Game Design 101: Prepare Your Players For the Challenges Ahead

This 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.


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  1. Nytro April 8, 2008