Game Design 101: Prepare Your Players For the Challenges Ahead

by Wolfshead on April 4, 2008

300This week Tobold penned an excellent article about an impending crisis in WoW: the shortage of skilled players. This was not always the case. Back in 2004 when WoW was released, thousands of EverQuest players migrated to Azeroth. Most of those ex-EQ players were hardened veterans of MMO’s and essentially taught the rest of the player base all about core group MMO mechanics such as pulling, agro, tanking and healing.

As a former guildmaster in WoW, I remember how often we would get new recruits that didn’t have a basic understanding of MMO mechanics. It was left to guilds to train these members on how function in a group and how to use their class roles within a group. We did Blizzard a favor by teaching other players how to play their game, when all along those mechanics should have been rightfully taught by the game itself.

Back then, being able to function properly in a group and a raid environment at the old level cap of 60 in vanilla WoW was imperative if you wanted your character to advance.  Unfortunately, today Blizzard’s lust for new subscribers has watered down gameplay to the point that the ability to solo to the maximum level cap of 70 is considered a key design philosophy as evidenced by Rob Pardo’s GDC 2008 speech. It seems we are now witnessing Richard Bartle’s prophecy coming to pass as WoW devolves into a MMO where long held notions of skill and challenge are cast to the wayside in an effort to appeal to newbie gamers.

However a problem remains: how do solo players become proficient group members in order to migrate from solo WoW to endgame WoW? Ah, and there’s the rub.

The fundamental flaw with WoW right now is that the unharmonious transition from solo gameplay to group/raiding gameplay at the level cap. As Tobold asked: who is supposed to train them? It is Blizzard that should be training them within the game. Getting them prepared for the “real” WoW that Blizzard seems to proudly promote should be their top priority. Just as no army in their right mind would send out soldiers to war without giving them basic training at a boot camp, no game designer should ever fail to prepare their players for the challenges ahead. Yet, this is exactly what the designers at Blizzard have allowed to happen within WoW.

Earlier in 2008, I braved the aptly titled Elitist Jerks forums and posted my thoughts on this very issue in a thread about resetting raid difficulty. Here are some excerpts from my post which I believe are relevant to this issue:

Blizzard purposely allows players to level from 1-70 with relative ease and never prepares them for the reality of the “endgame” in WoW. Imagine if from grades 1 to grades 12 you as a student sat around sang songs and finger painted (the “fun” stuff that children do in primary school). Then you graduate and enter college and suddenly realize that all of those years of non-learning failed to prepare you for your ultimate destination: college and then a career.

This is exactly what Blizzard does by creating the the extremely easy, and accessible content from 1-70 (and made even easier in a previous patch). Players new to MMO’s are left confused, dumbfounded and perplexed at what to do next. Suddenly social skills and meeting new people become paramount as one has to literally find a guild in order to experience all of the multi-million dollar content that lies ahead.

Why then has Blizzard knowingly created a play experience that fails to adequately train and prepare the player for the content that lies ahead?

One of the tenets of good game design is to ensure that players are always faced with appropriate challenges at or near the margins of their skill level. This is how players learn and get better. Every good game does this. Blizzard does this somewhat adequately with their raid content but fails to do this with the transition from solo to grouping to raiding. WoW from 1-70 should be a boot camp for the ultimate destination of the self-actualization of the players avatar: raiding. Yes, that very same raiding that puts the player right in the middle of all of the major plots and storylines.

We know that Blizzard has intentionally created WoW to be like this. Again at this year’s GDC Rob Pardo talked about the “solo to max level” as one of the cornerstone’s of WoW’s success. Last year’s GDC Pardo talked about the donut theory.

The real reason must be that they are doing it to retain as many subscribers as possible. They get 10 million people hooked on the admittedly fun and easy part of WoW. The character advancement and progression is euphoric. Then it stops but by then, the player can’t stop. He must find a way to keep progressing his character. He wants to see Ragnaros. He wants to defeat Illidan. He wants to vanquish Arthas and so on. WoW is the ultimate carrot on a stick.

While WoW is a very successful and popular MMO, it is not a very good MMO because it’s spreads itself too thin in an effort to be all things to all people. We see how this kind of philosophy is currently ruining class balance in the drive to balance classes for PVP at the expense of PVE. Yet in process Blizzard’s approach ends up pleasing nobody. There is a real lack of cohesion in the various playstyes in WoW currently. One wonders how long the middle can hold.

When you get right down to it, WoW is suffering an identity crisis. It’s a MMO that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be: solo, group, raid, PVE, PVP, e-sport?  Who knows where it’s going.  The misguided designers at Blizzard want to have their cake and eat it at the same time.  They are desperately trying to be all things to all people — an impossible task to achieve. But that kind of approach comes with a terrible cost that has resulted in a fractured, disconnected and confused playerbase.

Many WoW players are starting to look back at the original game with nostalgia and rightfully so. With regret, I feel that WoW’s best days are behind it as it’s showing signs of premature aging due to a lack of focus and harmony in their game design. To be honest, another expansion won’t save an increasingly flawed MMO that has failed to address fundamental issues such as tank shortages, healer shortages and now a shortage of skilled players contributing to guilds falling apart. Blizzard, your MMO is starting to crumble. My advice would be to assemble your design team, leave their egos back in Irvine and take them to a secluded retreat for a week and get back to the basics of MMO game design.

-Wolfshead

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nytro April 8, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Interesting… I agree in some ways and I disagree in others….

**As a former guildmaster in WoW, I remember how often we would get new recruits that didn’t have a basic understanding of MMO mechanics. It was left to guilds to train these members on how function in a group and how to use their class roles within a group**

I agree, I started playing WoW just before the Honor System patch was put in place, I had never played not one MMO in my life and I was a GM, another GM taught me everything I needed to know, the game, dkp, the whole nine I agree with this, many old EQ people shaped the environment of WoW.

***The fundamental flaw with WoW right now is that the unharmonious transition from solo gameplay to group/raiding gameplay at the level cap. As Tobold asked: who is supposed to train them?***

I partially disagree here. The questing system that Blizzard has in place more than… how should I say.. “Force you to go from solo-group-then to raids” Many seasoned players in WoW will skip things like SFK, BRD, RFC, Scholo and so on. But your newer players will indeed attempt to take part in those pre-tbc instances which of course continue in TBC as well (ramparts, BF and so on)

From there you unlock Heroic difficulty which causes the group set up and play to increase to an efficient level or you simply will not succeed at completing the instance.

These “2″ aspects alone take you from solo to group. Yes one can advance beyond all of this without ever touching an instance but newer players usually will take the opportunity (90%) of the time to experience this content whether pre-tbc or in tbc itself, newer players following quest lines and chains alot more closely than us seasoned players and those quest lines and chains train the players into group settings and more difficult intense dungeon settings. Just compare the instance make up, layouts, mob abilities and difficulty on normal to that of former scholo, strat and so on…. 2-3 GMs or Warlords in your group and you’d nearly breeze through it, thats not always the case in TBC. I think in some regards that statement is from the point of view of a long time WoW player not through the eyes of a completely brand new player who knows nothing of the various “shortcuts”

***Blizzard purposely allows players to level from 1-70 with relative ease and never prepares them for the reality of the “endgame” in WoW.***

ALot of the experience nerfs etc were primarily for seasoned players who hated the grind just to start a new character, that was primarily done for “us” lol. Newer players from what i hear and see dont even notice anything being easy unless they have someone over there shoulder guiding them on the fast track to 70. Im sure you see them..
“lfg BRD”
“lfg Mara”

Those “usually” are your brand new players ( or twinks ). Trying to see something they’ve never seen before unfortunately there isnt enough newer players to fill those groups so they have no choice but to pick up many of the grouping skills and class play in Outlands. Because in Outlands seasoned players and new players merge due to rep grinding etc.

****Players new to MMO’s are left confused, dumbfounded and perplexed at what to do next. Suddenly social skills and meeting new people become paramount as one has to literally find a guild in order to experience all of the multi-million dollar content that lies ahead****

Im only addressing this because in the end there will always be someone that knows something you dont, new or not and we all ( new or not) have to find a guild in order to experience content, I dont think this is “specifically” relevant to teaching or not teaching new players, this is a phase we all go through. Whether it be getting keyed, crafting items, downing a boss or simply trying to figure out where the hell Ogrila is. I think this statement is universal.

***One of the tenets of good game design is to ensure that players are always faced with appropriate challenges at or near the margins of their skill level. This is how players learn and get better. Every good game does this. Blizzard does this somewhat adequately with their raid content but fails to do this with the transition from solo to grouping to raiding. WoW from 1-70 should be a boot camp for the ultimate destination of the self-actualization of the players avatar: raiding. Yes, that very same raiding that puts the player right in the middle of all of the major plots and storylines.****

I mentioned above how I see this as already being done with the quest lines and chains, killing Gronns can be a learning experience in itself but also this same principle was put into the Alterac Valley pvp zone. (Pre-experienced player rush to general nerf that we put on it )
You had to heal ur tanks and melee or u’d be fighting all week (literally) if u got to the general you had to have a tank, heal and so on or else you again would be there all day trying to kill Vandaar or Drek. These are other instances where they take players that may find PVP as more fun but throw in aspects of raiding. Of course at this point AV is no more than an honor race now but its intended structure was for PVE in a PVP environment. IMO of course.

***The character advancement and progression is euphoric. Then it stops but by then, the player can’t stop. He must find a way to keep progressing his character. He wants to see Ragnaros. He wants to defeat Illidan. He wants to vanquish Arthas and so on. WoW is the ultimate carrot on a stick.****

This also holds true for many other mechanics in the game, new players who didnt know any better were running into things like SFK with 1 or 2 man groups and finding they couldnt do the quests simply because they knew no better. So Blizzard started putting the “suggested player” amounts within the quests. Those things you mentioned above are correct but its the same for new players when they get that quest and it tells them to go into UBRS -Suggested players: 5 – and the many others, the big names are always drooled over but for newer players the smaller stuff is just as much a mystery, again i think your giving your comments from “our” point of view rather than a new member in azeroth.

***We see how this kind of philosophy is currently ruining class balance in the drive to balance classes for PVP at the expense of PVE.***

This one I dont agree with only because the WoW community as a whole or at least a very large percentage is taking part in more pvp (arenas, etc ) so Blizzard is getting an overwhelming amount of feedback to how classes are matching up against eachother rather than against NPCs, thats why the balance has a PVP shift at the moment.

I dont think this philosphy or possible philosiphy is the driving force behind it. PVP is all blizzard is getting from the community at the moment, PVE is just now starting to re-establish itself.

****With regret, I feel that WoW’s best days are behind it as it’s showing signs of premature aging due to a lack of focus and harmony in their game design. To be honest, another expansion won’t save an increasingly flawed MMO that has failed to address fundamental issues such as tank shortages, healer shortages and now a shortage of skilled players contributing to guilds falling apart. Blizzard, your MMO is starting to crumble***

With the amount of healing/tanking hybrids arising (Droods and Tankadins) with the still ever present warriors and death knights or whatever they may be called coming i think those “may” address some of those shortages and some of them have and currently are already being address in addition to some of it simply being due to the extensive amount of servers and decreasing population sizes for servers. Other aspects to take into consideration for those things which have little to do with solo-group-raid migration for new players.

I doubt wow will be going anywhere anytime soon. The expansion will bring back a fair amount of players that stopped or took a break and the doubling up of “Warcraft in the Movie” in theatres apparently at or around the same time of the expansion will bring even more people to the franchise…

I dont think they their going anywhere anytime soon. I just hope they do address many thing that we have talked about to the best of their ability.

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