Thursday, July 09, 2009

In Defense of the "B Team"

Eric at Elder Game has written an article claiming that the current Live team working on WoW "is making newbie design mistakes that seem like a benefit on the surface, but are really not good decisions."

I disagree with most of his assessment. The current WoW team has changed some of their practices, and is experimenting with new ones, but I would argue that the current design team is the most successful, and that WoW is in far better shape than it has ever been because of their efforts.

Eric tells the following anecdote about Asheron's Call 2:

I found that the Feral Intendant class was 30% overpowered, and that’s why so many people were playing a Feral Intendant. Yet somehow, reducing the power of the Feral Intendant to the correct level did not suddenly make the game more fun… thousands of players were complaining and nobody was telling me they were happy about the change. Weird! I double checked my calculations. They were correct. So what had gone wrong?

Turns out that the people who played the other classes available to that race had taken on an “underdog” mentality. The people who played Claw Bearers liked that they were woefully underpowered compared to Feral Intendants. It was like playing the game on Hard Mode. And the people playing Feral Intendants liked playing on Easy Mode. In balancing the game I had failed to understand the needs of the people playing it. I just ham-handedly fixed the equations, instead of solving the problem with the finesse it needed. It was one of my more serious missteps. (And it’s a great example because I think it’s pretty obvious in hindsight. Most mistakes were much more subtle.)

If memory serves, AC2 was a failure, and didn't really last long enough to develop a significant endgame. All this talk of "Easy Mode" and "Hard Mode" goes out the window once people stop getting invited to groups because their class is underpowered.

Then you see how important class balance becomes. The point of MMOs is to play with other people. If other people refuse to play with you because of your class, your game has failed at a fundamental level.

By that measure, the current Live team has done a superlative job. Pretty much every spec for every class is respectable in the modern PvE game. That is a massive difference from the situation during WoW 1.0. If you now want to play as a Enhancement melee shaman, go ahead. Survival Hunter, why not. And each of these specs are reasonably different from each other. The current Live team managed to make Discipline priests both viable and play differently than Holy priests, which is nothing short of a minor miracle.

As an example of how much better the game is, last night I got to DPS as Retribution on our guild-first kill of XT-002 Hard Mode. (I was pretty terrible--lol 4k DPS--but it is my secondary spec.) In 1.0 and TBC, I would not have been able to play as Retribution as my primary playstyle in optimum gear, let alone in mismatched leftover gear. I would have been forced to heal. Now, I heal because I choose to heal. For that alone, I think that the current Blizzard team is doing a great job.

It's not just class balance. Ulduar is a superb instance. It has a large variety of bosses, interesting trash, complex fights, and challenging hard modes. It is quite possibly the best instance ever released. Even the hotfixes have improved the pacing and tuning.

I do think Eric has some good points, especially about the fact that some changes are not "clean" enough, and the fact that tooltip changes lag behind hotfixes. Some of the current Live practices could be improved. But I think he is focusing on smaller flaws, and is missing the very large advantages that the current Live practices are bringing.

The current WoW team is doing many things differently from the original team. Changes are coming faster, and they are more open about current and future plans, even if those plans end up changing. Sometimes this makes them seem more fallible, but I think they should be judged by the result. And the clear result in my view is that the current game is leagues ahead of WoW 1.0 and 2.0.


Ard The Paladin said...

This is my feeling too, I've had a much more pleasant experience of WoW since WotLK than at any time before.

I also think that shifting class balances (sometimes this class is omre powerful, sometimes that) is what makes this game interesting, it requires the player to be flexible, to sometimes play with ease and other times have to work harder to achieve the same result. changes keep things fun :)

Nathan said...

Every week I am increasing my love for Ulduar. It has about 100 time more repeatability than any other dungeon. Learning the fights is fun. Learning hard modes again is fun. It's great that my guild could spend an hour working on XT hard mode last night for the 3 week in a row and almost get a kill (XT at 8k health left!!) but then still continue on and get 9 more epic's. It was fun and even in loosing it didn't feel like a failure.

Blizzard is doing a good job.

However I am still running low on interest in the game. I've been playing it for a long time and the game isn't that big.

WoW still lags behind other games I've played in social connectivity features which is what keeps you coming back to a game.

Dyermaker said...

After reading the whole article, I agree with it.

My biggest complaint with WoW is what I have called design memory. The current team does not remember what decisions were made, so they never get the when/why either. So we see new things develop that really are not new, they have been tried and failed once before. But now these designers have gone out on a limb, so they keep hammering to try and get it right.

Here's a very Paladin example, Seal of Vengence changes proposed with 3.2. A lot of people see this as something new... but some of us remember the original WoW beta, where stacking debuffs to do any damage was originally implemented and removed.

Don't get me wrong, some of the new design goals of WotLK era are laudable. However, they are indeed myopic. Its great that they wanted to remove a reason to not take specific player for specific encounters, only, it doesn't really work out like that. For example, lets assume we have a raid with a rogue and mage that put out identical damage, and a paladin that's just a little less. The second you don't need whatever it is the paladin brings, you're foolish to bring them over another rogue or mage if your need is more DPS. Likewise, if you don't need kick/stun mechanic of a rogue in a fight, isn't it always better to bring ranged classes for DPS? I mean, if the numbers are the same, why bring a rogue who is closer to the boss and will arbitrarily generate more aggro? Yes, people will counter that its OK for a rogue to generate more aggro, they can pass it off via Tricks of the Trade. But are you not getting right back to a utility balancing which was the very thing we're trying to do without? And if this utility is enough to distinguish between these two classes, but they are allowed to have the same DPS expectations... why are Paladins punished for the utility they bring?

The biggest problem these new design goals have thus far is this new include everyone crumbles the things that made them special aspects of the game for others. I consider myself an above average PvE paladin. I am, however, average or worse at PvP. I simply do not enjoy it anywhere near the same. But all of these balances and "making things accessible" means everyone is expected to do everything. Should I expect the same "bring the player not the class" for PvP? Does it not just frustrate me when I feel forced to PvP for a Libram just to continue raiding effectively?

My wife used to play WoW before she moved on to other hobbies. She never felt pressured to level, she just went at her own pace and enjoyed what was in front of her. She got to... maybe level 17 in the span of a year. A friend was over and his wife was saying she was thinking of playing a little too, but when talk started about how easy it is to level my wife decided not to bother. Its not that she's a power gamer who wants a challenge or feeling of undersog, its that she doesn't want the pressure of being expected to do something in particular. Its ok for some newbie to have gear that chosen just because of the way it looks on a character, but she would get mocked if she was an 80 who made the same decisions.

Jacob said...

I've read Eric's article and agree with most of it. The author isn't claiming that the current design team is doing everything wrong, he's claiming that (1) the present design team is less experienced than the original design team, and (2) the present live team is making some common mistakes, mistakes that he's made himself in the past.

Point #1 may have been hotly debated a year ago, before WotLK was released, but it isn't as debatable today. Notably, you implicitly accepted point #1 in this blog entry title, referring to them as the "B Team".

A "B Team" has the potential to become good and to surpass the original team, but they start in from position of less skill and experience, and need to grow more.

Eric's point #2 is also fair, I think. He isn't trying to insult the current team or say they're bad in all ways. He's almost sympathizes with them: "oh, these people are making the types of mistakes I've made myself".

And I think he's right; the game does seem less polished and less of a priority today than it did two years ago. I could add few points of my own, on top if Eric's points:

- Whoever ran the combat numbers for the expansion came to conclusions that are becoming awkward. In PVE, tank avoidance is too high and healing regen is too high. In PVP, player damage and healing are too high. The design team is trying to tweak the numbers (and reduce burst), but it would have been better to get the numbers right the first time.

- To help shamans, our "relic" slot was changed so the gear in it acts as our earth/fire/water/air totem reagent, freeing up four inventory slots where we used to have to carry reagents. Very nice... but the change stopped there. We still have to put those reagents in our bank. A more elegant solution would have been to do away with our reagents completely, instead of just shuffling them off to the bank.

- To make flasks more flexible, all flasks were converted to 1-hour duration. Existing flasks in your inventory were converted to "mixtures", which you can turn into two new flasks. Very nice... but the change stopped there. Bosses that drop loot still drop old-style mixtures instead of the new flasks, and transmute discoveries still produce old-style mixtures instead of the new flasks. A more complete solution would have been engineer the game so that no new mixtures are ever created.

Is the game still fun? Yes.
But it appears that the current team doesn't have the experience (or the resources) to polish it as thoroughly as it had been polished in the past.

YoungMasterCK said...

I would have to agree with Dyermaker and Jacob. If you have a Technical background you read Eric's article and go.. "oh DUH!! Why didn't I see that!".

I have seen it happen dozens of times in my professional life. The design team turns a project over to support, the support team then goes on to make changes that were tested by the design team but where found to be flawed, or making changes with unintended consequences or just making changes that aren't clean or complete due to having an incomplete product history. That isn't to say that GC and the rest of the current live team aren't doing a great job. But you can see the "cracks" as it were, between the two teams.

Here is another example. In the Shaman Q&A GC was asked "Why is Shaman health so low"? His reply was "We don't remember". I remember, there have been numerous posts that have pointers to explainations, but the team currently running the game doesn't remember... funny that....

Simon said...

I think that there's an element of a B team on WoW now, but I'd say it's more apparent in terms of storytelling and lore.

I was v excited about Wrath coming along and when I started to play it I was extremely disappointed - apart from the DK starting area (more on this later).

Where were the armies in Northrend? They've mostly pushed through to Icecrown by the time you've arrived, so apart from making a different at Wintergrasp (on the Alliance side) you're just doing the same random quests as usual.

I was expecting to follow the story of the Horde/Alliance pushing into Northrend and was very disappointed here.

Whilst the DK starting area had a great story and development, I feel that that is sorely lacking from the rest of the game - it's almost story by numbers, which is a great shame given that Arthas is really villian no.1 in terms of the impact that he's had in WC3 etc.

Re. game balance. I like that there are faster, quicker changes... The problem is that we do seem to be beta testing the game on live.

If anyone played the game in 2005/6
you'll remember an age between passes between sorting out each class with only minor bug-fixes between these.

Hybrid class sacriced power in their specs because of versatility and could only do one role end-game.

WoW is much better now and could be even better - I'd like to see the approach taken with DK's re. allowing different specs to fulfil the same role but with different flavours.

To sum up, I think that the storyline/plot is getting very boring very fast but the gameplay is better than it's ever been...

Kess said...

I found Eric's commentary to be condescending and largely inaccurate.

Just look at the early, ham-fisted attempts at world PvP like EPL and Silithus, then compare the more successful, but limited PvP of Outland, and then finally compare those to Wintergrasp. WG is so popular and successful that Blizzard feels the need to limit the number of players that can enter the zone in 3.2. Were the EPL towers someone's original game designer's grand vision of world PvP?

The author of that article wants to complain about the petty stuff, like leatherworking quivers that are still in the game but no longer needed. How does something that insignificant bear any impact on a person's enjoyment of the game? He seems to think that spending time on trivialities in the name of "polish" is a good time investment.

Blizzard's current live team shows more imagination and willingness to take risks than at any time before. As Rohan pointed out, saddling a class with insurmountable handicaps doesn't make that class feel special to play. Forcing paladins to heal because their dps and tank specs are unusable isn't "flavor". I play almost every class (and multiple specs) in the game, and every one of them plays differently but they still fulfill their roles very well.

I do think that it is significant that Blizzard no longer does single class reviews, as they did in the beginning. Changes tend to be more broad, such as the upcoming changes to Mp5 and replenishment, which means less unintended effects. They are testing and tuning the whole system rather than just tweaking a single part.