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

Chronicles of Warcraft Heroes: The Second War of the Shifting Sands

chroniclesIt was 7pm and time to login. Every night. The War Effort was already underway and my guild and I decided to do some dungeon runs, to put in our work for the server. Those were the days we dreamed of being a “top” guild, another awesome piece of our rich server community of awesome guilds. Even though we weren’t likely to open the gates, we would be part of the effort to get it done, no matter how small.

Each night I logged in and each night we watched the numbers on the World of Warcraft site go up and up and up ….each server had it’s own progress and by comparison we were pretty average, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. We were genuinely glad to just be there for this epic, world-wide event. I’d never experienced anything like it up until then and the idea that other guilds in other countries were also working hard around the clock to open their gates seemed surreal. Me and my guildies watched eagerly to see who the first servers would be.

silithus-cenarionholdBack then Death N Taxes was among the most famous world-wide guilds along side such stellar company as Nihilum, Fury, Ascent and dozens of others. I don’t know the guilds to open the first gates, but I know that whichever servers opened them first would have a shot at world first Temple of Ahn’Qiraj kills. Each server had to collaborate, designate a scepter holder and complete the questline. Raid guilds were the real muscle behind organizing the resources to make it happen. If you think organizing 40 players is too much, try a thousand. Working across timezones, different languages, continents is a heroic feat all it’s own, but players, with the help of the internet, did exactly that for the race. These heroes coordinated other guilds and all the little players on their servers using the forums, quest turn in schedules and teaming up at weird hours for the major battles along the questline. n a very real way, at the time, each server to open the gates represented an intimate community of players who knew each other by name. These were servers with master craftsman lists, Honor System schedules, and regular open world combat. From the day this event was unleashed upon the Warcraft community, opening the gates signified some up-and-coming server right through to the release of the Burning Crusade.

It’s true that The War Effort, as a quest from a technical standpoint, amounted to little more than cloth and metal turn-ins for the average player, because …well, that was where the tech was and players didn’t begrudge the game for this. Part of the experience of MMOs is the fantasy, so trying to evaluate the fun-factor of the War Effort by looking at the available quests will always understate the excitement of the event itself. Players were creating lore in real-time and that wasn’t lost on us at all. The Effort was about the game changing, about our actions translating into visual progress and leading to grander adventures. As the Second War approached, our top raiding guilds were required to do the leg work on the questline while the rest of us gathered the resources our forces would need. We all anticipated the day we’d bang the gong. We all knew who our Scarab Lords would be. This was a moment in Azerothian history made epic by our enthusiasm  and we were pretty damn glad to take our places in the tome.

The Story Before Us


The Scepter of the Shifting Sands

It was the War of the Shifting Sands that gave us the Silithus we inherited. By the time we, the new heroes, reached its borders it was just a quiet, sandy, dessert, a grave with spare insects clinging to life under the sun. On the surface, it looked abandoned, dry as bone with almost no inhabitants save for the watchers of Cenarion Hold. It was a dreadful place to be sent. But beneath the surface an ancient threat was growing. Those spare hives weren’t what was left, but a sign of an emerging threat.

The deepest memory of the War of the Shifting Sands was left to us by Fandral Staghelm and the Bronze Dragon flight led by Anachronos. Fandral lost his son Vandral, who was crushed before his eyes by the Qiraji leader General Rajaxx. This was the place that destroyed the Fandral of old and brought us the Fandral we know today, the leader of the Druids of the Flame.



To contain the threat and end the war, Caelestrasz, Arygos and Merithra flew into the thick of battle, into Ahn’Qiraj itself to buy the Night Elves time to create a magical barrier around the city with the help of Anachronos. Sealing the Qiraji behind this barrier, Anachronos then created a golden gong from a scarab, and a scepter from the limb of a fallen fellow dragon. The scepter was given to Fandral who, in his despair and rage over the loss of his son, smashed the scepter against the magical barrier and walked away from the Elves and the Alliance.

This is how the Scepter came to be shattered into pieces and this is where players were charged with it’s re-assembly. This is where the questline for the Scepter of the Shifting Sands began and where players made their debut into the canon.

Fandral Staghelm during the War of the Shifting Sands

Fandral Staghelm during the War of the Shifting Sands

It asked us to invade Blackwing Lair on a quest ominously titled “Only One May Rise”. It was time to nominate a single hero among us to become our Scarab Lord and fulfill the prophecy, to chose who would bang the gong to re-open Ahn’Qiraj for us. Of course at the time, we didn’t know what all of this meant …but we did learn that only one could rise and that one person had to deputize others to aid them in completing the quest chain.

This quest is terribly long so I’ll sum it up. Each server had to gather each shard of the scepter from four dragon flights: Azuregos, Eranikus, Nefarius and Anachronos. The best suited heroes among us for this task were raiders, who naturally had the responsibility of entering these raids and doing all the fighting while us lesser mortals picked Mageweave and fish from the sea.

Insane Fandral Staghelm

Insane Fandral Staghelm

Alls fair in fame and glory and the truth is that when this questline was released players were wild about it. It filled us with purpose and made the world feel more alive. For all of the game’s limitations back then, this event was the first to fold players into the lore, put us in the midst of Azerothian history, and allow us to be actors in the story in a really intimate way. To this day, the Second War was the first and only game event which required server communities to unite behind a singular goal.

For the heroes among us who had the grave task of confronting these ancient powers, they were on the bleeding edge of content. They saw what only a handful from every server got to see: the unfolding of events, live. They experienced true adventure in that they were discovering the knowledge that would allow other players to open their gates in the future.

The Second War Begins

The Scepter of the Shifting Sands is whole once more, <name>.

It must be you who uses the scepter. It must be you who heralds the next age of your people.

You must wait for the armies of the Horde and the Alliance to arrive in Silithus before you may ring the Scarab Gong.

High Overlord Varok Saurfang

High Overlord Varok Saurfang

With the Scepter assembled, the date of the battle was announced to everyone on the forums and we all vowed to show up for battle. High Overlord Varok Saurfang, the legendary horde leader, commanded our forces and headed the Might of Kalimdor for the war. Varok had been Orgrim Doomhammer’s second in command, and now he was fighting side-by-side with us. He’s the brother of Broxigar, the only mortal known to physically strike Sargeras himself! However, the servers, in the words of Illidan, were not prepared. Still, in the game, in our minds and fantasies of the event, it was pretty epic to be in the company of such legends. Once our forces were rallied and the supplies transferred to the frontlines, the gong was struck. The battles immediately began, phat loot was immediately found, and we had 10 hours of a non-stop invasion of southern Kalimdor! The time window was to allow other players who had assembled the scepter to bang the gong and get their reward as well. But it was rare for more than a couple of players to do so as far as I know, because the quest took monumental effort. kill-chart-AQ40Usually, one person would bang the gong. That person would be forever known by their legendary title of Scarab Lord and they’d ride into battle on the legendary Black Qiraji mount. Thus the Second War of the Shifting Sands began with the restoration of the scepter by the players.

After 10 hours of beating back the Qiraji advance, our beloved raiders set out for the Ruins and the Temple of Ahn’Qiraj and they were victorius. C’thun went down swiftly and the Second War came to a close. C’thun’s days were numbered …somewhere in the next four months his death was prophesied. This video is one guilds dramatic adventure through the Temple itself which perfectly captures what most raid videos fail to: the drama of the raid instance itself and how the players are perceived to intervene in it. Depending on how long you’ve been with the WoW community, you’ll recognize this one from it’s title and author so kick back and enjoy. The editing is still better than most WoW raid videos released today! It’s also fully-captioned.

AQ40 was considered raid 2.5, releasing between Blackwing Lair and Naxxramas. It featured some of the most unique bosses to grace the game, even if some of them were just plain weird. Viscidus, for example, needed to be frozen solid in order to defeat him. This also had, until then, the most godly trains of trash roaming through an instance, and the longest hallways. Still, this video is worth the 20 minutes you’ll spend watching it and it captures something very important that’s easy to forget when we reduce raids to epic treasure chests, spreadsheets, and world firsts. Invading the Temple was just the final act of a prophecy given us a thousand years before WoW.

The Second War of the Shifting Sands was one of our first entries into history. It was the first and only event of it’s kind and for that it stands out in player history.

If you’re a WoW veteran I’m sure you have your own personal chronicles and I’d love to hear them. How did you leave your mark on Azeroth?

Scree Tags: #WoWChronicles #wowlore #worldofwarcraft

Chronicles of Warcraft Heroes Series

chroniclesIn preparation for Blaugust I’ve come up with a plan to help me publish for 31 days straight. And I need all the help I can get!

About a week ago I mentioned that I’d be doing a few more posts about World of Warcraft as a sort of run up to the release of it’s next expansion, which I’m really interested in. This new series, Chronicles of Warcraft Heroes, will give an accounting of how players have so far advanced the lore of the game.

The lore explored will deal strictly with the things that players brought about through their actions in the game. Of course, Warcraft lore is extremely on rails, so it’s not that we’ve dynamically changed the game. What I want to do is show how our stories, as the new heroes of Warcraft, intertwine with canon.

I’ll publish a new chapter of the Chronicles at least once per week during Blaugust and if you like the series, I’ll continue until release day of Warlords of Draenor. Also, there’s lots of excellent resources made by players, our very own heroic archivists, which I’ll link to liberally throughout the series. To prime yourself for the series, here’s a couple of my favorites. I’ve also been a huge fan of the Warcraft novels, so if you enjoy that kind of fiction I recommend them (some authors are better than others, true, but I love all the stories just the same).

Alternate World of Warcraft Universe

Upon release World of Warcraft presented us with eight races with different stories, locations, politics, languages and cultures. It’s amazing …it blows many of us away …so far away that we never quite recover and spend the rest of our gaming days wondering “what if” about the games which have touched our lives.

I chose Orc as my race on that day ….and then immediately remade a toon as Human. My friends insisted.

As I played through the original game I was always imagining what new adventures were next. I was obsessed with the lore and spent hours and hours just travelling throughout Azeroth finding books, exploring ruins, and talking to NPCs to extract meaning from their ambiguous statements. I remembered names and pieced them together with dungeon encounters. WoW was a never-ending tale back then.

Until the Burning Crusade announcement I’d always imagined that the expansions would extend current lore rather than add huge additional pieces. How it’s been done, while exciting, memorable and fun, was not the way I ever thought it would have been done. A universe as vast as Warcraft has so many possibilities and it’s this breadth that allows us to have thousands of different visions of what the game should become. It’s part of it’s charm and excitement.

For example, I always imagined that the first expansion would bring us the chance to play as the High Elves of the Hinterlands. I always knew the Tower of Medivh would need to be re-opened and dreamed of Half-orcs to become a new race, building a bridge between Alliance and Horde, and adding that neutral race we sorta got in Pandaria. Can you imagine what an expansion like that would have been like?

I imagined the Plaguelands would begin to heal with Kelthuzzad taken care of. I fully expected Arthas to return to the throne in full force once his necro-army had been dealt that blow. I expected Nerzhul to manifest as the Lich King, Illidan to ally with us in defeating them, and old demigods like Agamaggan restored as powerful spirits Shaman could call upon with new spells.

Given what happened with Prince Thunderaan, Throne of the Four Winds appeared in the second expansion instead of the fourth. With flying mounts on the horizon, we could finally explore the lore of the Wind plane and possibly defeat even greater threats. Dalaran would come in advance of Arthas’ return to warn us of the pending danger. The great floating city would also be a new place to explore with our new flying abilities.

New lore would explore the legacy of Durnehold. When did Halforcs come to be? What history awaited us beyond the Dark Portal? Were the orcs and Draenei still battling there? Who are those deformed creatures roaming the Swamp of Sorrows and how did they come beyond the Portal? So much of what we know today wasn’t cannon yet and these stories all held great promise for players like me.

The developing stories of Azeroth eventually were different than what I had expected, but not worse (well, not in every way). The expansions we eventually got were just as exciting, but I fear not as deep. The story became wider and shallower, questing became just a means to an end with little effort put into developing small town stories (such as the Redpaths of Hillsbrad or even the threats of Razorfen Downs). The focus shifted to exclusively “epic” content with little thought for how the unfolding of the smaller bits of Azeroth were bigger than the whole. Would you have enjoyed mixed-races more than brand new ones? Can you imagine the great lore opportunities there?

Its’ not even too late and one could argue the time is ripe to introduce mixed-races. Hell, I could argue that this one feature may yet redeem all the awful decisions made with the lore the past few years (in the sense that so many events made the stories inflexible and sealed, leaving no room for developments). Some examples of these wasted opportunities: Grim Batol, Mizrael, Mankrik, Hero of the Horde (Blasted Lands line), Dire Maul, Eranikus, Jaina Proudmore, Garrosh, Caverns of Time, and on and on and on.

That’s why I’m excited about Warlords of Draenor. I see in it an effort by Blizzard to re-explore the possibilities of an alternate Azeroth. This would have been a good opportunity to introduce mixed races (still is, really), but I don’t think we’ll ever get something like that. There’s something about the way the developers view the purity of the races, despite the lore which indicates otherwise.

One thing’s for sure: when World of Warcraft launched it came with an truck-load of loose ends that players were free to pursue and imagine. It would have been impossible to pursue all of them, or even 5 of them in any given expansion. Still, think had they stepped in that direction, we might have a richer Azeroth today, one with many more interesting possibilities than we currently have, one where the story opens up game play instead of moving the player along singular epic storylines. Warlords of Draenor is bringing us their next vision of the game and it’s clear they want to return to something they feel the game has lost over the years, something that’s not easy for any of us to describe, but which we feel nonetheless.