Monday, November 7, 2011

The Song

But until then the rhythms of the song, that is the combat minigame, kept your mind busy. Intellectually it was boring, but overall it was not.

The minigame, which is at the heart of all MMOs, I ever played, is combat. It's so much the center of the game that it is questionable to even call it a minigame. The more interesting it is that it gets so little attention from the blogosphere.

In my opinion, the combat minigame is what made WoW what it is. Did you see all the latest posts of people who decided to test the 1-20 free leveling in WoW? And all of them seem to end up at 20; including me. The game can't be that bad really, can it? No, the game is not bad overall, because Blizzard still profits from the combat minigame that was either done by a genius a decade ago or polished as if money was no concern; probably both.

I've already gone though the fact that selecting who you attack is nowadays uninteresting in WoW. Killing mobs 10-20 in the undead starter zone, there are no interesting decisions involved, or really anything that keeps your mind busy, except for the combat minigame. But what a game it is!

One of the things that can keep a player's mind busy is a rhythm: people can create some rhythms for forever without getting bored. The most obvious example is a percussionist playing the drums.

At a lower level the rhythm has the beat: the beat, in this context, is the animation and the sound of using one single ability. The beat creates the rhythms, which create the 'song' of mowing through the enemies. Most games would fail at keeping a player's mind busy with this song alone. And WoW certainly is a worse game now that it uses this song alone to keep your mind busy. But they still succeed: you don't log off until 20.

Only after 20, when you smash everything in sight at ridiculous speed is the rhythm broken and the song falls apart. You already realized how pointless this game was, before. But until then the rhythms of the song, that is the combat minigame, kept your mind busy. Intellectually it was boring, but overall it was not.

It is this rhythm that WoW's competitors miss the most. Rhythm usually requires polish and iteration until 'it feels right'.

Slightly off-topic, the song is also what makes a good blog post. If the words don't 'flow' correctly, people can get bored reading the post before they even know what it is about. If you look at well-visited blogs and not so well visited ones, you will often see that the less-visited ones may have more interesting things to say, but they just don't sound as good.


  1. This is one of the biggest disappointments of Cataclysm for me. Actually, it's more like the biggest game design failure of all time.

    The Wrath warriors were designed beautifully. The only 'rotational' instant they had was the iconic Mortal Strike, and rest of the stuff lighted up dynamically or had a very situational use. Even the resource system was randomized.

    This made every combat state, every arena match and every boss encounter felt slightly or dramatically different from the last one, and added a lot of replay value to content which was otherwise disgustingly mind numbing.

    Cataclysm introduced 3 concepts: Homogenization, normalization and rotational design.

    Homogenization: An excuse to have classes share same mechanics/abilities with different names and icons.

    Normalization: Resources became static and predictable, and thus the very important 'imperfect information' -game mechanic was lost.

    Rotational design: 5-6 different buttons that all do the same with different icons, names and scaling formulas and an individual skill is only interesting in a context of 'rotation'.

    If this wasn't enough, they decided to kill the resource management system too via lifting the stance restrictions on key abilities.

    My god did they butcher that game.

  2. While I agree with you for the most part, I have to point out that the homogenisation and normalisation was far from introduced in Cataclysm. Blizzard has been hard at work with homogenising and normalising classes and class mechanics as much as possible since sometime in mid or late Vanilla.

  3. Next post won't happen to be "The Dance" will it? :)

    It's hard to disagree with your post. The combat minigame is WoW's forte. The conclusions are pretty spot-on as well. Great post!

  4. Homogenization: An excuse to have classes share same mechanics/abilities with different names and icons.

    Winning the game on the character select screen is excuse enough to change it.

    Normalization: Resources became static and predictable, and thus the very important 'imperfect information' -game mechanic was lost.

    Tying performance to winning the RNG lottery is good enough reason to change it.

    The "imperfect information" gameplay as you describe it, personally, feel absolutely terrible. There is nothing fun about being randomly rage-starved, and similarly nothing fun about, say, the Ret paladin combat system where you never know when or if you will get your next Holy Power. Procs can be fun, but only if they are bonuses on top of your normal gameplay (Mages, Ele shaman, warlocks, etc) rather than simply gaps/deadzones in pushing buttons.


    If the combat system can be considered a minigame, what is the game-game?

    I would also disagree that the Song changes at 20. There is nothing magical about going from 20 to 21 that suddenly changes the tune, so to speak. I imagine the only real difference is the (unconscious?) acknowledgement that going further is no longer "free" and thus more of a commitment to going all of the way... through zones you have leveled through half a dozen times before.

    Otherwise I agree that the combat system in WoW is a huge part of its success. The first thing I noticed in Aion and Warhammer was a lack of feeling "in the world" and the flimsy (for lack of a better term) nature of combat.

  5. The combat minigame is way to static in WoW. Pre-Cata it was only interesting because of the things around it.
    - Deciding which and how many mobs to pull.
    - From which side.
    - Using CC or not on a group.
    - Timing the pull to not add a patrol (yes, the open world had patrols in quest areas!)

    The interesting thing, the thing that kept the mind busy, were the tasks you had to do as part of "mental preparation" to kill a mob. The interesting thing was, once again, the world.

    All of that is true for the leveling game and for instances. That might be a reason why I always preferred trash over bosses and why I think that a heroic can never be as much fun as a good, challenging heroic. (Yes, those heroics do not exist but they could!)

    Nowadays the combat minigame is just boring.
    - You two-hit a mob during leveling which doesn't keep your mind busy because it's to easy.
    - You repeat your rotation consisting of 12 spells ad nauseam during raiding which doesn't "keep your mind busy" because it requires to much focus on the rotation. (We reached the point were playing a DD or tank is now whack a mole too. If I would like to watch 12 timer I would play a freaking healer, dammit.)


    But yes, I've only reached level 17 on my F2P character...

  6. It's interesting to read comments on WoW gameplay, because it mostly reveals how well it's done. I mean, everyone criticizes one different thing. If there was some blatant error, everyone would be on it, but when everyone attacks a different point, then it means they did a pretty good job at "striking in the middle".

    It's also interesting that, when I read your comments, I have the feeling that I'm playing a completely different game. Maybe it's because of the druid mechanics, but I really cannot relate what you write with my gameplay experience. Even on farm content I don't play the way it's described on most blog articles (and related posts).

  7. Part of the reason I've stuck with ffxi for so long is I <3 the way combat is. The timings and the flow suits my mind.