating a large node as opposed to a small node, you get bonus strength if you picked the Commando role, or bonus magic if you picked the Ravager role.

Leveling the Ravager role on a large node. Note the +2 Magic only shows up after you've spent the points to level it. Vexing.
The number of large nodes is finite, so at the end of the game, your character’s statistics can vary wildly depending on if you focused on one stat or another, or just leveled haphazardly. Because the decision is permanent, and the game doesn’t tell you in advance, this can lead to a frustrating experience if you haven’t figured it all out. Granted, some experimentation and then a reload would also solve this, but why should I have to do that?

Another example of this where you cannot be saved by reloading is Path of Exile. Their passive abilities grid, which is a lot like the Final Fantasy X Sphere Grid, is largely permanent. You get occasional points you can use to respec a single passive node, and I believe you get one full reset of the grid, but since you don’t know what abilities your character has available (as they’re gems which randomly drop), you don’t necessarily know what you want to spec into, and with the always online auto-saving nature of the game, there's no going back.

Because you cannot tell the future, and because decisions are permanent, it discourages experimentation. So you hedge your bets and take what you think is the safest path with what little information you have to work with, but you cannot know what path you've taken is actually the safest. Worse still, you potentially trap yourself into a substandard setup with no recourse to correct it besides throwing away potentially tens to hundreds of hours of effort and starting from scratch.

Path of Exile's Passive Skill grid. Decisions here are (mostly) permanent. And there are a LOT of decisions.
Contrast that to Diablo III or World of Warcraft, where Blizzard has the stance that information disclosure is key. And on top of that, any such decisions are not, generally, permanent. Talent points can be respecced, abilities can be swapped out, and any decision you make come with a plethora of information. As you level, you know what abilities you’ll get and at what levels, and those abilities are laid out in excruciating detail if you’re interested.

But there’s the trick, WoW these days has the concept of basic versus advanced tooltips. Advanced tooltips have enough information for the theorycrafters and the detail-oriented folks. For example, I came up with the near optimal rotation for my Frost Mage just by reading tooltips. Same thing with my Enhancement Shaman. Granted, oddities in the optimal rotation, such as hard-casting Lightning Bolt before you hit 5 stacks of Maelstrom Weapon is completely non-obvious, and needed simulation to suss out, but the rest of it is relatively straightforward if you do some basic math in your head. For those folks who don’t care about the minutiae or find that much information overwhelming, you can get close enough for most day-to-day things like questing, dailies, and the timeless isle by using the basic tooltips.

Compare that to a game like Final Fantasy XII, where you know that you have the spells Fire, Fira, and Firaga, and the descriptions are basically a weak, medium, or powerful fire attack respectively. You don’t need to know more detail than that because you can just choose the right one for the job with a little experimentation. Granted, the combat system in FFXII wasn’t as complex as figuring an optimal rotation in WoW, mind you.

But what about that thrill of discovery? Figuring out a lot of this stuff is part of the fun! Bravely Default scratches that itch in an interesting fashion. They don’t tell me ahead of time what abilities I’ll get as I level my jobs, but I know I’ll get something at every level, and of course it’s all themed to each job. The only decision I’m making here is which jobs to level first. The decisions aren't mutually exclusive, so given enough (a lot of) time and effort, I can level all of the jobs, but the real decisions come in how I mix and match abilities.

In Bravely Default, you don't know what you'll get at each level, but you know you'll get something.
As a game designer, knowing how much information to disclose and what to leave to the player to discover is a difficult question, and it also depends on your audience. Hardcore old school players may love everything to be obscure and require large amounts of digging to understand, whereas theorycrafters may want all the information in detailed numeric form. Casual or beginner players may want just enough guidance to be able to pick up the basics. Of course, there are infinite gradients of in-between.

As a player, I can say what I prefer: if the decision is something that is mutually exclusive and permanent with respect to my character advancement, I’d like to know what the consequences and effects of that decision are going to be. If it’s with respect to plot, story, or character interactions, there should be enough knowledge in-game such that I can reasonably guess where that decision might take me.

Feel free to throw plot twists at me, but if I decide that I’m going to let Space Racist Ashley Williams die to save Kaiden Alenko (not biased, at all), then after the fact, I’d expect Williams would be dead and I’d have the opportunity to save Alenko. I wouldn’t expect that Williams would suddenly turn into an Angel and sit on my shoulder whispering in my ear, telling me to burn them all. Doesn’t fit the narrative or the world that had been built up to that point.

I want my decisions to have an effect on my gameplay, and to be interesting and have that meaningful effect, I need to understand what it is I am deciding. Otherwise it will feel like I'm just playing a slot machine with pretty graphics.