Thursday, June 6, 2013

3.8. Changing of the Guard

The Troll

It was all over the MMO news sites: Tigole was stepping down from World of Warcraft. We had come to know Jeff Kaplan as one of the driving forces behind the game we played day in and day out. Recruited into the Blizzard ranks by Rob Pardo, who marched into battle alongside Kaplan in the EverQuest guild Legacy of Steel, one can only guess as to the content of their many late night discussions. Likely, they conversed about what was wrong with EQ, and how Blizzard could fix it with their own entry into the MMO market, but we may never know for certain. What is known, however, is Tigole’s very public opinion on EQ’s failings, as he made them quite clear by his rants on their guild’s website. It was no secret that Tigole was two things: 1, a very passionate, die-hard gamer whose focus was the endgame raid content in EQ, and 2, a player whose fuse burned short at the prospect of a game developer (Verant Interactive, now owned by Sony Online Entertainment) dumbing that content down for the masses.

Try this for fun: take Kaplan's full online moniker, “Tigole Bitties”, switch the first two letters around and say his name aloud (just make sure your fellow co-workers aren't within earshot). I think you get the idea of the type of player Tigole was. He had no qualms about making his opinions public, and pulled no punches when he let his fingers fly. In a famous post on Legacy of Steel’s homepage, Tigole painstakingly detailed out the failures of EverQuest’s endgame. In the rant, he listed issues that WoW players today take for granted; one could only imagine the cluster raiding would be in WoW if every raid was outdoors and bosses needed to be competed for. And, although many of his rants do not apply to our daily life in WoW (as it is clear Blizzard identified these issues and solved them) one thing is perfectly clear by reading his varied posts: Tigole had no patience for the casual player, and content being dumbed-down by Verant infuriated him. There was a pecking order in EQ where the strong survived and the weak were pounded into dust, and Tigole himself made his stance perfectly clear on effort vs. reward:



“Basically, killing stuff was a PRIVLEGE [sic] not a RIGHT.”

As a gamer, Tigole raided, slew internet dragons, and pounded his virtual chest on his guild's website, like any proud gamer would today. It's evident in his unrestrained posts where his emotions lay on the proper way to design a game, and if given the opportunity, you can bet that pecking order would be reinstated.

The Cruise Director

The lack of a professional affiliation affords you some “literary freedoms”,  a.k.a. the ability to publish a rant peppered with profanity and insults. But when you pull on the company shirt, pin the badge to your lapel, and go on-the-record, those days of speaking your mind freely without fear of repercussions come to a screeching halt. You have to represent yourself with a degree of diplomacy and tact. Your emotions need to be checked at the door. The tables were turned, and WoW players flocked to the Battle.net forums with their own rants, giving Tigole a taste of his own medicine. His strategy was simple: keep all communication to a minimum. Stay focused on the design of WoW, and let the ranters rant. Probably a wise strategy. "Getting into it" with entitled players feeling like they weren't getting their money's worth might well be an exercise in futility. Besides, he knew where the vision lay: some content simply wasn't going to be doable by everyone. Players were going to have to accept that, and either put forth some real effort...or leave.
The tears of players that were unwilling to make this effort would rain down on his emotionless roof of iron, washing down the gutter where they belonged.

By and large, this is how Blizzard curated the community in the days of Vanilla and TBC: strictly, and with little speculation on design. Tigole and his cast of Community Managers had no problem stating explicit facts or acknowledging identified bugs that would be fixed. Whether intended or coincidental, the effect this had on the community was profound. For the most part, they remained at bay, and miniature troll fires sputtered and went out with no oxygen to fuel them. Research predating the advent of virtual communities has long since proven that it is very often the situation, not the individual people involved, that can produce abhorrent behavior. Plain English? A community without a tight grip on rules and moderation inevitably devolves into a cesspool of trolls and whiners. It isn't because those people are inherently troll-like or whiny by nature; they are simply placed in an environment (ie. a forum community) that allows the behavior to spread like a virus. This was a double-win for Tigole: stick to reporting facts, acknowledging issues, shy away from speculation and complaints, thereby keeping focus on the design of WoW and keeping the emotions in check. The side-effect? The WoW community largely behaves, doesn't succumb to crying for attention, as the noose is drawn tightly to the neck. In this Vanilla era, raiders raided, and casuals kept to themselves. If they were unhappy that content was too difficult...too bad.

Legitimate Concerns

Along the way, however, something changed behind those closed doors at Blizzard. Someone didn't feel like they were doing as good a job at communicating to the public as they ought to be. Communication is key, and a degree of transparency can produce an overwhelmingly positive response from the fans. Bits and pieces of this mentality began to emerge for the first time during the beta period for The Burning Crusade, in which blue posters made an effort to get on the boards and respond to players' concerns regarding their particular classes. While most of the conversation had been relayed by CMs to the developers in charge, now, for the first time, we were getting a glimpse of them. The developers were able to respond to our direct requests. Tom Chilton, a.k.a. Kalgan, fronted a lot of this initial communication, while his fellow designers Kaplan and Pardo remained mostly behind the curtain. Yet, while class and game play concerns were being addressed by Kalgan, Tigole continued to remain hush-hush on raiding concerns. This would have been fine, if the players' concerns only amounted to uninformed cries for help and demands for nerfs so they could get their shiny epics.

But what about truly legitimate concerns?

When the first hardcore raiding guilds began arriving at C'thun, deep in the heart of The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj, whether Alliance or Horde, they all agreed on one thing: The encounter was broken. Whether it was an outright bug or something horribly overtuned was unclear. What was clear was that guilds who had deep knowledge of the game mechanics, and whom took pride in themselves being exceptional players, with no tolerance for whining...were absolutely clear and in agreement that the encounter needed to be fixed. Blizzard's official response equated to rants buried in IRC chats, to be screen-shotted and used as fodder among hardcore guild's forums. Raiders believed the encounter to be overtuned on purpose, to artificially delay guilds from completing the content, which if proven true, could prove embarrassing for the raid design team. The lack of an official, legitimate communication surrounding decisions was biting Blizzard in the ass, and the speculation and conspiracy theories needed to come to a end.

Blizzard needed to work on better communication. Badly.

The Marine Biologist

It was about February of 2008 that a relatively unknown recruit joined the Blizzard team. Although educated as a Marine Biologist, he’d demonstrated enough passion at a game called Age of Empires that the development studio responsible (Ensemble Studios) took notice, and hired him -- completely devoid of professional game design experience -- to drive design of all future expansions for AoE. After his virtual conquering of Rome, Blizzard scooped him up and leveraged his proven track record of broad system design, putting him squarely in charge as Lead Systems Designer for World of Warcraft. But this trait wouldn't be what the WoW community embraced him for. Instead, they latched on to his thoroughly detailed responses to community questions; his complete and total transparency into the Blizzard design process.

Throughout the WotLK beta period, he became more recognizable, as WoW addicts flocked to the forums to see yet another detailed post clarifying certain decisions regarding a particular piece of the game. And as Tigole announced his departure from WoW, most players had already made up their minds about him and his “elitist” attitude toward the game’s design, unfairly resting the blame of the game’s sharp difficulty endgame curve solely on his shoulders. His past in Legacy of Steel, and his lack of communication skills on the Battle.net forums were both particularly convenient pieces of evidence to back their arguments. The days of players being ignored and their wild rants going unheard were over. Someone had arrived on the scene, and was more than happy to answer their questions, wrap them in a warm blanket, snuggle them, and give them the attention they so desperately needed. At last, the WoW community had an all-new love affair.

We would come to know him as Ghostcrawler.


A Warm Blanket

I have to admit, I got caught up in the Ghostcrawler love-affair as well. I, like many WoW players, had been sick and tired of having our requests ignored. I had already adopted a new rule in DoD to be much more communicative with our rules, intentions, and expectations. This ideology coincided with Ghostcrawler's, in his rise to power. To have a Blizzard designer actively step out and respond to our concerns in intricate detail not only put our minds at ease, but gave us the ammunition we needed to shoot down the whiners in a barrage of mathy fire. Didn't understand why Paladins were getting nerfed? Let’s see what the numbers are like. Frost Death Knights needed a tweak? Incoming! Concerns about your Feral Druid? Have no fear, Ghostcrawler is here. At every turn during the WotLK beta, Ghostcrawler was there to deliver a message that "we hear you, we're adjusting, we want this to be fun for all". In fact, this message of "fun for all" became wrapped in its own security blanket; a message that Ghostcrawler repeated as Blizzard design goal for Wrath:

"Bring the Player, Not the Class"

It had a nice ring to it. No longer would we be forced into recruiting specifically for what utility a class brought to a raid. Now, we'd play with who we liked, who we enjoyed running dungeons with, or slaying internet dragon alongside. In this new world order, we would get our equal opportunity to prove our worth. It seemed like the most simplistic and elegant solution to the age-old problem of those Vanilla raid teams of yore. I mean, it had to be an elegant solution, right?...

...Ghostcrawler says so.


Dumbing Down

So while the community was hungry, Ghostcrawler happily laid out a meal fit for kings and queens, and they gobbled it down. I was busy stuffing my own fat face with Ghostcrawler’s table scraps, not paying attention to the subtle design changes being introduced, such as the fact that raids would be delivered in both 10- and 25-man formats in WotLK. It was the ultimate balance-slash-compromise that I immediately accepted as gospel. I always felt the barrier to entry in the WoW raid game was about as steep a climb as the side of a skyscraper. What was the purpose? Players deserved to be able to experience content at some point. They pay their money, just like we do, what makes us any better than them? Besides, we will all continue to cut our teeth on that 25-Man content; casuals that are unable or unwilling to build a 25-Man guild will follow behind us and get their chance once we've staked our claim in progression. What good will it be for us to keep that content to ourselves, forever?

The 10-Man raiders are of no threat to us.

So, I made myself believe that this one was the one true path for World of Warcraft, while diminishing all that we had accomplished thus far. Vanilla was painful, and TBC even more so. I spent countless nights, losing sleep over whether or not the team would be together for another week, or if it would fall apart on yet another failed attempt at Illidan, or Kael'thas, or Vashj, or Nefarian, or Rag...the list goes on. Yet we had done it, we had saved our bitching and whining, and instead poured that energy into the actual process of building a raiding guild, and then going out and executing content. I didn't listen to this side of my conscience, pointing out the reality from assumptions; I clung to my frustrations and tumultuous past.

It makes absolutely no sense for us to be able to kill stuff that other players cannot kill.

And so, the DoD raid team bid farewell to Tigole, and dove into the endgame pool head first, but instead of treading water like we had during Vanilla and The Burning Crusade, now we were doing the Butterfly, covering far more territory in a much shorter time. I was a devoted Ghostcrawler fanboy. When players balked at the 10/25 raids, I was quick to defend the design. Calm yourselves. Everybody gets to raid now, what’s the big deal? Besides, the 10-Man raids are a joke by comparison. Nobody that completes that content and considers themselves a competitive raider will be taken seriously, will they? Just look at the gear that is issued out; even the rewards are inferior to those acquired in 25-Man. Let them have their smaller dumbed-down raids. Everyone deserves a fair shot.

But I wonder what Tigole's opinion would've been.

Not "dressed up in a Blizzard shirt" Tigole, or "shaking hands at Blizzcon" Tigole.

I mean Legacy of Steel Tigole. "Big Ol' Titties" Tigole. Cacksuggers Tigole.

What would he have said about giving everyone a fair shot?

15 comments:

Dalans said...

Damn straight. Fuggin cacksuggers.

Mystidruid said...

As always another great read :)

Shawn Holmes said...

@Mystidruid,

Thank you for your continued support! As you've probably observed, comments have been suspiciously quiet on this post.

Perhaps I hit a nerve? *shrug*

Anonymous said...

With raids easier there is less to strive for and IMO it dramitically changed the game dynamics for the community and overall attitude.

Shawn Holmes said...

@Anonymous,

I'd adjust your sentiment slightly and say "with raids easier (that issue out rewards whose difference is negligible), there is less to strive for..."

You're absolutely right. Back in Vanilla & TBC, raiders boasted gear so grandiose in power that nothing came close. In WotLK, the gear was still tiered, but the gap closed significantly.

By Cata, the difference in rewards was non-existant: 10 gear and 25 gear was equal in power, and the differences between normal and heroic were so unnoticeable, they held little prestige.

Kelden said...

I do not often agree so wholeheartedly with Canadian types, but in your case I will make an exception.

Aubiece said...

Cata is what broke WoW raiding for me.
The 10m and 25m shared lockouts
and the same gear.
The was vibrant 25m Pug raiding
on my mid pop server in WoTLK.
Alt raiders and 10m raiders formed the Pugs raids.
Not in Cata or MoP, I have not seen
a 25m Pug raid

For some reason Blizz decided that 10m raiders "deserved" the same gear and presitge as 25m raiders. Instead of raising the bar and bring 10m raiders up, 25m raiders were brought down by the change.
Not sure what the thought process was, to me it was very flawed....

Shawn Holmes said...

@Kelden,

Amen, brother.

@Aubiece,

What saddens and frustrates me the most is that this all could have been avoided with simple changes: keeping the lockouts separate and keeping the gear tiered (a la WotLK) would have still provided the necessary structure to keep that implicit "ladder" in place, and keep players incentivized correctly.

He (GC) was trying to fix a problem that didn't exist (players felt compelled to run 10 to gear for 25) , and then turned right around and re-instituted it all over again with LFR.

Mackeyser said...

I really think gear should be de-emphasized to a significant degree. It's a tool. As I'm sure you would agree skill >>> gear so why have so much psychology revolve around something that's not en toto a measure of success? I mean, sure, there are dps checks, tank gear checks and healer checks, but that's part of this whole gear paradigm that I think is broken.

I'd rather they de-emphasized gear importance and had rather plain looking gear for each tier.

What would set apart serious, accomplished raiders from casuals? Skins. Skins from achievements. Skins from heroic kills. Skins from Metas.

We already have the data. We already know what we need to know. Serious players want acknowledgment, validation and a visible sign of their badassery. Casuals (and semi-casuals who get prison love from the RNG loot allocator) want to be able to do current content and at the very least have access to tools that make that a reasonable expectation.

I could see everything from spikes or glow or effects on shoulders that ARE NOT on the casual versions to effects in town. Like can you imagine a meta that gave you a flying litter in town (four guards carrying you in a carriage) that came with banker, repair/vendor and reforge npcs that only YOU could use? You'd have the entire town at your carriage and EVERYONE would be able to see it!!! That level of convenience especially in towns as spread out as Orgrimmar and Stormwind would be VERY welcome.

And that's just ONE possibility.

I just think they emphasis should be placed on SKILL and less on gear. Sure, gear will still be needed and folks will still need their upgrades. But adding Skins and other effects would allow for that differentiation.

Imho, of course...

Shawn Holmes said...

@Mackeyser,

So...I'm on the fence about this.

If you can guarantee me that all classes are balanced equally (with the standard rock-paper-scissors mentality of not any one class dominating all others), then I fully support a skill-based system.

However...

How many times can we count where the classes haven't been balanced well? And that there were clear dominating classes in that pool, that could wreak havoc on any and all?

This happens because the delicate balancing act of keeping all classes equitable is tough. It's a tough job. They've said this. We know this. In a perfect world, where the classes balance out, skill drivers would be king, and I'd be fine with that.

But we don't have a perfect world. It's rife with Hunters (currently) Disengaging into a group of players and blowing them all up. It has Death Knights, who once shut down all casters, stand there and whack on Shadow Priests (casters!!) as they laugh and face melt the DK to death. The list goes on.

In this never-ending world of imbalance, gear separation is the only thing that gives us equal footing. It levels the playing field a bit more, and gives us an opportunity to shine when in normal situations we fail miserably.

Well, at least in Vanilla it was like that.

Now it is separated into PvP and PvE (mostly), but the game continues to be balanced as if they were never separated.

Gear helped us widen that gap. Now, there is one less reason to put ourselves through that grief. When our rewards don't match our effort, we get disenchanted with the concept of putting in more effort.

The flipside? "OMG NERF DEATHKNIGHTS GG, SHADOWMOURNE KILLS EVERYONE LOL L2SKILL"

...and so it should! It took me six months to put it together. My reward *should* be to wail on every class in the game.

Mackeyser said...

Well, I understand your concern.

My main was an ally paladin, Mackeyser, that was a tankadin in TBC. I remember like it was yesterday the post that showed me the way, "how to get 11.5k HP and uncrushable pre-kara". The WoW forums no longer contain the TBC era post, but some bloggers have archived it.

You can see it here:
http://chicanery.fibergeek.com/2007/05/15/how-to-get-115k-hp-and-uncrushable-pre-kara/

I had to retire that toon because quite literally in 8 months NOTHING dropped for him in Kara. 2.1 was pre-badge. RNG wanted nothing to do with me.

Later, toward the end of TBC, I'd been raiding on my hunter I leveled a shaman because I watched a friend absolutely destroy things on his and constantly get yelled at because on aoe pulls, his chain lighting would fly around like a storm. I loved it! I delved into the theorycrafting of Ele shaman immediately and while there were many fun elements, CLASS BALANCE in PvE wasn't one of them. At first, I just had fun with Ele and I just strove to improve my play and didn't stress over class balance. However, once I got serious about raiding on that toon and competing, balance became an issue and I finally semi-retired that toon out of disgust for Blizz's refusal to address Ele's class balance issues for 3 straight expacs.

So, again I understand your concern.

I'm, not saying there are easy answers nor am I saying that the importance of gear should be completely mitigated.

I would suggest it be...reduced.

Would that put more pressure on Blizz to balance classes? yeah. Are they capable? I dunno. They've made very nice strides in some areas, but then again, Ele is in the same crappy place it's always been. However, now that they've simplified the talent structure and given themselves more "dials" to turn, it should be attainable.

No easy answers, but since they aren't going back to the LK model of 4 different iLvls (or 3 if you have 10H = 25N), something like that would be better than what they're doing now.

I think. Maybe.

Anonymous said...

LFR? no. LFR gear is pitiful compared to the valor gear. People have always felt compelled to be on top of the valor gear progression. LFR awards valor, that is why even raiders go, because with harder raids, esp at progression beginning or in a turbulent guild, you cannot be sure you will cap for the week so LFR helps hit it.

Valor gear was intented to fill gear "gaps" from raiding, however early in progression everything is a gap, and it is the best gear you can get outside of drops, so you have to be on top of it.

Shawn Holmes said...

@Anonymous,

What's interesting this paradox of raiders running LFR to fill those gaps is that it is exactly what GC was trying to prevent at the start of Cata, with what he perceived as 25s running 10s to fill that same gap, and not wanting them to burn out.

...and of course, it is happening much the same way, all over again. Only *now*, GC et al. claim "nothing's forcing you to run LFR" -- nothing forced us to run 10m during Wrath! We did it because we gave a SHIT about progression, and that was the best way to reduce error in the absence of core raiding pieces!

R said...

Catching up slowly. :)

"He (GC) was trying to fix a problem that didn't exist (players felt compelled to run 10 to gear for 25)"

I see this argument quite a bit but I'm not sure how accurate it is as a general statement. Personally, I ran both 10 and 25, normal and heroic, in Wrath (ToC specifically, as I recall)... but ran different toons. My 25 toon was my mage. My 10 toon varied, it was my druid, pally, DK... depended on the week. Because of that, I came out of the 4 lockout week without much pain.

The rest of the players in my 10-man groups also played in my 25-man groups but to a man/woman, every single one of them ran the same toon through all 4 lockouts every week. I can say with absolute certainty that THEY were sick of it long before the tier ended. When Blizzard announced the shared lockouts I cheered as loudly about it as any of them because I saw what it did to them.

You're welcome to make the claim that it wasn't a problem for you but to claim that the problem didn't exist is absolutely incorrect. I suppose it's possible that the other 9 members of my 10-man team were the ONLY 9 in the game who had that issue but since Blizz made the change, I'd assume it was a lot more than that.

"... and then turned right around and re-instituted it all over again with LFR."

I agree with you in large part about LFR (and now Flex), though... I don't feel obligated to run it but I know plenty who do. It's definitely a source of concern. I see strong arguments both pro/con how Blizzard have set things up. For me and many it's a pro (it's there when I want it and it's worth doing when I do) but there are a lot of people who aren't in that camp. Feeling obligated to do something is a NASTY condition to have in a game like WoW, which needs to be able to provide enough content for players with a lot more time and much different skillsets than we do.

Shawn Holmes said...

@R,

Thanks very much for the feedback! Hope the recently posted re-write of Part II didn't throw off your reading schedule. :)

The split/shared lockouts is a slippery slope, but what keeps me from sweeping it under the rug is the very issue you pointed out re: LFR, and its contradiction to the reasoning GC used to merge the 10/25 locks in Cata.

He looked at ToGC and claimed: "Everyone's running everything. We don't you to burn out." The very best players seeking progression *definitly* ran these multitude of locks to the extreme.

That's not a fault of the design, though. That's a fault of the player feeling compelled (either themselves, or via pressure from their raid leader) to run those instances for gear that closes the gap.

For a good many of us, we picked and chose as we needed to. Some ran full 10/25 locks. Others ran just 25. Still others ran 25, but filled 10s as needed, during times of emergency open spots, etc. We took advantage of the choice by self-regulating.

Now, much like the kid that chews gum in class so much that the teacher has to ban gum from all kids in class, GC decided to take away that choice, as his perception of its "abuse" was leading to burnout. So, while I certainly will not claim that it *wasn't* a problem for others...the lack of self-regulation by others impacted us in the end, when that choice was ultimately stripped away.

What added insult to injury was the fact that GC thought he would "save me from burnout" by forcing me out of one set of raids -- when all I ended up doing was using that time I could've been helping 10m teams in my guild finish content, and pouring it into administration to ensure my 25m team didn't accidentally lock the wrong characters out each week.