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Archive for June 13th, 2009

I occasionally cater to a substrain of Altitis that I’m calling Altitis Contentis.  It’s a mutation of the standard Altitis disease, distinct for its underlying drive to explore content in a game.  That desire to explore, both game content and game mechanics, drives creation of alts, especially in MMO games with classes, races, and/or story branching points that necessitate more than one character to see everything.

It’s a fairly common malady among those who find themselves in professional positions in the game industry, considering that it’s occasionally difficult to approach games without reflexively analyzing them.  It’s a bit like being a scientist or special effects guy watching movies; it’s hard to step back and turn the brain off when you’re professionally supposed to be able to do these things, and advance the state of the art or risk falling behind.  I speak from experience there, too.  Writers have similar troubles reading others’ work, especially if they have the proofreading gene.  Generic Fantasy Novel #435 just doesn’t read as well when you can see rigid and unimaginative slavish adherence to the Five Act Drama construction, and see little more than stereotypical characters.

My latest bout with AC was a brief research trip into World of Warcraft, as I alluded to a bit ago.  I fired up the trial again, and wandered around a bit as a fresh Night Elf Druid, then a good friend showed me the Draenei starting zone as a Draenei Shaman, then I took a whirlwind tour of some of the Death Knight introduction areas.  That’s where I employed my super special character name:  Sendoku.  It’s a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “death” (or “crisis in battle”), “sendo“, and “poison”, “doku“.  It’s completely unique, or so the Armory would have me believe.  Perhaps it’s common on the Asian servers, but I was happy enough finding something thematic and interesting for an Unholy specced Death Knight.

Names matter.

Anyway, the first time I played WoW, it was back in early 2006, when you needed a friend code to try the game.  A good friend at work noted my interest in the game, and let me have a shot at it.  I fired up a Tauren Shaman, and took several dozen screenshots.  I liked what I saw, but with a tight monetary and time budget, I knew I’d not be buying in.  Still, it was fun to play, and Thunder Bluff is still my favorite capital city in any of the MMOs that I’ve played.

I’ve played a few times since, and done a bit of research since.  I discovered that the Tauren homelands are among the most spread out in the game (so what seemed like a very slow game to me the first time around actually was pretty slow), and that Shamans are pretty underrepresented and somewhat underpowered.  (I still like them, though.)  I learned that the Skinning/Leatherworking pairing that I used was a pretty good one for Shamans, though I picked it as much for flavor as for function.  I learned that I’d rather play a Druid, to make the most of my time, since it could play in any of the four standard roles (tank, healer, ranged DPS, melee DPS).  I learned what those roles are, and how the Threat system works.  I learned that the game that I was playing was even then outdated, and that “the real game” is raiding.

I’ve also played other MMOs, notably Puzzle Pirates, Guild Wars and Wizard 101.  Brief dalliances with the trial or beta versions of a smattering of other games punctuated my research.  Puzzle Pirates is an obvious outlier in the mainstream MMO world, and Guild Wars is often denigrated as being something less than a true MMO.  Since we’re playing these things to preen and seek approval of our peers, of course we shouldn’t be playing anything less than a true MMO.  In fact, if you’re not playing Darkfall, you should just sell your computer and go cry to sleep on your Carebear pillow.

Through it all, I’ve looked to WoW as one barometer.  It’s not the epitome of what I’d consider good design, but it’s certainly successful enough to merit attention, and big enough to warp the industry and spawn a mess of “me too” MMOs.  I’d be remiss in my research to ignore it.

This latest trip into the wilds showed me a few things that I’ve not experienced before.  Some of this is probably old hat to you veterans out there, so forgive me if you don’t see anything new or insightful.  It was a good trip for me, at least.

One, patch day is… frustrating.  The time I had allotted to play the game was almost halfway consumed by patching the thing.  Oh, the Trial version of the game worked beautifully, what with the “streaming in the background” bit, but to play the big, official game required a complete patch before even firing it up.  I’m glad that games like Free Realms and Wizard 101 have adopted the “download in the background while you actually play the game” mentality.  I can see where WoW vets might not mind taking two days to patch the game, since they are already hooked and invested, but it’s a bit annoying in a market that is increasingly nimble.

The bloated 15.1 GB footprint that the game takes might have something to do with that.  I’m definitely leery of SWTOR, touting the notion of being “fully voiced”.  That’s a LOT of data.  Sure, “hard drives are cheap” for some, but that’s still a considerable chunk of data, and running on a less than optimal internet connection is painful, even if the game itself can be tweaked to functionality at playtime.  Guild Wars (with all expansions) weighs in at 4.32 GB, and still manages to look impressive, even better than WoW in places.  I’m not really calling foul on this one, since WoW does pack a lot of content… but that’s still a huge chunk of my hard drive.  Perhaps it’s one more piece of the puzzle that is the monopolization of the gamer’s resources; time, money and hard drive (and maybe even bandwidth, if you’re capped).

Two, the newer zones are plotted better.  The Draenei staring area is especially good with this, as most of the important quest landmarks have these huge purple/pink crystals that stand out from the rest of the deeper blue terrain.  The quest hub is up on a hill with the wreckage of a spaceship, fitted with plenty more of those eye-grabbing crystals.  Kaplan might whine about the “Christmas Tree” quest hub, but when I’m getting my legs in a new 3D space, I like having clear landmarks and one central place to use as my base of operations.  I can still wander around and sniff the mutant roses, but if I want to get back in the business of progressing the storyline, it’s very clear where to go.  (Guild Wars is the clear winner in this category, with clear indicators on the map of where you’re headed, but at least WoW is getting better.)

The Death Knight starting area is a nice open zone, with the Eeeevil Death Camp clearly up on the hill, and the people to terrorize conveniently in the valley below.  It’s simple and subtle; high ground is friendly, low ground is where the fighting takes place.  You’re given a mystical tour of the local town via the “floating eye” quest, which familiarizes you with the buildings you will be tasked with raiding in the near future, all from the relatively safe perch of a disembodied eye.  It’s very forgiving, and very clear.

Oh, and as a bonus, dying just calls over a Valkyrie-like wraith that resurrects you where you stand, full of health and ready to roll.  That’s a friendly noob experience.  (That’s somewhat wasted on a prestige class, rather than real noobs, but I digress.)  You may be Death’s right hand man, but you’re not living the school of hard knocks.  No, that’s for those poor saps leveling baby Taurens.

Three, it’s easier to get around.  I incidentally noticed that the Hearthstone cooldown has been chopped from an hour to half an hour.  This is significant to my time-constrained play, and I’m greatly in favor of other speedenhancing efforts that Blizzard has rolled out (or will roll out).  I don’t like forced time sinks, and travel is one of them.  (Again, Guild Wars wins out there, but at least WoW is making baby steps in that direction.)  As always, those who want to take their time can still walk, but if you just want to get somewhere and get on with the business of playing, it’s easier than ever.

Yes, that may seem a little odd to hear from one such as I, a confirmed Explorer, but again, it’s about options.  Sometimes I really do want to just walk around, but when I want to just press on and get things done, I can.  I appreciate that. 

*edited to add:  And in a game that throttles Exploration by fairly strict level requirements, like WoW, sometimes I must Achieve in order to Explore, so it’s nice to get it out of the way as quickly as I can if I’m so inclined.  It’s trivially easy to take more time on something; dragging your feet is a national pasttime.  Being forced to take the long way around is more than annoying when there are better options.*

Four, critters in the wild now have more information in their “rollover” info box.  As long as I can remember, you could put your mouse cursor over a critter and get some rudimentary information about it, but now, if you highlight a critter that happens to be a part of a quest you have active, you get a handy tooltip telling you which quests it is relevant to.  Very nice.

Some might call this silly, and from a purist standpoint, it probably is.  Still, I like it because it makes the game more fun to play (since I know that I’m going in the right direction), and really, you could handwave it aside and say that your avatar should know these things, and that the tooltips are just your avatar’s subsconscious telling you what’s going on.

Anyway, there’s a common theme to all of this.  The game interaction is easier, faster, kinder.  It’s often argued that this means the game is being “dumbed down”, and there’s something to that… but it’s likely just sour grapes.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s not dumber, it’s smarter.  The interface gets in the way of playing sometimes (just ask any raider who uses addons to even play the raiding game), and these streamlining efforts from Blizzard, all the way from the tooltips to the clean layouts of the zones, are about making it possible to play the game, rather than flail about fighting the interface or get your bearings in a 3D space.

Peripheral vision, sound, smell and other subtle “world space” cues that we don’t get from the standard “mouse and a monitor” interface often mean that we need other “senses” to get around in the worlds we play in.  That’s where the “ESP” of the tooltips and map “tracking” tools come in.  That’s where sparklies on plants come in.  That’s why people use addons, or harmless hacks to pull the camera back farther than the default UI will let you.  It’s all about giving you the information you need to play the thing, rather than fighting the UI to get that information, or Alt-Tabbing out to Thottbot or the like.

Bottom line, I’ve found that playing WoW is easier than ever, and that Blizzard is at least making token efforts to reduce the rightfully-hated grind.  There’s still not a lot of gameplay that goes beyond the basic DNA of the DIKU roots, but it just feels easier to actually get in and start playing what is there these days.  The clearer physical layout of the newer zones aids comprehension and spatial orientation, and there’s less time futzing around hoping that you’re in the right place.  There’s less wasted time, and I appreciate that, as a time-conscious consumer.

I’ll stress this, though, for those who want to walk uphill to the questgiver twenty miles barefoot in the snow:   You can always make things harder on yourself and go ahead and wait until level 40 for your mount, only use your Hearthstone every hour, or ignore your tooltips and map if you really want the “classic purist” WoW.  There’s always that option*edited to add:  (Or, as Larisa notes over here, turn off your addons.  Now that’s scary to some people, even to those who whine about how easy the game has become.)* Now, however, there are more options for those of us with shorter playing sessions (one big plus of the Hearthstone) and less time to waste.

WoW still isn’t a perfect game, but at this point, I’m happy seeing it making at least some small strides in the direction of playability.  I’m still not paying a sub to play it, but I do think that the game is better than it was, and that changes in the docket at the moment are good changes.  As a player, I appreciate the changes, and though they aren’t enough to suck me in, I look at them as a designer and as a player and nod in appreciation.

*I’ll be exploring the Death Knight a bit more later, as I’ve got some comments that I want to make about them.  For now, this is already overlong, so please be patient and come back if you care about what I might have to say about those nasty tricksy kniggets.*

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