Friday, December 12, 2014

4.18. Minmaxxing

"Deathwing"
Artwork by 陈晨巍 (可奥拉夫)

Cataclysm

Cataclysm launched at midnight on December 7th, 2010, and within 24 hours, Blizzard began backpedaling. With any software launch, bugs are bound to pop-up. Ask any player that's been present for Blizzard's major game launches and they'll tell you it's often a storm of chaos and confusion. Servers buckle, LUA errors appear on the screen like advertisements, and players wait at the character selection screen, the "Logging in…" message never quite delivering on its promise. Eventually, bugs are fixed, servers are rebooted, and the World of Warcraft resumes its quiet hum.

Fixing code that malfunctions is what's needed when results do not line up with vision. Designers govern the rules; to them, all the World of Warcraft's a stage -- the programmers, artists, and musicians are merely players. If designers decree that "the world should turn from day to night in real-time", is a rapidly-cycling sky truly a bug? Well, if the previous rule was to spin the sun and moon like a top, then technically, no, it is not -- but it is also not behaving as intended. These are the three words programmers focus on when determining what is broken and what needs to be fixed. Bug fixing is never an existential question to a programmer; code fails to meet requirements, and therefore must be adjusted. But the requirements define the boundaries of what's expected and what's not, and those rules come directly from the designers.

In a sense, designers have the power to will bugs into existence.

Let's be realistic, here: we're not talking about magically causing the game to crash...we're talking about defining what's allowable yesterday vs. what's allowable today. When the game doesn't behave as intended, it's the designers' intentions we are talking about.

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The collector's edition arrived at my door around noon on the 8th. Within a few minutes of tearing into the packaging, I had the serial number attached, and was logged in, ready to get started on my path to 85. By this point, Cataclysm had only been live in North America for around twelve hours, yet the re-designing was already in motion. Guilds of every shape and size, of every dedication level from the ultra-casual to the most extreme of hardcore, were noticing their Guild XP levels backed up like a stopped toilet. A blue post from Nethaera explained the stoppage:
We have decided to remove the added bonus of gaining Guild Experience from Guild Achievements earned. This change will realign Guild Achievements with our philosophy held for normal Achievements, which are intended to be predominantly their own reward (barring the rare exception of special achievements that grant an additional reward.)

During the beta, we greatly increased leveling speed across the board and since most characters were copied from templates, guild experience from Achievements didn't seem imbalanced. It has become clear that an imbalance does exist and should be addressed to ensure that guilds progress at the rates expected within the daily Guild Experience limits.

For guilds that are currently above the normally possible experience limit, we will be readjusting it back to the expected limit once more. This will not affect Guild Reputation gains at this point in time.
Translation: we were consuming content too quickly.

Mature takes a group of DoD through one of
the new 5-man dungeons in Cataclysm,
Blackrock Caverns

Good to the Last Drop

One could argue that their original weekly caps were intended to curtail this behavior, long before the game launched. But it was never really clear what those caps were; even the Elitist Jerks weren't certain. WoW historians/nerds will point out the very real post made on the EU forums, indicating in bright blue text that some guilds were indeed leveling past the cap for unknown reasons, fulfilling the aforementioned requirements of a bug:
Unfortunately, due to an error, some guilds have been able to gain more experience in the first few hours of Cataclysm than was initially intended. Your guild is one of those affected and as a result, has had the guild rank moved back to level 1. This has been done to all guilds that had this issue.

The reason for this is that guild experience has been intentionally capped at a certain amount a day. Tomorrow you will once again be able to gain experience as normal.

We apologise for any inconvenience this has caused you and your guild. The issue should now be fixed so this will not be a recurring issue.
The game, as perceived by the European crowd, was not behaving as intended.

But, without knowledge of the official weekly reputation cap values, combined with how much personal achievements actually contributed to guild experience, no one could definitively say whether or not the changes were truly the result of design decisions gone wild. What we do know are the results: that very early into the morning of December 7th, across the ocean, the hardest of hardcore guilds were well into 3rd guild level before they saw it magically back itself down to 1, freezing in position only hours later.

When I logged in at noon on the 7th and pulled Lil' Deathwing from my mailbox, Descendants of Draenor was already capped for the week; I'm sure many other guilds were as well.

Well, the large ones were, at least.

Perhaps the smaller, more casual ones took the rest of the week to hit their caps -- but many managed to squeeze it in. By Tuesday, we were all back on the same page, all equal in the eyes of the designers once more.

Most don't remember nor care about a change as trivial as this, a hotfix rolled out in the early hours of the morning of Cataclysm's launch. It was just another bug fix, all part of the launch process -- many bugs are fixed during launch. Caps were in place to keep the content gated, and for progress to move at a distributed pace. Move on with your life.

All of these explanations make sense, but aren't answers to the question at hand.

The question is: what was it about this bug that caused it to be perceived as imbalanced in their vision?

17 hours and 11 minutes after Cataclysm's launch,
Gunsmokeco becomes Deathwing-US's first level 85 Shaman,
Blackrock Caverns

Cataclysmic Converter

Seventeen hours after the launch, the guild glanced down at their respective chat windows to see an incoming realm announcement:

Gunsmokeco has earned the achievement [Realm First! Level 85 Shaman]!

The long term vet of DoD had slaved out a 17-hour all night session, attempting to beat out every other shaman on Deathwing-US at their game. Guildies snapped screenshots and congratulations were spammed toward the exhausted but victorious shaman. When asked why he did it, Guns simply replied, "Dunno if I was gonna get the chance again, so why not?"

We don't put enough value in how important it is to be able to play as much (or as little) as we want; ask any casual WoW player what they think of being forced to play beyond their means. I doubt many would argue that Vanilla imposed an artificial minimum amount of hours necessary per week in order to see any real in-game progress. It isn't until we opine on what an appropriate maximum should be that the opinions of us old-schoolers begin to diverge, even Gurgthock felt most guilds raided too much, back in the day. This vision was borne of a very old-school (and hardcore) way of thinking about content: accessing it is a privilege, not a right. You earned your rewards through concerted, concentrated effort. Just like anything in life: practice makes perfect.

From a hardcore perspective, it makes complete sense -- from a business perspective, it makes none.

Throughout the years, design decisions conveyed a more accessible vision, one that diminished the importance of that artificial minimum. I hold that nearly all of them were the right decisions: alternate currencies to purchase welfare epics in TBC, alternate smaller raid sizes facilitating easier coordination/execution in Wrath. These were the kinds of quality-of-life tools necessary for players with reduced schedules or alternative preferences in play...but took nothing away from the hardcore gamers, who could earn the most glorious rewards in the blink of an eye.

The investment needed to progress withered away, conveying the message loud and clear: eventually, you will earn your way toward victory. Players were then free to choose how little or how much they devoted to the game. I followed suit with DoD and rewarded my own members in kind: you won't be punished for not meeting a minimum -- there is no minimum.

As for maximums, we'd seen them before: the weekly cap of honor points, the monthly-gates that slowly revealed deeper, more challenging encounters in raids, and these systems served their purpose. Regardless of whatever spin is put on the "official" statement, we can nearly all agree that the intent of gates were to extend the life of the content. If you could burn through it all in one session, what would be the point of coming back? Or going again? Or renewing your subscription?

What caused Vanilla players to come back, in a World of Warcraft devoid of gates?

For me, it was the challenge and the community. I came back to Vanilla, night after night, because we had more content to work on and it was thrilling to work on that content with the people of DoD. And back then, WoW barely had 5 million subs; we were more than double that by the end of Wrath. Surely, community should have existed in spades and the coming raids were not going to be as easy as those of Wrath. It seemed counterintuitive, then, for Blizzard to begin imposing caps on how fast we chose to consume content on day one -- the speed at which we chose to dive into WoW never affected our subscription before, so why would it now?

If they were so concerned about us feeling obligated to play a minimum each week (then fix it), what compelled them to dictate how much we played?

Allow me a slight rephrasing to quash those who might think I’m about to accuse Blizzard of acting solely out of greed:

What non-monetary reason exists to force a customer to consume goods at a restricted rate, if the quality of the products has remained the same?

6 comments:

Florimel said...

You asked, "What non-monetary reason exists to force a customer to consume goods at a restricted rate, if the quality of the products has remained the same?"

I believe it has to do with people not wanting to feel like they are behind.

In Vanilla, as you may recall, there were people who played nearly non-stop to get the Grand Marshall/High Warlord titles. There were guilds that would raid long, long hours and clear the current raids in a week or two.

Why shouldn't these people play non-stop if they want to?

Because if these things can be achieved by playing non-stop, then someone will do it. And if someone does it, then everyone who doesn't do it is behind.

People who can't or don't want to play non-stop nevertheless do not want to feel that they are hopelessly behind.

You are correct that it was a business decision, and it was not for the benefit of those who have a great deal of play time to spend, but for those who do not.

klocker2003 said...

@Florimel

I had a long reply typed out in reply, but decided to delete it and leave simply this.

If a business decides to actively punish those who strive to outperform and become the very best to pander to those who cannot, what sort of atmosphere will that create?

Salivanth said...

Florimel: This still happens when raid tiers are released today. The only gate is a one-week Mythic gate, and in practice, this only affects the most hardcore of guilds. So guilds who race for world first play non-stop. As I write this comment, 3 guilds have gotten 6/7 Highmaul Mythic. Anyone who is not on bleeding edge progression IS hopelessly behind. The 100th best guild in the world is currently FOUR BOSSES behind the top 3. That's more than half of the bosses contained in the raid! And guilds like Method DO play non-stop to achieve these outcomes.

On my server, only 2 guilds as of yesterday have even completed a Mythic boss yet. Most of the guilds there are still on Heroic or even Normal. (Those still on Normal do not even rank on Wowprogress, so I have no way of knowing how many there are.) And of course, none of these guilds are in the running for the Blackrock Foundry race. The only way we might catch up to the better guilds on our server is if we manage to get into mostly or full Mythic BRF gear shortly before the next raid releases, likely 6+ months from now.

Klocker: It seems to me the answer you're looking for is that players will stop trying to excel. But that clearly hasn't happened. I think that what will happen is that the gap between 'excelling', 'doing well', and 'coasting along' will shrink. We see this today with welfare epics, but only people who do well will be able to get into the highest tier of raiding and get the best gear, and only people who excel will get the best gear faster than most other players.

That said, it's quite possible that many people who used to excel have left the game because of these changes. I feel there will always be people who strive to excel in the game, no matter what, however.Hell, there are people who try and solo raid bosses before anyone else, extreme soloers, often DK's. These people will wipe dozens/hundreds of times, spend thousands of gold on consumables, and get full BiS gear just to attempt these bosses. And they earn nothing, except the respect of a very small community. No gear will ever drop for them that they can't get a hundred times easier by going with friends. They do it for the challenge. Because excellence can be it's own reward.

Florimel said...

Don't get me wrong, I am not arguing in favor of having caps. I am not saying it is impossible for any group to push hard and get ahead of everyone.

I am simply explaining why I think Blizzard imposed the caps. I think Blizz wanted to slow down the overachievers so everyone else doesn't feel so far behind. It also slows down consumption of the content.

I wouldn't call it an active punishment -- they are just putting on the brakes. They want to keep subscribers and extend the life of the content.

I'm not saying it necessarily worked the way they wanted it to, but I think that was the logic behind it.

Just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

One reason is because the competition can force a rate of play so intense that people burn out and stop playing. Once people feel compelled to play, not because they want to but to keep up, then they can quickly lose enthusiasm for the game. That is not healthy for them, or for Blizzard. This is what happened last time I checked the wow raiding scene. The requirements to be a world first raid guild were so great that only 2 guilds could really compete for it. That's not good for anyone. The old honour system was like this and it was a disaster. People wound up having to play 18 hours a day ror weeks to grind for high warlord, then they usually quit. It's also an issue in mobas like LOL, where the top players often burn out after 1-2 years at the top.

I don't even the elite players want to have to play for 18 hours a day to achieve their goals. In my opinion, good game design ensures that success does not require extreme or unsustainable effort.

Zanshin said...

Exactly my thoughts: High Warlord completely burned out two of my friends who were otherwise diehard WoW fans. One quit after High Warlord, and the other quit at General (?). If there were a cap of even 8H/day I think they would not have nearly killed themselves for a title that required so much mindless gameplay (log in, kill people in AV for 50 minutes, repeat x16) that it made them sick of the game.