MMO Weekly 21/07/09

21 Jul 2009  by   Paul Younger
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Ahoy there, my fellow game-heads, and welcome to the very latest edition of MMO Weekly.  Over the past two weeks, I’ve been whacking away at a bees nest, going after the untouchable sacred cow and, in general, upsetting all the Blizzard fanbois and fangurls by suggesting that WoW, because their endgame content is based largely upon doing work, was in the long, slow process of committing suicide. 

A BIT OF BACKGROUND

My argument in part 1 was that WoW was based primarily on two older MMOs.  The first was Everquest, and the second was Dark Age of Camelot.  Both games, I argued, grew because they followed the well-established dungeon crawl model invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in Dungeons and Dragons.  Their style of play based itself on the idea of small group of friends having a fun adventure.  That might take the form of, say, exploring an abandoned tomb, discovering a secret or two, and fighting a slew of baddies.  However, there was a lot of variety in the D&D adventures (both the official modules and many unofficial, but publicly available knock offs), and D&D fully encouraged this kind of creativity by DMs.  Play sessions were full of battles, races against time, traps, survival challenges, rescues, mysteries, and  all manner of swashbuckling.  Both EQ and DAoC captured the feel of this kind of content extremely well. 

Inexplicably, at the endgame, the developers of both EQ and DAoC decided to change the very basis of gameplay, and they introduced very difficult, grind-heavy content.  This content (primarily raids in EQ, and large scale, grind-heavy PvP in DAoC) rewarded players with both loot and skill unlocks unavailable to normal players.  What’s worse, willing players were rewarded not primarily for their skill or creativity, but instead for spending endless amounts of time in the game, participating in this artificially hard endgame content.  In a moment of extraordinary maturity, I referred to this endgame content as DICC: Difficult and Increasingly time Consuming Content. 

DRIVING YOUR PLAYERS INTO THE ARMS OF OTHER GAMES

This approach, I argued, slowly alienated normal players.  It essentially made them less-powerful, second class citizens, simply because they were unwilling to participate in the endless grind.  By emphasising DICC, and thus alienating the average player, both the DAoC and EQ developers were slowly killing their own games.  They simply made their respective games a lot less fun, and therefore vulnerable.  The moment a viable alternative/replacement MMO came along – one that made playing fun again – players bolted, leaving both the EQ and DAoC subscriber base shadows of what they once had been.  That game was WoW.

WHO NEEDS FUN?  KEEP THOSE PLAYERS WORKING

My argument in part 2 was that WoW, upon launch, adhered closely to the Gygax Arneson dungeon crawl model, and players loved it.  However, still early in its existence, the WoW devs chose to rather closely mimic the DAoC and EQ endgame content.  The Blizzard developers introduced 40 man endgame raids, which were at the time extremely demanding and time-intensive.  They also introduced a relativistic PvP model that required a truly unbelievable time commitment.  Both of these activities rewarded players willing to grind through this content with the best loot in the game at that time. Again, this made normal players – those unwilling to put in the hours and hours of work – feel unheroic, alienated, and second rate. 

I also argued that, as WoW continued to grow into the juggernaut it is today, it never really deviated from its commitment to time-intensive, artificially hard endgame content.  However, the forms of DICC that the WoW developers fed to the players changed over time.  That ultra-intense sliding scale PvP system?  It was replaced by a much more reasonable system (though still somewhat grind heavy) in which honor points are accumulated.  Soon thereafter, however, the devs introduced the very DICCish Arena system.  This system is exceptionally grind heavy, requiring several hours of play per week for an entire *season*.  Like all DICC content, the rewards for participating in Arena combat are among the best in the game.  Players that participate in the older PvP battlegrounds system?  Under the current rules, they can only earn the older, noticeably inferior Arena gear from previous seasons.  Of course, even that’s contingent on them maintaining a minimum ‘personal Arena rating’.  This requirement requires them to participate in both battlegrounds AND Arena matches, and thus ensures that a truly outrageous amount of work is required.   

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NEWER, SHINIER FORMS OF ENDGAME WORK

This pattern repeats itself everywhere.  While the WoW devs are clearly aware of the normal players’ needs, they can’t seem to stop themselves.  More DICC content continues to make its way into the game.  Players who participate continue to receive superior loot.  What’s more, any time a game system becomes less DICCish, the rewards are muted and (relatively speaking) downgraded.  Any system that becomes more DICCish undergoes the opposite effect. 

I’d like to point out that these assertions caused screechy howls of livid, apoplectic outrage.  Some readers suggested that I was only referring to “old WoW”, and that I had not played TBC, WotLK, or, for that matter, EQ or DAoC.  Essentially, the objections went something like this: “First of all, you idiot, raiding is a lot easier than ever before.  No one needs to be keyed, (you big jerk) the number of people required to raid is smaller and, jackass, the content is temporally shorter.  Also, you ugly moron, for the people that don’t want to raid, they just run heroics, get Emblems, or do daily quests to get their epics.  And, besides all that, you’re an ugly phallus.”

A man does not receive compliments like that every day.  :)  And believe me, I understand that access to heroics and raids is easier than ever, that raids are both easier and shorter, and that options for non-raiders exist.  I am also aware of the increased accessibility that 3.2 will soon bring to the game.  However, the above arguments really only make my point for me.  Certainly it’s been packaged differently, but it’s *still* artificially difficult and time consuming content.  Is anyone enjoying grinding the same instances, again and again, for Emblems?  How about doing dailies over, and over, and over, for weeks on end, just to get an epic?  And raiding Naxx to get gear for Ulduar, then raiding Ulduar just to get gear for the upcoming Argent Colosseum?  Is any of that fun?

The most recent forms of DICC in WoW has changed, and will change again once 3.2 goes live.  But it’s still extremely grind heavy, it still rewards huge commitments of time (and thus, disproportionately, the so-called “hardcore” player), and it still ends up making the average player a relatively underpowered, non-heroic, second class citizen in a game he loves.  What’s more, because he must log on and work instead of having fun, the normal player enjoys the game less. None of this kind of endgame content is fun.  It’s all grind, all the time.  It’s all still DICC.

REPEATING HISTORY

Now WoW finds itself in the exact same position, for the exact same reasons, that EQ and DAoC were in, years ago.  WoW is still king, and is still the biggest, most popular MMO in the world.  Yet it continues to disproportionately reward “hardcore” players, willing to put in hour after hour of DICC.  Normal players, capable of grinding out only a handful of epics, become second class ‘heroes’.  The game has also turned something that should be fun – everyday gameplay – into a repetitive grind.  WoW, like it’s predecessors, is in the slow process of alienating its players; they want to feel like first-rate heroes, and they want fun, adventuresome content.  WoW gives them neither.  Unfortunately, the current state of WoW makes them easily tempted by any new MMO that comes along, and offers them that kind of fun gameplay. 

And it doesn’t have to be this way. 

A VERY DIFFERENT ENDGAME

Players are, due to the state of the MMO genre, perfectly willing to accept this kind of endgame content.  I contend, however, that this acceptance is simply because they haven’t seen a viable alternative. 

Imagine, for a moment, that the WoW developers hadn’t chosen to copy the endgame content of EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot.  Suppose they never designed their first raid, never screwed around with the drudgery of repetitive quests, never wasted their valuable time offering incentives to players to do the same content repeatedly.  Suppose, instead, they implemented something completely different, and completely non-DICCish, in the endgame.  Consider what the WoW endgame might look like if Blizzard had avoided spending endless developer resources and man hours on DICC. 

More Instances

What if the developers had devoted their energy into simply designing *many* more official Blizzard instances?  How many would we have currently?  Certainly dozens more, and of a greater variety, than we have now.  As a side effect, these instances would likely become extremely varied and far more creative than the ones we have now (which, admittedly, are already good). 

This kind of energy devoted to instanced content would likely result in some highly imaginative content.  In fact, many instances might actually approach the creativity that defines the Gygax-Arneson model, something no other MMO has ever accomplished.  These abundant, highly varied, professionally designed “official” instances would be a lot of fun for everyone.  The fact that there would be a lot more of them keeps the game interesting for all the players, both hardcore and casual.
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User Generated ContentInstead of finding new ways to get players to grind away at content, what if the developers had expended their efforts implementing a system for user-generated content?  City of Heroes recently did something similar and it was, by all accounts, an amazing success.  While some of the thousands – yes, thousands – of player-created ‘arcs’ were certainly sloppy, amateurish, or subject to exploitation, many others were simply outstanding.  This kind of content is, obviously, chock full of creativity and variety.  What’s more, it’s is a lot of fun for the players. 

Randomised Instances

A select number of randomized dungeons, similar to the dungeons found in the Diablo series, offer players a varied, interesting, endgame option.  Every dungeon, certainly, should not be randomised, including those in the above two examples.  But a number of randomised dungeons could be implemented into the game, and these would, by their nature, remain fresh for a long, long time.  If done well – something Blizzard has already proven they are very capable of – these randomised crawls will have the obvious effect of keeping players coming back for more. 

Randomised Gear

The issue of loot drops is a big one when considering the endgame.  The current system holds a carrot out in front of players endlessly, tempting them with better weapons, armor, and other doodads.  How can something similar be done in a non-DICCish endgame?

There are options.  First, developers can simply add more and more items into the game, much like they do now.  Very powerful items would be rare drops off select bosses, while more mundane items would drop anywhere.  The odds of superior gear dropping, of course, increases according to the difficulty of the instance.  This system is, of course, very similar to the one we have in instanced content now.  As in the above examples, developers would be freed from creating DICCish content.  As a result, they’d have time to devote to creating an ever larger pool of interesting, varied, and desirable items to be found in instances.  

There is also a slightly more exotic option.  What if the developers had allowed some weapons and armor to be randomly generated?  Beyond that, gear could be heavily customized, beyond what is currently implemented in WoW.  This has been done in other RPGs and MMOs, including the previously mentioned Diablo I and II (and the upcoming DIII); obviously, it can be done successfully without unbalancing the game.  For all its faults, Hellgate:London was an MMO that had a loot system which was both heavily randomized, and also allowed players to customise this random gear significantly.  Of course, a lot of loot drops were just junk (the equivalent of bracers with cooking bonuses and arcane resistance…weirdly worthless!),but the occasional drop was just right for my personal tastes and character design. 

The effect of this on WoW would be profound, as the randomisation and customisation combination allows for the creation of some gear with exotic stats.  The hope of these kinds of drops will keep players interested, and the randomized stats on items allow for more exotic character builds than pre-designed gear allows. 

Prestige Items for the Hardcore Elite Crowd

What if the devs developed a *limited* amount of DICC content (raids, grind quests, etc) that rewarded players for their time commitments, but simultaneously didn’t make these players uber-powerful compared to the average player?  This, too, can be done if the rewards for accomplishing the artificially difficult content were *prestige* awards, and not ones that had a significant effect on combat.  For example, what about a raid instance that predominantly yielded statistically equivalent gear compared to normal instances.  However, the significant drops consisted of unusual mounts, dye kits, customizing options, unlocked emotes, and unusual looking (but not unusually powerful) armor and weapons.  This kind of content allows the hardcore elite players to obtain items they want and (most importantly) show off their ‘leetness’.  However, these coveted but non-powerful drops don’t unbalance the game in favor of the hardcores, nor do they make the normal players feel impotent or second rate.       

If this is done on a limited basis, it doesn’t unduly drain developer resources away from fun content.  Further, it never makes the normal player feel unheroic, or like a second class citizen in the game.

SUMMARY

Clearly, these are not the only MMO endgame options.  Many other possibilities exist, but they remain unexplored due to WoW’s (and the overall MMO industry’s) commitment to providing  modern endgame drudgery.  However, the above examples illustrate a possible, alternate endgame for WoW; one that is full of endlessly new content.  If even the paltry few suggestions, above, were followed, the current state of WoW’s endgame would be full of new instances to explore, new dungeons to delve, new areas to conquer, and new loot to lust after.  It would even allow the ‘hardcore elites’ a way to show off their ‘leetness. 

Is it too late for WoW?  Is the game inevitably doomed, once the  next great MMO comes along?  If the game continues in its present direction, it remains vulnerable.  However, the Blizz devs have shown a willingness to experiment with their endgame content.  Thus far, these experiments have been variants on repetitive, grind-heavy, work-oriented DICC, but you never know.  They may just try something different, and inject some much needed fun and adventure back into the endgame.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Next week, we’ll explore some very different aspects of virtual space, in all its geeky glory.  For now, ciao!

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