WOO II An Exploration in Design - July 2012 - By Stoneghost: Dalaran


Woo II - the business

The Business Must Succeed

If the business fails, the game disappears.

This implies that the cost of maintaining the game cannot exceed the revenue it produces, and this means that innovations and enhancements must be limited in number and carefully tested before they are introduced.

Similarly, the game must appeal to a wide variety of players. This means that no one mode of play or single set of mechanics is possible.

The tension between those two is the realm of the game designer. The game MUST be varied and interesting, but it MUST be simple and easy to maintain.

For example: leveling space versus gear space.

In this design a character's level is adjustable. To accommodate this the game might store a "state", a collection of data, that shows the configuration of the character at each level the character has passed through. This requires a certain amount of space on the game servers.

But this trades off against gear. Since gear must also scale with level, it makes sense to move from a large collection of gear, each item of which has fixed characteristics, to a small collection of basic gear items which can be enhanced in various ways.

This means that instead of storing a multitude of item types, the game need only store a few types along with the enhancement data. This ought to require less space. If it requires less space than is taken up by the need to store the "level states" of the characters, then it is a good idea. Otherwise, it might be too expensive to merit consideration.

A second example: banking versus mailing

In this design the bank belongs to the Player. All items "bind to account" and can be used by any of the Player's characters. This eliminates the need to mail items to one's own characters.

And, in combination with the item structure described above, and assuming that Players will buy enhancements as they need them rather than store large numbers of them, it means that the the totality of game bank storage should contain fewer items than previously.

These are the kinds of things that game designers have to think about as they build the structure of the game. WOO II is far from complete in this regard, but the skeleton plan in this document was created with efficiency, and the success of the business, in mind.

The point which must be clear to readers who are game players is this: if the game does not make a profit for the people who own and maintain it, then the game will go away.

What Games can do and what they can't

A Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) is an extremely complicated piece of software. Not only do the elements of code in the program interact with one another, but the effects of the code in the game world generates ripples of interaction amoang the players. Even simple changes can have large effects.

This aspect of game design is further complicated by the fact that players want contradictory things. This is discussed in some detail in the What Players Want section, which gives a few examples ... some players want simple "one button" combat, for example, while others want lots of buttons to push ... some want to "win at all costs"; others want to "just have fun" ... there are a huge number of differences.

Player feedback in this regard is hard to get. Most players never say anything ... and some of the loudest complaints come from people who don't play all that much. And since the business is trying to maximize long term customer loyalty, it may turn out that responding to complaints and requests is not terribly productive.

As an example, consider "world" PvP. Considerable discussion has ensued on the lack of support for this activity, which has been a part of the game since its inception. However, the ongoing attempt to provide support doesn't seem to create much combat: Wintergrasp and Tol Barad are empty most of the time, the combat areas in lower level zones are similarly empty.

In part this is due to the general lack of play in the lower level zones, but even when those zones were active, there was little use of the "world" PvP venues. The sensible conclusion ... despite the loud protests of those who disagree ... has to be that the great majority of players would rather do PvP in a more structured environment. Arenas and Battlegrounds are doing fine, it's only the "world" venues that are vacant.

In any case, the upshot is that except for the desire to have "fun" and a hatred of boredom, players - as a group - are not looking for anything in particular. It is the particular things that individual players want that add up to the "whole" of the game ... and this means that the best game design strategy is variety.

The Business Must Know Its Place

On the other hand, the business must be careful not to confuse its own desires with the desires of its customers.

Online game companies are in the entertainment business. The closest analogy is probably to businesses such as amusement parks. That is, World of Warcraft is much like Disney World ... a collection of experiences presented in context within an ambiance that promotes the illusion of "freedom to have fun."

Amusement park operators know their business: the park contains no advertising (except the minimal amount needed for the attractions and services within the park), because advertising would break the spell. The park is always shiny and clean. Admission is charged to the park, but once inside, all the rides are free. Popular rides persist forever, but unpopular rides quickly vanish. The organization of the park channels and directs the flow of traffic, for the ease of the customers ... the park does not try to channel the customers in any particular direction: it promotes the "freedom" to have fun.

Online games need to be wary of the thought, often present in designers' minds, that the players "ought" to do something in particular. You cannot force fantasy, nor can you effectively direct the desires of millions of customers. The designers job is to produce the Park ... it is up to the players to decide what to do with it.