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Posts Tagged ‘world of warcraft’

A few more points on flight in World of Warcraft that have come up that I wanted to note in a bit more detail since last time:

1.  A “smaller world”.

I’ve written it before, but I consider this to be an inaccurate statement.  Flying doesn’t make the world any smaller, it changes how quickly you travel through it.  That will probably make your world feel smaller if you’re only interested in Point A and Point B, but if that’s all you’re looking for in the first place, the interstitial points (like fights with bad guys or weird pathing issues) are just filler (time sinks) anyway, and the points off of the beaten track are irrelevant to you and how you view or feel  the world.  Flight doesn’t remove any content, it lets you access places that you never could before.  If anything, it makes the playable world, the part you can get to and the sights you can see, much, much larger.

No, a smaller world is one that’s just Potemkin villages and a tight, controlled experience that doesn’t let you explore the world at large.  A smaller world is one where you play the developers’ story and don’t explore the world around it.  The game’s title is World of Warcraft.  It has been lamented before by me and others, but the World part keeps contracting, and I believe it’s a detriment to what the title has to offer.  (Tangentially, Final Fantasy XIII is perhaps the most maligned of the post-SNES era of Final Fantasy games, and that is mostly because it’s a very controlled experience.  Gamers like freedom to explore.  This is not an MMO problem, it’s a game problem, since games are all about player autonomy.  This is a problem that savvy developers leverage instead of fight.  It’s part of why Minecraft is so huge.)

2. Game development costs.

I am not privy to the costs of developing World of Warcraft.  I have, however, worked on Tiger Woods video games and smaller titles that are heavily invested in facades.  It is not a huge time saver or money saver to make them instead of making full 3D worlds.  Designers still have to find ways to curtail player viewlines, which takes time and possibly engine work with programmers.  It takes finesse and massaging to try to keep the boundaries organic instead of arbitrary.

Artists still have to find ways to make all possible views interesting.  They have to make buildings and terrain anyway, and often, it takes more time to go back and prune polygons on the “back” of objects, or to go make more pieces of geometry to be used specifically as facades.  It is often actually faster and easier to have instanced buildings and oddments that look good from different angles and then place them strategically.  The data footprint is smaller since you can reuse objects in more places, and savvy programmers can make use of that bit of savings.  An object that can be viewed from many angles instead of a select few is more useful in the long run.  There are even savings with LOD (Level Of Detail meshes that pop in to save processing cycles by having lower-polycount items on display at certain distances) construction that way, as a building need only have one set of LODs instead of making a variety of buildings with different geometry needs, each with their own LODs.

There is also a larger problem with players being able to see “behind the curtain”.  If devs miss an angle, a place where the facade falls apart, it’s more obvious in a Potemkin village.  Perhaps paradoxically, but entirely in keeping with the mental gymnastics our mind goes through to “fill in the blanks” that make the Uncanny Valley approachable with low fidelity art, the more controlled an experience is, the stronger the distraction effect if something doesn’t look just right.  And yet, on the flipside, if a place in-game is presented as a fully explorable 3D space, some of those distracting little details are often ignored in the sheer amount of information on display and the freedom the user has to look at it from different angles.  In more pithy phrasing, there are no curtains to look behind.  All the warts are out there in the open, or easily discovered, and as such, are instinctively more forgivable.

I say this as an artist who has had to deal with making things look just right, and having parsed a lot of publisher feedback, it’s very interesting to see what people pick up on and what they gloss over.  It’s very, very easy to swallow even big bits of weirdness in large if imperfect presentations, but smaller, more intimate content walks a much tighter line, and it takes time and money to make both styles work.

I’m sure they have crunched numbers to make an argument to the board members, but down in the trenches of development that I’ve seen, the differences aren’t huge.

Also, as a brief aside, speaking again as a 3D artist, I’d much rather players see my work from a variety of angles, rather than make a widget that looks right only in tightly controlled circumstances.  It lets me show off my abilities more when I can make a component that has a more holistic appeal.  This, to me, is the appeal of sculpting (digitally or physically) in the first place.  If I wanted to just show one angle, I’d simply make a painting.

3.  Player costs.

WoW is still a subscription game.  As such, it is in the company’s best interests to make players take as long as possible to get through content.  If they can be strung along for long enough, the next subscription time period ticks over, and the financials look better.  Players trudging through ever-respawning enemies to get anywhere will take more time to play through the developer stories.  I’m cynical enough to think that there’s a bit of calculus involved to discover the best way to string players along so they pay for one or two more months than they might with flight as a travel option.  At least, the players who do the content once, don’t look around much off the beaten trail, and unsubscribe when done with “the story”.

Speaking of content, if players are skipping your content by flying over it, the problem is not the player.  The problem is the content that they do not want to engage in.  Going through yet another rebel/pirate/demon/enemy camp to kill the leader, then muddling back out, fighting every few steps… it’s just not interesting gameplay content to someone who has done it many, many times before (and almost anyone in Draenor is in that position).  That’s a problem with the design, and it’s not going to be solved by making players do more of it.

I firmly believe that the best stories in MMOs come from the unique ability they have to let people interact with each other and with the world.  The sense of place is important to these fictional worlds, or it should be.  Emergent play is important.  Weird nooks and crannies make a place seem more interesting, and they need to be experienced at their own pace.  Players need to be able to take in the sights and get a sense of the world.  Cities offer this, quiet spots offer this, and flight offers this breather space.  If players are constantly being prodded through the narrow “developer experience”, they simply don’t get a sense of what the world has to offer.  They are too busy dealing with the cardboard enemies that are all too often neither interesting nor challenging, merely time sinks.

Those moments when things are different, when something unique happens, those are often the best memory making moments.  A sternly guided experience will have these moments, if done correctly, but there is little room for the sublime accident, the quirky discovery, the quiet moments of awe that come from momentarily buying into the idea of being in a different world and seeing something new.  Those can happen on the ground, certainly, but flight facilitates them both by allowing more angles to see the world from, and more opportunities of quiet reflection.

It’s not the quests or the endless killing that are the best that WoW has to offer.  Blizzard’s work on this sort of content is entertaining enough for a while, but it’s not amazing, and it’s not engrossing, at least, not for long.  Letting players poke around to see what is off the beaten track can help fill in the world, give it context, and breathing room.  If a player has to be on their toes dealing with “danger” all the time, they will not relax, they will not find the world welcoming or worth exploring.  They will burn out faster.

The World of Warcraft has never been high on verisimilitude, and I’m simply not convinced that putting players into ever-more-controlled experiences will help that in any way.  That’s quite apart from flight purely as a mechanic, but as flight is a way for players to take their time and manage their approach to the game, it’s highly relevant.

Developers do have to manage expectations and design a stage for players to play on.  That’s part of game design.  I simply believe that the more controlled an experience, the more a game is like a movie, and less adroit at leveraging the true strengths of games as a medium.  Players want control, otherwise they would be watching a movie or reading a book.  Designers need to ease off the reins and let players play.  Flight has allowed that, and taking it away isn’t going to make WoW better in the long run, not for players.  It will absolutely make it easier for developers to manage the presentation, but I believe that’s missing the point, and players and the World of WoW will be lesser for it.

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I’ve written about finishing World of Warcraft before, and I’ve written about business models more than a few times.

Alternative Chat has a good blog post up ruminating a bit on the potential that Blizzard has to take the existing World of Warcraft and blow it up, starting over with all the bits they want and jettisoning the cruft of the last decade.  They did a version of this with the Cataclysm expansion, which I’ve also written about a few times.

So, I just wanted to put my finger in the stream again and post pretty much the same thing I noted in a comment over at Alt’s place, and something I’ve written here before…

If Blizzard really wants to shake things up and leave the old WoW behind for a brave new world, they should branch the game.  Cut everything that’s presently in the game off from the dev teams (save for bug fixing), package it up as a “buy to play” subscriptionless game in the vein of Guild Wars, and bravely stride off into WoW 2.0 as their premiere flagship subscription game.

It’ll never happen, just like Vanilla servers won’t happen and Pre-Cataclysm servers won’t happen, but hey, I can dream.

Edited to add:  This amuses me.  As Jay over at The Rampant Coyote points out, “Buy Once and Play” is making a minor comeback.  As if it’s something radical.  This industry is weird.  Even Forbes just can’t resist the satire.

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So… Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is back in Draenor.  I liked the first visit, with the weirdly shattered, floating-in-space landscape, but hey, if they could Cataclysm the geewhillikers out of Azeroth (a pox on them for flooding Thousand Spires!), they can go fix Draenor with some superglue and spackle.

I have something of a love/disgruntled relationship with World of Warcraft.  There are elements of it that I don’t care for, but it’s a lovely world and I love flying around in it.  I did finally get a character to the level cap in Pandaria, and do a little shuffling around in the endgame dungeons and Timeless Isle.  Since I hit level 90, I can fly around Pandaria, too, and that meant I spent a few days’ worth of game time just flying around, taking screenshots.  I still have fun with the game, warts and all.  That last binge used up my last game credit from the now-defunct WoW Visa, though, which is unfortunate.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I can’t kill two birds with one stone, though.  Y’see, I’ve been supremely busy of late trying to find a job after circumstance effectively “retired” me from the game industry.  I’ve worked as a Technical Artist in games for almost a decade, but with a crummy economy and young, enthusiastic grads always ready to be fed to the beast, I was over the hill anyway, and fell out of the industry due to a company downsizing.

So it goes.

Anyway, wouldn’t it be grand to have a fairy godpatron step up and offer me a full time job, being a tourist and photographer in the revised Draenor?  Take screenshots, write guides, opine about… everything.  I know, I know, that’s the dream of millions of devoted Blizzard devotees, and I’m just as likely to point out problems as I am to praise the finer points.  Who would pay for that?

I’m sure I’ll play around in Draenor once the expansion goes on sale and I can free up some time and justify the cost.  (The cost isn’t just the $15, it’s the time spent since I have to get what I want to done before the timer runs out.)  I’ll take some screenshots, mess around in a few dungeons, have some fun.

In the meantime, it’s good to see people having fun in the game.  It’s not a perfect game, but it’s hanging in there, and though I don’t have a hand in its creation, it is nice to see a game appreciated by its patrons.  Sometimes the simple joy of playing is lost in the periodic waves of griping, and the early days of a WoW expansion tend to hit higher points of optimism in the expansion life cycle waveform.

So… have fun, everyone!  I’ll be along later.

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With a new World of Warcraft expansion in the news cycle, it’s only inevitable that the Flying discussion cycles around again.

I make no secret of the fact that I love flying in games.  I am a Bartle Explorer, through and through.  Flying is perhaps my favorite activity in WoW.

So, when there’s a view that says “flying is bad“, I can’t help but think that they have a different perspective on what this World of Warcraft is.

(Caveat:  As I noted on Twitter in a comment to Big Bear Butt when he mentioned his article and that WoWInsider piece, I don’t mind waiting until the end of an expansion to be able to fly through it.  I think it’s a sledgehammer solution to the perceived problem, but I can live with it.)

One of the most repeated rationales for this worldview is that “flying makes the world smaller“.

To me, this is a completely alien way of looking at it, and completely backwards.

Yes, flying makes it possible to travel around quicker.  It makes it easier to plow through content.  It makes it easier for players to ignore enemies stuck on the ground and forces players to jump through the developer hoops and pacing.

(Aside:  When a game monetizes time, I consider it a cardinal sin for devs to waste my time, trying to find ways to slow me down.)

Also, from a technical standpoint, it does make something look smaller if you increase your distance from it, so flying up in the air will make something on the ground look smaller.

And yet, from my perspective, the ability to fly makes the World of WoW much, much bigger.  This is true for one simple reason:

I can explore more of it.

Flying opens up new camera angles, new places to go and see, and new ways for me to see how places relate to each other.  It’s a new perspective on what’s already there, a way to see things that I simply can’t get when I’m stuck to the ground.

It’s similar, in a way, to how I see the real world.  Yes, digital photography has allowed for more of the world to be captured and shared than ever before, and the internet makes it possible to “see” places around the world from the comfort of home.  In a way, it “made the world smaller” inasmuch as you don’t have to walk or ride out to see the sights yourself.

And yet, from where I sit, if I could never see those places, they may as well not exist.  (At least as far as my own personal experience, anyway; I’m not arguing any sort of absurd anthropic “China doesn’t exist because I didn’t hear a tree falling there” or any such nonsense.)  Being able to see, even just a glimpse, of what’s out there doesn’t make our world smaller, it makes it much, much bigger.  There’s all this stuff out there.  The more I see, the more I want to see, and the more aware I am of just how much there is that is there to see.

This is the beauty and fascination of the National Geographic magazine, or the Cosmos series.  They help us open our eyes, just a little, to what’s out there.

And when I see that, the only thing that feels smaller is me.

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Blizzard sent me their occasional “come back and play pleeeeeeease, so you’ll get hooked and buy more subscription time” email recently, and I decided to take them up on it.  Of course, they pitched it as “come take part in the Siege of Orgrimmar“, but since that’s a raider thing, I chose to interpret their email a little bit.

…and really, I know that this sort of “play for a few days for freeee” email is meant to lure back in players who have been out of the game for a while, but it seems to me that isn’t limited to end-game raiders.  Especially since it seems like you have to be out of the game for four or more months for them to even extend the offer, and by then… are you really on the cutting edge of raid content any more?

Anyway, I did break down a while back and buy a Collector’s Edition of Mists of Pandaria.  (It was something like $35 or so, which netted me the art book, soundtrack and DVD that I really wanted.  The other extras were icing on the cake.  Oh, and the game expansion was nice.  I’ll make a Dwarf Monk at some point.)  You see, WoW and I, we have a tenuous relationship.  It’s a game I could easily spend a lot of time in, mostly just looking around at the nicely realized world and art.

And yet… what time I do spend in it is torn between “ooh, that is a good screenshot opportunity” and “man, this game design needs work”, with a fair bit of mindless questing and dungeoneering in the murky middle.  The combat isn’t terribly engaging most of the time, but sometimes, that’s exactly what I want.  Sometimes I want involved, tactically awesome combat, sometimes I just want to zone out for a bit before I go to sleep.  It’s a bit like watching a Stargate SG-1 episode I’ve seen before; I can just sort of turn off my brain and enjoy the ride as I coast to a stop at the end of the day.  WoW is a game that I just “graze” in, really, and that’s OK.  I’m happy to just putter around here and there during those times when I’m in the mood, and I love that my Druid has flight form and the cat form’s stealth so I can poke around in places where I’m not generally supposed to go.

This is also why the subscription model is such an awful fit for me.  I don’t binge on the game, or commit to it.  I just play it a little bit, and the value calculations of a subscription make that an expensive bit of gaming.  For the $15/month I might pay to play, I’d get in maybe 15-20 hours, tops, and even getting that much in would mean not playing any other games or working on Kickstarter (Go, Go, Tinker Deck!) or other art projects.  I just don’t do that sort of single-game thing any more.  For that same $15, I can buy three Humble Bundles or the like and get hundreds of hours of gaming over the next year or so.

What stood out to me last night, though, wasn’t the value proposition.  No, it was the design.  My Tauren Druid was tasked with fetching rattan switches for this quest:

A Proper Weapon

And as it happens, there’s a bunch of these switches by a neighboring merchant.  That Wowpedia link describes it a bit if you want detail, but I, quite mindlessly, as is my wont when I’m doing these bog-standard fetch quests, just grabbed one of those switches.

And then the merchant started yelling at me.

Immediately, my response was to right click on the guy and see if I could give him back the switch.  There were plenty in the neighborhood, and I was sorry I took his.

This quick incident was at once intriguing and disappointing.  For once, a character in the game exhibited small signs of an AI that was more than just “be present in the world”.  That was awesome.  It was a glimmer of what the AI in Everquest Next might get up to (and I hope that they make it interesting; there’s a TON of potential).  I thought it delightful that a NPC would chew me out for an admittedly stupid minor theft.

And yet, and yetI couldn’t react to it.  I couldn’t give him back the switch.  I couldn’t attack him and kill him for his insolence.  (I didn’t think of that option until later, as it’s not a reflexive response for me, but I still couldn’t do it, even if I had wanted to.)  I could /bow to him or /laugh, but there wasn’t really interaction there.  It was little more than a scripted event that’s just barely beyond what most NPCs do.

Still, it was an NPC reacting to something I did nearby, not something I did directly to them.  That was a nice touch, and I’m looking forward to seeing games take that further.  There’s a long way to go, and it’s sad to see only the very rudimentary efforts when there’s so much potential, but I choose to see that as a glimmer of hope for these MMO things.

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Just a quick thought today.  The venerable Big Bear Butt and the inimitable Syl have articles up today that reminded me of one of my old wishes for World of Warcraft: Housing.

Big Bear Butt’s Putting the Pieces Together

Syl’s Off The Chest: Midlevel and Endgame Grinds No Thanks, I Rather Have A Castle!

And just for reference, my old collection of Allods Online screenshots.

Y’see, I’d love to see private Outland/Allod style floating islands as housing locations in WoW.  Wizard 101 does almost exactly this already, and for their trouble, they earned some money from me when I bought my Marleybone steampunk island home.  (That I currently can’t find any screenshots for, sadly.)  I’d love to have a little floating island home out off the coast of Nagrand, or maybe a Dalaran satellite.  Maybe I could have a little research hut out by Area 52 and a winter home tucked in the Grizzly Hills. Of course, these would all be phased, so they wouldn’t be a blight on the world, but that’s OK, I don’t necessarily want visitors anyway.

…it all reminds me a little of the system of outposts I tend to make in Minecraft, actually.  That’s a delightful game that I’ve spend a great deal of time in.  When I’m out exploring a Minecraft world, I build little waystations in interesting locations, and I link them with shortcuts via the Nether, since moving one “grid square” in the Nether is equivalent of 8 spaces in the normal world.  I have developed a good sense of how far to go before the Nether portals don’t just tether to existing portals, so I can leapfrog a series of Nether portals and overworld exploration to cover a lot of ground.  I wind up with the Arctic home, the Swamp home, Anvilania, the cliffside village, the Burrows, the tree farm, the diamond mine and so on… a whole system of locations that fit into the larger world, but that are uniquely mine.  (Get it?  Minecraft?  OK, my humor needs work.)

If I could have a set of private islands or shacks in the World of Warcraft, especially if they were linked via a portal system… I’d spend more time in the place.  It’s even another monetization vector.  Yes, it would cost something to develop, but I think it would be worth it.  I’d prefer the game to go subscriptionless, of course, and note that I’d spend money on said housing… y’know, while I’m dreaming.

And yes, I know WURM Online kind of scratches this itch, as does Minecraft.  I know LOTRO has housing, as does Wizard 101 and Puzzle Pirates.  I’m not hopeful that Blizzard will do this, and I’m not really looking for them to take over the world.  I just think this is an obvious design area that WoW could go in, and I’d have fun with it.  Just ruminating a bit on a Tuesday morning.

Ah, and many thanks to DÀCHÉNG for taking the idea and running with it over thisaway.  There really is a lot of fertile design space to mine in this housing concept.  Blizzard is missing a trick here, I think.  Maybe they don’t need to leverage the Minecraft/DeviantArt “artist” impulse to be successful, but I’m pretty sure the cost/benefit ratio is firmly tilted in the benefit direction.  Letting players modify their experience a bit and share their creativity is at least partially the heart of the whole “transmogrification” scheme, and that’s been a success.

I suppose I should have made it clearer, but yes, I am assuming that players would be able to invite friends to see their homes/islands/fortresses.  They wouldn’t just be private instances, forever sealed away.  They might be instances, but they would be places that other players could access in some way.

…as far as I’m concerned, that builds community while granting players ownership and letting them invest emotionally.  That sounds like a game design WIN to me.

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Guild Wars 2 is out, and apparently awesome.  I’ll get it someday, money and time are tight at the moment, but in the meantime, Syl has some great comments up on the game.  Others do too, I’m sure, I’ve just been out of the loop lately.  GW2 is the sort of game that sounds like something I want to play (I loved the first one), I just… can’t.  Not at the moment.

World of Warcraft‘s latest patch, 5.0.4, came out at the same time (the nefariousness!), and it’s apparently also amazingly awesome.  I’ll play WoW again someday as well.  Probably just by firing up my free account and making a Pandaran, though if I ever revisit my “paid” account, I’ll be happy to see some things like shared mounts and pets.  My daughter will love that she can have her character access the pets I’ve collected on my Tishtoshtesh character.

Oh, and as an aside, I love that Hunters now have no minimum range on their ranged weapons, but the deletion of their melee potential makes me sad.  I wish they had made the Survival tree into a melee-heavy Hunter, sort of like a Warhammer Online White Lion class.  That might spawn a few hundred thousand more Drizzt clones though, I guess.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to share a couple of photos I found that reminded me of WoW.  Y’see, sometimes it’s derided as being “too technicolor” or something of the sort.  Well, so is my home state, sometimes.  And it’s a blasted desert.

A Sea of Purple in the Badlands of Utah

Badlands Bloom by Guy Tal

And then there’s this mini-maelstrom in Hawaii… it’s not quite the size of Darkshore’s sinkhole or The WoW Maelstrom, but I think it looks a lot more impressive for its detail and energy.  And that whole “it’s real” bit.  (Another shot of the area over thisaway, also by Patrick Smith.)

Maelstrom at Kauai, Hawaii

Maelstrom in Hawaii by Patrick Smith

Both of those were featured in this “best photos of 2012” list, which includes some other fantastic photographs.  Go, peruse, enjoy!

When you’re done with that, you could go peruse the archives at the Astronomy Picture of the Day.  There’s a ton of great stuff there.  The shot from this morning even almost fits the theme, looking vaguely like a northern Azerothian badland, complete with some airglow fun.

Airglow over Italy by Tamas Ladanyi

…I wish I had more time for photography, too.  I meant to go to some local ghost towns this summer and look for texture photos and other interesting shots.  Alas, home repair/remodeling and other Stuff ate up my time… and none of those are even done yet.  I probably ought to sleep sometime, too.

…so yeah, I hope you all are having fun in those MMO worlds.  Take some screenshots for me, will you please?

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World of Warcraft finally steals the WarHammer Online “perpetual limited free trial” hook.

Too little, too late, says I.  The time to flank the F2P tide was a couple of years ago if not earlier.

It’s still probably a smart move.  It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

As for me and my house?  I’ll have a new baby Druid to play with when the itch strikes, and I don’t have to plunk down a sub for the privilege of picking up the game whenever I darn well please for a bit of sightseeing.  Oh, and I can patch the blasted thing without feeling like I’m wasting a couple of days of a month’s sub or firing up a new dummy trial.

…and I’d still pay for an offline version.

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Continued from Part 1, of course…

The left and right sides of this diagram are balanced.

The left and right sides of this diagram are also balanced.

These, too.

…but what of these?

Or these?

So, that in mind, how about I change a couple of labels up there?  Here’s where Street Fighter 2 comes in.

A is T. Hawk

B is Zangief

C is Ryu

D is Dhalsim

I know I grossly oversimplify here, but there’s minor method to the madness.  T. Hawk and Zangief are both mostly one-trick ponies; their strength lies primarily in grabbing the opponent and squashing them.  Ryu is fairly well-rounded, with a decent air and ground game, as well as a few basic throw options.  Dhalsim is also well rounded, albeit in different, tricky ways.

Every single one of those diagrams uses the exact same base, the same “piece of the pie”, I just sliced them up differently and pushed pieces around a bit.  It’s largely an asymmetrical balance, but the variety is generally a good thing.  Strictly speaking, if balance is only a measure of how much black each character gets, they are very precisely balanced.

…but then, that’s the key.  The metrics I’m using for balance let me state that the balance is precise.  This is critical.  Balance functions best when the measurements and means of measurement are very clear.  (Tangentially, this is why so many science experiments flat out ignore tangential data and assume things like a lack of friction.  It’s a way to clean up the signal and set the terms of measurement.)

Y’see, if we want to get picky, the letters also contain black.  The right side of the figure also contains a measure of black in the slight grey background.  Those are just noise, though, because I deem them such.  That inverse image mirror Zangief match actually does the Yin-Yang sort of balance, white vs. black.  These corner cases exist, surely, but they aren’t part of the finely crafted balance I care about.  Oh, sure, someone will nitpick about them, but since I’m the one crafting and defining the balance, those arguments don’t matter.

While we’re talking Street Fighter, though, look at the following comparisons between Ryu and Zangief:

The ground game:

The throw game:

The air game:

If you isolate the part of the game you’re seeing to a particular slice of the overall design, it’s easily argued that these two characters are imbalanced.  Zangief is the clear favorite in the throw game (though it should be noted that a solid block of color like that looks more impressive than it actually is), but Ryu dominates the air and has a small edge on the ground.  Overall, we can argue that they are balanced, but in particular situations, they most definitely are not.  When considering balance, then it must be asked:  “what is the big picture?”  Or, more precisely, “what metrics are these systems using for the overall picture that this design’s balance exists in?”

Speaking of slicing up perceptions, though, there’s another way to do it.  I’m calling it role slicing, but it’s really just a subset of situational slicing.  Compare World of Warcraft’s Druid to the Warrior.  Overall, the Druid looks like it has a significant edge over the Warrior, after all, it has a bigger piece of the action in the big picture:

And yet, if you look at the role slices, (noting that there are indeed overlaps, just by the nature of the game), Warrior and Druid tanking are remarkably similar and nicely balanced:

…and their melee DPS options are reasonably balanced:

Yes, I know, Druid melee DPS is more akin to a Rogue, but for the sake of this (oversimplified) argument, it might also be suggested that all classes that specialize in melee DPS are balanced, just with some tweaks and different approaches.  You get up in the bad guy’s personal space and bring the hurt.  Similarly, a Mage and Druid could be compared in the ranged DPS (when the Druid is in Balance spec, anywho), blasting baddies from the peanut gallery.

These role slices are balanced as opposed to the “big picture” being balanced, and I believe that’s the way it should be for something like WoW with its relatively inflexible roles.  (You cannot switch from offense to defense in a flash like you do with Street Fighter 2’s gameplay.)  This produces some quirks in game design when compared to SF2.

For one, there are more ways to interpret things, so naturally, more excuses to nitpick.  Two, even the designers can slip into thinking that the overall sense of balance matters more than the role, and wind up hobbling the multifaceted Druid in an effort to balance the big picture.  For WoW’s design, the role is key, since that’s what gameplay is designed around.  Tanks tank, healers heal, and DPS…ers kill stuff.  You just can’t generalize and shift roles effectively at any moment.  Three, the “metagame” and “class identity” really do matter to players, but mechanically, when it comes to balance, the function of moment to moment play (the roles) are more important.  Those can clash sometimes, especially since so much of the gameplay is decided by the initial choice of class… and that’s a remarkably unchangeable choice made early in the game with little good feedback.

So, lots of words to say “balance kinda sorta really, well… depends on how you look at it” with a subtext of “each game does it differently, for good reason”.

Oh, and I’d be terribly remiss not to point out the following:

Sirlin on balancing Street Fighter 2 and multiplayer games in general (since it was his job, he knows far more of the particulars than I do; it’s a great series of articles on a great site)

Just to throw some gum in the works, BBB reminds us that:

“Class balance is not a fundamental RPG trait”

Because sometimes, throwing “balance” out the window is actually a smart design choice.  Shunting it off of center stage makes room for different sorts of play.  Or different types of balance.

…and then there’s oddments like crowd control, buffing, out of combat utility like teleporting, crafting suites, cosmetics, racial traits, location modifiers, dice rolls and the hairy topic of randomization and its sometimes deleterious effect on balance…

Oi.

Follow the link tied to that picture to find a fun LEGO spin on Escher’s work.  I love Escher’s art.  Remember… balance depends on how you look at it.  It’s all… relative.

Edited to add, because I forgot it but really shouldn’t have, as I meant to work it in…

6 Inch Move’s take on the Myth of Balance

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Since the Shattering, the Lollipop Guild has been busy.  They have apparently meandered all over Azeroth building a Yellow Brick Road, a Golden Path Theme Park for Idiots, turning World of Warcraft into a game only brain dead vegetables can love.

Or, so some might have me believe.

OK, OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole.  There are reasonable concerns about pacing in the game, especially dungeon XP gain rate as Klepsacovic noted, which Blizzard fixed.  Pete of Dragonchasers also notes that a player control for turning XP gain off might be nice.  I agree, though I’d also like the ability to remove XP, so I could iteratively reduce my level and keep pushing myself as I solo dungeons.  Well, that, or have nice, tight difficulty control sliders, or even difficulty settings like DDO has for dungeons.  (I can sort of fudge this by removing gear and taking skills of my action bar, though, so it’s not a thought I expect to be taken seriously.)

I broke down and bought TBC and Wrath while Blizzard had them on sale for $5 and $10, respectively (having purchased the original game for $5 last year).  I used a gift card I got a while ago and fired up another month in the game to look around.  I played the possibly overscripted Troll starting areas and found them to be a nice slice of mechanics that show up later in the game as well as a nice bit of Troll species storytelling.  The Gnome staring zone is pretty good, and I love that they are fighting for their home instead of waiting for players to run the Gnomeregan instance.  The Tauren starting zone is great, imparting a sense of impending twilight for the species.  Even the Dwarf starting experience is fun and fresh, though I’ve played the old version many times.

One commonality is the NPCs milling about, caught in perpetual warfare.  Yeah, they never get very far in actually defeating their foes, but at least something is going on in that vast plain by the Tauren starting village.  I wrote about the Death Knight starting areas a while back, and it seems to me that Blizzard has learned that having NPCs doing things in the world helps give it a sense of life.  In the DK areas, battles are going on in the background as you do your quests.  All new areas I’ve played to date have either battles or NPCs training for battle.  Questgivers and trainers move around a bit sometimes and interact with other NPCs.  The game feels more alive and bustling than ever before, and it does that without a player in sight.  That’s a Good Thing.

When there are players, yes, a game will feel more populated, but at the same time, players rarely feel like part of the world.  They run and jump around like caffeinated squirrels (do players ever walk?), loiter around like heroes without a cause, dress like fashion accidents, and run through each other.  And those are the tolerable ones; some are flat out annoying, spamming chat channels, dueling, monkeying around with train sets, dancing naked on mailboxes or any of a number of other random nutty non-Azerothian behavior.  In a lot of ways, player characters kill the much-vaunted “immersion” that can be produced by a cohesive presentation that we see in strongly themed and behaviorally consistent NPCs.

The starting questlines are indeed streamlined and polished to a fine golden sheen.  You’re almost never left wondering what to do, as NPCs go out of their way to advertise their inability to do simple things on their own, requiring errand boys and assassins at alarming rates.  (Though, since death is almost always only temporary in Azeroth, maybe assassination isn’t so much a nasty profession as a hobby.)  The rails in the game are indeed more finely crafted and more prominent than ever before.

And yet… there is nothing keeping players on the rails but their own habit and Pavlovian training.  I can take a new Troll and wander over to the starting Orc area to begin my journey.  I can just go grind away and kill crabs and boars, totally ignoring any quests.  I can try to swim around to Tanaris and see the new Thousand Needles water park.  As a Dwarf or Gnome, I can hike to Ironforge and catch the tram to Stormwind and hop on a ship to Northrend to look around, all at level 1 (though I might level up thanks to exploration XP… might have to try that this weekend, just for fun, and see how many levels I can accrue just by walking around to places I’m not supposed to see).  I can’t tackle enemies far beyond my abilities, so going some places will be very difficult if not impossible, but I’m otherwise free to go in nearly any direction I feel like.

A few nights ago, I took my level 16 Dwarf Hunter to Bloodmyst Isle to train a blue moth.  My daughter wanted to see one in-game, so off I went.  Not having been there before, I had to do a bit of exploring and Petopia/Wowpedia diving, but I eventually acquired a blue moth and took some screenshots of the area.  It wasn’t really a difficult journey, but it was pretty far from the Ironforged rails I was on previously.

A few levels later, the now-19 Hunter went from Ironforge to Wailing Caverns via Stormwind, Teldrassil, Darkshore, Ashenvale and the Northern Barrens (yes, the Westfall>Stranglethorn Vale>Booty Bay>Ratchet>Northern Barrens route might have been faster, but it was an experiment, and I feared STV more than Ashenvale).  Darkshore has been significantly mauled in the Shattering, and it’s a blast to just wander around in.  Ashenvale is tricky, with Horde and Alliance butting heads and dangerous wildlife to a sub-20 character.  Though as always, Hunters can take down foes a few levels higher, it’s still not safe territory.  A level 24 wolf wasn’t much trouble… but a pack of them would be death.  I had to pick fights, dodge aggro bubbles and avoid Horde patrols.

I still couldn’t make it through the Horde gates at the Barrens border, though, even with Alliance footsoldiers running interference.  The Spirit Healer in the Barrens took pity on me and pulled me through, but after accepting the resurrection penalty, the Barrens were still dangerous, especially with Horde players roaming about.  Three Hordies killed me once 40 meters or so off the road on the way to the Caverns, so I carefully skulked in the shadows and along mountain edges after that.  They probably thought I was going to assault the Crossroads, but since Alliance and Horde can only communicate in cutscenes, I couldn’t tell them my intentions were peaceful.

Getting to the instance portal was also an exercise in careful pulling.  I could handle two foes at once in the cave, but three would have been death.  Getting past the nasty pond dinosaur trap midcave was tricky, too.  Luckily, my bear was OK with playing bait, and we both got through.  We even managed to kill one of the raptors in the instance itself, a level 19 Elite, but I chickened out of trying two at a time, since it was a close fight.  (Maybe I just stink, and two would have been easy for a real player, but 1 elite dinosaur was my limit.  Well, 1.5, probably, but I figured 2 was too much, and since dinos don’t come in halves, I stopped at 1.)

Tangentially, I find it interesting that often, those who complain about wanting challenge can’t be bothered to go find it, but want it brought to them on a golden platter and forced on everyone else.  They then complain about lazy players and “easy mode” as if those nefarious casuals (spit) were the only ones with a sense of entitlement.  It’s especially funny to see the complainers using heirloom gear and whining about going too fast.

Most definitely, WoW’s public face is more “gamey” than ever before, but there’s still a world out there to explore, and it’s better than ever, especially for newbies.  It’s beautiful, with the Blizzard artists taking the Old World and stepping up the visuals to great new heights.  It’s still not as worldlike as I’d prefer, not by a long shot, but Azeroth isn’t all about hand-holding and going through the motions unless you let it be.

Boredom is a sign of low curiosity, a personal failure to engage mentally.  It’s not the world failing to entertain you, it’s you failing to investigate some of the many wonders that exist and initiate experimentation with what tools you have.  The same applies to challenge and exploration.

We’re not in Kansas any more, so take that road less traveled, or even go make your own.  There’s plenty of challenging and interesting content off the beaten track if you go looking for it.

____________________________

EDITED TO ADD:

MMO Gamer Chick has an interesting article up with some real noob experiences.  Insightful stuff.

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