Players should see content

| Thursday, May 19, 2011
But how much?

For $15 a month you have access to all content in WoW. With a catch. There are barriers. These take three general forms: time, skill, and organization.

Time barriers mean needing more time for content than you have. These can take the form of needing large blocks of time during the content, such as multi-hour heroics or raids which take even longer, which was a serious problem before raids could be saved week to week. Or the barrier can be not one of continuous blocks of time, but just time overall. Consumables can be major material sinks, meaning time sinks, as best symbolized by the original Naxxramas where the consumable requirements were so bad that a few high-end guilds became notorious for gold-buying (to buy pots) and eventually alchemy was er, tweaked (heavily nerfed) which is where the battle/guardian elixir system came from. Repair costs are somewhere between the two categories, being incurred by the raiding but using time outside the raids to compensate.

The ideal spot for a time barrier isn't simple to figure out. While no barrier at all sounds ideal, this can instead deprive players of a sense of investment. It can also act as a filtering mechanism. While it's hard to say that farming flask materials indicates skill, it does indicate some level of dedication, a quality which is frequently as necessary as skill. It's like a guild application: the actual answers are frequently pointless, but the guy who cannot even fill out an app is probably not the person you want around for serious content.

I'll keep this short: If someone isn't skilled enough for content, they aren't going to beat it. Let's just ignore the carrying/overgearing bits because those are beside the actual point. Skill is a barrier to seeing content. No, I'm not going to define skill. Pretend I did.

This is the task of assembling the required number of competent players, with competent being a theoretical mix of skill and gear which matches the minimum required for the content. This is closely linked with skill and time, since it's harder to find players if skill matters and time constraints get ever more difficult as you add people. Think of organizing five people for an hour. Now make that forty for three hours. See why there weren't a ton of raiders in vanilla? Now add a bit of skill requirement and it's a wonder anyone even got past BWL. A big server population will help, just by giving more chances of sufficient numbers of sufficiently skilled players being on at convenient times.

At this extreme content requires little to no skill, not much time, and is easy to organize, or done for you. Think LK heroics. Weren't those a blast? And there we go: why a "everyone sees all content" ideology isn't so great. Or as I said yesterday: "Get rid of all this “we want players to see content” crap. It’s not working out so well. It’s fundamentally incompatible with challenging content and good community." In retrospect, I could have phrased that less in a less combative manner, but I still think it's true.

The problem with this extreme is that everything ends up meaningless. There is no challenge overcome. No sense of investment. Nothing at all to inflate an ego, and if an MMO isn't inflating an ego, what is it doing? Oh sure, there's that social angle, but if the organization part is trivialized, that's going to take with a lot of the social binding.

Time, skill, and organization requirements are tuned such that you, whoever you are, will not have the combination of time, skill, and personal connections to even attune yourself for the Raid of Doom. This is the second job type thing, but working overtime, with a side job to pay the gold costs. Anyone who cannot do this is free to prance around the world at level 5, hoping the Doomboars doesn't kill them forever.

This is clearly the opposite of the All ideology. In both causes and effects. Sure, you cannot possibly get anywhere in this game. But if you did, oh man, would it feel awesome. If you beat the Raid of Doom you'd have the courage to do anything, like expose your by now translucent skin the the sky-bound nuclear ball known as the sun, protected by only some wisps of assorted gases known as the sky.

Sure, it's great that the few winners feel awesome, but so few people will possibly feel awesome that no one is going to play for long. Even the winners will have no one to gloat to. Trust me, that girl over there has no clue how awesome you are for killing Doomlord of the Doom Council on heroic mode in the Raid of Doom. Or that guy. Or that guy and girl. Two guys. I don't know, whatever you're into. Beside the point.

Ah yes, the theoretical happy middle. In this magical land there are time sinks to keep us busy and feeling invested. We need a bit of skill, not so much that we're hopeless, but we're pretty sure that someday with practice we can go to the Raid of Significant But Not Overwhelming Challenges. Meanwhile the Raid of Puppy Flowers is fun enough. And man will it be cool to see the Raid of Doom! Organization isn't too bad, with raids which aren't gigantic, but we're still always eager for another person to play with.

But how much content do we actually see in this magical world?

Barriers should be such that players feel confident that they can progress, eventually. Enough content should be available to keep them entertained. But there must also be content that they cannot yet reach. Maybe some that they will never reach. But they can strive for it and not feel that it is in vain. Or another way to see it is that content should block players enough to feel meaningful to overcome, but not so much that it is unable to be overcome.

This still doesn't quite answer what to do with the amazing player and the garbage player. Can they play in the same world? To challenge the better player will mean blocking the lesser player, and likely the majority of players. Content creation must be profitable, attracting/retaining players to at least cover the cost of developing it. However the simple math of "this many players saw X content that cost ~Y" is not the full story. We also have to know how exclusive content affects the rest of the players. Is it something to strive for or is it a frustration? The attitude of the game company and how it communicates will affect this. Do they create the content as something to strive for or as an exclusive gift to their favorite players?

These are the killer.

In vanilla I did three raids: MC, ZG, and AQ20. I never even saw Naxx or AQ40 and BWL killed me on the first boss. I have mixed memories of this. On one hand I wanted to see more content, and I did feel that there was a bit too much catering to the highest tier of play, but it wasn't a game-ruiner for me. I thought that someday I'd clear BWL and maybe even make some progress into AQ40. Someday.

I also did every 5-man, and the UBRS 10-man, many times. And some of the now-gone dungeon 2 upgrade chain, a set of quests which turned my blue set into a slightly better mix of blues and epics. This chain was long and for the time, expensive, but told an interesting story and even gave some more content in the form of additional bosses that I could resummon. This was the attempt, or impression of, alternative content.

In BC I had higher hopes. I really wanted to clear through Tempest Keep. I didn't. But I did do Kara (best raid ever), Gruul's Lair, Magtheridon's Giant Room, Zul'token'trollraid, and a little bit of SSC. I'd also hoped to clear SSC. Alas, BC introduced a stupid problem: the 10-25 man transition in raiding, with kara being the starter raid with 10 people and then every raid but ZA (which was released very late) needing 25 people. This created an organizational problem that constantly tore apart guilds and were generally a huge headache. If not for that, I think things might have gone better. So that may be my first time when I felt I should have gone further than I did and the devs were to blame. That is not a good thing.

I don't remember what I'd hoped for in LK. Honestly, I think by then I was starting to burn out. But I was disappointed at not clearing Ulduar. Very. But next thing badge inflation set in and I was progressively pushed into an incredibly shitty excuse for a raid called ToC (I refuse to even look up or remember what the stands for, trial of the crusader? Tournament? Who fucking cares?) and then the overhyped depressing place known as Icecrown Citadel. Sure, I killed the Lich King. Didn't really care. I wanted to get going on Shadowmourne. In this way Blizzard managed to combine the depressing power of trivializing content with the depressing power of excluding players from expected rewards. These go together.

As I see it, I should have barely even seen ICC. Ulduar, sure thing, all dead. ToC, yes, but in this theoretical space it is a raid worth caring about, not a buggy (no pun intended) gimmick festival to distract us from the lack of content. In this imaginary version of LK raiding, I'd not think that I in any way deserved the last legendary in the game. But because everything was made easy easy easy have this have that and that as well, and then suddenly something is help back: not fun.

Cataclysm piggy-backed on the LK expansion to take this to a whole new level. Maybe that's why six hundred thousand people left. There's the take-away lesson from this post: do not create expectations in players that you will not fulfill.

P.S. I expect that I won't have any more super-long posts like this for a while.
P.P.S. I wonder if I can fit more tags on here.
P.P.P.S. Woo, Blogger gave me the post back!


Paul said...

Had WotLK not been as accessible as it was, you would have seen the population decline begin then.

I recall reaching the end of BC and realizing how little of the raid content it had supposedly provided for me I had actually done. I told myself "if WotLK turns out like this I'm bailing and not looking back". But they made WotLK accessible, or at least mostly, so I stuck it out.

In Cata, I made the same mental calculation -- and was gone after two months. It was clear to me that with the people I'd be playing with there was zero chance we'd keep up with the normal mode raid content. So, without end game, I was quickly done.

What has changed since Vanilla/BC? Players have formed more accurate assessments of their own prospects, and can tell when content is out of their reach. It's not entitlement, it's loss of illusion.

Aracos said...

One thing I noticed in this whole analysis is the conclusion that "content = raiding." Perhaps instead of focusing on whether raid content is accessible to players, a better solution might be to design other types of content for players who cannot meet the time, skill, or organizational requirements.

You could argue Blizzard started to do this with things like daily quests, but don't those really just further the raiding/endgame model anyway? Why do you do dailies? To gain rep. What is the rep for? To buy entry level heroic/raid gear. The monetary gains are secondary as there are MUCH more efficient ways to get cash than daily quests.

I don't know what could coexist with raiding as an enjoyable endgame activity for people who can't do the raids. I don't have a "silver bullet" solution. But WoW has really perpetuated this model that "endgame = raiding and if you aren't raiding, what's the point?"

Kring said...

TBC shipped with 15 completely new heroic dungeons at release time. And 7 level 70 normal mode dungeons. Players not interested in raiding had a challenging and rewarding end-game.

Then LK had welfare loot from raids which was able to keep us entertained.

Cata doesn't stand up to the TBC heroics. Neither in challenge, nor in fun nor in reward.

Klepsacovic said...

@Paul: "It was clear to me that with the people I'd be playing with there was zero chance we'd keep up with the normal mode raid content."
Perhaps I should refer you to my previous post about not playing with friends.

@Aracos: I don't think that content must be raiding, but WoW hasn't done a great job with non-raiding content. We get rep grinds and trivial heroics. But Kring does raise a good point: non-raid content has been going down. BC had a ton of five-mans and heroics. Vanilla didn't have quite as much, but some was added with Dire Maul and the Dungeon 2 chain.

Masterlooter said...

This is a great post.

I wish more players would realize that "not seeing all content" isn't the same as "seeing none of the content".

Tesh said...

There's always the tangential discussion of difficulty levels. If the point is to show players content, let them see it already. Make Normal and Heroic dungeons... and Noob level, Solo level, Tourist level and Leet level variations of the same dungeons. Less-skilled players can still see the dang *content*, just not for the same *rewards*.

I firmly believe there should be a soloable version of ICC (at level, not for overleveled goons), if only to actually play through the "story" that Blizzard so lovingly crafted. A soloist or even a tourist couldn't expect the same *rewards* from going through the content, but at least they could see it.

DDO does something like this with different difficulty versions of their dungeons, including solo. It lets everyone see the *content*, but the best *rewards* come from the harder iterations.

Seems pretty simple to me.

Klepsacovic said...

I don't think content and difficulty can be so easily separated, not without the content losing some of the meaning.

Then there are the many potential problems. Would we be expected to not only watch videos, but also have soloed the raid, before we can be invited to the real one? There is the risk that people would be tempted to run progressively more and more trivial content, until it's all not much fun at all. I know you're not much for the idea, but sometimes it's a good idea to protect people from their own bad tendencies, especially when if those people stop having fun, they stop giving you money.

Anonymous said...

@Kleps: *NO ONE* has had any luck with non-raid, end-game content. Ever. Why? See next.

@Aracos: I'd be okay with the idea that you don't have a silver bullet solution. That would be understandable. However, were you honest, you'd realize you haven't any solution at all. Neither does anyone else. Therein lies the real, long-term problem with the persistent MMO concept.

No one has a blog lamenting the shortcomings of the ca. 1985 Super Mario Bros and proposing solutions for them. Ask yourself why not.


Anonymous said...

Also, @Kring: Nothing that comes after TBC will ever compare to TBC because it will have come *after TBC.*

IOW, I'll bet you a donut that, push come to shove, the missing element from modern content is that it's not 2006 anymore. The EQ players who still flock to the progression servers whenever they come around have the same problem: they can't figure out why EQ is still so awesome and everything else is such crap. The truth is because nothing else takes them back to when they were 22, at a time when it was the only MMO (hell, a lot of them consider the original graphics to be superior to the much-polished ones that came with its first major engine replacement - like some kind of eStockholm).


Syl said...

Sooooo...trying to ignore all the details and concetrating on what you said here -

"The problem with this extreme is that everything ends up meaningless. There is no challenge overcome. No sense of investment. Nothing at all to inflate an ego, and if an MMO isn't inflating an ego, what is it doing?" this a case for the virtue of suffering after all? and/or the human need to distinguish and discriminate?

I've had my share of topics on this of course, and i still dont think it's the 'elitism' that made the challenges enjoyable. definitely the lack of balance between difficulty and reward, value and price, though.

Klepsacovic said...

@Anonymous: Be careful not to fall into the easy trap of "everything is just nostalgia." Having more instances in BC was not nostalgia, it was actually more content. We could wonder if the relative quality of those instances is influenced by nostalgia, and ask if the 3x theme aspect of the heroics watered down the sense of them being different places/content.

@Syl: I'd distinguish between elitism and ego. I'm not saying MMOs are all about being better than the next guy, but about being better than oneself. Yesterday I hadn't beaten this challenge, but today I have. If there is no challenge, that change cannot occur. So you're right, I probably just didn't phrase it as well as I could have.

Tesh said...

"I don't think content and difficulty can be so easily separated, not without the content losing some of the meaning."

Well, yeah, that's sort of my point. "Content", "rewards/loot" and "difficulty" are totally different things. What exactly do we want to give to players? Which of those are the priority?

"Then there are the many potential problems. Would we be expected to not only watch videos, but also have soloed the raid, before we can be invited to the real one?"

I'm not sure how DDO solves this, not having played in an "endgame" group, but it sounds like a social problem, not so much a game design one. ...but yes, that could be a Bad Thing.

"There is the risk that people would be tempted to run progressively more and more trivial content, until it's all not much fun at all."

Sort of like optimization, gearing up or attunements? That already happens? That's inevitable. At least if everything is soloable to see the content and story, we're not asking them to dink around in dailies and other assorted grind until they get tired *before* seeing everything. On top of that, those who *do* see the story and content ahead of time may well be able to focus better when playing with others and really nail down the *play* rather than sightseeing or getting lost.

"I know you're not much for the idea, but sometimes it's a good idea to protect people from their own bad tendencies,"

Granted, but wanting to see content isn't a bad tendency. Wanting powerful *stuff* without the commensurate effort is silly, but wanting to see content is a different thing.

"especially when if those people stop having fun, they stop giving you money."

Irrelevant if you're not using a subscription model. I don't come at design decisions assuming a sub.

Klepsacovic said...

What I meant by the "progressively more and more trivial" is someone going to 40 man ICC and wiping once, so they go to the 25 and wipe once, and then to the 10 and wipe once, so after that they just start to solo everything. Once you get to solo content, balance becomes a lot harder, so unless we're going to eliminate rewards entirely at that level, there will be problems. Thanks for the post idea, coming Monday! :)

I'm not much of a fan of dailies, so don't accuse me of supporting those (you weren't). Actually, my hatred of them was going to be Monday's post.

"Irrelevant if you're not using a subscription model. I don't come at design decisions assuming a sub."
Coke doesn't use a sub model, but if your last bottle of Coke was bad, are you going to buy another? Whether you're using a sub, a cash shop, or even advertising, whatever you're using to get money, you need players to keep playing, which hopefully means keeping them having fun.

Tesh said...

"unless we're going to eliminate rewards entirely at that level, there will be problems"

I should have mentioned that, and you're right. As it happens, I'd advocate removing not only any loot but also even XP for solo content runs. The whole point is that the content itself is the reward. It's just one step up from full on tourist mode (YouTube video walkthroughs.)

...and yeah, dailies aren't good. I'm no fan either. I was just looking at the game design.

I do disagree with the goal of keeping players playing. You want them to keep paying. It's not just a semantic difference. It's not unheard of for players to buy games and not play them regularly. That's one advantage that F2P games have, incidentally. Players can pay money for something and be assured of access to it later without further payment. That's the whole point of capturing the bottom of the demand curve. That's *easier* to do with a quality product... and no subscription.

Klepsacovic said...

It sounds too much like a scam to separate paying and playing. If a person pays, they should be doing so with the expectation or anticipation of playing. I wouldn't want to develop a game with the attitude of "I just want them to pay". What I want is for them to want to play, and from that, pay.

Klepsacovic said...

Not that I'm saying you'd be scamming. But I think that there is risk for the layers if paying and playing are not linked in the minds of the developers/company.

Tesh said...

Thing is, that's exactly how nonsub games work. Players buy them and the business relationship is over. It's not about scamming, it's about selling content rather than a service. It's a different mindset, and really, in the game industry, subs are a more recent model that changes a lot of assumptions and motivations. Without subs, devs get more business by making more content that players will like.

Yes, they still need to make games that players enjoy (thankfully), but the sale is based on the content, not on retention schemes. It's best in that model to let players see the content they paid for.

When selling a service, there should not even be a guarantee of content, implied or explicit. I think that's the big problem here. WoW is offering a service, but most games still are content-based. That's even expected with buying a box off of the shelf; that you can play what's in the dang thing.

Guild Wars and Wizard 101 work that way; you buy content and can play whenever you wish and see all of it. Sub games don't, and players wind up paying *more* for less. If they want players to see content, sell content and drop the subs.

If they are selling a service, sell the service and stop charging for the boxes. Blizzard is sending mixed messages, trying to have their cake and eat it too. There are natural conflicts in that business model. Players can't expect to experience all the content because they aren't paying for content.

Klepsacovic said...

What service is WoW offering? I mean that as a serious question, I cannot figure out what service they offer, independent of content, whether implied or explicit.

A gas company offers service: they pump gas into your home. Or an electric company bounces electrons back and forth. Neither give much in the way of content. Instead we're expected to use it to power other things that are content: stoves, TVs, computers, etc. Cable companies are also a sort of service, giving access to: content.

WoW is clearly not analogous to an electric company (no content) or a cable company (total access to all content). So what is it? What exactly is the service and how can we figure out a way to separate it from content? Maybe there could be a sub for server access, but then we buy access to raids and dungeons? I suppose that could work, but it runs the risk of "I paid for the dungeon but I can't play it without a sub?" Of course we have that problem with the boxes anyway.

Tesh said...

As near as I can tell, they are offering *access* to their game content, for a set period of time. Perhaps we could also say that they offer the service of maintaining your characters in a database.

It's a quirk of unspoken assumptions and expectations that players think they are paying for and getting content. They most certainly are not... but it benefits Blizzard to keep that misconception ambiguous.

As for splitting the two, it wouldn't be a good idea to call attention to those unspoken realities. The lower they fly under the conscious radar, the easier it is to just pay the sub and rationalize that you're getting a great deal. All that content is out there, after all, and it's *only* $15/month for *all* of it.

That's never true; you can't go where you want whenever you want for as long as you want... but since it's not explicit, except for that silly EULA/ToS that nobody reads, the perception is that there's this giant world and tons of options there at your fingertips.

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