The Value of Blizzard’s Grind Design

As usual, an article over at Gamasutra had me pondering what kind of games Blizzard really makes. The more I thought on it, the more I realized their games are pretty low on gameplay with 1.5 exceptions: Starcraft (1) and raiding in World of Warcraft (.5).

wallpaper-scandwowBefore I stir the ire of Blizzard fans more hardcore than me, I just want to make clear that I think they have a very unique style due to their powerful talents. As I see it, their two strongest suits are code execution and art. They’re one of the best developers in the industry for creating powerful, easy to use tools which can make powerful, complex, and highly interactive games. Their games feel awesome to all who touch them and their art inspires. I wouldn’t call Blizzard masters of game design though. In fact, I don’t think think their game design is all that interesting or good. But from a technical standpoint, they clearly know their stuff and understand their players. It’s clear they’re numbers guys who have a passion for art and games.

If Blizzard crafted tools for other game companies, we’d have the most innovative and exciting games the world has ever seen. One need only look at the RTS and MOBA genres to know how amazing Blizzard tools are for gamers and amateur developers. In the hands of professional developers who excel at game design …can you imagine?!?

Powerful Engines, Psuedo-Games

There’s one game, in my opinion, that Blizzard showed their talent for game design and that was Warcraft, which has given us Starcraft, the most well designed game in their current line-up.

Disclaimer: There are no Space Marine Kitties in Starcraft II.

Disclaimer: There are no Space Marine Kitties in Starcraft II.

Starcraft is pure game. There’s no mindless grinding involved. From the moment you turn it on until the moment you shut it off, you’re playing a game. To successfully get through a round of Starcraft, you have to completely engage with it. The word gameplay doesn’t mean “to play a game”. It describes how the player engages with game mechanics, and more importantly, how those things create a complete game experience. This game stands out among the other Blizzard titles as delivering actual gameplay.

Take Soccer (Football). Soccer is a game. The soccer ball is not a game. It’s just equipment which, when given mechanics and set within a ruleset, helps create a game. So handing someone a ball and telling them to enjoy the game makes no sense. Handing someone Diablo and telling them to “enjoy the game” is similar in my experience.There are elements there to play with, but nothing that feels like there’s a game already going on. The game just gives me a set of features (balls) and then tells me to go hog wild with them. I might decide that the object of the game is to find the best yellow loot. I might decide I want all of the achievements. I might decide to chase astronomical paragon levels. Their presence doesn’t constitute a game or create gameplay. If we zoom out to the big picture though we see this is one of Blizzard’s hallmarks: they give the player the tools to make their own game. And that’s had crazy awesome consequences for the game industry at large. It just doesn’t make for excellent gameplay itself.

Starcraft gameplay is brilliantly designed and it owes it’s gameplay to none other than the original Warcraft. So it’s ironic that World of Warcraft has so little gameplay by comparison.We’ve all said it, WoW is a theme park and/or a job depending on who you ask. It has many balls, but I’ve already established that balls themselves aren’t games. The one thing about WoW that’s absolutely a game is raiding and it has it’s own gameplay. Now one could argue that the elements that build up to raiding make up the gameplay, and you’d have a point. I’ll talk about that point a bit later so hang on to that idea. All I want to say here is that WoW has billed itself as more than a raiding game, especially with the addition of competitive PvP, but because those are only balls they feel hollow.


Wait for it …this game is coming.

What Blizzard understood about their MMO when they made it was that it needed to be a virtual world. They largely succeeded there. This is why Blizzcon has become such a cultural phenomenon. People play because they know the characters, know their stories and can share a virtual space with them. To simply be in Azeroth is enough for most people. On a slight tangent, I think this may also have something to do with the great disappointment even hardcore fans have of the games’ failure to implement things like player housing, community building tools (like a better LFD) and improved crafting for a player driven economy (people want to be there). But that’s another article for another day.

The original modern MMO.

The original modern MMO.

Diablo has none of these things going for it, when you think about it. More interesting is that when you get right down to it, World of Warcraft is a blend of Diablo and Everquest. What the truly loved about Everquest was raiding and when they sat down to make WoW, this was the cornerstone of the gameplay, the driver of all the mechanics. Raiding is a game on it’s own, but MMOs need much more than this because they’re virtual worlds. So they added battlegrounds and arenas and millions of quests. Every feature is tuned to build a character up for dungeon runs. These are support for the raid game. These are the answer to “what will players do when not raiding?”.

The endless grind of Diablo was set within the Warcraft universe and wrapped around Everquest raiding to bring us the World of Warcraft we know today. To get to the actual gameplay (raiding), one must grind hours, days, months and years on their character(s) and outlast the glacial content patche releases. If we could measure the amount of game at level 1 and compare it to the amount of game at level 90, we’d see virtually zero game at earlier levels and total game at the max level. If you’ve played WoW before, you probably know what I mean by this. It’s tough to describe.

So now I’m back to the initial question that drove me to write this: what’s the value of Blizzard’s game design? Why are their games so low on gameplay and so high on grind?

Blizzard seems to excell at developing systems that thrive on player dedication and compulsion. Fans will walk through fire for the company, and they know it so they expect us to endure the early parts of their games knowing that we’re loyal enough to tough it out until the end, where a great reward awaits us. And by the time you’re at the end you’ve invested so much time and energy that you’re far more likely to stick around just to justify it all. It’s very interesting to observe as a fan. Why did I sink so many hours into Diablo 2 back in the day?

wallpaper-diablo3-butcherRecently I played a round of D3 with Talarian over at Gamer by Design and it sunk in just how casual my playing of Diablo had become over the years. I’m not their target gamer any more, but I used to be. Talarian had 115 paragon levels and I had 14. In fact, I wasn’t even max level when we started (I was level 68) and this was my highest character. In Diablo 2, I had 3 max level characters (99), ladder characters, hardcore characters …and leveling back then was severe. SEVERE! If you saw a level 99 the only proper response was awe, especially if they were hardcore characters. Achieving that required a time commitment that wasn’t matched by the actual gameplay – players did it to compete with other players. Grind the same mobs and dungeons over and over and over and over …literally an infinite grind. The game was the same at level 1 as it was at 99 (there was nothing different about the gameplay at any given level). The only “progression” was your level going up, but what you did never changed. It’s quite literally the thing we do from 9 to 5. Work. Work is only a game to the extent that we “compete” with co-workers to earn pay and promotions. So why do we call Diablo a game, but not our jobs?

The Secret of Blizz Gameplay

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those hours because I still do. There’s something cathartic about playing a Blizzard game that I cannot deny. In that catharsis we can begin to understand the value of Blizzard “games”. In Diablo there were other things that made this enjoyable, because I and millions of others definitely had fun …but it wasn’t the gameplay itself that delivered it for me. In fact, I know this must be the case because in single player mode the highest level I’d achieved was level 24. If the gameplay was so gripping and fun and interesting, I would have played single player just as much. I didn’t.

The mechanics of game kinaesthetics as described by Steve Swink in the book Game Feel.

The mechanics of game kinaesthetics as described by Steve Swink in the book Game Feel. Blizzard games are located in area 1.

The one thing that I think keeps players playing is that the game feels good. And I mean really feel as in engages our physical senses. Blizzard is one of the best in the industry when it comes to making the game controls an extension of your body. Smashing a demon head feels visceral. Whirlwinding feels like I’m spinning in my chair. The “click button” to “satisfying response” ratio is so tight that it’s really hard not to enjoy the way the game feels. Players like me just enjoy running around killing things because of how incredible it feels. And in that, Diablo 3 is a major success. I understand what they mean when they say that they achieved the goal of making it fun to kill things in game. Can’t take that away from them.

This is equally true of World of Warcraft. Watching my priest do that smooth, subtle wobbling from side to side while casting a spell feels GOOD. Jumping in the air while letting an arrow fly from my hunter feels GREAT. The real crime here in Blizzards case is that they don’t hold industry workshops to teach other developers this fine art. I think this is the secret to their game development success and the reason that millions enjoy playing. Their games have a way of pulling you inside, giving you a feel of in-game presence.That’s powerful.

And with that in mind, I’m amazed at how little gameplay is actually in Blizzard games. Despite that, they deliver powerful and valuable experiences that fans can’t let go of. When Blizz sets out to deliver gameplay, we get Starcraft or raiding. Otherwise we get Diablo and theme parks, this digital contraption driven by nothing but player compulsion (grinding like it’s our job) and keen kinaesthetics.

Yet I don’t think this was always the case. If you watch their games evolve, they appear to have progressively less gameplay from sequel to sequel. I call this process Distillation (“dumbing down”), where the devs attempt to streamline features to make them easier, more fluent for the player. But I think what we end up with is a soulless, feel-good “game”. And I think that has a value all it’s own .

Scree Tags: #blizzard #kinaesthetics #gamedesign

What I Want (from “New” MMOs)

Blaugust 7th

To put it bluntly, I want something new.

And not just 1 new thing. I want 90% of what I experience to be new. New doesn’t mean giving me a new coat of paint. It means using something other than paint altogether.

When I reflect on my MMO history I’ve noticed that every time I lose interest in them is when I realize that their features are too much like what I loved about WoW. The thing is, I don’t want to play WoW. It’s difficult to appreciate game features that you feel have been done already, and done in a way that you already love. Moving to a new game means seeking new experiences. And you can’t have a new experience by doing the same thing.

There’s a valid point to be made that in MMOs, players are the dynamic factor that keeps things fresh. That’s true, but let’s ask ourselves: How do people behave in your super market? Is it different from how they behave in the supermarket in the next town over? How about at diners: do people not behave the same way from restaurant to restaurant? And driving: it’s slightly different in Canada than in the USA, but mostly it’s the same experience isn’t it? While people can make the same old things have a different feel, it won’t make the experience of doing those things feel new. It’s like eating red gumballs versus green gumballs. It’s still a gumball, just with new color and slightly tangier.

When I say I want a new MMO, I mean it in the most basic sense of the word. New. Something I haven’t seen or something I haven’t tried. Some may say “that’s impossible! Nothing is completely new!” and I’d say I’m not asking the impossible. I’m asking for the basics not the extremes, and the word “impossible” is an extreme. Let’s take for example a wind turbine, those gigantic fans towering over the Earth which are used to generate wind energy. There’s a similar looking device in my bedroom. It spins just the same, has the same basic visual design, but these two items perform completely different functions and operate on different energy. It’s true that the design principles are the same, but the execution is radically different. The wind farms are something genuinely new. They’ve taken an old concept and created something new in this sense. I want something new from MMOs.

As the years pass I’m starting to believe that this “something new” won’t come. The industry at large is better at copying than it is at creating. Such is the nature of a capitalist economy. But that doesn’t mean that something new is impossible. I plan to still play MMOs when I’m 70 so there’s still time for me to experience something new. I just wish upcoming MMOs were actually bringing something fresh for players instead of mixing the gumballs in with the chocolate drops, or adding Canadian roads to American intersections, or forcing the fan in my room to run on wind energy. If you think these examples sound bizarre, this is how I experience so-called “new” MMOs, which tend to be frankensteins composed of varying pieces of older games. I don’t think these games are awful for trying. I just don’t find them interesting enough to buy them or lay down roots in them.

Widstar is a game I think was rather fun, but not enough to spend $60 on and recently there was discussion about players like me, who think the game is good, but who can’t be bothered to play it. Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World were MMOs I heavily anticipated and I wound up playing neither, though I at least bought the latter. Warlords of Draenor is, oddly, more appealing to me than Elder Scrolls or Wildstar, even though they’re probably better. My foundational MMOs are Star Wars Galaxies and World of Warcraft, though. So experiences that feel too similar to those make me rather default to those games for my MMO cravings than to these “new” ones. I suspect that’s somewhat the same for all of us on some level. So when will we get an MMO which really brings something new? We won’t even see it coming, tbh. Oh, I’m sure there’s still plenty of joy in the current batch of MMOs. I don’t discount their value, fun factor, or cool features. Those are all true and I respect what they do.

I just want something new.

Scree Tags: #blaugust #mmorpg #gamedesign

Quest Log: What’s a Game?

quest-logQuest Log is a feature in which I set out on adventure to learn how something works. This might be game mechanics, social issues, or technology. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the topic and spread awareness.

So …what is it? What makes a game a game? I dare you to try to define a game.

For gamers, we know a game when we see it, right? We’ve played tons of them …and yet any one of us would have a terrible time trying to narrow down what makes a game a game. I can name a few games for you. I can tell you how they make me feel. I cannot tell you what a game is.

Things that come to mind: games are interactive, they’re fantasy, and they’re fun (though that’s probably too subjective a term to mean anything). This is all I can name without getting into gray territory, such as saying that games are competitive and have goals – because that’s not always true. Minecraft isn’t competitive, nor does it have goals. Same for The Sims and plenty of other games. There are also games that aren’t fun in the traditional sense, but are highly engaging – say, To the Moon is a great example. Despite knowing what games are and being able to point to one when we see it, don’t you find it interesting that you can’t describe them?

Roger Caillois, a french sociologist, wrote a book in the 1960s titled Man, Play and Games in which he asked this very question. He concluded that games consist of six characteristics:

  1. Games are non-obligatory.
  2. Games are outside of the routines of life
  3. Games have an element of randomness.
  4. Games are unproductive.
  5. Games have rules separate from ordinary laws.
  6. Games involve fantasy

I’ve quoted Caillois before in an essay I wrote on game ethics. In that essay I proposed that some software that we call games may not be games at all. I think that point applies here. Even though we love all the things we own that we call games, it’s possible that some of them aren’t games after all. That fact doesn’t change our enjoyment of them. It changes nothing at all in practical terms.

Several rules stand out on the list that might have raised your brow or perked your ears, because some of your games probably game to mind. For example, rule #4 means that true games create no wealth. Just a year ago Diablo 3 wasn’t a game according to these rules. Add any freemium game with “insert coin” mechanics to that list of Games That Are Not Games. Only a week ago I was writing about gold farmers and even before then I’ve made the point on several occasions that when games involve real world economics, we’re outside the realm of games. In this case, it doesn’t matter who receives the wealth (the player or the developer), the fact that game activity is generating it removes it from the definition of games (because player activity becomes productive and obligatory, violating both rules 1 and 4).

We should also consider that MMOs and VR are challenging rule #2, as they become a routine part of our daily lives. When full-body VR finally arrives, I fully expect to see a world very similar to the movie Surrogates. One could argue that the growth of the internet has already made people disappear into their homes for entertainment, instead of going outside for it. As technology increasingly puts us inside our games, rule #6 will gradually fall away as reality and fantasy meld. And even after all of that we still don’t quite know exactly what makes a game a game!

There’s one other crucial point that Caillois made that’s important here: society corrupts games by institutionalizing them. For video games, eSports would be a corruption of gaming. It could be the case that all of our games were totally real games until society corrupted them into something else. Just think of all the conversations that have become more frequent over the past five years about gamification. We want everything to be fun, and to that end companies turn to gamification to make mundane routines more engaging, to use games for business ends. I don’t think this is a good thing, though it all sounded really cool when the concept became popular. I think it’s fair to call gamification a corruption of games and play, but I’ll have to speculate for now and revisit this question on another day.

So given Caillois’ definition of games, how many games do you think you own now? I think I own about 3 …