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Tuesday
May272008

World of Warcraft Arena Balance and Sirlin

Here's an amusing post on gameriotby Vir that mentions me. The comments are entertaining too. It's about the balance in World of Warcraft arenas, and making the game into an e-sport.

For the record, I'm available but I don't think Blizzard will call. ;) For one, they might say that fighting game balance doesn't apply to their game, and that I don't know their game. Shrug. The same concepts seem to apply to Puzzle Fighter, Street Fighter, Kongai, Yomi card game, and the other projects I can't tell you about. Balance is balance and the same issues show over and over.

And second, I don't think my article two years ago won me any points there. Even though much of what I complained about has indeed been acknowledged and addressed, I don't think my tone went over well.

Anyway, thanks Vir.

--Sirlin

Tuesday
May132008

10-Man Raiders: Second Class?

World of Warcraft has made so many positive steps since I wrote the single most read article ever on gamasutra.com (literally). Most of my concerns in that article have been addressed. Back then, the PvP's honor system was so grueling that it actually endangered players' health. These days, you can create a level 70 character with any gear you want in fair competitive tournament setting. Impressive. Back then, "raid or die" with 40 people was the overriding design ethos. Today, there are no more 40-person raids and even the 25-person raids can all be done in 10-man versions.

You can hear some information about this in this video (which incidentally has less than a third of the views of my interview on the same site, sorry for the uncalled-for cheap shot).

Anyway, I just couldn't let this video go. I don't get why World of Warcraft has taken so many steps towards being reasonable and yet can't take the last, logical few. The key point here is that 10-man raids will get worse rewards (one tier lower in WoW-speak) than the 25-man versions of the same dungeons. Kaplan (lead designer) explains that 25-man raids are much harder to coordinate, have more logistics to worry about, and are more work. No argument there, I think we all agree with that. But this is the *reason* that they need to have better rewards, he says. That sounds a bit backwards.

To put this another way, there are two versions of each raid dungeon: the 10-man version and the less fun one. If they had the same rewards, not enough players would play the less fun one. So...why even have the less fun one? Shouldn't players be encouraged to play the content that is the most enjoyable to them, rather than encouraged to play content that is more logistically difficult to coordinate? (10-man versions can be tuned to take just as long, of course.)

Kaplan has moments of clarity in this video where he explains that both sizes of raids should have easy dungeons and hard dungeons. The size of the raid is not a judgment call on your worth, it's simply about how many people you feel socially comfortable hanging out with. Either one can be hard or easy, depending on the specific dungeon design. Yep! (And either can have the same rewards? No, apparently.)

Then in the same video Kaplan mentions that they considered solutions(?) like having the final 25-man raid on Arthas *unlock* the 10-man version. (What??) Or maybe when you get to the end of the 10-man version, Arthas just isn't there. Perhaps he left a note behind: "Hey guys, this is Arthas. I only value players who play in large groups and I'm a little grumpy about whole no-more-40-man-raids thing. I won't even fight second class citizens such as yourselves."

I think Kaplan knows on an intellectual level that 25 is not better than 10. (He flat out said it, in fact). He might also know that 10 is not better than 5, that 5 is not better than 2, and that 2 is not better than 1. They are just all different. Each one of those sizes can have tasks and challenges of extreme difficulty. Each one can have endless time-sinks. And yet the 40-man values of WoW's past still echo today. "Yeah, yeah we'll *have* 10-man raids, but they can't have equal loot!"

One last thing I'd like to point out is the years-old argument that players who enjoy large raids would enjoy them regardless of the loot. For the majority of raiders, this is false. I know it's false, you know it's false, and Blizzard definitely knows it's false. The last place I'd look to find people motivated by intrinsic rewards is a 40-man World of Warcraft raid. (Dear both of you who really do enjoy big raids for the own sake, even with no rewards. You are not like the others.) The actual case is that the vast majority are motivated by gear-rewards to spend time in dungeons that they would otherwise not choose to play in. If I'm right about this, why not let the rewards be equal so that they can play 10-man raids and have more fun? And if I'm wrong about this, why not still make the rewards equal? In that case, 25-man versions will be full to the brim anyway because raiders love the intrinsic rewards of completing a logistically difficult task, after all.

To summarize, challenge should lead to rewards. (A separate gate of time-spent can also lead to rewards since this is an MMO. I'm not ruling that out.) Challenge can come 25-man or 10-man. If you accept all that, the final step is that it's true for 5 man...and 2 man...and 1 man. You can have just as much challenge (and require just as much time spent, if you like) in any of those sizes. Different players will have a sweet spot group-size that they prefer, and no size is really second-class. The value judgment shouldn't be on group size, but rather that we judge inclusive design as better than exclusive design.

If there were challenging 2-person dungeons that I could play with my girlfriend, I'd still be playing World of Warcraft today. I get the feeling that if I made it past a gauntlet of virtually impossible monsters in a 2-person World of Warcraft dungeon that the final boss would disappear and say, "Sorry, but the princess is in another castle."

--Sirlin

Monday
Apr072008

Mad Science and Kids

I went to a children's birthday party today (they were about 7 years old) and I arrived late so I missed the introduction of the performer. She had the patter of a magician and she appeared to be doing magic tricks, but I soon realized she is not a magician at all: she's a scientist. She dazzled the children (and the adults!) with super-absorbent substances, chemicals used in fireworks that burn bright colors, refractive lenses that give light sources a rainbow effect, a Tesla coil(!), and more.

During all this I thought maybe she is a UC Berkeley science student who did this stuff as part of a class project. But something was wrong about that notion, because she's just too damn good. It's rare to see someone so thoroughly excellent at performance AND knowledgeable about science. She has stage presence and she really connected with those kids.

Her name is Dora Wedekind, and she's the Operations Manager at Mad Science of Mount Diablo. And she's making a difference. I think I can summarize Dora's work by just telling you one small thing she did. She brought up the word "conductor" and asked the kids to say what they thought it meant. Eventually she gave her definition, that it's a material that lets electricity (meaning electrons) travel through it easily. She then took out her trusty Tesla coil (after having explained that it, well, has a lot of electricity at the tip!) and asked them what they think will happen if she puts it near a piece of plastic. (Nothing.) What about a piece of paper? (Still nothing.) What about a piece of metal, like a pie pan? Wow! A cool-looking arc of electricity.

But what will happen if she puts a piece of paper on the pie pan? Will the electrons from the Tesla coil go through the paper into pan? Or will the paper stop it? "Who thinks it will go through the paper?" she asked. "Who thinks the paper will stop it?" And finally, and most importantly, "Who doesn't know? It's ok not to know. That just means we have to try it to find out!"

Indeed. And there we have the character of science explained in terms that 7-year-olds can understand. Sometimes we don't know things, and that's ok. It means we have to really look at how the world works to find out the answer, rather than just sitting around guessing. These kids wanted to know. I wanted to know. We all wanted to do some science.

So, will the paper block the arc of electrons from forming? I looked around the room as she asked this, pretty sure that the adults didn't know either. I started questioning it, too. I'd think that paper would not be enough to stop the arc, but did I know for sure? Not really. Well, it turns out the paper doesn't stop the arc. And if she leaves the Tesla coil in one place for long enough, it even burns a hole through the paper. She then showed what happens if you try this with magician's flash paper instead of regular paper: you get a big exciting burst of flame as the flash paper is entirely consumed! And while we're at it, let's look at that happen through some refractive glasses to see the interesting rainbow effects that surround the flame!

Dora is the real deal. She's "sparking imaginative learning," and not just because that's the tag-line of the Mad Science company. She's getting kids interested in learning and science before they become adults and forget how to be curious anymore. It makes me wonder: are the rest of us contributing enough?

If you're interested in getting Mad Science to get your kids interested in science with after-school programs, workshops, camps, or whatever else, you can check out Dora Wedekind's branch (Bay Area, California) here:

http://www.madscience.org/locations/mtdiablo/

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Mad Science in any way. I'm just a random person who went to a birthday party. And an amateur scientist.

--Sirlin

Sunday
Mar162008

Conversation with Halo's Max Hoberman

After Capcom's Digital Day press event, I got the chance to talk with Max Hoberman for a while about game balance. He's lead designer of the newly announced Capcom game called Plunder, and he was lead multiplayer designer on Halo 2 and 3. I explained to Max that all I seem to do is balance things these days (Puzzle Fighter HD Remix, Street Fighter HD Remix, Kongai at Kongregate.com, and my own card games: Yomi and Spellblind). I asked if he had any advice.

His first advice was that no matter how great you are, you need a post-launch patch. Sounds good to me. I asked if he had anything general to say on the subject and he explained that he likes to focus on the fun first. Even in playing board games, if he can make a move that is suboptimal, but increases everyone's fun, he'll often do it. This prompted me to ask if he cares about balance at the highest tournament level, or only about pleasing the average player. He said that due to Halo's rise in various gaming leagues, he had to care about tournament balance in Halo 2 and 3, so yes he does shoot for that.

I also asked how much or little he relies on math and how much he listens to players. He explained a few math things he does, but mostly it's not about math. Even though I have a math degree from MIT, I use almost no math (on purpose) so it was nice to hear he had the same conclusion. *Why* we think this is deserving of an entire article, so I won't try to cover it here. On the subject of whether to listen to players, he was quick and firm in his answer that you generally cannot listen. He said players almost always lack the big-picture understanding of what they are asking for, are usually biased to buffing their own favorite things, and generally make suggestions that make the game more fun for them personally, rather than the larger view the designer needs to take. Listen to them all, understand what they're getting at, then come up with your own solution, he said. We both agreed that it's a strange situation that no matter what you decide, lots of people will feel you did the wrong thing. (This is because some people suggest doing X while other people suggest DON'T do X, so you always disappoint someone.) Them's the breaks.

With no prompting from me at all, he said that balancing a fighting game is far more difficult than balancing a first-person shooter. I said that while I agree, I think most people don't. He said, "Really? Why wouldn't they agree." I explained that I thought first-person shooter players feel their genre is somehow less exalted if it's easier to balance and they might not realize the extreme difficulty involved in balancing vastly different movesets to all compete fairly against each other in a fighting game. Max said it should be pretty clear to anyone that balancing fighting games is harder, and people should get over it. (And of course, play whichever games you find fun, rather than caring so much about which were harder to balance anyway.)

Finally, we zeroed in on the concept of symmetric vs asymmetric games very quickly. Max naturally understood this distinction without me having to even talk about it. (To the readers: in asymmetric games, players each have a DIFFERENT set of moves, yet they must somehow be fair vs each other. Symmetric games such as Chess maybe have many deep strategies, but both sides have access to (almost) identical moves.) I told him about my other blog post on this topic. Max and I agreed that balancing symmetric games is easier, almost by definition. He said it's fine in a first person shooter, for example, if one weapon is not as good as the others as long as it has some use. But it's not really so fine if a fighting game characters is not as good as the others.

Max asked which games my readers came up with in the asymmetric category. He immediately said StarCraft (everyone's answer!), but couldn't think of any other good examples (other than fighting games). I was kind of stumped. I couldn't remember anything good anyone had nominated, ha. Though I do still claim Magic: The Gathering, when treated as a battle of constructed decks.

The most interesting thing (to me) that Max said is that he thinks players really prefer asymmetric games (because it's a puzzle to figure out) but that game designers generally prefer symmetric games. Max himself says he strayed away from asymmetry all he could in Halo and where it does occur in some gametypes, the teams each switch sides to even things out. Considering the difficulty that all of us have even naming good asymmetric games, I'd say Max is right that game designers tend to not make them, and I also bet he's right that designers consider it too hard. And yet...that's all I do!! All FIVE of the games I listed at the start of this article are asymmetric. And 100% of competitive games I've ever planned to do and still plan to do are also asymmetric. I guess I'm way on the other side of the tracks from other designers on this one. One of the main interesting thing in competitive games is seeing how different characters/races/moves stack up against each other.

I hope you gained some insight from Max Hoberman in all of that. I'm literally going to go fill in spreadsheets of balancing information right now, ha.

--Sirlin

Friday
Feb292008

Grassroots Gamemaster's Proposal

Grassroots Gamemaster has stirred up a lot of trouble and almost everyone hates him. I'm really confused why people hate him, but I think it's because they are reacting to the surface level antagonism he has. If you look past that to his actual message, it's really good. As I said before, "Sign me up."

If you'd like to know what his message is, a week ago I would have told you to read like 50 different things he wrote. But now you can just forget all that and read one post where he sums everything up. He even wrote this one without the usual antagonism, so maybe people will be able to hear the message this time.

Even still, because this is the internet, we know many people will still hate him. Many of them will show up in the comments of this very post and hate him. Here is what an anti-Grassroots Gamemaster platform would look like:

1) No passionate advocacy. Games will turn out better if there's no one behind them who passionately believes in the point of the game and drives it forward. Better to follow the lead of, say, a shoe factory. (Note: there will still be shoe factory game companies no matter what, don't worry.)
2)  Geniuses really are mild-mannered and agreeable (or "we don't need the other kind because the supply of mild-mannered ones is plenty!"). Sure David Lynch and Isaac Newton are/were hard to work with, but we don't need their contributions.

3) Let's not get the best people for the job. You're going to say this is deep in the territory of straw-man argument, but it really isn't. GRGM says ignore who works which company and get the people from anywhere, in any field, who are most aligned in passion and skill with what you need. Don't have a system where you then expect them to work on whatever it is that happens to be the next project. To disagree with this, you'd have to say that it's better to use whoever you happen to have at your company for whatever project you happen to do. Or if you say you can recruit the geniuses who are exactly right, you'd have to then argue that it's fine to keep them on staff indefinitely (what if they are AI specialists or WW2 history buffs and your next game doesn't use their skills?) and that they will even accept the notion of you choosing their next projects for them.

I'm sure you'll come up with even more creative objections. Sometimes, though, somebody comes along and says some frankly obvious stuff and it's hard to say "yeah, that's pretty much right." Consider that maybe this is one of those times. And also know that even in the most rosy of futures, you'll have your movie tie-in games kicked out the door by someone, just like always. But there's money to be made by doing this this other way, too.

Discussions of how you hate GRGM are pointless. You should either discuss how he or the industry can make this happen, or just get out of the way. Don't be Fred Smith's college professor in 1965 who gave him a C on his paper a new idea called Federal Express. And don't be like Art Linkletter who in 1954 laughed at Walt Disney's advice to buy up property around a new park called Disneyland. Sometimes a new idea or new way of doing things really is good.

--Sirlin