Learning the right things from people who are afraid we learned the wrong things when they learned other wrong things.

Raph Koster has a pointer to a rant on Gamasutra about how World of Warcraft sucks.

Nothing new there… (checks watch) Yep, it’s been a little over a year, time for the backlash to hit the mainstream. Still, this article is pretty interesting, especially from the point of view of its author. He happens to be a competitive Street Fighter player, so you can probably guess where he comes down on the player skill vs time investment discussion. And again:

…playing a fair game is what it’s all about. It would never occur to us to play a game where one player gets to do 50% more damage because he has a level 60 Chun Li.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone is going to be a wizard at playing Chun Li. The barrier of entry to knowing exactly how to blow away people with arcane 8-step combo moves is far higher than a “level 60 Chun Li”… and learning how to do them – how to be a competitive, truly skilled player, I would argue, would take more time than grinding your Chun Li to 60. It would feel fairer to some to be able to leverage their hand-eye coordination or whatever to “pwn” people more effectively – but would people resent being “pwned” any less because someone was able to game the system instead of grinding out levels? This is, of course, an old discussion, and Raph’s hit on it more than once.

There’s some other surprising takes in the article as well, that challenge a bit our preconcieved notions of “WoW as the casual MMO”. To wit:

Group > Solo. You can forget self-reliance, because you won’t get far in World of Warcraft without a big guild. By design, playing alone (even if you are the best player in the world) will get you worse loot than if you always play in 5-man dungeons. If you always play in 5-man dungeons, you’ll always get worse loot than if you play in 40-man raids. The player base has been hit over the head for so long with this notion of 40-man raids, that players are taking that as given. I see so many people who have been fooled into thinking this is justified, that it actually scares me. They think that you shouldn’t be allowed to get good loot unless you do something with 39 other people, because that’s harder. Coordinating 40 people is hard, but so is winning a Street Fighte tournament, which you have to do by yourself.

This is interesting to me on a couple of different levels.

World of Warcraft actually discourages grouping, at least during the 1-60 character building stage, for the majority of gameplay. To be precise, the experience doled out in groups makes for a far less efficient character growth rate than if the players were solving quests solo. Not only that, with the exception of elite quests and instances, the entire game can actually be played solo; in that it’s one of the most forgiving MMOs in that regard.

That this player took away “World of Warcraft enforces grouping” from this tells me that the groups he felt he had to be in were SO jarring, and SO resented, that they shaded the rest of the experience. (The references to “40 man groups”, which only occur in the vastly different post-60 elder game, tend to bear this out.) To quote again:

Unfortunately, the game offers no difficult solo content leading to good loot. (Note to picky readers: there is some, but it’s soooo far out of whack with raid rewards that we can safely ignore it, the same way Blizzard does.) The designers must be so extraverted, that they can’t fathom the introvert point of view.

Again, within the same paragraph: “There’s no content for my playstyle. Well, there is, but the other stuff is better. You know it, I know it, Blizzard knows it, so it just doesn’t exist for me.” This is a far more important lesson to learn than what he is actually saying. As long as there is content percieved as “better”, players won’t settle for what they can easily achieve through their own devices. They will resent not being able to get The Best.

And again:

Warcraft\’e2\’80\rdblquote maybe accidentally\’e2\’80\rdblquote hit upon this concept, and now seems spit on it and all those who appreciate it. If a Blizzard developer read this, his PR department would say they are not spitting on this play-style, but unfortunately the game design speaks louder than words. “Spit on” is exactly how I feel. But far worse is the idea that millions of children are learning that doing things on your own is bad. Albert Einstein accomplished far more in the field of physics by himself during off-time as a patent clerk than a 40-man raid of so-so physicists ever would. I want little Johnny in Idaho to learn that lesson, but he sure won’t find it in World of Warcraft. 40 mundane people with a lot of time would put Albert Einstein to shame any day of the week in this game.

Little Johnny in Idaho may be learning bad lessons, but the lesson Little Scott in Virginia is learning is that as long as 40 man raids exist, there will be people who wish they didn’t have to do them – but still want the rewards that were crafted to reward the combined efforts of 40 people. This is important: rewards for the effort of 1 person isn’t good enough. As long as better exists, that will be the baseline. “Why can’t I get the same stuff as the 40 people working together. I’m smart! I should be able to get the same stuff! Or stuff just as good. It had better be just as good, too, or else it may as well not exist.”

The author also dislikes one of the primary pillars of community in an MMO:

You’re either with a guild, or you’re nobody to them. I can’t imagine being in only one IRC (chat) channel at a time, or choosing only one gaming community, yet I can only join one guild at a time. It’s a very weird social environment with the same dangers as nationalism and flag-waving.

I wonder if the author has settled on one family yet.

Seriously, this part kind of strikes at the core of community building. Like attracts like. We join guilds that have people that we get along with. If we don’t, we don’t last particularly long. If we do, we form bonds of friendship that persist beyond the game itself. This is a pretty key part of what makes the community behind MMOs tick, and the author’s rejection of these out of hand makes me wonder what sort of enforced guild grouping he felt he had to endure to get Those Shiny Things Only 40 Man Raids Give You. If you’re detecting a theme, congratulations!

And finally, the author decides that rules are bad.

The very idea of using the terms of service as the de facto way to enforce a certain player-behavior goes against everything I’ve learned. A game should be a system of rules that allow the player to explore. If the player finds loopholes, then the game developer should fix them. It’s never, ever the player’s fault: it’s the game developer’s fault. People who currently make deals with enemy faction (Horde or Alliance ) to trade wins in battleground games are not really at fault. They are playing in a system that forces anyone who wants to be rank 14 to do exactly that. A line in the Terms of Service saying that you shouldn’t behave this way changes nothing, and teaches nothing.

Cheating is fine, because the players learned how to cheat. The game developers should wave a magic wand and fix it! Failing that, they should just let players evolve new forms of gameplay. I believe the terminology used for this in Ultima Online was “creative uses of magic”. Needless to say, most people that found this term used during an interaction with customer service found it an insulting, patronizing copout.

Players expect an even field of play. Developers absolutely have to fix bugs as they are discovered, but that does not give players carte blanche to discover and exploit interesting ways to break the game. The author seems to resent the fact that terms of service exist, but I suspect if he played a game where they were honored only in the breach his opinion would change dramatically.

These examples go on and on, but the basic idea here is that Blizzard treats the players like little children who need a babysitter. There are mountains of rules in the terms of service that tell you that you shouldn’t do things that you totally can do in the game if you want. Why they don’t just alter their design and code so you can’t do these things is beyond me. But this mentality is drilled into the players to the point that they start believing that it’s ok. They start believing that it’s not ok to experiment, to try out anything the game allows in a non-threatening environment. Well\’e2\’80\rdblquote that’s a dangerous thing. That’s the point at which the game stops being “fun” by Raph Koster’s definition, and it’s also the point at which the game can no longer teach. The power of games is that they empower a player to try all the possibilities that he can think of that the game rules allow, not that they have pages of “rules of conduct” that prevent you from creative thinking.

Which is all well and good. I want to explore new frontiers in cyberspace and new ways that men pretend to be women to get other men to give them shinies too. But in most worlds, including the one we happen to live in, running afoul of the community standards (our world calls them “laws”) isn’t excused by the complaint that the offender was “exploring the boundaries of society”. Amazingly, there are folks who aren’t joyous explorers of the human psyche, but just want to be irritating weasels. Thus why rules exist. Thus why “babysitters” exist (in our world, we call them police officers). I totally can rob money from stores and punch random passers by in the face. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do this? Those damn terms of service, getting in the way of my fun!

Back to seriousland, what this tells me is that there isn’t enough education about why rules enforcement exist. Grizzled veterans of gameplay ‘experiences’ past know that people online are, nine times out of ten, raving assholes. I’ll grant the author a blissful ignorance on this one, and give Blizzard bonus points for making a world with such a well-enforced rule set that the author can’t understand why it exists in the first place.

Sometimes, you learn things you didn’t expect in places that didn’t expect you to learn them.