Monday, August 29, 2011

Blizzard and Controlled Escalation

Rohan writes about Jinxed who writes about Blizzard's desire to smooth the first 30 minutes of gameplay of nplayers.

The question they ask is how much a game like WoW should 'cater to new players'. Well, I think we can agree that, assuming unlimited development resources, games should cater a lot to new players. The question is just what that means.

Apparently Blizzard looked at their statistics and concluded that a lot of players leave because they die. And thus Blizzard decided to prevent them from dieing while alone, if possible for the first 80 levels.

Now, I am not sure about this. I personally agree with Gevlon. He commented
When I first played WoW, I sucked, obviously. I still remember how much I was unable to navigate in the quilboar maze in the tauren start area. But I never thought that the GAME is bad, I knew that I'm bad in it.
You can see his expectation here. I actually share his experience in the quilboar maze. When navigating the (cute, little) maze, neither Gevlon nor I assumed that we shouldn't have to die. That's why dieing wasn't frustrating for us. Instead, it was a simple feedback about what works and what doesn't. That's learning.

Dying kept our minds busy. It satisfied our curiosity and the goal of mastering the maze may even have become more desirable. Most people react with some kind of stubbornness when they fail at something early and even repeatedly. That is just a part of the reaction and it doesn't last forever, but it is there.

But, of course, this can change. If a new player enters a game and expects to not die, then he will feel that dieing is frustrating: And he might add: "boring and without meaning, because I can run back to where my corpse is, anyway." And he would be right as well. It's all about his expectations. If Blizzard could shape this expectation .. and they can ....

And so I slowly start to believe that Blizzard has some kind of plan here. It's not so much about improving retention of new players, but rather about controlled escalation. They deliberately escalate the players' expectations so that players find other games less fun. They deliberately spoil us. They tear down their rules faster than anybody else, and thus gain a competitive advantage. Can this be true? Maybe I'm just paranoid ...

Recommended read: The self-made irrelevance of the RPG


  1. There's a simpler solution.

    Blizzard aren't making the new game experience for sophisticated veterans. They're making it for people who really do need to be mollycoddled into gaming. Someone who doesn't normally play games and doesn't experience loss when participating in rival hobbies like basket weaving and watching TV.

    Factor in a generation that is more entitled than we were at their age and you have a solid case for making a game with no early setbacks.

  2. I'd really like to get access to some of Blizzard's statistics, Stabs ;)

  3. Wow -- I just finished a post which was, at some level, all about the importance of dying, so it makes me sad that companies keep going off in what I believe is the completely wrong direction.

    @Stabs, I wasn't a sophisticated veteran back when I was playing roguelikes, and death was final in those games. And I don't buy that new players start off feeling entitled. A new player shouldn't know what to expect at all, so if they come into the game thinking that dying is unacceptable, then it would make more sense to figure out why they had those expectations to begin with rather than removing death entirely.

    On the other hand, I recently canceled my wow subscription (for the second time now), so perhaps I should just accept that I'm not Blizzard's target audience and move on.

  4. I put you on the blogroll, Andrew, and look forward to your posts ;)

    On your comment. I was planning a post on how to (possibly?) break out of the race to the bottom that the teardown of ever more rules has become.

  5. Factor in a generation that is more entitled than we were at their age and you have a solid case for making a game with no early setbacks.

    Oh, please.

    Every generation thinks the generation after it is more entitled than they were; it's the telltale sign of senility. But speaking of age, the average age of video game players is now 37 years old. So by your own argument, it is (presumably) your generation that is getting more entitled the older they get.


    If Blizzard has a "plan," it the same plan independantly being arrived at by every game company worldwide simeltaneously. As games embrace the subscription/F2P model, the way games are structured have to change.

    If someone can't get past level 4-3 in Super Mario Bros, Nintendo had no reason to care - they already have the money, and it's not like Super Mario Bro 2 is anything like the first game. As I pointed out elsewhere, a huge majority of players never beat the games they buy. Literally 80-90% of gamers never finish their games. The entire reason why games are shorter and easier now is because game completion rates only improve when they are shorter and easier, but only to the ~50% range. Plus, longer games get more expensive to produce with advanced graphics, so there is not much of a point in making them longer just to please some extreme minority composed of diehard fans that will buy your game no matter how short or easy anyway; no one is going to quit WoW because the starting experience holds peoples' hands, for example.

    So, we have games getting easier and shorter for completion rate and cost savings purposes. Then you add on a player who goes through the effort of buying/downloading/installing WoW but then gets frustrated enough to quit before level 20. If they quit, obviously they are not going to renew their subscription. If making it easier retains even 10,000 subs that wouldn't exist otherwise, why would Blizzard not do so? No one is going to quit over this, and even if you are a hardcore gamer playing WoW for the first time, a super-easy tutorial experience is not going to dissuade you from pushing towards the hardcore endgame that you heard about. It is win-win-win as even the bitter vets get a vaguely new thing to complain about.

  6. Azuriel, if so many players never beat the games they play, then why did they - for decades - continue to buy ever more of them? And even if this is a genuine and correct statistic: why should the industry care, since the players continued to buy ever more games?

    Besides, there's a simple reason I do not play WoW at the moment: The leveling is too easy and too fast. You are right that I am not just talking about level 1-6, but level 1-85. The question whether I want to experience the story and one-shot everything, or rather level as fast as possible and miss the story, is a very frustrating one. I shouldn't have to make that decision. And while not every player thinks so, I'm certainly not the only one.

    I have no problem with a 10 minute tutorial. Maybe 15 min. It doesn't take longer to explain anybody WoW's leveling process. But that's not what we are talking about here, is it? Besides, it would be easy to make a tutorial that can be skipped.

    There are good reasons to assume that this is not just about a tutorial.

  7. @Nils: the industry cares a lot. Azuriel answered very clearly:
    - making a long game costs a lot more than making a short one.

    The problem is that the game market has changed a lot with time, what worked before does not work now.

    A couple random elements:
    - "new ideas": right now finding a game which is even vaguely original is near-impossible. Oh sure there are some which add some interesting variation, but the market is a lot more mature then early on: selling now is not as easy as in the beginning, where all games were "new".
    - competition: you make a game which sucks: fine, there are another 10000 companies working on similar games which suck less... so my money ends elsewhere. Whatever "fun" means, if your games don't have it, you sell less then your competitors. The MMO scenario in particular has changed a lot, with a zillion more titles available now than 5 years ago.

    On "death": I've yet to see a game which makes death "meaningful", as in "having a meaning" and not "forcing me to lose time redoing the same stuff all over". In the past I hated it and cheated my way around it every time I could: I'm happy that this idiocy is going away. If I want to replay the game 50 times I can very well do it myself without being forced to.

    Unrelated conclusion: your argument against WoW is very weird: you CAN level 1-85 in as much time as you like, reading as much story as you like. Who cares about outleveling the areas: turning pages in a book is even less "challenging" than kill 10 rats, but it has never stopped books from having good stories.
    If you really feel the absolute need to stay at the right level, you can freeze leveling while you complete the area and unlock it when you move to the next one. The tools to do what you want are there, it's just that you have to use them instead of having a 100% "on-tracks" experience. Or it's too much sandbox-mode? :)

  8. Oh, Helistar *sigh* :)

    If players want short games then why is the most successful computer game of all times (financially) WoW? There's more to that, don't you agree?

    If you don't like death .. would you suggest to make a game without a health bar? Or a game where you don't die although your health bar is at 0?

    About me being free to do what I want: You can also buy Tetris and cook it and try to eat it. With some sugar it might be a lollipop. Excuse my irony. It's (quite obviously) not enough that I can do something in a game. It also has to be fun.

    I stopped leveling in WoW repeatedly, because I wanted to experience the story without gimping my leveling speed. Sure, I can travel to Orggrimmar and stop gaining experience - for 10 gold that my new characters don't have.

    But even if this functionality was included in the standard UI, it would be bad. This entire sandbox = options notion: I already commented at Syncaine: it is wrong. WoW has lots of options. And no player becomes confused about whether to skill a profession, gather mats, LFD, BG, questing, grinding, where to quest, ...

    WoW right now offers a choice that reduces my fun - significantly. I feel entiteled to not have to chose between leveling as fast as possible OR experiencing the entire story. Yeah, I'm spoiled. I want to not one-shot everything because it's grey after level 10, just because I didn't skip a main story line.

  9. Hmmm... have you considered that maybe what you want is what a minority wants, so it's going the way of the dodo? At the same time, reading what you write makes me think that you want an on-track experience a lot more on-track that what exists today. It would be technically very hard to design one that works for all classes of players (new and veteran).

    Game length: WoW is subscription based, so you should compare the amount of content added at every step (expansion/patch). If you look at that, it's actually not that long.

    Death: my problem is not the HP bar, it's the "you do thing A, then thing B and are trying thing C, you die and instead of going back to thing C and keep working on it, you're forced to do A and B again.". This is why I don't mind death in a raid: I don't have to redo all the trash and previous bosses if I die once on a new boss (BTW if I had to I'd be out of raiding in a millisecond).

  10. Oh, please.

    Entitlement is partly a factor of economics. My grandmother as a child slept under brown paper as the family was too poor to afford blankets. I feel entitled to sheets and a duvet. I'm more entitled.

    Regarding games there was a strong change of direction starting in the sixties and seventies against competitiveness amongst children. In particular losing was (and is) considered damaging. This has encouraged a generation to expect to participate without losing. This is just change.

    On top of that if dying is (correctly imo) defined as an exit moment by game designers then the iterative nature of game design and the vast amount of competition will see games attracting more players by reducing the moments where players are forced to choose whether to continue or not. Games tend to evolve around player problems. Just as players were unhappy waiting 30 minutes for a boat in EQ they're unhappy with dying. I'd argue there's a certain evolutionary pressure on game design to minimise dying.

    It's not even counter immersive. The monsters don't act dangerous at all. 20 Kobolds stand around in a field picking their noses unconcerned while you tag and kill one of their sisters.

    @Nils I'm sure part of the reason they avoid releasing them is that it would really help rivals figure out game design.

  11. As a parallel thought , maybe even orthogonal. How in this environment LoL (league of legends) survives and thrives?

    It is one of the most brutal and hostile communities and very complex and hard to learn master gameplay (e.g. it takes a lot to be able to win consistently in it, I am a veteran of all kinds of multiplayer games and amount of time I had to sink in LoL before becoming merely competent was staggering).

    There is a middle ground there I believe. Blizzard goes after one extreme, LoL lies in the other.