Posted by Eric on July 8th, 2009
Filed under: Design, Production
If you don’t work in the MMO industry, you probably have a skewed opinion of how live teams operate. On this blog, I often say that I’d much prefer to manage a live game than to create a new game from scratch, and you may be thinking, “Yeah, like you deserve that!”
You might be thinking my request sounds like one of the lazy animals from the story of the Little Red Hen:
“Who will help me code the MMO?” asked the little red hen (… I mean the MMO company).
“Not me,” said the independent MMO contractor. “I’m too busy doing fun easy things!”
“Fine, I will do it myself! Ah, but now who will help me run the MMO?”
“Ooh ooh I will!” said the contractor.
“No no, you didn’t help me make the MMO, so you don’t get to do the fun part! I will run it myself!”
If this is the story that runs through your head, you are definitely not from any of the major MMO companies. For the likes of Turbine, SOE, or Blizzard, making the MMO is the fun part. Working on the MMO afterwards is the terrible part.
You might expect that the people who spent five years making the game would be excited to run it after it ships. Turns out, not really. After five years of working on the same project, they’re so sick of it they never want to work on it again. They want it to be in good hands, certainly. And they want to have some oversight to keep people from damaging their vision of how the game should run. But they sure as hell don’t want to have to do that tedious maintenance stuff themselves. So companies tend to pull the experienced staff off of the live game pretty quickly, leaving behind junior people.
Live Teams Are Not Glamorous
I like the “tedious maintenance stuff.” I actually prefer working on the live team. This makes me very unusual in the MMO industry. I am also a pretty good engineer with a lot of experience, which means I don’t often end up on live teams — too experienced. At Turbine, I had a hard time getting onto the Asheron Call 2’s Live Team, because I was expected to help develop their next generation MMO engine instead. I wanted to work on AC2 after it ships?! None of my managers could understand why I wanted to be demoted like that!
But to people who enjoy the live team, well … there is nothing as good as it. The power you have! The instant feedback! The ability to literally make hundreds of thousands of people happy with just a few weeks of work. It’s very gratifying. There’s also the tedium and frustration and lack of resources and constant fire-fighting and oh my god I can’t keep up with everything… but that’s the price of the deal.
Of course, it doesn’t just happen that you hop onto the Live Team and suddenly you’re making game-design changes. At first there are a lot of smart and talented people at the helm, helping you learn the ropes, making the hard decisions for you, keeping you from doing stupid things. But inevitably they are pulled off to other projects, and somebody relatively junior gets the helm. That’s how I got to be in charge of balancing AC2’s classes.
Fortunately, I had a decade of engineering experience and understood how to tune complex systems. I wrote analyzers, modeled usage patterns, and made corrections.
Unfortunately, my approach did not take the “human equation” into consideration very well.
Learning to Balance the Human Equation
I found that the Feral Intendant class was 30% overpowered, and that’s why so many people were playing a Feral Intendant. Yet somehow, reducing the power of the Feral Intendant to the correct level did not suddenly make the game more fun… thousands of players were complaining and nobody was telling me they were happy about the change. Weird! I double checked my calculations. They were correct. So what had gone wrong?
Turns out that the people who played the other classes available to that race had taken on an “underdog” mentality. The people who played Claw Bearers liked that they were woefully underpowered compared to Feral Intendants. It was like playing the game on Hard Mode. And the people playing Feral Intendants liked playing on Easy Mode. In balancing the game I had failed to understand the needs of the people playing it. I just ham-handedly fixed the equations, instead of solving the problem with the finesse it needed. It was one of my more serious missteps. (And it’s a great example because I think it’s pretty obvious in hindsight. Most mistakes were much more subtle.)
But man, what a fast way to learn! After just a couple years of that, I became a good game balancer. The constant feedback loop helped me learn from my mistakes in a matter of weeks! Compare that to developers on traditional games, who must wait until the sequel ships before they get to try their hand at balance again. That’s why working on a live team is such a fast way to learn your craft: the feedback is so much faster than any other gaming platform, that it accelerates learning by dozens of times.
But AC2 cost millions of dollars to create. Turbine didn’t create it as a tool to help me hone my design skills, that’s for damned sure! How did I get to do it? Simple: the designers who would have done it were burned out of working on AC2, and were called away to work on the important New Project. AC2 wasn’t a blockbuster hit, so it didn’t make sense to use the rock star designers on it. Better to let the B team step in.
The Steady Hand Has Left The Rudder
But here’s the weird thing: WoW is exhibiting the same symptoms as AC2 did when I was doing the designing. The B team is in charge.
In February, we learned that lead designer (and part-time producer?) Jeff Kaplan had stepped away from WoW, off to work on the next big Blizzard game. However, if you were watching the game before that, it was obvious that major leadership changes had already happened months earlier. My guess is that Jeff Kaplan started moonlighting on the new project long before February. And many of the other key WoW live team people have also switched over, or are working on WoW only part-time.
Now, I am not being alarmist. The ship is still in intelligent, capable hands… but clearly not as experienced ones. Just as I did when I took over AC2, WoW is making newbie design mistakes that seem like a benefit on the surface, but are really not good decisions. There have been scores of examples… I’ll pick just a few.
“It’s always been stupid, and we just need to fix it!”
A few months back, the powers that be decided that Hunter ammunition didn’t work right. Hunters have to carry an arrow for every single shot they take, and in order to get the full benefits from them, they have to carry them in a special quiver — which doesn’t let you store other items in it, only ammo. All that ammo costs money, too. Plus, it leaves the designers unable to give out awesome “raid arrows” because you’d just shoot them all and then where would you be? Even though ammo had been a fine and fun distinguishing quirk of Hunters for years, it was time to Fix It.
The first plan was announced: WoW would no longer have consumable ammo. Instead, you would just need a single “infinite arrow” that you stuck in your ammo slot, and this would let you shoot your bow forever. Problem solved! No more quivers, no more pack space wasted, no more costs. And now raids could drop “loot arrows” that wouldn’t get used up! Perfect!
Whoops, turns out that plan would be hard. So they announced their backup plan: now ammo just stacks to very high numbers. Instead of having stacks of 200, now you can have stacks of 1000. This at least addresses the “pack space” issue. Call it a win! And they removed the magical benefits from quivers, so you no longer needed to use them. So they fixed the immediate emergency, and they’ll get to the “correct fix” later.
The thing is, there was no emergency. Sure, Hunters were happy to have a few extra pack slots. But the change threw all sorts of other things out of whack: magic quivers are still given out as quest rewards… they just aren’t magical anymore. And leathercrafters can still make them! They just can’t sell them to any sane Hunter. And so on… the game wasn’t really cleaned up after this change.
But I’m sure it felt so pressing, so urgent. So they had to address the issue, side-effects be damned.
Without somebody experienced at the helm, the voice of the myopic designer tends to be the loudest. “WE HAVE TO FIX THE HUNTER” they said. Maybe they said, “Hunters have to spend 65% more on bare essentials than any other class. I will never be able to balance class expenditures like this!” Or maybe they said, “Hunters have to waste more inventory slots than any other class. It damages quest completion rates!” Or maybe they just said, “It’s SO STUPID. It’s always been stupid, and we just need to fix it! Do it now!” Obviously, nobody thought very hard about the ramifications, and nobody spent any time easing players into the idea. And nobody stopped to make sure they did a good job.
So some tiny little mistakes crept into the game. Nothing huge. Nothing that will sink the Titanic. But mistakes nonetheless… “magical” crafted quivers that aren’t magical and can’t be sold are clearly a mistake. These little bugs accumulate, like lint on a hardwood floor.
The Lint Accumulates
When we say that WoW is “polished”, what we mean is that it is surprisingly clean of linty little bugs like these. But that’s changing.
More and more little mistakes have crept into the game recently — changes that are positive on the surface, but have not been implemented with the finesse that makes them worthwhile. Mana expenditure rates have changed, rules for dungeons have been tweaked, the cost of items has fluctuated. It all seems useful. But it’s usually full of little side effects. Worse, it doesn’t take the human equation into account: it doesn’t counter-balance for the actual needs of the players very well. There are ways to meet both goals, but you have to try a lot harder at it than WoW is.
Remember when WoW class balance happened every six to eight months? Players were actually excited when their classes’ turn came around. I remember being so astonished to see players that were actually happy to have their classes redesigned. But now, every class is fiddled with every few weeks. It’s not exciting anymore. Instead of sitting on the changes and carefully honing them, the designers are just firing out every new idea they have, willy nilly, until they get it right. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if you get it right. It matters if players are excited and having fun. Balance changes are happening too fast, and for too little benefit overall.
Back in the day, QA held the game to a higher standard. Consider that there never used to be skill changes that would invalidate the client tooltips about a skill (unless it was an emergency exploit-fix). If the designer wanted to tweak a skill, they had to wait until the client could be updated. But the QA bigwigs are off doing something else now, so it’s easy for the designers to slip this stuff in. And they do. All the time. Skills are routinely incorrectly displayed now, as the designers’ need for perfect balance far outpaces the ability to do client updates.
Who’s In Charge Again?
You would never let your lead artist drive decisions for your game. Chances are, they would say “This dungeon is too brightly lit! We need to hotfix it now or the mood will be ruined forever!”
But unlike artists, designers get a free ride. They’re supposed to know what’s best for the game. If the producers are busy, they trust the designers will do good things. But designers, especially young ones, get myopic. They tune into little issues — like perfect class balance – and turn them into epic quests. If the designer could just fix this balance problem, people on the boards would stop complaining, and the game would be perfect!
No. It will not happen. Perfection will not be achieved, ever. But there’s nobody around to rein them in anymore, so they try and try and try. And leave little messes everywhere they go.
Suddenly Communications Are Open
Another surefire way to tell that upper management has left the building? The systems designer “Ghostcrawler” has suddenly started posting a lot, even about… well, nothing. For years developers were nowhere to be seen, which was a shame. And then suddenly the lead systems designer has time to play the forum game? Yeah, whoever was making employee policies just doesn’t have time for WoW anymore. Not a bad thing, in this case, but certainly a dramatic shift of policies.
Nowadays it’s common for WoW to tell people to “check the forums for game updates.” This is a total newb mistake. Only your loudest and most annoying users will check your forums for updates. So every “update” is met with derision because only assholes post on game forums. (Statistically speaking, anyway.) Game updates are specifically what the launcher’s update screen is for. If you’re outpacing the ability to update the update screen, chances are you’re changing too much too fast. Slow down and get it right the first time.
It’s likely that Ghostcrawler started posting shortly after the upper management started wandering off to other projects. Ghostcrawler’s a good guy… in fact, his posts remind me a lot of what I sounded like when I was posting about AC2’s skill balance. He knows how to balance things. But he is completely unable to see the big picture. Every tiny imperfection seems like a ruinous problem. He feels assaulted on all sides by problems, too, and doesn’t think there’s time to do things the right way. But this is an illusion that happens to Live Teams because they get so close to the product. He needs someone checking over his decisions and making sure they’re worthwhile. He doesn’t have that.
WoW: No Longer Big Kahuna at Blizzard
Ghostcrawler and the rest of the team will learn their craft soon enough. WoW will survive the experience. But what’s interesting is that it tells us quite clearly that WoW is no longer the most important thing at Blizzard… in fact, it might be third or fourth place. It’s really interesting that this happened so soon. I didn’t expect it to happen to WoW while it still had 10+ million players or more still paying. But a company has only so many top-notch people, and you always want your most-experienced people on the new thing, so it makes sense.
To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When the game stops being in the spotlight, the live team suddenly gets a lot more flexibility to make the game fun, instead of being forced to stick to now-outdated “design visions”. The dramatic increase in WoW’s mobility options is certainly due to the lack of oversight. But without that safety-net of supervision, they need to exercise a lot of willpower and a lot of wisdom.
Ghostcrawler, and anybody else on the design team of WoW right now, I have a little unsolicited advice from somebody who’s been there: convince your bosses to let you play a different MMO for two weeks. On the clock. Don’t touch WoW. I know it feels like there’s a disaster every day and you can’t possibly stop focusing on WoW, but you can. After you get back, play WoW with a different class than you normally play. You’ll see so many new things! Your priorities will do a 180. I guarantee you it will help your perception.
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