Progressive (Contextual) Scaling and WoW

Ignis, the Furnace MasterI think that Blizzard has taken a new approach to game design with the recent development and release of the Ulduar dungeon in World of Warcraft. This is pure speculation on my part, and other MMORPGs may already be employing such measures, but if it is, I'm not aware.

I've noticed an interesting trend in the stream of patches to Ulduar since it was released last month. In almost every case, the damage output and difficulty of the bosses in Ulduar (and in some cases, their trash) has been decreased. While this may be a case of Blizzard under-tuning the instance during testing and releasing something that was simply way too difficult for players in the game, I think that Blizzard knows exactly what they are doing and this is part of their new game design approach.

If you look at the Ulduar boss changes coming in the 3.1.2 patch, you'll notice that in the case of Ignis the Furnace Master, considered by most to be the most difficult encounter in the first part of the instance (some guilds who have gotten way in to the instance still skip him), Ignis' damage has been reduced by half. That's a major change to the difficulty of the encounter.

When Blizzard spoke of the gameplay design approach to Wrath of the Lich King, one of the things they made very clear was that there would never be an instance as difficult as the Sunwell again. They would not build raid content that only a small percentage of the 12 million people who play the game would see. It costs Blizzard millions of dollars to develop a raid instance, and they want to make sure that as many people as possible can see it. They're not giving away the keys to the kingdom — Blizzard expects players to be geared appropriately and have some modicum of skill — but they don't want to create something that 5% of their player base will see. That's just bad business.

And at the end of the day, it is about business. although the overall WoW subscriber base trended upwards even as the release for Wrath approached, there were a good number of longtime players who said "Goodbye!" to WoW when the Black Temple instance was released. Given the difficulty of defeating Archimonde in the Battle for Mount Hyjal (one of the most randomly evil encounters Blizzard ever made), which was a prerequisite for gaining access to the Black Temple, and given that you had to defeat both Vashj (the guild destroyer) and Kael'Thelas in order to access Mount Hyjal, a lot of people said "I'm out. I'll never make it to see that." Those people left and many returned when Wrath was released because they still enjoyed playing WoW, but felt the goals of defeating Vashj and Kael and Archimonde to get a shot at Illidan (which would then and only then give you a shot at the Sunwell) was simply too far out of their grasp.

That cost Blizzard money. And Blizzard is in the business of making money (by making great games).

So when Blizzard sat down to map out the gameplay for Wrath of the Lich King, one of the design choices was to remove the barrier to entry for raiding. Blizzard wanted to make sure that even casual players could raid if they wanted to do so. The result: Naxxramas and guilds clearing the instance within a week or so of Wrath's release.

Naxx is a fairly easy instance and accessible to most players. Ulduar, by contrast, was supposed to be "raiding 201." It was (and is) supposed to be much more challenging. It's still accessible, as long as you've got some gear from Naxx and have some skill, you should be able to take on the first few encounters.

But then Ulduar was released and two things happened: some of the best guilds in the game cleared the instance within a few days and even managed to take down some of the bosses in hard modes. Within a week or so of the instance being released in to the game, every boss in both regular and hard mode was down, save for Algalon, on whom attempt time is limited to one hour a week.

So was Ulduar too easy? Had Blizzard not followed through on their promise of making raiding more challenging?

No.

Although some of the best players in the world managed to steamroll their way through the instance, well over 95% of the players in the game did not, and have not. They (we) are finding it to be challenging in some places, hard in others. Some people complain that it's even too hard in places — Ignis being one of them. But if Blizzard is decreasing the difficulty of the encounters, including Ignis, then how can it be too hard?

And that brings me back to the beginning: progressive scaling for game raid instances.

Here's what I think is going on: Blizzard looked at gameplay data and said "Great. We achieved our goal of making raid instances accessible to everyone by making Naxx easy enough for even the most casual players to take part it. But we've also got a lot of players who complain that the instance is too easy and the game is not challenging as a result (never mind most of these people can't take down Malygos or Sarth +3D). So we need to make Ulduar harder, but we can't make it so hard that some of the more casual players will get immediately turned off by its difficulty."

So this is what Blizzard does: release the instance at the desired level of difficulty for more experienced, skilled guilds and progressively scale the difficulty of the instance down as time goes by so that more and more players are able to experience the content which they took great time, care, and money in creating.

This allows Blizzard the following:

  • It allows them to release an instance of some difficulty for the most experienced guilds to give them a challenge and keep them interested in the game.
  • It allows them to have the best players in the game attain difficult achievements first, continuing to cement their reputation as excellent players.
  • It allows them to give lesser players a challenge without blocking them from ultimately seeing the content they yearn to see.
  • It allows them to make the instance accessible to many people in the game, keeping all those people interested in the game and paying every month to play the game, thereby giving them a higher return on their investment.

I'm not saying that eventually you will be able to walk in to Ulduar in level 80 greens and faceroll the place. Blizzard's plan is still very much that you need to pick up some gear and raiding experience in Naxxramas before you come to Ulduar. But if the nerf train continues, 70-80% of players at the end game will be able to see a lot of Ulduar, rather than the 20% or less who wound up seeing Mount Hyjal, the Black Temple, and the Sunwell.

Won't the more experienced, more skilled players cry foul if Blizzard keeps reducing the difficulty of the encounters in Ulduar? Of course. I understand their frustration. It was a huge accomplishment to take down Vashj before patch 3.0 came out (only 13% of all players in the game did it). I still have the "Hand of Adal" title after my name in the game because of the difficulty of attaining that achievement. If it were easy to get and anyone could get it, I probably wouldn't keep it around. So when the truly skilled take down a boss and get an achievement in Ulduar, but then see the encounter get nerfed and a lot more players suddenly taking down the boss, those skilled players are not likely to be happy.

But here's the rub: they're still going to be skilled players who have vastly superior game-playing skills to the rest of us. Ensidia, Premonition and others are still going to be the best guilds in the game, no matter what instance is currently the "hardest." On my server, I know that Casual and Forgotten Aspects are still going to be the best guilds, just as they ever were. No amount of achievements by me is going to change that. I'm not going to be a better player because I've taken down Mimiron too. They have been, and always will be, the best, and we all know it.

And Blizz knows it too.

If this is the case (and I really think it is — they've introduced a reverse kind of progressive scaling with the siege engines for both Flame Leviathan in Ulduar and, soon, in the battle for Lake Wintergrasp, where the durability of the vehicle scales up with the quality of your gear), then I think it's pretty damn smart. Sure, they'll have some of the best players complaining that Blizzard has made it too easy for people to see all of Ulduar, but they'll have their world or server first achievements to show for their hard effort. Blizzard will always have people who complain about everything in their amazingly well-designed games, but they're also making it so that a lot more people can see Uldaur, and by so doing, making those people happy. Happy people play more, don't suspend or cancel their subscriptions, and that, in turn, makes Blizzard happy.

An Interesting Social Experiment in...Brrrraaaaaiiinnnns

There's a rather interesting social (and narrative) experiment going on right now in World of Warcraft. Papers have been written on how WoW (and other MMORPGs) can be used to model disease transmission or potential viral outbreaks, but those were the result of an unintended "feature" of the game. This time around, the experiment is fully intended and fully controlled by the designers of the game and the world in which nearly 11 million people play.

As a lead-up to the release of the next chapter in the World of Warcraft, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, the game designers have set in motion what is known as a "world event." These are unique, one-time-only occurrences in game. Although the game has been available to the public for more than three years, there have been a handful of events which happened once and once only during this time. If you weren't around to experience them (and I'll never forget the opening of the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj), you missed out completely.

The world event currently underway is tying the current game environment to the narrative and experiences that players of the game will shortly experience in Wrath of the Lich King. In short, a plague has been released upon the world of the game. It began with a few zombies wandering near the capitol cities, infecting some players who, if not healed of the disease, would turn in to zombies themselves. Next, crates from the land covered in the next expansion arrived at the docks of a major city, spewing plagued cockroaches in to the world that would turn infected players in to zombies. In the past few days, the zombie plague has intensified and it's now at the point that you have about one minute to be cleansed of the plague or turn in to a zombie yourself. With hundreds of players being infected at a time, and players deliberately getting infected to infect others and cause grief, it has become nearly impossible in some areas of the game to actually play. You simply can't do anything without being immediately infected and quickly turning in to something that doesn't (necessarily) allow you to achieve your objectives in the game.

This experiment in virtual narrative storytelling has left many people who play the game annoyed, if not angry. There are reports of people quitting the game after years of play out of anger and frustration. I think that most of those people will be back in about a week or two, if they actually quit at all. While I'm one of those who are annoyed by the plague and feel that it does disrupt my play time (because it is, after all, a game), I find it quite fascinating from both a narrative and pedagogic perspective.

From a narrative perspective, Blizzard is playing both off the very modern fear of biological attacks utterly disrupting our daily way of life (and for those who have played the game for 2-3 years, playing WoW is very much a way of life) and taking an in-game narrative to its logical extreme end. The game designers clearly want us to feel what it would be like living under the nightmare rule of the Lich King in the World of Warcraft — making our otherwise autonomous characters suffer the effects of evil and cruelty that are otherwise left to the larger imaginings of the background and history of this fictional world or relegated to the sad tales told by the computer-controlled characters in the game. They are also very subtly introducing one of the very hot topics in gaming right now — morality and the choice to be good or evil — in to the game by giving players the opportunity to become zombies (servants of the Lich King) themselves, and deliberately choosing to help spread the plague instead of fighting against it. It's a great narrative transition to the content and narratives covered in the upcoming expansion (where you will be able to engage in more morally questionable activities, such as culling a town infected by an earlier version of this very same plague).

My very astute nephew pointed out that this event is also an exercise in pedagogy, which is important to me because that's kind of what I do for a living.

One of the key features in the next expansion is the introduction of a new class of character: the Death Knight. One ability these characters have is the ability to temporarily raise a fellow player from the dead. This is extremely useful in difficult combat situations. Having someone come back as a zombie to continue to fight for a few minutes can make the difference between success and failure in a fight. If you are raised as a zombie, however, you have to learn how to control that zombie and take advantage of the abilities that the zombie has (which you would, as a non-zombie, not have access to). Knowing how to "play a zombie" will be a required skill for most players in Wrath of the Lich King. By introducing this specific type of creature as part of this world event, the game designers are not only building strong narrative ties from the current iteration of the game to the next, but also effectively teaching players what they need to know for gameplay in the expansion. It's a pretty smart approach to using the game to teach people how to the play the game.

One of the great strengths of Blizzard as a game development company is their deep commitment to narrative. I think how they are handling the narrative transition from one iteration of World of Warcraft to its next major iteration is incredibly smart. All one needs to do is look past the what to the why and you'll see some very smart minds at work.

How the Social Web Could Transform World of Warcraft

I've been thinking about this one for a few days now, but it seems that Will Wright and the team working on Spore have apparently been thinking about this as well. Their team is focused on RSS and sharing content. I'm looking at something slightly different.

In any case, magazines and consumers alike have long complained that there's been no real innovation in the arena of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), largely because World of Warcraft has been so crushingly successful and no one else has been able to do anything different with any success. I'd point to EVE Online as something quite different, but all the attention seems to be focused on fantasy-style gaming.

I play WoW. A lot. I know its repetitiveness all too well. I know the reputation and faction grind. I know the PvP honor/arena points grind. I'm none too happy with the fact that at level 1 you need to kill 8 pigs and at level 68 you still need to kill 8 pigs — only bigger and tougher pigs this time.

Looking forward to Wrath of the Lich King, the next WoW expansion, we'll be treated to innovations such as new hairstyles, new dances, inscriptions (which actually seem kind of cool from a gameplay perspective), as well as the first "hero" class of the game, the Death Knight. The Death Knight is a hero class seemingly only because all Death Knights start out at level 55, rather than level 1. You may have to complete a fairly difficult quest chain to be able to unlock access to a Death Knight, but that's the basic difference. Death Knights have talents and abilities like other classes, and Blizzard has to ensure that everyone doesn't switch to an overpowered hero class by balancing out what the Death Knight class can do with what all the other classes can do. So they're not going to be all that different from other classes that are already in the game.

But is that real innovation?

What if, instead, we took a step back and asked what a "hero" is and how that could be applied to WoW in a very different way. Here's the wikipedia entry for "Hero":

A hero (from Greek horus), in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, the offspring of a mortal and a deity, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion.

Later, hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters that, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice, that is, heroism, for some greater good, originally of martial courage or excellence but extended to more general moral excellence.

So a hero is judged by others as such.

What if the "wisdom of the crowd," in Web 2.0 parlance, determined who was a hero in WoW?

In this scenario, an individual player would be able to achieve "hero" status or make the leap from regular to hero class by means of the social context of the game. This isn't rep grinding with a faction, waiting for items to drop or mobs to kill that incrementally bring your faction up over time. This is tracking how you play the game, how others perceive how you play the game, and your "rating" (for lack of a better word than one that already exists in WoW parlance) on this scale rises and falls accordingly.

You could be a great player, very skilled at your class, and others could rate you positively, increasing your hero ranking. You could be a total dink who rolls on plate items when you're a cloth-wearing caster, and others would rate you negatively, decreasing your hero ranking. You could be a master tailor, making items at a discount (or for free) for everyone around you, giving to the community as a whole, helping the community as a whole be more powerful and successful in the game. You'd probably get rated quite positively, making your hero rating go up. You wouldn't have to just kill things to make your hero rating go up. You could be a good (or very, very bad, if they wanted to implement a villain class) person, and over time, by winning the admiration of your community, become a hero.

I don't play City of Heroes, but I believe that the game doesn't rank your heroism (or villany) in any social (eg; among all players) context. In a game like Fable: The Lost Chapters, you play solo and your choice for "good" or "Evil" is fairly linear, again not determined by your context.

Blizzard would, of course, have to take in to account a number of factors in determining a rating:

  • Griefing: it's omnipresent. People are dinks. So, if a particular user rates everyone negatively all the time, their rating carries less weight than someone who rates people both positively and negatively, or, if everything is negative all the time, is ignored.
  • Friend and guild-boosting: If you only rate the same person over and over, that rating carries less weight over time. If you only rate people within your guild, that rating carries less weight over time. (Though this may be problematic as there are lots of people who don't play with others outside of their guild.)
  • Balance casual with hard core players: This one's tough. If someone's online all the time and helping people out all the time, then they're going to become a hero much faster than someone who plays 4-6 hours a week. Blizz could take in to account the amount of time someone plays in a week and factor that in to the ranking system. (eg; if someone's on 4 hours a week but gets consistently positive and high ratings, that could carry as much weight as someone who's on for 40 hours a week and gets consistently positive and high ratings.)

The point is: the more you interact with and do for others, the more influence you have in the game. And that influence can, and should, be rewarded with the hero class, commensurate abilities, and status.

Some people may not like this because it relies too heavily on the social aspects of WoW. But WoW is, fundamentally, a social game. You interact in a world with others. In order to succeed in the most basic of narratives in the game, the leveling process, you're going to need some assistance sooner or later from someone. The game should tap in to that social nature deeply and build rewards not based on an endless repetition of action, but on the quality and effect of your interaction with the world.

That, I think, would be different.

WTF!: Karl Marx Invades Azeroth

If you can't install WoW at work (and you shouldn't), you now have the chance to waste away time on the job with WTF!, a WoW parody which does a great job of reproducing the WoW interface and experience. The satire is pretty good, and they've done a pretty dang impressive job of recreating the WoW look and feel and gameplay style. It's a bit clunky, but they're definitely pushing the limits of Flash gameplay in a pet project here. I haven't gotten too far in to the game yet with my Blood Elf priest, but I'm hoping to meet up with Karl Marx real soon!

I'd Love a Standalone Chat Client for WoW

The good people at Blizzard may never go for this, but I'd love to have a standalone chat client that would allow me to chat with people currently signed in to the game (or the game via the text-only chat client).

As I've moved in to the role of raid leader, I find that it would be quite useful to be able to quickly communicate with others who are in the guild and may be playing the game when I am not. I could communicate setup issues to other officers or ask that a set of consumables be created. I know it would be great if guild members could log in to a standalone WoW chat client at work, let me know they're running 20 minutes late to a raid, then sign off. Right now, you either have to know someone's phone number (which not a lot of people are willing to give out), or communicate via the much slower system of a guild web site bulletin board, or email. Chatting via this client wouldn't be as bad as playing WoW at work, but it would let you communicate with guild mates and other in-game friends when you needed to — not just when you were in-game.

You'd have to have a valid, active WoW subscription, of course. You'd be limited to the general chat in whatever city or zone your character logged out, guild chat (and officer chat if you're an officer in the guild), and your own custom chat channels.

I think this would make an excellent addition to the social nature of the game, and get people to play even more than they already do (if that's possible). It would held maintain the longevity of the game even if a challenger comes along in the MMORPG market. I'd guess that some folks who stopped playing the game would keep up their subscription just to be able to chat with the friends they made in the game. The data is there. Chat clients aren't terribly difficult to make (especially if Blizzard maintains the same, bare-bones interface and features of in-game chat). Blizz wins all around.

Yes, I'm an Altaholic

There are a couple of reasons that I've played World of Warcraft for over two years.

  • There's a wealth of things to do, new content to experience, and goals to keep reaching for.
  • It's a highly social game, where I interact with other people and, believe it or not, have made friends online from different parts of the world.
  • It's actually fun to play, even two years after I first started.

For me, the journey, the experience of discovering the new, is much more important than being the best possible player ever in WoW. While I like having the good gear to improve my ability to play my role within the raid/game, the reason I spend hours raiding every week is not for the gear, but to have the opportunity to see new things in the game. For better or the worse, a lot of the best-designed content in the game is only available to a small number of players who can make it through the difficult challenges to the end of the game. I know I'll probably never see the Mount Hyjal (which is very disappointing to me as that event is one of the best parts of the Warcraft continuum) or the Black Temple, but I'll keep pushing along to get as far as a I can and to see as much as I can.

In the meantime, though, I seek other journeys when the endgame looms like a big brick wall.

It's for these reasons that I've become an altoholic. I have as many characters as are allowed on my server. I've done this so that I can see as much content as possible: all the starting areas for every race in the game; all the low-to-mid level quests from different perspectives of different classes; the class-specific quests; all the professions and the resource gathering that goes along with them; the different approaches of the Alliance versus the Horde quests and the lore behind them; the attitude of the various races and how the history of each develops through quests in the game. It's a journey, a constant journey, of discovering the new, and that's what keeps the game interesting to me. It's also satisfying to keep hearing the "ding" of leveling and to grow and expand each character in to its own different being rather than grinding day after week after month on the same character doing the same thing at the endgame.

So here are the various parts that make up my time and play in the World of Warcraft:

  • Soraxen — my main: level 70 Night Elf Restoration Druid
  • Theor — level 70 Human Holy Priest
  • Glindoren — level 62 Dwarf Fury/Protection Warrior
  • Corilaine — level 58 Gnome Frost Mage
  • Borindus — level 36 Dranei Elemental Shaman
  • Zyxx — level 35 Troll Shadow Priest
  • Wyk — level 27 Undead Arms/Fury Warrior
  • Cyzxa — level 22 Blood Elf Warlock
  • Melline — level 20 Human Protection Paladin
  • Xytora — level 14 Dranei Hunter

(I've also played a dwarf hunter, an orc rogue, and a tauren shaman, but have deleted those characters over time for various reasons — usually because I had no interest in playing them past level 10 or so, or, in the case of the rogue, I really didn't like the class.)

By playing all of these characters I've also gotten a deeper understanding of how the game works from a number of perspectives. I've learned that I'm better at some things than others, and have an appreciation for just how difficult some roles can be. I've also come to known that I really am a healer at heart in the game, and that's the role I'm going to be sticking with for a very long time to come.

WoW Shame

It's one thing to tell people, when asked, that you teach at Johns Hopkins University for a living. It's another to tell them that you're a cashier at the local McDonald's. I've done both, and I know the difference. One role seems acceptable, normal, enviable. The other, not so much. When it comes to hobbies or non-paying passions, it's one thing to say "I spend 6-8 hours a week playing in a local sports league." It's another to say "I spend 6-8 hours a week playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game."

Although I've played WoW for almost two and a half years now, there's still an odd sense of discomfort, if not private humiliation, to admit to friends and family that I spend many, many hours online in a virtual world populated by elves, orcs, and creatures of magic. It's the ghost of elementary school Dungeons and Dragons, the A/V club, the geeks in the computer room. It's the people doing something that's important to them but seen by the rest of our culture as odd, different, outcast. It's WoW Shame.

It's not an uncommon reaction: mention to someone that much of your leisure time is spent playing in a virtual universe, socializing with virtual representations of real people, earning virtual money, and they'll look at you like you're wasting your life. You should be working in a soup kitchen, or playing an outdoor sport, or building things in the garage, not wasting away in front of a damn computer.

The inevitability that they miss, however, is that in a decade (or a little longer), this is how many, many people will be spending their leisure time. Gaming is no basement business focused solely on glasses-wearing geeks holed up in their dark bedrooms. The Activision Blizzard deal, valued at a measly $16.9 billion dollars, has demonstrated that there's money — very serious money — in this industry. First-person shooters may scream acne-infested teenage boy with poor social skills, but the real money, the serious money in gaming is now being made in the casual realm, the virtual realm, the social/creation realm. Sure, Call of Duty 4 is making serious bank, but WoW and Guitar Hero and the casual-focus of the Wii are all fast outstripping what the traditional platform shooter does in terms of business and gaming mindshare. This is where the future of gaming lies and where more and more and more of us will spend our leisure time. The gaming industry is bigger than the entire film industry, and is fast closing in on the television industry.

So those that view the online gaming realm as silly and wasteful may induce in us a sense of shame, the nagging that you may be wasting your life (and, really, learning a new language or helping the homeless or running for public office does more for the social good than does grinding out faction or raiding the Black Temple), we're just where they're going to be, or their children are going to be. WoW is a total time sink and there's no good reason to let it become your life and your only social outlet, and being a player is not really a creative exercise (unlike building mods or building the game itself) — though I suppose that the problem solving that comes with being the first in the game to figure out how to down a boss does require creative thinking — but it's not deserving of shame. It should be thought of as a great pioneering event, and we're part of that exploration.

Hello, Mudsprocket!

One of the real gifts in WoW Patch 2.3 is the introduction of a whole slew of new content in Dustwallow Marsh. I spent about an hour and a half there last night with my level 34 shaman, and, thanks to the changes in experience gain in 2.3, managed to level him to level 35 in about an hour.

Mudsprocket is the supposed hub of new quests in the newly revamped Dustwallow Marsh, but it's really not. New quests and content have been spread all over Dustwallow, from Theramore to Tabetha's Farm to the towers along the main road, to Mudsprocket itself. It's very clear from some of these quests that Blizzard had planned to include them all along, but ran out of time before the introduction of WoW 1.0 over two years ago. The addition of the new content, new mobs, new NPCs and the landscape revamp have made turned the zone from one of the more annoying zone runs in to a place to work up your 30-something toon. There have always been a number of quests at Brackenwall Village for the Horde, but the quests there too are limited (though not as limited as the old setup for Alliance quests in pre-2.3 Theramore).

The quests themselves (at least those that I've done thus far) are OK, and include visits to Nat Pagle, more kill mobs until you get the requisite number of drops quests, and a fun quest in which you discredit deserters from the Stormwind army. There's also a nifty chain that ends up with you taking on Tethyr, a new boss that looks a whole lot like the Lurker Below, only much more colorful. I haven't tried to take him down yet, but I saw a group of mid-40s and a 60 managed to wipe a number of times while trying to take him down in the middle of Theramore harbor.

I look forward to this new content. After leveling so many alts past 20, it's refreshing to finally get to do something different with mid-level content. I know that Blizzard needs to focus on new content for the endgame (and for new expansions), but the joy of discovery and the challenge of something completely new is hard to come by in the game, so I'm thankful when it does.

Bye-bye, Nalorakk!

Yesterday, my hobby and sometimes part-time job, World of Warcraft, received a major update which included a new high-level playing ground: Zul'Aman. ZA (as its known within the game) reflects a lot of thought and care in its design by the game designers at Blizzard. It's a short, but very challenging, instance, with scaling rewards for better performance by you and your fellow players.

I play with a team of 9 others that meets twice a week to play and tackle the high-level parts of the game. Last night was our first night inside Zul'Aman, and in what was a shock to most of us, we took down the first major challenge in Zul'Aman: the bear god Nalorakk. A lot of other groups didn't have quite so easy a time as us, and I think that had a lot to do with both excellent players and excellent team work. When you work a lot with the same group of people (and actually like working with them), you begin to understand their rhythms and their approaches to getting the job done. The more familiar you are with how each other works, the easier it is to anticipate the areas that will easily and automatically be covered and the gaps that will emerge. By letting go a bit of what will be covered and covering more of the gaps yourself, you make the job for the whole team a whole lot easier.

Yes, I'm talking about this in context of a massive online game, but the same principles apply in real life. And that's why we succeeded while others failed.

We made a number of attempts on Zul'Aman's second major obstacle, the eagle god, Akil'Zon, but that bitch is hard and we only got him to 28%.

There's always next week.

Thoughtful Storytelling = Better Entertainment

Buried in a marketing email the nice people sent out about WoW this last week was a link to a story about the design process for the starting area and dungeon of the next expansion: Wrath of the Lich King.

One of the things that struck me (and gives me hope and a small sense of excitement about the game as I and so many others are burning out on it) was this statement:

When you finally do enter Utgarde Keep, we want you to feel as if that assault is the logical conclusion to the events that led you there. You and your fellow adventurers will venture in with steely resolve, there to make things right -- armed with sword, spell, and most importantly, a sense of purpose.

I really think this is critical to the success of Wrath and the future success of World of Warcraft, or any of its potential spin-off games. What gives WoW so much of its strength and its richness of play, is its lore. It's the story that you see in fragments, then suddenly coming together in small or big ways, that ties the game together and makes it much more than an endless series of "Gather 12 talbuk hooves" quests. It's the larger narrative that (just like in real life) holds it all together for days, weeks, or months while you play the game. It's feeling a part of something much bigger — and isn't that one of the basic human needs? a sense of purpose and belonging? — that's much more rewarding than the epic that you finally get or the cash you hoard. Remember the first time you saw the cavern at the end of the Deadmines, or discovering who Onyxia really was?

Being part of something much bigger is, of course, part of the social aspect of the game (hello! the biggest part!), but without a narrative that is well-considered and deftly woven throughout the experience, the world falls apart and becomes a series of disjointed fantasy fiats. The lore is sacred to WoW, and many of its players, and that's why so many fans get bent out of shape when the game's larger narratives and history are altered in any way (hello Blood Elves!).

And this is true of most entertainment. Without thoughtful storytelling, what's the point? It can be a movie or a TV series or a novel. Narrative is the core way in which we define the world (days have beginnings, middles and ends after all), and when it's thoughtful, when it's feels like a whole and not a series of disjointed parts, when it has surprise and logical resolution, it's very, very satisfying. Just look at the outrage over the end of the Sopranos vs. the satisfaction over the end of the Harry Potter series (and for the record: I loved the way the Sopranos ended. It was fitting and perfect.)

So read the article anyway if you care about the game. It's interesting to see Blizzard learning from their mistakes or missteps in the past. I sincerely hope that Wrath brings with it a much, much stronger sense of narrative. I'll take that over daily quests, PvP and rep grind any day.

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